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Voice of America

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  • UN Palestinian Refugee Agency Pleads for Funds
    The U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees warned Wednesday that it would run out of money in a few weeks if donors did not step up quickly.  "As we speak, UNRWA has only enough money to run its operations until mid-June," Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, told the U.N. Security Council. The council meets monthly to discuss the Israel-Palestinian conflict. UNRWA provides more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria with essential services, including education and health care. Same amount as in 2018 Krähenbühl said the agency needs $1.2 billion this year for all of its operations across the region. "This is the exact amount we mobilized last year," he said. "If every donor managed to maintain its level of funding in 2019, we should be able to cover our budget." He said he was particularly worried about making sure UNRWA's 715 schools could open on time in August to serve a half-million students, as well as being able to continue food distribution programs. Midyear financial shortages are not unusual for the agency, which is supported entirely by voluntary contributions. But it has faced an unprecedented funding crisis since last year, when the Trump administration abruptly slashed its contribution by $300 million. This year, it has not funded UNRWA at all. Historically, Washington has been the agency's largest single donor.   U.S. Middle East negotiator Jason Greenblatt made clear the administration's position had not changed. "UNRWA's business model, which is inherently tied to an endlessly and exponentially expanding community of beneficiaries, is in permanent crisis mode," Greenblatt told the council. "That is why the United States decided that it will no longer commit to funding this irredeemably flawed operation." He said Palestinians deserve a life in which they will know whether schools and health clinics will remain open.    "We need to engage with host governments to start a conversation about planning the transition of UNRWA services to host governments, or to other international or local nongovernmental organizations, as appropriate," he said. "The United States is ready to participate in that conversation."    The Trump administration is expected to unveil its long-awaited peace plan next month, which Greenblatt has worked on with Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The administration plans to roll out the economic part of the plan at a conference in Bahrain in late June. The administration has invited government, civil society and business leaders to a workshop there promoting support for potential investments and initiatives that could follow a peace deal. Palestinian leaders, angry at unilateral actions by the U.S., including moving its embassy to Jerusalem, are considering whether to boycott the event. "It would be a mistake for the Palestinians not to join us," Greenblatt said. "They have nothing to lose and much to gain if they do join us." Israel's envoy went further on UNRWA, calling for the elimination of the agency and accusing it of inciting violence against Israel. "It is time to stop pumping money into an organization that has continued the plight of Palestinian people in Gaza," Israeli envoy Danny Danon said. "UNRWA's mandate must come to an end." 'Extraordinary work' Palestinian deputy U.N. envoy Feda Abdelhady-Nasser rejected the attacks on UNRWA. "Attempts to characterize the agency as part of the problem when it has done extraordinary work to alleviate the plight of millions and to contribute to regional stability are cynical, unfair and rejected not only by us but the vast majority of states that continue to strongly support UNRWA's mandate," she said. Krähenbühl also firmly rejected U.S. and Israeli criticism, saying the agency had carried out its mission "in one of the most polarized, if not the most polarized, contexts on the planet" with "integrity, dignity and neutrality." As to UNRWA's existence for nearly 70 years, he said it was never intended to be permanent, but its continued existence is "an illustration of the abysmal failure in political terms to bring about a solution" to the conflict. 
  • Brexit Crisis: Minister Quits, Piling Pressure on Britain's May
    Prominent Brexit supporter Andrea Leadsom resigned from Prime Minister Theresa May's government on Wednesday, piling pressure on the British leader after a new Brexit gambit backfired and fueled calls for her to quit. So far May has resisted, vowing to press on despite opposition from lawmakers and other ministers to her bid to get her Brexit deal through parliament by softening her stance on a second referendum and customs arrangements. But Leadsom's resignation further deepens the Brexit crisis, sapping an already weak leader of her authority. Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the European Union, it is not clear when, how or even if Brexit will happen. Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, said she could not announce the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which will implement Britain's departure, in parliament on Thursday as she did not believe in it. "I no longer believe that our approach will deliver on the referendum result," Leadsom, once a challenger to May to become prime minister, said in a resignation letter. "It is therefore with great regret and with a heavy heart that I resign from the government." A Downing Street spokesman praised Leadsom and expressed disappointment at her decision, but added: "The prime minister remains focused on delivering the Brexit people voted for." May might still try to press on with her new Brexit plan, which includes a vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum -- once her legislation passes the first stage – as well as closer trading arrangements with the EU. But it has been met with a swift backlash, with several lawmakers who have supported her in previous Brexit votes saying they could not back the new plan, particularly over her U-turn regarding a possible second referendum. "I have always maintained that a second referendum would be dangerously divisive, and I do not support the government willingly facilitating such a concession," Leadsom said. "No one has wanted you to succeed more than I have," Leadsom wrote to May. "But I do now urge you to make the right decisions in the interests of the country, this government and our party." Labour lawmaker Ian Lavery, chair of the opposition party, said the resignation underlined that "the prime minister's authority is shot and her time is up." "For the sake of the country, Theresa May needs to go, and we need an immediate general election," he said. Time to go Labour's call echoed those of many of May's own Conservatives, who say that a fourth attempt to get her deal approved by parliament should be shelved and she should leave office to offer a new leader a chance to reset the dial. "There is one last chance to get it right and leave in an orderly fashion. But it is now time for Prime Minister Theresa May to go -- and without delay," said Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee. "She must announce her resignation after Thursday's European (Parliament) elections," he wrote in the Financial Times. But while so much about Brexit is up in the air, what is clear is that May plans to stay for now, or at least for the next few days. The chairman of the powerful Conservative 1922 Committee, which can make or break prime ministers, told lawmakers that she planned to campaign in the European poll on Thursday before meeting with the group on Friday to discuss her leadership. May has so far fended off bids to oust her by promising to set out a departure timetable once parliament has had a chance to vote again on Brexit, but a new discussion on a possible date could now take place on Friday. Earlier on Wednesday, May stood firm during more than two hours of questions in parliament, urging lawmakers to back the bill and then have a chance to make changes to it, so they can have more control over the final shape of Brexit. Asked by euroskeptic lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg whether she really believed in the new deal she had proposed or whether she was simply going through the motions, May said, "I don't think I would have been standing here at the despatch box and be in receipt of some of the comments I have been in receipt of from colleagues on my own side and across the house if I didn't believe in what I was doing." Britain's marathon crisis over Brexit has stunned allies and foes alike. With the deadlock in London, the world's fifth-largest economy faces an array of options including an exit with a deal to smooth the transition, a no-deal exit, an election, a second referendum, or even revocation of the Article 50 notice to leave the EU. The pound was on track for its longest-ever losing streak against the euro as some traders said they saw the rising chance of a no-deal Brexit. Those fears pushed investors into the relative safety of government bonds -- particularly those that offer protection against a spike in inflation. "The proposed second reading of the WAB is clearly doomed to failure so there really is no point wasting any more time on the prime minister's forlorn hope of salvation," Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative lawmaker, told Reuters. "She's got to go."
  • Rivers Rising in Waterlogged Central US; More Rain to Come
    Waterlogged parts of the central U.S. were bracing Wednesday for more rain, following days of severe storms that have battered Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma and caused at least three deaths. Residents of some small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas were being urged to leave their homes as rivers and streams rose. The Arkansas River is approaching historic highs, while the already high Missouri and Mississippi Rivers were again rising after a multi-day stretch of storms that produced dozens of tornadoes. Forecasters say parts of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas could see more severe weather Wednesday night into Thursday. "The biggest concern is more rain," Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said during a news conference following an aerial tour with Tulsa Mayor G.W. Bynum and other officials Wednesday morning. Officials were encouraging residents in the Tulsa suburb of Sand Springs; in Fort Gibson, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Tulsa; and in Webbers Falls, some 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Tulsa, to leave. All three communities are along the Arkansas River. Near Crescent, about 34 miles (55 kilometers) north of Oklahoma City, erosion left several homes hanging over the swollen Cimarron River. One unoccupied home rolled into the river Tuesday, and authorities say others could collapse. In Kansas, residents in parts of the city of Iola, along the Neosho River, were being urged to evacuate and officials had set up on emergency shelter at a community college, said Corey Schinstock, assistant city administrator. If the river reaches its predicted crest of 27.8 feet (8.47 meters) Thursday, it would be the second-worst flood ever for the town of about 5,400 residents. The National Weather Service issued flood warnings for northeastern Oklahoma through the weekend and in southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri through Thursday afternoon. The deluge inundated roadways, closing highways in 22 Oklahoma counties and 17 Kansas counties, along with more than 330 Missouri roads. Amtrak suspended train service Wednesday and Thursday along a route between St. Louis and Kansas City because of congestion and flood-related delays. More than 9 inches (23 centimeters) of rain has fallen since Sunday in parts of Oklahoma after an already rainy spring. "Any rainfall we get just continues to saturate the soils that are already saturated. Especially rivers and streams," said Oklahoma State Climatologist Gary McManus. "There is simply nowhere for this water to go" as it flows downstream from Kansas, according to McManus. The Arkansas River was at 37 feet (11 meters), or 9 feet (2.74 meters) above flood stage, at Muskogee, 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Tulsa, as of late Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The river was expected to rise to 40 feet (12 meters) by Thursday morning, eventually reaching 41 feet (12.5). Bynum, Tulsa's mayor, said his city of more than 400,000 people is safe so far. "The levee system is working the way it's supposed to right now," Bynum said. Elsewhere, the Mississippi River was at or approaching major flood stage from Iowa through southern Missouri and Illinois. At St. Louis, the Mississippi was expected to crest Monday at nearly 12 feet (3.7 meters) above flood stage. If that holds, the Coast Guard will likely close the river to navigation for the second time this month. The Missouri River was expected to crest Thursday at 36.1 feet (11 meters) near the town of Glasgow, Missouri, overtopping agricultural levees and inundating some homes, highways and parkland. Deaths from this week's storms include a 74-year-old woman found early Wednesday morning in Iowa. Officials there say she was killed by a possible tornado that damaged a farmstead in Adair County. Missouri authorities said heavy rain was a contributing factor in the deaths of two people in a traffic accident Tuesday near Springfield. A fourth weather-related death may have occurred in Oklahoma, where the Highway Patrol said a woman apparently drowned after driving around a barricade Tuesday near Perkins, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Oklahoma City. The unidentified woman's body was sent to the state medical examiner's office to confirm the cause of death. Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said she isn't yet listed as what would be the state's first storm-related death.