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U.S. judge dismisses most money laundering charges against Maduro ally Saab

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November 1, 2021

By Alexandra Ulmer and Luc Cohen

(Reuters) -A U.S. judge in Florida on Monday dismissed money laundering counts against Alex Saab, an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but he remains accused of one count of conspiracy to launder money, a court filing showed.

The order was issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Scola. The conspiracy charge that remains carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

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Prosecutors say Saab, a Colombia-born businessman and top dealmaker for Maduro’s socialist government, siphoned around $350 million out of Venezuela via the United States as part of a bribery scheme linked to Venezuela’s state-controlled exchange rate.

One of Saab’s lawyers, Henry Bell, told Reuters last week that his client would plead not guilty at an arraignment that had been originally scheduled for Monday but was postponed to Nov. 15. Bell declined to comment on Monday’s decision.

Maduro’s allies have characterized Washington’s pursuit of Saab as part of an “economic war” on Venezuela being waged by the U.S. government. The case has strained already frayed relations between Washington and Caracas.

Saab was extradited https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-venezuela-politics-saab/cape-verde-supreme-court-rules-on-extradition-of-maduro-envoy-idUSKBN2BA0HQ last month to the United States from Cape Verde, where he was detained in the summer of 2020 on a U.S. warrant.

In a Monday filing, U.S. prosecutors requested that seven of the initial eight charges contained in a July 2019 indictment be dropped to comply with assurances that officials made to the government of Cape Verde in seeking Saab’s extradition.

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Prosecutors said officials promised Cape Verde that Saab would only be charged on a single count to comply with the archipelago nation’s laws regarding the maximum term of imprisonment.

Prosecutors did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Three former federal prosecutors told Reuters they did not think the dismissals were major complications to the U.S. case, although one said it was a setback.

“This filing shows that the U.S. has now lost some sentencing leverage,” said Mark Bini, partner with Reed Smith.

But Benton Curtis, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, said that a lower maximum sentence was unlikely to affect Saab’s likelihood of collaborating.

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“Twenty years is still twenty years – that’s a potentially significant period of incarceration. Once you reach certain (high) levels of potential incarceration, cooperation becomes less and less attractive to defendants,” Curtis said.

Venezuela’s opposition has said it hopes Saab will tell U.S. law enforcement agencies what he knows https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/high-profile-case-against-maduro-ally-saab-miami-2021-11-01 about any criminal activity by top Venezuelan officials, as well as the government’s schemes for evading U.S. sanctions, which are aimed at ousting Maduro.

Washington has called Maduro a corrupt dictator and blamed him for the once-wealthy OPEC nation’s economic collapse.

Following Saab’s arrest, Venezuela’s government said Saab had been granted Venezuelan citizenship and had been named a diplomat to negotiate shipments of fuel and humanitarian aid from Iran.

In response to the extradition, Maduro’s government last month suspended nascent negotiations with the opposition.

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The U.S.-backed opposition, which has called on Maduro to resume the talks, has said Saab became wealthy as a result of the deals he made with the government and did nothing to relieve the suffering of Venezuela’s citizens.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Fancisco and Luc Cohen in New York, additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Noeleen Walder)

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Poor weather hampers search and rescue efforts at Indonesia volcano

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December 6, 2021

By Willy Kurniawan

SUMBERWULUH, Indonesia (Reuters) – Officials monitoring Indonesia’s Semeru volcano on Monday warned residents to remain vigilant after a deadly eruption over the weekend, as heavy wind and rain brought search-and-rescue efforts to a halt.

The tallest mountain on the island of Java erupted dramatically on Saturday, shooting a towering column of ash into the sky that blanketed surrounding villages. Fourteen people were killed and dozens more injured.

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Aerial footage showed roofs jutting out of an ashen landscape, while on the ground military officers, police and residents dug through mud with their hands to extricate victims.

GRAPHIC-Indonesia Semeru eruption

To view the graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDONESIA-VOLCANO/klvyknzmbvg/INDONESIA-VOLCANO.jpg

On Monday, the head of the Semeru Volcano Observatory, Liswanto, warned people to keep a safe distance from the mountain, amid reports anxious residents had returned to their homes to check on belongings and livestock.

“The status of Mt. Semeru is still at level 2, which means at this level, people need to be more vigilant because the potential threat is still there,” he said.

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More than 50 people had suffered injuries from the eruption, mostly burns. Lava flows destroyed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang.

In the Sumberwuluh area, where two trucks lay half-buried by volcanic ash, recovery efforts came to an abrupt halt because of strong winds, a Reuters witness said.

Public kitchens and health facilities have been set up for more than 1,000 people who have been displaced.

A trauma healing team to work with children affected by the eruption has been dispatched, CNN Indonesia reported, while hundreds of aid packages, including rice, blankets and clothes and other basic necessities have been sent to the area.

Semeru is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia, a country that straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of high seismic activity that rests atop multiple tectonic plates.

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GRAPHIC-The Pacific Ring Of Fire

To view the graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDONESIA-VOLCANO/zjvqkyeamvx/RING-OF-FIRE.jpg

(Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle)

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Solomon Islands prime minister faces no-confidence vote after riots

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December 6, 2021

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare faces a motion of no confidence on Monday, after anti-government riots just over a week ago saw dozens of buildings burnt down and shops looted in the capital of the Pacific island nation.

Boats have been banned from Honiara harbour, and more than 200 police and soldiers from Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are on alert, amid fears the vote could trigger another outbreak of violence.

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However, Monday’s motion is not expected to gain enough support from government MPs to pass, even though four of them resigned.

Church leaders called for talks between the national government and the most populous province of Malaita to resolve a range of domestic issues and a dispute over the switching of diplomatic ties to China from Taiwan in 2019.

Sogavare was “in the service of a foreign power,” opposition leader Matthew Wale said in parliament, accusing the prime minister of using money from China in a national fund to prop up his political strength before the vote.

“The prime minister is dependent on the National Development Fund (NDF) money to maintain his political strength,” Wale said. “How can he make decisions only in the interests of the Solomon Islands?”

Sogavare’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Citizens are angry at inadequate healthcare, prime land being taken by foreigners, and logging companies overriding local interests, Wale said.

The looting and violence that erupted November 24 must be condemned, he added, but said, “It pales in comparison to the looting that happens at the top.”

Anti-government protests spiralled into violence that killed four and destroyed large parts of Honiara’s Chinatown after Sogavare refused to speak with protesters who had travelled from Malaita.

The province has a history of disputes with Guadalcanal province where the national government is based, and opposed the 2019 switch.

About 1,000 people gathered in the provincial capital of Auki to listen to a livestream of the parliament session.

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A political aide to Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, told Reuters it appeared the no-confidence motion would be defeated.

Suidani is expected to make an announcement on Tuesday outlining a referendum for independence for Malaita, the adviser, Celsus Talifilu, said by telephone.

Health minister Culwick Togamana backed Sogavare’s leadership amid the COVID-19 pandemic and said he should not resign. There have been 20 cases and no deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

China had agreed to upgrade the Solomon Islands’ hospital and universities, said South New Georgia MP Danny Phillip.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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U.S. condemns militant attack in Mali that killed 31

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December 6, 2021

(Reuters) – The United States “strongly condemns” a militant attack on a bus in central Mali that killed at least 31 people and wounded 17, the State Department said on Sunday.

Unidentified gunmen on Friday opened fire on the bus as it traveled from the village of Songho to a market in Bandiagara, 6 miles (10 km) away.

The villages sit in the heart of the Mopti region, an epicenter of violence in Mali fueled by insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

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“The United States strongly condemns the attack on civilians on Saturday near Bandiagara, Mali, which left 31 dead and 17 injured,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a written statement.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the Malian people and will continue to partner with them in their pursuit of a safe, prosperous, and democratic future,” Price said.

Jihadist attacks have surged across Africa’s Sahel region, killing thousands and displacing millions across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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