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White House Girds for Possible Russia Action in Ukraine

Washington has put 8,500 military personnel on heightened alert for possible deployment to Europe and will evacuate some embassy personnel from Ukraine, as tensions rise between Russia and NATO countries over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued mobilization of troops near the Ukrainian border. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington.


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Guinea, Vanuatu Have UN Vote Restored After Paying Dues 

Guinea and Vanuatu had their ability to vote at the United Nations restored on Monday, having been denied the right at the beginning of the month over their failure to pay their dues to the world body, a UN spokeswoman said. 

“The General Assembly took note that Guinea, Iran and Vanuatu have made the payments necessary to reduce their arrears below the amounts specified in Article 19 of the Charter,” U.N. spokeswoman Paulina Kubiak said. 

“This means that they can resume voting in the General Assembly,” she said. 

Under Article 19, any country can have their voting rights in the General Assembly suspended if their payment arrears are equal to or greater than the contribution due for the past two full years. 

The payment Friday of more than $18 million by Iran, via an account in Seoul and most likely with the approval of the United States, which has imposed heavy financial sanctions on Tehran, had been announced at the end of last week by UN sources and confirmed by South Korea.

For their part, Guinea had to pay at least $40,000 and Vanuatu at least $194 to recover their right to vote.

Kubiak later added three other countries that lost their U.N. voting rights in early January had also recovered them after paying the minimum arrears required last week. 

Those countries were Sudan, which had to pay about $300,000, Antigua and Barbuda, which owed some $37,000 and Congo-Brazzaville, with around $73,000 in arrears, said the spokeswoman. 

On the other hand, Venezuela, which is facing a minimum payment of nearly $40 million, and Papua New Guinea, which must pay just over $13,000, remain deprived of the right to vote, according to the U.N.

They are the only two countries out of the 193 members of the United Nations that will not be able to participate in votes this year.


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US Stocks Stage Dramatic Intraday Recovery 

Following the worst week for U.S. stocks since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, market volatility continued Monday — partly due to worries about Russian military movements near Ukraine.  

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 100 points after six consecutive days of losses. For most of Monday’s session, it appeared there would be a significant seventh day of losses, with the benchmark index in a free-fall, dropping 1,100 points (3.3%) before staging an extraordinary recovery.  

It was the sharpest one-day comeback for the Dow and the S&P 500 index since October 2008.  

The tech-laden Nasdaq composite closed 0.6% higher earlier in the day, trading more than 4% lower.  

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced Monday it is dispatching ships and jet fighters to eastern Europe following the increase in Russian military forces near Ukraine.  

The U.S. Defense Department also announced Monday it has placed 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to central and eastern Europe to bolster NATO defenses. The previous day, the State Department instructed the families of U.S. diplomats in Ukraine to leave the country.  

“The market already had downward momentum. Throwing in some geopolitical headlines was essentially another reason to sell,” according to Tom Essaye, president of Sevens Report Research. 

Investors have been anxiously eyeing anticipated action by the Federal Reserve to stem inflation because interest rate hikes could throttle growth for the U.S. economy.  

A decision on interest rates by the Fed is expected on Wednesday.  

The remarkable afternoon turnaround for the stock market followed a U.S. Treasury auction of two-year notes. 

“There was a lot of demand for that Treasury auction that came out at 1 p.m.,” Essaye told VOA. “People around the market looked and said, ‘Wow, maybe bond investors and traders aren’t quite as nervous about the Fed going crazy on rate hikes as everybody else is.’” 

The White House brushed off concern about the market volatility.  

“We focus on the trends of the economy, not any one day,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a routine briefing Monday.  

“The market is up about 15%” compared to when Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump as U.S. president, noted Psaki, adding that “unlike his predecessor, the president does not look at the stock market as a means by which to judge the economy.” 


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Biden Meeting with European Leaders About Threat of Russian Invasion of Ukraine

U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders about the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he weighs sending several thousand U.S. troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. 

Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the U.S. has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.” 

Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow. 

Kirby said the U.S. military is “keenly focused” on the Russian military’s 127,000-troop buildup along the Ukraine border and in Belarus. He said the U.S. is “taking steps to heighten readiness over Ukraine,” including for a NATO response force if the Western military forces are activated. 

U.S. and Russian officials have had four face-to-face meetings in the past two weeks over Western concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian fears of NATO operations in Eastern Europe, and Biden has also talked directly with European allies. 

The White House said Biden would be in the highly secure Situation Room for his Monday call. He is meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

Earlier Monday, NATO said its members were sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine. 

A NATO statement said additional troops and equipment could be sent from several countries, including Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United States. 

“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said. ”We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”  

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the United States and its NATO allies of escalating tensions.

The United States and Britain also announced orders for their embassy staff and family members in Kyiv to leave Ukraine, citing the potential for Russian military action.  

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry noted the U.S. move but expressed displeasure.  

“While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted Monday. 

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday the EU was not planning any similar withdrawals. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to join virtually. 

“We are not going to do the same thing, because we don’t know any specific reasons. But Secretary Blinken will inform us,” Borrell said. 

In addition to its order Sunday for the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, the State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct-hire employees, asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country, and reissued travel advisories warning against traveling to either Ukraine or Russia. 

Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports that Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine. 

The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and could deteriorate with little notice. 

The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine. 

Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine and has sought guarantees against further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and Russia are planning to exchange written statements this week about their demands of each other. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

 


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UNESCO: World Failing to Provide Quality Education for Children

A United Nations report released Monday said the world is failing to insure that by 2030 all children are receiving an “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.” 

The indicators used to determine a participating country’s success included: early childhood education attendance; drop-out rates; completion rates; gender gaps in completion rates; minimum proficiency rates in reading and mathematics; trained teachers; and public education expenditure. 

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, said countries were already failing their children “even before taking into account the potential consequences of COVID-19 on education development.”  

This failure “is a wakeup call for the world’s leaders,” UNESCO’s report said, “as millions of children will continue to miss out on school and high-quality learning.” 

The education benchmarks are included in Sustainable Development Goal 4 – one of 17 goals set up in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly. The goals are intended to be achieved by 2030. 


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US Envoy: Iran Nuclear Agreement Unlikely without Release of US Prisoners

The United States is unlikely to strike an agreement with Iran to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage, the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday. 

The official, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, repeated the long-held U.S. position that the issue of the four people held in Iran is separate from the nuclear negotiations. 

He moved a step closer, however, to saying that their release was a precondition for a nuclear agreement. 

“They’re separate and we’re pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran,” Malley told Reuters in an interview. 

“So even as we’re conducting talks with Iran indirectly on the nuclear file we are conducting, again indirectly, discussions with them to ensure the release of our hostages,” he said in Vienna, where talks are taking place on bringing Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the deal. 

In recent years, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on espionage and security-related charges. 

Rights groups have accused Iran of taking prisoners to gain diplomatic leverage, while Western powers have long demanded that Tehran free their citizens, who they say are political prisoners. 

Tehran denies holding people for political reasons. 

Message sent

Malley was speaking in a joint interview with Barry Rosen, a 77-year-old former U.S. diplomat who has been on hunger strike in Vienna to demand the release of U.S., British, French, German, Austrian and Swedish prisoners in Iran, and that no nuclear agreement be reached without their release. 

Rosen was one of more than 50 U.S. diplomats held during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. 

“I’ve spoken to a number of the families of the hostages who are extraordinarily grateful for what Mr. Rosen is doing but they also are imploring him to stop his hunger strike, as I am, because the message has been sent,” Malley said. 

Rosen said that after five days of not eating he was feeling weak and would heed those calls. 

“With the request from Special Envoy Malley and my doctors and others, we’ve agreed (that) after this meeting I will stop my hunger strike but this does not mean that others will not take up the baton,” Rosen said. 

The indirect talks between Iran and the United States on bringing both countries back into full compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear deal are in their eighth round. Iran 

refuses to hold meetings with U.S. officials, meaning others shuttle between the two sides. 

The deal between Iran and major powers lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear activities that extended the time it would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it chose to. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons. 

Then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018, reimposing punishing economic sanctions against Tehran. Iran responded by breaching many of the deal’s nuclear restrictions, to the point that Western powers say the deal will soon have been hollowed out completely.   

Leverage

Asked if Iran and the United States might negotiate directly, Malley said: “We’ve heard nothing to that effect. We’d welcome it.” 

The four U.S. citizens include Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, both of whom have been convicted of “collaboration with a hostile government.” 

Namazi remains in prison. His father was released on medical grounds in 2018 and his sentence later reduced to time served. 

While the elder Namazi is no longer jailed, a lawyer for the family says he is effectively barred from leaving Iran. 

“Senior Biden administration officials have repeatedly told us that although the potential Iranian nuclear and hostage deals are independent and must be negotiated on parallel tracks, they will not just conclude the nuclear deal by itself,” said Jared Genser, pro bono counsel to the Namazi family. 

“Otherwise, all leverage to get the hostages out will be lost,” he added. 

The others are environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, who is also British, and businessman Emad Shargi, 57. 


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Yellowstone Park Visits Hit Record in 2021, Straining Staff

A record number of visitors flocked to Yellowstone National Park last year despite fewer hotel rooms and campsites being available because of the coronavirus pandemic and construction projects.

About 4.86 million visits were tallied in 2021, breaking the prior record set in 2016. It’s a million more people than visited in 2020. 

Known worldwide for its wolves, bears and other wildlife and thermal features such as the Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone will mark its 150th anniversary in 2022. It straddles the borders of northwestern Wyoming, southern Montana and eastern Idaho.

Visits to national parks across the U.S. have been trending up in recent years. Others such as Utah’s Zion National Park also set new visitor records in 2021 as tourism bounced back from the shutdowns imposed during the early days of the pandemic.

At Yellowstone, a rush of people from May through September last year strained employees and park services. It came as the park was understaffed through the summer because of worker housing caps and difficulty recruiting new employees, park officials have said.

There were also 20% fewer campsites and hotel rooms in 2021 compared to previous years. That meant hundreds of thousands of visitors left the park at night and would re-enter after staying elsewhere. Each time they entered the park counted as a separate visit.

Park officials said they are trying to find a way to differentiate between new visits and people who enter the park multiple times on the same trip.

Yellowstone’s road corridors and parking lots can get crowded, but they make up less than one-tenth of 1% of its 8,903 square kilometers (3,400 square miles) — an area about 150 times the size of New York’s Manhattan Island. 

Most visitors stay within a half-mile of those roads, according to park officials. Park crowds drop sharply during winter when much of it is inaccessible except by snowmobile or skiing.


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Thousands March in Washington Against Mask, Vaccine Mandates

Thousands of anti-mask and vaccine mandate protesters rallied on the mall in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to voice opposition to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 mask and vaccine policies.

Gathering at the base of the Washington Monument, and then marching to the Lincoln Memorial, the protesters held signs saying, “Make Love Not Mandates!!” and “Coercion is Not Choice.”

COVID-19 has killed more than 860,000 people in the United States – and more than 5.5 million globally — over the two-year-long pandemic and has weighed heavily on the economy.

On January 13, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses — a policy the conservative justices deemed an improper imposition on the lives and health of many Americans — while endorsing a separate federal vaccine requirement for health care facilities.

Many U.S. companies have implemented mandatory mask-wearing policies to protect their workers, as have various municipalities and cultural organizations.

Masks remain polarizing. Biden, a Democrat, recently urged people to wear masks and noted that about a third of Americans report they do not wear masks at all. Many Republican-leaning states have no mask requirements. Some Democratic-governed states such as California have reimposed indoor mask mandates.


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