House Democrats Set Stage for Public Impeachment Inquiry

Democrats in the US House of Representatives will take a crucial step forward in their impeachment investigation of US President Donald Trump Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a vote formalizing the inquiry, addressing Republicans’ arguments the process is illegitimate. As VOA’s Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill, the vote also sets the stage for the impeachment inquiry to go public.

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Hong Kong in Recession as Protests Slam Retailers, Tourism

Steps from Hong Kong’s main tourist strip, Ashfaqur Rahman’s tailor shop usually is a mainstay for tourists dropping in to peruse neatly stacked rolls of fabric and get measured for custom-made suits.

Not anymore.

Business has dried up since anti-government protests began in early June in the Asian financial center.

On Thursday, the government said Hong Kong’s economy shrank 3.2% in July-September from the previous quarter, pushing the city into a technical recession.

That makes two straight quarters of contraction since the economy contracted 0.5% in April-June on a quarterly basis.

The once-common lines of Chinese shoppers outside Hong Kong’s glittering luxury stores are gone. Jewelry stores have no customers and related businesses like transportation are languishing.

Rahman said his monthly sales have tumbled 80% from an average of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,500) in better times.

His shop is tucked away in a passage off Nathan Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, which teems with posh hotels and upscale jewelry and fashion boutiques, set against the stunning backdrop of Victoria Harbor.

But on recent weekends the neighborhood has become a protest battle zone, with black-clad demonstrators clashing late into the night with riot police unleashing tear gas and water cannons.

“This is the worst we’ve seen,” said Rahman, a Bangladeshi immigrant who opened the shop 14 years ago. His sales now barely cover the rent and he and his business partner are dipping into their own pockets to pay the salaries of their five staff. He’s not sure they’ll be able to carry on if there’s no resolution to the increasingly violent protests.

Restaurant managers, watch shop owners and jewelry salespeople across the district echoed the sentiment. In jeweler Tiffany’s massive showroom, there were at least 10 salespeople and no customers on a recent afternoon.

Thursday’s data showed private spending and exports falling sharply.

The forecast for the year is for a contraction, given “the lack of any signs of improvement in the near term,” the government said.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned of the bad news to come.

“The increasingly violent reality since June is hurting Hong Kong’s economy,” Lam said. Retail, catering, transport and other tourism-related industries have borne the brunt, she said.

The protesters have been locked in a standoff with the authorities for more than four months, that began with demands they scrap a now-abandoned extradition bill.

The movement has gained momentum and grown increasingly violent, with hardcore protesters clad in black slinging Molotov cocktails and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with riot police.

Organizers have canceled or relocated a slew of concerts, sporting events and conferences.

Images of the vicious street battles amid clouds of tear gas are tarnishing the city’s reputation as a safe and stable Asian metropolis.

Organizers have canceled or relocated a slew of concerts, sporting events and conferences.

Visitor numbers fell by half in the first half of October, usually a lucrative time thanks to a weeklong Chinese holiday. Retail sales fell by a quarter in August, the steepest annual drop on record.

At times the chaos has crippled major infrastructure, shutting down the city’s busy airport, where arrivals and flight bookings have plummeted.

The protests have paralyzed subways, main roads and tunnels: Hong Kong’s government-owned rail operator, MTR, has been stopping evening subway service hours earlier than usual — a move that further reduces consumer spending.

Staff at a pharmacy on Nathan Road said sales of cosmetics, medicine and baby formula popular with mainland Chinese shoppers are down by up to 90%.

They’re earning less because their hours have been cut.

“No one’s coming,” said Ah Chiu, manager of a watch shop. Sales fell by half in the past two months, he said.

Free spending mainland Chinese used to arrive on the weekends to buy the Bulova, Seiko and Movado watches he stocks.

Chiu, who refused to give his full name, said he had only sold one watch worth a few hundred Hong Kong dollars so far that day. That’s his new normal.

His shop and others in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping arcade used to stay open even during protests. Now, they roll down their metal shutters and leave at the first sign of any disturbance, crimping any chance of more sales for the day.

“Calling for help won’t work. No one can help you. We can’t see the end,” he said, an air of resignation in his voice. “We’re eating money now.”

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HRW: CIA-Trained ‘Death Squads’ Behind Afghan War Crimes

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says CIA-backed Afghan paramilitary forces have “committed summary executions and other grave abuses without accountability” — including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and attacks on health-care facilities.

In its report, released on Thursday, HRW called on the Afghan government to immediately disband all pro-government paramilitary groups that operate outside the “ordinary military chain of command.”

It is also calling for the Afghan government to “impartially investigate all allegations of abuse by Afghan security forces” and to “prosecute those responsible for war crimes and serious abuses.”

It says both the United States and the Afghan government should also “cooperate with independent investigations of all allegations of war crimes and other human rights abuses.”

It also says the U.S. government should “investigate any U.S. personnel” involved in abuses, and should “cease supporting Afghan forces that have been responsible for serious violations.”

HRW documented 14 cases from late 2017 to mid-2019 in which it said CIA-backed “strike groups” committed grave abuses during night raids, such as one in the southeastern province of Paktia in which a paramilitary squad killed 11 men, including eight who were home for the Eid holidays.

In some cases, HRW says, troops detained men and didn’t tell families where they were being held.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has disputed the HRW report, saying many of the claims against Afghan special forces were “likely false or exaggerated.”

“In ramping up operations against the Taliban, the CIA has enabled abusive Afghan forces to commit atrocities including extrajudicial executions and disappearances,” said Patricia Gossman, the report’s author and HRW’s associate Asia director.

“In case after case, these forces have simply shot people in their custody and consigned entire communities to the terror of abusive night raids and indiscriminate air strikes,” Grossman said.

Night raids, which combine surprise, overwhelming firepower, and night-vision equipment, are a tactic preferred by special forces.

FILE – Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district, on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan, July 18, 2017.

On several occasions, raids which usually take place in Taliban-controlled areas were backed by airstrikes that “indiscriminately or disproportionately” killed civilians, HRW said.

According to data released this week by NATO, the United States conducted 1,113 air and artillery strikes in September, a large increase on previous months that came as talks between Washington and the Taliban collapsed.

CIA spokesman Timothy Barrett said the agency’s operations abroad are conducted in “accordance with law and under a robust system of oversight.”

Barrett accused the Taliban of spreading misinformation and noted that the militants do not operate under any similar rules.

“Unlike the Taliban, the United States is committed to the rule of law,” officials added in a CIA statement.

“We neither condone nor would knowingly participate in illegal activities, and we continually work with our foreign partners to promote adherence to the law.”

Afghanistan’s CIA-backed militias, whose tradition goes back to the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, are seen as a critical tool in the fight against Taliban and Islamic State militants.

Such paramilitary groups are officially under Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) but often operate almost independently of Afghan authorities.

Speaking to HRW, one unnamed diplomat referred to them as “death squads.”

The NDS did not immediately comment.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. government monitor, says Afghan special forces conducted 2,531 ground operations from January-September this year, more than the total of 2,365 for all of last year.

A U.N. report earlier this month said 1,174 civilians were killed and 3,139 wounded in Afghanistan from July to September this year — a 42 percent increase over the same period last year.

 

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Global Trafficking Networks Behind British Migrant Tragedy

British and Belgian police are continuing to investigate the people-smuggling networks that helped to transport the 39 migrants who were found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck near London last week. It’s believed they suffocated in the sealed container. Henry Ridgwell reports on the growing industry in human cargo that brings tens of thousands of migrants to Europe every year.

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New Wind-Driven Wildfire Erupts in Southern California 

A new large wildfire broke out early Wednesday in Southern California, forcing mandatory evacuations at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and nearby neighborhoods. 
 
Ventura County Fire Captain Brian McGrath said the Easy Fire erupted shortly after 6 a.m. local time and torched 165 hectares (400 acres) of dry brush within two hours. 
 
The National Weather Service said the wildfire, which erupted in Simi Valley about 64 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, ranked among the most dangerous Santa Ana wind events “in recent memory.” 
 
Officials did not how many people had been ordered to leave. 
 
Fire officials said aircraft dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze and that the strong Santa Ana winds pushed flames away from the library. 
 
As firefighters in the southern part of the state prepared overnight for what forecasters expected to be one of the most significant wind events in years, a large wind-driven wildfire in Northern California eased.  

Volunteers help evacuate horses during the Easy Fire, Oct. 30, 2019, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Both regions are dealing with the hot, dry weather that is common at this time of year and raises the risk of big wildfires that spread when the winds blow. 
 
Crews made progress Tuesday against both the Getty Fire in the south and the Kincade Fire in the north, with officials saying each was 15 percent contained. 
 
The worry Wednesday and into Thursday was that the Getty Fire could swell from its current size of about 265 hectares (650 acres) as winds forecast to reach as much as 128 kilometers per hour (80 mph) lift embers and spread them into unburned vegetation or reignite areas that are merely smoldering. 
 
Fire officials also warned that high winds could lead to the grounding of helicopters used to douse the flames from above. 

Better outlook to the north
 
In Northern California’s wine region, officials were expressing more optimism about the weather after days of near-record winds there pushed the Kincade Fire to more than 30,000 hectares (115 square miles) in size.   
 
The National Weather Service said winds would be noticeably lighter Wednesday and that weather conditions looked favorable for the rest of the week, even though the region would remain dry with no rain in the forecast. 
 
Along with the fires, people in California were also dealing with power outages as utility companies tried to prevent fires being sparked by equipment damaged by strong winds. 
 
The Los Angeles Fire Department said Tuesday that the Getty Fire most likely had been caused by a tree branch that broke off in high wind and flew into nearby power lines, causing sparks that ignited brush.  

Marco Alcaraz uses a garden hose to protect his girlfriend’s home as the Easy fire approaches, Oct. 30, 2019, in Simi Valley, Calif.

About 1 million customers in Northern California were dealing with blackouts instituted by utility company Pacific Gas & Electric, which this month has been shutting off power in a series of blackouts that have caused widespread frustration among its customers. 
 
California Governor Gavin Newsom has repeatedly criticized the company and its projections that it needs 10 years to institute reforms that would make the precautionary power shutoffs no longer necessary to mitigate fire risks. 
 
In all, the National Weather Service has issued statewide warnings of dangerous fire conditions covering an 88,000-square-kilometer area (34,000 square miles) that is home to 21 million people. 
 
Some scientists have said climate change is a contributing factor in the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires.  

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For Yazidis, Baghdadi’s Death ‘Doesn’t Feel Like Justice Yet’

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death will mean nothing to 19-year-old rape victim Jamila unless the Islamic State militants who enslaved her are brought to justice.

Jamila, who asked not to be identified by her last name, is one of thousands of women from the Yazidi minority religion who were kidnapped and raped by IS after it mounted an assault on the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014.

“Even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, it doesn’t mean Islamic State is dead,” Jamila told Reuters outside the tent that is now her temporary home in the Sharya camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

FILE – This file image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.

“This doesn’t feel like justice yet,” she said. “I want the men who took me, who raped me, to stand trial. And I want to have my voice heard in court. I want to face them in court. … Without proper trials, his death has no meaning.”

Baghdadi, who had led IS since 2010, detonated a suicide vest after being cornered in a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump announced Sunday.

Inspired by his edicts to enslave and slaughter Yazidis, whom IS regard as infidels, his followers shot, beheaded and kidnapped thousands in a rampage which the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against them.

Along with thousands of other women and children, Jamila said she was enslaved by the militants and kept in captivity for five months in the city of Mosul along with her sister.

She was just 14 when she was seized. But her problems did not end after she and her sister managed to escape when, she said, their guards were high on drugs.

“When I first came back, I had a nervous breakdown and psychological problems for two years, so I couldn’t go to school,” she said.

No plans to go home

Now instead of working or catching up on her years of lost schooling, she looks after her mother, with whom she shares her cramped tent at the camp.

“My mother can’t walk and has health problems, so I have to stay and take care of her because my older siblings are in Germany,” she said.

The prospect of going home to Sinjar in northern Iraq is not an option for Jamila, and many others. The city still lies in ruin four years after the IS onslaught, and suspicion runs deep in the ethnically mixed area.

“Sinjar is completely destroyed. Even if we could go back, I wouldn’t want to because we’d be surrounded by the same Arab neighbors who all joined IS in the first place, and helped them kill us (Yazidis),” she said.

Displaced people from the Yazidi religious minority buy vegetables at the Sharya camp, in Duhok, Iraq, Oct. 29, 2019.

IS trials

Thousands of men are being tried in Iraqi courts for their ties to IS. Iraq has so far not allowed victims to testify in court, something community leaders and human rights groups say would go a long way in the healing process.

“It is deplorable that not a single victim of Islamic State’s horrific abuses including sexual slavery has gotten their day in court,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Iraq’s justice system is designed to allow the state to exact mass revenge against suspects, not provide real accountability for victims.”

For some of the nearly 17,000 Yazidis at the Sharya camp, Baghdadi’s death was a first step in that direction, though they fear the IS fighters who are still alive.

Mayan Sinu, 25, can dream of a new life after the camp as she and her three children have been granted asylum by Australia. But she also wants the men who shot her husband in the legs and dragged him off to be brought to justice. He has been missing since the incident five years ago.

“I hope Baghdadi is suffering more than we ever did, and my God we suffered,” said Sinu. “I wish he (Baghdadi) hadn’t blown himself up so I could have slaughtered him myself with my bare hands.”
 

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Hungary Shakes Up Top Jobs in Justice, Highlighting Govt’s Struggle for Influence

Hungary is set to reappoint its chief prosecutor to a new 9-year term and will remove its main judicial administrator, in moves that critics say highlight premier Viktor Orban’s mixed success in influencing the judiciary which remains one of the most independent bodies in Hungarian society.

Despite constant clashes with Western partners over the rule of law, the conservative populist Orban has solidified his grip over most walks of Hungarian life.

He rejects allegations that his government has eroded checks and balances and has said his strong mandate received in democratic elections empowers his Fidesz party to change laws.

While the country’s prosecution system has been under the direct control of chief prosecutor Peter Polt, an Orban loyalist, the National Association of Judges has resisted Orban and has been engulfed in a bitter dispute over administrative attempts to rein it in, via appointments or financial pressure.

President Janos Ader, a former head of Fidesz party and Orban’s key ally, proposed reappointing Polt as chief prosecutor for a second nine-year term on Tuesday. He gave no reasoning.

Parliament, where Fidesz holds a large majority, will have to confirm Polt.

The European Union said in 2019 Hungary lacked determined action to prosecute corruption in high-level cases and “the effective functioning of the prosecution service remains a concern.”

Polt has dismissed those claims as “baseless”.

Tunde Hando, the wife of Fidesz stalwart and European Parliament member Jozsef Szajer, will leave her position as chair of the judiciary administration a year early.

As chief administrator she was ultimately responsible for the operation of the court system, with a say over issues like the nomination of new senior judges or budgeting.

Hando said she always acted by the law, adding Hungary’s Constitution makes clear the fundamental division of powers.

Balazs Toth, a legal expert at the rights group Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who has represented clients in cases against the government, said Fidesz wants a country without checks and balances, but judges have withstood the propaganda and pressure.

Fidesz has nominated Hando to the Constitutional Court, once Hungary’s top arbiter of law but greatly weakened after Orban’s party started to appoint its members.

Prosecutors filter criminal cases and decide which cases to investigate and how, choosing which cases to refer to the courts – a power that critics have said it used selectively to block cases detrimental to Fidesz or Orban’s associates.

When investigating a case of suspected fraud in 2014 involving Orban’s son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz, Polt’s prosecutors found no wrongdoing. A later probe by the European anti-fraud body OLAF however, detailed alleged fraud totalling 13 billion forints ($44 million) and recommended Hungary investigate.

Polt reopened the case but again dismissed it.

Tiborcz has not commented on the case, in which he and his business partners were never charged, as matters did not proceed to court.

Polt has rejected allegations of complicity.

($1 = 296.3900 forints)

 

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Guinea-Bissau president names new PM but old one refuses to go

Guinea-Bissau President Jose Mario Vaz named a new prime minister on Tuesday but his sacked predecessor refused to step down, intensifying a bitter power struggle between Vaz and the ruling party weeks ahead of a presidential election.

Vaz, who is running for again in the Nov. 24 poll, dissolved the government late on Monday saying the political situation was undermining the normal functioning of state institutions in the West African country.

It has suffered repeated bouts of instability since it became independent from Portugal in 1974, including nine coups or attempted coups and a surge in cocaine trafficking from South America that has been linked to senior military officials.

The country has been largely peaceful since Vaz came to power in a 2014 election that followed a coup two years earlier.

But he has repeatedly clashed over the balance of power in the semi-presidential system with a string of prime ministers put forward by the African Party of the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which controls a majority in parliament.

In a decree on Tuesday, Vaz named as prime minister Faustino Fudut Imbali, who served in the same post from 2000-2003 and represents the small Manifest Party of the People.

FILE – Aristide Gomes, speaks to journalists, Nov. 13, 2008, at his party’s headquarters in Bissau.

Aristides Gomes, who was put forward for the job by PAIGC, told Reuters he was refusing to go: “I am in my office, working.”

Gomes said Vaz’s orders were illegitimate since the president’s term technically expired on June 23. West African regional bloc ECOWAS declared a few days later that Vaz could stay in office through to the November election.

Vaz won the 2014 presidential election as the PAIGC’s candidate but fell out with the party after sacking his prime minister in 2015. He is now running for re-election as an independent candidate.

In a rare political protest, demonstrations from a party opposed to Gomes’s government took to the streets of the capital Bissau at the weekend, demanding the election be postponed so that voter lists could be checked for irregularities.

One protester died on Saturday and several were wounded, according to the government, a hospital source and march organizers.

Instability in Guinea-Bissau has typically taken the form of military coups, led by officers drawn mostly from a narrow military elite who fought for independence in 1963-1974.

 

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Trump Tweets Photo of Military Dog Wounded in Baghdadi Raid

President Donald Trump on Monday outed a military working dog that tracked down the head of the Islamic State.

Trump tweeted a photo of a Belgian Malinois that he said worked with a team of special forces in the capture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a tunnel beneath a compound in northeastern Syria.

The name and other details about the dog remain a secret.

“We have declassified a picture of the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a GREAT JOB in capturing and killing the Leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!” the president tweeted.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters earlier Monday that the animal “performed a tremendous service” in the Saturday night raid.

Al-Baghdadi set off an explosion that killed himself and three children and apparently wounded the dog.

Milley said the dog was “slightly wounded” but is now recovering and has returned to duty with its handler at an undisclosed location. He and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. is protecting the dog’s identify by keeping any information about the canine classified for now.

“We are not releasing the name of the dog right now,” Milley said. “The dog is still in theater.”

The U.S. military commonly uses the Belgian Malinois to guide and protect troops, search out enemy forces and look for explosives. The breed is prized for its intelligence and ability to be aggressive on command, said Ron Aiello, president of the United States War Dogs Association.

“That’s the kind of dog you want to lead a patrol like this,” said Aiello, a former Marine dog handler whose organization helps active duty and retired military dogs. “They are the first line of defense. They go out front.”

Not releasing the name makes sense as a security precaution for the same reason you wouldn’t identify the troops who take part in the raid, he said. “There could be retaliation.”

A Belgian Malinois service dog named Cairo accompanied U.S. Navy SEALs in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, in Pakistan. President Barack Obama met the canine at a ceremony to honor the commandos.

Trump gave a dramatic account of the raid in Syria, variously saying there was one dog and multiple canines involved in the operation. He said that as U.S. troops and their dogs closed in, the militant went “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death.

“He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased him down,” Trump said.

 

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Envoy for North Korea Expected to Get No. 2 State Dept. Job

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is expected to be nominated as early as this week to be second-in-command at the State Department, officials said Monday.

Two Trump administration officials and a congressional aide familiar with the selection process said the White House is expected to nominate Biegun to be the next deputy secretary of state in the coming days. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biegun would replace John Sullivan, who has been nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. Both positions require Senate confirmation.

Biegun has had a prominent role in the delicate negotiations that led to historic meetings between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A former Ford Motor Co. executive who served in previous Republican administrations and has advised GOP lawmakers, Biegun has led as yet unsuccessful negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons since being appointed to his current post in August 2018. He is expected to keep the North Korea portfolio if he is confirmed to the new post, the officials said.

His nomination has been expected since mid-September, but its timing has been unclear amid turmoil in the State Department over the House impeachment inquiry into the administration’s policy toward Ukraine.

Sullivan was nominated to be envoy to Moscow in September although his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was just set for Wednesday, making Biegun’s nomination to fill the soon-to-be vacant No. 2 spot at the State Department more urgent.

Sullivan’s confirmation hearing is likely to be dominated by questions from committee Democrats about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and his role in Ukraine policy.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators earlier the month that Sullivan was the official who informed her that she had lost Trump’s confidence and was being recalled early from Kyiv. Democrats are expected to use Wednesday’s confirmation hearing to press Sullivan on the extent of his involvement in Ukraine and why the department bowed to a campaign to oust Yovanovitch spearheaded by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

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Investors Return to Saudi Arabia as Lucrative Oil IPO Looms

Lured by a long-looming stock offering of Saudi Arabia’s massive state-run oil company, investors and business leaders have returned to the kingdom’s capital for an investment forum that was overshadowed last year by the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet drawing big names to the Future Investment Initiative alone does not mean Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dream of having Saudi Aramco offer a sliver of itself at a $2 trillion valuation will become a reality.

King Salman’s son needs to raise $100 billion required to fund his ambitious development plans for a kingdom desperate to offer jobs to its 34 million people as unemployment remains above 10%.

Stagnant global energy prices and a Sept. 14 attack on the heart of Aramco already spooked some. One ratings company downgraded the oil giant. Meanwhile, questions persist over how the initial public offering will be handled even as Saudi Aramco offers sweeteners and promises of an estimated $75 billion dividend next year.  

“Tepid oil prices, the fraught politics of the Middle East and the demonization of fossil fuel producers in response to climate change fears have all made the initial public offering a mission impossible,” wrote Roberto Sifon-Arevalo of the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s.

The Future Investment Initiative, which begins on Tuesday, will draw 6,000 people and international firms to Riyadh for a forum that’s the brainchild of the 34-year-old Prince Mohammed. Already, the forum announced Dow Chemicals, HSBC, Samsung and other global firms will be partners to the event.

Heads of state also will attend, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II both scheduled to speak Tuesday. Also scheduled is Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser.

It again will be held in part at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which served as a detention facility during a 2017 purge targeting businessmen, princes and others. Described at the time as an anti-corruption campaign, the arrests targeted wealthy potential challengers to the prince and cemented his grip on power amid allegations of torture denied by the kingdom. Authorities later said it saw the government recoup over $100 billion.   

However, there will be big names not taking part. Among them is Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and the owner of the Post, who had been in negotiations to open data centers in the kingdom before the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Post reported Monday.

FILE – A Turkish police officer walks past a picture of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi prior to a ceremony, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the one-year anniversary of his death, Oct. 2, 2019.

Khashoggi’s death cast a pall over last year’s forum, which saw Prince Mohammed give a fiery speech in which he described the killing as “a heinous act that is unjustifiable.” However, U.S. officials and a recent United Nations’ special rapporteur report suspect Prince Mohammed had a role in the slaying as members of the team of assassins sent to kill Khashoggi had links to the prince.

“It inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the crown prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched,” the U.N. report read.

Investors appear poised to move beyond the columnist’s killing for one major reason: The long-discussed initial public offering of Saudi Aramco. The firm, formally known as the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., was founded in 1933 with America’s Standard Oil. By 1980, the kingdom owned 100% of the firm, which runs like a Western-style firm and refers to the government as its sole “shareholder” in its corporate documents.

The Aramco IPO has been pitched by Prince Mohammed since 2016 as a means to generate cash to fund development in the kingdom. Aramco’s scale remains impressive, able to pump 10 million barrels of crude oil a day, some 10% of daily global oil demand. In its first-ever half-year results, it reported income of $46.8 billion. Yet analysts say a $2 trillion valuation — Apple and Microsoft separately for instance are $1 trillion — may be a stretch.

Yet questions remain about Saudi Aramco, such as the health and the size of its oil reserves, something held as a state secret by the kingdom.

“Publicly traded oil companies faced financial disclosure regulations that required them to make information about the size and the health of their oil reserves public,” wrote Aramco expert Ellen R. Wald in her recent book “Saudi, Inc.” “Saudi Aramco had no such requirement and released only the information it chose.”

The global business press also frantically following each step of the IPO has raised repeated questions over its constant delays. It appears like the kingdom is preparing to offer a first part of the IPO on the local Tadawul stock exchange. The firm’s ties to the kingdom also have raised questions about whether it would take the risk of listing in the West, where it could be targeted by lawsuits.

FILE – A production facility is seen at Saudi Aramco’s Shaybah oilfield in the Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia, May 22, 2018.

Saudi Aramco has sought to assure investors. A presentation posted to Aramco’s website this month announced the intent to offer a $75 billion dividend for investors in 2020. That’s the payment per share that a corporation distributes to its stockholders as their return on the money they have invested in its stock.

It also pledged that some 2020 through 2024, any year with a dividend under $75 billion would see “non-government shareholders” prioritized to get paid.

But beyond the stocks, worries persist that Saudi Arabia could be hit by another attack like the one Sept. 14, which the U.S. blames on Iran. Iran denies it launched the cruise missiles and drones used in the attack. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, but analysts say the weapons used wouldn’t have the range to reach their targets.

Yet worries about the firm are nothing new. Even as far back as 1953, when Aramco still was held by American oil firms, then-U.S. Ambassador Raymond Hare linked the company’s success to the kingdom’s own.

“A strong Aramco meant a strong Saudi Arabia and a weakened Aramco a weakened Saudi Arabia,” he once told the kingdom’s first ruler.  

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France’s LVMH Wants to Buy Jeweler Tiffany for $14.5 Billion

French luxury group LVMH has offered to buy Tiffany & Co. for $14.5 billion in cash, sending shares in the New York jewelers soaring.

The purchase would add another household name to LVMH’s plethora of upscale brands. It owns fashion names such as Christian Dior, Fendi, and Givenchy as well as watchmaker Tag Heuer.

It would also give LVMH a much broader foothold in the United States and broaden its offerings in jewelry.

LVMH cautioned in a brief statement that “there can be no assurance that these discussions will result in any agreement.”

Tiffany said the offer was for $120 a share, which is about $14.5 billion. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the offer over the weekend.

The New York-based company said Monday that it was considering the offer. Its shares jumped 31% to $128.81 in premarket trading in New York.

The offer comes as Tiffany has struggled with stagnating sales as China’s slowing economy has weighed on spending by Chinese tourists, who make up a substantial portion of luxury spending. The strong dollar has also made Tiffany products more expensive for consumers outside the U.S.

LVMH competes with the Kering Group, which owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, and Richemont SA, which owns Cartier.

 

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Students Brave Tear Gas to Join Iraq’s Protests

Thousands of students have joined Iraq’s anti-government protests, defying a government order and tear gas from security forces.
 
The students skipped classes at several universities and secondary schools in Baghdad and across the Shi’ite south on Monday to take part in the protests. The demonstrations are fueled by anger at corruption, economic stagnation and poor public services.
 
In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests, demonstrators chanted: “It’s a student revolution, no to the government, no to parties!”
 
Security forces have fired tear gas and stun grenades to keep protesters from crossing a main bridge leading to the Green Zone, home to government offices and embassies.
 
At least 219 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since the protests began earlier this month.

 

 

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US Department of Homeland Security at ‘Heightened State of Vigilance’

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it is operating at a ” heightened state of vigilance” following the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but there are no plans to issue an (National Terrorism Advisory System) alert unless “we develop specific or credible threat information” to share with the public.

“Our security posture will remain agile, we will continue to mitigate and respond to the ever evolving threat landscape,” the DHS said in a statement a day after President Donald Trump announced that  U.S. military special forces operation in northwest Syria successfully targeted and “violently eliminated” Baghdadi.

FILE – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi purportedly appears for the first time in five years in a propaganda video in an undisclosed location, in this undated TV grab taken from video released April 29 by Al-Furqan media.

“Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” said Trump, speaking from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, explaining that the IS leader detonated a suicide vest in a tunnel, also killing three of his children.

“No (US) personnel were lost in the operation,” but a large number of al-Baghdadi’s fighters were killed and others were captured, according to Trump. He said the Islamic State leader, who was hiding in a tunnel tried to flee, “was screaming, crying and whimpering” in his last moments.  

“He died like a dog. He died like a coward,” added Trump.  

Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. President @realDonaldTrump addresses the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS. Full remarks: https://t.co/3ucibNVOU8 | More: https://t.co/b4fBx9qyY6pic.twitter.com/odrheyNRtc

— Department of State (@StateDept) October 27, 2019

Baghdadi’s remains were positively identified in 15 minutes, according to Trump.  

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces says IS spokesman and Baghdadi’s “right-hand man” Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was also killed in the U.S. operation. U.S. officials have yet to confirm his death.

A destroyed vehicle at the site where helicopter gunfire reportedly killed nine people near the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha in the Idlib province, Oct. 27, 2019.

A U.S. official told VOA the operation was staged from a base in Iraq. President Trump said eight helicopters flew slightly over an hour to reach the compound.

There were also “many other ships and planes” supporting a large group of U.S. fighters who “blasted their way in so quickly” and then “all hell broke loose,” said Trump.

Russia “did not know the mission,” explained Trump but allowed the helicopters to fly over areas in Syria it controlled.

Trump also thanked Iraq, Syria and Turkey for unspecified cooperation and expressed appreciation to the Syrian Kurds for providing helpful information.

Initial reports of the IS leader’s death were greeted with a degree of skepticism as Baghdadi’s demise had previously been erroneously reported several times.  

Since 2016, the United States had offered a reward of up to $25 million for information to help bring Baghdadi to justice. Only one other person, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a reward that high.

Jeff Seldin, Carla Babb and Steve Herman contributed to this report.

 

 

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Protesters Again Take to Streets of Hong Kong

Clashes in the streets as thousands of people took to the streets for another weekend of protests in Hong Kong. This week, the city’s governing body formally withdrew the bill that sparked the original protests earlier this year, but that has done little to appease protesters in this leaderless movement, who say they want the government to do more to stave off what they believe is encroaching control from Beijing. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Hong Kong

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Islamic State Prepared for Life without its Caliph  

The United States is promising there will be no let-up in its pursuit of the Islamic State terror group despite the death of self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what is being described as a “daring and dangerous” nighttime raid in northern Syria.
 
Baghdadi, who took over the group formerly known as al-Qaida In Iraq in 2010 and turned into a global threat, died “whimpering and crying” in a dead-end tunnel, according to U.S. President Donald Trump.
 

President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, Oct. 27, 2019.

“Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations,” the U.S. president said from the White House Sunday, using an acronym for the terror group.
 
“We know the successors,” he added. “And we already have them in our sights.”
 
Efforts to track them down may get an additional boost from the raid on the compound in Barisha, in Syria’s Idlib province, which led to the capture of a small group of IS officials and fighters.
 
Trump said U.S. forces also recovered, “highly sensitive material and information… much having to do with ISIS, origins, future plans, things that we very much want.”

Already, those efforts may be paying off.  The commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, General Mazloum Abdi, tweeted Sunday that IS spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was targeted and killed in a subsequent joint SDF-U.S. operation near the northern Syrian town of Jarablus, though U.S. officials have yet to comment.
 

Islamic State: an adaptive, potent terror group
 
But military and intelligence officials admit tracking down and eliminating key IS emirs and operatives, while serving to degrade the terror group’s capabilities, has not been sufficient to lead to its ultimate demise.
 
At one point, in late 2015, as the U.S.-led coalition tried to roll back the terror group’s caliphate, officials said airstrikes were killing, on average, one mid-level or senior-level IS leader every two days.

HVI [High Value Individual] strikes killed abt 70 senior/mid-level #ISIS leaders since May “depleting #ISIL‘s bench” per @OIRspox

— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) October 13, 2015

 
U.S. counterterrorism officials later described some of those so-called decapitation strikes as “significant blows.”
 
Yet IS carried on, and even as it’s caliphate collapsed, with the last bit territory falling to coalition forces this past March, the terror group’s leadership was proving to be nimble and adaptive, focusing their efforts on a potent and growing insurgency.
 
“ISIS is working to advance an insurgency in Syria and Iraq comprised of dispersed networks spanning the battlespace,” a U.S. counterterrorism official recently told VOA.
 
“The group is using these networks to undermine local governance and reconstruction efforts by stoking violence and mistrust among ethno-sectarian lines,” the official added.
 
Other current and former officials warn such resiliency has been built into the IS’ operating model from the start.
 
“It’s a big deal, simply because of the symbolic importance of Baghdadi,” former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told VOA, of the U.S. operation that killed the IS leader.
 
Baghdadi’s death not enough to stop IS
 
But he said Baghdadi’s death alone would not be enough.
 
“ISIS has been more de-centralized and has groomed leaders for just this eventuality,” Clapper said.

Terrorism analysts also point to a growing body of evidence that suggest even in groups which are less prepared to cope with the loss of an influential leader, strikes like the one that killed Baghdadi are rarely death blows.
 
“The death of a jihadist leader is always a dangerous moment for the group as it can lead to internal struggles,” said Michael Horowitz, head of intelligence for Le Beck, a Middle East-based security and geopolitical consultancy.
 

FILE – Then-al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden speaks to a select group of reporters in mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 1998.

“In general, however, jihadist groups do tend to survive such strikes,” he said, pointing to IS’ main rival, al-Qaida, as an example. “[Osama] bin Laden was replaced by his former number two, [Ayman] al-Zawahiri, a much less charismatic leader, but one that still heads a powerful and global terror franchise.”
 
Recent intelligence from the U.S. and other countries indicates IS, even without Baghdadi, is well-positioned to survive and even thrive.
 
Despite no longer controlling territory in Syria and Iraq, the terror group still had an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 thousand fighters across Syria and Iraq. Officials also believe it still has plenty of cash, perhaps up to $300 million at its disposal.
 
And U.S. officials note IS retains many of its former capabilities, moving them underground as it ceded territorial control to U.S.-backed forces.

“The group has tens of thousands of seasoned fighters and hundreds of leaders who have survived decades of war,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The Islamic State is more than its emir.”
 
Islamic State ‘brand lives on’
 
U.S. officials have likewise warned that IS has built itself in such a way that developments which they thought would undoubtedly lead to its demise — like the loss of almost all of its physical caliphate — have had less impact than anticipated.
 
“The so-called ISIS caliphate has been destroyed, but the ISIS brand lives on around the world,” State Department Counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales warned this past August.
 
Still, IS is likely to face some significant challenges, especially in the short term, knowing that the U.S. may have gained access to crucial information during the raid on Bashira.
 
“The first thing they’re going to do will probably be to activate security protocols to try to get their manpower and their resources to a position of safety with the expectation that the U.S. is going to hit the [IS] network hard,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Valens Global.
 
There is also a question of securing the allegiance of IS’ various affiliates, especially those in Afghanistan, Egypt’s Sinai, Libya and Nigeria.
 
“The standard bayat [pledge of allegiance] is not to an organization,” said Gartenstein-Ross “Bayat is on an individual to individual level.”
 
And exactly who that new leader will ultimately be is not clear.
 

This file image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.

“If you asked me this question a few years ago, I would have said that ISIS was always expecting that Baghdadi would eventually be killed and that the process of succession was already set in place,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher and assistant professor at Queen’s University in Ontario Canada, who has interviewed active members of the movement.
 
“But now, after Baghuz, all of this is up in the air,” he said. “Whatever structures they had in place for succession are probably no more.”
 
There are also questions about how Baghdadi’s death will impact the morale of IS fighters and supporters. While analysts say most will view him as a martyr, ignoring President Trump’s descriptions of the IS leader dying “like a dog” and “like a coward,” his continued ability to defy the U.S. and send out occasional messages may be felt.
 
“It seems his reappearance earlier this year was a real morale booster for supporters,” said Raphael Gluck, co-founder of Jihadoscope, a company that monitors online activity by Islamist extremists.
 
“Clearly he, or those around him, thinks it’s good for ISIS and worth the risks,” Gluck said at the time.

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