US expects South Korea and Japan to manage ties with China at summit amid growing differences

WASHINGTON — Ahead of a trilateral summit involving South Korea, Japan, and China this weekend in Seoul, Washington said it expects the event to be an opportunity for its two allies to manage their relations with Beijing.

“The United States respects the ability of nations to make sovereign decisions in the best interests of their people,” said a spokesperson for the State Department.

“Just as the United States takes steps to responsibly manage our relationship with the PRC, so do our partners and allies,” the spokesperson continued in an email to VOA’s Korean Service on May 15. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is China’s official name.

The summit would come amid a heightened tension between Washington and Beijing over trade  and after China agreed with Russia to establish a “new era” partnership to create “a multipolar world order” during their summit last week.

The three East Asian countries are expected to hold their summit from May 26 to 27, but the official dates have not been announced. Chinese Premier Li Qiang is expected to attend in place of Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The meeting would be their first trilateral summit since December 2019.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on May 14 that Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul should be main drivers responsible for regional stability and security.

Pointing out what Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after a trilateral foreign ministers meeting in November, Pengyu said the three countries need to “address differences and disputes in peaceful ways” and “act as front runner of East Asia cooperation.”

Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing are planning to discuss trade and investment, peace and security, and science and technology, among other items and include in a joint statement their cooperation on economic issues and infectious diseases, according to the Japan Times, citing Japanese government sources Sunday.

Former U.S. officials said while it will be important for the three countries to meet and talk at the summit, differences that Seoul and Tokyo have with Beijing on North Korea are unlikely to be resolved.

“With China determined to establish a new China-centric regional order and because of Beijing’s open-ended support for the DPRK, we should not expect progress on this issue,” said Evans Revere, a State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

“Nevertheless, it is important for South Korea and Japan to use this summit to convey their strong concerns,” Revere continued.

At a bilateral summit last week, Beijing and Moscow criticized Washington and its allies for their “intimidation in the military sphere” against North Korea.

 

Zhao Leji, who ranks third in the Chinese Communist Party, visited Pyongyang in April and agreed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to boost cooperation on mutual concerns. It was the highest-level talks the two countries had held in years.

The upcoming summit comes after trilateral cooperation was agreed among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo at their Camp David summit in August 2023 to strengthen their deterrence against North Korean threats and to defend a free and open Indo-Pacific against Chinese aggressions.

Joseph DeTrani, who served as the U.S. special envoy for six-party denuclearization talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006, said, “China will ask that the ROK and Japan not to align with the U.S. against China, an issue that wasn’t on the table in 2019.”

South Korea’s official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).

DeTrani said Seoul and Tokyo will “try to get China to convince North Korea to cease providing arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine” and “to use its leverage” with Pyongyang “to halt ballistic missile launches.”

Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong Un, denied Pyongyang’s arms dealings with Moscow, according to state-run KCNA on Friday. The same day, North Korea launched a tactical ballistic missile, said KCNA. 

Gary Samore, who served as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said the summit will become “an opportunity for communication” among Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to avoid conflict, but the differences that grew among them since 2019 will not be resolved as South Korea and Japan “leaned in the direction of cooperating with the U.S.”

Eunjung Cho contributed to this report.

 

White House welcomes Kenya for first African state visit

The White House — The White House says it chose Kenya for its first state visit for an African leader for many reasons — not least because the East African powerhouse has stepped up on the global stage, offering to staff a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Haiti that could see boots on the ground as early as this week. 

VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell sat down with Frances Brown, the newly appointed director for African affairs at the National Security Council, ahead of a state visit by Kenyan President William Ruto. They discussed a range of issues, including technology, climate management, debt relief, democracy, health and more. 

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: In a few days, President Joe Biden hosts Kenyan President William Ruto at the White House, his first African leader for a state visit. Why was Kenya chosen and what deliverables can we expect?

Frances Brown, NSC director for African affairs: We chose Kenya for a few reasons. No. 1 is the Kenya-U.S. partnership has really grown from a regionally focused one to a globally focused one. … and we see a lot of complementarities in terms of what we’re trying to do on climate. What we’re trying to do on debt for the developing world, and on security issues. 

The second reason we wanted to have this state visit with Kenya is that we are both democracies, and our bond is very deep as democracies, and our bond is very deep on people-to-people ties. 

The third reason is that Kenya and the U.S. really work similarly in terms of bringing in the private sector to solve global challenges. So, we’ll be talking a lot about those. The deliverables you’ll see are in the realms of technology, clean energy and climate transition, of debt relief, of democracy, of people-to-people ties and on health-related issues. 

VOA: Kenya hopes to soon have peacekeepers in Haiti. Why is this so important to the administration? 

Brown: We do really welcome the Kenyans raising their hand to help lead this multinational security support mission in Haiti, because it’s kind of an example of what I just mentioned of Kenya raising its hand to solve problems even outside of its region. … As you may know, there’s been planning under way for a number of months. It has included policing experts from around the world working to develop a concept of operations. Kenya is not going it alone. The U.S. has provided $300 million towards this, so it’s a big thing for us. 

VOA: Are there any other security agreements these two countries might come up with during the state visit?

Brown: I would say watch this space, because I think security cooperation with Kenya is a really important plank.

VOA: Is it going to be focused on threats from Somalia or from other parts of East Africa?

Brown: The U.S. and Kenya have long cooperated on Somalia. I think you can look for security-related announcements that go beyond that.

VOA: U.S. troops are pulling out of the Sahel and the so-called “Coup Belt.” What are the concerns the administration has about security in the Sahel region, especially as Russia expands its footprint there? 

Brown: As has been widely reported, we are making an orderly withdrawal from Niger. I will say that is pretty consistent with our administration’s [counterterrorism] posture in general that we have made changes to our posture that are consistent with our CT policy. It is no secret that democracy is on the backfoot in a lot of places globally. 

If you talk to democracy scholars, democracy is on something like its 20th year of global decline. So, Africa is not alone in this regard. The Biden administration is focused on lifting up and partnering with democracies to help them deliver. 

You may have seen USAID’s initiative on democracy delivering. We’re working with a few African countries on that. And I think this is, again, something that we’ll be talking a lot to the Kenyans with, because President Ruto has talked about the imperative of democracy delivering. 

VOA: Regarding issues of trade and the African Growth and Opportunity Act — obviously, this is going to be a decision made by Congress, but how does the administration feel about the benefits of trade and of barrier-free trade with the United States?

Brown: President Biden has been really vocal that he sees AGOA reauthorization and AGOA modernization as a huge priority. It has been huge, I think from our perspective, but also from the perspective of the region. It’s something we hear a lot about from our Kenyan partners. We do look to Congress for that. But as you know, reauthorization is due next year, and obviously we hope that things can get in motion before then.

VOA: The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — which has been a literal lifesaver for people around the African continent — is up for renewal next year. How does the White House see this program as contributing to national security?

Brown: We see PEPFAR as essential. And as you know, PEPFAR has been supported with bipartisan congressional support and across administrations since the George W. Bush initiative initially. We think PEPFAR is delivering for people across the continent, and we’ve been proud to support it, and we look for reauthorization.

VOA: When is President Biden going to visit Africa, and where will he go?

Brown: So, I cannot make news at this moment by announcing presidential travel. But what I will say is thus far, I think President Biden’s commitment to the relationship with the continent is pretty clear. If you think about Kenya, it’s the first state visit that we’re giving to a non-G20 country this term. There’s only been five other state visits. … But then you just look at the steady stream of Cabinet official travels to the continent over the past two years — by our count, there’s 24 principals or Cabinet-level officials who’ve made that trip, all of them bringing their own agenda. 

I’d also say just in terms of the other ways President Biden has shown his commitment, advocating for AU [African Union] membership with the G20 has been huge. Advocating for more African seats and international financial institutions and all the other transformative investment. 

VOA: You’ve just joined the NSC in this capacity. What priorities do you bring to this post?

Brown: I think I see this post as moving forward on the affirmative agenda that President Biden laid out first, and the Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy, which was published at the end of 2021. Then the African Leaders Summit, which came at the end of 2022. There were a lot of initiatives launched by those two events. Now we are running forward on implementation. 

At the same time, of course, at the NSC, the urgent sometimes competes with the important, so of course, we’re seized with managing crises. And we’re really sobered by the crises that are happening in many parts of the continent. So, I see my role as a balance between those two, and I’m thrilled to be on board.

US 2024 election: What to expect in Kentucky’s primaries

washington — All of Donald Trump’s top opponents for the Republican nomination for president dropped out of the race weeks ago, but the whole gang will be back together on Kentucky’s primary ballot Tuesday.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all suspended their campaigns after Kentucky finalized its ballot in January, as did pastor Ryan Binkley.

Trump has easily won nearly every Republican contest so far, but Haley has won a significant number of votes in several recent primaries, including Maryland (20%) and Nebraska (18%) this week.

President Joe Biden’s opponents in Kentucky are author Marianne Williamson and U.S. Representative Dean Phillips. Democrats can also vote for “uncommitted,” which has attracted protest votes in other states.

Kentucky voters will also decide six primaries for the U.S. House. One race to watch is the 4th Congressional District Republican primary. Representative Thomas Massie, who backed DeSantis’ presidential bid and co-sponsored a motion to remove House Speaker Mike Johnson, is facing a challenge from Eric Deters, a staunch Trump supporter. However, Deters hadn’t reported raising any money as of the latest filing deadline and placed fourth in the 2023 gubernatorial primary.

Here’s a look at what to expect on Tuesday. 

Primary day

Kentucky will hold presidential primaries and will also choose nominees for the U.S. House, the state legislature and the state Senate. Polls will close locally at 6 p.m. across the state. However, Kentucky is nearly cut in half by time zones; most of it falls in the Eastern time zone, while 41 counties in the western part of the state are on Central time.  

Who gets to vote 

Kentucky has a closed primary system, which means that only voters registered with a political party may participate in that party’s primary. Democrats may not vote in the Republican primary or vice versa. Independent or unaffiliated voters may not participate in either primary.

Delegate allocation rules

Kentucky Republicans allocate their 46 delegates proportionally to any candidate who receives more than 15% of the vote, meaning any of Trump’s opponents could qualify for delegates. They could also splinter the anti-Trump vote, increasing Trump’s chances of being the only candidate to receive 15% of the vote and therefore the only candidate to receive any delegates. 

Kentucky’s 53 pledged Democratic delegates are allocated according to the national party’s standard rules. Twelve at-large delegates are allocated in proportion to the statewide vote, as are six PLEO delegates, or “party leaders and elected officials.” The state’s six congressional districts have a combined 35 delegates at stake, which are allocated in proportion to the vote results in each district. Candidates must receive at least 15% of the statewide vote to qualify for any statewide delegates, and 15% of the vote in a congressional district to qualify for delegates in that district. 

Decision notes 

While Republican state parties that hold primaries this late in the cycle tend to embrace a winner-takes-all system for delegate allocation, Kentucky Republicans are dividing their delegates proportionally among candidates who receive at least 15% of the vote. 

For signs that a candidate not named Trump could reach that 15% threshold, look to suburban areas like Louisville and Lexington. Those areas — Jefferson and Fayette counties — are also the biggest sources of GOP votes in the state. 

In the 2020 presidential primary, “uncommitted” and Trump were the only two options on the Republican ballot. Statewide, “uncommitted” received 13% of the vote in the GOP primary. In Jefferson County, however, “uncommitted” received 23%. 

In the 4th Congressional District — which runs along the Ohio River, sharing its northern boundary with Indiana and Ohio — the United Democracy Project, a group that has criticized Massie for his record on Israel, had spent $328,672 on the race as of last Tuesday. However, those ads have not supported an alternative candidate. 

The AP does not make projections and will declare a winner only when it’s determined there is no scenario that would allow the trailing candidates to close the gap. If a race has not been called, the AP will continue to cover any newsworthy developments, such as candidate concessions or declarations of victory. In doing so, the AP will make clear that it has not yet declared a winner and explain why. 

Kentucky mandates a recount if the top candidate wins by less than 0.5 percentage point. However, that recount rule does not apply to the presidential race. Candidates can ask for a recanvass of the vote, which entails retabulating the vote totals, if the margin is less than 1 percentage point. However, to request a recount, in which each ballot is hand-counted, a court must approve and prescribe the procedure. 

What do turnout and the advance vote look like? 

As of March 31, there were 3,487,292 registered voters in Kentucky. Of those voters, 43% were Democrats and 46% were Republicans.  

In 2022, 17% of voters cast their ballots before Election Day.  

How long does vote-counting usually take?

In the 2023 primary election, the AP first reported results at 6:03 p.m. Eastern time, or three minutes after the first polls closed. The election night tabulation ended at 9:56 p.m. with about 98% of total votes counted. 

Are we there yet?

As of Tuesday, there will be 168 days until the November general election. 

US agency warns of increasing cyberattacks on water systems

washington — Cyberattacks against U.S. water utilities are becoming more frequent and more severe, the Environmental Protection Agency warned Monday as it issued an enforcement alert urging water systems to take immediate protective action. 

About 70% of utilities inspected by federal officials over the last year violated standards meant to prevent breaches or other intrusions, the agency said. Officials urged even small water systems to improve protections against hacks. Recent cyberattacks by groups affiliated with Russia and Iran have targeted smaller communities. 

Some water systems are falling short in basic ways, the alert said, including failure to change default passwords or cut off system access to former employees. Because water utilities often rely on computer software to operate treatment plants and distribution systems, protecting information technology and process controls is crucial, the EPA said.

Possible impacts of cyberattacks include interruptions to water treatment and storage; damage to pumps and valves; and alteration of chemical levels to hazardous amounts, the agency said. 

“In many cases, systems are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is to have completed a risk assessment of their vulnerabilities that includes cybersecurity and to make sure that plan is available and informing the way they do business,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe. 

Attempts by private groups or individuals to get into a water provider’s network and take down or deface websites aren’t new. More recently, however, attackers have targeted utilities’ operations. 

Geopolitical rivals

Recent attacks are not just by private entities. Some recent hacks of water utilities are linked to geopolitical rivals and could lead to the disruption of the supply of safe water to homes and businesses. 

McCabe named China, Russia and Iran as the countries that are “actively seeking the capability to disable U.S. critical infrastructure, including water and wastewater.” 

Late last year, an Iranian-linked group called “Cyber Av3ngers” targeted multiple organizations including a small Pennsylvania town’s water provider, forcing it to switch from a remote pump to manual operations. They were going after an Israeli-made device used by the utility in the wake of Israel’s war against Hamas. 

Earlier this year, a Russian-linked “hacktivist” tried to disrupt operations at several Texas utilities. 

A cyber group linked to China and known as Volt Typhoon has compromised information technology of multiple critical infrastructure systems, including drinking water, in the United States and its territories, U.S. officials said. Cybersecurity experts believe the China-aligned group is positioning itself for potential cyberattacks in the event of armed conflict or rising geopolitical tensions. 

“By working behind the scenes with these hacktivist groups, now these [nation states] have plausible deniability and they can let these groups carry out destructive attacks. And that to me is a game changer,” said Dawn Cappelli, a cybersecurity expert with the risk management firm Dragos Inc. 

The world’s cyberpowers are believed to have been infiltrating rivals’ critical infrastructure for years, planting malware that could be triggered to disrupt basic services. 

The enforcement alert is meant to emphasize the seriousness of cyberthreats and inform utilities the EPA will continue its inspections and pursue civil or criminal penalties if they find serious problems. 

“We want to make sure that we get the word out to people that, ‘Hey, we are finding a lot of problems here,’ ” McCabe said. 

 

Broader federal effort

Preventing attacks against water providers is part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to combat threats against critical infrastructure. In February, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to protect U.S. ports. Health care systems have been attacked. The White House has pushed electric utilities to increase their defenses, too. EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan have asked states to come up with a plan to combat cyberattacks on drinking water systems. 

“Drinking water and wastewater systems are an attractive target for cyberattacks because they are a lifeline critical infrastructure sector but often lack the resources and technical capacity to adopt rigorous cybersecurity practices,” Regan and Sullivan wrote in a March 18 letter to all 50 U.S. governors. 

Some of the fixes are straightforward, McCabe said. Water providers, for example, shouldn’t use default passwords. They need to develop a risk assessment plan that addresses cybersecurity and set up backup systems. The EPA says it will train water utilities that need help for free. Larger utilities usually have more resources and the expertise to defend against attacks. 

“In an ideal world … we would like everybody to have a baseline level of cybersecurity and be able to confirm that they have that,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “But that’s a long ways away.” 

Some barriers are foundational. The water sector is highly fragmented. There are roughly 50,000 community water providers, most of which serve small towns. Modest staffing and anemic budgets in many places make it hard enough to maintain the basics — providing clean water and keeping up with the latest regulations. 

“Certainly, cybersecurity is part of that, but that’s never been their primary expertise. So, now you’re asking a water utility to develop this whole new sort of department” to handle cyberthreats, said Amy Hardberger, a water expert at Texas Tech University. 

States, industry groups object

The EPA has faced setbacks. States periodically review the performance of water providers. In March 2023, the EPA instructed states to add cybersecurity evaluations to those reviews. If they found problems, the state was supposed to force improvements. 

But Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa, joined by the American Water Works Association and another water industry group, challenged the instructions in court on the ground that EPA didn’t have the authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act. After a court setback, the EPA withdrew its requirements but urged states to take voluntary actions anyway. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires certain water providers to develop plans for some threats and certify they’ve done so. But its power is limited. 

“There’s just no authority for [cybersecurity] in the law,” said Roberson. 

Kevin Morley, manager of federal relations with the American Water Works Association, said some water utilities have components that are connected to the internet — a common but significant vulnerability. Overhauling those systems can be a significant and costly job. And without substantial federal funding, water systems struggle to find resources. 

The industry group has published guidance for utilities and advocates for establishing a new organization of cybersecurity and water experts that would develop new policies and enforce them, in partnership with the EPA. 

“Let’s bring everybody along in a reasonable manner,” Morley said, adding that small and large utilities have different needs and resources.

Supreme Court rejects appeal from Canadian man once held at Guantanamo

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by a Canadian-born former Guantanamo detainee who was seeking to wipe away his war crimes convictions, including for killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

Omar Khadr had waived his right to appeal when he pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges that included murder. But his lawyers argued that a subsequent ruling by the federal appeals court in Washington called into question whether Khadr could have been charged with the crimes in the first place.

A divided three-judge panel ruled that, despite the appellate ruling, Khadr gave up his right to appeal.

Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson did not take part in the Supreme Court’s consideration of Khadr’s appeal because both had dealt with the case while they served as appeals court judges. Jackson explained her recusal from Monday’s order; Kavanaugh did not.

Khadr had been sentenced to eight years in prison plus the time he already had spent in custody, including several years at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he was released in May 2015 pending his appeal of the guilty plea.

A Canadian judge ruled in 2019 that his war crimes sentence had expired.

Khadr was 15 when he was captured by U.S. troops following a firefight at a suspected al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of an American special forces medic, U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer. Khadr, who was suspected of throwing the grenade that killed Speer, was taken to Guantanamo and ultimately charged with war crimes by a military commission.

London court rules WikiLeaks founder Assange can appeal US extradition order 

London — A British court has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can appeal against an order that he be extradited to the U.S. on espionage charges.

Two High Court judges on Monday said Assange has grounds to challenge the U.K. government’s extradition order.

The ruling sets the stage for an appeal process likely to further drag out a years-long legal saga. Assange faces 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago.

The Australian computer expert has spent the last five years in a British high-security prison after taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for seven years.

Assange’s lawyers have argued he was a journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sending him to the U.S., they said, would expose him to a politically motivated prosecution and risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”

The U.S. government says Assange’s actions went way beyond those of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents.

In March, two judges rejected the bulk of Assange’s arguments but said he could take his case to the Court of Appeal unless the U.S. guaranteed he would not face the death penalty if extradited and would have the same free speech protections as a U.S. citizen.

The court said that if Assange couldn’t rely on the First Amendment then it was arguable his extradition would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which also provides free speech and media protections.

The U.S. provided those reassurances, but Assange’s legal team and supporters argue they are not good enough to rely on to send him to the U.S. federal court system because the First Amendment promises fall short. The U.S. said Assange could seek to rely on the amendment but it would be up to a judge to decide whether he could.

Attorney James Lewis, representing the U.S., said Assange’s conduct was “simply unprotected” by the First Amendment.

“No one, neither U.S. citizens nor foreign citizens, are entitled to rely on the First Amendment in relation to publication of illegally obtained national defense information giving the names of innocent sources, to their grave and imminent risk of harm,” Lewis said.

The WikiLeaks founder, who has spent the past five years in a British prison, was not in court to hear his fate being debated. He did not attend for health reasons, Fitzgerald said.

Commuters emerging from a Tube stop near the courthouse couldn’t miss a large sign bearing Assange’s photo and the words, “Publishing is not a crime. War crimes are.” Scores of supporters gathered outside the neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice chanting “Free Julian Assange” and “Press freedom, Assange freedom.”

Some held a large white banner aimed at President Joe Biden, exhorting: “Let him go Joe.”

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said any sentence would likely be much shorter.

Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, which includes seven years spent inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London from 2012 until 2019. He has spent the past five years in a British high-security prison.

His legal team is prepared to ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. But his supporters fear Assange could be transferred before the court in Strasbourg, France, could halt his removal.

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson may also postpone issuing a decision.

 

11 hurt in mass shooting in Savannah, Georgia

SAVANNAH, Ga. — An argument between two women led to a gunfight that left 11 people hurt in a busy tourist area of Savannah, Georgia, late Saturday, one of five weekend shootings in the city, two of which were fatal, authorities said.

Two people were injured in separate shootings Friday. Two more shootings Saturday resulted in two deaths. Then came the gunfire just before midnight Saturday near Savannah’s Ellis Square.

The shooting broke out as two women argued in an area business, according to Police Chief Lenny Gunther, who didn’t name the establishment.

“One shot rang out. That triggered other individuals to shoot,” he said. “We had multiple individuals discharge their weapons to shoot at each other, which resulted in multiple people getting shot.”

Ten of the 11 injured were hit by gunfire. Authorities did not say what caused the 11th injury. Victims were treated at the scene and “several” were taken to a hospital, police said. None of the injuries appeared life threatening.

Mayor Van Johnson said a proliferation of guns was a factor in the shootings and that reasonable gun control laws are needed. He also stressed the need for gun owners to keep their weapons from being stolen and for people carrying guns to know how and when to use them.

“We have to insist on smart gun laws,” Johnson said at a Sunday news conference. “And then, on the other end, we have to insist that people act responsibly with those weapons.”

The mass shooting happened a week ahead of the tourist-heavy Memorial Day weekend. Gunther sought to assure people that police staffing will be sufficient to keep the public safe.

Ellis Square is in Savannah’s historic district, an area popular among tourists and locals. It was developed in 2010 and is known for a large fountain and a life-sized statue of songwriter Johnny Mercer.

The first two of Savannah’s weekend shootings happened Friday. Each of those resulted in a non-life-threatening injury and an arrest. On Saturday, police answering a call about a home invasion found a dead juvenile at the home. Initial reports are that shots were fired after a resident confronted an armed intruder.

Still another shooting was reported at a Savannah intersection Saturday night that left one man dead and a juvenile injured.

Colorado clinic provides Ukrainian refugees with care in own language

Almost half a million Ukrainian immigrants have moved to the U.S. since the start of Russia’s invasion, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Two of the biggest challenges they face are finding health care and a job. In one small Colorado city, a local clinic owner, herself a Ukrainian immigrant, is helping out as much as she can. Svitlana Prystinska has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

China launches anti-dumping probe into EU, US, Japan, Taiwan plastics

Beijing — China’s commerce ministry on Sunday launched an anti-dumping probe into POM copolymers, a type of engineering plastic, imported from the European Union, United States, Japan and Taiwan.

The plastics can partially replace metals such as copper and zinc and have various applications including in auto parts, electronics, and medical equipment, the ministry said in a statement.

The investigation should be completed in a year but could be extended for six months, it said.

The European Commission, which oversees EU trade policy, said it would carefully study the contents of the investigation before deciding on any next steps.

“We expect China to ensure that this investigation is fully in line with all relevant WTO (World Trade Organization) rules and obligations,” a spokesperson said.

China’s plastics probe comes amid a broader trade row with the United States and Europe.

The United States on Tuesday unveiled steep tariff increases on Chinese electric vehicles, or EVs, computer chips, medical products and other imports.

On Friday, the European Union launched a trade investigation into Chinese tinplate steel, the latest in a string of EU trade and subsidy probes into Chinese exports.

Most notably, the European Commission launched a probe last September to decide whether to impose punitive tariffs on cheaper Chinese EVs that it suspects of benefiting from state subsidies.

Beijing argues the recent focus by the United States and Europe on the risks to other economies from China’s excess capacity is misguided.

Chinese officials say the criticism understates innovation by Chinese companies in key industries and overstates the importance of state support in driving their growth.

Pro-Palestinian protesters set up a new encampment at Philadelphia’s Drexel University

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — Pro-Palestinian protesters set up a new encampment at Drexel University in Philadelphia over the weekend, prompting a lockdown of school buildings, a day after authorities thwarted an attempted occupation of a school building at the neighboring University of Pennsylvania campus.

After several hundred demonstrators marched from Philadelphia’s City Hall to west Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, Drexel said in a statement that about 75 protesters began to set up an encampment on the Korman Quad on the campus. About a dozen tents remained Sunday, blocked off by barricades and monitored by police officers. No arrests were reported.

Drexel President John Fry said in a message Saturday night that the encampment “raises understandable concerns about ensuring everyone’s safety,” citing what he called “many well-documented instances of hateful speech and intimidating behavior at other campus demonstrations.” University buildings were “open only to those with clearance from Drexel’s Public Safety,” he said.

Authorities at Drexel, which has about 22,000 students, were monitoring the demonstration to ensure it was peaceful and didn’t disrupt normal operations, and that “participants and passersby will behave respectfully toward one another,” Fry said.

“We will be prepared to respond quickly to any disruptive or threatening behavior by anyone,” Fry said, vowing not to tolerate property destruction, “harassment or intimidation” of students or staff or threatening behavior of any kind, including “explicitly racist, antisemitic, or Islamophobic” speech. Anyone not part of the Drexel community would not be allowed “to trespass into our buildings and student residences,” he said.

On Friday night, members of Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine had announced an action at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher-Bennett Hall, urging supporters to bring “flags, pots, pans, noise-makers, megaphones” and other items.

The university said campus police, supported by city police, removed the demonstrators Friday night, arresting 19 people, including six University of Pennsylvania students. The university’s division of public safety said officials found “lock-picking tools and homemade metal shields,” and exit doors secured with zip ties and barbed wire, windows covered with newspaper and cardboard and entrances blocked.

Authorities said seven people arrested would face felony charges, including one accused of having assaulted an officer, while a dozen were issued citations for failing to disperse and follow police commands.

The attempted occupation of the building came a week after city and campus police broke up a two-week encampment on the campus, arresting 33 people, nine of whom were students and two dozen of whom had “no Penn affiliation,” according to university officials.

On Sunday, dozens of George Washington University graduates walked out of commencement ceremonies, disrupting university President Ellen Granberg’s speech, in protest over the ongoing siege of Gaza and last week’s clearing of an on-campus protest encampment that involved police use of pepper spray and dozens of arrests.

The ceremony, at the base of the Washington Monument, started peacefully with fewer than 100 protesters demonstrating across the street in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture. But as Granberg began speaking, at least 70 students among the graduates started chanting and raising signs and Palestinian flags. The students then noisily walked out as Granberg spoke, crossing the street to a rapturous response from the protesters.

Students and others have set up tent encampments on campuses around the country to protest the Israel-Hamas war, pressing colleges to cut financial ties with Israel. Tensions over the war have been high on campuses since the fall but demonstrations spread quickly following an April 18 police crackdown on an encampment at Columbia University.

Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested on U.S. campuses over the past month. As summer break approaches, there have been fewer new arrests and campuses have been calmer. Still, colleges have been vigilant for disruptions to commencement ceremonies.

President Joe Biden told the graduating class at Morehouse College on Sunday, which included some students wearing keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes, that he heard their voices of protest and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking. Biden said given what he called a “humanitarian crisis” there, he had called for “an immediate cease-fire” and return of hostages taken by Hamas.

The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian militants still hold about 100 captives, while Israel’s military offensive has left more than 35,000 people in Gaza dead, according to the territory’s health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Blue Origin flies thrill seekers to space, including oldest astronaut 

Washington — After a nearly two year hiatus, Blue Origin flew adventurers to space on Sunday including a former Air Force pilot who was denied the chance to be the United States’ first Black astronaut decades ago. 

 

It was the first crewed launch for the enterprise owned and founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos since a rocket mishap in 2022 left rival Virgin Galactic as the sole operator in the fledgling suborbital tourism market. 

 

Six people including the sculptor Ed Dwight, who was on track to become NASA’s first ever astronaut of color in the 1960s before being controversially spurned, launched around 09:36 am local time (1436 GMT) from the Launch Site One base in west Texas, a live feed showed. 

 

Dwight — at 90 years, 8 months and 10 days — became the oldest person to ever go to space. 

 

“This is a life-changing experience, everybody needs to do this,” he exclaimed after the flight. 

 

Dwight added: “I thought I didn’t really need this in my life,” reflecting on his omission from the astronaut corps, which was his first experience with failure as a young man. “But I lied,” he said with a hearty laugh. 

 

Mission NS-25 is the seventh human flight for Blue Origin, which sees short jaunts on the New Shepard suborbital vehicle as a stepping stone to greater ambitions, including the development of a full-fledged heavy rocket and lunar lander. 

 

To date, the company has flown 31 people aboard New Shepard — a small, fully reusable rocket system named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. 

The program encountered a setback when a New Shepard rocket caught fire shortly after launch on September 12, 2022, even though the uncrewed capsule ejected safely. 

 

A federal investigation revealed an overheating engine nozzle was at fault. Blue Origin took corrective steps and carried out a successful uncrewed launch in December 2023, paving the way for Sunday’s mission. 

 

After liftoff, the sleek and roomy capsule separated from the booster, which produces zero carbon emissions. The rocket performed a precision vertical landing. 

 

As the spaceship soared beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space 100 kilometers above sea level, passengers had the chance to marvel at the Earth’s curvature and unbuckle their seatbelts to float — or somersault — during a few minutes of weightlessness. 

 

The capsule then reentered the atmosphere, deploying its parachutes for a desert landing in a puff of sand. However, one of the three parachutes failed to fully inflate, possibly resulting in a harder landing than expected. 

 

Bezos himself was on the program’s first ever crewed flight in 2021. A few months later, Star Trek’s William Shatner blurred the lines between science fiction and reality when he became the world’s oldest ever astronaut aged 90, decades after he first played a space traveler. 

 

Dwight, who was almost two months older than Shatner at the time of his flight, became only the second nonagenarian to venture beyond Earth. 

 

Astronaut John Glenn remains the oldest to orbit the planet, a feat he achieved in 1998 at the age 77 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. 

 

Blue Origin’s competitor in suborbital space is Virgin Galactic, which deploys a supersonic spaceplane that is dropped from beneath the wings of a massive carrier plane at high altitude. 

 

Virgin Galactic experienced its own two-year safety pause because of an anomaly linked with the 2021 flight that carried its founder British tycoon Richard Branson into space. But the company later hit its stride with half a dozen successful flights in quick succession. 

 

Sunday’s mission finally gave Dwight the chance he was denied decades ago. 

 

He was an elite test pilot when he was appointed by President John F Kennedy to join a highly competitive Air Force program known as a pathway for the astronaut corps, but was ultimately not picked. 

 

He left the military in 1966, citing the strain of racial politics, before dedicating his life to telling Black history through sculpture. His art, displayed around the country, includes iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and more. 

Diddy admits beating ex-girlfriend Cassie, says he’s sorry, calls his actions ‘inexcusable’  

Los Angeles — Sean “Diddy” Combs admitted that he beat his ex-girlfriend Cassie in a hotel hallway in 2016 after CNN released video of the attack, saying in a video apology he was “truly sorry” and his actions were “inexcusable.” 

“I take full responsibility for my actions in that video. I was disgusted then when I did it. I’m disgusted now,” the music mogul said in a video statement posted Sunday to Instagram and Facebook. 

The video aired by CNN Friday shows Combs, wearing only a white towel, punching and kicking Cassie, an R&B singer who was his protege and longtime girlfriend at the time. The footage also shows Combs shoving and dragging Cassie, and throwing a vase in her direction. 

Cassie, whose legal name is Cassandra Ventura, sued Combs in November over what she said was years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The suit was settled the next day, but spurred intense scrutiny of Combs, with several more lawsuits filed in the following months, along with a federal criminal sex-trafficking investigation that led authorities to raid Combs’ mansions in Los Angeles and Miami. 

He denied the allegations in the lawsuits, but neither he nor his representatives had responded to the newly emerged video until Sunday. 

“It’s so difficult to reflect on the darkest times in your life, but sometimes you got to do that,” Diddy says on the video. He adds, “I was disgusted then when I did it. I’m disgusted now. I went and I sought out professional help. I got into going to therapy, going to rehab. I had to ask God for his mercy and grace. I’m so sorry. But I’m committed to be a better man each and every day. I’m not asking for forgiveness. I’m truly sorry.” 

Combs is looking somber and wearing a T-shirt in the selfie-style apology video, and appears to be on a patio. 

The security camera video, dated March 5, 2016, closely resembles the description of an incident at an InterContinental Hotel in the Century City area of Los Angeles described in Ventura’ lawsuit. 

The suit alleges that Combs paid the hotel $50,000 for the security video immediately after the incident. Neither he or his representatives have addressed that specific allegation. CNN did not say how it obtained the footage. 

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange facing pivotal moment in long fight to stay out of US court 

London — The host of a news conference about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition fight wryly welcomed journalists last week to the “millionth” press briefing on his court case.

Deborah Bonetti, director of the Foreign Press Association, was only half joking. Assange’s legal saga has dragged on for well over a decade but it could come to an end in the U.K. as soon as Monday. 

Assange faces a hearing in London’s High Court that could end with him being sent to the U.S. to face espionage charges, or provide him another chance to appeal his extradition.

The outcome will depend on how much weight judges give to reassurances U.S. officials have provided that Assange’s rights won’t be trampled if he goes on trial.

Here’s a look at the case:

What Assange is charged with

Assange, 52, an Australian computer expert, has been indicted in the U.S. on 18 charges over Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010.

Prosecutors say he conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He faces 17 counts of espionage and one charge of computer misuse. If convicted, his lawyers say he could receive a prison term of up to 175 years, though American authorities have said any sentence is likely to be much lower.

Assange and his supporters argue he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. military wrongdoing and is protected under press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

“Julian has been indicted for receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public of evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. government,” his wife, Stella Assange, said. “Reporting a crime is never a crime.”

U.S. lawyers say Assange is guilty of trying to hack the Pentagon computer and that WikiLeaks’ publications created a “grave and imminent risk” to U.S. intelligence sources in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Why the case has dragged on so long

While the U.S. criminal case against Assange was only unsealed in 2019, his freedom has been restricted for a dozen years.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country.

He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison while the extradition battle with the U.S. continues.

His wife said his mental and physical health have deteriorated behind bars.

“He’s fighting to survive and that’s a daily battle,” she said.

A judge in London initially blocked Assange’s transfer to the U.S. in 2021 on the grounds he was likely to kill himself if held in harsh American prison conditions.

But subsequent courts cleared the way for the move after U.S. authorities provided assurances he wouldn’t experience the severe treatment that his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.

The British government authorized Assange’s extradition in 2022.

What the latest hearing is about

Assange’s lawyers raised nine grounds for appeal at a hearing in February, including the allegation that his prosecution is political.  

The court accepted three of his arguments, issuing a provisional ruling in March that said Assange could take his case to the Court of Appeal unless the U.S. guaranteed he would not face the death penalty if extradited and would have the same free speech protections as a U.S. citizen.

The U.S. provided those reassurances three weeks later, though his supporters are skeptical.

Stella Assange said the “so-called assurances” were made up of “weasel words.”

WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the judges had asked if Assange could rely on First Amendment protections.

“It should be an easy yes or no question,” Hrafnsson said. “The answer was, ‘He can seek to rely on First Amendment protections.’ That is a ‘no.’ So the only rational decision on Monday is for the judges to come out and say, ‘This is not good enough.’ Anything else is a judicial scandal.”

The possible outcome

If Assange prevails, it would set the stage for an appeal process likely to further drag out the case.

If an appeal is rejected, his legal team plans to ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. But his supporters fear Assange could possibly be transferred before the court in Strasbourg, France, could halt his removal.

“Julian is just one decision away from being extradited,” his wife said.

Assange, who hopes to be in court Monday, has been encouraged by the work others have done in the political fight to free him, his wife said.

If he loses in court, he still may have another shot at freedom.

President Joe Biden said last month that he was considering a request from Australia to drop the case and let Assange return to his home country.

Officials have no other details but Stella Assange said it was “a good sign” and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the comment was encouraging.

Botanists scour US-Mexico border to document forgotten ecosystem split by giant wall

JACUMÉ, Mexico — Near the towering border wall flanked by a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle, botanist Sula Vanderplank heard a quail in the scrub yelp “chi-ca-go,” a sound the birds use to signal they are separated from a mate or group.

Then silence.

A quail on the Mexican side called back, triggering a back-and-forth soundtrack that was both fitting and heartbreaking in an ecosystem split by an artificial barrier.

Vanderplank was among several botanists and citizen scientists participating in the Border Bioblitz near the Mexican community of Jacumé, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Tijuana.

Roughly 1,000 volunteers armed with the iNaturalist app on their smartphones are documenting as many species as possible along the U.S.-Mexico border in May. Uploading photos to the app helps identify plants and animals, and records the coordinates of the location. 

The hope is the information could lead to more protections for the region’s natural richness, which is overshadowed by news of drug trafficking and migrant smuggling.

On a recent day, Bioblitz volunteers scrutinized a bright yellow blooming carpet of common Goldfields, a sharp contrast to the imposing steel bollards of the border wall topped with rolls of razor wire. Some navigated their way around piles of empty water jugs, a gray hoodie and empty cans of tuna fish left under the branches of native flora like the Tecate Cypress.

“There’s a fabulous amount of biodiversity here that’s traditionally been overlooked,” Vanderplank, of the binational program Baja Rare, said.

The efforts started in response to former President Donald Trump adding hundreds of miles of border walls that toppled untold numbers of saguaro cactuses in Arizona and passed through the biodiversity hotspot of Baja California.

“When the border wall construction began, we realized how little hard data we had, especially when it came to plants and small organisms,” Vanderplank said. “We don’t know what all we could lose.”

Since then, there has been a groundswell of initiatives to document the borderland’s flora and fauna as climate change coupled with habitat loss, pollution and development have hammered the world’s biodiversity. One estimate in 2019 warns that a million plant and animal species face extinction within decades, a rate of loss 1,000 times greater than expected.

The United Nations is expected hold a high-level meeting in Colombia of signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity in October aiming to protect 30% of land, freshwater and oceans considered important for biodiversity by 2030, known as 30 by 30. Representatives from nearly 200 countries are expected to present plans on how they will meet conservation targets agreed upon in 2022.

Currently, 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine areas are protected. 

Baja California peninsula, which borders California and is home to Tijuana with one of Mexico’s highest homicide rates, has more than 4,000 species of plants. A quarter of them are endemic and at least 400 plants are considered rare with little to no protection.

Flora and fauna that have gone extinct or are in danger of disappearing in the U.S., like the California red-legged frog, are thriving south of the border, producing specimens that are being used to bring back populations.

But the region’s crime deters many U.S. scientists from crossing the border. Mexico also is restricting permits for botanists and not allowing seeds to be collected, further curtailing the work, scientists say.

Bioblitz organizers work with local communities and say they take people only to areas deemed safe.

“You have to be really careful because of the violence,” said Jon Rebman, a curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum, who has named 33 new plants for science from the southern California and Baja California region.

“It’s scary from that standpoint, yet those are the areas where we really need more information because there’s hardly any protected area on the south side,” he said.

Using the museum’s collection, Rebman made a list of 15 plant species endemic to Baja California and not seen since being collected nearly a century ago. He created a binational team to find them. So far, they have located 11.

Rebman also discovered two new plants to science in 2021 in a canyon off a Tijuana highway: the new species, Astragalus tijuanensis, and a new variety of the Astragalus brauntonii named lativexillum.

“I was worried they would go extinct before we even got them named,” Rebman said. “That tells you what type of area we’re working in.”

Tijuana-based botanist Mariana Fernandez of Expediciones Botánicas periodically checks on the plants. Working with Rebman, she is pushing Baja California to adopt more protections for its native plants. Currently only a fraction are on Mexico’s federal protection list. 

She hopes the state will step in, while she also tries to build support by taking Tijuana residents and Baja officials on hikes.

“People are amazed that these things exist in Tijuana, and I hope to show more and more people so they can see the beauty, because we need that,” Fernandez said. “It’s important to not be impeded by the barriers that humans create.”

As border security increases with the number of people being displaced by natural disasters, violence and wars at record levels worldwide, more migrants are traipsing out to areas like the stretch near Jacumé. The tiny community of about 100 families includes members of the Kumeyaay tribe and sits across the border from an equally sparsely populated desert near the California town of Jacumba Hot Springs. Population: about 1,000.

The area has seen thousands of asylum seekers who wait for an opportunity to cross, usually in the cloak of darkness, and then camp again on the U.S. side after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Fernandez was among the botanists helping Bioblitz volunteers on the Mexican side near a crumbling crossing station from the 1920s.

“I never would have thought that there would be so much biodiversity on the border,” said Jocelyn Reyes, a student of Fernandez at La Universidad Autónoma de Baja California who stopped every few feet to hover over a plant and photograph its details. “It’s so interesting and makes you realize there’s so much worth saving.” 

Illness took away her voice. AI created a replica she carries in her phone

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — The voice Alexis “Lexi” Bogan had before last summer was exuberant.

She loved to belt out Taylor Swift and Zach Bryan ballads in the car. She laughed all the time — even while corralling misbehaving preschoolers or debating politics with friends over a backyard fire pit. In high school, she was a soprano in the chorus.

Then that voice was gone.

Doctors in August removed a life-threatening tumor lodged near the back of her brain. When the breathing tube came out a month later, Bogan had trouble swallowing and strained to say “Hi” to her parents. Months of rehabilitation aided her recovery, but her speech is still impaired. Friends, strangers and her own family members struggle to understand what she is trying to tell them.

In April, the 21-year-old got her old voice back. Not the real one, but a voice clone generated by artificial intelligence that she can summon from a phone app. Trained on a 15-second time capsule of her teenage voice — sourced from a cooking demonstration video she recorded for a high school project — her synthetic but remarkably real-sounding AI voice can now say almost anything she wants.

She types a few words or sentences into her phone and the app instantly reads it aloud.

“Hi, can I please get a grande iced brown sugar oat milk shaken espresso,” said Bogan’s AI voice as she held the phone out her car’s window at a Starbucks drive-thru.

Experts have warned that rapidly improving AI voice-cloning technology can amplify phone scams, disrupt democratic elections and violate the dignity of people — living or dead — who never consented to having their voice recreated to say things they never spoke.

It’s been used to produce deepfake robocalls to New Hampshire voters mimicking President Joe Biden. In Maryland, authorities recently charged a high school athletic director with using AI to generate a fake audio clip of the school’s principal making racist remarks.

But Bogan and a team of doctors at Rhode Island’s Lifespan hospital group believe they’ve found a use that justifies the risks. Bogan is one of the first people — the only one with her condition — who have been able to recreate a lost voice with OpenAI’s new Voice Engine. Some other AI providers, such as the startup ElevenLabs, have tested similar technology for people with speech impediments and loss — including a lawyer who now uses her voice clone in the courtroom.

“We’re hoping Lexi’s a trailblazer as the technology develops,” said Dr. Rohaid Ali, a neurosurgery resident at Brown University’s medical school and Rhode Island Hospital. Millions of people with debilitating strokes, throat cancer or neurogenerative diseases could benefit, he said.

“We should be conscious of the risks, but we can’t forget about the patient and the social good,” said Dr. Fatima Mirza, another resident working on the pilot. “We’re able to help give Lexi back her true voice and she’s able to speak in terms that are the most true to herself.”

Mirza and Ali, who are married, caught the attention of ChatGPT-maker OpenAI because of their previous research project at Lifespan using the AI chatbot to simplify medical consent forms for patients. The San Francisco company reached out while on the hunt earlier this year for promising medical applications for its new AI voice generator.

Bogan was still slowly recovering from surgery. The illness started last summer with headaches, blurry vision and a droopy face, alarming doctors at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence. They discovered a vascular tumor the size of a golf ball pressing on her brain stem and entangled in blood vessels and cranial nerves.

“It was a battle to get control of the bleeding and get the tumor out,” said pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Konstantina Svokos.

The tumor’s location and severity coupled with the complexity of the 10-hour surgery damaged Bogan’s control of her tongue muscles and vocal cords, impeding her ability to eat and talk, Svokos said.

“It’s almost like a part of my identity was taken when I lost my voice,” Bogan said.

The feeding tube came out this year. Speech therapy continues, enabling her to speak intelligibly in a quiet room but with no sign she will recover the full lucidity of her natural voice.

“At some point, I was starting to forget what I sounded like,” Bogan said. “I’ve been getting so used to how I sound now.”

Whenever the phone rang at the family’s home in the Providence suburb of North Smithfield, she would push it over to her mother to take her calls. She felt she was burdening her friends whenever they went to a noisy restaurant. Her dad, who has hearing loss, struggled to understand her.

Back at the hospital, doctors were looking for a pilot patient to experiment with OpenAI’s technology.

“The first person that came to Dr. Svokos’ mind was Lexi,” Ali said. “We reached out to Lexi to see if she would be interested, not knowing what her response would be. She was game to try it out and see how it would work.”

Bogan had to go back a few years to find a suitable recording of her voice to “train” the AI system on how she spoke. It was a video in which she explained how to make a pasta salad.

Her doctors intentionally fed the AI system just a 15-second clip. Cooking sounds make other parts of the video imperfect. It was also all that OpenAI needed — an improvement over previous technology requiring much lengthier samples.

They also knew that getting something useful out of 15 seconds could be vital for any future patients who have no trace of their voice on the internet. A brief voicemail left for a relative might have to suffice.

When they tested it for the first time, everyone was stunned by the quality of the voice clone. Occasional glitches — a mispronounced word, a missing intonation — were mostly imperceptible. In April, doctors equipped Bogan with a custom-built phone app that only she can use.

“I get so emotional every time I hear her voice,” said her mother, Pamela Bogan, tears in her eyes.

“I think it’s awesome that I can have that sound again,” added Lexi Bogan, saying it helped “boost my confidence to somewhat where it was before all this happened.”

She now uses the app about 40 times a day and sends feedback she hopes will help future patients. One of her first experiments was to speak to the kids at the preschool where she works as a teaching assistant. She typed in “ha ha ha ha” expecting a robotic response. To her surprise, it sounded like her old laugh.

She’s used it at Target and Marshall’s to ask where to find items. It’s helped her reconnect with her dad. And it’s made it easier for her to order fast food.

Bogan’s doctors have started cloning the voices of other willing Rhode Island patients and hope to bring the technology to hospitals around the world. OpenAI said it is treading cautiously in expanding the use of Voice Engine, which is not yet publicly available.

A number of smaller AI startups already sell voice-cloning services to entertainment studios or make them more widely available. Most voice-generation vendors say they prohibit impersonation or abuse, but they vary in how they enforce their terms of use.

“We want to make sure that everyone whose voice is used in the service is consenting on an ongoing basis,” said Jeff Harris, OpenAI’s lead on the product. “We want to make sure that it’s not used in political contexts. So we’ve taken an approach of being very limited in who we’re giving the technology to.”

Harris said OpenAI’s next step involves developing a secure “voice authentication” tool so that users can replicate only their own voice. That might be “limiting for a patient like Lexi, who had sudden loss of her speech capabilities,” he said. “So we do think that we’ll need to have high-trust relationships, especially with medical providers, to give a little bit more unfettered access to the technology.”

Bogan has impressed her doctors with her focus on thinking about how the technology could help others with similar or more severe speech impediments.

“Part of what she has done throughout this entire process is think about ways to tweak and change this,” Mirza said. “She’s been a great inspiration for us.”

While for now she must fiddle with her phone to get the voice engine to talk, Bogan imagines an AI voice engine that improves upon older remedies for speech recovery — such as the robotic-sounding electrolarynx or a voice prosthesis — in melding with the human body or translating words in real time.

She’s less sure about what will happen as she grows older and her AI voice continues to sound like she did as a teenager. Maybe the technology could “age” her AI voice, she said.

For now, “even though I don’t have my voice fully back, I have something that helps me find my voice again,” she said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters rally in Washington to mark painful past, present

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of protesters rallied within sight of the U.S. Capitol, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and voicing criticism of the Israeli and American governments as they marked a painful present — the war in Gaza — and past — the exodus of about 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from what is now Israel when the state was created in 1948. 

About 400 demonstrators braved steady rains to rally on the National Mall on the 76th anniversary of what is called the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe. In January, thousands of pro-Palestinian activists had gathered in the nation’s capital in one of the larger protests in recent memory. 

There were calls in support of Palestinian rights and an immediate end to Israeli military operations in Gaza. “No peace on stolen land” and “End the killings, stop the crime/Israel out of Palestine,” echoed through the crowd. 

Protesters also focused their anger on President Joe Biden, whom they accuse of feigning concern over the death toll in Gaza. 

“Biden Biden, you will see/genocide’s your legacy,” they said. The Democratic president was in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday. 

Reem Lababdi, a George Washington University sophomore who said she was pepper-sprayed by police last week when they broke up an on-campus protest encampment, acknowledged that the rain seemed to hold down the numbers. 

“I’m proud of every single person who turned out in this weather to speak their minds and send their message,” she said. 

This year’s commemoration was fueled by anger over the ongoing siege of Gaza. The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian militants still hold about 100 captives, and Israel’s military has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. 

Speaker Osama Abuirshad, executive director of American Muslims for Palestine, gestured at the Capitol building dome behind him. 

“This Congress does not speak for us. This Congress does not represent the will of the people,” he said. “We’re paying for the bombs. We’re paying for the F-16s and F-35s. And then we do the poor Palestinians a favor and send some food.” 

Speakers also expressed anger over the violent crackdown on multiple pro-Palestinian protest camps at universities across the country. In recent weeks, long-term encampments have been broken up by police at more than 60 schools; just under 3,000 protesters have been arrested. 

The demonstrators marched for several blocks on Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, with police cars closing the streets ahead of them. One lone counter-protester, waving an Israeli flag, attempted to march near the front of the procession. At one point, one of the demonstrators snatched his flag and ran away. 

With tensions rising, members of the protesters’ “safety team” formed a tight phalanx around the man, both to impede his progress and protect him from the crowd. The standoff was broken up when a police officer intervened, led the man away and told him to go home. 

Heat poses new risk for thousands without power after deadly Texas storm

houston, texas — As the Houston, Texas, area works to clean up and restore power to hundreds of thousands after deadly storms left at least seven people dead, it will do so amid a smog warning and scorching temperatures that could pose health risks.

National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Chenard said Saturday that highs of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 Celsius) were expected through the start of the coming week, with heat indexes likely approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) by midweek.

“We expect the impact of the heat to gradually increase … we will start to see that heat risk increase Tuesday into Wednesday through Friday,” Chenard said.

The heat index is what the temperature feels like to the human body when humidity is combined with the air temperature, according to the weather service.

“Don’t overdo yourself during the cleanup process,” the weather service’s Houston office said in a post on the social platform X.

In addition to the heat, the Houston area could face poor air quality during the weekend.

Heavy rainfall was possible in eastern Louisiana and central Alabama on Saturday, and parts of Louisiana were also at risk of flooding.

The Houston Health Department said it would distribute 400 free portable air conditioners to area seniors, people with disabilities, and caregivers of disabled children to contend with the heat.

Five cooling centers also were opened — four in Houston and one in Kingwood.

Hundreds of thousands without power

The widespread destruction of Thursday’s storms brought much of Houston to a standstill. Thunderstorms and hurricane-force winds tore through the city — decimating the facade of one brick building and leaving trees, debris and shattered glass on the streets. A tornado also touched down near the northwest Houston suburb of Cypress.

More than a half-million homes and businesses in Texas remained without electricity by midday Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us. Another 21,000 customers were also without power in Louisiana, where strong winds and a suspected tornado hit.

CenterPoint Energy, which has deployed 1,000 employees to the area and is requesting 5,000 more, said power restoration could take several days or longer in some areas, and that customers need to ensure their homes can safely be reconnected.

“In addition to damaging CenterPoint Energy’s electric infrastructure and equipment, severe weather may have caused damage to customer-owned equipment” such as the weatherhead, which is where power enters the home, the company said.

Customers must have repairs completed by a qualified electrician before service can be restored, CenterPoint added.

High-voltage transmission towers that were torn apart and downed power lines pose a twofold challenge for utility companies because the damage affected transmission and distribution systems, according to Alexandria von Meier, a power and energy expert who called that a rare thing. Damage to just the distribution system is more typical, von Meier said.

How quickly repairs are made will depend on a variety of factors, such as the time it takes to assess damages, replace equipment and dispatch workers.

Storm caught many off guard

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez reported late Friday that three people died during the storm, including an 85-year-old woman whose home caught fire after being struck by lightning and a 60-year-old man who had tried to use his vehicle to power his oxygen tank.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire previously said at least four other people were killed in the city when the storms swept through Harris County, which includes Houston.

School districts in the Houston area canceled classes Friday for more than 400,000 students; government offices were closed.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles said Saturday that he hoped to reopen schools Monday, but that is dependent upon the restoration of electricity in school buildings.

“If a school doesn’t have power, it will remain closed,” Miles told reporters during a tour of the heavily damaged Sinclair Elementary School.

Whitmire warned that police were out in force, including state troopers sent to the area to prevent looting. He said the speed and intensity of the storm caught many off guard.

Noelle Delgado, executive director of Houston Pets Alive, said she pulled up at the animal rescue Thursday night and found the dogs and cats — more than 30 in all — uninjured, but the building’s awning had been ripped off, the sign was mangled, and water was leaking inside.

She hoped to find foster homes for the animals.

“I could definitely tell that this storm was a little different,” she said. “It felt terrifying.”

Recovery assistance on the way

Considering the storm damage, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Whitmire both signed disaster declarations, paving the way for state and federal storm recovery assistance.

A separate disaster declaration from President Joe Biden makes federal funding available to people in seven Texas counties — including Harris — that have been affected by severe storms, straight-line winds, tornadoes and flooding since April 26.

Bird flu found in western China as US combats cattle outbreak

BEIJING — Cases of bird flu have been confirmed among wild fowl in western China, the agriculture ministry said Saturday, as concerns grow over a U.S. outbreak infecting cattle. 

Two counties in Qinghai province confirmed 275 cases of H5 influenza among dead Pallas’s gull and other wild birds, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said in a notice on its website. 

The ministry received a report on the cases from the China Animal Disease Control Center, and the national Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory confirmed the finding, the notice said. 

The H5N1 outbreak among dairy cattle in at least nine U.S. states since late March has raised questions over whether it could spread to humans. No such cases have been reported. 

The U.S. announced on May 11 that it would spend close to $200 million to fight the outbreak. 

News of the China bird flu cases came as the nation’s anti-graft watchdog announced a corruption probe of the agriculture minister Saturday. 

Tang Renjian, 61, is under investigation for “serious violations of discipline and law” by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and National Supervisory Commission, CCDI said on its website. 

The term is CCDI’s typical euphemism for corruption. 

The notice gave no further details. 

Yemen’s Houthi rebels reportedly fire missile, hitting tanker in Red Sea

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Yemen’s Houthi rebels hit an oil tanker in the Red Sea with a ballistic missile early Saturday, damaging the Panama-flagged, Greek-owned vessel in their latest assault over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, officials said.

Although the Houthis did not immediately claim the assault, it comes as they claimed to have shot down a U.S. military MQ-9 Reaper drone over Yemen and have launched other attacks on shipping, disrupting trade on a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

The attack around 1 a.m. struck the oil tanker Wind, which recently docked in Russia and was bound for China, the U.S. military’s Central Command said. China and Russia maintain ties over military equipment and oil to Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor.

The missile strike “caused flooding which resulted in the of loss propulsion and steering,” Central Command said on the social platform X. “The crew of M/T Wind was able to restore propulsion and steering, and no casualties were reported. M/T Wind resumed its course under its own power.”

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center and the private security firm Ambrey similarly acknowledged the attack earlier Saturday. Ambrey said it caused a fire aboard the Wind.

It can take the Houthis hours — or even days — to claim their attacks.

The Houthis have launched attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, demanding Israel ends the war in Gaza.

The Houthis have launched more than 50 attacks on shipping, seized one vessel and sunk another since November, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Houthi attacks have dropped in recent weeks as the rebels have been targeted by a U.S.-led airstrike campaign in Yemen. Even so, shipping through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden still remains low because of the threat.

The Houthis claimed that they shot down the Reaper on Thursday with a surface-to-air missile. They described the drone as “carrying out hostile actions” in Yemen’s Marib province, which remains held by allies of Yemen’s exiled, internationally recognized government.

Since the Houthis seized the country’s north and its capital, Sanaa, in 2014, the U.S. military has previously lost at least five drones to the rebels.

Reapers, which cost around $30 million apiece, can fly at altitudes up to 50,000 feet and have an endurance of up to 24 hours before needing to land.

70 years after landmark court ruling, US schools still segregated

WASHINGTON — Seventy years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separating children in schools by race was unconstitutional. On paper, that decision — the fabled Brown v. Board of Education, taught in most every American classroom — still stands.

But for decades, American schools have been re-segregating. The country is more diverse than it ever has been, with students more exposed to classmates from different backgrounds. Still, around 4 out of 10 Black and Hispanic students attend schools where almost every one of their classmates is another student of color.

The intense segregation by race is linked to socioeconomic conditions: Schools where students of color compose more than 90% of the student body are five times more likely to be located in low-income areas. That in turn has resounding academic consequences: Students who attend high-poverty schools, regardless of their family’s finances, have worse educational outcomes.

Efforts to slow or reverse the increasing separation of American schools have stalled. Court cases slowly have chipped away at the dream outlined in the case of Brown v. Board, leaving fewer and fewer tools in the hands of districts to integrate schools by the early 2000s.

The arc of the moral universe, in this case, does not seem to be bending toward justice.

“School integration exists as little more than an idea in America right now, a little more than a memory,” said Derek Black, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s actually an idea that a pretty good majority of Americans think is a good idea. But that’s all.”

More than just diverse schools

The dream of Brown was never as simple as diversity. It was about equality, and the opportunity that came with it.

From the beginning, funding and integration have been inseparable.

“Whiter schools and districts have more resources, and that is wrong,” said Ary Amerikaner, a former Obama administration official and the founder of Brown’s Promise. “But it is a reality. And that undermines opportunity for students of color, and it undermines our future democracy.”

We remember Brown v. Board as the end of segregated schools in the United States. But stating values does not, alone, change reality. Though the case was decided in 1954, it was followed by more than a decade of delay and avoidance before school districts began to meaningfully allow Black students to enter white schools.

It took further court rulings, monitoring and enforcement to bring a short-lived era of integration to hundreds of school districts. For the students who took part in those desegregation programs, their life trajectory changed — the more years spent in integrated schools, the better Black children fared on measures like educational attainment, graduation rates, health, and earning potential, with no adverse effects on white children.

For a brief period, it seemed the country recognized the deeper remedies required. “All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in Swann v. Mecklenburg, a 1971 decision that upheld the use of busing to integrate schools in North Carolina. “But all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation.”

But not long after, another series of court decisions would unwind those outcomes. Fifty years ago, in Milliken v. Bradley, the court struck down a plan for integrating Detroit public schools across school district lines. The ruling undermined desegregation efforts in the north and Midwest, where small districts allowed white families to escape integration.

Other decisions followed. In Freeman v. Pitts, the court ruled resegregation from private choice and demographic shifts could not be monitored by the court. More than 200 districts were released from court-monitored desegregation plans. By 2007, when the court ruled in Parents Involved v. Seattle Public Schools, even voluntary integration plans could no longer consider assigning students on the basis of race.

“If you have the tools taken away from you … by the Supreme Court, then you really don’t have a whole lot of tools,” said Stephan Blanford, a former Seattle Public Schools board member.

One district as a microcosm

The arc of history is clear in the city where the landmark Swann busing case originated.

At its peak, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was considered such a success at integrating classrooms and closing the gap between Black and white students that educators around the country came to tour the district. Today, more than 20 years after a court ruling overturned busing students on the basis of race, CMS is the most segregated district in North Carolina.

While there are no laws that keep kids siloed by race and income, in so many schools that is the reality.

Charlotte’s sprawling, complex busing plan brought Black and white students into the same schools — and by extension, made white children’s resources available to Black students for the first time. The district’s integration program ended when white families sued after their children did not get their top choice of school placement in a lottery that considered race.

Instead, the district created a school assignment process that said diversity “will be based on the family’s decisions.” It left the families of Mecklenburg County, some of whom have always had better choices than others, on their own. In the first year of the district’s choice program, Black families were more likely to try to use the choice plan to pick an alternative school. They were also more likely to get none of the magnet schools they wanted.

In the decades that followed, the district re-segregated. Years of busing had unwound the segregated makeup of the schools, but the underlying disparities and residential segregation had been left untouched.

Charlotte is a place where the divide between affluence and poverty, and the clear racial lines that mirror it, are so stark that people who live there refer to the city in two parts — the well-off “wedge” and the poorer “crescent.” How could anything other than an explicit consideration of those conditions ever hope to ameliorate them?

Solutions to segregated schools exist in this context, often relying on individual families to make choices that are limited by their circumstances. Magnet schools and inter-district transfers — two common policies that may create great individual opportunities — are limited and will always leave some students behind.

Wherever you look, families are divided in how they view integration. For white and affluent families, it can exist as a noble idea, one filled with self-reflection. But for families of color or poor families — those with less of a safety net — the point of integration often is to place their children somewhere better.

Efforts to integrate schools can take two paths, Stefan Lallinger, executive director of Next100, a public policy think tank, says. They either fight around the margins, creating slightly less segregated spaces, or they address the problem head on, which in many parts of the country would mean tackling boundaries deliberately drawn to separate rich from poor.

How to move forward in a system that resists?

Amerikaner and Saba Bireda founded Brown’s Promise on the idea of bridging the divide between funding and integration, leveraging state courts to obtain the tools the Supreme Court has taken away from districts. 

Their strategy has some precedence. In Connecticut, a 1989 lawsuit in state court resulted in the creation of an inter-district transfer program, which allows students in Hartford to transfer into suburban schools and magnet programs, breaking up concentrations of poverty and racially isolated schools.

“This country had to be moved to integration,” Bireda said. “And unfortunately, 70 years later, we feel like we still need litigation. We need the push of the courts.”

More recent lawsuits have taken place in New Jersey and in Minnesota. In 2015, Alex Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools. Cruz-Guzman immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a teenager. As a parent, he noticed his children’s schools consisted almost entirely of other Latino students. When he tried to place them in more integrated schools, the family faced long waitlists.

The case wound its way through court for nearly a decade, almost reaching a settlement in the legislature before that bill failed to pass.

Cruz-Guzman recalls people asking why he would join a case that likely would not resolve in time to benefit his own children, who struggled with learning English for a time in predominantly Latino schools. To him, the arc of the case is about the kids whose lives could change in the future.

“It’s not only my kids. My grandkids will benefit from it,” he says. “People for generations will benefit.”

How far those legal cases can reach remains to be seen. Actual solutions are imperfect. But integration is something this country has tried before, and while it lasted, by many measures, it worked.

Anniversaries are moments to stop and contemplate. Seventy years after Brown, the work towards achieving its vision remains unfinished. Where there are no perfect, easy answers, what other choice is there besides trying imperfect pathways that bring about an increasingly diverse country somewhere closer to the promise of Brown?

“What’s the alternative?” Bireda said. “We are headed towards a country that is going to be majority people of color. … We can be a strong multiracial democracy, but we cannot be that if we continue to allow most children in the United States not to go to school with children who are from different backgrounds.”