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Ukraine Preparing More Troop Withdrawals

Hints of another exchange of prisoners, talk of a bilateral withdrawal of combat soldiers and heavy weaponry from the 450-kilometer frontline in Ukraine’s east, and rising signs that Moscow and Kyiv are close to a deal on a new Russian gas-transit contract — what’s happening?Five-and-a-half years after the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, “there is a sliver of hope that the fighting will stop,” the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper editorialized Friday. The editors fear, though, the peace will be built on discord.A day earlier, the top military commander of the Ukrainian forces deployed in the eastern region of the Donbas, Gen. Volodymyr Kravchenko, told U.N. envoys he’s currently laying down plans for a withdrawal from the frontline.“Such a task has been set by the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine [Ruslan Khomchak], the Minister of Defense [Andriy Zahorodniuk] and the Head of State [President Volodymyr Zelenskiy],” the general said at the September 18 meeting. “We are ready for this for the sake of making the lives of our citizens better,” he said.FILE – Ukrainian servicemen are seen standing on top of tanks during a drill in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region, Nov. 21, 2018.But he cautioned that separation of the skirmishing forces would depend on whether Moscow will order a reciprocal pullback of the forces it controls in Ukraine’s easternmost provinces, where Kyiv’s forces have been battling pro-Moscow separatists since 2014 in a conflict that’s claimed more than 13,000 lives.Since his surprise election earlier this year to the top job in Kyiv, Zelenskiy has been urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to join in a new round of peace talks involving U.S. President Donald Trump and other Western leaders. In a video statement released in July to coincide with a one-day EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv, the political novice and former television comic, who won a landslide election victory in April, appealed to Putin directly. “We need to talk? We do. Let’s do it,” he said, looking directly into the camera.Last month it was announced the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany would meet to discuss the Donbas conflict. Some seasoned diplomats remain skeptical of the outcome. In July, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker cautioned against optimism in an interview with VOA’s Ukrainian Service.FILE – A Ukrainian soldier takes his position near the frontline with Russia-backed separatists, in Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, Nov. 28, 2018.“Unfortunately, we’ve really not heard much news from Russia. They are still saying that everything is Ukraine’s responsibility … that Ukraine needs to negotiate with the two so-called ‘separatist people’s republics’ that they created in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the Kremlin-back self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.Skeptics argue Putin isn’t serious about ending a conflict of his own making and has every reason to nurture it as a way to disrupt Ukraine, halt its embrace of the West and to continue to punish Ukraine for the popular 2014 Maidan uprising, which forced out of power his ally Viktor Yanukovych.Until recently Zelenskiy didn’t appear to be getting anywhere with Moscow, according to some analysts. “Despite his more moderate line on Russia compared to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin has given him no room for maneuver, issuing Russian passports to residents of the occupied territories, instituting an oil blockade, celebrating ‘statehood’ for the occupied territories and continuing with violations of the cease-fire,” commented Chatham House analysts Mathieu Boulègue and Leo Litra earlier this year.FILE – U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker speaks during a press-conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 27, 2019.But a prisoner swap earlier this month has prompted some optimism. Speaking in Kyiv at a conference Sunday, Volker welcomed the prisoner exchange, noting there were new dynamics in play between Kyiv and Moscow, although he urged caution, too.Russian officials say they’re ready to participate in a four-way summit in Paris to try to kickstart the long-stalled peace process, but they say they have strict preconditions for such a meeting. It would be the first major sit-down between Moscow and Kyiv since 2016 when Ukraine and Russia signed a framework agreement on the mutual withdrawal of troops in Donbas. The warring parties were meant to withdraw at least one kilometer back and to dismantle the emplacements for heavy weaponry.That agreement envisaged a period of stable cease-fire and earmarked three demilitarized zones in frontline areas in Luhansk Oblast, including around the towns of Zolote, Petrivske and Stanytsya Luhanska.FILE – A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service signals for people to stop as they approach a checkpoint at the contact line between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops, in Mayorsk, eastern Ukraine, July 3, 2019.Speaking at a conference earlier this week, Zelenskiy said troop withdrawals were “a priority” for him, and he laid out a path for elections in “parts of the Donbas occupied by separatists,” in accordance with the 2016 Minsk deal. In June, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported that both sides had effected a complete and mutual pullout from Stanytsya Luhanska.Zelenskiy’s embrace of the idea of elections is alarming former officials who served in the administration of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who was highly skeptical of elections, fearing voting in the Russian-controlled Donbas could easily be manipulated by Moscow.Russian officials say they have preconditions for the scheduled summit — including the troop withdrawals outlined in the Minsk deal and pre-agreed wording on the Donbas’ “special status” within Ukraine.For Zelenskiy, the risks are high. Miscalculation could wreck his presidency before it has got going. Some of his domestic critics say he’s entering a trap and that Moscow has no reason to be serious about talks. Ukrainian withdrawal amounts to a military retreat and a surrender of Ukraine’s vital interests, they say.FILE – Relatives hold portraits of Ukrainian soldiers killed by Russian artillery near the village of Ilovaysk in eastern Ukraine, during a protests in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug.28, 2019.Ukrainian officials say they have no choice but to try to get a resolution to the conflict in the Donbas, noting there is “Ukraine fatigue” in western Europe. In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said the sanctions the West imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and other incursions are getting increasingly inconvenient for the West.He said time may be running out, and Ukraine needs to strike a deal. “Even if Western sanctions are not ideal, and it’s getting more and more difficult for our Western partners to maintain them, they still damage the Russian economy,” he said. “And this forces Russia to make steps in the right direction.”Pristayko said Zelenskiy “wants to achieve true progress within six months,” but added, “I don’t know what the Kremlin’s aspirations are. We will not surrender the territory of Ukraine and have notified the Russians about our red lines. For example, we oppose Russia’s attempts to strengthen its positions on parts of the Ukrainian territory,” he said. “We want to return our citizens back.” 

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Harry and Meghan Make 1st Official Tour as Family in Africa

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, along with their infant son, Archie, are making their first official tour as a family, starting Monday in a troubled South Africa whose president says women and children are “under siege” by shocking violence.South Africa is still shaken by the rape and murder of a university student, carried out in a post office that sparked protests by thousands of women tired of abuse and impunity in a country where more than 100 rapes are reported every day. This is “one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said Wednesday.Empowering women is one of the issues Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, will address on a 10-day, multi-country visit, along with wildlife protection, entrepreneurship, mental health and mine clearance, a topic given global attention by Harry’s late mother, Princess Diana, when she walked through an active mine field during an Africa visit years ago.Some in South Africa said they are happy to see the arrival of Meghan, who has been vocal about women’s rights and is likely to speak out again. One of her first events is a visit to a workshop that gives self-defense classes to young girls.“I think the Duchess of Sussex’ visit is perfectly timed. She’s coming to South Africa at an incredibly turbulent time,” said Lara Rosmarin, who leads a local tech incubator that will be part of the royal visit. “People are anxious, people are scared, people are worried … She’s coming at a time when she can instill some hope and some promise and perhaps highlight the struggles of women in South Africa.”The high-profile visit by the royal family is expected to contrast with the breathtaking series of stories in local media in recent weeks about the reported abuse of women and children – “even babies,” the president reminded Parliament this week.
The scope is now well known. More than 2,700 women were murdered last year and more than 1,000 children, the government says. One in five women over age 18 has faced physical violence from a partner.“The conviction rate for rape is a shameful 5%,” the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, said Wednesday. The state should oppose bail for suspects, deny parole to those found guilty and ensure that a life sentence means life in prison, South Africa’s president now says.Some women want more, saying South Africa should bring back the death penalty for rapists. Capital punishment was abolished in the country in 1995.Despite the recent unrest, the royal family likely will focus on the positive. Planned events in their first public stop, Cape Town, include a visit to a non-governmental group that trains surfers to provide young people with mental health services.“She is a very influential person and just for her to be here and to some way influence the girls on our program is a big part of why we’re excited to have her here,” said Courtney Barnes, a surfing coach with Waves For Change.Harry and Meghan also will visit the oldest mosque in South Africa and meet with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A “rare privilege and honor,” Tutu and his wife, Leah, said Thursday.The prince later will break away for visits to Botswana, Angola and Malawi with a special focus on wildlife protection.
In Angola, Harry will walk in the footsteps of his mother, whose walk across a mine field in 1997 helped to inspire an international ban on anti-personnel mines later that year. That field in Huambo is now a busy street, and Angola’s government, now years past a grinding civil war, hopes to be free of land mines by 2025.
“He will revisit the area his mother visited, and I think that will be a very poignant moment of coming full circle,” said Ralph Legg, country director for the mine-clearing organization The HALO Trust, adding that local people remember Diana fondly for taking notice of their plight. “It will be very striking once people compare those images from the two visits to see how far Angola has come.”Huambo province is one mine field away from being declared mine-free, Legg said, adding that Angola could achieve its goal of being mine-free by 2025 with enough support from the international community.
While Harry is traveling, Meghan will remain in South Africa with events including a Johannesburg visit to a charity that helps to raise awareness of sexual violence in schools.The royal family’s Africa visit ends on Oct. 2.

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Google Plans to Invest 3 Billion Euros in Europe

Google is planning to invest 3 billion euros to expand its data centers across Europe in the next two years.The tech giant’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, says it will bring the company’s total investments in the continent’s internet infrastructure to 15 billion euros since 2007.Pichai met with Finnish Prime Minister Antii Rinne on Friday in Helsinki and said that the investments “will generate economic activities to the region” and support 13,000 full-time jobs in the European Union every year.He said that Google is “taking another big step by making the biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history” – a 1,600-megawatt package of agreements that includes 18 new energy deals. Ten of these will be in Europe.

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Envoy Insists Brexit Must Produce No ‘Hard Border’ With Irish Republic 

As the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline approaches, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States is expressing a degree of optimism that a creative solution may be found, but he insists there has to be a legally binding agreement “that there can never be a hard border on the island of Ireland.”   
The so-called “backstop” negotiated between former British Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union “is a guarantee that there can never be a hard border on the island of Ireland,” Ambassador Daniel Mulhall said in an interview with VOA. 
“It is not enough for us to be told that ‘we promise you, there will not be a problem,'” he said. “There has to be a legally binding agreement, and that’s where I think we have to work hard over the next six weeks between the United Kingdom and the European Union to find a solution to this problem, because nobody wants to see Britain crash out of the European Union.” NAFTA example
Mulhall cited the process of the renegotiation of a trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico as an example of how things could work out. 
“When the U.S. wanted to replace NAFTA, they had negotiated a successor agreement. Until that agreement, the USMCA, comes into force, NAFTA remains in force, so as to provide for a framework for trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada — and the same should be done between the UK and the EU,” Mulhall said. 
What Ireland wants, Mulhall added, “is to maintain the open border on the island of Ireland and to preserve the precious peace process that has saved so many lives over the last 21 years.” He noted that peace process was achieved “with huge support” from both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government over a long period of time. 
Mulhall described the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May and the EU as meeting that objective. “If there is to be an alternative set of arrangements, those arrangements would have to achieve the same outcome; if they [Britain] have ideas that can achieve the same outcome, it would be good for us to hear them,” he said. Mulhall said, “There are those who think that maybe a solution could be to have a backstop for Northern Ireland only, but that’s something that doesn’t seem to be popular with the British government.” Such a plan was rejected early in the Brexit negotiations by May’s Northern Irish coalition partners, who feared it would threaten their role as part of Britain. ‘Unique place’
Mulhall pointed out that Northern Ireland “is a unique place, because it’s got a land border with the rest of Ireland, therefore a land border with the European Union.” 
The question of how to prevent that land border from becoming a hard border with customs and other controls that would threaten the peace on the island constitutes “the whole crux of this negotiation,” he said.  

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US Military ‘Impressed’ by Cooperation with Turkey in Syria; Erdogan Issues Warning

Senior U.S. military officers claim “impressive” progress in cooperation with NATO ally Turkey in northeast Syria. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is warning of unilateral action against Washington’s critical Syrian ally if Turkish security demands aren’t met by the end of the month.”I am constantly impressed by what the CJOC [Combined Joint Operation Center] has achieved in such a short period of time,” said Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman in a briefing to journalists.  “I would like to compliment our Turkish allies for their high levels of professionalism.”CJOC is based in Turkey’s Sanliurfa province, which borders Syria. The command center was set up under an August agreement between U.S. and Turkish generals to create what Washington calls a “security mechanism,” and what Ankara refers to a “safe zone,” in northeast Syria.FILE – Locals look on as a Turkish soldier stands guard in a border village on the Turkish-Syrian border near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, Sept. 8, 2019.Ankara claims the zone is necessary to protect its border from the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, which it considers terrorists linked to an insurgency inside Turkey. The YPG is also a key ally in the Washington-led war against Islamic State.”The intention of this ‘security mechanism’ is to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and preserve conditions to continue cooperation to defeat ISIS, while fostering conditions that reduce the risk of violence and instability that would be counterproductive to all parties,” said Wortman, U.S. director of CJOC.Erodogan’s frustrationOn Wednesday, Erdogan again slammed the lack of progress, reiterating an ultimatum to Washington.”We will initiate our plans in two weeks if no results come from the work with the United States on the formation of a safe zone,” he said.Washington is calling for patience.”I can tell you that the United States is fully committed to addressing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns,” Wortman said. “This is a highly complex challenging environment, so full implementation is going to take time.”FILE – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 16, 2019.Analysts say the U.S. and Turkey also still remain at loggerheads over the details of the security arrangement. Erdogan wants to establish a 40-kilometer-deep Turkish-controlled zone into northeast Syria. Reports suggest Washington has agreed to a far more modest region of control.”Our objective is to set up a 30- to 40-kilometer-deep safe zone along the borderline,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Thursday in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Turkiye.U.S. officials speaking Thursday refused to be drawn into whether an agreement on the depth and control of any zone in Syria had been reached with Ankara.Turkey’s demand for a security zone in Syria is no longer just driven by security concerns and the perceived threat of the YPG.”The mounting public resentment in Turkey towards [Syrian] refugees means solving the refugee problem in Turkey is as much a priority as security considerations for the government in driving its policy in northeast Syria,” said Soli Ozel, an international relations teacher at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.ResettlementTurkey currently hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees. A recent poll found that over 80% of Turks wanted the refugees to leave. Erdogan is now presenting his planned “safe zone” as a solution to growing discontent.FILE – Thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey, in this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, June 14, 2015.”Depending on the depth of this safe zone, we can resettle 2 to 3 million displaced Syrians currently living in our country and Europe,” Erdogan said.Some analysts suggest the ongoing U.S.-Turkish tensions are increasingly centered on Erdogan’s goal of resettling Syrians.”On one hand, Turkish and U.S. militaries appear to be cooperating well, with frequent joint land and air patrols over the proposed zone,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. “However, Erdogan is very unhappy with the progress, accusing the U.S. of delaying tactics. He does so because Syrian Kurds who control the Turkish border are not willing to surrender control of the intended zone and their towns within to the Turkish military.”Critics accuse Turkey of seeking to use the Syrian refugees who are predominantly Arab to dilute the region’s Kurdish population. Analysts claim demographics as an instrument of social policy is frequently employed in the area.U.S. officials refused to be drawn into commenting on any mass refugee resettlement, other than reiterating general principles.”The principles that we look for with refugees are safe, voluntary and dignified movements of refugees — that individuals are either moving home or a place of their choosing,” Brig. Gen. Scott Naumann said in Thursday’s journalist briefing.FILE – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 16, 2019.Turkey could face resistance from Moscow and Tehran over any long-term plans for a military presence in Syria. Attending a three-way summit in Ankara on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Turkey’s right to protect its borders against any security threat. But Putin insisted any intervention must end once the threat is dealt with, reaffirming his commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity.Akar announced plans Thursday for permanent military bases in northeast Syria.”They will be the joint bases of Turkey and the U.S. We want them to be permanent. Their numbers will be decided depending on the need,” he said.U.S. officials Thursday refused to comment on Akar’s claim, saying it does not comment on future operations. Analysts say the current disputes are expected to be addressed when Erdogan meets next week with President Donald Trump on the sidelines at the United Nations General Assembly.

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Russia, Ukraine Move Ahead With EU Talks to Avert Supply Cut

This story originated in VOA’s Ukraine’s Minister of Energy and Environmental Protection Oleksiy Orzhel attends a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium Sept. 19, 2019.Earlier news reports had indicated that Ukrainian Energy Minister Oleksiy Orzhel had hoped to reach a deal with his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak, at Thursday’s meeting.The talks follow a Sept. 10 decision by the top European Union court in Luxembourg to reimpose limits on gas flows via the Opal pipeline, a spur that connects Germany with the Nord Stream pipeline system operated by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.Gazprom is pushing to complete the Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream pipeline projects in 2020, after which it no longer may need Ukraine’s pipelines for transit. Ukraine’s loss of roughly $3 billion gas-transit fees — about 3% of national GDP — would be a substantial blow to the Ukrainian economy.Moscow currently meets a third of Europe’s gas needs — 14 EU countries receive more than 50% of their gas from Russia — much of which flows through Ukraine’s Soviet-era pipelines.Gazprom had been seeking full access to the Opal pipeline and received 80% of its available capacity after a 2016 European Commission ruling.The Sept. 10 decision will reduce Gazprom’s Nord Stream flows by 12.4 billion cubic meters a year, said PGNiG, Poland’s state-run oil and gas company, the country’s largest. 

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Support for Independence Seen Waning in Spain’s Catalonia

When Spain’s national anthem blared from a hotel balcony during Catalonia’s National Day ceremonies last week, regional police cut electricity to the building and searched it for Spanish unionists suspected of placing the loudspeakers.But when a few thousand radical separatists tried to rush the regional parliament building the same day, overturning police barriers, hurling sharp objects and attacking a Spanish television news crew, no arrests were made.“Catalonia is caught in a dichotomy,” says Erik Encinas, publisher of the Barcelona digital magazine Mediterraneo. “Although public enthusiasm for independence shows signs of waning, the bureaucracy and police are increasingly controlled by hardliners.”Catalan regional president Quim Torra has called for “general civil disobedience” next month to protest the expected convictions of regional officials tried by Spain for organizing an independence referendum and subsequent declaration of secession two years ago.But there are doubts that he will get the mass turnout he wants. Organizers had hoped for a huge show of force at this year’s Catalan National Day parade, but the turnout of more than half a million people was only about half as large as in past years.FILE – Catalan regional president Quim Torra, center, is seen during a pro-independence rally on Catalonia’s National Day, in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 11, 2019.Many would-be participants may have been put off by calls for a “war” against the Spanish state that circulated on social media beforehand. Recent opinion surveys meanwhile indicate a general decline in support for independence.A poll taken in July by Catalonia’s government-run Center for Opinion Studies showed that support for independence had dropped to 42%, while support for remaining as part of Spain had risen slightly to 48%. Both sides had been tied at about 45% in previous surveys.Barcelona city councilor Raymond Blass says infighting among the nationalists has undermined support for independence and that “fatigue” could be setting in among the “less committed.”But even some of the militant groups show signs of frustration. Members of the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDRs), which organize at the grassroots level, recently complained that they could not mobilize enough people to block the main highway into Barcelona.If public support for independence is softening, the dream of an independent Catalonia appears to be holding firm in key governing agencies. These include the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.The Guardia Civil, a national law enforcement agency, says it has intercepted communications between Mossos members discussing a revival of Land and Liberty — a terrorist movement modeled on the Basque ETA, which conducted bombings 30 years ago. The Guardia Civil also accuses Mossos members of passing sensitive information on to extremist organizations.FILE – A demonstrator burns a Spanish flag at a protest in front of Catalonia’s parliament on Catalonia’s National Day, in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 11, 2019.But Barcelona city councilor Raymond Blas rejects the charge that local authorities have politicized the Mossos. “If politicizing means asserting the powers of the Catalan government, then the Spanish government politicized its National Police when they sent them here to interfere without independence movement,” he says.Catalan Security Minister Miquel Buch has said that he wants to keep the police “outside the political and partisan debate.” But Buch recently promoted a detective sergeant who had helped ex-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to escape from Spain to avoid arrest after declaring independence in 2017.   The sergeant had been expelled from the police by Spanish officials who took over management of the force during a period of direct rule imposed in 2018. He is now serving as an “adviser” to the regional government at three times his previous pay.    Catalan policewoman Inma Alcolea tells VOA that she recently had her badge pulled and was transferred to a remote administrative posting for complaining about separatist political influence on key units like the Department of Internal Affairs. “It’s like a Mafia,” she says.“Political priorities are draining resources away from regular police work,” says Eugenio Zambrano, a former Barcelona municipal policeman who now heads a union of government workers that led a protest in Barcelona last weekend demanding more protection against a growing crime wave.Spain’s interior ministry says there has been a 30% rise in street crime in Barcelona over the past year. “There are rapes, robberies and murders on a scale never seen before,” said shopkeeper Miquel Martinez, who joined the protesters.Blas says a lack of patrolmen on the streets is caused by a diversion of resources to counterterrorism since a 2017 Islamic attack in Barcelona. Seven hundred more policemen are being hired, the city councilor said. 

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At 98, D-Day Vet Jumps Again, With Eyes on the Big 100

Jump by jump, 98-year-old D-Day veteran Tom Rice is nudging closer to his goal of leaping out of planes at age 100.
The American who caused a sensation in June by parachuting into Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings was at it again on Thursday.
This time, his landing zone was in the Netherlands.
Rice, strapped to a younger parachutist who steered the canopy, jumped as part of commemorations for massive airborne landings September 1944.
He described their jump as “perfect” and said: “I’m going to do it until I’m 100.”
Rice jumped with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division on D-Day.
Thursday’s jump with hundreds of parachutists was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, a 1944 land-and-airborne thrust through the Netherlands. 

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