Jerusalem, Feb 4 (AP/UNB) — Israel says it has started reinforcing its border fence with the Gaza Strip, erecting a galvanized steel barrier six meters (20 feet) high that will run the length of territory.
Israel's Defense Ministry issued a statement Sunday saying it had commenced construction of an above-ground barrier that complements a subterranean wall aimed at thwarting Hamas attack tunnels beneath the border.
The fence's construction comes after months of mass protests by Palestinians in Gaza along the border. Nearly 190 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since they began last March. An Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper last July.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the new barrier "will prevent terrorists from Gaza from penetrating into our territory on the ground."
South Korea, Feb 4 (AP/UNB) — Senior U.S. and South Korean officials met Sunday to discuss an expected second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump's special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, arrived in South Korea earlier amid reports that he'll meet North Korean officials soon to work out details for the summit.
Trump told CBS' "Face the Nation" that "the meeting is set" with Kim, but he provided no further details about the meeting expected around the end of February. The president said there was "a very good chance that we will make a deal."
With the North under economic penalties and the U.S. unwilling to ease them under the North denuclearizes, Trump said Kim "has a chance to have North Korea be a tremendous economic behemoth. It has a chance to be one of the great economic countries in the world. He can't do that with nuclear weapons and he can't do that on the path they're on now."
Seoul's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Biegun and his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon held consultations about working-level U.S.-North Korea talks ahead of the summit.
South Korean media reported Biegun and his North Korean counterpart Kim Hyok Chol will likely meet at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom or in the North's capital of Pyongyang early this week.
Little progress has been made toward ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons since Trump and Kim held their first summit in Singapore last June. During that summit, Kim pledged to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, though he did not provide a timetable or roadmap for his disarmament steps.
Last year, North Korea suspended nuclear and missile tests, dismantled its nuclear test site and parts of its rocket launch facility and released American detainees. The North demanded the United States to take corresponding measurers such as sanctions relief.
U.S. officials want North Korea to take more significant steps, saying sanctions will stay in place until North Korea denuclearizes.
Satellite footage taken since the June summit has indicated North Korea has been continuing to produce nuclear materials at its weapons factories. Last Tuesday, U.S. intelligence chiefs told Congress they believe there is little likelihood Kim will voluntarily give up his nuclear weapons or missiles capable of carrying them.
Biegun said last week that Kim committed to "the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea's plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities" during his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September and at a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in October.
During the second summit, some experts say North Korea will likely seek to trade the destruction of its main Yongbyon nuclear complex for a U.S. promise to formally declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, open a liaison office in Pyongyang and allow the North to resume some lucrative economic projects with South Korea.
Venezuela, Feb 4 (AP/UNB) — Opposition leader Juan Guaido's calls for Venezuelans to abandon Nicolas Maduro's government are booming across the world outside, but the self-declared interim president is having a harder time delivering his message at home.
Watchdog groups in Venezuela and abroad say Guaido's efforts to reach citizens via the internet have been hindered by the dominant provider — state-run CANTV — in a country where critical newspapers and broadcast media already have been muzzled.
Since Jan. 23, when Guaido proclaimed himself interim president and when protests against Maduro's rule broke out, CANTV has blocked access to social media sites at least four times, according to the monitoring groups.
Those disruptions have coincided with politically significant events, including a rally attended by thousands of people last week and a Jan. 27 night speech that Guaido livestreamed on Periscope to call for a new round of protests and urge members of the military to defect.
CANTV accounts for about 70 percent of Venezuela's fixed internet connections and 50 percent of mobile, and Netblocks, a non-government group based in Europe that monitors internet censorship, found that the government provider blocked Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube during 12 of the 13 minutes that Guaido's speech lasted, so the stream could only be seen without interruptions by people using privately run internet providers.
The organization runs tests from its headquarters with software that captures evidence of connection failures. It also has designed a scanner app that volunteers in affected countries can use to run tests from their own phones or computers.
"We built tools that could diagnose the problems and differentiate between overload disruptions and actual blocking," said Netblocks director Alp Toker.
VESinFiltro, a Venezuelan internet monitoring group that uses technology developed by the Open Observatory for Network Interference, published similar findings on the Guaido speech.
Rights groups say the targeted disruptions show that methods to silence critics are becoming increasingly sophisticated in Venezuela, where internet providers have been hindering access to news sites and illegal currency exchange sites since 2014.
VESinFiltro director Andres Azpurua said that while internet providers previously restricted access to websites through a technique known as DNS blocking, methods have evolved to allow just-in-time disruptions during different stages of a computer's connection to websites, making it harder for site administrators to evade.
He also said other civil liberties advocates have been urging Venezuelans to try to avoid blockages by using virtual private network software that encrypt data and often hide the origin of a connection, and he said use of VPNs has increased over time.
A study by Venezuela's Press and Society Institute found that 53 websites were partially blocked by internet providers in Venezuela last year, including an investigative news site and the website for one of the country's last remaining opposition newspapers. Analysts say that this year, Guaido's Wikipedia page and social media sites have suffered blocks.
"The previous modus operandi was to place long-term blocks on certain web addresses," Azpurua says. "But the most recent forms of blocking are more tactical. You can tell that someone is investing in the technology to do this." While some analysts have speculated the know-how could come from Russia, Toker points out that technology developed by Western countries to block sites run by terrorist groups can also be reconfigured to block other sites.
Social media include some of the few platforms where Guaido can still be seen by Venezuelans. Local television and radio stations, fearful of government sanctions, have generally refrained from airing opposition rallies for years and avoid interviews with Guaido. A nationally broadcast radio program hosted by journalist Cesar Miguel Rondon was cancelled after it covered last week's turmoil and discussed Guaido's claim to Venezuela's presidency.
The opposition leader argues that Maduro's re-election in May was fraudulent and with no legitimate president, the constitution gives him power to be interim leader because he is head of the congress. The Trump administration and a dozen other countries have recognized Guaido as the country's rightful leader.
The Venezuelan government has previously ordered some internet news content to be blocked, claiming it is defamatory. It has also banned some news networks from cable systems, arguing they violated communication laws.
Venezuela's telecoms regulator and the Ministry of Communication did not respond to requests for comment on the most recent blocks on social media sites.
Technical interference isn't the only problem for internet users in Venezuela, where social media are rife with campaigns of false information benefiting both the government and the opposition.
Twitter last week removed 1,900 accounts located in Venezuela as part of a broader purge of international accounts tied to misinformation campaigns.
Twitter's head of site integrity, Joel Roth, wrote that many of the deleted Venezuelan accounts appeared to be engaged in a "state-backed influence campaign targeting domestic audiences."
Mariengracia Chirino, a researcher at the Venezuelan Press and Society Institute, said that access to information is also hampered by Venezuela's low bandwidth, as telecommunications infrastructure crumbles in the economically struggling nation.
The average connection speed in Venezuela is 1.8 mpbs, which is less than half the average speed in Latin American countries. Chirino said that her organization conducted tests during the Jan. 23 protests that found connection speeds dropping to an average rate of 0.9 mbps, making it difficult to share videos.
"During the protests, we also registered temporary blocks on Google sites like Gmail and YouTube," Chirino said.
Bolivia, Feb 4 (AP/UNB) — Authorities said Sunday that searchers had recovered 11 bodies from a landslide that buried cars on a highway in the mountains northeast of Bolivia's capital a day earlier. At least 18 other people were reported injured.
Officials also said new mudslides occurred in the same area as a result of a third day of heavy rains, though there was no immediate word of any casualties.
Tons of earth and mud collapsed on the mountain highway near a spot known as El Choro on Saturday. Public Works chief Oscar Coca said the bodies had been in two cars that were swept some 200 meters (650 feet) down a canyon.
Heavy rains had been falling for two days and the cars were in a line of vehicles making their way along a muddy patch of road when the mountainside gave way.
Police Gen. Romulo Delgado said the dead included six adults and five minors.
Johannesburg, Feb 3 (AP/UNB) — A peace deal has been reached between the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups after their first-ever direct dialogue aimed at ending years of conflict, the United Nations and African Union announced on Saturday.
The peace deal represents rare hope for the impoverished, landlocked nation where interreligious and intercommunal fighting has continued since 2013. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a conflict that has sent two people to the International Criminal Court.
"I am determined to work with the president and his government to address the concerns of our brothers who took up arms," said Central African Republic's Cabinet director Firmin Ngrebada, according to the U.N.
The parties on Sunday will sign a draft of the agreement, which focuses on power-sharing and transitional justice, Sudan's state media reported, citing Sudan's chief negotiator Atta al-Manan. The final deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday. Talks began Jan. 24 in Khartoum.
"This is a great day for Central African Republic and all its people," said the AU commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui.
The fighting has carried the high risk of genocide, the U.N. has warned. The conflict began in 2013 when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Largely Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back. Scores of mosques were burned. Priests and other religious leaders were killed. Many Muslims fled the country after mobs decapitated and dismembered some in the streets.
The vicious fighting in a country known more for coups than interreligious violence was so alarming that Pope Francis made a bold visit in 2015, removing his shoes and bowing his head at the Central Mosque in the last remaining Muslim neighborhood of the capital, Bangui.
"Together we say 'no' to hatred," the pope said.
The violence has never disappeared, intensifying and spreading last year after a period of relative peace as armed groups battled over lands rich in gold, diamonds and uranium.
After more than 40 people were killed in a rebel attack on a displaced persons camp in November, both the leader of the 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission and the country's prime minister both acknowledged shortcomings in the response. "I knew that we did not have all the necessary means to protect our people," the prime minister said.
In a grim report last year marking five years of the conflict, the U.N. children's agency said fighters often target civilians rather than each other, attacking health facilities and schools, mosques and churches and camps for displaced people. At least half of the more than 640,000 people displaced are children, it said, and thousands are thought to have joined the armed groups, often under pressure.
Last month the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation appeared at the International Criminal Court for the first time since he was arrested last year in France on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona is accused of leading the anti-Balaka for at least a year early in the fighting.
In November a Central African Republic militia leader and lawmaker, Alfred Yekatom, made his first ICC appearance, accused of crimes including murder, torture and using child soldiers. He allegedly commanded some 3,000 fighters in a predominantly Christian militia in and around the capital early in the fighting. He was arrested last year after firing gunshots in parliament.
So far no Seleka fighters have been publicly targeted by the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
As the peace talks began last month, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned of "catastrophe" if no agreement was reached, saying repeated cycles of violence in one of the world's poorest nations had "pushed people(asterisk)s resistance to breaking point."
A majority of Central African Republic's 2.9 million people urgently need humanitarian support, the group said.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend an arms embargo on Central African Republic for a year but raised the possibility that it could be lifted earlier as the government has long urged.