TIME infectious diseases

2 People Die of Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo

But the deaths are not related to the current outbreak in West Africa, health officials in Congo say

Two people have died of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, though the cases may be unrelated to the outbreak in West Africa that has killed more than 1,400 people.

Of eight samples taken in the Boende region of Congo’s northwest Equateur province, two came back positive, Health Minister Felix Kabange Numbi said Sunday, the Associated Press reports. Eleven people are sick and in isolation, and 80 contacts are being traced.

“This epidemic has nothing to do with the one in West Africa,” Kabange said.

Ebola has killed 13 people in the region, including five health workers. The current cases are part of the seventh outbreak of Ebola in Congo, where the disease was first discovered in 1976.

[AP]

TIME Iraq

ISIS Lays Siege to Iraqi Turkmen Village

IRAQ-UNREST-AMERLI
An Iraqi Turkmen Shi‘ite fighter holds a position on Aug. 4, 2014 in Amirli, Iraq Ali Al-Bayati—AFP/Getty Images

The Turkmen of Amirli, Iraq, have been fending off Islamist fighters for months

In June, when fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) attacked the Iraqi village of Amirli, 45-year-old teacher Qasim Jawad Hussein was one of hundreds of villagers who rushed to pick up their weapons to fight alongside police and other Shi’ite Turkmen villagers as they clashed with the Sunni extremists.

“We tried to leave the village and we saw [ISIS'] Hummers and their black flags. We were taken by surprise,” said Hussein on a crackly cell phone from Amirli, which remains under siege. “Then I heard fire from the next village over. They were fighting with ISIS. So we went back to get our guns.”

But their collection of aging Soviet rifles has been no match for ISIS’ looted arsenal of American weapons and armored vehicles. Amirli has been under siege for more than two months, and supplies are dwindling.

“We are asking Muslims, Christians, anyone — what we really need is milk for the children,” said Hussein.

Hussein said the militants are just few kilometers from the village, and the residents have organized watches of 200 men each working in shifts, fearing that the militants will storm Amirli.

“The situation of the people in Amirli is desperate and demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens,” the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said in a statement Saturday.

The Turkmen, who have linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey, have lived in northern Iraq for centuries and are both Shi‘ite and Sunni Muslims. They stake claim to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and populate villages throughout the Kirkuk governorate and further south. In June, many of those villages came under attack by ISIS. Residents told troubling stories of their own Arab neighbors turning on them.

“For two months, ISIS has targeted the Turkmen areas, starting with Tal Afar, Mosul, Tuz Khormato and now Amirli. So I’m worried for the future of the Turkmen people,” said Ali Mehdi, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political organization that seeks to represent the interests of the Turkmen minority in Iraq.

The fear now is that Turkmen residents of Amirli will suffer the same fate as the Yezidis of Sinjar, a minority religious group in Iraq who recently fled to a mountaintop in fear of ISIS fighters, creating a potential humanitarian catastrophe before international efforts were launched to come to their aid. As Shi‘ite Muslims, Amirli’s Turkmen are seen as apostates by ISIS militants, who practice a strict — some say distorted — version of Sunni Islam. Like all those who don’t practice ISIS’ version of the faith, the Shi‘ite Turkmen are a target, and as a small and unique minority, they are particularly vulnerable. Some Iraqi Shi‘ite militias have said they will mobilize to help Amirli, but if the militias do try to rescue the residents of Amirli, they will likely be no match for ISIS. On top of that, most of the Shi‘ite militias are Arab, not Turkmen, and are organized to protect their own neighborhoods, leaving the Turkmen largely on their own.

“Shi‘ite militias are organized as local defense forces. Not like ISIS, which is one coherent military organization. There’s one guy at the top” of ISIS, says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for the Study of War, who served several tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

“Is it possible that the Shi’ite militia could go up there and try a rescue operation, yeah, sure, but the fact is that if the Shi‘ite militia went head-to-head with ISIS, they would get crushed. And I think they know that,” said Harmer.

Both Mehdi and Hussein are calling on the U.S. to intervene. However, as of yet, there have been no air strikes like those carried out by American warplanes in Sinjar. Those strikes allowed local Kurdish forces to open a corridor, allowing many Yezidis to escape.

“Why didn’t the U.S. do anything for this village? Why does the U.S. Air Force go to [the] Mosul Dam, Erbil, but they don’t come here?,” asked Mehdi. “That makes us think the U.S. doesn’t care about the Turkmen.”

But the Americans also have a long-standing relationship with the Kurdish forces, which operated around Sinjar, and it would be difficult for U.S. Special Forces to coordinate with Shi‘ite militias, some of which were sometimes lined up against American forces during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. On top of that, the plight of the Shi‘ite Turkmen may simply not have the appeal of the Yezidis, whose little-known faith and desperate isolation on a besieged mountaintop sparked broad sympathy and interest. Harmer says that could change with the U.N.’s recent statements, but it would be a tough decision for Washington to make.

“America took quite a while to decide to intervene [with ISIS]. And once we decided to intervene, we decided to intervene in Sinjar. I think there was sort of this feeling that these are such a unique religious minority,” said Harmer. The U.S. has now hit ISIS across northern Iraq, focusing on the area around the Mosul Dam. “With the Shi‘ites, it just gets lost in the Sunni-Shi‘ite conflict. There’s nothing unique about ISIS targeting a Shi‘ite village.”

TIME Syria

American Held Captive by al-Qaeda Affiliate Freed After Nearly 2 Years

Still frame taken from video shows U.S. journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who has been freed by kidnappers in Syria
U.S. journalist Peter Theo Curtis is shown in this undated still frame taken from video courtesy of al-Jazeera on Aug. 24, 2014 Al Jazeera/Reuters

Peter Theo Curtis' release comes days after the execution of American photojournalist James Foley

An American journalist kidnapped and held by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria has been freed, the U.S. said Sunday, ending his nearly two years in captivity.

Peter Theo Curtis was abducted in Antakya, Turkey, from where he planned to enter Syria in October 2012, al-Jazeera reports. He was being held by Al-Nusra Front in Syria before his release.

The U.N. facilitated Curtis’ release, it said Sunday, though it remains unclear where Curtis was exchanged.

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Sunday that Curtis “will be reunited with his family shortly.” In a separate statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “for two years, this young American has been separated from his family. Finally he is returning home.”

“Theo’s mother, whom we’ve known from Massachusetts and with whom we’ve worked during this horrific period, simply refused to give up and has worked indefatigably to keep hope alive that this day could be a reality,” Kerry added.

Curtis’ mother Nancy said in a press release Sunday: “My heart is full at the extraordinary, dedicated, incredible people, too many to name individually, who have become my friends and have tirelessly helped us over these many months.”

“Please know that we will be eternally grateful,” added Nancy, who also asked for privacy for her family.

Curtis was imprisoned along with American photojournalist Matthew Schrier, who was held for seven months before escaping in July 2013. Schrier has said he was tortured and starved by his jailers, and described being beaten on the soles of his feet until he could no longer walk.

Curtis’ release comes days after the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, who was executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS. The U.S. revealed this week it attempted a military rescue mission to save Foley and other Americans but failed to bring them back.

Kerry said in his statement that the U.S. tried many different avenues to obtain Curtis’ release, and that Washington continues to use “every diplomatic, intelligence and military tool” to bring American citizens home.

“Over these last two years, the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo’s release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria,” Kerry said.

TIME russia

Russia Lashes Out at U.S. ‘Monopoly’ on Humanitarianism With Aid Convoy to Ukraine

Russian aid convoy crosses border into Ukraine
A Russian convoy crosses the Russian-Ukrainian border at the Izvarino checkpoint on Aug. 22, 2014 Rogulin Dmitry—ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Russia's convoy to Ukraine was not meant to help the separatists or deliver aid. It was meant to hijack the West's narrative about humanism over sovereignty

On Friday morning, as hundreds of Russian trucks trundled across the border into Ukraine, Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin gave a briefing to explain why Moscow was sending the convoy without permission from the government in Kiev. The decision had caused such panic in the West that an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council had been scheduled Friday afternoon to discuss what Ukraine called a “direct invasion.” Churkin batted these concerns away, and only once gave a hint as to convoy’s larger purpose.

The telling moment came in response to a question from Voice of America, whose correspondent asked Churkin about the claim that the trucks were being used to resupply pro-Russian rebels fighting against government forces in Ukraine. “With baby food?” Churkin countered. In Russia’s version of the story, the trucks are loaded with humanitarian aid, nothing more dangerous than power generators, buckwheat and medicine. But Churkin wasn’t finished. “You are from Voice of America,” he told the reporter, who began to say her press affiliation is irrelevant. “Please, wait for me to say the next thing,” Churkin interjected. “The United States do not have monopoly to humanism, you know? We are all human. So if you are trying to question our humanism, I would resent that.”

The following day, when all the trucks packed up and drove back across the border into Russia, it became clear that breaking the West’s “monopoly” on “humanism” (Churkin meant to say “humanitarianism”) had a lot to do with the convoy’s objectives from the start. It was not meant to resupply the rebels in Ukraine; Russia has been doing that for months without resorting to elaborate diversions and decoys. Nor was the convoy’s sole mission to deliver aid, as many of the trucks were mostly empty. It was rather meant to show that Russia, much like the West, now claims the right to violate the sovereignty of another nation on humanitarian grounds, and there’s not much anyone can do to stop it.

Russia’s been couching its invasion of Ukraine in these terms from the start. On March 18, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the region of Crimea, he argued in a speech before the Russian legislature that the move was necessary to protect the peninsula’s ethnic Russians, who he claimed were under threat from the “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” who took power in Ukraine in February. It was, in other words, a humanitarian mission to protect an ethnic minority, Putin said, much like the Western bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 carried out to protect the people of Kosovo from slaughter and persecution.

But Putin’s argument was thin. While Kosovo had indeed been the site of a vicious ethnic conflict, there was not a single documented case of persecution against Russians in Crimea, nor of neo-Nazis taking power in Kiev. But Putin insisted on the parallel. For the West to claim that Kosovo and Crimea are different, he said, “is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.”

As the convoy of Russian trucks prepared to cross into Ukraine on Friday, Moscow brought similar arguments to bear. Churkin pointed out that the U.N. Security Council in July had passed a resolution allowing for humanitarian aid to be delivered to rebel-controlled parts of Syria without the government’s consent. “We cooperated with that,” Churkin said. “So I don’t see how with a straight face they can argue against this move of Russia.” The convoy to Ukraine, he argued, was simply following the precedent that the West had set in Syria a month ago.

The apparent pleasure Russia takes in calling out such double standards was, of course, not the only purpose of the convoy. Many civilians in eastern Ukraine are indeed desperate for humanitarian assistance, having been cut off from electricity and water supplies for weeks and often running short on food. So the Russian aid was certainly welcome in the besieged city of Luhansk, which Ukrainian forces have been bombarding for weeks.

But the suspected military aims of the convoy were badly overblown. On Saturday, the Ukrainian security council claimed that before returning to Russia, the trucks were being used to haul away equipment from Ukraine’s weapons plants, including a bullet factory in Luhansk. This wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Not only does Russia have little need for Ukrainian bullets, but pro-Russian rebels have been in control of those factories for months. If they wanted to dismantle and send them away to Russia, they could have done that easily and quietly, without attracting the scrutiny that has followed Russia’s humanitarian convoy all along its winding path to Ukraine.

If the convoy did have a military purpose, it would likely have been to act as a tripwire for the Ukrainian military. Russia could simply have parked the trucks near the rebel positions in Luhansk, and if Ukraine’s cannons had destroyed them, Russia would have a fresh excuse to invade. The risk of triggering such a counteroffensive would have discouraged the Ukrainian army from firing its favorite weapons in the area — the notoriously inaccurate multiple rocket launchers it has been using to fight this war. The army’s advance on the city could thus have been halted, and the conflict temporarily frozen in place. But by ordering the trucks to pull out of Ukraine on Saturday, Russia robbed the rebel fighters of this vital military advantage.

Instead, Russia has decided to use the trucks to set another precedent. If the West can cite humanitarian concern as the reason for bombing Yugoslavia, then Russia will use it as an excuse to invade Crimea. If the West can send aid to Syria without asking the government, then Russia will do the same in Ukraine. It hardly matters that these crises and conflicts bear little resemblance to one another or that Russia has done a great deal to fuel Ukraine’s crisis in the first place. What matters to Russia is the ability to hijack a well-worn Western narrative that Russia has both resented and envied for years. Now, with this convoy of half-empty trucks, Putin has once again shown that he can harness the language of humanitarianism in excusing interventionism. It isn’t his first time, and it probably won’t be his last.

TIME China

Watch Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Compete in China

Chinese mixed martial arts fighters are beating their way out of poverty, the AFP reported

Mixed martial arts, or MMA as it’s widely known, is a combination of boxing and Brazilian jujitsu, where almost anything goes during a fight. The sport, widely practiced in Europe and Japan, was unknown in China just a decade ago.

“I didn’t know MMA existed before, when I started fighting in the competition in 2006, I thought it was great fun because there were almost no restrictions,” Chinese fighter Wu Haotian told AFP.

Recently, an increasing number of athletes in China are turning to the sport, which is seen as a springboard out of rural poverty: Fighters can compete for prizes of up to $10,000 in fights in the United States and Hong Kong, the AFP reported.

In the video above, take a look inside a Chinese gym that has already sent several fighters to the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

TIME Iceland

Iceland Lowers Alert for Volcanic Eruptions a Day After Raising It

Volcano eruption risk moved to red
A general view of a road closure to the Vattnajokull glacier the site of the Bardarbunga volcano under the Dyngjujokull ice cap in Iceland, Aug. 24, 2014. Vilhelm Gunnarsson—Fretabladid/EPA

Iceland lowered its aviation alert for the volcano to orange on Sunday

Updated Sunday, August 24 at 10:00 a.m.

A subglacial eruption is underway at Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano, where there have been thousands of earthquakes in the past week, Iceland’s Meteorological Office said Saturday.

Seismic data suggests that volcanic lava is melting ice beneath the Vatnajokull glacier, said seismic vulcanologist Melissa Pfeffer, Reuters reports. It’s unclear whether the eruption will break through the ice and shoot steam and ash into the atmosphere. The amount of ash produced in a larger eruption would depend on how thick the ice is, Pfeffer said, with thicker ice likely to cause a more explosive and ash-rich eruption.

On Sunday, Iceland lowered its aviation alert level to orange from red, saying there is no sign of an eruption at the Bardarbunga volcano. Iceland had said the day before that an eruption could cause “significant emission of ash into the atmosphere” and set its alert level for the volcano to the highest degree, red.

Ash clouds can cause a massive headache for international airlines, as aircraft have to be rerouted to avoid them. More than 100,000 flights were cancelled in 2010 after the eruption of Eyjafjallajokul, an Icelandic volcano that produced a cloud so large it obstructed air travel.

[AP]

TIME Ukraine

Truck Convoy Returns Swiftly to Russia From Ukraine

Ukraine
Trucks marked as being from a disputed Russian aid convoy to Ukraine return to Russia as people wait to enter Ukraine on the border post at Izvaryne, eastern Ukraine, Aug. 23, 2014. Sergei Grits—AP

A Russian truck convoy that raised alarms in the West for driving into war-torn E. Ukraine despite opposition in Kiev returned to Russia Saturday

A large Russian truck convoy that raised alarms in the West for driving into war-torn eastern Ukraine despite opposition in Kiev returned to Russia Saturday.

After the convoy delivered supplies of what Ukrainian border officials said was buckwheat, rice, sugar, water and medical supplies to the city of Luhansk, the column turned back across the border into Russia, the New York Times reports. However, the contents of some of the trucks went unchecked, and some in the Ukrainian government and the West believe they could have been used to deliver military gear to pro-Russia Ukrainian separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.

Officials in the West and in Ukraine’s government sharply protested the Kremlin’s decision to send the truck convoy into Ukraine without an escort by the International Committee of the Red Cross and over the objections of the Ukrainian government in Kiev. NATO’s Secretary General, meanwhile, said the convoy paired with a “major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine” as NATO accused Russia of moving Russian artillery units into Ukraine.

The trucks, which were only partially filled, were “Russian military vehicles painted to look like civilian trucks,” said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, on Friday. Hayden added that because only some of the vehicles were inspected, it was impossible to know what the whole convoy was carrying.

[NYT]

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Weighs Military Action Against ISIS in Syria

"If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are"

The U.S. is open to the possibility of military action against Islamist militants in Syria, a top Obama Administration official said Friday, warning that the U.S. will “do what is necessary to protect Americans.”

“We’ve made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters. “And that’s what’s going to guide our planning in the days to come.”

President Barack Obama has resisted pressure from both outside and inside his Administration to take a more muscular approach in Syria, where a bloody civil war has claimed 191,000 lives in recent years, according to a new U.N. estimate Friday. But the emergence of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which released a graphic video on Tuesday depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley, has raised the stakes — and has seemingly made American officials, already engaged in targeted military action in Iraq, more willing to consider doing so on the other side of the border.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that any strategy against ISIS would have to include action against militants in Syria, and Rhodes didn’t disagree with that assertion Friday.

“Well, we certainly agree that any strategy to deal with the [ISIS] organization has to deal with both sides of the border, Iraq and Syria,” Rhodes said. “The strategy that we are already undertaking does address that in the sense that we are providing training and equipping and assistance to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces who are fighting them on the ground in Iraq.

“We are also providing support and military assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition,” he added. “What we would like to see is those efforts squeeze the space where [ISIS] operates.”

Rhodes cautioned that no decisions have been made.

“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions the President hasn’t been presented with, specific military options outside of those carrying out the current missions in Iraq,” he said. “But we would certainly look at what is necessary in the long term to make sure we’re protecting Americans.”

TIME Syria

U.N. Slams World Leaders Over Inaction in Syria as Death Toll Surpasses 191,000

"It is scandalous that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained... is no longer attracting much attention"

The United Nations said Friday that more than 191,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011, as a top U.N. official lambasted the international community for its “paralysis.”

The U.N. reported that 191,369 people were killed between March 2011 and April 2014, more than double the figure the U.N. reported a year ago, when it said 92,901 people had died. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the true death toll is likely even higher because it reported only deaths that it was able to confirm.

“I deeply regret that, given the onset of so many other armed conflicts in this period of global destabilization, the fighting in Syria and its dreadful impact on millions of civilians has dropped off the international radar,” Pillay said in a statement. “The killers, destroyers and torturers in Syria have been empowered and emboldened by the international paralysis.”

More than 17,000 women and 2,000 children have been killed in the conflict, which has forced more than 2.9 million people to flee the country.

“It is scandalous that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained, and the relatives of all those who have been killed or are missing is no longer attracting much attention, despite the enormity of their suffering,” Pillay said.

TIME Photos

Feel Good Friday: 11 Fun Photos To Start Your Weekend

From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to the World Band Pipe Championships, here's a handful of photos to get your weekend started right

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