Afghanistan, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — The Afghan president's office says U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad shared details of his recent talks with the Taliban in Qatar with President Ashraf Ghani and other government officials.
Monday's statement quotes Khalilzad as saying he held talks about a cease-fire with the Taliban but that there was no progress yet on that issue.
The statement also claims the Taliban demanded from Khalilzad the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, but that there was no agreement on that.
There was no immediate comment from Khalilzad or the U.S. Embassy.
The statement appeared directed at toning down last week's remarks by Khalilzad reporting "significant progress" in talks with the Taliban.
It also says Ghani thanked Khalilzad and praised U.S. efforts to restart negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Washington, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said Sunday that the odds congressional negotiators will craft a deal to end his border wall standoff with Congress are "less than 50-50."
As hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers prepared to return to work, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he doesn't think the negotiators will strike a deal that he'd accept. He pledged to build a wall anyway using his executive powers to declare a national emergency if necessary.
"I personally think it's less than 50-50, but you have a lot of very good people on that board," Trump said in an interview with the newspaper.
The president was referring to a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers that will consider border spending as part of the legislative process.
The president's standoff with Democrats on Capitol Hill is far from over and the clock is ticking. The spending bill Trump signed on Friday to temporarily end the partial government shutdown funds the shuttered agencies only until Feb. 15.
It's unclear if the Democrats will budge. Trump seemed girded for battle over the weekend, sending out a series of online messages that foreshadowed the upcoming fight with lawmakers. "BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!" he tweeted.
Is Trump prepared to shut down the government again in three weeks?
"Yeah, I think he actually is," acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said. "He doesn't want to shut the government down, let's make that very clear. He doesn't want to declare a national emergency."
But Mulvaney said that at "the end of the day, the president's commitment is to defend the nation and he will do it with or without Congress."
The linchpin in the standoff is Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his prized wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, a project Democrats consider an ineffective, wasteful monument to a ridiculous Trump campaign promise.
Asked if he'd willing to accept less than $5.7 billion to build a barrier on the southern border, Trump replied: "I doubt it." He added: "I have to do it right."
He also said he'd be wary of any proposed deal that exchanged funds for a wall for broad immigration reform. And when asked if he would agree to citizenship for immigrants who were illegally brought into the U.S. as children, he again replied, "I doubt it."
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the leading Republican in the House, said Democrats have funded border barriers in the past and are refusing this time simply because Trump is asking for it.
"The president is the only one who has been reasonable in these negotiations," he said.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House, said his colleagues are looking for "evidence-based" legislation.
"Shutdowns are not legitimate negotiating tactics when there's a public policy disagreement between two branches of government," he said.
Jeffries said that Democrats are willing to invest in additional infrastructure, especially at legal ports of entry where the majority of drugs come into the country.
"We're willing to invest in personnel. We're willing to invest in additional technology. ... In the past, we have supported enhanced fencing and I think that's something that's reasonable that should be on the table," he said.
Trump has asserted there is a "crisis" at the southern border requiring a wall, blaming previous presidents and Congress for failing to overhaul an immigration system that has allowed millions of people to live in the U.S. illegally.
Last month, he put that number at 35 million, while on Sunday he pegged it at 25.7 million-plus — figures offered without evidence. "I'm not exactly sure where the president got that number this morning," Mulvaney said.
Both are higher than government and private estimates.
His homeland security chief cited "somewhere" between 11 million and 22 million last month. In November, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported 10.7 million in 2016 — the lowest in a decade.
The president also tweeted Sunday that the cost of illegal immigration so far this year was nearly $19 billion; he didn't cite a source.
Compare that with research in 2017 from a conservative group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less immigration: $135 billion a year or about $11.25 billion a month — a figure that included health care and education, plus money spent on immigration enforcement.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. said that he thinks a compromise is possible.
"The president went from talking about a wall along the entire southern border at one point during the campaign ... to let's have barriers where they work and let's have something else where barriers wouldn't work as well," Blunt said.
The partial federal shutdown ended Friday when Trump gave in to mounting pressure, retreating from his demand that Congress commit to the border wall funding before federal agencies could resume work. The bill he signed did not provide the money Trump wanted for a barrier, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called "immoral" and has insisted Congress will not finance.
Mulvaney said Trump agreed to temporarily end the shutdown because some Democrats have stepped forward, publicly and privately, to say they agree with Trump's plan to better secure the border.
Mulvaney said they told Trump they couldn't split with Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and work with the White House if the government remained closed.
"Everybody wants to look at this and say the president lost," Mulvaney said. "We're still in the middle of negotiations."
Minneapolis, Jan 27 (AP/UNB) — Park rangers were once again greeting visitors at some national parks across the United States and flight operations at major airports were returning to normal, one day after a partial government shutdown came to an end.
While there were signs on Saturday that some government machinery was grinding back to life after a record 35 days without funding, many federal workers and their families approached the end of the shutdown cautiously, saying they were relieved they would receive paychecks again, but would continue to restrict their spending amid fears that another shutdown could happen in weeks.
"You can only be so happy because you just have to know that it could happen again," said Rachel Malcom, whose husband serves in the Coast Guard in Rhode Island. "We're going to be playing catch up, so I don't want to overspend."
President Donald Trump signed a short-term deal Friday to end the partial government shutdown, which caused 800,000 federal employees to miss two paychecks. The administration asked department heads to reopen offices in a "prompt and orderly manner."
Many government agencies still had notices on their websites Saturday saying they were not fully operating due to the lack of appropriations. Calls to several agencies also went unanswered, with voicemails saying the offices were closed due to the shutdown. But many parks — from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Minnesota — were glad to open their doors to weekend visitors.
John Anfinson, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, said it felt great to tell his employees to open the Mississippi River Visitor's Center. He texted his manager and said "Roll up the gate!"
"They were just waiting for the green light," he said. Park ranger Sharon Stiteler posted a video to Twitter that showed the center's gates opening with the word: "Weeeee!"
The visitor's center, located in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota, saw 180 visitors in its first hour of operation, Anfinson said, and when he stopped by, the employees had "big smiles on their faces."
The National Park Service said it was working on reopening all of its parks as quickly as possible, but some parks may not open immediately depending on their staff size and complexity. The Virgin Islands National Park, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were among the parks that reopened Saturday.
And Yellowstone National Park officials said visitor centers would reopen there by Sunday afternoon, with the majority of staff returning Monday to begin working on a backlog of permit requests, including from those seeking to do research in the park.
Mike Litterst, chief spokesman for the National Park Service, said the nation's more than 400 parks are reopening on a rolling schedule. Some of the parks that were partially open and accessible during the shutdown are expected to get back to full operations more quickly.
"We're certainly grateful that all of our dedicated rangers and park service staff are back at work," Litterst said.
In the New York area, airport operations were returning to normal, just a day after LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport both experienced at least 90-minute delays in takeoffs because of the shutdown — which caused a ripple effect throughout the system. On Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration reported that flights at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airport were landing and taking off Saturday morning with 15-minute delays. There were no other major delays nationwide, according to the FAA's website, which tracks flight delays.
Some parts of the government were taking a little more time to open up.
The Smithsonian museums and National Zoo in Washington planned to reopen to the public on Tuesday. Spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said until then, employees will check all audio-visual and interactive exhibits to make sure everything is working properly and curators will make a final check of the exhibits. Cafeterias will also be restocked and food shipments will resume, but full food service might not be immediately available.
Nigel Fields, superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park, said donations kept the park mostly open during its busy tourist season. But, he said, there is some anxiety about another closure. The park covers about 60 percent of the island of St. John, which was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The shutdown affected the park service's ability to continue rebuilding, strengthening the coral reef and restoring native vegetation after the storms.
For families of workers, the government's reopening came with a mix of relief and fear. While those who were furloughed or required to work without pay will receive back pay, it's unclear when that will happen.
Crystal Simmons, whose husband serves in the Coast Guard in Connecticut, said it will likely take some time to process back pay, and then employees could be in the same situation again if another shutdown happens.
"I don't think I can really relax and go back to the way things were," she said.
New Oeleans, jan 27 (AP/UNB) — Authorities in Louisiana said they are searching for an "armed and dangerous" 21-year-old accused of killing his parents and three others in two separate but related shootings Saturday.
Authorities say Dakota Theriot first shot and killed three people — the woman believed to be his girlfriend, her brother and father — in Livingston Parish before taking her father's truck, driving to neighboring Ascension Parish where he shot and killed his parents.
"We are totally focused on finding him. We're following every lead that we come up with," said Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard during an evening news conference streamed online.
Theriot was being sought on first-degree murder and other charges. He was believed to be driving a stolen 2004 Dodge Ram pickup, gray and silver in color.
Authorities have identified the victims in Livingston Parish as Billy Ernest, 43; Tanner Ernest, 17; and Summer Ernest, 20. Ard said Summer Ernest and Dakota Theriot were in a relationship and that Theriot had been living with her family for a few weeks.
But he said after talking with Summer's mother, there was no indication of any red flags ahead of Saturday's multiple shootings.
Authorities earlier identified the other two victims as Theriot's parents — Keith, 50, and Elizabeth Theriot, 50, of Gonzales.
They were shot in their trailer on Saturday morning.
"The father was gravely injured at the time we found him and has since passed away," said Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre. But before he died, Webre said authorities were able to get a "dying declaration from him, and only enough information to let us know that it was his son that committed this act."
Webre said there were indications that Theriot was traveling east and maybe was in another state by now.
"We're going to work every lead. We're going to follow every tip," he said during the evening news conference.
Ard said Dakota Theriot is believed to be armed with at least one handgun.
"We do not have a motive. It is still undetermined," Ard said.
Crystal DeYoung, Billy Ernest's sister, told The Associated Press that she believes Theriot had just started dating her niece, Summer Ernest.
"My family met him last weekend at a birthday party and didn't get good vibes from him," DeYoung said. She said she wasn't sure how her niece and Theriot met, but that she believed the relationship was relatively new.
"My mom is a good judge of character and she just thought he was not good," DeYoung said of Theriot.
DeYoung said she skipped the birthday party and didn't meet Theriot herself. DeYoung said Summer and Tanner Ernest were two of Billy's three children. He was also raising his wife's children.
DeYoung said Theriot doesn't have a vehicle and she's not sure how he ended up at the Ernest home on Saturday, but after the killings, he took off in her brother's truck.
There were also two young children in the home at the time. DeYoung said a 7-year-old took the baby out of the house and went to a neighbor's.
DeYoung said her brother, niece and nephew were good people.
"They all had very good hearts. They trusted people too much," she said, as she began crying. "They all loved unconditionally."
Charlenne Bordelon lives near the house where the Ernests were killed. She told The Advocate newspaper that two young children from the house ran to her home. They were uninjured and asked for help after the shooting.
Bordelon said Theriot was the older daughter's boyfriend and that he'd recently moved in with the family but she did not know him.
A Facebook page appearing to belong to Dakota Theriot was filled with defensive and sometimes angry posts. He shared someone else's post in June that said "wish i could clear my mind jus for one day" (sic) with a sad face emoji.
In May, he reposted something saying, "If you have a problem with me, tell me. Not everyone else."
He also shared someone else's post that said, "I don't care what people say about me I know who I am and I don't have to prove anything to anyone."
Webre said Dakota had lived with his parents briefly but was asked to leave the residence and not return.
"I would not approach this vehicle. We feel no doubt that Dakota is going to be armed and dangerous, and we need to bring him to justice really quick," Webre said.
Webre said Dakota Theriot had some run-ins with law enforcement in other parishes that he described as misdemeanor-type incidents that did not include violence: "Certainly nothing of the magnitude that we've seen today."
Webre said there was no reason to think Theriot was now targeting someone else but warned that because he's armed and dangerous: "Anybody he comes into contact with could be a target."
Caracas, Jan 26 (AP/UNB) — The coalition of Latin American governments that joined the U.S. in quickly recognizing Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president came together over weeks of secret diplomacy that included whispered messages to activists under constant surveillance and a high-risk foreign trip by the opposition leader challenging President Nicolas Maduro for power, those involved in the talks said.
In mid-December, Guaido quietly traveled to Washington, Colombia and Brazil to brief officials on the opposition's strategy of mass demonstrations to coincide with Maduro's expected swearing-in for a second term on Jan. 10 in the face of widespread international condemnation, according to exiled former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, an ally.
To leave Venezuela, he sneaked across the lawless border with Colombia, so as not to raise suspicions among immigration officials who sometimes harass opposition figures at the airport and bar them from traveling abroad, said a different anti-government leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security arrangements.
Building consensus in the fragmented anti-government coalition proved to be an uphill battle. The opposition has for years been divided by egos and strategy, as well as a government crackdown that has sent several prominent leaders into exile, making face-to-face meetings impossible. Others inside Venezuela were being heavily watched by intelligence agencies, and all were concerned about tipping off the government.
Long sessions of encrypted text messaging became the norm, the opposition leader said. A U.S. official said intermediaries were used to deliver messages to Guaido's political mentor and opposition power broker Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest after he tried and failed to lead a mass uprising against Maduro in 2014. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
Despite Guaido's personal assurances in Bogota that he would declare himself interim president at a Jan. 23 rally coinciding with the anniversary of the 1958 coup that ended Venezuela's military dictatorship, the suspense lasted until the hours before the announcement, said a Latin American diplomat from the Lima Group who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Some moderate factions were left in the dark or wanted to go slower, worrying that a bold move would lead to another failure for the opposition. In the end, those differences were smoothed over internally, without any public discord.
"This is the first time in at least five years the opposition has shown an ability to come together in any meaningful manner," said a senior Canadian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.
The decision to confront Maduro directly was only possible because of strong support from the Trump administration, which led a chorus of mostly conservative Latin American governments that immediately recognized Guaido.
It was no small diplomatic feat, comparable in recent times only to how the hemisphere in 1994 rallied behind Jean Bertrand Aristide to bring him back to power in Haiti after we was deposed in a coup, given the mistrust of the U.S. in Latin America stemming from U.S. military interventions in the region during the Cold War. Just as impressive, the tough-handed approach drew bipartisan support, with two of the Senate's most senior Democrats, Dick Durbin and Bob Menendez, offering praise.
The watershed moment was President Donald Trump's stunning remark in August 2017 from the steps of his New Jersey golf club that a "military option" was on the table to deal with the Venezuelan crisis.
In the weeks that followed, Trump went on to strongly condemn Maduro in his address to the U.N. General Assembly as well as quietly press aides and some Latin American leaders about a military invasion of the country.
From then on, countries in the region realized they had a partner in the U.S. willing to tackle a crisis that had been years in the making but which previous U.S. administrations had chosen to play down because of limited national security implications, said Fernando Cutz, a former senior national security adviser on Latin America to both President Barack Obama and Trump.
For some, especially Mexico, which was renegotiating NAFTA, adopting a more aggressive stance was also an opportunity to gain leverage in bilateral relations with the Trump administration.
"Trump has personally sparked a lot of this," said Cutz, now with the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm. "Literally in every interaction that he has had with Latin American leaders since taking office, he brings up Venezuela. That has forced a lot of hands."
On Jan. 4 — a day before Guaido was sworn in as national assembly president — foreign ministers from 13 nations of the Lima Group, which doesn't include the U.S., said they wouldn't recognize Maduro's second term.
That set off a scramble at the White House to make sure it wasn't being left behind, said a former U.S. official and congressional staffer who was in close contact with the national security council. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the administration's planning.
Playing a key role behind the scenes was Lima Group member Canada, whose Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to Guaido the night before Maduro's searing-in ceremony to offer her government's support should he confront the socialist leader, the Canadian official said. Also active was Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela and has received more than 2 million migrants fleeing economic chaos, along with Peru and Brazil's new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.