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Iraq’s PM takes step in battle against border corruption

MANDALI, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister took a first step Saturday to combat cross-border corruption that has long plagued the country’s frontiers as part of a reform plan to grapple with unprecedented financial shortfalls.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi launched a campaign to recover “hundreds of millions” of Iraqi dinars in import tax revenue lost to bribery in the northern province of Diyala. In the first phase, security forces from the Interior Ministry will supervise the work of border guards to ensure proper payment of tariffs at the Mandili border crossing with Iran, he told reporters.

“Today, military forces were sent and allowed to shoot anyone who violates customs, in order to protect the people’s money and to search for ‘ghosts’ who blackmail businessmen.” he said.

The scheme is expected to be repeated at other border points.

Local security and government officials said enforcement brings with it the risk of contending with powerful armed groups.

A Mandali border official with the rank of lieutenant colonel said “ghosts” referred to armed factions, some with links to groups within the state’s Popular Mobilization Forces, comprised of an array of militia groups, some with links to Iran. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution.

Hours before the prime minister’s arrival at the frontier, Iraqi security forces announced the start of the fourth phase of a military campaign to root out Islamic State group elements from Diyala province, according to a military statement. At least 15 IS hideouts were destroyed since the dawn operation was launched.

The launch of the border corruption campaign comes as Iraq’s government struggles to plug a widening budget deficit amid spiraling oil prices that has slashed expected state revenues, leaving the country with little liquidity to pay state salaries and finance a response to the coronavirus.

In June, the crude exporting state received $2.68 billion in oil revenues, about half of what a draft 2020 budget projected.

Attempts at financial reform have been met with protests and rejection from parliament, which voted down proposals to cut public salaries, which represent a chunk of the government’s monthly expenditure.

The government plans to pay full salaries for the months of June and July by borrowing from reserves through state banks, but this is a short-term option, two Iraqi officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

With strong opposition to wage cuts from political blocs in parliament, al-Kadhimi is considering measures that don’t require their approval, according two members of the government Crisis Cell, a high-level committee overseeing top economic issues. These include changing taxation methods and enforcing tariffs at customs. Iraq imports nearly all of its goods from neighboring Iran and Turkey.

“We are in crisis mode, we have a 3-trillion (dinar) deficit every month,” said one official. “It’s not sustainable for the future.”

Improving customs collections across Iraq’s 21 border crossings had been on the reform agenda of previous Iraqi governments but officials have repeatedly said enforcement was the key obstacle.

Mandali crossing, recently re-opened after a virus-related closure, has fallen victim to armed groups in the past, said Omar al-Waeili, director of the border ports. Once they even confiscated prohibited items by force, he said. With stricter policing he expects the crossing to bring in around 250 million dinars per day.

The government alleges that corruption arises from certain border officers accepting bribes for charging lower tariffs, while others say they are intimidated by armed gangs with links to militia groups that are dominant in the area.

Some local officials say plans to introduce automated security technology at the crossing and clamp down on corrupt officials would introduce fresh obstacles.

PMF groups and some Iraqi security forces maintain security in Mandali. Two officials, one lieutenant colonel at the border and another in the government, said armed factions with militia links were involved.

“They give you a receipt of just 10 percent of what is paid, the rest will be theirs,” the officer said. He requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “If someone opposes them or wants to implement the law, they threaten them.”

Al-Kadhimi visited the headquarters of the PMF during his trip to Diyala.

“I ask for time and patience,” he said, in comments to reporters following his meetings.

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Kullab reported from Baghdad.

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Coronavirus deaths take a long-expected turn for the worse

NEW YORK (AP) — A long-expected upturn in U.S. coronavirus deaths has begun, driven by fatalities in states in the South and West, according to data on the pandemic.

The number of deaths per day from the virus had been falling for months, and even remained down as states like Florida and Texas saw explosions in cases and hospitalizations — and reported daily U.S. infections broke records several times in recent days.

Scientists warned it wouldn’t last. A coronavirus death, when it occurs, typically comes several weeks after a person is first infected. And experts predicted states that saw increases in cases and hospitalizations would, at some point, see deaths rise too. Now that’s happening.

“It’s consistently picking up. And it’s picking up at the time you’d expect it to,” said William Hanage, a Harvard University infectious diseases researcher.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily reported deaths in the U.S. has increased from 578 two weeks ago to 664 on July 10 — still well below the heights hit in April. Daily reported deaths increased in 27 states over that time period, but the majority of those states are averaging under 15 new deaths per day. A smaller group of states has been driving the nationwide increase in deaths.

California is averaging 91 reported deaths per day while Texas is close behind with 66, but Florida, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and South Carolina also saw sizable rises. New Jersey’s recent jump is thought to be partially attributable to its less frequent reporting of probable deaths.

The impact has already been felt by families who lost kin — and by the health care workers who tried to save them.

Rublas Ruiz, a Miami intensive care unit nurse, recently broke down in tears during a birthday dinner with his wife and daughter. He said he was overcome by the number of patients who have died in his care.

“I counted like 10 patients in less than four days in our ICU and then I stopped doing that because there were so many,” said the 41-year-old nurse at Kendall Regional Medical Center who lost another patient Monday.

The virus has killed more than 130,000 people in the U.S. and more than a half-million worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be higher.

Deaths first began mounting in the U.S. in March. About two dozen deaths were being reported daily in the middle of that month. By late in the month, hundreds were being reported each day, and in April thousands. Most happened in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the Northeast.

Deaths were so high there because it was a new virus tearing through a densely populated area, and it quickly swept through vulnerable groups of people in nursing homes and other places, said Perry Halkitis, the dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health in New Jersey.

Many of the infections occurred before government officials imposed stay-at-home orders and other social-distancing measures. The daily death toll started falling in mid-April — and continued to fall until about a week ago.

Researchers now expect deaths to rise for at least some weeks, but some think the count probably will not go up as dramatically as it did in the spring — for several reasons.

First, testing was extremely limited early in the pandemic, and it’s become clear that unrecognized infections were spreading on subways, in nursing homes and in other public places before anyone knew exactly what was going on. Now testing is more widespread, and the magnitude of outbreaks is becoming better understood.

Second, many people’s health behaviors have changed, with mask-wearing becoming more common in some places. Although there is no vaccine yet, hospitals are also getting better at treating patients.

Another factor, tragically, is that deadly new viruses often tear through vulnerable populations first, such as the elderly and people already weakened by other health conditions. That means that, in the Northeast at least, “many of the vulnerable people have already died,” Halkitis said.

Now, the U.S. is likely in for “a much longer, slower burn,” Hanage, the Harvard researcher, said. “We’re not going to see as many deaths (as in the spring). But we’re going to see a total number of deaths, which is going to be large.”

In other virus-related developments:

— Dozens of U.S. Marines at two bases on a southern Japanese island have been infected with the coronavirus. Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said he could say only that a “few dozen” cases had been found recently because the U.S. military asked that the exact figure not be released.

— The number of New Yorkers hospitalized with the coronavirus — 799 — has fallen to the lowest point since mid-March. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo fears a resurgence in cases is inevitable amid outbreaks in other states.

Kristin Urquiza is worried things may get dramatically worse soon in at least some American cities, like Phoenix, where her 65-year-old father died recently.

When the dangers of the virus first became known, Mark Anthony Urquiza, a quality assurance inspector, took precautions such as wearing a face mask and staying home as much as possible, his daughter said.

But that changed after Gov. Doug Ducey ended Arizona’s stay-at-home order on May 15, eased restrictions on businesses, and initially blocked local lawmakers from requiring residents to wear masks.

By June 11, the elder Urquiza had developed a fever and cough. He was hospitalized and eventually placed on a ventilator. He died June 30.

“His life was robbed. I believe that terrible leadership and flawed policies put my father’s life in the balance,” Kristin Urquiza said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Ducey, a Republican, has more recently changed direction, closing many businesses and allowing mayors to make mask-wearing mandatory.

But Kristin Urquiza is worried. Her father received the care at a time when beds in intensive care units were readily available. Now some Arizona ICUs are becoming swamped.

“Other families are not going to be reassured the hospitals will have the capacity to give (coronavirus) victims the dignity and the health care that they deserve. And that breaks my heart,” she said.

___

Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Conservation groups upset by North Cascades grizzly decision

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The forested mountains in and around North Cascades National Park in north central Washington state have long been considered prime habitat for threatened grizzly bears, so environmental groups are upset the Trump administration scrapped plans to reintroduce the apex predators there.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt on Tuesday announced his agency will not conduct the environmental impact statement needed to move forward with the idea.

That drew rebukes from conservation groups, who have worked for decades to grow the tiny population of about 10 grizzlies in the vast North Cascades, where writer Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a lookout for wildfires.

“Grizzlies have been an integral part of the North Cascades ecosystem for 20,000 years but are now one of the most threatened populations in North America,” said Rob Smith, northwest director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This purely political decision ignores science, Park Service recommendations and overwhelming public support.”

He noted that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke supported grizzly recovery efforts there before leaving the Trump administration.

In 2015, under President Barack Obama, the federal government began an environmental impact statement planning process on restoring the bears in the North Cascades.

Grizzly bears play a vital environmental role in the park and the broader ecosystem, Smith said. But there have been no verified sightings in the region in several years, raising concerns about their survival.

While Bernhardt pointed to local opposition to introducing bears into the North Cascades, Smith said a majority of Washington residents have supported the proposal in the past.

The Center for Biological Diversity also called the decision political.

“Grizzly bears only occupy less than 5% of their historic range, and the North Cascades presents prime habitat for grizzly bears,” said Andrea Zaccardi, an attorney with the group. “Their recovery there is critical to the overall recovery of grizzly bears in the U.S.”

The center contends the North Cascades could support more than 700 grizzly bears over 9,000 square miles of habitat. About 41% of the recovery zone is within the national park, and about 72% has no motorized access.

But Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents central Washington state in Congress, said local residents don’t want a larger population of grizzlies there.

“This announcement is welcomed by my constituents in central Washington who have consistently shared my same concerns about introducing an apex predator into the North Cascades,” Newhouse said.

Bernhardt’s announcement came at a meeting in Omak, Washington, 100 miles (161 kilometers) east of the national park, where opposition to the bears is strong.

Bernhardt said the Trump administration will continue to focus on growing grizzly bear populations across their existing range, which includes parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and eastern Washington state.

The recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states is already an amazing success story, the agency said.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been the primary focus of grizzly recovery efforts to date, and grizzly populations have increased to about 700 bears there since the animals were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

The environmental group Conservation Northwest was disappointed by the decision, but did not think it was the final word on the bears.

“We are still confident they will be restored there,″ spokesman Chase Gunnell said.

Federal grizzly bear recovery plans are mandated by the Endangered Species Act and require grizzly recovery in the North Cascades, Gunnell said.

It is the largest federally designated Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone and the only such zone outside the Rocky Mountains, he said.

North Cascades National Park and surrounding back country areas also receive far fewer visitors each year than places such as Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, where the majority of the nation’s grizzlies roam, Gunnell said.

Despite the excellent habitat, recovery of the animals in the North Cascades will require that some bears be imported into the back country, Gunnell said.

Given their isolation from other grizzly populations, their very slow reproductive rate and other constraints, the tiny population of North Cascades grizzly bears is considered the most at-risk bear population in the United States, Gunnell said.

Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975. They have slowly regained territory and increased in numbers in the ensuing decades.

An estimated 50,000 bears once roamed the lower 48. Government-sponsored programs led to most being poisoned, shot and trapped by the 1930s. Now the largest concentration of grizzlies, numbering less than 1,800, are around Montana’s Glacier National Park and around Yellowstone National Park.

Grizzlies did win a victory over the Trump administration on Wednesday. A U.S. appeals court ruled that a federal judge was right to restore protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region of the Rocky Mountains, after federal officials sought to turn over management of the animals to states that would have allowed them to be hunted.

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At border with Iran, Iraq PM vows to fight customs corruption

Mandili Border Crossing (Iraq) (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi launched a new campaign on Saturday against corruption at the country’s borders, saying millions of dollars were being lost by not properly taxing imported goods.

Speaking at the Mandili crossing on the border with Iran, Kadhemi said Iraq’s frontier had become “a hotbed for corrupt people”.

“This is the beginning of our promise to combat corruption. The first phase is to protect border crossings with new security forces,” he said.

“The second is to fight ‘ghosts’ trying to blackmail Iraqis, and the third is to automate the crossing with new technology,” the premier said, standing alongside Border Crossing Commission head Omar al-Waeli.

In response to a question by AFP, Kadhemi added: “We encourage businessmen (importing goods) to pay the customs, not the bribes.”

“This will serve as a message to all corrupt people.”

Iraq imports virtually all of its consumer goods from either its eastern neighbour Iran or its northern neighbour Turkey.

But government officials, foreign diplomats and businessmen have long complained that the import process at both borders is complicated and rife with corruption.

They accuse customs offices of getting kickbacks from traders in exchange for charging no or low import duties.

In June, Finance Minister Ali Allawi said the government would seek to boost its non-oil revenues, including through import duties, to make up for the collapse in state income from falling oil prices.

“The ports should give us revenues of seven trillion Iraqi dinar a year. We only get one trillion right now,” he told reporters at the time.

“To close that gap, we’ll need a string of reforms to the customs administration,” he said.

Mandili was established in 2014 and is currently controlled by a mix of intelligence forces and the Hashed al-Shaabi, a state-sponsored network of groups including many close to Tehran.

There was no noticeable activity at the border on Saturday, as all of Iraq’s 32 crossings remain officially closed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Hashed fighters could be seen standing in the blistering midsummer sun.

Iraq is ranked one of the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International, with some $450 billion in public funds vanishing into the pockets of shady politicians and businessmen since 2003.

Every premier has pledged new measures to fight corruption but few have been able to make a dent in the deep-rooted practices across the public and private sector.

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Five dead after ‘hostage situation’

Five people have been killed after attackers stormed a South African church, reportedly amid an argument over its leadership.

South African police said they had rescued men, women and children from a “hostage situation” on the outskirts of Johannesburg on Saturday morning.

They have also arrested at least 40 people, and seized dozens of weapons.

Eyewitnesses say the men who stormed the International Pentecostal Holiness Church were part of a splinter group.

The church’s leadership has reportedly been the subject of infighting since its former leader died in 2016. Police had previously been called to the church following a shoot out between members in 2018, South Africa’s IOL reports.

The year before, the church’s finances had come under the spotlight, amid allegations some 110m rand ($6.5m; £5.2m) had gone missing, according to The Sowetan newspaper.

On Saturday, police were called to the church in Zuurbekom in the West Rand at 03:00 local time (01:00 GMT).

According to national police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo, a group of attackers indicated to those inside “that they were coming to take over the premises”.

He said four people had been found shot and burnt to death in cars, while a security guard, who was thought to have been responding to the incident, was also fatally shot.

Five rifles, 16 shotguns and 13 pistols, along with other weapons, were found at the church, which police have been combing for evidence.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) said that among those arrested were members of SAPS, the South African National Defence Force, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department and the Department of Correctional Services.

The International Pentecostal Holiness Church is thought to have about three million members in Southern Africa.

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More COVID-19 cases in Syria’s overcrowded rebel enclave

BEIRUT (AP) — At least two doctors in Syria’s opposition-held northwest have been infected with the coronavirus, according to a monitoring group Saturday, raising the total number of cases in the overcrowded rebel enclave to three.

The Syrian opposition and militant groups control the Idlib area, which is home to more than 3 million people, most of them displaced by the war and living in tent camps and overcrowded facilities. Local health facilities have been targeted in Syrian government attacks that have recently displaced nearly a further million people.

The Early Warning and Alert Response Network, which reports on the virus, said the two doctors had been in touch with patient zero, another doctor who works in a hospital in Idlib. The first case was reported on Thursday and the hospital where the doctor works has since suspended its operations and quarantined patients and support staff to carry out testing.

The enclave is now under threat of losing crucial humanitarian aid access. Moves by Russia, a major ally of the Syrian government, at the U.N. Security Council are threatening to shut down border crossing between the rebel-held enclave and Turkey.

A divided U.N. Security Council failed for a second time Friday to agree on extending humanitarian aid deliveries to the area from Turkey as the current U.N. mandate to do so ended.

Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution backed by the 13 other council members that would have maintained two crossing points from Turkey for six months. A Russian-drafted resolution that would have authorized just one border crossing in the area for a year failed to receive the minimum nine “yes” votes in the 15-member council.

A new vote is expected Saturday. Germany and Belgium, who insist two crossings are critical especially with the first COVID-19 cases being reported in Syria’s northwest, circulated a new text that would extend the mandate through the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Idlib for a year and the mandate for the Bab al-Salam crossing — which Russia wants to eliminate — for three months to wind up its activities.

Russia, Syria’s closest ally, has argued that aid should be delivered from within Syria across conflict lines. But the U.N. and humanitarian groups say aid for 2.8 million needy people in the northwest can’t get in that way.

Kevin Kennedy, the U.N.’s Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, told The Associated Press that leaving only one crossing open would make aid delivery more time-consuming, more costly, and more dangerous in a territory that is controlled by different armed groups.

“The pipeline to aid people should not be subject to these political considerations from any side in this conflict,” Kennedy said late Friday.

A day after the detection of the first COVID-19 case, hospitals in northwest Syria announced they would be suspending non-emergency procedures and outpatient services for at least one week. Schools were to shut down until further notice.

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Iran says cannot shut down economy despite worsening virus outbreak

Tehran (AFP) – Iran said on Saturday that it cannot afford to shut down its sanctions-hit economy, even as the country’s novel coronavirus outbreak worsens with record-high death tolls and rising infections.

Iran must continue “economic, social and cultural activities while observing health protocols”, President Hassan Rouhani said during a televised virus taskforce meeting.

“The simplest solution is to close down all activities, (but) the next day, people would come out to protest the (resulting) chaos, hunger, hardship and pressure,” he added.

The Islamic republic has been struggling since late February to contain the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, the deadliest in the Middle East.

Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari reported Saturday that 188 people had died from the respiratory disease in the past 24 hours, raising the overall toll to 12,635.

Iran’s daily COVID-19 death toll has topped 100 since around mid-June, with a record single-day tally of 221 reported on Thursday.

Lari also raised the country’s caseload to 255,117, with 2,397 new infections recorded.

The outbreak’s rising toll has prompted authorities to make wearing masks mandatory in enclosed public spaces and to allow the hardest hit provinces to reimpose restrictive measures.

Iran closed schools, cancelled public events and banned movement between its 31 provinces in March, but Rouhani’s government progressively lifted restrictions from April to reopen its sanctions-hit economy.

Iran has suffered a sharp economic downturn after US President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear agreement in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by six percent this year.

“It is not possible to keep businesses and economic activities shut down in the long-term,” Rouhani said, emphasising that “the people will not accept this”.

Health Minister Said Namaki warned on Wednesday of a potential “revolt over poverty” and blamed US sanctions for the government’s “empty coffers”.

The reopening of the economy “was not over our ignorance (of the virus’ dangers), but it was due to us being on our knees against an economy that could take no more”, Namaki said on state television.

US sanctions targeted vital oil sales and banking relations, among other sectors, forcing Iran to rely on non-oil exports, which have dropped as borders were closed to stem the spread of the virus.

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Fay becomes post-tropical cyclone over eastern New York

MIAMI (AP) — A tropical storm that brought heavy rain to mid-Atlantic states and southern New England was downgraded twice Saturday morning as is moved over New York, forecasters said.

Post-tropical cyclone Fay was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Albany and had maximum sustained winds near 35 mph (55 kph), the National Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 5 a.m. advisory. The forecasters said the advisory would be its last for the system that was expected to continue moving north Saturday.

Fay had closed beaches and flooded shore town streets after it made landfall as a tropical storm Friday afternoon in New Jersey. It weakened once it hit land and was expected to dissipate Sunday, forecasters said.

Forecasters again decreased expected rain totals from Fay. The post-tropical low was expected to produce 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters) of rain, with flash flooding possible in some areas.

The forecast track put the system moving into western New England and then southeastern Canada later Saturday and into Sunday, forecasters said. No coastal watches or warnings were in effect for the system.

Fay was the earliest sixth-named storm on record, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. The previous record was Franklin on July 22, 2005, Klotzbach tweeted.

Two named storms formed before the official June 1 start of the hurricane season. None of this season’s previous five named storms strengthened into hurricanes.

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Zimbabwe bird sanctuary has 400 species, not enough tourists

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A fish eagle swoops over the water to grab a fish in its talons and then flies to its nest.

Nearby are a martial eagle, a black eagle, an Egyptian vulture and hundreds of other birds. With an estimated 400 species of birds on an idyllic spot on Zimbabwe’s Lake Chivero, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Harare, the Kuimba Shiri bird sanctuary has been drawing tourists for more than 15 years.

The southern African country’s only bird park has survived tumultuous times, including violent land invasions and a devastating economic collapse but the outbreak of coronavirus is proving a stern test.

“I thought I had survived the worst, but this coronavirus is something else,” said owner Gary Strafford. “One-third of our visitors are from China. They stopped coming in February … and when we were shut down in March, that was just unbelievable.”

A life-long bird enthusiast, Strafford, 62, established the center for injured, orphaned and abandoned birds in 1992 and tourism has kept the park going.

With Zimbabwe’s inflation rising to over 750%, tourism establishments are battling a vicious economic downturn worsened by the new coronavirus travel restrictions.

Zimbabwe’s tourism was already facing problems. The country recorded just over 2 million visitors in 2019, an 11% decline from the previous year, according to official figures. However, tourism remained one of the country’s biggest foreign currency earners, along with minerals and tobacco.

Now tourism “is dead because of coronavirus,” said Tinashe Farawo, the spokesman for the country’s national parks agency. National parks and other animal sanctuaries such as Kuimba Shiri are battling to stay afloat, he said.

“We are in trouble. All along we have been relying on tourism to fund our conservation … now what do we do?” he asked.

Kuimba Shiri, which means singing bird in Zimbabwe’s Shona language, was closed for more than three months. It’s the longest time the bird sanctuary, located in one of the global sites protected under the United Nations Convention on Wetlands, has been shut.

On a recent weekday, the only sound of life at the place usually teeming with children on school trips was that of singing birds perched on the edges of large enclosures. Horses, zebras and sheep fed on grass and weeds on the lakeshore.

A parrot standing on a flower pot at the entrance repeatedly shouted “Hello!”

“He misses people, especially the children,” said Strafford, who established Kuimba Shiri on the 30-acre spot on Chivero, the main reservoir for Harare. Now it is home to many rare species including falcons, flamingos and vultures.

“This place is a dream place for me,” he said.

Things turned nightmarish however when then president, the late Robert Mugabe, launched an often-violent land redistribution program in which farms owned by whites were seized for redistribution to landless Blacks in 2000.

Animal sanctuaries were not spared and Kuimba Shiri was targeted “30 to 40 times,” said Strafford. Eventually, the sanctuary was endorsed by Mugabe and returned to a measure of stability.

In 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed as hyperinflation reached 500 billion percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. The sanctuary struggled to make ends meet. Many birds starved to death while those that could fend for themselves were released into the wild.

“We sold our vehicles and a tractor to feed the birds. When it really got desperate we had to kill our horses,” he said.

Now, a decade later, Strafford is again being forced to sell some items as coronavirus and a new economic crisis take their toll. A land excavator, a boat, a truck, a tractor and sheep are among the items he hopes to urgently sell.

But there is some hope. As Zimbabwe relaxes some of its restrictions, the sanctuary is now able to open to limited numbers of visitors.

On a recent weekend, Strafford displayed the talents of his trained falcons and other raptors to a small group for the first time since March.

Strafford enthusiastically described the various traits of the birds and supervised as a barn owl perched on a 5-year-old boy’s gloved hand.

“Everything got to start afresh,” he said after the show. “I have started training the birds again. We are beginning to fly again!”

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Turkey amends laws to allow multiple lawyer associations

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s parliament has passed controversial legislation amending laws governing attorneys and bar associations, despite protests from critics who say the move could limit the independence of lawyers and reduce the professional associations’ clout.

The new law, submitted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, passed early Saturday, after days of heated debate and following scuffles between police and lawyers protesting the legislation.

The government has said the law would create a “more democratic and pluralistic” system. But detractors say the measure aims to lessen the influence of major bar associations that have been outspoken critics of Erdogan’s government and have documented rights violations.

The change comes amid widespread criticism of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Turkey.

The law allows multiple bar associations to be formed in a province. It also scraps proportional representation of bars in the national umbrella organization, in effect decreasing the number of delegates from Turkey’s major cities, which could reduce their funding.

The law would affect the three major cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, has vowed to seek its cancelation by Turkey’s Constitutional Court.