Bogota, Aug 8 (AP/UNB) — Venezuela's government late Wednesday halted negotiations with the opposition in protest of the Trump administration's freezing of its U.S. assets, thrusting into crisis the country's best chance of peacefully resolving a political standoff that has kept the nation on the edge for more than six months.
The decision surprised representatives of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who were already on the Caribbean island of Barbados awaiting what was to be the start Thursday of the sixth round of talks that began in May under the auspices of Norway.
"We Venezuelans have watched with profound indignation how the chief of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, celebrates, promotes and supports these harmful actions against our nation's sovereignty and our peoples' most basic human rights," the government said in a statement Wednesday night.
The government stopped short of abandoning the talks altogether, saying only that it would "review the mechanisms of this process to ensure its continuation is truly effective and harmonious with the interests of the people."
For weeks, representatives of Maduro and his would-be successor have been shuttling back and forth to Barbados trying to agree on a common path out of the country's prolonged political standoff. The meetings have been slow-going and shrouded in mystery, with neither side disclosing details.
But Maduro's supporters have accused the U.S. of trying to blow up the fragile process with sweeping new sanctions announced this week that freeze all of the government's assets in the U.S. and even threaten to punish companies from third countries that keep doing business with his socialist administration.
"They're trying to dynamite the dialogue," Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Tuesday at a news conference to denounce comments by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton defending the asset freeze. "But nobody, not even 1,000 Trumps or 500 Boltons ... will make us abandon the negotiating table."
Maduro said Wednesday night that while he favors dialogue, he will not stand by idly as his opponents cheer on punitive measures by the U.S. that he believes will worsen hardships in a country already suffering from six-digit hyperinflation, medicine shortages and a recession now deeper than the U.S. Great Depression.
"Under these conditions, no," he said in a telephone call to a program on state TV hosted by socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello.
Maduro promised to lead a "counteroffensive" from the constitutional assembly — a rubber-stamp body set up to undermine Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress — to "bring justice to the sellouts and traitors."
Opposition leaders reacted to Maduro's withdrawal from the talks with a mix of disbelief and told-you-so admonishments.
"They've been saying for days they believe in peace and the Oslo mechanism, but at the first sign of change they fear the possibility of a real political change in the country," lawmaker Stalin Gonzalez, the head of Guaidó's negotiating team in Barbados, said on social media.
Speculation has swirled in political and diplomatic circles that Maduro's envoys have expressed a willingness to call an early presidential election under a revamped electoral board and foreign observation. The U.S. has insisted Maduro must give up power before any elections can be deemed credible.
Three people involved in the talks from different sides had described the environment as serious and cordial, with each delegation dining and traveling back and forth to the island from Caracas separately. All three insisted progress has been made, even if the thorny topic of elections is being left for last and an all-encompassing deal based on a six-point agenda is some way off. The people agreed to speak to The Associated Press only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to divulge details of the talks.
Such insider accounts differ sharply from the assessment of Bolton and other hardliners inside the Trump administration who have accused Maduro of using the talks to buy time.
"We will not fall for these old tricks of a tired dictator," Bolton declared Tuesday at a meeting in Peru of more than 50 governments aligned against Maduro. "No more time for tap, tap, tapping. Now is the time for action."
To be sure, nobody in the Trump administration has disavowed the talks, and some analysts believe Bolton's "bad cop" persona and his threats of more punitive actions to come may even provide a boost to the mediation effort.
Guaidó, who heads the opposition-controlled congress, has shown no willingness to ditch the talks despite pressure to do so from hawks inside his coalition who accuse him of turning a blind eye to Maduro's alleged torturing of opponents.
Maduro, although severely weakened by the U.S. sanctions and increasingly isolated internationally, still enjoys the support of powerful allies like Russia and China. He also has the backing of the military, the traditional arbiter of disputes in Venezuela. Neither the military nor the U.S. has been a party to the talks, even though Maduro's main goal is the removal of U.S. sanctions.
Meanwhile, Guaidó's momentum has stalled since he declared himself interim president in January over what the U.S. and some 50 other nations saw as Maduro's fraudulent re-election last year. Demonstrations that at the start of the year filled the streets of Caracas have thinned to a trickle and a military uprising called for by Guaidó in April ended with several opposition lawmakers on the run or in exile.
"As long as each side pursues a winner-take-all approach, they are less willing to make concessions and a deal will remain elusive," said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Phnom Penh, Aug 8 (AP/UNB) — A man who became wedged between rocks while collecting bat droppings in the Cambodian jungle was rescued after being trapped for almost four days.
Police said Sum Bora slipped Sunday while trying to retrieve his flashlight, which had fallen in the small rocky hollow.
Bat droppings — guano — are used as fertilizer and sold for supplementary income by poor farmers, who sometimes try to attract bats to their property.
His worried family began searching for Sum Bora when he didn't return after three days, Cambodia's Fresh News reported. His brother found him and alerted authorities to his location in the Chakry mountain jungle in the northwestern province of Battambang.
About 200 rescue workers carefully extricated the trapped man by destroying bits of the rock that had pinned him in an effort that took about 10 hours, Police Maj. Sareth Visen said.
The 28-year-old man was freed at about 6 p.m. Wednesday, looking extremely weak, and was taken to a provincial hospital, the police official said.
The rescue was spearheaded by specialists from Rapid Rescue Company 711, which is connected to Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite military bodyguard brigade. The group also was prominent in rescue efforts when a seven-story building collapsed in June in the southern city of Sihanoukville, killing 24 people.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 35% of its 15.2 million people living in poverty, according to a U.N. Development Program report last year.
Cairo, Aug 7 (AP/UNB) — The Saudi-led coalition's closure of the airport in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, has prevented thousands of sick civilians from traveling abroad for urgent medical treatment, two international aid groups said in a joint statement.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE, the Sanaa airport's three-year closure has amounted to a "death sentence" for many sick Yemenis.
The two groups appealed late Monday to Yemen's warring parties to come to an agreement to reopen the airport for commercial flights to "alleviate humanitarian suffering caused by the closure."
The Saudi-led coalition, backing Yemen's internationally recognized government, has been at war with the rebels, known as Houthis, since 2015, and has imposed a blockade on ports that supply Houthi-controlled areas.
"As if bullets, bombs and cholera did not kill enough people, the airport closure is condemning thousands more to a premature death," said Mohammed Abdi, the Norwegian Refugee Council's director in Yemen.
"There is no justification for preventing very sick civilians from leaving the country to get life-saving medical treatment," he added.
The Iran-backed Houthis overran Sanaa in 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene the following year to try to restore the government to power.
The stalemated war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, thrust millions to the brink of famine and spawned the world's most devastating humanitarian crisis.
In recent days, fighting has flared up between the Houthis and government forces.
The U.N. Human Rights Office said Tuesday that at least 14 civilians were killed in a July 26 attack on a market in the northern province of Sadaa, which borders Saudi Arabia. And in the past 10 days, at least 19 civilians died from fighting in different parts of Yemen.
Also, militant groups appear to have stepped up attacks in Yemen, the U.N. rights office said. Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen and the country's Islamic State group affiliate have profited from the chaos of the civil war.
Last week, al-Qaida militants targeted a military camp in the southern Abyan province, killing at least 20 troops and setting off hours-long clashes with a Yemeni force trained by the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi-led coalition.
The attack came a day after the main southern city of Aden was shaken by double attacks. The Houthis fired a ballistic missile at a military parade of the same UAE-trained militia known as the Security Belt while suicide bombers blasted a police station in another of the city's neighborhoods.
At least 51 people were killed in the double attacks — the deadliest day in Aden in nearly two years. The city has been the seat of Yemen's internationally recognized government.
Also on Tuesday, Yemeni officials said flood waters swept through refugee camps in the Red Sea province of Hodeida amid heavy rainfall that continued for a third day over most of the country.
The officials said dozens of tents were flooded in the district of Khoukha, leaving hundreds of refugees stranded. Photos circulated online showed muddy water sweeping away cars and belongings.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.
Later, the health ministry of the Houthi rebels said in a statement that a family of 12 was killed late Tuesday when their house collapsed from heavy rainfall in Malhan district in the northern Mahwit province.
Yemen is at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, overlooking the Red and the Arabian Sea. Its rainy season is in the spring and summer.
El Paso, Aug 7 (AP/UNB) — El Paso opened a grief center on Tuesday to help people cope with last weekend's mass shooting at a Walmart, in which 22 people, nearly all with Latino last names, were killed and many others were wounded.
The center opened a day before President Donald Trump was due to visit the border city, much to the chagrin of some Democrats and other residents who say his fiery rhetoric has fostered the kind of anti-immigrant hatred that may have motivated Saturday's attack. A protest rally was planned for Trump's arrival Wednesday that organizers said would confront white supremacy and demand gun control.
El Paso's police chief, Greg Allen, said investigators believe the suspected gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, posted an anti-immigrant screed that appeared online shortly before the attack. Crusius is being held on capital murder charges, though federal prosecutors are also considering charging Crusius with hate crimes.
Authorities on Tuesday revealed the first details of how they arrested Crusius. El Paso police spokesman Sgt. Enrique Carrillo said Crusius was driving a a Honda Civic when he stopped, got out with hands raised and surrendered to a motorcycle officer, saying he was the shooter. Carrillo said it happened about a quarter mile (300 meters) from the Walmart.
On Monday, Crusius was assigned a veteran public defender from San Antonio, Mark Stevens. Stevens didn't immediately reply to a request for comment left Tuesday.
Several of the wounded victims remained hospitalized Tuesday, including at least one who was in critical condition.
One of the wounded, Octavio Ramiro Lizarde, recalled hearing gunshots ring out as he stood in line waiting to open a bank account inside the Walmart. He said he and his 15-year-old nephew, Javier Rodriguez, tried to hide in a manager's back office.
"The shooter came, I guess he heard us. He shot him," Ramiro Lizarde said at a news conference at Del Sol Medical Center, where he has been being treated for a gunshot wound to the foot. His nephew did not survive.
Within hours of the grief center opening Tuesday, victims' families were already inside El Paso's convention center in a wing the size of a football field, where services included counseling, travel assistance and financial support.
"We've got to make sure that folks have access to mental health care. There's going to be a lot of trauma in our community, a lot of children saw things that no human being should see," said Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who is from El Paso. "The immediate need is that people get help navigating the various agencies and the various systems that are in place."
George Cruz knows that well. He had taken in his gray Chevrolet Avalanche to get a new battery Saturday at the Sam's Club next to Walmart. He got there an hour before the shooting started, and Tuesday he was trying to figure out how to get it back.
Since then, it had been part of a crime scene where police said up to 3,000 shoppers had gathered. the FBI is moving all of the vehicles to an "undisclosed location," and they'll all get "background checks".
He said they FBI told them maybe he'd get his car Friday.
"There's people suffering from, you know, being shot, family grieving for lost ones. For me, it's no big deal. I'm blessed."
Trump on Wednesday was also expected to visit Dayton, Ohio, where another gunman killed nine people and wounded many others in an attack only hours after the El Paso mass shooting. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway recounted visits Trump has made to grieving communities after mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Las Vegas.
"He goes, trying to help heal communities, meeting with those who are injured, those loved ones who have survived, the innocents who have lost their lives so senselessly and tragically," Conway said.
El Paso's Republican mayor, Dee Margo, announced Trump's visit at a news conference Monday evening, preemptively defending the decision to welcome the president while acknowledging there would be blowback: "I'm already getting the emails and the phone calls."
Margo has previously criticized Trump for suggesting that El Paso, which had fewer homicides in all of 2017 than the death toll in Saturday's attack, was a dangerous and unsafe place.
"This is not a political visit as he had before, and he is president of the United States," Margo said, referring to a campaign rally Trump held in February. "So in that capacity, I will fulfill my obligations as mayor of El Paso to be with the president and discuss whatever our needs are in this community and hope that if we are expressing specifics, that we can get him to come through for us."
Escobar and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, who was a congressman for six years, both said Trump wouldn't be welcome in their hometown of El Paso.
"This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday's tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso. We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here," O'Rourke tweeted.
Authorities say Crusius is from the affluent Dallas suburb of Allen and drove more than 10 hours to El Paso before the attack. Allen, the police chief, said the gun used in the attack was legally purchased near Crusius' hometown. He didn't say what kind of gun it was but described the ammunition as 7.62-caliber, which is used in high-powered rifles.
The screed that was posted online before the attack rails against an influx of Hispanics into the United States, saying they will replace aging white voters and could swing Texas and the White House to the Democrats.
Kabul, Aug 6 (AP/UNB) — The United States and the Taliban have resolved differences in peace talks over U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as over insurgent guarantees on cutting ties with other extremist groups, a Taliban official said Tuesday.
The development came during U.S.-Taliban talks over the past two days in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.
The U.S. side did not immediately confirm or provide details of what was resolved but the U.S. envoy reported "excellent progress" in the talks. The Taliban official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the negotiations.
Technical teams from the two sides were continuing discussions on Tuesday in Doha.
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been tasked with finding a peaceful resolution to the nearly 18-year war, America's longest conflict, has made intra-Afghan talks and a permanent cease-fire among his priorities in the negotiations.
Khalilizad, who later traveled to New Delhi, said in a Twitter post overnight that "we have made excellent progress" in the discussions.
However, the talks in Qatar have sidelined the government in Kabul. The Taliban refuse to talk directly with government representatives, accusing President Ashraf Ghani's government of being a puppet of the U.S.
The Taliban have kept up a near-daily rate of deadly attacks, despite holding several rounds of peace talks with Khalilizad since his appointment as peace envoy almost a year ago. The Taliban now control roughly half of Afghanistan and are at their strongest since 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled their government that had harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The U.S. and the Taliban now appear to be closing in on an agreement under which U.S. forces would withdraw in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not become a haven for other terrorist groups.
Khalilzad has said he is hoping for a final agreement by Sept. 1, which would allow the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. Over 20,000 U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan, including some 14,000 U.S. forces.
The U.S. and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in 2014, but the American and allied troops continue to train and build the Afghan military. Separately, U.S. forces also assist the Afghan troops in airstrikes and raids on the Taliban and against the Islamic State group's affiliate in Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump has often expressed his exasperation with America's continued involvement in Afghanistan and his desire to bring troops home.