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Honduras inaugurates first female president, Harris vows closer U.S. ties

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(Last Updated On: January 28, 2022)

Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras’ first woman president on Thursday in front of a cheering crowd including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who pledged U.S. government support to stem migration and fight corruption.

Castro’s inauguration ends the eight-year rule of Juan Orlando Hernandez, a one-time U.S. ally who has been accused in U.S. courts of corruption and links to drug traffickers. Even as Hernandez left office a U.S. congresswoman called for him to be indicted, and for requests to be made for his extradition.

Castro, flanked by her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was sworn in at a packed soccer stadium where supporters applauded her vows to fix the country’s massive debt burden.

“The economic catastrophe that I’m inheriting is unparalleled in the history of our country,” a somber Castro said in her inaugural address.

Her government also faces tests over a sharply divided Congress, and relations with China due to Honduras maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Harris, who was loudly applauded when introduced during the inauguration, congratulated Castro over her “democratic election.”

In a meeting shortly after the ceremony, Harris promised to collaborate on migration issues, economic development and fighting impunity, and said she welcomed Castro’s plans to request United Nations help to establish an anti-corruption commission.

Harris has been tasked with addressing the “root causes” of migration in Central America’s impoverished Northern Triangle of countries, but her trip comes as U.S. President Joe Biden’s popularity at home has waned and his immigration strategy has stalled.

“We do very much want and intend to do what we can to support this new president,” said one administration official.

Castro tweeted that she appreciated Harris’ visit and the Biden administration’s willingness to support the Honduran government.

Harris also pledged to send Honduras several hundred thousand more COVID-19 vaccine doses along with 500,000 syringes and $1.3 million for health and educational facilities.

The two did not discuss China, she told reporters.

U.S. officials want to work with Castro both to curb illegal immigration from Central America and shore up international support for Taiwan as part of its efforts to stem China’s influence.

Honduras is one of the few countries maintaining diplomatic ties with Taipei instead of Beijing, and Castro during her campaign backtracked on comments that she might switch allegiance to China as president.

Taiwanese Vice President William Lai attended the inauguration in a bid to bolster ties with Castro’s government. Harris said the two spoke over their common interest in Central America.

Luis Leon, director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy in Central America, said Harris’ arrival was a boost for Castro in the dispute over control of Congress and in addressing Honduras’ weak economy.

Castro said it was “practically impossible” to make current debt payments without a restructuring, after debt jumped sevenfold under her two conservative predecessors.

The country’s total debt stands at about $15.5 billion, or nearly 60% of gross domestic product, an economic problem Castro frequently highlighted ahead of her landslide win in November.

“My government will not continue the maelstrom of looting that has condemned generations of young people to pay the debt they incurred behind their back,” she added.

She vowed to immediately give more than 1 million poor Hondurans free electricity, with bigger consumers subsidizing the cost.

Castro, who describes herself as a democratic socialist, has vowed to tackle corruption, poverty and violence, chronic problems that have fueled U.S.-bound migrants.

But her legislative program has been jeopardized by renegade politicians from her leftist Libre party who allied with the opposition National Party to vote for one of its members to head Congress, breaking a pact with a key electoral ally.

Castro also takes office at a time of controversy for her predecessor Hernandez, who had served a maximum two consecutive terms as president and had been a longstanding U.S. ally in immigration and anti-narcotics operations.

U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres has called for Hernandez’s indictment on drug charges, and for U.S. officials to request his extradition.

But Hernandez may be shielded from extradition for up to four years, as he was sworn in as a member of the Central American parliament shortly after Castro’s inauguration.

He has repeatedly denied accusations of corruption and links to drug traffickers.

Hernandez’s brother last year was sentenced by a U.S. judge to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking.

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Fire during protest at migrant center kills 38 in Mexico, officials say

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(Last Updated On: March 29, 2023)

At least 38 migrants from Central and South America died after a fire broke out late on Monday at a migrant detention center in the Mexican northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, apparently caused by a protest over deportations, officials said Tuesday.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute lowered the death toll on Tuesday evening to 38 from 40, saying a visit to the city’s hospitals where victims were being treated had confirmed the lower number, Reuters reported.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said authorities believed the blaze in the city opposite El Paso, Texas, broke out around 9:30 p.m. local time (0330 GMT) as some migrants set fire to mattresses in protest after discovering they would be deported. He did not provide more details about how so many had died in the incident.

“They didn’t think that would cause this terrible tragedy,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference, noting that most migrants at the facility were from Central America and Venezuela.

The fire, one of the deadliest migrant tragedies in years, occurred as the United States and Mexico are battling to cope with record levels of border crossings at their shared frontier, read the report.

A video shared on social media, which appears to be security footage from within the center, shows a flame in part of a cell which is filling up with smoke as men kick desperately on the bars of a locked door.

In the 30-second video, three people in what appear to be official uniforms walk past but make no attempt to open the door. By the end of the video the smoke is so thick the cell can no longer be seen, read the report.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the video. Interior Minister Adan Augusto Lopez in an interview broadcast on local media appeared to confirm its veracity saying the government had the video since shortly after the incident, without commenting in any detail on its content.

Alejandra Corona, a representative of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) which visits the facility once a week to monitor conditions, confirmed the video showed the men’s cell. The door the men were kicking on was the only exit, she said.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), which runs the center, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Reuters reported.

In a statement Tuesday evening, in which the INM revised down the death toll it listed the names of 68 men at the detention center, without clarifying who on the list had or had not survived.

Thirteen of the dead were Hondurans, according to the country’s deputy foreign minister.

A Reuters witness at the scene overnight saw bodies laid out on the ground in body bags behind a yellow security cordon, surrounded by emergency vehicles. The fire had been extinguished.

The migration institute said it was also providing assistance to 15 women who had been safely evacuated from the center when the fire started, read the report.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Tuesday evening he had been informed that those “directly responsible” had been turned over to the Attorney General’s office, which is investigating the incident. He provided no further details.

Two migrants told Reuters that authorities had rounded up migrants off the streets of Ciudad Juarez on Monday and detained them in the center.

Activists have frequently flagged concerns of poor conditions and overcrowding in detention centers as migration has risen.

“Last night’s events are a horrible example of why organizations have been working to limit or eliminate detention in Mexico,” said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration, which supports migrant rights.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement that the secretary-general called for a “thorough investigation” of the tragic event.

Mexico’s INM did not respond to a request for comment about when the Ciudad Juarez site was opened, or how many migration centers are currently in operation.

As of 2019, there were 53 INM detention centers operating across Mexico, according to a report from Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (CNDH), with a total official capacity of around 3000.

Viangly Infante, a Venezuelan national, had been waiting outside the center when the fire started.

“I was here since one in the afternoon waiting for the father of my children, and when 10 p.m. rolled around, smoke started coming out from everywhere,” the 31-year-old Venezuelan national told Reuters.

Her husband, 27-year-old Eduard Caraballo, was detained on Monday by Mexican migration authorities and put in a holding cell inside the facility.

He managed to survive by dousing himself in water and pressing against a door as the fire blazed, said Infante.

“His chest was really hurting, struggling to breathe because of all the smoke, but he wasn’t burnt,” said Infante of her husband, who is now in a hospital.

The couple and their three children left Venezuela last October in search of better economic opportunities and a good education for their kids, as well as to escape rampant crime.

By late December, they had reached the U.S. border and crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas, where they handed themselves over to U.S. migration authorities. But they were immediately returned to Mexico, where they then headed by bus to Ciudad Juarez.

Recent weeks have seen a buildup of migrants in Mexican border cities as authorities attempt to process asylum requests using a new U.S. government app known as CBP One, Reuters reported.

Many migrants feel the process is taking too long and earlier this month clashes occurred between U.S. security and hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants at the border after frustration welled up about securing asylum appointments.

Mexico’s migration law says migrants can only be detained for 15 days under normal circumstances, though the Supreme Court in March ruled that such lengths were unconstitutional, and that migrants should be held no longer than 36 hours.

In January, the Biden administration said it would expand Trump-era restrictions to rapidly expel Cuban, Nicaraguan and Haitian migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to contain the border flows.

That came after a decision in October to the expand expulsions, under a controversial policy known as Title 42, to Venezuelans.

At the same time, the United States said it would allow up to 30,000 people from those countries to enter the country by air each month, Reuters reported.

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Ex-student shoots dead 3 children, 3 adults at Tennessee Christian school

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(Last Updated On: March 28, 2023)

A heavily armed 28-year-old fatally shot three children and three adult staffers on Monday at a private Christian school the suspect once attended in Tennessee’s capital city before police killed the assailant, Reuters quoted authorities said.

The motive was not immediately known, but the suspect had drawn detailed maps of the school, including entry points for the building, and left behind a “manifesto” and other writings that investigators were examining, Police Chief John Drake told reporters.

The latest in an epidemic of deadly mass gun violence that has come to routinely terrorize even the most cherished of U.S. institutions unfolded on a warm spring morning at The Covenant School, whose students consist mostly of elementary school-age children, read the report.

Drake identified the suspect as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, a resident of the Nashville area, and referred to the assailant by female pronouns. The chief said the suspect identified as transgender but provided no further clarity.

The Tennessean newspaper cited a police spokesperson as saying Hale used he/him pronouns. Hale used male pronouns on a LinkedIn page that listed recent jobs in graphic design and grocery delivery.

Police later released a school video showing the assailant blasting through glass doors with gunfire and roaming the halls, pointing a semi-automatic rifle. Hale wore a black vest over a white T-shirt, camouflage pants and a backwards red baseball cap in a video that showed only the shooter in the frame.

Addressing an early evening news conference, Drake said police were working on a theory about what may have precipitated the shooting and would “put that out as soon as we can.” He said the suspect had no known prior criminal history.

In a subsequent NBC News television interview, Drake said investigators believed the shooting stemmed from “some resentment” the suspect harbored “for having to go to that school” as a younger person.

The police chief did not specify the nature of such presumed resentment, or whether it had anything to do with the suspect’s gender identity or the Christian orientation of the school. Drake said the school was singled out for attack but the individual victims were targeted at random.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department began receiving calls at 10:13 a.m. of a shooter at the school, and arriving officers reported hearing gunfire coming from the building’s second floor, police spokesperson Don Aaron told reporters.

Two officers from a five-member team shot the assailant in a lobby area, and the suspect was pronounced dead by 10:27 a.m.

“The police department response was swift,” Aaron said.

Police said the suspect was armed with two assault-type guns and a 9 mm pistol, Reuters reported.

The victims were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all age 9, along with staffers Mike Hill, 61, a school custodian, Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher, and Katherine Koonce, 60, listed on the Covenant website as “head of school.”

Reacting in Washington to the latest school shooting, President Joe Biden urged the U.S. Congress again to pass tougher gun reform legislation, read the report.

“It’s sick,” Biden said, addressing the issue during an event at the White House and urging Congress again to pass a ban on assault-style weapons. “We have to do more to stop gun violence. It’s ripping our communities apart, ripping the soul of this nation.”

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said on Twitter that her office stands “ready to assist” those affected by the shooting.

But Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late Nashville country music star Johnny Cash and a singer-songwriter in her own right, responded by criticizing Blackburn’s ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby.

“You vote against every common sense gun control bill that comes across your desk, you’ve taken over $1 million from the NRA and you rank 14th in all Congress for NRA contributions. Spare us the hand-wringing,” Cash said on Twitter.

At the state level, Tennessee in 2021 did away with its permit requirement for carrying a concealed handgun and now allows anyone aged 21 and older to carry a firearm, either openly or concealed, without a permit, as long as they are legally allowed to purchase the weapon.

Possessing a handgun is outlawed in Tennessee for anybody who has been convicted of a felony offense involving violence or drugs, Reuters reported.

The Covenant School, founded in 2001, is a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville with about 200 students, according to the school’s website. It serves preschool through sixth graders and held an active shooter training program in 2022, WTVF-TV reported.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper expressed sympathy for the victims and wrote on social media that his city “joined the dreaded, long list of communities to experience a school shooting.”

There have been 89 school shootings – defined as any incident in which a gun is discharged on school property – in the U.S. in 2023, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, a website founded by researcher David Riedman. Last year saw 303 such incidents, the highest of any year in the database, which goes back to 1970.

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NATO criticizes Putin for ‘dangerous and irresponsible’ nuclear rhetoric

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(Last Updated On: March 27, 2023)

NATO on Sunday criticized Vladimir Putin for what it called his “dangerous and irresponsible” nuclear rhetoric, a day after the Russian president said he would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Putin announced the move on Saturday and likened it to the US stationing its weapons in Europe, while insisting that Russia would not violate its nuclear non-proliferation promises, Reuters reported.

Although the move was not unexpected, it is one of Russia’s most pronounced nuclear signals since the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, and Ukraine called for a meeting of the UN Security Council in response.

While Washington, the world’s other nuclear superpower, played down concerns about Putin’s announcement, NATO said the Russian president’s non-proliferation pledge and his description of US weapons deployment overseas were way off the mark.

“Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments,” a NATO spokesperson said in emailed comments to Reuters on Sunday.

“Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments, most recently suspending its participation in the New START Treaty,” the unnamed spokesperson said.

New START caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy, and the deployment of land and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.

A top security adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Oleksiy Danilov, said Russia’s plan would also destabilize Belarus, which he said had been taken “hostage” by Moscow.

Experts said Russia’s move was significant since it had until now been proud that unlike the United States, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders. It may be the first time since the mid-1990s that it has done so, Reuters reported.

Another senior Zelenskiy adviser on Sunday scoffed at Putin’s plan, saying the Russian leader is “too predictable”.

“Making a statement about tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, he admits that he is afraid of losing and all he can do is scare with tactics,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

Washington appeared to see no change in the potential for Moscow to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, and it and NATO said the news would not affect their own nuclear position.

“We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own,” the NATO spokesperson wrote.

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