DDMA Headline Animator

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tunisian democracy group collects 2015 Nobel Peace Prize

OSLO, Norway (AP) — Members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which helped build democracy in the violence-torn country after the 2011 revolution, collected the Nobel Peace Prize in the Norway's capital on Thursday.

This year's award was picked up at a ceremony in Oslo City Hall by members of four organizations, representing unions, industry, trade and human rights. The quartet is made up of four key groups: The Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, the country's bar association.

Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five cited the group for "its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy" following Tunisia's 2011 revolution that overthrew its long-time authoritarian president.

The gold medals and diplomas were picked up by Houcine Abassi, the labor union leader; Mohammed Fadhel Mafoudh, head of the bar association; Abdessatar Ben Moussa, president of the human rights group and Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the employers' association.

Addressing the audience of 1,000 people, including royalty, government members and foreign dignitaries, Kullmann Five described as "dramatic" the narrative behind this year's peace prize. "It speaks to the core of Alfred Nobel's will and Nobel's vision of fraternity, disarmament and peace-building forums," she said. "Against a backdrop of unrest and war ... (their) resolute intervention helped to halt the spiraling violence and put developments on a peaceful track," after the summer of 2013 when Tunisia was on the brink of civil war.

She said the 8 million Swedish kronor ($960,000) prize was for the quartet as a whole, not for the four individual organizations. All four prize winners took turns at addressing the gathering in the traditional peace laureates' speech.

According to an English translation of the remarks in Arabic, Abassi expressed their sorrow and anger at the "terrorist acts" that had killed and injured hundreds. This year, two major attacks on tourists in Tunisia killed 22 people at the Bardo Museum in the capital, Tunis, and 38 at a resort near Sousse.

He said their "feeling of euphoria and pride does not obscure the grief sorrow and anger" they feel about recent violent events, including "Sousse, the Bardo Museum, Beirut, Paris, Sharm el-Sheikh and Bamako (with) scenes of barbaric and heinous terrorist acts."

The peace award was the first of the Nobel prizes to be presented on Thursday. Later, the prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences, are to be handed out to the winners in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Police in the two countries had increased the already tight security surrounding the events since the Paris attacks, but gave no details. Last year, when prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi were receiving their award, a Mexican student ran onto the stage waving his country's flag, which he had smuggled into the heavily guarded ceremony without an official invitation. The young man, who had applied for asylum in Norway, was quickly whisked away by a guard.

Tunisia, targeted anew, faces intelligence challenge

November 27, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — An attack by Islamic State militants on Tunisia's presidential guard has left this North African country, its economy and its democracy even more vulnerable just days before four Tunisians head to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.

Five years ago, a desperate Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, unleashing a pro-democracy movement that swept the Arab world. This week, a Tunisian street vendor blew himself up on a presidential bus, killing 12 others in the name of the Islamic State and further darkening hopes for this country's economy and newfound freedoms.

Alone among the nations that underwent the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has emerged as a democracy, but just this last year has seen three devastating terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic state that killed more than 70 people, mainly tourists and security forces.

What Tunisia needs now, analysts and the government say, is better intelligence and jobs for youth who see holy war as their only future without resorting to the brutal tactics that first sparked the revolution.

After each attack, the government has promised better security — including passing a counter-terrorism law over the summer criticized by human rights activists as draconian — yet the attacks have continued.

Their goal is to "seed chaos and destabilize the country, and in doing so, make a fledgling democracy fail," Prime Minister Habib Essid said after the attack Tuesday, when a street vendor-turned-suicide bomber hopped on a bus carrying members of the elite presidential guard, killing 12 of them.

In March, two gunmen trained in a camp in neighboring lawless Libya unleashed carnage in the country's leading museum, the Bardo, killing 22, mostly foreign tourists. Three months later, the Mediterranean beach resort of Sousse was the stage of a bloody operation by a student, also trained in Libya, who killed 38 tourists, mostly British.

Tunisia has already sought Western help for better police and border technology, built a sand wall on the Libyan frontier and shut down social media accounts of people suspected of terrorism links. But the problem is deep and broad.

More than 3,000 Tunisians are believed to be fighting along with other Islamic extremists in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and several hundred are believed to have returned to Tunisia and authorities have had trouble tracking them.

"While Tunisia has stepped up its policing, which is relatively easy to do, its intelligence capabilities, which are significantly harder to develop, are lagging," Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting said in a research note.

The overthrown regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was known for its ruthlessly efficient network of informers, but they targeted mainly political dissidents and not the hardened jihadis in the poor neighborhoods.

Police, who are regarded with a great deal of suspicion by many sectors of society because of their brutal reputation, have struggled to build up networks of informers among the urban poor that feed the ranks of the jihadis.

The government announced a new string of measures after the latest attack to combat the extremists, putting the country back under a state of emergency with an overnight curfew around the capital. "It's total war against terrorism," the president's office said in a statement. The border with Libya has been closed and security tightened at sea ports and airports.

The government is now revising next year's budget — already tight because of economic troubles — to spend more on security and defense. It plans to create 6,000 more jobs linked to the army and police.

They're also trying to speed up court proceedings — some 1,200 terrorism-related cases have been dragging through the courts for years. Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, said efforts at beefing up intelligence gathering are just starting out and without a coherent strategy for reform it will be easy for police to fall into the kind of bad old habits that just feed the problem.

"The government as a whole — not just security forces — need to address socio-economic woes," he said. "Otherwise the security forces end up having to bear the brunt alone, and Tunisians from marginalized areas — especially the urban poor and those in interior provinces — end up increasingly hostile to a state they only interact with when police are sent in."

Samir Taieb, head of the opposition Al Massar party is all for a muscular government response, including calling up reservists, but he too cautioned not to forget the social and economic dimensions of the crisis, including a 25 percent unemployment rate among young people.

"We should also pursue the path of dialogue and consensus that won us the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize," he said. Four Tunisian groups in the National Dialogue Quartet won this year's prize for their efforts in 2013 to resolve a constitutional crisis and rescue the country's efforts to build a democracy.

Residents of the capital don't appear to be ceding to fear despite this week's attack and crowds have been lining up to see movies as part of the Carthage Cinema Festival currently under way. The night of Tuesday's attack, organizers decided to go ahead with the show.

"If the terrorists think they'll scare us, they've got the wrong address," said 30-year-old public servant and festival-goer Ahmed Sassi. "We are attached to life, we love culture and we will continue to go out."

Angela Charlton in Paris and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.

Ennahda calls for national conference on combating terrorism

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement has called for an immediate national conference on combating terrorism in light of the terrorism attack that occurred yesterday in the country’s capital.

In a statement issued by Ennahda last night, a copy of which was obtained by Anadolu news agency, the movement stressed the need for “a comprehensive strategy to mobilize the Tunisians and their political forces in order to eliminate [terrorism].”

In early October, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced the delay of the national conference to combat terrorism (which was due to be held at the end of October), saying that the conference was postponed to allow for more coordination on the national and international level.

In its statement, Ennahda denounced yesterday’s crimes and the perpetrators. The movement stressed that it would stand by the national security and army forces in its confrontation of terrorist gangs and called for supporting these national forces and improving their abilities and preparedness.

In the same statement, the movement stressed that “national unity and solidarity are the weapons of the Tunisian [people] in the open war against the danger of terrorism that targets the lives, state, revolution, and democracy of Tunisia and Tunisians.”

“Terrorism has no future and it will be defeated. These terrorists have no relation to true Islam, a religion of peace, tolerance and brotherhood and their crimes will not affect the morale of our people or our security and military forces, nor will they hinder our people’s path towards achieving development and establishing freedom and democracy,” the movement added.

Earlier yesterday, the Tunisian presidency announced that 12 presidential security guards had died and 17 were injured as a result of a bomb that targeted the presidential bus in the Tunisian capital.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/22477-ennahda-calls-for-national-conference-on-combatting-terrorism.

Vast desert sun farm to help light up Morocco

By Jalal Al Makhfi
Ouarzazate, Morocco (AFP)
Dec 13, 2015

On the edge of the Sahara desert, engineers make final checks to a sea of metal mirrors turned towards the sun, preparing for the launch of Morocco's first solar power plant.

The ambitious project is part of the North African country's goal of boosting its clean energy output with what it says will eventually be the world's largest solar power production facility.

Morocco has scarce oil and gas reserves, and is the biggest importer of energy in the Middle East and North Africa.

The plant is part of a vision to move beyond this heavy dependency and raise renewable energy production to 42 percent of its total power needs by 2020.

About 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Ouarzazate, half a million U-shaped mirrors -- called "parabolic troughs" -- stretch out in 800 rows, slowly following the sun as it moves across the sky.

Spread over an area equivalent to more than 600 football pitches, they store thermal energy from the sun's rays and use it to activate steam turbines that produce electricity.

King Mohamed VI launched construction of the plant, called Noor 1, in 2013, at a cost of 600 million euros ($660 million) and involving roughly 1,000 workers.

Its start of operations by the end of this month was set to coincide with the conclusion of high-stakes COP21 global climate talks in Paris.

"Construction work has finished," said Obaid Amran, a board member of Morocco's solar power agency.

"We are testing components of the production units with a view to connecting them to the national grid at the end of the year."

The project's next phases -- Noor 2 and Noor 3 -- are to follow in 2016 and 2017, and a call for tenders is open for Noor 4.

- 'A million homes' -

Once all phases are complete, Noor will be "the largest solar power production facility in the world", its developers say, covering an area of 30 square kilometers (11.6 square miles).

It will generate 580 megawatts and provide electricity to a million homes.

The solar power project will also help reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

The energy ministry estimates that its first solar power plant will allow the country to reduce CO2 emissions by 240,000 tonnes per year initially, and by 522,000 tonnes with the second two phases.

That is equivalent to nearly one percent of Morocco's CO2 emissions of around 56.5 million tonnes in 2011, according to World Bank figures.

The so-called "greenhouse effect" is a natural phenomenon -- an invisible blanket of gases including small amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- that has made Earth warm enough for humans to survive on it comfortably.

But human activities such as burning coal and oil inject additional CO2 into the atmosphere, leading to global warming.

Humanity's annual output of greenhouse gases is higher than ever, totaling just under 53 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2014, according to the UN.

Morocco, to host next year's COP22, aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030 as it develops renewable energy production.

"We have a project to introduce 6,000 megawatts to the existing electricity production nationwide," Energy Minister Abdelkader Amara said recently.

"Two thousand megawatts will come from solar energy and 2,000 megawatts from wind and hydroelectric power."

Morocco started producing electricity at Africa's largest wind farm in its southwestern coastal region of Tarfaya last year.

"Things have been going well so far," the minister said. "We're likely to go beyond 2,000 megawatts by 2020 in the area of wind power."

But Rabat has not abandoned fossil fuels altogether -- last December, Amara announced a multi-billion-dollar project to step up Morocco's search for natural gas to produce electricity.

Source: Solar Daily.
Link: http://www.solardaily.com/reports/Vast_desert_sun_farm_to_help_light_up_Morocco_999.html.

Libya's rival parliaments sign unity government deal

December 17, 2015

SKHIRAT, Morocco (AP) — Hopes that divided, war-ravaged Libya can pull itself together and fend off advancing Islamic State extremists soared on Thursday, as the country's rival factions signed a U.N.-brokered deal to form a unity government that is meant to bring about peace.

But the lawmakers from Libya's rival parliaments who hugged and celebrated at the signing ceremony in Morocco still face the enormous task of convincing the deal's many opponents back home — including rival political factions and heavily armed militias — that compliance is worthwhile.

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, its divisions only increased, and now it has two governments and parliaments — the internationally recognized one in the country's east, and an Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli.

The agreement aims to create a new national government in Tripoli, end the divide between the rival parliaments, governments and military coalitions, and give the international community a partner for its battle against the IS's affiliate in Libya and human traffickers.

The agreement also envisages a presidential council tasked to choose the Cabinet, which includes a prime minister, five deputies, and three state ministers. Fayez Serraj, a member of the eastern parliament from Tripoli, will head the council.

"On paper, this is fantastic news," said analyst Claudia Gazzini of International Crisis Group. "In practice, the uncertain level of support for the agreement in Libya, the fact that the leadership of both existing parliaments oppose it and are busily devising their own peace plan, and the fact that the new government will have little control over key parts of the country have left many skeptical."

The document was signed by Emhemed Shoaib, the deputy speaker of the internationally recognized Libyan parliament, and Salah al-Makhzoum, the second deputy of the Islamist-backed parliament based in Tripoli, among others. But it has detractors on both sides who seek a separate deal without U.N. involvement.

"We know well that the document of political accord in its current form is not the perfect thing that everyone wants, but at the same time, this political accord is a stage on the path to rescue Libya from collapsing and to ensure its unity," al-Makhzoum said.

Shoaib said the deal is meant to say "goodbye to weapons" that Libya is awash in. The speakers of the two parliaments — Tripoli-based Nuri A.M. Abusahmain and Aguila Saleh Issa from the east — were not at the Morocco ceremony. The two, who are seen by analysts as hard-liners, held talks on Tuesday in Malta to forge a separate deal without U.N. involvement.

Afterward, they issued a statement saying the representatives who travelled to Morocco were not mandated to represent the parliaments in the talks. Before the start of Thursday's ceremony, Al-Makhzoum and Faraj Abu-Hashem, the spokesman for the east-based parliament, told The Associated Press that 88 lawmakers from the two parliaments were present at the signing. The eastern parliament has 156 known members, while the rival parliament in Tripoli has 135.

U.N. envoy Martin Kobler, who attended the Morocco ceremony, said that it was "just the beginning of a long journey for Libya." "Four challenges in particular will immediately test the abilities of the new government," he said. "First, to face immediately the dire humanitarian situation in the country. Second, an inclusive national security dialogue. Third, the fight against Daesh (the Islamic State group) and other terrorist groups, and fourth, a particular attention to Benghazi and other areas."

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Italy, Spain, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco also spoke at the ceremony in support of the deal. Among the first to welcome the deal was French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who praised the accord and promised to support efforts by a new unity government.

"The priority should now go toward creating a national unity government," he said in a statement. "That's the condition for tackling terrorism and trafficking that threaten the security of the region and Europe."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the ceremony a "historic signing ... a critical step in continuing Libya's post-revolution transition after months of turmoil and uncertainty." Ban said the U.N. will keep working to broaden support for the agreement and also cautioned that the "road ahead will be difficult."

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby welcomed the deal, saying it "provides the framework for establishing a unified Libyan government of national accord." Stopping the violence however hinges on getting the government up and working in Tripoli despite any opposition it may face there, said Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European council on foreign relations think tank.

"If they manage to solve the Tripoli issue, they have a relatively good chance, because there are number of local cease-fires already in place in Libya," he said. "If the government doesn't manage to establish itself in Tripoli, then there could be a big battle for the control of it between militias loyal to the — let's call it the U.N. government — and militias loyal to the GNC. That could mean a lot of fighting and a lot more space for IS to expand."

Musa reported from Benghazi, Libya. Associated Press writers Maram Mazen and Brian Rohan in Cairo; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Matthew Lee in Washington and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Foreign ministers set to endorse Libyan national unity plan

December 13, 2015

ROME (AP) — Foreign ministers were poised to endorse a U.N.-brokered national unity plan for Libya at a Rome conference aimed at prodding the North Africa country's bickering factions to fulfill their commitment to sign the agreement and abide by its terms.

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, it has been torn between an internationally recognized government in eastern Tobruk and an Islamist-backed government in the capital, Tripoli, and now faces threats from Islamic State extremists.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni were co-hosting the meeting that also included top diplomats and senior officials from 16 nations, the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations.

The officials are to endorse the U.N. deal that Libya's bickering factions have said they intend to sign in Morocco on Wednesday. The plan calls for the creation within 40 days of a national unity government that would then seek security assistance from outside parties to ease the conflict and concentrate on IS. It would give the Libyans until early February to form a presidency council that would appoint a cabinet, including chiefs of the central bank and national oil company, and begin the process of moving the Tobruk-based parliament back to Tripoli.

Libya's oil industry has been largely crippled by the crisis. Proper management, as well as that of the central bank, is considered essential to the country's viability. The plan would extend the reconstituted parliament's term by one year and allow for an automatic one-year extension of its mandate beyond that, if necessary.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to approve of the agreement shortly after it is signed by the Libyans. IS is trying to extend its influence beyond areas it now controls, including the city of Sirte. The envisioned "government of national accord" is seen as critically important to help restore security and to mobilize international support to counter the extremists.

The United Nations and many countries concerned about Libyan crisis and the rise of IS stepped up efforts to get the rival governments to accept the power-sharing agreement since the factions rejected the deal in October.

"Libya is in a race against time," the U.N. special envoy for the country, Martin Kobler, told the U.N. Security Council on Friday. "Its very social fabric, national unity and territorial integrity is directly endangered by the forces of extremism and terrorism."

Kobler, who is at the Rome meeting, mediated the meeting at which some 40 Libyan lawmakers from the two sides agreed to sign the deal this Wednesday. The Security Council has welcomed that date and expressed "grave concern" at the expansion of Islamic State extremists and their threat to Libya and the region. Council members "stressed that a unity government must be formed swiftly to counter this threat" and they again threatened sanctions against those impeding the restoration of peace and stability.

Saudi Arabia forms Islamic counterterrorism coalition

December 15, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that 34 nations have agreed to form a new "Islamic military alliance" to fight terrorism with a joint operations center based in the kingdom's capital, Riyadh.

The announcement, published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, said the alliance will be Saudi-led and is being established because terrorism "should be fought by all means and collaboration should be made to eliminate it."

The statement said Islam forbids "corruption and destruction in the world" and that terrorism constitutes "a serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security."

The new counterterrorism coalition includes nations with large and established armies such as Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt as well as war-torn countries with embattled militaries such as Libya and Yemen. African nations that have suffered militant attacks such as Mali, Chad, Somalia and Nigeria are also members.

Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Shiite Iran, is not part of the coalition. The two support opposite sides of in the wars raging in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is currently leading a military intervention in Yemen against Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and is part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing the Sunni extremist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, the only country in the alliance that is also a NATO member, welcomed the new coalition. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it the "best response to those who are trying to associate terror and Islam."

"We believe that this effort by Muslim countries is a step in the right direction," Davutoglu said. At a rare news conference, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said the new Islamic military coalition will develop mechanisms for working with other countries and international bodies to support counterterrorism efforts. He said their efforts would not be limited to only countering the Islamic State group.

"Currently, every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually ... so coordinating efforts is very important," he said. He said the joint operations center will be established in Riyadh to "coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism" across the Muslim world.

Smaller member-states included in the coalition are the archipelago of the Maldives and the Gulf Arab island-nation of Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Other Gulf Arab countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also in the coalition, though notably absent from the list is Oman, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Oman has maintained a neutral role and has emerged as a mediator in regional conflicts, serving as a conduit from the Gulf Arabs to Iran.

Iraq and Syria, whose forces are battling to regain territory taken by the Islamic State group and whose governments are allied with Iran, are not in the coalition. A Jordanian government spokesman confirmed that the Hashemite kingdom is part of the coalition. Spokesman Mohammed Momani would not comment specifically on the alliance but said that "Jordan is always ready and actively participates in any effort to fight terrorism."

A Lebanese government official confirmed to The Associated Press that his nation was also part of the 34-nation coalition. Tiny Lebanon has seen frequent spillovers from Syria's civil war next door, as well as sectarian clashes and militant attacks.

"Lebanon is fighting a daily war against terrorism ... Lebanon cannot but be part of the alliance that is combating terrorism," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements. Asked how Lebanon plans to contribute to the alliance, he said that "these are details that we haven't gotten into yet."

Benin, while it does not have a majority Muslim population, is another member of this new counterterrorism coalition. All the group's members are also part of the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Zaragoza 2nd Spanish city to seek probe into Franco crimes

December 26, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Zaragoza has become the second city in Spain to call for an investigation into crimes allegedly committed within its boundaries by the dictatorship of the late Gen. Francisco Franco, a statement said Saturday.

The northern city's council approved a resolution asking a local magistrates court to investigate "crimes against humanity" by Franco's regime, the statement said. Civil rights groups backed by the United Nations have urged Spain to probe executions, disappearances and other crimes that have left many families wondering where their ancestors were buried or why exactly they were killed.

A month ago, Pamplona became the first city to push for a probe. Spain never officially investigated crimes under the rule of Franco, who led an army uprising that crushed the republican Spanish government in 1939.

While republican atrocities were "processed" by Franco's regime — with many summary executions taking place — those within his government who allegedly committed crimes were covered by an amnesty granted two years after Franco's death in 1975.

The Zaragoza council also voted to "eliminate street names and symbols" erected by the Franco regime that it considered triumphalist, a process that other Spanish cities including the capital, Madrid, have pledged to undertake.

Jacinto Lara, who helped initiate the push for a probe, said Zaragoza's main jail had housed many republican politicians and many were given cursory trials, with around 4,000 subsequently executed by firing squads as late as 1946.

Civic groups say some 130,000 people killed in Spain under Franco are still unaccounted for. Lara said it is up to Spain's judiciary to consider if the time has come to look into official records. "Up until now, no one has been able to officially investigate the real facts because Interior Ministry, army and church records have been off limits."

Lara said crimes against humanity cannot be covered by unilaterally imposed amnesties as in Spanish law they have no statute of limitations. Leandro Piragini, a spokesman for the cause, said records showed that more than 30,000 Zaragoza residents had their property confiscated and goods embargoed after Franco's victory in the 1936-1939 civil war.

Judge Baltasar Garzon launched a probe into the dictatorship's alleged crimes in 2008, but it halted when Garzon was barred from the bench in 2012 for overstepping his jurisdiction in a different case.

Several other cities around Spain are also planning to vote for probes, said Lara.

Spain's Socialist leader won't support Rajoy in his PM bid

December 23, 2015

MADRID (AP) — The leader of Spain's opposition Socialists said Wednesday he will not support any effort by acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to stay on in his post via a coalition or a minority government.

Pedro Sanchez made the declaration to reporters after meeting with Rajoy, who is trying to negotiate a way for him and his center-right Popular Party to remain in power after it won the most votes in a national election Sunday but fell far short of a parliamentary majority.

Rajoy did not comment after the two met at the presidential palace. The splintered vote that marked the end of three decades of two-party domination in Spain gave Rajoy's party 123 seats in the 350-member lower house of parliament, down from the 186 it won in 2011. The Socialists got 90 seats, followed by the far-left Podemos and allies with 69 and the business-friendly Ciudadanos with 40.

Sanchez reiterated that it's up to the Popular Party to first try to form a government because it got the most votes but said he would try to forge one if the Popular Party can't. Spain has never had a "grand coalition" of its two main parties. Rajoy is scheduled to meet with the leaders of Ciudadanos and Podemos next Monday.

Analysts predict weeks or months of uncertainty before the country has a functioning government led by the Popular Party or the Socialist Party — or a new election in the spring if neither party succeeds.

Rajoy in January faces a parliamentary vote on whether he can reassume his position as the leader of the government. In the first vote, he would need more than 50 percent to form a government. If he falls short, he must get more votes for him than against him in a second ballot 48 hours later.

That's a lower bar allowing parties to abstain, letting a rival into power in return for concessions. Ciudadanos has already said it will abstain, but Sanchez ruled that out for his Socialists. If there is still a deadlock after two months, King Felipe VI will call a new election.

Japan court gives go-ahead for restart of 2 nuke reactors

December 24, 2015

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese court gave the go-ahead for the restart of two nuclear reactors Thursday after its operator said in an appeal they were safe.

The Fukui District Court in western Japan lifted an April injunction that was filed by a group of residents who said that a massive earthquake exceeding the facility's quake resistance could cause a disaster similar to the Fukushima crisis following the March 2011 quake and tsunami.

The order paves the way for a resumption of the Takahama No. 3 and No. 4 reactors, operated by the Kansai Electric Power Co. The operator had already obtained approval of the safety regulators, and town and prefectural leaders expressed their support for a restart this month, just in time for the ruling. Two of Japan's 43 reactors are currently back online.

Thursday's decision minimizes the delay for the Takahama reactors, which had been set for restart late this year. The utility plans to go ahead with loading fuel rods into the No. 3 reactor within days, and go through final safety checks before putting the reactor back online late January.

Takahama reactors could be a third and fourth to restart, while prospects for a fifth one, the Ikata reactor in Shikoku, southwestern Japan, are uncertain due to strong local opposition over evacuation plans in case of an emergency.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pro-business government wants to restart as many reactors as possible. The government says nuclear energy should remain key for resource-poor Japan. Abe is also pushing to export Japan's nuclear technology and recently signed a nuclear agreement with India.

Lawyers Hiroyuki Kawai and Yuichi Kaido, co-leaders of a legal team representing the plaintiffs, criticized the ruling as "a done deal taking into account a resumption schedule" for the Takahama reactors and said they would appeal. They said they will hold the Fukui judges responsible in case of a disaster at the Takahama plant.

China expels French reporter who questioned terrorism

December 26, 2015

BEIJING (AP) — China said Saturday that it will not renew press credentials for a French journalist, effectively expelling her following a harsh media campaign against her for questioning the official line equating ethnic violence in China's western Muslim region with global terrorism.

Expecting the move, Ursula Gauthier, a longtime journalist for the French news magazine L'Obs, said late Friday night that she was prepared to leave China. Once she departs on Dec. 31, she will become the first foreign journalist forced to leave China since 2012, when American Melissa Chan, then working for Al Jazeera in Beijing, was expelled.

"They want a public apology for things that I have not written," Gauthier said. "They are accusing me of writing things that I have not written." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that Gauthier was no longer "suitable" to be allowed to work in China because she had supported "terrorism and cruel acts" that killed civilians and refused to apologize for her words.

"China has always protected the legal rights of foreign media and foreign correspondents to report within the country, but China does not tolerate the freedom to embolden terrorism," Lu said in a statement.

Gauthier on Saturday called the accusations "absurd," and said that emboldening terrorism is morally and legally wrong. "I should be legally persecuted if that's the case," she said. "All this is rhetoric," Gauthier said. "It's only meant to deter foreign correspondents in the future in Beijing."

In a statement Friday, the French foreign ministry said: "We regret that the visa of Madame Ursula Gauthier was not renewed. France recalls the importance of the role journalists play throughout the world."

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said the accusation that Gauthier supports terrorism "is a particularly egregious personal and professional affront with no basis in fact." It said it was "appalled" by the decision, and expressed concerns that Beijing was using the accreditation and visa process to threaten foreign journalists.

"The FCCC views this matter as a most serious development and a grave threat to the ability of foreign correspondents to work in China," it said in a statement. The fallout began with Gauthier's Nov. 18 article, shortly after the attacks in Paris. She wrote that Beijing's proclaimed solidarity with Paris is not without ulterior motives, as Beijing seeks international support for its assertion that the ethnic violence in its Muslim region of Xinjiang is part of global terrorism.

Gauthier wrote that some of the violent attacks in Xinjiang involving members of the minority Uighur community appeared to be homegrown, with no evidence of foreign ties — an observation that has been made by numerous foreign experts on security and on Xinjiang's ethnic policies and practices.

Advocacy groups have argued that the violence is more likely to be a response to Beijing's suppressive policies in Xinjiang. Beijing blames the violence on terrorism with foreign ties. Amid a counterterrorism campaign, a Xinjiang court last year sentenced a Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) scholar critical of China's ethnic policies in Xinjiang to life in prison. This month, a Beijing court convicted a prominent lawyer of fanning ethnic hatred based on his comments that Beijing should rethink its Xinjiang policies.

In her article, Gauthier focused on a deadly mine attack in a remote region of Xinjiang, which she described as more likely an act by Uighurs against mine workers of the majority Han ethnic group over what the Uighurs perceived as mistreatment, injustice and exploitation.

The article quickly drew stern criticism from state media and China's government. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized Western media for using double standards in reporting on the violence.

"Why is terrorism in other countries called terrorist actions, but it turns out to be ethnic and religious issues in China?" ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular news briefing on Dec. 2.

By then, state media had launched an abusive and intimidating campaign against Gauthier, accusing her of having deep prejudice against China and having hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. On Friday, Gauthier said that the Foreign Ministry demanded her to apologize for "hurting Chinese people's feelings with wrong and hateful actions and words," and to publicly state that she recognizes that there have been terrorist attacks in and outside Xinjiang.

She said she was also asked to distance herself from any support group that presents her case as infringement of press freedom in China.

Associated Press writers Louise Watt in Beijing and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

New Polish government criticized for democratic backsliding

December 23, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — On the heels of electoral defeat four years ago, Polish right-wing party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski stood before supporters and declared that eventually victory would be theirs. "I am convinced the day is coming," he told his followers, "when we will have Budapest in Warsaw."

It was an expression of admiration for Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has consolidated power by weakening the judiciary, the media and other institutions in a manner condemned by Western powers as undemocratic.

Now, with Kaczynski's Law and Justice party back in power since last month, critics say he is making good on that 2011 promise as the government speeds to embark on a path reminiscent of Hungary's. On Tuesday the parliament, dominated by Law and Justice, approved a controversial new bill that will paralyze the Constitutional Tribunal, essentially eliminating the top legislative court's ability to act as a check on new laws. One of the party's next goals is to consolidate its hold over state media, which is expected to bring a purge of journalists who are critical of the new government.

The move against the court raised deep concern in the European Union, with a top member of the EU executive writing to Poland's foreign and justice ministries on the matter Wednesday. Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans urged Polish authorities not to enforce the new legislation "until all questions regarding the impact of this law on the independence and functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal have been fully and properly assessed."

"The rule of law is one of the common values upon which the (EU) is founded," Timmermans wrote. But the ruling party says it has a mandate for deep social change after voters gave it the strongest victory a party has ever enjoyed in post-communist Poland: a clear majority of seats in parliament and the ability to rule without a coalition partner. The party also won the presidency earlier in the year.

It says it must make changes to the tribunal because the court is filled with appointees from the previous government who will block its mandate for change. The tribunal's job is to examine contested legislation to ensure it does not violate the constitution. Its members are legal professionals appointed by the parliament. The court is now filled with many appointments made by the centrist Civic Platform party, which held power for eight years. The last time Law and Justice held power, from 2005 to 2007, it saw its ambitions for deep change stifled by the court.

Changes it wants include greater state spending on the economically disadvantaged and pushing for other shifts consistent with Law and Justice's Catholic, nationalistic and anti-migrant agenda. But civil rights observers decry what they see as a backsliding of democracy in a part of Europe that emerged from dictatorship only 26 years ago. Poland is of special concern, since with nearly 38 million people it's the largest nation in the region and the one that has been considered a huge economic and political success.

"This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, against freedom, against democracy," Lech Walesa, the former president and founder of the anti-communist Solidarity movement, said Wednesday on Radio Zet. "It is causing us ridicule around the world."

The drama that played out late Tuesday in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, was dramatic. One by one, opposition lawmakers stood to denounce the legislation as the death-knell to Poland's constitutional and democratic order. Then a Law and Justice lawmaker, Stanislaw Piotrowicz, stood up and denounced those who claim to be fighting for democracy.

"The defense of democracy is just a smoke screen. You are defending dark interests," he told opposition lawmakers, sparking an uproar in the chamber and chants of "Down with communism!" Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the new legislation "compromises civil rights and liberties."

"From now on, the Polish Constitution will play a similar role as it did during the communist era, namely there will be no mechanism to compel the ruling party to abide by it," said Jacek Kucharczyk, director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw.

Tens of thousands of Poles — among them many who belonged to Walesa's Solidarity movement — turned out for anti-government street protests over the past two weekends, chanting "Constitution!" and voicing fears that Poland's democracy is at risk. A large pro-government demonstration also took place in Warsaw, with Kaczynski defending the moves to change the court, saying they are necessary to fight the cronyism of the previous political elite.

All of this has raised alarms abroad as well. A critical editorial Wednesday in the Washington Post suggested that President Barack Obama should intervene and on Monday, the foreign minister of Luxembourg — which holds the rotating EU presidency — called developments in Poland "frightening" and said the EU may have to get involved to try to alter Warsaw's course.

Minister Jean Asselborn told Germany's ZDF television the Polish government apparently doesn't know "that we are a community of values, that we not only can intervene but must intervene if things are going the wrong way in terms of the rule of law."

Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

French public get access to archives of WWII regime

December 29, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of files on members of the French resistance, communists and Jews hunted by the collaborationist Vichy government in France during World War II are now accessible to the public.

The French government has opened police and legal archives, allowing free access to documents from the regime that collaborated with the Nazi German occupiers between 1940 and 1944, as well as to investigative documents from the post-liberation government.

The order, which was signed on Dec. 24 and came into force Monday, will not only help the work of historians. It will also bring more citizens into the archives' lecture rooms to learn about what happened to their ancestors during World War II.

For instance, families of people arrested under the Vichy regime as well as descendants of collaborationists prosecuted after the war will be able to consult police investigation documents and proceedings of military courts.

WWII archives are kept in different places all around France, depending on their geographical and administrative origin. Many were already available to researchers, but they first had to file complex request forms and it could take months before they got an answer.

Now, anyone can come into a reading room, ask for a document and get it "within a minute or 15 minutes, just the time needed to go and get it from the shelves," says the chief of Paris police archives, Pascale Etiennette.

Marshal Philippe Petain's collaborationist government, which signed an armistice with the German occupiers in 1940, remains a sensitive issue in France. Some French people supported Petain's government while others engaged in the Resistance movement led by General Charles De Gaulle.

The decision by the French government to open the archives came in response to a call by French historians, including Gilles Morin, a WWII specialist. "Many people who were doing research about their father or grandfather who had been deported for example, as we often see, were blocked by these administrative obstacles," he said.

Historians don't expect any major revelations, since the period has already been extensively studied, but hope to gain a more detailed understanding of events. "Let's be clear, there won't be any revolution in what we already know about WWII but we'll finally have the possibility to work, understand several things, the Franco-German relationships, between Vichy and the collaborationists, the people, the elites," Morin stressed.

To the regret of the historians, documents classified as national defense are not covered by the new government order and most of the archives of the French intelligence services regarding the WWII period remain out of reach.

"Here we have a problem because everything, or almost everything, is top-secret," historian Francois Le Goarant de Tromelin said. He is currently working on the case of Adolphe Rosenthal, a Jewish jeweler murdered in Paris in September 1941 under unclear circumstances.

Getting access to archives "will help some families but mainly, it will help them psychologically because it will tell them what really happened," the historian told the AP while studying the 91-page police report about Rosenthal's murder dating from October 1941. "Some people, as this man here, have been assassinated but we don't know why, we don't know what happened (...) We might know it 70, 80 years."

Israel's Olmert to become first leader to go to prison

December 29, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who claimed to be on the cusp of a historic peace deal with the Palestinians just a few years ago, now is set to become the first Israeli leader to go to prison after the Supreme Court upheld a bribery conviction against him Tuesday.

The decision capped a seven-year legal saga that severely undermined the last serious round of peace talks and propelled hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power. In some ways, Tuesday's decision was a success for Olmert. The five-judge panel dismissed the most serious bribery charge against him and reduced his original prison sentence from six years down to 18 months. He is set to report to prison on Feb. 15.

"A stone has been lifted from my heart," a visibly relieved Olmert told reporters. "I said in the past, I was never offered and I never took a bribe. And I say that again today." But it nonetheless served as a reminder of what might have been had he managed to complete his term before the scandal forced him to step down in early 2009.

Olmert was a longtime fixture in Israel's hawkish right wing when he began taking a dramatically more conciliatory line toward the Palestinians as deputy prime minister a decade ago. He played a leading role in Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

He became prime minister in January 2006 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke — and subsequently led their newly formed Kadima Party to victory in parliamentary elections on a platform of pushing further peace moves with the Palestinians.

In a recent interview broadcast on Channel 10 TV, Olmert said his political transformation began while he was mayor of Jerusalem during the 1990s and early 2000s. He said the wide gaps between the city's Jewish and Arab neighborhoods led him to conclude that the continued occupation of millions of Palestinians was unsustainable.

A gifted orator, Olmert broke a series of taboos while in office — warning that Israel could become like apartheid South Africa if it continued its occupation of the Palestinians and expressing readiness to relinquish control of parts of the holy city of Jerusalem under a peace deal.

He led his government to the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007 — launching more than a year of ambitious, but unsuccessful U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians. Olmert enjoyed a warm relationship with then-President George W. Bush.

Olmert has said he made unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians during those talks — including a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank and an offer to place Jerusalem's Old City under international control — and was close to reaching an agreement at the time of his resignation.

In last month's TV interview, Olmert described presenting his offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, Olmert was enveloped in scandal and had already announced his intention to step down, but elections were still some five months away.

"I told him, 'Remember my words, it will be 50 years before there will be another Israeli prime minister that will offer you what I am offering you now. Don't miss this opportunity,'" Olmert said. In the same documentary, Abbas confirmed Olmert's offer. But he said Israeli leader pressured him to sign the deal without allowing him to study a proposed map, and that the offer did not adequately resolve the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.

Still, he described the talks as serious and estimated a deal could have been wrapped up in "four to five months" had Olmert not been engulfed in his legal problems. Olmert's departure cleared the way for the election of Netanyahu, and subsequent Mideast peace efforts have failed to get off the ground. Netanyahu rejects Olmert's territorial concessions, and with gaps so wide, the Palestinians say there is no point in resuming talks.

Despite his ambitious agenda, Olmert's term was clouded by the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier who was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid and an inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Both occurred in 2006 shortly after he took office. Olmert also reportedly destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor — and his government launched a military invasion of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in late 2008 that drew heavy international criticism.

Olmert was convicted in March 2014 and sentenced to six years in a wide-ranging case that accused him of accepting bribes to promote a controversial real-estate project in Jerusalem. The charges pertained to a period when he was mayor of Jerusalem and the country's trade minister, years before he became prime minister.

Olmert denied any wrongdoing and was allowed to stay out of prison pending the appeal. In their 948-page ruling, five Supreme Court judges reversed Olmert's previous conviction for accepting a 500,000 shekel ($130,000) bribe to help promote the project. The money was earmarked for Olmert's debt-strapped younger brother, but four of the five justices ruled it could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Olmert was involved.

But the top court upheld a lesser conviction against Olmert of taking a 60,000 shekel ($15,000) bribe. The ruling essentially ends any hopes of a political comeback. Tuesday's conviction included a ruling of "moral turpitude," barring him from politics for an additional seven years after leaving prison.

Yohanan Plesner, a former legislator with Olmert's Kadima party, said Olmert's legacy was ability to form a "relationship of trust" with the Palestinians at a time when the Israeli public, disillusioned by the second Palestinian uprising a few years earlier, was skeptical.

Plesner, who now heads the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said Olmert's efforts ultimately were stymied by his legal troubles before they could bear fruit. "There was still a lot of work to be done," he said. "And since (the Palestinians) knew he was leaving, there was no incentive to deliver their compromises to Olmert at that point."

In Russia, recession takes a bite out of the holiday feast

December 29, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — For most Russians, it's not New Year's without a Salad Olivier, a dish meant to augur prosperity. This year, soaring food costs mean the tradition can also be a painful reminder of how rapidly many Russians' wealth is fading amid recession and Western sanctions.

The mix of chicken, potatoes, peas, carrots and mayonnaise - which was introduced by a Belgian chef in the 19th century, and shed richer ingredients like grouse and crayfish amid food shortages under the Soviets - will cost 35 percent more to prepare this year. The stiff rise, reported by the federal statistics office, comes amid the deepest economic downturn in President Vladimir Putin's 15 years in office.

The economy has been in decline for a couple years due to sanctions and a slump in the price of Russia's valuable oil exports. But this New Year's Eve will arguably be the first in more than a decade when Russians are feeling the pain of recession at the table.

"Before, you could buy jewelry or expensive perfume for the New Year," says 65-year old Nikolai Skomorokhov, who retired this month. "This time, it's about the bare minimum. We're mostly spending on the celebration."

Skomorokhov, who is visiting his daughter and grandchildren in Moscow for the holidays from his hometown of Valdai in the north-west, says the usual items he would buy for the holiday became 30 to 40 percent more expensive over the year, causing him cut down on spending.

The national currency, the ruble, has fallen about 20 percent against the dollar this year, on top of a 40 percent slide in 2014, pushing up the price for imported goods. A Russian ban on Western food imports, imposed in retaliation for U.S. and European economic sanctions, has further hurt supply, pushing up prices.

Official consumer price inflation was around 12 percent this year, but New Year's shopping shows a much higher rate. The rise in the cost of a Salad Olivier, which is sometimes used informally as a benchmark for the cost of living since it contains several staple ingredients, is indicative of a rise in food costs. Groceries for a typical holiday dinner for two including vegetables, sausage, cheese, pickles and chicken would cost 5,790 rubles ($80) this year, 28 percent higher than a year ago.

"This year, Russians are celebrating without much joy because the year has been tough," says Marina Krasilnikova, a researcher at the polling agency Levada. "People are growing less confident in the economic situation of the country."

Retail sales were down 13 percent in November compared with a year earlier, the sharpest decline since 2000, the economic development ministry said in a report this week. In recent years, as Russia's oil-fueled economy was stagnating, retail sales were supporting the economy. Not anymore.

"Unlike during the 2008-2009 crisis, the food consumption has fallen as dramatically as the consumption of durable goods in 2015," the ministry's report said, adding that Russians are cutting down on food as the prices rise.

Worries about the economy featured prominently in Putin's annual news conference earlier this month, when journalists from state-owned media, not known for asking tough questions, grilled the president about falling incomes and living standards. Yet the majority of Russians tend not to blame Putin, whose popularity remains buoyed by the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but his government.

81-year old Iraida Robkova says the 2000s were probably the most secure and happy years of her life before the economy went downhill last year: "We were free to speak what we wanted, to buy what we wanted, travel wherever we wanted and the prices were not that high."

Robkova, who lives in Moscow, spends at least 2,500 rubles ($35) a month on medicine — while the state-sponsored allocation is just 800 rubles ($11) — and says she would not be able to afford a New Year's dinner if it wasn't for her daughter and son-in-law, who also help her pay for groceries and utilities.

Robkova blames the economic problems on Putin's state ministers. "Putin did a great thing: he got us Crimea back," she says. "But things are difficult for him. His team is weak." Economists are warning that lower incomes and higher prices are pushing millions back below the poverty line.

About 39 percent of Russians now say they are either short of money to buy food or cannot afford new clothes, compared to 22 percent just a year ago, according to a recent poll by VTsIOM. Some 1,600 people were surveyed by phone in mid-December in the poll, which had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Times are getting tougher even for those who left low-paying jobs in the regions in search of higher wages in Moscow and other big cities. Asya Yusupova, 47, moved to Moscow from the economically depressed Dagestan region in the south, where she made 8,200 rubles ($114) a month as an arts teacher. She now works 12 hours a day as a nanny and lodges with her employers in the city center.

For Yusupova, the official inflation rate of 12 percent does not reflect reality: "Things are much more expensive now, maybe even, twice as much." For her, recession is not about giving up perks like Salad Olivier but spending less on essentials.

"I have to cut on clothes," says Yusupova. "I would like to pay for after-school classes for my children, but I can't afford it now." Krasilnikova, the researcher at Levada, says Russians are unlikely to buy goods to hoard them, like they did last December, when the ruble tanked — simply because they have largely spent their savings.

"Only a third of Russians have savings. And people have been spending them the past year and a half," Krasilnikova said. "People will still be enjoying the holiday but fewer people will have a feeling that the new year will be better than this one."

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Germany withdraws Patriot missiles from Turkey

Washington (UPI)
Dec 23, 2015

Germany has begun withdrawing its Patriot missile batteries from Turkey, concluding its three-year mandate to support the NATO mission in the region.

The German military initially deployed their Patriot missile systems to Turkey as part of the NATO initiative to bolster its defenses in the country. Germany provided two of the five NATO batteries, in addition to about 250 personnel for the three-year mission, according to Daily Sabah.

While the withdrawal leaves only Spanish Patriot missile systems at the request of the Turkish government, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltengberg says the alliance's mission will continue with air and naval support to boost the country's defense capabilities.

The German government said earlier this year it would not renew its Patriot missile commitment to Turkey, Defense News reports.

While NATO has been supporting Turkish airspace for several years, officials have moved to strengthen their defenses in the wake of the downing of a Russian aircraft that entered Turkish airspace in November.

"This is something we have been working on long before the incident and is separate from the incident," Stoltenberg said.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Germany_withdraws_Patriot_missiles_from_Turkey_999.html.

Nordic countries in annual contest to claim real Santa

December 23, 2015

HELSINKI (AP) — Most kids learn that Santa Claus comes from the North Pole, but children in Scandinavia are taught he lives a bit further south. Where exactly is a matter of much debate, with businesses in Finland, Sweden and Norway competing to cash in on the cachet that comes with claiming Santa's hometown.

Finnish children know his home to be in the mythological Korvatunturi (Ear mountain) in the northern wilderness of the Finnish part of Lapland while Swedes say he hails from the small town of Mora. Norwegians claim he was born hundreds of years ago under a stone in Drobak on the Oslo fjord.

Danes, who enjoy milder and mostly snowless winters, teach their children that Santa's home is on the distant Arctic island of Greenland, a sparsely populated semiautonomous Danish territory. In the battle to beat their Scandinavian neighbors, Finland's public broadcaster YLE every year sends out a video of a red-cloaked Santa leaving his log cabin on a sleigh drawn by a white reindeer in the frozen snowy landscape that reaches millions of viewers worldwide. A regular feature for the past 30 years, it was first broadcast in 1960.

The biggest town in Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi, has been dubbed the official hometown of Santa Claus and depends on the myth for a large part of its yearly tourism turnover of some 210 million euros ($230 million). Situated just south of the Arctic Circle, it attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually — five times the town's population.

"Santa Claus is a very important and known person globally ... and that's a good basis for us to build up this kind of business," Mayor Esko Lotvonen said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

The origins of Santa Claus — widely known elsewhere in Europe also as St. Nicholas — are shrouded in the mists of mythology, but the benevolent figure is believed to be based on St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Greek Christian bishop who lived in a province of the Byzantine Empire that now is Turkey.

Danes, Swedes and Norwegians base their Santa on a mythological figure — a gnome known as a "tomte" or "nisse" in the Scandinavian languages — whereas Finns, who are ethnically and linguistically a different people, know Santa as "joulupukki," a Christmas buck or goat, derived from old pagan Norse mythology.

In the Nordic region, Santa doesn't clamber down chimneys but visits homes on Dec. 24, meeting the children, or if he's too busy leaving behind a bag or basket of presents. Mora in central Sweden has claimed itself as Santa's home since 1984, with some 50,000 visiting Santaworld annually.

Nicklas Lind, director of Santaworld, which includes Santa's house, a troll safari, moose park and restaurants, says the town, known for its knives and an annual 90-kilometer cross-country skiing race, welcomes the extra money brought in by Santa but was unable to give figures.

"It's very important for the region and the town, for hotels and skiing," he said. "We get some millions; that's all I can say." The message that Santa's home is somewhere in the Nordic region has spread far and wide. Santaworld's post office has received 400,000 letters this year addressed to Santa, his post office in Rovaniemi claims more than 500,000 letters with 100,000 more expected before the year-end.

The Norwegian Santa in Drobak is too busy to talk as Christmas approaches. Instead, his cousin Tom picks up the phone but doesn't want to discuss business. "It's time for Christmas cheer not for competition, but we can't be angry if our good colleagues in Sweden, Finland and Greenland think otherwise," he says. "All Norwegian children know the real Santa lives here."

A group of schoolboys enjoying their Christmas break at a shopping mall in Helsinki are just as confident Santa is from Finland. Six-year-old Matias, who doesn't want to give his family name, looks puzzled when asked the question, before blurting out: "He lives in Korvatunturi (Ear mountain), of course."

"And he's coming to see us again, he did last year," Matias says.

Associated Press reporter James Brooks contributed to this report from Rovaniemi.

In a first, rival Cyprus leaders offer joint holiday wishes

December 24, 2015

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — For the first time, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders of the ethnically divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus took to the airwaves together to send out holiday wishes in both Greek and Turkish.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said during a televised message Thursday they hoped the new year ushers in a peace accord. Anastasiades expressed hope that next year sees Greek and Turkish Cypriots living peacefully together again in a reunified Cyprus. Akinci said he hoped 2016 would bring lasting peace, calm and prosperity to all.

The messages aimed to reaffirm their commitment to reach a peace deal as negotiations enter their eighth month. Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup aiming at union with Greece.

Sweden's 1st female foreign minister Karin Soder dies at 87

December 27, 2015

HELSINKI (AP) — Sweden's first female foreign minister and party leader, Karin Soder, has died. She was 87.

Center Party spokeswoman Ingrid Brask said Sunday that Soder died in Stockholm on Dec. 19 but gave no cause of death. Soder entered Parliament in 1971 and was a lawmaker for 20 years. She held the foreign minister's position in 1976-1978.

In 1985, she became the first woman in Sweden to lead a political party when elected chairwoman of the Center Party. She quit two years later. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told the TT news agency that Soder was a pioneer in Swedish politics and had "broken new ground."

She led Sweden's member organization of Save the Children between 1983 and 1995. Soder is survived by her husband and three adult children.

Christmas Day cleanup after storms kill 14 in US

Chicago (AFP)
Dec 25, 2015

Rescue workers and heartbroken residents on Friday sifted through what was left of homes wiped out by several ferocious storms and tornadoes that killed at least 14 people in the US southeast.

The storms, feeding on unseasonably warm air, left a trail of destruction in rural communities from Alabama to Illinois, just as Christmas reached its crescendo.

More than a dozen tornadoes were reported in six states, with the southern state of Mississippi hardest hit. Seven people were confirmed dead there and another 60 injured, with one person missing, said the state's emergency management agency.

"We are experiencing some flash flooding today, with storms coming through right now in five counties. And damage assessments are still ongoing," the emergency agency's Brett Carr told AFP.

Among the Mississippi dead was a seven-year-old boy who was killed when a brutal storm picked up and tossed the car he was travelling in, fire chief Kenny Holbrook told reporters in the town of Holly Springs, where thousands greeted Christmas Day without power.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency in seven counties after the storms caused widespread damage.

Six fatalities were confirmed in neighboring Tennessee, including three people found dead Thursday in a car submerged in a creek, according to the fire department in Columbia, Tennessee.

One person was reportedly killed in Arkansas.

Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency in counties affected by the severe weather.

Debris from ravaged buildings and other structures littered roads, making them impassable in parts of the southeast.

Officials were inviting volunteers to help clean up or make donations as people who fled returned to their homes to see what, if anything, was still standing.

Television footage and pictures posted on social media showed homes flattened across several states, with possessions and Christmas presents strewn on the ground or left in a messy heap.

Power lines, trees and mobile phone towers were also toppled.

Therese Apel, a reporter at Mississippi's Clarion-Ledger newspaper, spoke with a north Mississippi family hard hit by the violent weather.

"The Wilkins family lost everything, but they told me, 'It's still Christmas. It's about family and being grateful,'" Apel posted on Twitter.

The worst appeared to be over, but forecasters at the National Weather Service warned severe weather was possible in several states including Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma. Flash floods in the US southeast were also a possibility.

The East Coast meanwhile was enjoying unseasonably warm weather, with temperatures in New York's iconic Central Park peaking at 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) Thursday, the warmest Christmas Eve since records began in 1871.

The location set a Christmas Day record with temperatures reaching 66 degrees (19 Celsius) on Friday.

Atlanta, Georgia was also expected to set a record with temperatures reaching 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius).

The opposite was happening in other areas of the country.

"Ho Ho Ho! Vegas got snow!" reported the National Weather Service before dawn Friday, saying the trace of white tied the record set in 1941 for Christmas Day snow in normally balmier Las Vegas. That record was also tied in 1988 and 2008.

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Christmas_Day_cleanup_after_storms_kill_14_in_US_999.html.

Central American nations announce deal on Cuban migrants

December 29, 2015

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — Central American nations have reached a deal to let the first of thousands of stranded Cuban migrants continue their journey north toward the United States next month, officials said Monday.

The humanitarian transfer will airlift an unspecified number of Cubans the first week of January from Costa Rica to El Salvador, from where they will continue by bus toward Mexico, Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Guatemalan government, which hosted a diplomatic meeting earlier in the day to consider the issue, described it as a "pilot" program and said a work group has been tasked with coordinating logistics.

The two governments did not immediately release further details, citing some nations' desire for discretion on what has become a diplomatic flashpoint between Costa Rica and neighboring Nicaragua. The number of Cubans stranded in Costa Rica has reached at least 8,000 since Nicaragua closed its border to them weeks ago. The islanders say they are trying to reach the United States, where favorable migratory policies toward Cubans mean nearly all are allowed to stay and apply for residency.

On Sunday, Pope Francis called for their plight to be resolved. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said the measure will be available only to Cubans who are already in Costa Rica. Ministry spokeswoman Melissa Duran told The Associated Press it will be up to the migrants to pay the costs of their travel, but did not give more specifics.

On Dec. 18, Costa Rica stopped issuing transit visas for Cuban migrants and announced that any who arrived after that without a visa would be deported. Cuba has seen a spike in outward migration in the year since it and Washington announced they would re-establish diplomatic ties after more than five decades of open hostility. Many Cuban migrants say they chose now to emigrate out of fear that detente could bring about an end to the U.S. policies that benefit them — although U.S. officials say no change is in the works.

Cuba and its close ally Nicaragua argue that the U.S. policies toward Cubans encourage them to attempt dangerous migratory routes and cause a brain drain on the island.

Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed.

Putin signs decree on dissolving Federal Space Agency

Moscow (Sputnik)
Dec 28, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree on dissolving the country's Federal Space Agency in line with the creation of Roscosmos state corporation, the Kremlin press service said Monday.

The agency will be dissolved in accordance with a federal law of July 13, 2015, according to the presidential decree, published on Kremlin's official website.

The decree comes into force on January 1, 2016.

Under the decree, the Russian government is due to ensure the continuity of the agency's functioning.

In accordance with the law, in the near future the government should carry out liquidation procedures, as well as provide the agency's employees with legal guarantees and compensation.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Putin_signs_decree_on_dissolving_Federal_Space_Agency_999.html.

Ousted Russian Orthodox Church cleric assails Russian elites

December 25, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — A conservative priest who lost his high-level job at the Russian Orthodox Church assailed Russia's "immoral elites" Friday and predicted a national catastrophe if the country fails to allow free public discussion.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, who headed the Moscow Patriarchate's department for cooperation between church and society, was relieved of his duties Thursday and his department was disbanded. The church's Holy Synod explained the move by citing the need to increase efficiency.

Chaplin sharply criticized Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill for failing to listen to critical voices and predicted that Kirill would be replaced soon. Chaplin hadn't issued any public criticism of Kirill before being relieved of his duties, and in the past had staunchly defended the Patriarch against accusations of indulging in luxury.

Chaplin told a news conference Friday that Russia would face an "inevitable catastrophe" if the authorities fail to allow "live discussion and live public process." He said that "immoral elites are hampering the nation's development," adding that "to prevent a revolution, we need to actively offer models of peaceful reforms," according to the Interfax news agency.

Speaking to RBC news portal, Chaplin said that his view that the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church should have taken a stronger action in support of pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine had caused tensions between him and the patriarch.

The 47-year-old Chaplin has long attracted public attention with controversial statements. He said once said women should dress more modestly to avoid provoking rapes. Chaplin declared recently that "we in Russia should fulfill the best ideals of the Holy Russia, caliphate and the USSR, the systems that cast a challenge to injustice and diktat of narrow elites."

He recently has drawn strong criticism with his statement that Russia was waging a "holy war" against extremists in Syria.

Russia delivers S-300 missile system to Kazakhstan free of charge

Washington (UPI)
Dec 23, 2015

The Russian government has completed the free delivery of its S-300 air defense system to the government of Kazakhstan, according to Russian media reports.

The delivery supports the initiative between Moscow and Astana to construct and operate a common aerospace defense system. Russian defense officials say they delivered the missile system free of charge because it is the country's main contribution to the integrated air defense system.

"We have completed the project on free of charge S-300 air defense system deliveries to Kazakhstan," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting according to Sputnik International.

Russian state-owned media outlet Tass reports the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of former Soviet states including Kazakhstan, has plans to further develop its joint air defense system.

"We have approved for 2016 a plan of work of the Defense Ministers' Council of the CIS countries and a plan of common steps on the joint air defense system," Shoigu added.

The S-300 missile defense system was developed by the Soviet Union and now used by the Russian government and other armed forces around the world as a surface-to-air defense system against airborne threats.

Moscow has also agreed to deliver S-300 missiles to Iran by the end of 2016.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Russia_delivers_S-300_missile_system_to_Kazakhstan_free_of_charge_999.html.

India donates Mi-25 helicopters to Afghanistan

Washington (UPI)
Dec 23, 2015

India has delivered the first of four planned Mi-25 attack helicopters to the government of Afghanistan for use by the Afghan Air Force.

The donation marks the first time India has gifted combat equipment to Afghanistan, which has historically been met with objection from neighboring nation Pakistan. Indian military officials are also scheduled to train Afghan Air Force pilots to operate the aircraft. The deal was subject to approval from Russia as the manufacturer of the helicopters, according to The Economic Times.

The Mi-25 attack helicopters are designed to engage enemies in fortified positions, and transport troops to locations under heavy enemy fire. India is currently in the process of replacing its fleet of Mi-25 helicopters with U.S.-made Apache aircraft.

Once the deliveries are complete, the Afghan Air Force will use the Mi-25s to replace their fleet of Mi-35 helicopters, of which only one is in a state to fly, according to IHS Janes. The deliveries add to the Afghan Air Force's fleet of 109 aircraft, comprised of Russian, Indian and U.S.-made planes.

Afghanistan will receive the first of 20 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft from the United States in January 2016.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/India_donates_Mi-25_helicopters_to_Afghanistan_999.html.

Indian premier Narendra Modi visits Russia for annual summit

December 23, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for talks expected to focus on defense, nuclear and space cooperation.

Modi began his visit Wednesday with a private dinner with Putin. More talks involving top officials from both countries are to be held in the Kremlin on Thursday. Trade between India and Russia was just below $10 billion in 2014. The two countries have set an ambitious goal of increasing trade to $30 billion by 2025.

Russia and India have shared close ties since the Cold War, when Moscow was a key ally and the main arms supplier to New Delhi. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told reporters ahead of the visit that Russia is a "very major military and strategic partner," adding that there will be discussions on more arms purchases for the Indian military, including a deal to manufacture 200 Kamov-226T helicopters in a joint venture located in India.

While India has remained a major customer for the Russian arms industry, the country in recent years has sought to diversify its purchases, buying military hardware from the United States, France and Israel.

Jaishankar said Modi's talks in Moscow will also include nuclear cooperation. "We have a road map for nuclear cooperation with Russia, and we are moving in accordance with that," said Jaishankar. Russia has built a nuclear reactor at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in India and is now completing a second unit there. The two nations have a plan envisaging that Russia will build a total of 12 nuclear reactors in India over 20 years.

Five dead, 150,000 evacuated in Latin America floods

Asuncion (AFP)
Dec 24, 2015

Flooding dampened Christmas eve celebrations in parts of Latin America on Thursday, leaving five people dead and driving almost 150,000 from their homes in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay.

Some 130,000 people have been forced from their homes across Paraguay, officials said, as President Horacio Cartes declared a state of emergency to free up more than $3.5 million in disaster funds.

Three people traveling Paraguay's international Route 2, which links Asuncion and Foz de Iguazu in Brazil were killed when a tree fell on their vehicle before dawn.

Another woman traveling by motorcycle in Asuncion was killed by a falling tree overnight, official sources told AFP.

The National Emergency Secretariat (SEN) reported a dozen other similar incidents in the capital.

The agency's head of operations, David Arellano, said rescue and evacuation operations were underway for dozens of families in the face of floodwaters from the Paraguay River.

Around the capital Asuncion 125,000 homes were without power and 17 power distribution centers knocked out across the country.

Northeastern Argentina also reported widespread disruption and one fatality from the worst flooding in half a century.

A 13-year-old boy was electrocuted by a power cable while trying to assess storm damage to his home in the city of Corrientes, local media reported.

In Entre Rios province at least 10,000 people were evacuated, with Concordia, a city of some 170,000 on the banks of the Uruguay River, the worst affected with nonstop rain throughout the night, Mayor Enrique Crest said.

"This is the worst flooding in 50 years," he said, adding that although "flooding was predicted due to El Nino, no one thought that it would be so substantial."

The city is located 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the Salto Grande dam, which was helping to hold the waters back, but was nearing its full capacity, Crest said.

The governor of Entre Rios said the total number of evacuees across the province could rise to "between 16,000 to 20,000."

Argentina's vice president, Gabriela Michetti, traveled Thursday to the affected region to view the damage and assess disaster relief needs.

The country has declared a state of emergency for the Panama, Uruguay and Paraguay rivers and their tributaries, following exceptionally high rainfall.

In November and December, the Rio de la Plata river basin in Argentina's northeast received between 150 and 300 millimeters more rain than is typical for the period, the farm industry ministry said in a statement.

Uruguay on Wednesday also declared a state of emergency in three northern departments affected by flooding.

The number of displaced people reached almost 5,500 Thursday, as the situation worsened.

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Five_dead_150000_evacuated_in_Latin_America_floods_999.html.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Saudi voters elect 20 women candidates for the first time

December 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi voters elected 20 women for local government seats, according to results released to The Associated Press on Sunday, a day after women voted and ran in elections for the first time in the country's history.

The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia's largest city to a small village near Islam's holiest site. The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.

Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented. Around 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, competed in the election for a seat on the municipal councils, which are the only government body elected by Saudi citizens. The two previous rounds of voting for the councils, in 2005 and 2011, were open to men only.

The conservative capital of Riyadh saw the most women candidates win, with four elected. The Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, saw two women elected, said Hamad Al-Omar, who heads the General Election Commission's media council.

Saudi Arabia's second largest and most cosmopolitan city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim. The mayor of the city of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, told the AP that a woman won in a village called Madrakah, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray.

Another woman won in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad's first mosque was built. Other women hailing from the kingdom's northernmost areas won, with two elected in Tabuk, one in al-Jawf and another in Hail. Additionally, a woman won in Saudi Arabia's southern border area of Jizan, another in Asir and two won in al-Ahsa.

Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.

It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.

Most ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out, due to strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex.

In an effort to create a more level playing field for women who wear the traditional full-face veil, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television.

Still, al-Omar said the historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who'd registered. Out of 1.35 million men registered, almost 600,000 cast ballots. In total, some 47 percent of registered voters took part in Saturday's election.

In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked "the beginning" of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia.

"I walked in and said 'I've have never seen this before. Only in the movies'," the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. "It was a thrilling experience."

Saudi Arabia to host Syrian opposition ahead of peace talks

December 04, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Saudi Arabia is hosting Syrian opposition groups and many of the main rebel factions next week in an effort to come up with a unified front ahead of peace talks with representatives of the government in Damascus, scheduled to begin early next year.

The meeting is the first of its kind in the Sunni kingdom, which is a main backer of the Syrian opposition, underscoring how the internationally backed effort is the most serious yet in attempts to end the nearly five-year civil war. The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

The rebel factions' participation points to the evolution in the position of many of them that long rejected any negotiations with Damascus as long President Bashar Assad was in power. Now they are on board to attempt a process that the United States and its allies say must eventually lead to Assad's removal — but with no timetable for it.

At the three-day gathering that starts next Tuesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the factions will try to form a unified opposition delegation and a platform regarding what is meant to be a transitional period in Syria, officials who were invited said.

"We will be negotiating Assad's departure," said Mustafa Osso, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. "If this regime stays, violence will continue in Syria and there will be no stability," he said, speaking from Turkey. Osso will be part of what he said will be a 20-member delegation from the coalition at the Riyadh meeting.

A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad's government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad's future, but states that "free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months."

Among the nations that took part in the Vienna meeting were the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been Assad's strongest supporters since the crisis began in March 2011 while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed factions trying to remove the Syrian president from power.

In Tehran, Iran's deputy foreign minister denounced the planned gathering in Saudi Arabia, the official IRNA news agency reported. "The action will divert Vienna political efforts on Syria from its natural path and will drive the Vienna talks toward failure," Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

Most of the main rebel factions have been invited to the Riyadh talks, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Also among the invited are two of the biggest — Jaysh al-Islam and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group that has been for months trying to improve its image and market itself as a moderate faction, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.

Spokesmen for Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham did not respond to requests for comment on whether the groups would attend. "The time for serious negotiations to find a solution has begun," Hamidi said.

But in a sign of the splits within Assad's opponents, no Kurdish factions have been invited, including the main Kurdish militia known as the YPG. The YPG has been the most successful group fighting the Islamic State group and captured scores of towns and villages from the extremists over the past year.

Saleh Muslim, the president of the largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, said his group has also not been invited. He said Turkey, which has broad fears of Kurdish ambitions, likely pressured Saudi Arabia not to invite them or the YPG.

"We would love to participate. The conference is related to Syria's future and we are a main part of Syria and its future," Muslim said. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's pre-war population of 23 million people. There are Kurds, including Osso, in some other factions that will attend.

Among those invited is Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change. He said that his group will enter talks with the Syrian government "without pre-conditions."

"The fate of the Syrian president will be decided during the negotiations," Abdul-Azim said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that the Syrian government has already put forward to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the makeup of its delegation to the upcoming negotiations. Lavrov last week said peace talks cannot go ahead until all parties involved agree on which groups should be listed as terrorist and which as Syria's legitimate opposition.

Also ahead of the peace talks, Jordan is to oversee a process identifying which militant groups in Syria should be considered as terrorists and thus should be prevented from participating in any negotiations. That is to be completed by the time the political process between the government and opposition begins in January.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the world body is working to launch talks between Syria's warring parties and start a nationwide cease-fire in the country in early January. He also said he expects the third round of talks on the "Vienna process" to take place in New York but wouldn't confirm a Dec. 18 date, though that date is being considered, according to U.N. diplomats.

Also Thursday, Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary general of the world's largest body of Muslim nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, appealed to the Syrian opposition leaders to "close ranks and make the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for change, reform and reconstruction of institutions.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.