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Friday, July 31, 2015

Saudi Arabia says strikes push Yemen rebels out of air bases

March 29, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A Saudi-led airstrike campaign targeting Shiite rebels who control much of Yemen has pushed them out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in the Arab world's poorest country, the kingdom has said.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the airstrike campaign, now entering its fourth day Sunday, continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads "devastated," according to remarks carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

However, he warned Saturday that the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, could control more of the missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated. The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sanaa, and later holding embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels later took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.

A Saudi-led coalition of some 10 countries began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On Saturday, Hadi directly accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive as leaders at an Arab summit considered creating a military reaction force in the Mideast, raising the specter of a regional conflict pitting Sunni Arab nations against Shiite power Iran. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan planned to dispatch a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan's prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen's airports allowed them.

Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen. Ali Hassan, a Pakistani in Hodeida, told Pakistan's private GEO satellite news channel that hundreds there anxiously waited for a way home. "We had sleepless nights due to the bombardment in Sanaa," Hassan said.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

Summer camp for Iraqi Shiite boys: training to fight IS

July 28, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — A quiet middle-class Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad was transformed recently into a mini-boot camp, training teenagers for battle against the Islamic State group.

The Shiite boys and young men ran through its normally placid streets carrying out mock exercises for urban warfare since the toughest battles against the Sunni extremists are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught how to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn't fire them.

In cities from Baghdad to Basra, summer camps set up by the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraq's largest militia umbrella group, are training teens and boys as young as middle school age after the country's top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students to use their school vacations to prepare for battle if they are needed.

With dozens of such camps around the country, hundreds of students have gone through the training though it is impossible to say how many went on to fight the Sunni extremists since those who do so go independently. Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by The Associated Press, about half were under the age of 18, with some as young as 15. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.

It's yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq's brutal war as the military, Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants, who seized much of the country's north and west over the past year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos.

Among those training this month in the streets of Baghdad, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama said he used to want to be an engineer when he grew up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting with the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.

"God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe," he said. Earlier this summer, the AP saw over a dozen armed young boys, some as young as 10, deployed on the front line with the Shiite militias in western Anbar province.

Baghdad natives Hussein Ali, 12, and his cousin Ali Ahsan, 14, said they joined their fathers on the battlefield after they finished their final exams. Carrying AK-47's, they paced around the Anbar desert, boasting of their resolve to liberate the predominantly Sunni province from IS militants.

"It's our honor to serve our country," Hussein Ali said, adding that some of his schoolmates were also fighting. When asked if he was afraid, he smiled and said no. The training program could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which supports the Iraqi government but has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces, but they receive weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and are trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.

When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. was "very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against ISIL," using an acronym for the militant group. "We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so."

Last year, when IS took over the northern city of Mosul, stormed to the doorstep of Baghdad and threatened to destroy Shiite holy sites, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the public to volunteer to fight. His influence was so great that hundreds of thousands of men came forward to join the hastily-established Popular Mobilization Forces along with some of the long-established Shiite militias, most of which receive support from Iran.

Then, on June 9, as schools let out, al-Sistani issued a new fatwa urging young people in college, high school and even middle school to use their summer vacations to "contribute to (the country's) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk, if this is required."

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kareem al-Nouri, said the camps give "lessons in self-defense" and underage volunteers are expected to return to school by September, not go to the front.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister's office echoed that. There may be "some isolated incidents" of underage fighters joining combat on their own, Saad al-Harithi told the AP. "But there has been no instruction by the Marjaiyah (the top Shiite religious authority) or the Popular Mobilization Forces for children to join the battle."

"We are a government that frowns upon children going to war," he said. But the line between combat training and actually joining combat is weakly enforced by the Popular Mobilization Forces. Multiple militias operate under its umbrella, with fighters loyal to different leaders who often act independently.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser, said that if the Shiite militias are using children as fighters, "then the countries that are supporting them are in violation of the U.N. Convention" on the Rights of the Child.

"If you are supporting the Iraqi army, then by extension, you are supporting" the Popular Mobilization Forces, she said. The U.N. convention does not ban giving military training to minors. But Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that it puts children at risk.

"Governments like to say, 'Of course, we can recruit without putting children in harm's way,' but in a place of conflict, those landscapes blur very quickly," she said.

Taliban confirm leader's death, choose Mullah Omar successor

July 30, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Two high-ranking Afghan Taliban officials have confirmed the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and say the group's council has elected a successor.

The two told The Associated Press that the Taliban Shura, or Supreme Council, has chosen Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the new leader. He has been acting as Mullah Omar's deputy for the past three years. The two Taliban officials say the seven-member-council has been meeting in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized by the council to talk to the media. They also said the group chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as their new deputy leader.

Gannon reported from Timmins, Canada.

Libya court sentences Gadhafi son to death for 2011 killings

July 28, 2015

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A court in Libya on Tuesday sentenced a son of Moammar Gadhafi to death by firing squad after convicting him of murder and inciting genocide during the country's 2011 civil war.

It is unlikely, however, that the sentence against Seif al-Islam Gadhafi will be carried out anytime soon, as a militia in western Libya has refused to hand him over to the government for the past four years.

That uncertainty reflects the chaos still gripping this North African nation split between rival militias and governments while facing an affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group. The Tripoli court sentenced to death eight others, including former Libyan spy chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, who is in their custody. Also sentenced to death were foreign intelligence chief Abuzed Omar-Dorda and Gadhafi's former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi.

The rulings can be appealed, and a defense lawyer in the case, Ali Aldaa, said he would challenge it before the Libyan Supreme Court. The Tripoli-based top court has in the past ruled the Tobruk government as illegitimate, raising questions over whether it is under pressure from militias that dominate the city.

Only 29 of the 38 Gadhafi-era figures were present in court. Six others were sentenced to life in prison and four were cleared of charges. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the trial was "undermined by serious due process violations," and called on the Libyan Supreme Court to independently review the verdict. Other international organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, also condemned the verdict.

"This trial has been plagued by persistent, credible allegations of fair trial breaches that warrant independent and impartial judicial review," said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "The victims of the serious crimes committed during the 2011 uprising deserve justice, but that can only be delivered through fair and transparent proceedings."

The Council of Europe said the case should have been turned over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which wants Seif al-Islam on charges of crimes against humanity. Libya has slid into chaos since the overthrow and killing of Gadhafi, who ruled the country for four decades. It is now bitterly divided between an elected parliament and government cornered in the country's east, with little power on the ground, and an Islamist militia-backed government in the west that has seized the capital, Tripoli.

Since the end of the civil war, Seif al-Islam has been held by a militia in Zintan, which is allied with the Tobruk-based internationally recognized government against the Tripoli one. The court that convicted him is affiliated with the Tripoli-based government.

During the trial, Seif al-Islam was accused of recruiting mercenaries who were given Libyan nationality, planning and carrying out attacks on civilian targets from the air, forming armed groups and shooting into crowds of demonstrators. Among the charges he was convicted of were incitement of murder and rape.

Hundreds of militias in Libya are battling for power and turf in a lawless environment has allowed human traffickers and kidnappers to flourish. Meanwhile, extremists returning from fighting in the Syrian civil war have created a local affiliate of the Islamic State group, taking territory and beheading captives.

The U.N. envoy for Libya has urged the Islamist-led government in Tripoli to sign a peace deal that would establish a unity government. Members of the Tobruk government and regional leaders signed the unity accord in Morocco on July 11.

Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.

Rome's hot summer: corruption, breakdowns run city to ground

July 29, 2015

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year for Rome. But the Eternal City will need a miracle to find anything to feel jubilant about.

Just when Rome needs to be at its best, the city is being shamed by corruption scandals and a breakdown in public services — especially in the mass transit that many of the expected 30 million Jubilee pilgrims will depend on.

Amid a relentless heat wave, bus drivers have been yanking buses out of service, forcing passengers off, often between stops. Others deliberately drive their spine-rattling buses so slowly that it's faster to walk.

The actions are part of a protest against Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino's order for bus drivers to punch in the clock like other city employees. The transport breakdown is one of the biggest headaches in a summer of chaos extraordinary even for a city that sees chaos as a way of life.

Meanwhile, Marino has taken the drastic step of getting help from a prosecutor famed for combatting Sicilian mobsters to help root out City Hall corruption. The Mafia-fighter was enlisted following dozens of arrests since late last year of city politicians and businessmen with links to the political right and left.

The scandal's best-known suspect is none other than Marino's predecessor as mayor: former neo-fascist street fighter Gianni Alemanno, who denies wrongdoing. He is being investigated for allegedly colluding with businessmen using mafia-like methods to win municipal contracts. Alemanno's tenure allegedly involved rampant nepotistic hiring, including a go-go dancer as a manager's assistant.

Corruption and cronyism have direct links to Rome's current transport woes: Patronage scandals are blamed for helping to bankrupt the municipal transit company ATAC, which might be forced to stop service due to lack of funds. Free-wheeling hiring of friends and other improper practices have also put other municipal agencies like trash pickup in terrible financial condition.

Under Alemanno, bonuses were generously doled out to city workers to reward them for diligently showing up for work at least 110 days a year. Marino, a liver transplant surgeon who became a politician a decade ago, says he is determined to keep Rome from collapsing in dysfunction. The problem is he's desperately trying to save the patient while seeing his own operating team disappear. Several commissioners have quit in despair.

On Tuesday, replacing his second budget czar, Marino drily recalled the shock that greeted him shortly after being elected in 2013: "I never imagined I'd find the coffers empty," he said. "Nearly a billion (euros) in the red, organized crime, corruption."

"About all that was lacking along the way were land mines," the mayor told reporters. Marino fired his transport commissioner after a video surfaced on the Internet showing a crammed subway car filled with commuters hurtling through the underground with doors wide open.

"The trains are old, they aren't maintained, they are dirty. It seems like there isn't even anyone who cleans them," said Claudio Laudi, waiting at a stop near the Piazza del Popolo. "I just don't think you can compare (Rome) to other European capitals. Madrid is different. Paris is different, we have been left behind."

Premier Matteo Renzi, whose Democratic Party backed Marino for mayor, is keeping a cautious distance. At a recent political event, Renzi told Marino critics: "Take an opinion survey of Romans and let me know how it turns out."

Opinion polls have already shown Marino's losing the popularity he enjoyed after he was elected two years ago. On Tuesday, he promised fed-up Romans they would get 200 new buses by year's end, see roads repaved and have 60,000 new garbage bins for trash, which chronically piles up along the streets.

With ATAC running out of cash, Marino announced he is seeking a private partner to pump in funds. About 300 bus, tram and subway car drivers protested those plans Wednesday outside City Hall, worried that private investors might demand private sector levels of productivity.

The protesters yelled Marino's name in hopes the mayor would appear, and draped protest banners fashioned from sheets over the elegant buildings on a Renaissance-era square. Meanwhile, Italy's interior minister must soon decide whether to pull the plug on Marino's administration, and put the city in the hands of a special commission. That's the same humiliating treatment meted out to southern Italian towns whose governments are infiltrated by crime syndicates like Cosa Nostra.

The prosecutor leading the probe has stressed that Marino is himself completely free of suspicions of corruption. Rome's corruption has long thrived on the connivance of city politicians, administrators and local gangsters, who have no formal ties to the traditional southern crime syndicates. Lucrative city contracts, prosecutors say, are divvied up, skirting public bidding procedures as the wrongdoers pocket kickbacks or bribes.

But these largely went undetected until probes intensified under Marino's watch.

Trisha Thomas contributed to this report

Greece's Tsipras prevails over rebels at party meeting

July 31, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has defeated a bid by dissenters in his left-wing Syriza party to push for an end to bailout talks and an exit from the euro currency.

Syriza's governing central committee early Friday backed a proposal by Tsipras to hold an emergency party conference in September, after the talks have been concluded. Dissenters had sought a conference earlier, pressing the government to abandon ongoing negotiations with rescue lenders.

The decision followed a dramatic 12-hour meeting by the 200-member central committee, during which party rebels appealed for Greece to return to its national currency, the drachma. It also came hours before the main round of negotiations were due to start in Athens with a scheduled visit to the finance ministry by negotiators from the European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Stability Mechanism.

Tsipras effectively lost his majority in parliament in a vote three weeks ago, when nearly one-fourth of Syriza's lawmakers refused to back new austerity measures. Pro-European Union opposition parties were left to save the bill and have continued to prop up Tsipras' government.

"We have to agree that we can't go on this way," Tsipras told the committee members, adding that "the absurdity of this peculiar and unprecedented dualism" within the party must stop. Far-left dissenters argue Syriza has abandoned its principles over the past six months under the country's popular prime minister. They have openly voiced support for Greece to turn its back on the euro as its national currency.

"This country no long has democracy, but a peculiar type of totalitarianism — a dictatorship of the euro," prominent dissenter Panagiotis Lafazanis said. Despite the heated debate, Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos, an associate professor of political science at the University of Athens, says that at the moment a party split still looks unlikely.

"Being in power has a binding effect ... and (dissenters) will not want to be held responsible for a break up." Greece is currently negotiating the terms for a third bailout worth an some 85 billion euros ($93 billion) that will include a new punishing round of austerity measures heaped on a country reeling from a six-year recession and more than 25 percent unemployment.

According to government officials, bailout negotiations must be concluded before Aug. 20, when a debt repayment to the European Central Bank worth more than 3 billion euros is due.

Greek PM seeks to quash rebellion with party vote

July 30, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's prime minister has called for a vote within his radical-left Syriza party to decisively sideline rebels opposed to any bailout deal with the country's creditors.

Addressing the party's 200-strong top decision-making body Thursday, Alexis Tsipras said the vote slated for this Sunday would answer whether Greece would be better off without a rescue agreement as hard-liners contend.

He likened the vote to putting "the pin back in the hand grenade" and quelling the conflict with dissenters that threatens to splinter the party and touched off speculation of the country may be heading for fresh elections in the autumn.

In a vote three weeks ago, nearly a fourth of Syriza's lawmakers refused to support new austerity measures demanded by creditors before a bailout deal can be sealed.

Greece's Tsipras: party rebels could force early election

July 29, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's prime minister sought to contain a deepening rift in his radical left Syriza party Wednesday, warning rebels that he would have to call early elections if they keep opposing key reforms demanded for a new international bailout.

Alexis Tsipras insisted that he has no wish to go to the polls, which would put the country through more political uncertainty, potentially hurting the economy at a crucial point in its struggle to stabilize.

But he added: "If I don't have the parliamentary majority I will be forced to go to elections." In an interview with Syriza's Sto Kokkino radio station, Tsipras said that he wants to hold a party congress in September, once the vital bailout deal is sealed, to decide on the party's future. Tsipras and his Syriza party came to power only in January with a four-year mandate.

Representatives of Greece's creditors — its European Union partners and the International Monetary Fund — are currently meeting officials in Athens to discuss the terms of the new bailout, designed to provide 85 billion euros over three years.

"We are satisfied with the smooth and constructive cooperation with the Greek authorities, and that should now allow us to progress as swiftly as possible," Mina Andreeva, a European Commission spokeswoman, said in Brussels.

The main issues under negotiation are pension and labor reforms. Greece is hoping to have a deal ready for parliamentary approval on Aug. 18, two days before it has to repay more than 3 billion euros, which it currently lacks, to the European Central Bank. Failure to pay the ECB would prompt bankruptcy and new fears of a forced euro currency exit.

Tsipras was elected on a staunchly anti-austerity platform that resonated with Greeks hard-hit by five years of tough income cuts and tax hikes demanded by international creditors in return for the rescue loans that kept the country afloat.

But his attempts to negotiate a better deal fell flat, and Greece was forced on July 13 to accept further harsh cutbacks, including hikes in the sales tax on key consumer goods. Anti-austerity hardliners in Syriza did not back two initial packages of reforms this month that were demanded by creditors to start talks on the new lifeline — Greece's third since 2010.

The reforms were approved in parliament with the support of pro-European opposition parties, but the revolt called the government's survival into question. Tsipras has taken no action so far against rebel lawmakers, although he criticized their stance Wednesday and said they should step down if they disagree.

"It is too surreal to say that 'I vote against the government's proposals but support the government'" he said. "(Or) 'I am denouncing you to protect you.' I'm not a little child." Teneo Intelligence analyst Wolfgango Piccoli said Syriza looks set to split into at least two groups — the leftwing hardliners and a moderate group led by Tsipras.

"Despite his popularity, Tsipras is facing an uphill struggle to keep his party united and under his control," he said in a note. "As a result, the risk of unforeseen intra-Syriza developments that could delay, and at worst derail, the ongoing talks between Athens and its international creditors cannot be discarded."

In the stormy days leading up to the July 13 agreement, Tsipras called a referendum on whether to accept creditors' demands for further austerity — which Greeks voted against — and was forced to impose strict controls on bank withdrawals to stop panicking depositors from emptying their accounts.

In Wednesday's interview, Tsipras accused other European countries of "taking revenge" on Greece for the referendum by forcing capital controls on the country. While banks have reopened for limited business after a three-week closure, Greeks are still limited to a 60 euro ($66) daily withdrawal ceiling and are blocked from most online purchases abroad.

The Greek parliament's budget office said Wednesday that the controls are unlikely to be lifted soon, hampering the economy's return to "normality." It said the restrictions are costing the shrinking economy an estimated 1.75-2.8 billion euros weekly, while long delays in negotiations with creditors significantly worsened the economy's outlook for the next five years.

Greece's economy is forecast to contract between 2 percent and 4 percent this year, despite initial forecasts for modest growth, because of deep uncertainty in the run-up to this month's deal in Brussels. Since 2008, the economy has shrunk more than a quarter — with unemployment hitting record peacetime highs of more than 25 percent.

France deploys riot police to bolster Calais security

July 29, 2015

CALAIS, France (AP) — France deployed more than 100 riot police to Calais on Wednesday to bolster security as hundreds of migrants have been trying night after night to rush the railway tunnel leading to England — at times with fatal consequences.

One migrant was crushed to death and another was critically injured after being electrocuted in Paris amid tens of thousands of attempts to breach security that have fueled a growing sense of crisis on the Channel this year.

The 50-kilometer (30-mile) Channel Tunnel, often referred to as the Chunnel, is used by passenger trains and freight services to connect France and Britain. Migrants pressing northward toward both countries are fleeing war, dictatorship and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. Migrants tend to spend as little time as possible in their southern European landing spots, like Italy, where two ships unloaded on Wednesday, one carrying 435 passengers and 14 bodies and another with 692 migrants.

British officials have increasingly sounded the alarm over a potential influx of foreigners. French officials, meanwhile, are concerned about around 3,000 migrants in encampments called "the jungle" by inhabitants of the largely lawless sites scattered haphazardly in the area.

It's not clear how many ever reach Britain, although at least a few succeeded this week in stowing aboard trains to make the 35-minute trip. Others were led away in the darkness, including a small group retrieved from a ditch by a single watchman wielding little more than a flashlight.

France dispatched 120 riot police immediately to Calais to bolster security that British authorities complain has been lax. France's government, meanwhile, called on Eurotunnel, the company that operates the tunnel, to step up its protection of the sensitive site.

Those caught on the French side are generally immediately freed to return to the camps and try again. Those caught on the in British side may be detained while their applications for asylum are considered. But many stay hidden aboard trucks as they roll off the trains until they stop for fuel, then hop off and vanish.

"Smugglers sell migrants the notion that Britain is the only El Dorado for a better life," said Emmanuel Agrius, the deputy mayor of Calais. Eurotunnel defended its efforts, saying Wednesday it had blocked more than 37,000 attempts since January. Nine people have died trying since June, including the man crushed by a truck. An Egyptian trying to leap from a train roof and board the Eurostar at Paris' Gare du Nord train station was in critical condition after being electrocuted.

There were wildly conflicting totals of people involved in Wednesday's rush for the tunnel, ranging from 150 to as many as 1,200. But French authorities and the company agreed there had been about 2,000 attempts on each of two successive nights. British Home Secretary Theresa May said "a number" of migrants made it through overnight.

Attempts have been increasing exponentially as has the sense of crisis in recent weeks, spurred by new barriers around the Eurotunnel site, lack of access to the Calais port, labor strife that turned the rails into protest sites for striking workers, and an influx of desperate migrants.

"This exceptional migrant situation has dramatic human consequences," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. "Calais is a mirror of conflicts tearing up regions of the world." About 25 migrants were seen getting off a public bus in Calais on Wednesday with a police officer who left them by the side of the road. Several said they were returning from a night of trying to cross the Channel.

"(We) come from train here and tomorrow, inshallah, try again in the train," said an Eritrean, using the Arabic expression for "God willing," who would not give his name as he planned further attempts to reach England.

The man killed overnight, believed to be a Sudanese man in his mid-20s, was crushed by a truck as he tried to stow away, Gilles Debove, a police union official told The Associated Press. The delays caused mayhem for truckers on both sides of the Channel. Cargo trucks were backed up overnight in Calais for several kilometers (miles) leading to the loading zone, some of them stuck on a highway overpass above one of the many makeshift migrant camps. British police, meanwhile, turned parts of a highway near the British end of the tunnel into a giant parking lot. Passenger service was also delayed.

Eurotunnel called for help from both the French and British governments to protect the site and its 23-kilometer (14-mile) perimeter, which is far more dangerous for migrants than the now locked-down port had been, with small hills, basins of water and electrified shuttles for the trucks that can strike stowaways.

"It's become a phenomenon which is beyond our means," Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe said. "We're just a small transport company operating in a little corner of Europe." Keefe said attacks on the fences are organized.

"This is very clearly criminal gangs or human traffickers who coordinate attacks on the fences," he said. British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking during his visit to Singapore, described the crisis as "very concerning," but that there was no point in "pointing fingers of blame." Other British officials blamed the government in France, where officials said Eurotunnel also needed to do more.

The British government has agreed to provide an extra 7 million pounds ($11 million) of funding for measures to improve security at Calais. Until Wednesday, 60 French police covered the site, along with Eurotunnel security crews. The new arrivals, Debove said, would be a "burst of oxygen" to protecting the site, but he expected attempts to continue.

The Conservative Party lawmaker for Folkestone in southern England, Damian Collins, said French authorities needed to better secure their side. "They have allowed people willingly to break into the Channel Tunnel site. I can't believe they would be that lax in protecting an airport or another sensitive facility," Collins said. "But that has happened constantly throughout the summer."

Many of the migrants disembarking in Italy on Wednesday were families, said Giovanna De Benedetto, spokeswoman for Save the Children in the port of Messina. "Most of them (are) Syrians, who are traveling with their families so they have escaped from four years of conflict, children who simply want to play, to have a future, a dignified life in Europe as millions of children their age have."

May, the home secretary, said Britain was pressing for a bigger fence around the Calais railhead to stop people reaching the French end of the tunnel. She said Britain and France would work together to return people to their home countries and crack down on smugglers.

Ultimately, May added, "the answer to this problem is to ensure we are reducing the number of migrants who are trying to come from Africa across into Europe, that we break that link between making that dangerous journey, as it often is for people, and coming to settle in Europe."

Lori Hinnant reported from Paris. Maggy Donaldson in Paris, Chris Den Hond in Calais, Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London, and Patricia Thomas in Messina, Italy, contributed.

French farmers protest taps into freewheeling tradition

July 28, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Over the past week, French farmers have used tractors to block the border with Germany and chucked foreign vegetables off trucks in protest of cheap imports. French leaders did not call in the police — they gave the farmers their support.

France's permissive attitude toward protest has cultural roots that run even deeper when it comes to the people who work the land. The actions of French farmers in this summer of discontent has included hijacking toll booths, setting up "customs" roadblocks to search trucks carrying German meat and throwing produce from abroad off trailers heading to French supermarkets.

They are protesting increasingly slim margins they blame on cheap imports and high social charges, which they say make them unable to compete against Germany, much less Eastern Europe. The farmers at the center of the roadblocks went beyond what even their union chief wanted, when he asked them to "respect goods and people" in their protest.

Within hours, French President Francois Hollande — normally a bedrock supporter of the European Union's open borders — had nothing but assurance for the farmers: "We will continue to pressure," he said, "so that the farmers are certain, protests or not, that we are at their side."

On Tuesday, the union chief, Xavier Beulin, noted the tacit support of the French public for his protesters. "To my fellow citizens, I express our gratitude for their comprehension and their sympathy," he wrote in a letter. "They can feel that this will be an important part of our country's future."

On Tuesday, tractors again blocked highways in eastern France: "We will stop all the refrigerated trucks to screen for imported meat," Jean-Marc Breme, a local union leader, told Europe 1 radio. General sympathy for farmers runs deep in France. Even those exasperated by the protest were reluctant to come out harshly against it. Instead, top government ministers met with agriculture representatives and bankers to continue negotiations on a plan to help the farmers that would not run afoul of European Union rules. The agriculture minister, Stephane Le Foll, noted that closing the borders wasn't an option but didn't announce any specific countermeasures.

Even Germans, whose products were this week's primary targets, seemed to accept the protest as something unique to their neighbors. German Agriculture Ministry spokesman Jens Urban described the movement as "a protest by French farmers that it is not for us, as the German government, to evaluate."

The farmers' protest is a passionate expression of French mistrust of free trade, as well as the country's freewheeling tradition of protest, said Laurent Warlouzet, a historian of European industrial policy. "There is no arbiter between the citizen and the state," he said, "and so citizens revolt violently when there is a problem."

Protesters stop short of real violence, which would draw immediate police intervention. But so long as it's just a show — like detaining a factory manager for hours, or even a few days, to make a point, or burning tires on the Channel Tunnel rail tracks in Calais to protest job cuts — authorities tend not to interfere. And farmers get even more leeway for histrionics than most, as the history of the country's most famous farmer — Jose Bove — can attest.

Bove, a sheep farmer and producer of Roquefort cheese, led a group of activists as they dismantled a McDonald's under construction in the south of France in 1999 in a protest against the U.S. and the World Trade Organization. Bove was ultimately jailed and convicted, but the former spokesman of the Farmers Confederation now serves as a deputy in the European Parliament.

"I would do the same if I were in their (the current farmer protesters') place," Bove told Sud Radio. A current Farmers Confederation spokesman, Laurent Pinatel, was more circumspect about the protests led by the rival union. He instead called for putting the brakes on a free-trade accord between the U.S. and Europe.

"We're having a hard time with the discourse that we're hearing now, whether it's from politicians or activists," said Pinatel. "We don't see ourselves represented very well." Although even disruptive protests tent to get broad support, those led by the farmer have a special place in French culture, according to Warlouzet.

"He is the guardian of all that is France, the gastronomy, the countryside," he said. "Even if they count for less than 3 percent of the population, there is a symbolic importance."

Associated Press writers David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.

New Nigerian general to head multinational Boko Haram fight

July 30, 2015

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's Defense Ministry has appointed a new general to head the multinational army it is hoped can defeat the Boko Haram Islamic uprising that has killed 20,000 people and driven nearly 2 million from their homes.

Thursday's appointment comes as the West African nation's new president promised deeper collaboration with neighboring states in the fight against Islamic extremism. President Muhammadu Buhari headed home Thursday after two days of talks in Cameroon focused on Boko Haram.

Its attacks have spread across Nigeria's borders and forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee to neighboring states. Chad announced Thursday that its troops killed 13 Boko Haram fighters in attacks this week near Lake Chad, where militants slit the throats of three villagers.

It said the extremists had kidnapped about 30 people, and spirited them away on speed boats. Nigeria's Defense Ministry said Maj. Gen. Iliyasu Isah Abbah will command the 8,700-strong four-nation army based in N'Djamena, Chad's capital.

Buhari has said it is a disgrace that Nigeria needs foreign troops on its soil. But he noted before leaving Cameroon that "none of us can succeed alone." Relations with Cameroon have been strained by a long-simmering border dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula, but the two leaders agreed Thursday that demarcation of their border under U.N. auspices should be completed by year's end.

Nigeria's military, poorly equipped with soldiers reporting going into battle without rations and just 30 bullets, last year allowed Boko Haram to take control of a large swath of the northeast. Chadian troops earlier this year forced the militants out of Nigerian border towns. Nigerian troops trained by South African mercenaries drove the extremists from most other towns.

But suicide bombings and village assaults have increased recently. Buhari this month fired all the military's top commanders. The former chief of defense staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, complained in a retirement address Wednesday that "fifth columnists" in the military and security agencies have leaked information to the insurgents, causing the deaths of many troops ambushed by militants who had advance warning.

Associated Press writer Dany Padire contributed to this report from N'Djamena, Chad.

Nigeria president visits Cameroon to discuss militant threat

July 29, 2015

YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — The president of Nigeria made his first official state visit to neighboring Cameroon on Wednesday, as the two former enemies struggle to contain the mutual threat posed by Islamic militants carrying out suicide bombings across the region.

New Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari came to Cameroon's capital to bolster support for a multinational army to fight the Boko Haram uprising that has claimed at least 60 lives in recent days in Cameroon alone.

The violence has displaced nearly 2 million people and killed 20,000 across the region where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad meet in the course of the 6-year uprising. Attacks have mounted over the past year in Cameroon's far north and in Chad's capital as the militants seek retaliation for those countries' military aid in the Nigerian army's fight against Boko Haram.

The group drew international prominence when it abducted nearly 300 girls from Chibok, sparking an international campaign for their return that has stalled. Girls and young women have increasingly been used as suicide bombers in attacks on civilians.

Also complicating the fight has been the long-tense relations between Cameroon and Nigeria, and concerns over the role of Chad's military might on Nigerian soil. The U.N. Security Council has issued a statement calling for "increased regional cooperation."

Hard feelings between Nigeria and Cameroon date back to a 1980s land dispute. More recently, Nigeria accused Cameroon of doing little to prevent Boko Haram from using their territory as a refuge. Cameroon saw Buhari's failure to visit earlier as a snub after he traveled to Niger and Chad, and the Cameroonian president, Paul Biya, didn't attend Buhari's May inauguration.

Israel passes law sanctioning force-feeding prisoners

July 30, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's parliament passed a contentious law on Thursday that would permit the force-feeding of inmates on hunger strike, eliciting harsh criticism over the practice.

The law allows a judge to sanction the force-feeding or administration of medical treatment if there is a threat to the inmate's life, even if the prisoner refuses. It passed with a 46-40 vote in favor — a slender margin in the 120-seat Knesset. The remaining lawmakers were sent from the early morning vote.

While the law applies to all prisoners held in Israeli jails, Palestinian prisoners have used hunger strikes as a tool to draw attention to their detention without trial or charges. Scores of Palestinian inmates have held rounds of hunger strikes over recent years and, with many prisoners hospitalized, their failing health has caused tensions to flare among Palestinians.

Israel fears that a hunger-striking prisoner's death could trigger unrest. Israel in the past has acceded to hunger-striking prisoners' demands and at times has released prisoners. "The hunger strikes of the terrorists in jail have turned into a tool they use to try to pressure and threaten the state of Israel and to cause it to release terrorists," said Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. "The new law allows us to prevent a threat to the prisoners' lives and to prevent them from putting pressure on the state."

David Amsalem, a lawmaker with the ruling Likud party who backed the law, said it "creates the right balance between the state's interest to protect the prisoner's life and his rights and sovereignty over his body."

Under the new law, Israel's prison service would need to seek permission from the attorney general to ask a judge to allow the force-feeding of a prisoner. The judge would then weigh a doctor's opinion, the prisoner's position as well as security considerations before ruling in the matter, according to Amany Daiyf, from the group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which opposes the law.

Critics say force-feeding is unethical and amounts to torture. The Israeli Medical Association, which has urged physicians not to cooperate, plans to challenge the law in the Supreme Court. "Israeli doctors ... will continue to act according to medical ethical norms that completely prohibit doctors from participating in torture and force-feeding amounts to torture," said Leonid Eidelman, the head of the association.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel called the law "shameful," saying "it pushes the medical community to severely violate medical ethics for political gains." The fate of the prisoners is deeply emotional for Palestinians, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. Palestinians view the thousands of prisoners held by Israel as heroes. Several hundred are held in administrative detention, according to the Palestinian prisoner advocacy group Addameer, where they can be held for months or years without charge or trial.

Qadura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, called the law "ugly" and said it violated the prisoners' right to conduct a hunger strike.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

Russian human rights NGO folds its work, goes underground

July 28, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — A prominent Russian human rights group said on Tuesday it is closing down its operations this week because of a repressive law, but has come up with a plan to continue its work.

The Committee against Torture has documented torture in Russia for 15 years and provided legal advice for victims, bringing forward the conviction of more than 100 police officers and investigators. The justice ministry earlier this year listed the group as a "foreign agent" in compliance with a law, requiring non-governmental organizations that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in loosely-defined "political activities" to register as "foreign agents." NGOs found the law discriminatory, saying that the term suggests they are spies.

Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee against Torture, told reporters Tuesday that the organization will be "liquidated" this week because they refuse to comply with the law and thus admit that they "work for a foreign benefactor."

Kalyapin said they have set up a new head office that won't accept foreign funding, thus being able to dodge the listing of "foreign agent." His associates have also founded six other NGOs, which will receive foreign funding, to carry out the actual work — but in a clandestine manner.

"All of these organizations will be not be publicizing their work because any publicity, an interview, any mention of such an organization in the media will be treated by the justice ministry and prosecutors as political activities," thus exposing them to danger, Kalyapin said.

In June, the group's office in Chechnya was attacked by masked men armed with crowbars who bashed their way into the group's office, sending its staff fleeing. Kalyapin said roughly half of their 44 million ruble ($730,000) budget came from foreign funding last year. Some of their donors are shutting down their operations in Russia, like the MacArthur Foundation, and some are considering leaving. The recent registration of the new six NGOs and their formal lack of background could make it difficult for them to attract some foreign funding this year, Kalyapin said.

Oldest ever giant panda celebrates with bamboo, veggie cake

July 28, 2015

HONG KONG (AP) — The oldest giant panda ever in captivity tasted a vegetable ice cake and, of course, bamboo in celebration of her 37th birthday.

Jia Jia was recognized Tuesday as holding two Guinness World Records, the oldest ever and the oldest living giant panda. Her mate, An An, also marked a birthday, his 29th. Born in 1978, Jia Jia was sent to Hong Kong Ocean Park with An An in 1999. They were given by China to mark the second anniversary of Hong Kong's handover.

Jia Jia has had six babies and four are still living. The park's veterinary service director, Paolo Martelli, says typical panda life expectancy is around 20 years and only eight of about 400 living in captivity today are older than 30.

So, he says, "it's quite exceptional to reach such an old age for a panda." Jia Jia's age equals about 110 for humans. She suffers high blood pressure and arthritic pain, though her health is stable.