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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Iraq begins operation to oust Islamic State from Anbar

May 26, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq vowed Tuesday to retake Anbar province — now mostly held by the Islamic State — by launching a large-scale military operation less than two weeks after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the extremists in the provincial capital of Ramadi.

The operation, which Iraqi state TV said was backed by Shiite militias and Sunni pro-government fighters, is deemed critical in regaining momentum in the fight. But as a sandstorm descended across the region, there was no sign of any major engagement against the extremists, who have been gaining ground in the province west of Baghdad despite U.S.-led airstrikes.

A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said Iraqi forces have begun "shaping operations" and "security zone interactions," which he described as probing and reconnaissance actions that would precede any major combat in or around Ramadi.

The Iraqis have begun moving forward from their base at Habbaniyah, and IS fighters likewise are probing in the direction of Habbaniyah, Warren said. He added that he could not confirm that the Iraqi forces have surrounded Ramadi.

The Islamic State — also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, and Daesh in Arabic — seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier in May. Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists in recent months with the help of the air campaign, scored a major victory in recapturing Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit last month.

Elsewhere in Anbar province, the Islamic State group last week captured the Iraqi side of the key al-Walid border crossing with Syria. Those gains followed the IS seizure of the ancient town of Palmyra in Syria.

The launch of the operation in Anbar came only days after U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, criticized Iraq's forces, saying its troops fled the IS advance on Ramadi without fighting back, leaving behind weapons and vehicles for the extremists.

Baghdad defended its troops and said preparations were underway for the large-scale counteroffensive in Anbar, involving Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Units. That possibility sparked fears of potential sectarian violence in the Sunni-dominated province, long the site of protests and criticism of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

The Shiite militias chose a religious name for their campaign, deepening those worries and drawing criticism from the Pentagon. The Popular Mobilization Units have named it "Labaik Ya Hussein," which is Arabic for "I am here, Hussein" — referring to a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered figures of Shiite Islam.

Warren called the title "unhelpful," adding: "We've long said ... the key to expelling ISIL from Iraq is a unified Iraq that separates itself from sectarian divides." Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Units, said the name wasn't sectarian.

"This name has no sectarian dimension (or meaning) because all Iraqis, regardless of their sect or religion, love Imam Hussein," al-Nouri said. A spokesman for Iraq's Shiite militias said the operation would "not last for a long time," and that Iraqi forces have surrounded Ramadi on three sides.

New weapons are being used in the battle "that will surprise the enemy," said Ahmed al-Assadi, who is also a member of parliament. He told reporters that another operation was underway north of the nearby province of Salahuddin.

Plans called for the forces in Salahuddin to move against Ramadi from its northeastern side, al-Assadi added. The Anbar operation aims to cut off supply routes and recapture the outskirts of Ramadi first — not the city itself, according to provincial councilman Faleh al-Issawi and tribesman Rafie al-Fahdawi.

They told The Associated Press there was ongoing fighting and airstrikes west and south of Ramadi on Tuesday, adding that more Sunni fighters will be armed starting Wednesday to fight the Islamic State.

The sandstorm complicated efforts to retake the city, al-Issawi said. "There is zero visibility on the front lines and our men are highly concerned that they might come under attack by Daesh in such bad weather," he said.

Security forces and Sunni militiamen who had been battling the extremists in Ramadi for months collapsed as IS fighters overran the city. The militants gained not only new territory 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, but also large stocks of weapons abandoned by government forces as they fled.

Carter said Sunday that Iraqi forces had "vastly outnumbered" the IS militants in Ramadi but "showed no will to fight." Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said Carter's remarks surprised the government and that he "was likely given incorrect information."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended Carter's remarks, saying the Iraqi government acknowledged that the setback in Ramadi was the result of a breakdown in command and planning. Earnest added that the Iraqi forces in Ramadi had not benefited from U.S. or allied training.

He praised Iraq's announcement it had launched a major military operation to drive Islamic State from Anbar, adding: "I think that is a clear indication of the will of the Iraqi security forces to fight. And the United States and our coalition partners will stand with them as they do so."

Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds forces in Iran's Revolutionary Guard who has taken on an advisory role with the Shiite militias, lashed out Monday at U.S. efforts. The Iranian daily newspaper Javan, seen as close to the Revolutionary Guard, quoted Soleimani as saying the U.S. didn't do a "damn thing" to stop the advance on Ramadi.

"Does it mean anything else than being an accomplice in the plot?" he reportedly asked, later saying the U.S. showed "no will" in fighting IS. Al-Abadi had urged the Shiite militias to help retake Anbar province. The militiamen have played a key role in clawing back territory from IS elsewhere in Iraq, although rights groups and Sunni residents have accused them of looting, destroying property and carrying out revenge attacks — especially after government forces recaptured Tikrit last month. Militia leaders deny the allegations.

The participation of the Shiite militias in the Anbar operation risks exacerbating tensions that arose amid retaliatory sectarian killings that roiled Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Distrust of the Shiite-led government runs deep in Anbar, where U.S. troops fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam and only succeeded in rolling back militants when Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents rallied to their side as part of the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement in 2006. After the U.S. troop withdrawal, Sunni anger at Baghdad has grown steadily.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Robert Burns and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

Iraq announces launch of operation to drive IS from Anbar

May 26, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq on Tuesday announced the launch of a military operation to drive the Islamic State group out of the western Anbar province, where the extremists captured the provincial capital, Ramadi, earlier this month.

Iraqi state TV declared the start of the operation, in which troops will be backed by Shiite and Sunni paramilitary forces, but did not provide further details. The Islamic State group seized large parts of Anbar starting in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier this month. The fall of the city marked a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists over the past year with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Security forces and Sunni militiamen who had been battling the extremists in Ramadi for months collapsed as IS fighters overran the city. The militants gained not only new territory 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, but also large stocks of weapons abandoned by the government forces as they fled.

The capture of Ramadi was a major blow to the U.S.-backed strategy against the Islamic State group. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Sunday that Iraqi forces had "vastly outnumbered" the IS militants in Ramadi but "showed no will to fight."

Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said the government was surprised by Carter's remarks, and that the defense secretary "was likely given incorrect information." Al-Abadi has called on Shiite militias to help Iraqi troops retake the Sunni province of Anbar. The militiamen have played a key role in clawing back territory from the IS group elsewhere in Iraq but rights groups accuse them of looting, destroying property and carrying out revenge attacks. Militia leaders deny the allegations.

Demolition of torched HQ of Mubarak's old party begins

May 31, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian workers, using construction drills and cranes, began Sunday to demolish the former headquarters of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's now-defunct party, a towering structure which was torched by protesters during the 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak's rule.

The military's corps of engineers started bringing down the National Democratic Party's headquarters — a prime piece of real-estate alongside the city's central Tahrir square, adjacent to the Egyptian Museum and overlooking the Nile.

The fate of the 56-year old property — which originally housed the offices of the Cairo municipality — has been a contentious issue, with various government bodies bickering over its future. Rights groups and the family of the building's architect have campaigned to stop the demolition.

Mahmoud M. Riad, the grandson of the architect and himself an architect, said the building was registered with the government as a landmark in the mid-2000s as one of the first to blend modernist architecture with art-deco, and Arab styles.

The demolition violates the law on dealing with registered landmarks, Riad said, explaining that an earlier attempt to demolish the building was stalled. "There are a lot of different factors that make this building an iconic one that needs to be preserved and adoptively used," said Riad, who is collecting signatures on a petition to stop the demolition. "It is one of the most studied pan-Arab modernist buildings. It started a new wave by Egyptian architects who were trying to create a new identity."

The deputy governor of Cairo told the state-owned Al-Ahram Online site that the municipality had issued the demolition permits. For protesters, the building was a charred reminder of the revolt against Mubarak's 29-year reign. The building was set ablaze on Jan. 28, 2011, when protesters overwhelmed Mubarak's police forces and took control of Tahrir Square.

"The NDP building was one of the last remaining physical reminders of the (2011) revolution," activist Sherief Gaber tweeted. Lamenting the failure of the pro-democracy movement to take hold in Egypt, Gaber wrote: "The state is in the process of erasing even that."

Srebrenica ceremonies marred by attack on Serbia's premier

July 12, 2015

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — A crowd of furious Bosnian Muslims jumped over fences and attacked Serbia's prime minister with stones and water bottles on Saturday, marring the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Srebrenica massacre.

Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist during the Balkan wars but who is now a moderate with a pro-Western stance, escaped serious injury. He said he was hit in the face with a rock as the crowds chanted "Kill, Kill" and "Allahu akbar," the Arabic phrase for "God is great."

The scenes overshadowed what was supposed to be a day of reflection and remembrance for the 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered at the hands of Serb forces in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Two U.N. courts ruled that the killings constituted genocide.

Vucic is among the most hated individuals for Bosnian Muslims, with some viewing him in worse terms than late strongman Slobodan Milosevic. During the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Vucic was an ultranationalist politician in opposition to Milosevic, criticizing the Serb leader of leniency toward Bosnian Muslims.

Many Bosnian Muslims also still remember Vucic's incendiary statement during the Balkan wars that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Some in the crowd held a banner with the quote to remind him of his past.

Vucic's security detail rushed him away, trying to protect him with bags, umbrellas and their raised arms from the projectiles raining down. His guards shoved through the angry crowd before pushing the prime minister inside an armored vehicle.

"We were attacked from all sides. It was well organized and prepared," a visibly shaken Vucic said upon his quick return to Serbia. He blamed hooligan soccer groups from Serbia and Bosnia for initiating the attack.

"I heard Muslim people telling the attackers 'why are you attacking him? It is not his fault. He had not done anything here.'" He added: "Except for my glasses, I'm missing nothing else." Vucic, who came to represent Serbia at the commemoration in an apparent gesture of reconciliation, said after the attack that, "Today we are talking more about a bunch of fools rather than about the innocent victims of Srebrenica." He added that his "arms of reconciliation remain stretched toward the Bosniaks."

Serbia's foreign ministry sent a protest note to Bosnia, saying the attack was a murder attempt against Vucic and urged that the culprits be caught. Although the crowd booed Vucic's arrival, Srebrenica widows and mothers welcomed his presence.

"Only on truth we can build a future. You cannot deny the truth," Kada Hotic, who lost her son and husband in the massacre, told Vucic before the ceremony. The Muslim Bosniak mayor of Srebrenica, Camil Durakovic, apologized to Vucic, saying he was "deeply disappointed" about the attack.

Tens of thousands of people came to the commemorations marking two decades since Europe's worst massacre since the Holocaust. Foreign dignitaries urged the international community not to allow such atrocities to happen again and to call the crime "genocide."

Serbia and Bosnian Serbs deny the killings were genocide, and claim that the death toll has been exaggerated. Dozens of foreign dignitaries — including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Britain's Princess Anne and Jordan's Queen Noor.

"I grieve that it took us so long to unify ... to stop this violence," said Clinton, who was in office at the time of the massacre and whose administration led the NATO airstrikes against Serb positions. This ended the Bosnian war and the U.S. brokered a peace agreement.

Clinton said before the attack on Vucic: "I want to thank the prime minister of Serbia for having the courage to come here today and I think it is important that we acknowledge that." U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who witnessed the attack, condemned the "deplorable acts of violence" against Vucic. He said it was "far removed from the spirit I felt at this dignified and solemn commemoration."

It wasn't the first time that top Serbian officials visited Srebrenica for commemorations. The former pro-democratic president, Boris Tadic, was there twice, including on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, and there were no major incidents.

During the war, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a safe haven for civilians. But on July 11, 1995, Serb troops overran the Muslim enclave. Some 15,000 men tried to flee through the woods toward government-held territory while others joined the town's women and children in seeking refuge at the base of the Dutch U.N. troops.

The outnumbered Dutch troops could only watch as Serb soldiers rounded up about 2,000 men for killing and later hunted down and killed another 6,000 men in the woods. The United Nations admitted its failure to protect the town's people and on Saturday, Bert Koenders, foreign minister of Netherland said that "the Dutch government shares responsibility" and that the U.N. must strengthen United Nations missions in the future.

"Nobody can undo what happened here but we mourn with you," Koenders added. The 1992-95 war in Bosnia, pitting Christian Orthodox Serbs against Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics, left more than 100,000 people dead and millions homeless. The Serbs, who wanted to remain in the Serb-led Yugoslavia, fought against the secession of Bosnia and Croatia from the former federation.

So far, remains of some 7,000 victims have been excavated from 93 graves or collected from 314 surface locations and identified through DNA technology. At the end of the ceremony Saturday, families laid the incomplete remains of 136 victims recently found in mass graves, including 19 teenagers.

"Most of the boys I played with are in these graves or in yet undiscovered mass graves," the mayor, Durakovic, said. "With them lies my own childhood."

AP writers Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

Tens of thousands mark 20 years of the Srebrenica massacre

July 11, 2015

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Tens of thousands of people are pouring into Srebrenica to mark the 20th anniversary of Europe's worst massacre since the Holocaust and to attend the funeral of 136 newly found victims.

Dozens of foreign dignitaries — including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Britain's Princess Anne and Jordan's Queen Noor — will join Saturday's ceremony mourning the 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica after Bosnian Serb troops overran the U.N. protected enclave in July 1995. The crime was later defined as an act of genocide by two international courts.

Families will lay the remains of 136 victims to rest at a memorial center next to the graves of over 6,000 previously found in mass graves.

Timeline of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia

July 10, 2015

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — A look back at the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.


Near the Serbian border, Srebrenica, or silver town, is named after the ore mined by the Romans. Its prewar population, with surrounding villages, was 36,666 — 27,572 Bosnian Muslims, the rest Bosnian Serbs and Croats. Now, most of the 10,000 people in the region are Serbs. They are mostly shunned by the 1,000 Muslim returnees.


Serb forces besieged the town at the start of the 1992-95 Bosnian war, shelling it and preventing U.N. food convoys from reaching it. The U.N. Security Council declared the town a safe haven protected by U.N. troops in April 1993, but the Serbs increased the pressure in July 1995. Muslim Bosnian fighters asked the 600 Dutch peacekeepers to give back weapons they had turned in, but were refused. Serb troops overran U.N. posts around the city and took about 30 peacekeepers hostage. The Dutch commander's repeated requests for NATO airstrikes were either rejected or not acted upon.


Serb troops entered Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. After they raised their flag over the town, Dutch F-16 warplanes dropped two bombs on Serb positions. Further strikes were suspended after the Serbs threatened to kill their Dutch hostages and shell the refugees. By then, more than 20,000 Muslim Bosnians, mostly women, children and the elderly, had fled to the main Dutch base at Potocari, a Srebrenica suburb. Some 15,000 men and boys fled into the woods, trying to reach government-held territory.

On July 12, Serb troops moved into the U.N. compound and separated from the crowd about 2,000 men to be killed. The women were taken by buses and trucks to government-held territory. Dressed in U.N. uniforms and driving U.N. vehicles, Serb soldiers then hunted down about 6,000 Muslim men and boys in the woods and put them in front of firing squads.


Captured Muslim Bosnian men and boys were brought to sites around Srebrenica and on July 13, 1995, Serb forces began killing them. One of the major massacre sites was the warehouse in the nearby village of Kravica, where Serbs killed 1,000 people in one night. Serb forces let the Dutch peacekeepers leave Srebrenica, but kept their weapons.


The International Committee on Missing Persons listed around 8,000 Srebrenica residents — most of them males — as missing. The U.N. war crimes court considers them victims of the killing spree, labeling the crime as genocide. This qualification was confirmed by the International Court of Justice. So far, forensic experts have found and identified 6,930 bodies in 93 mass graves and on 314 on-surface locations in the area. The identification was done through DNA analysis. Of these, 6,241 have been buried at the Potocari Memorial Center for victims and another 136 will be laid to rest there on Saturday.


As news of the Srebrenica killings spread, NATO launched massive airstrikes against Serb military positions across the country in September 1995, forcing Serbs to negotiate a peace deal. The peace agreement brokered in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 recognized the territorial integrity of Bosnia, but divided it in two mini-states along ethnic lines.

Bosnian Muslims pay tribute to Srebrenica victims

July 09, 2015

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Thousands lined Sarajevo's main street on Thursday as a huge truck bearing 136 coffins passed on its way to Srebrenica, where newly identified victims of Europe's worst massacre since World War II will be buried on the 20th anniversary of the crime.

As the truck covered with a huge Bosnian flag and with hundreds of flowers tucked into the canvas rolled down the street covered with white rose petals, the sobbing of mothers, sisters and wives of the victims broke the silence.

It stopped in front of Bosnia's presidency where the weeping crowd tucked more flowers into the canvas or simply approached it to touch it or caress the canvas that was hiding the remains of the victims found in mass graves and identified through DNA analysis.

On July 11, 1995, Serb troops overran the eastern Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica and executed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. International courts labeled the crime an act of genocide. The remains of Srebrenica victims are still being found in mass graves. So far some 7,000 victims have been excavated from 93 graves or collected from 314 on-surface locations and identified through DNA technology.

Edin Nuhic, who lost numerous male relatives in the massacre, has not yet found the remains of all of them. "All we can do is to think about them, to remember them and to hope that one day this country will find a way to move on," he said.

Among the 136 victims to be laid to rest on Saturday are 18 minors. The oldest victim, Jusuf Smajlovic, was 75 when he was executed and he will be laid to rest together with his 29-year-old grandson, Hebib.

The truck also carried the coffins of father Ismet Mehmedovic and his three sons Fikret, 20, Rifet, 18, and Salih, 16. Dozens of people walked next to the truck that was slowly passing through the capital, with more and more people tucking flowers in the canvas, the wheels and anywhere else they could reach.

In Srebrenica, organizers expect some 50,000 people to attend the funeral along with international delegations. The United States, which led the military intervention and brokered Bosnia's peace agreement that ended the country's war after it claimed 100,000 victims, will be represented by a delegation led by former President Bill Clinton.

Stampede at charity handout in Bangladesh leaves 23 dead

July 10, 2015

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A stampede in central Bangladesh left 22 women and a child dead early Friday when hundreds of people stormed the home of a businessman for a charity handout during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, police said.

Another 30 were injured and rushed to a hospital in Mymensingh, a town 115 kilometers (70 miles) north of the capital, Dhaka, said police officer Kamrul Islam. The crowd gathered outside the tobacco businessman's home around 4 a.m. and stormed in when the gates were opened to collect free clothing, Islam said. Twenty-two women and one child were killed, he said. Survivors said there were about 1,000 people, mostly elderly women, in front of the house.

Ambia Begum, 45, went with seven female relatives at dawn. One of them died in the stampede. "Oh Allah, why did I come here? Why?" she wailed as the body of her 60-year-old relative was retrieved. The businessman distributes clothes every year ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan.

Authorities detained six people, including the businessman, who did not request police presence at his house for the distribution. Stampedes are common at religious places and during charity handouts in South Asian countries.

Azerbaijan: jailed dissident speaks out on games opening day

June 12, 2015

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A journalist jailed in Azerbaijan has criticized the country for corruption and human rights violations on the day the first European Games get underway in the capital, Baku.

Khadija Ismayilova was imprisoned last year after investigating corruption allegedly involving President Ilham Aliyev. Activists say the jailing was part of a wider crackdown on opposition ahead of the games, the continent's version of the Olympics.

"The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," says Ismayilova's letter, released Thursday by the PEN organization. "As those at the top continue to profit from corruption, ordinary people are struggling to work, struggling to live, struggling for freedom."

The organization said her letter was smuggled from prison in pieces. "I am carrying on my struggle here, from jail. My investigations into corruption continue, thanks to the help of dedicated colleagues," wrote Ismayilova, who worked for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "I have been punished for speaking out from jail, placed into solitary confinement, and prevented from seeing my family and lawyers."

Ismayilova was convicted of libel and accused of tax evasion and inciting a colleague to commit suicide. The cases have been dismissed by critics as an attempt to intimidate independent journalists. Protests against Azerbaijan's human rights record took place in cities around the world Friday in the hours leading up to the opening ceremony for the European Games, the largest sports event ever held in the country.

In the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, where demonstrations against the government are subject to numerous restrictions, opposition groups did not announce any protests ahead of the opening ceremony.

Turkish president pays tribute to Srebrenica dead

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered his condolences to the families of thousands of Bosnian civilians murdered during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

His comments came in a written statement on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the genocide. Erdogan described the incident as one of the most "disgraceful" events in the history of humanity.

"On that day, whatever pain you experienced there, believe me, we felt the same thing from here in our hearts," Erdogan said.

"Today, without forgetting the past, we are responsible for building a future with peace...where similar tragedies are not seen," he added.

Two decades ago in July, towards the end of Bosnia's 1992-95 war, a town called Srebrenica in the eastern part of the former Yugoslav country witnessed the murder of at least 8,000 Bosnian men and boys.

Along with the forced deportation of around 30,000 women from their land, the incident became the worst mass murder in postwar Europe.

"We are dreaming of a world, where children are not killed while they are flying a kite on a coast, while sleeping in their mother's arms or playing with their children. There is no doubt that the United Nations Security Council countries and international and regional powers have big responsibilities on this point," Erdogan said.

Erdogan thanked politicians and civil societies which had contributed in bringing those responsible for the massacre to account.

In his statement, the president said that Turkey had exerted efforts to provide stability and trust in the Balkans especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, adding that it would continue to do so.

"Our wish and prayer now is also an end of tragedies, which the children of Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia experience."

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/19790-turkish-president-pays-tribute-to-srebrenica-dead.

Turkey's Davutoglu tasked to form new government

July 09, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday officially tasked Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to form a government, paving the way for arduous coalition talks to begin, Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said.

Davutoglu's ruling Islamic-rooted party won Turkey's June 7 general election but lost its parliamentary majority, forcing it to seek a partner in one of the three smaller opposition parties in parliament in order to govern.

Davutoglu now has 45 days in which to form a government. New elections are called if no government is formed within that time. Davutoglu said earlier Thursday that he would begin coalition-building talks with the three parties' leaders next week.

He however, laid down a marker for the coalition talks, saying Erdogan's role was not up for debate. Davutoglu's most likely coalition partners accuse Erdogan of exceeding his presidential powers and have made reining him in a priority for any alliance.

The coalition talks could also be complicated by opposition demands that corruption cases into four former ministers — who were close to Erdogan — be reopened. Parliamentary probes into the ministers were closed with the ruling Justice and Development Party's majority votes.

Erdogan waited until after the formation of a new parliamentary secretariat, which sets the parliamentary timetable, before formally giving Davutoglu the mandate to form the new government, breaking with tradition. Previously, leaders were asked to form governments about a week after formal election results were announced.

The constitution stipulates that a new government is formed after the secretariat is established, although previous presidents have mandated leaders before the secretariat was established. The delay prompted opposition parties to accuse the president of trying to extend the ruling party's hold on government and to stall power-sharing with another party.

The Turkish leader is also rumored to want repeat elections, possibly in November, in the hope that the ruling party, which he founded, can regain a majority allowing it to rule alone. The election not only ended the ruling party's 13-year single party rule but came as a slap to Erdogan's ambitions to switch to a presidential system which would give him broad executive powers.

Since his election as president last year, Erdogan has been accused of overstepping the boundaries of the largely ceremonial presidency, by chairing cabinet meetings and even campaigning on behalf of the Justice and Development Party despite taking the oath for neutrality.

Turkish opposition likely to demand limits on Erdogan's role

June 09, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Opposition parties are likely to demand limits on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's role in Turkey's next government, complicating coalition talks as the ruling party sought ways Tuesday to remain in power.

Erdogan meanwhile, accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's government to allow the formation of a new government after his ruling party lost its parliamentary majority in a national vote, forcing it to seek a coalition deal with smaller parties.

Tuesday's resignation is a political formality and the government will stay in office until a new one is set up. Davutoglu's status remains uncertain after the humiliating setback for the party. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won less than 41 percent of the votes, getting 258 seats in the 550-seat parliament, 18 seats short of the minimum required to rule alone.

Erdogan has been a dominant and divisive figure as he fiercely campaigned in favor of the AKP, flouting a constitutional rule that required him to be neutral. He had hoped that the party, which he founded in 2001, would win a supermajority so it could reshape Turkey's democracy into a presidential system where he would wield control over government affairs.

The AKP now faces difficult negotiations to coax the right-wing Nationalists into the next government or, less likely, the main secularist Republican People's Party or the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party. If no deal is reached on a coalition, a fragile minority government and early elections loom.

Analysts say opposition parties are expected to demand that Erdogan stays within the constitutional boundaries of the largely ceremonial presidency and that the AKP abandon plans for a switch to a presidential system. It's not known if Erdogan, who needs to approve any new government, would sign off on such a deal.

On Tuesday, the pro-Kurdish party that upset Erdogan's ambitions by winning 80 seats in parliament again vowed not to enter in a coalition agreement with the AKP. AKP deputy leader Yasin Aktay said, however, his party was not ruling out any coalition combinations.

"There is no need for gloom," Aktay said. "We will do all that is necessary to form a coalition and not leave the country without a government." Erdogan, who dominated airwaves throughout the campaign, has hardly been seen in public since the election upset. A humorous clock on the Internet keeps tabs on the days, hours, minutes and seconds he has not appeared on airwaves.

Turkey's new parliament features 4 key parties

June 08, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Four parties will dominate Turkey's 550-seat parliament following Sunday's elections. Here is a sketch of each political force.


Conservative and Islamic. Has governed Turkey since 2002. Founded the previous year by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, long an increasingly autocratic prime minister and now, since 2014, Turkey's president.

A "big tent" party that seeks support from liberals, Islamists and nationalists. Has curtailed influence of the traditionally powerful military, overseen economic growth at times, and put the country on the path to possible European Union membership.

Has lost liberal support and EU membership momentum as Erdogan used police to suppress protests, curbed free speech, sought controls on Internet communications, Islamized schools.

Erdogan has maintained de-facto control of the party and government despite becoming the ceremonial head of state, but is tainted by scandals involving lavish expenditure, including on a 1,150-room presidential palace.

Won 258 seats with 41 percent of votes, down 69 seats and 9 points.


Center-left and staunchly secular. The party founded modern Turkey in 1923 under its first leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Its commitment to keep Muslim influences out of government has cost it votes. In hopes of broadening support its current leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 66, has purged the most pro-secular voices and dropped opposition to the public wearing of Muslim headscarves.

Campaigned on promises to strengthen Turkey's economy, raise wages and end poverty.

Won 132 seats with 25 percent support, down three seats and 1 point.


Right-wing and nationalist.

Former economics professor Devlet Bahceli, 67, has led party since 1997 and served as deputy premier from 1999 to 2002.

Past generations of party supporters were ultranationalists involved in 1970s riots that triggered a 1980 military coup. Bahceli purged members linked to violence.

Shares much ideologically with Erdogan but bitterly disagrees with his flexible approach to peace talks with Kurdish militants. Still viewed as the most likely coalition partner in the next government.

Won 80 seats with 16 percent of votes, up 27 seats and 3 points.


New force in parliament and the primary voice for Turkey's 20 percent Kurdish minority.

Left wing, with strong support from women and gays. Charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas, 42, has built party appeal across ethnic lines.

Party campaigns to boost rights of women and minority groups. It seeks equality for all religions in the majority Sunni Muslim country. Wants mandatory religion classes in schools abolished.

Won 80 seats with 13 percent of votes, double its support when members ran as independents in 2011.

Erdogan's party likely to struggle forming new government

June 08, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's ruling party was left Monday with few options to form a new government, after it was stripped of its parliamentary majority and opposition parties ruled out joining it in a coalition pact.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party won about 41 percent of the votes in Sunday's election and was projected to take 258 seats — 18 below the minimum required to rule alone. The result was a stunning rebuke to Erdogan's ambitions to expand his powers in a new presidential system.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was scheduled to convene his cabinet and party executives Monday to discuss the party's options as its 13-year single party rule came to an end. The result also puts Erdogan's hopes of passing constitutional changes that would have boosted his powers on hold. He is likely to see his pre-eminent position in Turkish politics erode without the ability to steer the government through his party.

All three opposition parties have come out against a coalition with the AKP after Erdogan led a fierce and confrontational campaign in favor of the party, brushing aside his constitutional neutrality.

Turkey has 45 days in which to form a new government after final official results are confirmed. The pro-Kurdish HDP party, which dealt the AKP its biggest setback by clearing for the first time a 10-percent threshold for representation as a party in the parliament, slammed the door shut to a formal coalition or an informal pact in which it would provide a minority AKP government outside backing in parliament.

"We have promised our people that we would not form an internal or external coalition with the AKP," the party's leader, Selahattin Demirtas said. "We are clear on that." Turkey's main opposition party, CHP, suggested it should be given the task of forming a government.

The nationalist MHP party sounded disinclined to work with the ruling party, and suggested that Turkey could hold early general elections. "Nobody has the right to sentence Turkey to an AKP minority government. Whenever there can be early elections, let them take place," MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said early Monday.

The Turkish currency on Monday dropped to a record low against the dollar over the political uncertainty, trading at 2.8 lira against the dollar.

Turkish ruling party seen losing majority in parliament

June 07, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a stunning rebuke of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ambitions to expand his powers, Turkish voters stripped his party of its simple majority in parliament, preliminary election results showed Sunday.

With 99.9 percent of the vote counted, Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, had the support of around 41 percent of voters, state-run TRT television said. According to projections, that would give it some 258 seats — 18 below the minimum needed to keep its majority.

The unexpected setback for AKP likely puts an end, for the time being, to Erdogan's hopes of passing constitutional changes that would have greatly boosted the powers of his office. Instead, he faces struggles to retain his pre-eminent place in Turkish politics without the obvious levers to steer the government through his party in parliament.

The result is also a bitter blow to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose political prospects are uncertain after leading his party to such a disappointing result. AKP will now have to seek a coalition partner to stay in power, with the nationalist MHP the most likely candidate.

Late Sunday, Davutoglu declared victory in the election, but didn't acknowledge his party had lost its majority. "Everyone should see that the AKP was the victorious party and the winner of this election. There is no doubt about that," he said. "We will assess the messages of this election and continue on our path in a more determined way."

In an indication of how precipitously Erdogan's fortunes have fallen, he had begun the campaign asking voters for 400 of the total 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly, a massive majority well above the 330 seats needed to call for a national referendum to change the constitution.

The biggest setback for AKP came with the rise of the main pro-Kurdish party, HDP, which for the first time easily cleared the threshold of ten percent for representation as a party in the parliament. The preliminary results put its tally at almost 13 percent.

The main secular opposition Republican Peoples Party, or CHP, got about 25 percent of the vote, while MHP got just above 16 percent. AKP received around 49 percent of the vote in the general elections in 2011. The setback Sunday was the first time that the party faced having to find a coalition partner since it swept into power in 2002.

Erdogan himself was not on the ballot. Still, the election was effectively a vote on whether to endow his office with powers that would significantly change Turkey's democracy and prolong his reign as the country's most powerful politician.

"Erdogan turned the election into a referendum on his personal ambitions," said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at London-based Chatham House. "These elections have put his plans on the back burner for a very long time."

The party appeared to suffer from a sputtering economy and frustrations with the peace process to end decades of fighting with Kurdish insurgents. HDP's apparent leap above the 10 percent threshold would vault it into a significant position in parliament.

It seemed to have made considerable gains in southeast Turkey, suggesting that religious Kurds had turned away from AKP in favor of HDP. AKP also appeared to have lost votes in Sanliurfa and Gaziantep where there are large numbers of Syrian refugees.

The vote came amid high tensions after bombings Friday during a HDP rally killed 2 people and wounded scores. On Sunday, Davutoglu said a suspect had been detained in the case, but provided no other details.

HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas called his party's ability to cross the threshold a "fabulous victory for peace and freedoms" that came despite the attack on his party and fierce campaigning by Erdogan.

"As of now the discussions on a presidential system, a dictatorship has come to an end," he said. Erdogan has been Turkey's dominant politician since his party swept into power in 2002 — becoming prime minister in 2003 and leading his party to two overwhelming parliamentary election victories. In a gamble last year, he decided to run for president, banking that his party could later bolster his powers.

Under the current constitution, Erdogan is meant to stay above the political fray as president. But he campaigned vociferously, drawing complaints from the opposition that he ignored the constitution.

"The true loser of this election is Erdogan," said Haluk Koc, a deputy leader of the main opposition CHP party. "Turkey won." As he cast his vote Sunday, Erdogan praised the election as an indication of the strength of democracy in Turkey.

"This strong democracy will be confirmed with the will of our people and extend the trust we have in our future," Erdogan said. After the final official results are confirmed there is a 45-day period in which a new government needs to be formed, or new elections are called.

Butler reported from Istanbul.

Ukraine PM says reforms continue despite 'lunatic' lawmakers

July 14, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ukraine's prime minister pushed back Monday against a pair of forces threatening to undermine his fragile government, likening members of Ukraine's parliament to "lunatics" while defending a nationalist militia that is locked in a standoff with police.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Washington for meetings with top American officials, also welcomed an announcement that the U.S. military is considering a plan to train Ukrainian army soldiers. He suggested he was optimistic the U.S. would also start sending weapons that Ukraine says it needs to defend itself against Russian aggression.

Yatsenyuk's U.S. visit came amid growing global concerns over proposed legislation in Ukraine's parliament that would water down economic reforms demanded by the international community. A day earlier, the International Monetary Fund insisted that Ukraine must "stay the course," suggesting that rolling back the reforms could jeopardize the IMF's $40 billion support package for Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk, in an interview, predicted none of those controversial bills would reach the floor of the parliament. If they do, he insisted, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will veto them. "In every parliament, you have populists. Sometimes they look like lunatics," Yatsenyuk told The Associated Press. "This government and this president are determined and committed to our reform agenda."

At the White House, President Barack Obama echoed the need for Ukraine to stick with austerity measures during a meeting Monday with Yatsenyuk and Vice President Joe Biden. The White House said Obama and Biden welcomed Ukraine's "strong stand against populist measures that could undermine Ukraine's financial stability."

"The pressure is on the parliament to keep moving forward and to not slip backward," U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said in an interview on the sidelines of a U.S.-Ukraine business forum. "These are hard choices. The prime minister feels the pressure. But as long as they're moving forward, they're not alone."

As Yatsenyuk pushed for more U.S. investment, security forces in western Ukraine were locked in conflict with the nationalist Right Sector militia, which has accused local police of smuggling contraband across the border with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. On Saturday, the group launched a deadly gun-and-grenade attack on police, sparking an ongoing standoff, and on Monday the group briefly took a 6-year-old boy hostage.

But the prime minister, in his remarks to the AP, appeared to validate the group's accusations against police. "It wasn't about the Right Sector. This is about corruption and smuggling and arms on the street," Yatsenyuk said. "They supported smugglers and contraband, and everyone will be brought to justice for the crimes that have been committed."

Staunch supporters of Ukraine's sovereignty, the Right Sector played a key role in last year's massive protests in Kiev and have fought on the government's side since war broke out in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists. Although the group has little formal involvement in Ukrainian politics, Russia has accused Ukraine's government of going too soft on the Right Sector, calling it evidence of Kiev's fascist leanings.

The Obama administration and Western allies have struggled to find ways to strengthen Ukraine following Russia's annexation of Crimea last year and fighting in eastern Ukraine that the U.S. accuses Russia of fomenting. Obama has repeatedly conceded that tough economic sanctions imposed by the West have done little to change Russian President Vladimir Putin's decisions about Ukraine.

"The fact of the matter is Ukraine is now under siege. Russia is building military outposts on Ukrainian soil," Biden told the U.S.-Ukraine business forum. In a modest step Monday, the top U.S. commander in Europe said the U.S. was considering expanding its training program — currently limited to Ukraine's Interior Ministry forces — to include troops from Ukraine's army. Yet that announcement, while welcomed by Ukraine, fell short of a promise of weaponry that Ukraine has long been seeking. The U.S. has provided nonlethal aid to Ukraine, but so far has stopped short of any offensive weapons.

"We expect to get additional support from the United States," Yatsenyuk said. "We do understand that some NATO allies are a little bit reluctant in the decision to supply defensive weapons to Ukraine. But this is not just about Ukraine. This is about the security of the world."

Romania premier resigns as head of ruling party amid probe

July 12, 2015

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's prime minister has resigned as chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party amid a corruption investigation, saying he wanted to prove his innocence.

Prosecutors say Victor Ponta is suspected of a conflict of interest, money laundering and tax evasion on June 5. He denies wrongdoing. President Klaus Iohannis called on Ponta to resign as premier, and he refused.

The allegations stem from work that Ponta did as a lawyer in 2007 to 2008 when he was a lawmaker. Ponta wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday that he was quitting the party leadership to prove his innocence. He is due to appear before anti-corruption prosecutors on Monday.

The 42-year-old prime minister was absent for three weeks after he had a knee operation in Turkey and resumed his post Thursday.

Activists protest Hungary's building of anti-immigrant fence

July 14, 2015

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Protesters on Tuesday called on the Hungarian government to abandon construction of an anti-immigrant fence of the border with Serbia and provide more support to refugees seeking asylum in the European Union.

About 800 people took part in the protest, some breaking through a makeshift barrier set up outside parliament as a symbol of their opposition to the 4-meter (13-foot) high fence which the government starting building this week.

Activist Amy Rodgers from MigSzol, an organization which assists migrants and refugees, asked the Hungarian government to open more refugee camps and on the EU to create legal ways for refugees to reach Europe.

She also criticized the government for its anti-immigrant billboard campaign, which has slogans like "If you come to Hungary, you cannot take Hungarians' jobs." "In the middle of the biggest refugee crisis in recorded history, this government has somehow managed to make it sound like they are the ones with the problem," Rodgers said, who also highlighted how Hungarian volunteers were helping migrants. "In order for this continent to start looking a bit more humane we need many, many things. The one thing we definitely don't need is a fence."

Around 80,000 migrants and refugees have reached Hungary so far in this year, with around 800 to 1,000 arriving daily in recent weeks. Most request asylum but leave for richer EU countries before their claims are settled.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government is staunchly opposed to immigration from outside Europe and he has said that Europe's Christian identity is at risk from the large number of migrants.

Dissent in Greece over austerity deal grows ahead of vote

July 15, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faced a revolt in his left-wing party and workers' calls for strikes ahead of Wednesday's Parliament vote on a bailout deal meant to prevent the country's economy from collapsing.

Now Tsipras must keep his own government from collapsing as he tries to push a deal that he calls "irrational" through Parliament. Talks on a bailout worth 85 billion euros ($94 billion) will start if Parliament agrees by Wednesday to creditors' demands, including painful tax hikes and pension cuts.

Hard-liners in Tsipras' own Cabinet and his radical leftist Syriza party are in open revolt. Unions are calling for or extending strikes to coincide with the Parliament vote. After a stunning win in a referendum that rejected calls for more austerity, Tsipras remained in a bind this week as he reached a deal with creditors: Greece's cash-starved banks would likely have collapsed, sending the country spiraling out of the euro, Europe's joint currency. So after a marathon eurozone summit, Tsipras agreed to tough new measures that mean economically-battered Greeks will pay more for most goods and services by the end of the week.

The bill is expected to pass with votes from opposition parties. But the Tsipras government's political survival could be in danger if large numbers of its own lawmakers resign their seats or openly vote against the bill. Many in Tsipras' party have indicated they will refuse to vote for the deal because it goes back on election pledges to repeal austerity measures that have been imposed on Greece for years.

Pro-European opposition parties have pledged support for the bailout legislation, but Tsipras could effectively lose his majority in Parliament, weakening his ability to push through measures that he had himself vehemently opposed until a few weeks ago.

Tsipras vowed that he would not step down, despite the open dissent. "I will not run away from my responsibilities," he said in an interview on state TV. He criticized the deal, but said it was the best Greece could get.

"The policies imposed on us were irrational," Tsipras said. "We faced a tough and punitive position from our partners ... But the (agreement) does offer a way out of the crisis." There was speculation Tsipras might choose to reshuffle his Cabinet, which would remove dissenters from key positions.

Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis called on the prime minister to cancel the legislation before it reaches Parliament, saying it was forced on Athens by lead eurozone lender Germany and its allies, who had acted like "financial assassins."

"The deal is unacceptable," Lafazanis said in a statement. "It may pass through Parliament ... but the people will never accept it and will be united in their fight against it." Tsipras' coalition partner, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, also denounced the new deal.

"There was a coup. A coup in the heart of Europe," said Kammenos, who heads the right-wing Independent Greeks party. The Tsipras government holds 162 seats in Greece's 300-member Parliament. More than 30 of Syriza's own lawmakers have publicly voiced objections.

Athens was forced to accept harsh terms to remain in the euro after defaulting on its debts to the International Monetary Fund and closing its banks. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund said Greece's finances were even more dire than previously reported. The IMF said Greece's debts would peak over the next two years at 200 percent of the country's economic output; earlier it had said the debt burden would peak last year at 177 percent. The IMF now says Greece needs more debt relief and 85 billion euros in new financing (up from an earlier estimate of around 60 billion euros) through 2018.

The IMF said that "Greece's debt can now only be made sustainable through debt relief measures that go far beyond what Europe has been willing to consider so far." Greece faces a deadline Monday to repay 4.2 billion euros ($4.6 billion) to the European Central Bank. It is also in arrears on 2 billion euros to the IMF.

It will take an estimated four weeks for Greece to access new bailout loans, leaving EU finance ministers scrambling to find ways to get Athens some money sooner. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is traveling to Europe to confer with leaders about the Greek crisis. Lew will meet Wednesday in Frankfurt with European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. On Thursday, he will meet the finance ministers of Germany and France.

The months-long standoff between Greece and its creditors has taken a heavy toll on an economy that had begun the year with a 2.9 percent growth forecast. On Tuesday, a Greek small business association said that the new austerity measures would likely cause the economy to shrink for a seventh year, with a 3.5 percent drop in output.

Greece faced this year's first bailout deadline back in February. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said it could have found itself in a much better situation now had it clinched a deal back then, but Greece got its timing all wrong during the bailout negotiations.

"It would have been much easier to settle this last February, and it would have been much easier to settle this a fortnight ago," when Greece shocked its eurozone allies by calling a referendum and seeking to reject their latest proposals. "From an economic, financial and social point of view it was an absolute disaster, because we all know in democracies that political success and economic success go hand in hand."

Associated Press writers Pan Pylas in Brussels, Anna Psaroudaki in Athens and Paul Wiseman and Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this report.

Greece reaches deal with creditors, avoids euro exit

July 13, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — Greece reached a deal with its European creditors Monday that avoids an exit from the euro and the global financial chaos that prospect had raised. The deal calls for Greece, already reeling from harsh austerity measures, to cut back even further in exchange for more loans without which its financial system would surely collapse.

French President Francois Hollande said the Greek parliament would convene within hours to adopt the reforms called for in the plan, and he celebrated Greece's continued membership in the euro. For the eurozone to have lost Greece, Hollande said, would have been to lose "the heart of our civilization."

The agreement came after months of often bitter negotiations and a summit that stretched from Sunday afternoon well into Monday morning. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had been holding out for a better deal to sell to his reluctant legislature in Athens this week, even as financial collapse grew closer by the day.

A breakthrough came in a meeting between Tsipras, Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU President Donald Tusk, after the threat of expulsion from the euro put intense pressure on Tsipras to swallow politically unpalatable austerity measures in exchange for the country's third bailout in five years.

"We took the responsibility of the decision to be able to avert the harshest outcome," Tsipras said. "We managed to avert the demand to transfer Greek assets abroad, to avert the collapse of the banking system."

The deal includes commitments from Tsipras to push a drastic austerity program including pension, market and privatization reforms through parliament by Wednesday. In return, the 18 other eurozone leaders committed to start talks on a new bailout program that should stave off the imminent collapse of the Greek financial system.

A Cypriot official said the creditors would look into bridge financing for Greece later Monday, suggesting that the political decision could pave the way for the European Central Bank to extend emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks. Without it, they risk running out of cash this week. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the deal publicly.

If the talks had failed, Greece could have faced bankruptcy and a possible exit from the euro, the European single currency that the country has been a part of since 2002. No country has ever left the joint currency, which launched in 1999, and there is no mechanism in place for one to do so.

Greece had requested a three-year, 53.5 billion-euro ($59.5 billion) financial package, but that number grew larger by the tens of billions as the negotiations dragged on and the leaders calculated how much Greece will need to stay solvent.

A discussion paper put to eurozone leaders Sunday and obtained by The Associated Press spoke of a potential "time-out from the euro area" for Greece if no agreement could be found. Greece has received two previous bailouts, totaling 240 billion euros ($268 billion), in return for deep spending cuts, tax increases and reforms from successive governments. Although the country's annual budget deficit has come down dramatically, Greece's debt burden has increased as the economy has shrunk by a quarter.

The Greek government has made getting some form of debt relief a priority and hopes that a comprehensive solution will involve European creditors at least agreeing to delayed repayments or lower interest rates.

Greek debt stands at around 320 billion euros ($357 billion) — a staggering 180 percent or so of the country's annual gross domestic product. Few economists think that debt will ever be fully repaid. Last week, the International Monetary Fund said Greece's debt will need to be restructured.

Menelaos Hadjicostis and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this story.

Iran deal sets 2016 clash between Clinton and GOP hopefuls

July 15, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced a landmark nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday, calling it the most effective path for the U.S. to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But she warned it would need strict enforcement, underscoring the tension between President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy and the White House aspirations of his first secretary of state.

In a lengthy statement released late Tuesday, Clinton said she supported "the agreement because it can help us prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon." But her written statement, following a day of meetings with Democratic lawmakers in Congress, also called for a "clear-eyed" assessment of the threat Iran represents to the U.S. If elected, she vowed a tough response if Iran failed to live up to its end of the bargain.

"We can never permit Iran to evade its obligations or to place any suspicious site off limits to inspectors," Clinton wrote. "And the response to any cheating must be immediate and decisive - starting with the return of sanctions but taking no options off the table, including, if necessary, our military options."

Clinton has largely supported the Obama administration's negotiations over the past two years. She has stayed involved with their progress with regular briefings, according to aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss private meetings.

But navigating the political nuances of a historic agreement with a decades-long U.S. enemy heading into a presidential election year may end up being far more complicated. On Tuesday, Republican candidates signaled that Clinton would be forced to defend her position in the general election and warned of violent chaos in the Middle East as a result of the agreement while calling on Congress to try to halt it.

Campaigning in Iowa on Tuesday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called Obama's actions "naive and wrong." "This isn't diplomacy — it is appeasement," said Bush, one of the many Republicans who lashed out over the agreement.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said the bargain "will be remembered as one of America's worst diplomatic failures." Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like Walker, has vowed to rescind the agreement should he be elected president, said: "I believe this deal undermines our national security."

Though a slim majority of Americans back diplomacy with Iran, 56 percent consider Iran an enemy of the U.S., according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll taken before the deal was announced. Israeli leaders — who hold sway with some Jewish voters — see the agreement as a threat to their country's very existence. And Republicans have already spent months trying to link Clinton to Obama, who has seen approval ratings for his foreign policy sink in his second term.

Clinton's current place in the Iran debate marks a striking role reversal for the second-time presidential candidate and her long-ago rival. In 2008, she called Obama's offer to meet with Iran's leader without preconditions "irresponsible and, frankly, naive." And when Clinton said she would "obliterate" Iran if the country used nuclear weapons against Israel, Obama likened her "bluster" to the "tough talk" of then-President George W. Bush.

Four years later, as secretary of state, Clinton dispatched a top adviser, Jake Sullivan, to participate in the secret meetings with Iran through the sultan of Oman that led to the start of the international negotiations.

Sullivan, who could serve as Clinton's national security adviser if she's elected, declined to speak for Clinton during a breakfast with reporters. When asked for his own views, Sullivan said: "I believe that this deal is the best and most effective way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. That's my personal view."

Clinton, however, has long wondered publically whether a deal would ever take shape. She told an American Jewish organization last year that she was "skeptical the Iranians will follow through and deliver." She said she had "seen many false hopes dashed through the years."

Now, skeptical congressional Democrats are looking to Clinton for direction as they weigh the completed agreement. With the deal between the world powers now finalized, Congress has 60 days to assess the accord and decide whether to pursue legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran or try to prevent Obama from suspending existing ones. If Clinton wins, her commitment to implementing the agreement will play a huge factor in its potential success.

"She's one of two of the most important, most influential voices in this debate, the other being President Obama," said New York Rep. Steve Israel, who met with Clinton on Tuesday morning. "Her opinion is critically important."

Though Clinton praised the deal, she warned that the agreement would not end Iran's "bad behavior" in the region, such as sponsoring terrorists, and noted that the country remains a major threat to Israel.

The Democratic Senate leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, said Clinton had told the rank-and-file privately "let's find out for sure what's in it." After meeting earlier with Clinton, House Democrats said she offered a far more positive assessment behind closed doors, though they noted that Clinton did not explicitly urge them to vote in favor of the deal.

"She endorsed it. Full-throated," said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, who attended the closed-door meeting. "She was not equivocal at all in her support of the deal as she understands it." __ Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas and Laurie Kellman and David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.

Uganda's president starts mediation role in Burundi unrest

July 14, 2015

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Uganda's president has started mediating talks between Burundi's government and opposition groups that are opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial bid for a third term.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni met with representatives of the Burundi government and opposition leaders in the nation's capital, Bujumbura, late Tuesday. The talks are being attended by Agathon Rwasa, the most prominent opposition leader in Burundi.

In remarks before the start of the talks, Museveni urged Burundi's leaders to strive for unity and said sectarianism is a threat to development. He said he is happy that the government had disarmed a pro-government youth militia that is accused of allegedly carrying out serious crimes, including murdering perceived opponents.

Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since taking power by force in 1986, was chosen by regional leaders earlier this month to mediate Burundi's political crisis ahead of presidential elections scheduled for July 21.

Burundi has been on edge since April when the country's ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to be its presidential candidate for a third term. Unrest boiled over into a military coup in May that was quickly put down by pro-Nkurunziza forces, but at least 77 people have died in sporadic protests in Bujumbura by civilians who say Nkurunziza must go after serving the two constitutionally-allowed terms. The nation's constitutional court has ruled in the president's favor, saying he is eligible for a third term because he was chosen by lawmakers — and not popularly elected — for his first term.

Amid the political unrest, concern is growing over a possible new rebel movement based in the country's northern provinces. Burundi's army announced Monday that it had killed 31 suspected rebels and captured 170 others in fighting in the country's north, but the leadership of the suspected rebels remains unclear.

Nairobi mall to re-open 2 years after extremist attack

July 14, 2015

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Nairobi's Westgate Mall is to re-open Saturday, nearly two years after it was attacked by Somalia's Islamic extremist rebels who killed at least 67 people, Kenyan officials said Tuesday.

The mall has been extensively refurbished since the devastating four-day siege. The violence erupted on Sept. 21, 2013 when four Islamic militants entered the mall and fired on shoppers. Kenyan police and army responded hours later and the gunmen held the building for four days. The four attackers are believed to have died from smoke inhalation from a fire that collapsed part of the roof. The mall was left in shambles, with bullet-scarred walls, shattered windows, flooded floors and bloodstains. Kenyan army soldiers were also accused of looting shops.

Kenya has rebounded from the violence, said Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, who toured the mall on Tuesday. "The indomitable Kenyan spirit prevailed, they didn't break our spirit," Kidero said. Every business that had a shop in the mall is back, Kidero said.

Shoppers should turn out Saturday for the mall's re-opening, said Kidero. Nairobi is safe and U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming visit is testament to Kenya's security, he said. The U.S. State Department this week issued a travel warning to its citizens that extremists could target the upcoming Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi later this month, which will be attended by Obama.

One of those returning to the mall will be Charlse Kimondo, a worker at the Nakumatt Supermarket in the mall. On the day of the attack he was in a storeroom when he heard gunshots and screams. He escaped but was shocked by the bloodbath. Counselling sessions helped him get over the ordeal and return to work.

Al-Shabab said the Westgate attack was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight the Islamic extremist rebels.

Israeli PM launches Twitter account for Iranians

July 13, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister opened a Twitter account in Farsi on Monday, seeking to reach out to the Iranian public as world powers were getting closer to a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes the emerging deal, and he used his inaugural tweet to criticize it and what he described as Iranian hypocrisy. His first tweet included an image of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "has said Iran should fight the U.S. regardless of the agreement, while Rouhani leads demonstrations expressing hatred."

Netanyahu's office said the Farsi account will publish content similar to his English and Hebrew accounts to engage the Iranian people directly. Netanyahu has a popular following on Twitter and often tweets videos and photos with messages critical of the Iranian government and nuclear negotiations.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, said Netanyahu's aggressive rhetoric could backfire with his Iranian audience. "I'm worried ... Netanyahu is going to cause more damage if he continues with the same messages," he said.

The account quickly gained more than 600 followers, with many users mocking him and saying there was a grammatical mistake. Twitter, Facebook, and other popular social media sites are technically banned in Iran but Iranians are active on Twitter through proxy servers.

Key leaders, including Khameini, Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Jared Zarif, all have large followings and tweet official statements. Netanyahu's office said it has not decided whether to interact with politicians on the new Twitter feed.

Netanyahu has lobbied against the emerging deal, saying it would leave too much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure intact. On Monday, he complained in Jerusalem that world powers are ready to make an agreement "at any price."

Earlier Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the deal with Iran will force the Jewish state to "defend itself, by itself." Yaalon said Israel's assumption was that a "bad nuclear deal" was imminent — one that would not succeed in closing a single reactor or destroy a single centrifuge in Iran.

23 dead, 19 injured in military barracks collapse in Russia

July 13, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — The ceiling of a Russian military barracks collapsed in Siberia on Monday, causing four stories to crumble and killing 23 young men trapped inside.

Rescuers searched for hours for victims trapped under the debris of an airborne troops training center in Omsk following the collapse that occurred in the early hours of the morning. Nineteen people were injured. Authorities sent 10 seriously injured victims to Moscow for treatment while the Kremlin offered condolences to the families of the deceased.

The defense ministry wouldn't speculate on the cause of the accident but the footage and video from the scene showed an entire section of the building lying in ruins. Ministry spokesman Gen.-Maj. Igor Konashenkov said the building was renovated in 2013 but he insisted that could not have caused the collapse.

Iran nuclear deal: Fine 'new chapter' or 'historic mistake'?

July 15, 2015

VIENNA (AP) — Overcoming decades of hostility, Iran, the United States, and five other world powers struck a historic accord Tuesday to check Tehran's nuclear efforts short of building a bomb. The agreement could give Iran access to billions in frozen assets and oil revenue, stave off more U.S. military action in the Middle East and reshape the tumultuous region.

The deal sets in motion a years-long test of Iran's willingness to keep its promises to the world — and the ability of international inspectors to monitor compliance. It also sets the White House up for a contentious fight with a wary Congress and more rocky relations with Israel, whose leaders furiously opposed the agreement.

Appealing to skeptics, President Barack Obama declared that the accord "offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it." Under terms of the deal, the culmination of 20 months of arduous diplomacy, Iran must dismantle much of its nuclear program in order to secure relief from biting sanctions that have battered its economy. International inspectors can now press for visits to Iran's military facilities, though access is not guaranteed. Centrifuges will keep spinning, though in lesser quantities, and uranium can still be enriched, though at lower levels.

In a key compromise, Iran agreed to continuation of the U.N.'s arms embargo on the country for up to five more years and ballistic missile restrictions for up to eight years. Washington had sought to keep the arms ban in place, while Russia and China joined Iran in pushing for an immediate suspension.

On the streets of Tehran, Iranians honked their horns and celebrated in the city's main square. President Hassan Rouhani said a "new chapter" had begun in his nation's relations with the world, even as he denied Iran had ever pursued a nuclear weapon.

While the U.S. partnered in the talks with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, the decades of tensions between the U.S. and Iran put the two countries at the forefront of the negotiations. A U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks were private, said the United States will circulate a draft resolution at the council Wednesday to authorize the agreement.

Whether the nuclear rapprochement will spark a broader thaw is unclear. Nearly 40 years after Iran's Islamic revolution and the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the country's hardliners remain hostile toward Washington. The U.S. and its allies also have deep concerns about Iran's support for terrorism in the Middle East and its detention of several American citizens.

With key restrictions on Iran's nuclear program required for only a decade, opponents of the deal say it simply delays Tehran's pursuit of the bomb. Critics also say Iran will use new wealth from sanctions relief to double-down other destabilizing activities in the region.

Iran stands to receive more than $100 billion in assets that have been frozen overseas and benefit from an end to various financial restrictions on Iranian banks. Iran could also sell more oil, bringing down crude prices.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lobbied unceasingly against a deal, called it a "stunning historic mistake" and warned that his country would not be bound by it. Netanyahu strongly hinted that Israeli military action to destroy Tehran's nuclear program remains an option.

Obama and Netanyahu, who have long had a cool relationship, spoke by phone Tuesday. White House officials said Obama also called King Salman of Saudi Arabia, one of the many Sunni Arab rivals of Shiite Iran who have expressed concerns about the deal.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans accused Obama of making too many concessions. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said lawmakers "will fight a bad deal that is wrong for our national security and wrong for our country." GOP presidential hopefuls also panned the deal, some vowing to scrap it if elected to succeed Obama.

Obama did get a crucial show of support from Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former secretary of state and the likely Democratic presidential nominee. She praised the deal as an important step toward "putting the lid on Iran's nuclear program."

Clinton's support could give some Democratic lawmakers more confidence in standing with Obama as he tries to hold off congressional efforts to disrupt the deal. Congress has 60 days to review it and can try to prevent Obama from waiving sanctions on Iran as promised in the negotiations.

The president reiterated that he would veto any legislation aimed at upending the agreement. Defending it, he said, "No deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East." The deal comes after years of international diplomacy that until recently were defined by failure. Breaks in the talks sometimes lasted for months, and Iran's nascent nuclear program expanded into one that Western intelligence agencies saw as only months away from weapons capacity. The U.S. and Israel both threatened military action.

Obama took office in 2009 promising to keep the door open for greater engagement with Iran, even as he ratcheted up economic sanctions. In 2012, he authorized secret talks that helped lay the groundwork for the formal negotiations that stretched over the past two years.

The final weeks were marked by marathon meetings in Vienna, three blown deadlines and threats by top American and Iranian diplomats to walk away. Secretary of State John Kerry, who did most of the bargaining with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said persistence paid off. "Believe me, had we been willing to settle for a lesser deal we would have finished this negotiation a long time ago," he said. Kerry returned to Washington late Tuesday after his longest mission as the top U.S. diplomat.

The breakthrough came after several key compromises. Iran agreed to a continuation of the arms embargo for up to five more years, though it could end earlier if the International Atomic Energy Agency clears Iran of any current work on nuclear weapons. A similar condition was put on U.N. restrictions on the transfer of ballistic missile technology to Tehran, which could last for up to eight more years, according to diplomats.

Washington had sought to maintain the ban on Iran importing and exporting weapons, concerned that an Islamic Republic flush with cash from sanctions relief would expand its military assistance for Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, Yemen's Houthi rebels, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other forces opposing America's Mideast allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Another significant agreement will allow U.N. inspectors to press for visits to Iranian military sites as part of their monitoring duties, something Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has opposed. However, access isn't guaranteed and could be delayed, a condition that critics of the deal are sure to seize on.

Under the accord, Tehran would have the right to challenge U.N requests, and an arbitration board composed of Iran and the six world powers would then decide. The IAEA also wants to complete its long-stymied investigation of past weapons work by Iran, and the U.S. says Iranian cooperation is needed for all economic sanctions to be lifted.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Tuesday his agency and Iran had signed a "roadmap" to resolve outstanding concerns, hopefully by mid-December.

Julie Pace reported from Washington. AP writers Bradley Klapper, Josh Lederman, Darlene Superville and Connie Cass in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Georgia accuses Russia of moving border near oil pipeline

July 14, 2015

KHURVALETI, Georgia (AP) — The Georgian government has accused Russian troops of redrawing a section of the border separating Georgia from its breakaway region of South Ossetia, seizing part of an international oil pipeline as a result.

Georgia says the de facto border was pushed nearly a kilometer (a half mile) deeper into its territory, leaving a section of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa pipeline in Russian-controlled territory. The new border also is only about 500 meters (yards) from the main highway running from the Georgian capital to the Black Sea.

Georgian journalists held a protest Tuesday at the border village of Khurvaleti to call for an end to "Russian occupation." Russia has had troops based in South Ossetia since a 2008 war with Georgia, a former Soviet republic now aligned with the West.