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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Shiite rebels fire on protesters in south Yemen, killing 6

March 25, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Shiite rebels fired bullets and tear gas Tuesday to disperse thousands of protesters demanding they withdraw from a southwestern province, killing six demonstrators, wounding scores more and escalating tensions in a country on the verge of civil war.

The rebels, known as Houthis, seized the capital Sanaa in September and have been advancing south alongside forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In recent days they have closed in on the southern port city of Aden, where the internationally recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is now based.

Hadi on Tuesday asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military intervention "to protect Yemen and to deter the Houthi aggression expected to occur at any hour from now" against Aden and the rest of the south. In a letter to the council's president, Hadi said he also has asked members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League for immediate help.

Massive protests were held in the third largest city of Taiz — which the rebels largely seized over the weekend — and in Torba, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, where witnesses said the streets were filled with thick black smoke from burning tires and where protesters torched three armored vehicles.

"Torba turned into a ball of fire," said Khaled al-Asswadi, a resident. He said the protesters prevented the Houthis from advancing into the city. A medical official said six protesters were killed and dozens wounded in Torba. Local activists posted pictures on social media of what they said were dead protesters, their clothes drenched in blood.

Another witness, Mohammed Salem, said the Houthis and Saleh's forces fired anti-aircraft guns to scare off the protesters, "but the number of protesters increased instead." In a statement, Yemen's Socialist Party warned that the Houthis' invasion of the mostly Sunni south would set off a "sectarian war."

Gov. Shawki Hayel of Taiz province meanwhile accused top security commanders of mutiny, saying a special forces commander ordered his men to disperse the protesters without consulting him, according to an official in Hayel's office. Hayel threatened to resign in protest, said the official.

Yemen's security forces, which have received U.S. aid and assistance in order to battle a powerful local al-Qaida affiliate, have splintered, with entire units rallying to Saleh and the rebels. Amnesty International, citing medics, said 119 people were wounded in the anti-Houthi demonstration and called for an inquiry into the crackdown.

"Human rights in Yemen are in free-fall as even peaceful protest becomes a life-threatening activity," said Said Boumedouha, the deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program. Taiz is Yemen's third largest city and the birthplace of its 2011 Arab Spring-inspired uprising, which forced Saleh to hand over power to Hadi in a deal brokered by the U.N. and Gulf countries the following year.

But Saleh never fully retired, and has been widely accused of acting through his loyalists in the government and security forces to derail the country's democratic transition. He is now allied with the rebels, and his loyalists helped the Houthis to take over the airport and other government buildings in Taiz.

In addition to dispersing the protesters, the Houthis also engaged in heavy fighting with militias loyal to Hadi in the city of al-Dhalea, where the two sides used artillery, anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, according to a Yemeni security official. The Houthis and troops loyal to Saleh have taken over the governor's office there.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The Houthis hail from the Shiite Zaydi community, which makes up around a third of Yemen's population and is concentrated in the north. The Houthis' opponents view them as a proxy of Shiite Iran, charges they deny.

Hadi fled house arrest in Sanaa last month and has set up a base in Aden, the capital of the once-independent south. On Monday he called for the U.N. to set up a no-fly zone. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal meanwhile warned that "if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region."

The Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain — warned earlier this year that they would act to protect the Arabian Peninsula's security and described the Houthi takeover as a "terrorist" act.

The Houthis meanwhile rejected an invitation to participate in any dialogue talks if they are held in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Houthi spokesman Said Abdul-Salam said on his Facebook page Tuesday that both of those countries opposed his movement.

Associated Press writer Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed.

Shiite rebels call for Yemen offensive; US troops evacuate

By Ahmed Al-Haj
March 22, 2015

ADEN, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's Shiite rebels issued a call to arms Saturday to battle forces loyal to the country's embattled president, as U.S. troops were evacuating a southern air base crucial to America's drone strike program after al-Qaida militants seized a nearby city.

The turmoil comes as Yemen battles al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the target of the drone program, and faces a purported affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group that claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings killing at least 137 people Friday.

All these factors could push the Arab world's most impoverished country, united only in the 1990s, back toward civil war.

"I hate to say this, but I'm hearing the loud and clear beating of the drums of war in Yemen," Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter.

The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, swept into Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September and now control it and nine of the country's 21 provinces. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a one-time prisoner of the Houthis in his own home, escaped last month and installed himself in Aden, declaring it the temporary capital amid the Houthi insurrection.

Earlier Saturday, Hadi gave his first televised address since fleeing the capital, striking a defiant tone. He described the rebels' rule as "a coup against constitutional legitimacy." He also pledged to raise the Yemeni flag over the Maran mountains, a stronghold for the Houthis, members of the Shiite Zaydi sect that represents nearly 30 percent of Yemen's population.

Hadi also said regional Shiite power Iran supported the Houthis, something critics also allege and the rebels deny. Sunni Gulf countries have lined up to support Hadi and have moved their embassies to Aden to back him against the Shiite rebels.

Almost immediately after Hadi's speech, the Houthis issued a statement announcing their offensive against security and military institutions loyal to Hadi, calling it a battle against extremists.

ADEN, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's Shiite rebels issued a call to arms Saturday to battle forces loyal to the country's embattled president, as U.S. troops were evacuating a southern air base crucial to America's drone strike program after al-Qaida militants seized a nearby city.

The turmoil comes as Yemen battles al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the target of the drone program, and faces a purported affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group that claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings killing at least 137 people Friday.

All these factors could push the Arab world's most impoverished country, united only in the 1990s, back toward civil war.

"I hate to say this, but I'm hearing the loud and clear beating of the drums of war in Yemen," Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter.

The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, swept into Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September and now control it and nine of the country's 21 provinces. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a one-time prisoner of the Houthis in his own home, escaped last month and installed himself in Aden, declaring it the temporary capital amid the Houthi insurrection.

Earlier Saturday, Hadi gave his first televised address since fleeing the capital, striking a defiant tone. He described the rebels' rule as "a coup against constitutional legitimacy." He also pledged to raise the Yemeni flag over the Maran mountains, a stronghold for the Houthis, members of the Shiite Zaydi sect that represents nearly 30 percent of Yemen's population.

Hadi also said regional Shiite power Iran supported the Houthis, something critics also allege and the rebels deny. Sunni Gulf countries have lined up to support Hadi and have moved their embassies to Aden to back him against the Shiite rebels.

Almost immediately after Hadi's speech, the Houthis issued a statement announcing their offensive against security and military institutions loyal to Hadi, calling it a battle against extremists.

"The council announces this decision to call the proud sons of the Yemeni people in all regions to unite and support and cooperate with the armed and security forces in confronting terrorist forces," they said in the statement carried by the Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA.

Though seizing power in Sanaa and clashing with those protesting their power grab, the Houthis largely haven't resorted to open warfare since beginning their campaign in September. Their statement Saturday immediately recalled the years of war fought in the country, once split between a Marxist south that once was a British colony and a northern republic.

As the threat of civil war grew, the U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting for Sunday afternoon beginning at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) to discuss the Yemen crisis. The U.N. spokesman's office said that after a briefing on the situation in Yemen, the council would meet in closed session for consultations. Representatives of Yemen and Qatar, which currently heads the Gulf Cooperation Council, were scheduled to speak.

Meanwhile Saturday, U.S. troops including Special Forces commandos were evacuating from the al-Annad air base in southern Yemen, Yemeni security and military officials said. The air base, the country's largest, was believed to have some 100 American troops stationed there.

Late Saturday, the U.S. State Department said in a statement that it "has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen."

Saturday night, a security official in Aden said a military transport plane from Oman evacuated 16 British military and security forces. He and other security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

On Friday, al-Qaida militants seized control of the southern provincial capital of al-Houta in the group's most dramatic grab of territory in years. That's just nearby the al-Annad air base, which has been the scene of rocket attacks in the past by militants.

Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subeihi, the country's defense minister who is loyal to Hadi, said troops would be deployed near the base to protect it from militants.

The al-Annad base is where American and European military advisers help Yemen battle the country's local al-Qaida branch through drone strikes and logistical support. That group, which holds territory in eastern Yemen, has said it directed the recent attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

U.S. forces also have been involved in at least two hostage rescue raids in Yemen in recent months, including one that saw militants kill an American photojournalist and a South African teacher in December.

It's unclear what the pullout will mean for the drone program. The U.S. has carried out more than 100 suspected drone strikes in Yemen since 2009, according to the New America Foundation's International Security Program, which tracks the American campaign. Civilian casualties from the strikes have stoked widespread anti-American sentiment in the country.

All this comes a day after suicide bombers attacked a pair of mosques in Sanaa, unleashing monstrous blasts that killed 137 people, including at least 13 children. A purported affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombings, which also wounded 357 people — raising the alarming possibility the extremist group has expanded its presence to Yemen after already setting up a branch in Libya. U.S. officials expressed skeptisim about the claim, though there have been several online statements by individual Yemeni militants declaring allegiance to the Islamic State group.

The presence of the Islamic State group could set up yet another conflict in Yemen, as al-Qaida and the extremists holding a third of Iraq and Syria already are rivals.

Associated Press writers Brian Rohan and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

Shiite rebel leader vows to fight rivals in Yemen's south

March 22, 2015

ADEN, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's Shiite rebel leader escalated his attack Sunday against the country's embattled president, vowing to send fighters to the south where Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi has taken refuge. The fiery speech came hours after his militia seized the third- largest city of Taiz, an important station in its advance.

Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, who is backed by supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, said the mobilization is aimed at fighting al-Qaida and other militant groups, as well as forces loyal to Hadi who are in the south intending to further destabilize Yemen.

In his one-hour speech on al-Masirah TV, al-Houthi called Hadi a "puppet" to international and regional powers who want to "import the Libyan model" to Yemen. He named the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as conspirators against Yemen and other countries in the region.

Libya is torn by warring militias with rival parliaments on either end of the country claiming legitimacy and radicals from the Islamic State group taking root. Yemen's turmoil has deepened since the Shiite rebel group, known as the Houthis, seized Sanaa in September, putting Hadi under house arrest and eventually dissolving the country's parliament. They now control at least nine of the country's 21 provinces.

Hadi, who is backed by the international community, fled to Aden — the country's second most important city and economic hub — declaring it a de-facto capital earlier this month. The U.N.'s special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Sunday that events were pushing the country "to the edge of civil war." Benomar, appearing in a video briefing from Qatar, said "it would be an illusion" to think the Houthis could take control of the entire country, and he urged all parties to resolve the conflict peacefully.

The escalation Sunday began when forces loyal to Saleh took over Taiz and its international airport. Security officials allied with Hadi said the rebel forces were already mobilizing tanks and fighters on the road from Taiz to neighboring Lahj province, apparently on their way to Aden.

"The decision (to mobilize) aims to confront the criminal forces, al-Qaida, and its partners and sisters, and all those who want to take cover in regions or using political pretexts," al-Houthi said. He accused Hadi of partnering with militant groups to destabilize Yemen.

Security officials said one person was killed and four wounded when rebel fighters opened fire on protesting crowds in Taiz against their advance in the city, which was known as a hotbed for protests against Saleh in the beginning of 2011 that forced him to step down.

The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press. If the rebels hold onto Taiz, the capital of Yemen's most populous province, it would pose a major threat to Hadi in Aden, just 140 kilometers (85 miles) away.

The turmoil has undermined Yemen's ability to combat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the target of a U.S. drone program, and the country now also faces a purported affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings killing at least 137 people Friday.

A day earlier, U.S. troops evacuated a southern air base crucial to the drone program after al-Qaida militants seized a nearby city. All these factors could push the Arab world's most impoverished country, united only in the 1990s, back toward civil war.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

In shift, Turkish jets strike Islamic State targets in Syria

July 24, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a major tactical shift, Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria on Friday, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost. A Syrian rights group said the airstrikes killed nine IS fighters.

Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia and borders the Middle East, had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. In a related, long-awaited development, Turkey said it has agreed to allow U.S.-led coalition forces to base manned and unmanned aircraft at its air bases for operations targeting the IS group.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said Turkey's military would also take part in the operations. The ministry would not provide details on the agreement, citing operational reasons, but said it expected Turkey's cooperation to "make a difference" to the campaign. The statement did not say which bases would be used, but Turkish media reports said they would include Incirlik, Diyarbakir and Batman, all in southern Turkey near the border with Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed earlier that Turkey had agreed to let the U.S. use Incirlik air base for operations "within a certain framework." A U.S. official said the agreement was reached during a phone call this week with President Barack Obama.

In June 2014, the Islamic State group launched a blitz, capturing large parts of Iraq and of Syria — which has been ravaged by a four-year-old civil war. The group subsequently declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it controls. The U.S.-led coalition has been striking the group in both Syria and Iraq.

Turkish police also launched a major operation Friday against extremist groups including the Islamic State, detaining more than 290 people in simultaneous raids in Istanbul and 12 provinces. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the airstrikes Friday had "removed potential threats" to Turkey, hitting their targets with "100 percent accuracy." He did not rule out further airstrikes, saying Turkey was determined to stave off all terror threats.

"This was not a point operation, this is a process," Davutoglu said. "It is not limited to one day or to one region ... the slightest movement threatening Turkey will be retaliated against in the strongest way possible."

A government official said three F-16 jets took off from Diyarbakir air base in southeast Turkey early Friday and used smart bombs to hit three IS targets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules requiring authorization for comment.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the three Turkish airstrikes were all near the border, hitting north of the village of Hawar al-Nahr, east of the Rai area and west of the town of Jarablous.

He said the airstrikes killed nine IS fighters, wounded 12 others and destroyed at least one IS vehicle and a heavy machine gun. The private Dogan news agency said as many as 35 IS militants were killed in the airstrikes, but did not cite a source.

The Observatory also reported that an airstrike targeted a post near the border with Turkey for al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. It said it was not clear if Turkish warplanes or those of the U.S.-led coalition struck the Nusra Front position.

Davutoglu said Turkish planes did not violate Syrian airspace Friday, but he did not rule out incursions in the future. He denied news reports claiming that Turkey had told the Syrian regime about the airstrikes, but said it had contacted NATO allies before the operation.

The agreement on the Turkish air bases follows months of U.S. appeals to Turkey and delicate negotiations. Davutoglu said Friday that an agreement that takes Turkey's concerns into account had been reached, but did not elaborate.

Turkey's moves came as the country finds itself drawn further into the conflict in neighboring Syria by a series of deadly attacks and signs of increased IS activity inside Turkey itself. A government statement said the airstrikes were approved Thursday after IS militants fired from Syrian territory at the Turkish military outpost, killing one soldier. A funeral was held Friday for the slain Turkish soldier, Yalcin Nane, where mourners denounced IS violence, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Officials said Friday's airstrikes were codenamed "Operation Yalcin" in his honor. The agency said as many as 5,000 police officers were involved in Friday's sweep against suspected extremists, which also targeted the PKK Kurdish rebel group and the outlawed far-left group DHKP-C. Davutoglu said those detained included 37 foreign nationals but did not name their home countries.

One DHKP-C suspect, a woman, was killed in a gunfight with police in Istanbul, Anadolu reported. The agency said those detained in Istanbul included Halis Bayuncuk, an alleged IS cell leader in the city who is suspected of having helped recruit supporters.

On Monday, a suicide bombing blamed on IS militants killed 32 people in Suruc, a Turkish town near the Syrian border. The bombing ignited protests from Turkey's Kurds, who said the government had not done enough to prevent attacks from the IS group.

Turkish officials say the Suruc bombing could be retaliation for Turkey's crackdown on IS operations. In the last six months, more than 500 people suspected of working with the IS group in Turkey have been detained, officials say.

Butler reported from Istanbul. Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed.

After delays, construction begins on destroyed homes in Gaza

July 23, 2015

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Undeterred by scorching heat, Palestinian workers in Gaza on Thursday hammered nails into wooden boards and jolted steel bars as they lay the foundations for the first group of homes to be rebuilt since the war with Israel last summer. The work brought a rare glimmer of hope to a territory that remains devastated a year after the fighting.

The long-awaited reconstruction started in Shijaiyah, one of Gaza's areas that was hardest hit during the 50-day war between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas group. "Thank God!" said Sharif Harara, 50, who stood under the sun as the workers laid the foundation of his new residence. "After a year of suffering in rental homes, our God brought his mercy."

Last year's fighting was the third and most devastating war between the bitter enemies since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival Palestinian Authority, dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party. Over 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side were killed in the fighting.

The war also destroyed 11,900 homes and damaged about 140,000 dwellings, according to the Palestinian Minister of Public Works Mufeed al-Hasayneh, whose ministry oversees the rebuilding. One year later, thousands of houses with minor or moderate damage have been repaired under strict guidelines agreed to by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But so far, no new homes have been built to replace those that were completely destroyed.

Reconstruction efforts have also been hampered by unmet international funding promises, the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which remains the internationally recognized government for the Palestinians, and continued Israeli security restrictions — though Israel has recently taken steps to increase the flow of goods into Gaza.

Shijaiyah is one of Gaza City's most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods. Entire city blocks were laid to waste there in fierce fighting between hundreds of Hamas gunmen and Israeli troops.

The first houses are being rebuilt as part of a Qatari-funded project that will see 1,000 housing units reconstructed. For residents in Shijaiyah, where entire blocks remain flattened, it was a rare sign of progress and hope.

Harara used to have a two-floor home for his 10-member family. His new house will only have one floor. But he doesn't mind, he said. "I quickly signed on it to get rid of the suffering," he said. Harara's old home was one of over 60 housing units in a bloc of buildings shared by his extended family that was destroyed by artillery shells and airstrikes last summer.

Only four housing units are being rebuilt in the Qatari project. The four homes were the first to receive Israeli approval for the necessary building materials, according to Al-Hasayneh. But he said Israel has approved requests to build more than 630 additional homes funded by Qatar. In addition, plans are in the works for another 1,000 homes funded by Kuwait, he said.

"I think within two weeks, there will be a revolution in construction," said al-Hasayneh, the Palestinian minister. Harara's brother, Ziad, a teacher who also lost his house, said he was excited to see Sharif's new home begin to take shape. "This gave me a huge hope," he said, standing outside a tent he erected on the empty lot where his house once stood.

But others were less positive. Among them was Hussam Harara, 37, a cousin of Sharif and Ziad. His home is nearby, in an apartment building that was moderately damaged. "Those with total destruction started rebuilding while nobody gave us any money to repair," he said.

He frowned as he pointed out a freshly painted white mosque that was quickly repaired by Hamas. "This is a Hamas mosque," he said. "They repaired the mosque and the house that has children was not repaired."

Moroccan journalists back hunger-striking colleague

July 24, 2015

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Some 100 Moroccan journalists and activists demonstrated Friday in front of the parliament in solidarity with an editor on a monthlong hunger strike over his treatment by the government.

Ali Mrabet, editor of DemainOnline, has been on a hunger strike in front of Geneva's Palais des Nations since June 24 over what he is calling government harassment preventing him from working. Omar Brouksy, a journalist at the demonstration, said Mrabet was being targeted for his outspoken criticism of the state but also it was an attack on journalists in general despite a reformist constitution and public commitment to press freedoms.

"The problem with Morocco is the flagrant incoherence between the laws and the official discourse, on one hand, and the reality, which is very repressive," he said. Morocco, a popular tourist destination, is generally considered more stable and open than its North African neighbors, but it still ranks low on press freedom indexes.

Mrabet was banned by a judge from practicing journalism for a decade. During that time he published the French-language DemainOnline, which was critical of the state and often poked fun at it. When the ban expired in April, he announced plans to bring back the print version of his weekly. Since then he said he has been repeatedly harassed and authorities refuse to issue him a certificate of residence so he cannot renew his identity card, passport or set up his newspaper.

Most of Morocco's print and broadcast media now strictly follow official red lines — avoiding criticism of the king, the country's policies in the Western Sahara or Islam. Many independent-minded journalists have gone online instead, but in 2014, news website Lakome.com was shut down after its editor was briefly charged with abetting terrorism by writing about an al-Qaida video.

Spain: Podemos party picks Iglesias as its top candidate

July 24, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Members of Spain's far left We Can (Podemos) political party have made it official: Pony-tailed leader Pablo Iglesias will be the top candidate in general elections expected at the end of the year.

The party announced Friday that nearly 94 percent of nearly 60,000 voting party members picked Iglesias, a college professor and party co-founder. The party was established last year and more than 380,000 members were eligible for the voting period that ended Wednesday.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy must call elections by the end of 2015 but has not yet announced a date. He is expected to run again as the leader of his conservative Popular Party. Pedro Sanchez is leading the candidate list for the main opposition Socialist Party. The new centrist Citizens (Ciudadanos) Party is led by Albert Rivera.

Spain for decades was dominated by the Popular and Socialist parties but the entry of We Can and Citizens amid outrage over painful austerity measures and incessant corruption cases has upended the country's traditional two party political dominance.

We Can and Citizens both made big inroads during nationwide regional and local elections in May. Madrid and Barcelona both ended up with leftist mayors who ousted traditional power barons.

New Barcelona mayor criticized for removing old king's bust

July 24, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Barcelona's new leftist mayor was sharply criticized Friday for removing a bronze bust of former King Juan Carlos from the town hall's main chamber.

The highly political gesture reflects increasing differences between Spain's national government in Madrid and the powerful region of Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona and whose government seeks independence.

Mayor Ada Colau removed the bust Thursday, saying the law stipulates there should be an image of the head of state in the chamber and Juan Carlos no longer holds that position. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria countered Friday that if Barcelona needed an image of new King Felipe VI — Juan Carlos' son— the government will gladly provide one.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo described the removal as "mean-spirited" while the opposition Socialist party spokesman Antonio Hernando said it showed a lack of respect and bad manners. Opposition town hall members urged Colau to respect the law, while one supporter thanked her for cleaning the chamber.

Members of Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party held a photograph of Felipe where the bust had been in a brief protest Friday in the town hall. Colau, who has previously expressed support for independence from Spain, said she'll seek town-hall consensus on a solution. Formerly the head of Spain's active anti-eviction movement, she took office last month promising many changes.

The incident comes as relations between the central government and Catalonia grow increasingly testy because of plans by the region's two main parties to turn the Sept. 27 local election into a vote on independence. They promise to unilaterally declare independence if they obtain a majority.

Spain has ruled out any possibility of secession for the region, which accounts for about one-fifth of the county's gross domestic product.

Bayern coach Pep Guardiola backs Catalan independence push

July 22, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola has thrown his support behind a push for Catalonia's independence from Spain by taking a symbolic place on a list of pro-secession candidates.

Guardiola, 44, told reporters on Wednesday in China, where his team is on a pre-season tour, that he had been asked to do so by the region's two main parties as they prepare for Sept. 27 regional elections.

Guardiola, a native of Catalonia, was a star player and coach of Barcelona, a team symbolic of Catalan nationalism. Ironically, he was also a key player for the Spain's international side for many years.

Catalonia's Convergence and the Republican Left parties want the elections to be a vote on independence and say they will unilaterally leave Spain if they obtain a majority. Spain has ruled out any possibility of secession.

The region, whose capital is Barcelona, accounts for about one-fifth of Spain's gross domestic product. Guardiola's move is symbolic as he is not expected to take a seat regardless of the election result.

News of his decision was welcomed by the pro-independence camp, but criticized by others. Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said it was regrettable to mix sports with politics, and accused Guardiola of having played for Spain for the money.

Protesters vandalize cars of OSCE observers in east Ukraine

July 24, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Protesters in the rebel-controlled eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk have vandalized cars from the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Security in Europe, the group said Friday.

Russian television on Thursday showed several dozen protesters outside the hotel where OSCE observers are staying to monitor a truce between the Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. Some of the protesters, mostly young men wearing sunglasses, spray-painted the cars of the OSCE and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Alexander Hug, deputy head of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, said 30 cars owned by the OSCE and other international organizations have been damaged and are temporarily out of service. Hug told reporters Friday in Donetsk that police were sent to the protest where the cars were vandalized "and did nothing to prevent this."

"This act of violence is unacceptable," said Hug, who has called for authorities to investigate. Hug also said OSCE monitors continue to see heavy weapons from both sides near the front line, despite an agreement in February that both would pull the weapons back.

Rebels this month claimed they were beginning to pull back tanks and armored vehicles with smaller weapons as well; Hug said that while his observers have seen such vehicles moving, they cannot verify that an actual withdrawal is underway.

The fighting between separatists and Ukrainian forces has killed over 6,400 people since it began in April 2014.

Ukraine's new police on charm offensive in Kiev

July 24, 2015

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Only a few months ago, Kiev residents would normally avoid the police if they could help it. The officer would be of no use on a complaint — or worse, would demand a bribe.

Not any longer. These days, Kiev residents approach members of a new police force that has hit the streets — and even ask to take a picture with them. It's being welcomed as the Ukrainian government's first visible reform since it came to power in February 2014.

In the first phase of a comprehensive overhaul, the entire traffic police corps of Kiev was disbanded and replaced on July 4 by a retrained force — with new powers to make arrests as well as issue speeding or parking tickets. The police reform ultimately aims to retrain, and possibly replace, the entire Ukrainian Interior Ministry, including elite inspectors on serious crimes such as murder and corporate fraud. The initiative is supported by the United States and managed by Eka Zguladze, who was in charge of a largely successful police reform in her native Georgia.

One of the pledges of the new Kiev government, which took over last year after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, was to combat rampant corruption in Ukraine's police. Just as in neighboring Russia, Ukraine's police corps was perceived as chronically extorting bribes and harassing citizens.

The new government decided to start from scratch. The first phase replaced the old traffic police with a new 2,000-strong patrol team trained by Ukrainians who had themselves received instruction from American officers. While the traffic police were suspended rather than sacked, it is still not clear whether the old cops will be able to come back.

The backbone of the overhaul was a training program this year for 100 Ukrainian police instructors, run by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. They went on to teach the new police course in Kiev for the inaugural class of new officers who hit the streets this month.

William Brownfield, the U.S. assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, has been advising the Ukrainian government on the police shake-up. He had a scathing assessment of the original state of affairs.

"The conclusion appears to be unanimous that — whatever you may think of the politics, external actors or the economy — the police was not working well," said Brownfield, who has been advising nations on police reform for two decades.

The reform, to which the United States has contributed $15 million, is expected to take from five to 10 years to complete. The creation of the new patrol force in Kiev is still described as an experiment. Other branches of the police in Kiev have not been disbanded. Several other big Ukrainian cities like Mykolaiv and Odessa will get new patrol police in the coming months.

Along with the American training, the new officers got American-styled uniforms and are all young and fit, in sharp contrast to their balding pot-bellied predecessors. Good looks sometimes seem like a prerequisite for the job — giving the initiative the air of a publicity stunt, one of the criticisms leveled at the reform.

Kateryna Lyshnevska, a 29-year-old who used to run a small business, signed up for the police course and was accepted in what has been described as 10-to-1 competition for the job. Lyshnevska said she was attracted by the stable pay, as well as the prospect of being able to help bring long-anticipated reforms to life. "I believe in reforms and wanted to help with the reforms to make history in our country," she said.

The new officers' average monthly pay of between 7,000 to 10,000 hryvnias ($320-to-$450) may seem modest but it is still higher than the average Kiev salary of 6,000 hryvnia. Kiev residents routinely stop members of the new police corps and ask for a photo with them. And they seem genuinely surprised at officers lending a hand — without asking for a bribe.

For Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the first visible outcome of the reform is a four-fold increase in the number of calls that Kiev police have received since the new force was sworn in. "People started to call more often because there is more trust," Avakov wrote recently on Facebook. "And this is a challenge for the new police too: we can't let (people) down."

Avakov admits that a lot of police officers are opposing the reforms but says that the government is determined to press on. "The old system has greeted the creation of the new police with resistance," he said. "(We will) use our will to convince those who want to keep the old ways."

On Friday, the Obama administration said it would expand its training of Ukrainian security forces with small-unit exercises for personnel from Kiev's Defense Ministry. The State Department announced the training would begin this fall in western Ukraine and is similar to training being given the Ukrainian National Guard.

__ Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

French farmers block Alpine roads over low meat, milk prices

July 23, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Angry French farmers relented Thursday after a day of protesting low milk and meat prices by blocking roads to Mont Saint-Michel and the Alps — but warned that other agricultural protests are on the horizon.

The farmers used tires, tractors and tree trunks to block roads all around the country a day before many French take to the roads to start their summer vacations. Mont Saint-Michel, in the northwestern Normandy region, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourists were forced to park their cars along the road and walk for several kilometers (miles) to the famous island.

The farmers blocked three major highways for eight hours around the eastern city of Lyon, a gateway to the Alps and the south of France. Traffic backed up 25 kilometers (15 miles) by mid-day. Some roads in western France, a region with many milk and pork farms, were also jammed.

Farmers say their profits are being chipped way by cheap imports and pressure from grocery chains. Low prices have put about 10 percent of France's livestock farms on the verge of bankruptcy, according to the government.

Farmers were angry after the French government offered to back loans for farmers and delay tax payments as part of a 600 million-euro ($654 million) agricultural plan but it did not give any direct financial aid in order not to break EU market rules.

Xavier Beulin, president of FNSEA, the main farmers' union, warned of other possible protests "in the next two to three days." He said he is willing to immediately work with the government on "long-term and mid-term solutions."

President Francois Hollande met with farmers and union officials Thursday in Dijon. "We want supermarket chains to make the necessary effort to pay the farmers," Hollande said.

British university says Quran parchment among oldest

July 22, 2015

LONDON (AP) — A British university disclosed Wednesday that scientific tests prove a Quran manuscript in its collection is one of the oldest known and may have been written close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

The announcement by the University of Birmingham thrilled Muslim scholars and the local community, which boasts one of the country's largest Muslim populations. The find came after questions raised by a doctoral student prompted radiocarbon testing that dated the parchment to the time of the prophet, who is generally believed to have lived between 570 and 632.

"This manuscript could well have been written just after he died," David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham said of the fragment written in ink on goat or sheepskin.

"Parts of the Quran that are contained in those fragments are very similar indeed to the Quran as we have it today. This tends to support the view that the Quran that we now have is more or less very close indeed to the Quran as it was brought together in the early years of Islam."

Muslim tradition says the prophet received the revelations of the Quran between 610 and 632 — but it wasn't written down immediately. The first leader of the community after Muhammad's death, Caliph Abu Bakr, ordered the book to be written and it was completed by the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in 650.

Thomas said the tests conducted by Oxford University suggest the animal from which the parchment was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterward. The two parchment leaves contains parts of suras, or chapters, 18 to 20. The manuscript is written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi.

The manuscript has long been part of the university's Cadbury Research Library. But it had been bound improperly and was attached to the leaves of a manuscript with a similar script that is not as old. The library houses approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books dating from 1471 and around 4 million manuscripts.

The carbon dating was undertaken after an Italian doctoral research student, Alba Fedeli of Milan, noticed the difference in the writing. She also found discrepancies in the documentation that made her question whether the works were the same.

She said the development was just as wonderful as the rest of her work, trying to downplay the attention that followed her discovery. "Every time I have a chance to see an original manuscript, I feel I have a beautiful opportunity," Fedeli said. "I was very happy to add a further element."

Birmingham is a center of Islam in Britain, with about 20 percent of the city describing themselves as adherents of the faith. The planned display for the manuscript in October could prove a boon to the local economy, with adherents already expressing an interest in traveling to the city to see a piece of history.

Muhammad Ali, the administrator at Birmingham Central Mosque, described his emotion at being among only a handful of people invited to view the manuscript three weeks ago after its importance was recognized.

"There were tears in my eyes," he said, recalling his thrill at seeing something from the time of the prophet. "It is very much unique. This is something from his life."

Burundi: President Nkurunziza wins controversial third term

July 24, 2015

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza has won a third term in office, an electoral official announced Friday, amid controversy over whether his new term is constitutional.

Nkurunziza won 69 percent of the vote while his closest rival, Agathon Rwasa, got 19 percent, said electoral chief Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye. There were neither celebrations nor protests in the streets of Bujumbura, the capital, after the results were announced.

Nkurunziza, 51, was expected to be re-elected because he did not face a strong challenge in Tuesday's polls after some opposition groups boycotted the election. Rwasa, the leading opposition candidate, said his campaign had been hindered by officials.

The United States and Britain condemned the elections as not being credible because of violence, intimidation, media restrictions and questions over the legitimacy of a third term for Nkurunziza. Burundi has been rocked by violence since April after the ruling party announced Nkurunziza would run for another term. Streets protests have left at least 100 people dead. More than 170,000 refugees have fled the country fearing electoral violence, said the U.N. refugee agency

The protests led to an attempted military coup in mid-May which was quickly put down by pro-Nkurunziza forces. Many fear that Nkurunziza's determination to stay in power can trigger widespread violence in the poor central African country of 10 million that has a history of civil strife.

Earlier this month the Burundi government said the army had put down a rebellion in the country's north killing 31 insurgents and arresting 171 others. "Burundian authorities repressed demonstrations as if they were an insurrection, and now the country appears to be on the verge of conflict," Amnesty International said in a report Thursday.

Nkurunziza's efforts to stay in power show a wider problem in the region of leaders seeking to overstay their time in power by any means necessary, said Jeff Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

Opponents say Nkurunziza must retire because the constitution limits the president to two terms. But the president's supporters say he is eligible for a third term because he was chosen by lawmakers — and not popularly elected — for his first term in 2005.

Burundi election results to be announced Friday

July 22, 2015

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Results from Burundi's presidential election will be announced Friday, with incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza expected to win a third term that his opponents allege is unconstitutional.

About 72 percent to 80 percent of the country's 3.8 million voters cast ballots Tuesday, said electoral commission head Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye. Violence on Monday night, as well as an opposition boycott, hindered turnout in the capital. Three people, including two police officers, were killed by gunfire in opposition strongholds.

Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition figure, said his attempts to campaign had been frustrated by the government, and the U.S. and Britain said the election was not credible due to the intimidation of Nkurunziza's opponents.

The Coalition of Independence of Hope, which supports Rwasa, will reject the outcome, said Charles Nditije, who is part of the coalition. More than 100 people have died in protests since April when the ruling party announced Nkurunziza would seek a third term. The demonstrations triggered an attempted coup in May that was quickly put down by forces loyal to Nkurunziza. Earlier this month, the government said it crushed a rebellion in northern Burundi, killing 31 insurgents and arresting 171 others.

Many fear that Nkurunziza's efforts to stay in power to could bring renewed conflict in Burundi, which gained independence from Belgium in 1962. Since then, it has had four coups and a civil war that killed 250,000 people.

"The attitude of the government is pushing people to create a rebellion," said Francis Nyamoya, secretary general of opposition party Movement For Solidarity and Democracy. "If it is necessary, force will be used to push out Nkurunziza," he said, adding that members of his party are being killed.

Burundi set for presidential poll amid political unrest

July 21, 2015

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Burundi is set to hold a presidential election Tuesday amid unrest over incumbent President Pierre Nkuruniziza's bid for a third term in office.

Fears have been rife that the polls may trigger violence. A grenade exploded in Bujumbura, the capital's central business district Monday but did not wound anyone, said Deputy Police Spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye. At night, gunfire could be heard in the neighborhood of Nyakabiga, according to local Journalist Patrick Wasso who lives nearby.

It was not clear if anyone was injured. The same neighborhood saw explosions and gunfire on the eve of parliamentary polls on June 26. Preparations for voting day are complete with ballot boxes and papers distributed to nearly 11,500 voting centers throughout the country and security has been improved to ensure a smooth voting process, electoral commission spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiye said Monday.

Ntahorwamiye said the commission expects a high turnout of the 3.8 million registered voters, saying that improved security has encouraged refugees to return. But the U.N. refugee agency said it has not seen any returns of the more than 170,000 who have fled the country fearing election-related violence.

The European Union suspended its election observer mission in Burundi in May over concerns about restrictions on independent media, excessive use of force against demonstrators and intimidation of opposition parties and civic groups. Citing insecurity, Catholic Church leaders also withdrew their support for the elections as scheduled.

The United Nations Observer Mission to Burundi said the parliamentary election, in which the ruling party won a majority of seats, was not conducted in a conducive environment for free, credible and inclusive elections.

It has deployed to the field to monitor Tuesday's election. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on authorities "to do all in their power to ensure security and a peaceful atmosphere during the election" and "to refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region," his spokesman said.

Ban noted that East African Community-backed negotiations between the government, opposition and other political actors aimed at ending the unrest were suspected Sunday without agreement on a range of issues that would have contributed "to the creation of a climate conducive to the holding of credible and peaceful elections," the spokesman said.

The U.N. chief reiterated his appeal for the resumption of "a frank dialogue" among all parties and urged them to avoid undermining the progress achieved in building democracy, the spokesman said. Bujumbura has seen weeks of sporadic street battles between the police and civilians. More than 100 people have died in demonstrations since the ruling party announced Nkurunziza's candidacy in April.

Protesters say Nkurunziza must go because the constitution limits the president to two terms, but the president's supporters say he is eligible for a third term because he was chosen by lawmakers — and not popularly elected — for his first term in 2005.

The unrest triggered an attempted military coup in mid-May that was quickly put down by pro-Nkurunziza forces. Gloria Ndayisaba 35, who runs a food kiosk in Musaga market, said she will not vote because Nkurunziza is on the ballot.

"Peter (Nkurunziza, as some refer to the president) should just go home and let us continue with our lives. It's time to let another person rule," Ndayisaba said, adding that her business was down by 50 percent.

Dozens of Nkurunziza's critics including his second vice-president, the vice president of the electoral commission, and the deputy president of the Supreme Court have fled the country or are in hiding over death threats.

Of the eight presidential candidates three, including two former presidents, withdrew from the race last week saying the polls will not be free and fair. Burundi's electoral commission has, however, denied receiving their withdrawals.

"Nkurunziza running for the presidency is a constitutional coup," former president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, who has pulled out of the race, told The Associated Press by phone Monday. U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein told the U.N. Security Council earlier this month that "the risk to human life, and to regional stability and development, is high" as a result of escalating politically motivated violence and Burundi's history of recurring bloodshed and atrocities.

FIFA presidential election to be held on Feb 26

July 20, 2015

ZURICH (AP) — FIFA will hold a presidential election on Feb. 26, giving Sepp Blatter seven more months in power before leaving the scandal-tainted governing body.

The date was chosen by FIFA's executive committee on Monday, after Blatter announced plans to resign four days following his re-election in May. FIFA is reeling under the weight of American and Swiss criminal investigations into corruption, which led to 14 officials being indicted in May when Blatter won a fifth term.

FIFA's 209 members will return to Zurich next year to select a new president almost than nine months after Blatter's resignation statement. Potential contenders include UEFA President Michel Platini and Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, who lost to Blatter in May.

Former Brazil great Zico and Liberia football federation president Musa Bility have said they will seek the five nominations required.

NASA discovers Earth-like planet in 'habitable zone'

By Michael Walsh | Yahoo News
Thu, Jul 23, 2015

NASA astronomers announced Thursday that they had found an Earth-like planet roughly 1,400 light years away.

The newly discovered Kepler-452b, which is in the Cygnus constellation, orbits a star from what is called the habitable zone: the distance at which water can pool on the surface of a planet.

Other planets, such as Kepler-186f, have been discovered in this sweet Goldilocks spot that is neither too close nor too far to potentially sustain life.

But Kepler-452b is different because it circles a G2-type star — just like our sun.

“There’s really one place that we know has life in the universe, and that’s Earth, so finding another planet around a star that’s very similar to our sun is quite exciting,” NASA astronomer Jeff Coughlin said in an interview with Yahoo News.

The scientists are not necessarily saying that other types of stars, such as M-dwarfs, cannot sustain life. But there are many unknown factors about what sort of role they would play in creating or preventing it.

Kepler-452b is roughly 60 percent larger in diameter than Earth but still has a good chance of being rocky like Earth rather than spacious like Neptune or Jupiter, according to NASA.

The Kepler spacecraft was launched in 2009 to collect and transmit data on potential Earth-like planets.

Coughlin, a Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., explained that signs of periodic dimming and brightening are the first clues of a potential planet.

“The second step is to really delve in deep to the Kepler data itself,” he said. “Take a really hard look and rule out all of the other possibilities of what could be causing the signal.”

At that point, Coughlin said, the scientists consider the object of study a “planet candidate,” but official confirmation relies on additional data outside of Kepler.

“They used ground-based telescopes to really observe the star better and rule out the remaining scenarios,” he said. “That’s when you call it confirmed. At the 99 percent level, this has to be a planet.”

The ground-based observations were conducted at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Arizona’s Mt. Hopkins and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

At a Thursday news conference in Cape Canaveral, Fla., scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-452b and 11 small new candidate planets that are in the habitable zone.

The research paper reporting the team’s findings will appear in an upcoming issue of The Astronomical Journal.

“We’ve been analyzing the data as we got it from Kepler. And we’ve been finding planets that are closer and closer to being very much like the Earth,” Coughlin said. “Kepler-452b is the next step. It’s the closest we have. But the story is still going on.”