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U.S. official ‘hopeful’ Nigerian elections will remain violence-free

Watch the PBS NewsHour’s full interview with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Nigerians stood in long lines to vote for their next president over the weekend, and on Monday were still awaiting results that were too close to call.

“We’re all waiting with baited breath,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told PBS NewsHour chief correspondent Jeffrey Brown on Monday afternoon from the country’s capital Abuja. “We have been surprised by the low level of violence that has occurred so far.”

Men read newspapers in front of electoral campaign posters in Lagos, Nigeria, on March 30. Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Men read newspapers in front of electoral campaign posters in Lagos, Nigeria, on March 30. Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party is seeking a second four-year term. His main challenger is retired Army Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who leads the opposition All Progressives Congress. Buhari led the country from 1983 to 1985 after taking power in a military coup.

A previous matchup between the two in 2011 resulted in Jonathan’s victory and led to fierce fighting in the north, where Buhari is popular. Jonathan’s base of support is in the south. An estimated 1,000 people died that year and about 65,000 had to flee due to the violence.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond issued a joint statement saying it appears there wasn’t “systemic manipulation” during the weekend’s election, though they expressed concern over potential “political interference” during vote-counting.

Women from communities in Rivers state in southern Nigeria protest on March 30 against irregularities in voting in the
         weekend's election. Photo by Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Women from communities in Rivers state in southern Nigeria protest on March 30 against irregularities in voting in the weekend’s election. Photo by Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

“We’re getting a lot of calls from around the country of people concerned about the process after the election. We have been assured by the independent national electoral commissioner that these are being addressed, that they are following up on all of these issues,” Thomas-Greenfield explained. “But we felt the importance of issuing a statement so that those who might be involved in those kinds of activities would be warned that people are aware of their actions.

“I don’t think I would go so far as saying that it’s ‘rigging,’” she continued. “We’re still in a good place.”

A woman casts her vote at a polling unit in Daura, northwest Nigeria, on March 28. Photo by Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

A woman casts her vote at a polling unit in Daura, northwest Nigeria, on March 28. Photo by Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Past elections in Nigeria have included widespread vote-rigging and fraud. But election monitoring group International Republican Institute said Saturday’s vote was more transparent, thanks in part to new permanent voter cards — rather than paper ones — and card-reading machines that scanned voters’ fingerprints.

Although there were technical glitches and long waits at some of the 150,000 polling stations, “delegates praised the determination of Nigerian voters to see the process through to the end,” IRI said in a statement.

Voting continued into Sunday at some polling sites to account for the malfunctioning card-readers. Complete results are expected by Tuesday.

The post U.S. official ‘hopeful’ Nigerian elections will remain violence-free appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Officials: Iran nuke talks solving some issues, not others

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, fourth from left, with others before
         the start of a meeting with P5+1, European Union and Iranian officials at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland,
         Monday. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, fourth from left, with others before the start of a meeting with P5+1, European Union and Iranian officials at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, Monday. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program reached a critical phase Monday with diplomats struggling to overcome substantial differences just a day before a deadline for the outline of an agreement.

With Tuesday’s target date for a framework accord just hours away, the top diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany were meeting with Iran to try to bridge remaining gaps and hammer out an understanding that would serve as the basis for a final accord to be reached by the end of June.

“We are working late into the night and obviously into tomorrow,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Lausanne since Thursday in an intense effort to reach a political understanding on terms that would curb Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

“There is a little more light there today, but there are still some tricky issues,” Kerry said. “Everyone knows the meaning of tomorrow.”

Kerry and others at the table said the sides have made some progress, with Iran considering demands for further cuts to its uranium enrichment program but pushing back on how long it must limit technology it could use to make atomic arms. In addition to sticking points on research and development, differences remain on the timing and scope of sanctions removal, the officials said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Iran’s expectations from the talks are “very ambitious” and not yet acceptable to his country or the other five negotiating: the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia.

“We will not allow a bad deal,” he said. “We will only arrive at a document that is ready to sign if it … excludes Iran getting access to nuclear weapons. We have not yet cleared this up.”

In particular, Steinmeier said the question of limits on research and development that Iran would be allowed to continue was problematic.

Other officials said the issue of the scope and timing of sanctions relief was also a major sticking point.

In a tweet, Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, said that “very substantial problems remain to be solved.”

In a sign that the talks would go down to the wire on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov left, just a day after arriving, to return to Moscow. His spokeswoman said he would will return to Lausanne on Tuesday only if there was a realistic chance for a deal.

Meanwhile, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, told Iranian state television that the talks were not likely to reach any conclusion until “tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

“We are not still in the position to be able to say we are close to resolving the (remaining) issues but we are hopeful and we’ll continue the efforts,” he said.

The Obama administration says any deal will stretch the time Iran needs to make a nuclear weapon from the present two to three months to at least a year. But critics object that it would keep Tehran’s nuclear technology intact.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the forefront of accusations that Iran helped Shiite rebels advance in Yemen, says the deal in the works sends the message that “there is a reward for Iran’s aggression.”

“But we do not shut our eyes, and we will continue to act against any threat,” he said, an allusion to Israeli warnings that it will use force as a last resort against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Officials in Lausanne said the sides were advancing on limits to aspects of Iran’s program to enrich uranium, which can be used to make the core of a nuclear warhead.

Tehran has said it is willing to address concerns about its stockpiles of enriched uranium, although it has denied that will involve shipping it out of the country, as some Western officials have said. One official said on Monday that Iran might deal with the issue by diluting its stocks to a level that would not be weapons grade.

A senior State Department official said that shipping the stockpile is one of the “viable options that have been under discussion for months … but resolution is still being discussed.”

Uranium enrichment has been the chief concern in over more than a decade of international attempts to cap Iran’s nuclear programs. But a Western official said the main obstacles to a deal were no longer enrichment-related but instead the type and length of restrictions on Tehran’s research and development of advanced centrifuges and the pace of sanctions-lifting.

Both demanded anonymity — the State Department official in line with U.S. briefing rules and the Western official because he was not authorized to discuss the emerging deal.

Over the past weeks, Iran has moved from demanding that it be allowed to keep nearly 10,000 centrifuges enriching uranium, to agreeing to 6,000. The officials said Tehran now may be ready to accept even fewer.

Tehran says it wants to enrich only for energy, science, industry and medicine. But many countries fear Iran could use the technology to make weapons-grade uranium.

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What does an Arab League joint military force mean for the crisis in Yemen?

YEMEN-CONFLICT-TAEZ

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HARI SREENIVASAN:  The decision today by the 21 nations of the Arab League to create a joint military force because of the crisis in Yemen raises the question, why didn’t the organization mobilize the same way to fight ISIS in Iraq?

For more about this and for the latest on the military situation in Iraq, we are joined via Skype by Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal.

So, why is it that the Arab states very quickly got involved in Yemen — it’s almost a proxy war for Shia and Sunni states — but that’s not the case in Iraq?

MATT BRADLEY, The Wall Street Journal:  Well, they did get involved rather quickly in Iraq.

The problem was, was that Iraq was led at the time, on June 10, when Islamic State rampaged through Northern Iraq, they were — Iraq was led by Nouri al-Maliki, who was a personal problem for many of the Sunni Arab leaders in the region.

So, he was considered to be very closely aligned with Iran, but also a lot of the Sunni leaders in the region simply just didn’t like him.  They didn’t consider him to be a reliable partner.  And now it’s part of the reason why some of the Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, were so reluctant to get behind Maliki’s effort to repel Islamic State.

And in some ways, they were more than willing sort of tacitly back Islamic State, until they found out the true nature of the threat.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  In Iraq, how likely are we to see any ground forces from the Arab League or even part of the U.S. coalition?

MATT BRADLEY:  It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be ground forces from the Arab League any time soon.

The Arab League ground forces is — is not — is not a fully developed force quite yet.  And so that would have to — if that were to be deployed, it would be quite a long time in the future.

I don’t think that the United States or the Iraqis or the Iranians, for that matter, have the kind of patience to wait for a fully developed Arab League force to come together strategically, militarily, and legally to form that kind of legal apparatus that would build an Arab army that has long been the dream of many of the Sunni Arab states.

And they want to move to Mosul later this year and retake Iraq’s second largest city from Islamic State, before that city stays too long under Islamic State control and really atrophies economically and politically.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, what is an update on the fighting in the battle for Tikrit?

MATT BRADLEY:  Well, Tikrit is now entering — tomorrow, it will be entering the fourth week of its — of the assault on Tikrit.

And what was so unusual about this was that these Iranian-backed militias started the fight in Tikrit on March 2.

And they didn’t warn the United States, and they didn’t make any effort to coordinate with U.S. airstrikes that have successfully repelled some Islamic State elements throughout the country and in Syria, especially in Kobani, where the United States was really flogging Islamic State.

So, for the first two weeks, these Iranian-backed Shiite militias were able to repel Islamic State from the areas outside of Tikrit.  But once it entered the third week, the fight sort of stalled.

And that is when, after a couple of days of that impasse, Baghdad went to the United States and asked them to intervene.  And so the United States said, we will intervene, as long as these Shiite militias take a backseat role in the continuing fighting in Tikrit.

So what we are seeing now is a very difficult moment, where these Shiite militias have been asked to sort of withdraw from the front lines while the United States moves forward.

But, without these Shiite militias, who are backed by Iran, in Tikrit, the United States doesn’t have a strong, reliable, on-the-ground partner capable of moving in to Tikrit and really liberating it from Islamic State.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

MATT BRADLEY:  Thank you.

The post What does an Arab League joint military force mean for the crisis in Yemen? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Liberian officials urge abstinence for Ebola survivors

A boy washes his hands before going to school in Monrovia, Liberia, February 16, 2015. On Sunday, Liberian officials
         urged Ebola survivors to abstain from sex. Photo by James Giahyue/Reuters.

A boy washes his hands before going to school in Monrovia, Liberia, Feb. 16, 2015. On Sunday, Liberian officials urged Ebola survivors to abstain from sex. Photo by James Giahyue/Reuters.

Liberian officials on Sunday urged Ebola survivors to observe a period of strict sexual abstinence after they recover from the deadly virus.

The recommendation comes amid fears that Liberia’s latest case of Ebola was the result of sexual transmission. That patient, 44-year-old Ruth Tugbah, died Friday.

Before Tugbah’s March 20 diagnosis, Liberia had gone several weeks without a new case, raising hopes that the West African country might have seen the last of the virus.

The abstinence recommendation is one of several recent indications that officials may be giving more credence to the idea that Ebola can be spread through sexual contact.

Research on whether Ebola can be transmitted sexually is inconclusive. The World Health Organization has said traces of the virus can be found in the semen of recovering men at least 82 days after they first show symptoms.

But it is unclear whether that fluid can then infect others, says Ann Kurth, Associate Dean for Research at New York University’s Global Institute of Public Health.

There is “no direct evidence or epidemiologic studies trying to test the precise primary research question of whether sexual transmission is a contributor,” Kurth said in a phone interview. She cautions that anecdotal reports indicate sexual transmission “is a risk,” however.

Though the WHO has previously advised Ebola survivors to practice abstinence or at least safe sex, the organization had not explicitly warned that sexual transmission might be a concern after the 42-day deadline.

Such revisions are sometimes necessary in public health policy, Kurth said.

“As the knowledge base grows, you sometimes have to update the messages,” she said. “That is a part of public health — we don’t always have all the answers right at the beginning.”

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