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Friday, August 21, 2015

The oldest Qur’ans are actually in Yemen, in danger of being bombed

by Juan Cole
July 28, 2015

The discovery of a couple pages [apparently actually 18] of a very old Qur’an (the Muslim scripture), probably from the 640s CE [“AD”], in a library in Britain, has provoked a good deal of press reporting. Muslim tradition holds that the scripture was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad between roughly 610 CE and his death in 632, during the era when Heraclius was the emperor of Byzantium and the Tang Dynasty ruled China. While this find at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham is important, the press seems unaware that a copy of the Qur’an that dates from the 640s and has about half of the entire book was discovered by a German team in Sanaa, Yemen two decades ago.

The oldest nearly complete Qur’ans in the world are just sitting there in the middle of Sanaa, and Birmingham is not the really big story here.

And Sanaa is being daily bombed from the air by Saudi Arabia, which has hit civilian buildings and a refugee camp and part of historic downtown Sanaa. I am petrified that it has hit the Manuscript Library where this precious book was held. (I am also petrified every time I hear about a strike that it has killed people– don’t get me wrong. But hey, I’m a historian of Islam so I worry about cultural destruction too).

Islam grew up in Western Arabia at a time when the capital of the old Roman empire had been moved east to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and when that eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled much of the Middle East (what is now Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Syria). The rest, Iraq and Iran, was ruled by the Zoroastrian, Persian Sasanid Empire. Islam grew up about six centuries after the beginning of Christianity, but only about 300 years after it had been officially recognized as one of the legitimate religions of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine.

The Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen, was founded by a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. In 1965 as a result of rain damage, an ancient storage room was discovered in its west wing that had had no door. It was full of old leaves of the Qur’an. Muslims were reluctant to throw copies of the Qur’an away when they aged, and the room was used as a geniza or storage for codex books that were falling apart.

Yemen brought in a German team to reassemble whole copies of the Qur’an from the jumbled leaves. I visited the facility, part of the Sanaa Manuscript Library called the Dar al-Qur’an, in 1988. I was shown several hundred drawers, each representing a different copy of the Muslim scripture, with different dimensions and script and media (lambskin, papyrus, etc.) Each page was being matched to the specifications of one of the drawers. I was told by the German staff that they were sure that some of these copies of the Qur’an went back to at least the late 600s, i.e. the first half of the Umayyad period (661-750), though there was at that time no absolute proof. It was just that the block Kufi script and the papyrus medium suggested ancientness.

This was an exciting idea to me, since at that time a lot of skepticism had been raised by John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone about whether the Qur’an as a book was really assembled 610-632, or whether it evolved over a couple of centuries. There was nothing wrong in principle with their theory– it was just an application of Descartes’ method, of radical doubt. And at that time the history of the Qur’anic manuscript text as a discipline barely existed (it is still very undeveloped compared to e.g. biblical studies). These authors turn out to have been wrong, but this is how science progresses, by people making bold hypotheses and then seeing if they can be knocked down.

Some of the manuscripts in the Dar al-Qur’an were very old and weren’t showing significant variants from modern Qur’ans, showing that the text had not in fact changed after the late 600s.

What the German team did not know then was that one of the copies of the Qur’an they had found was a palimpsest. That is a manuscript that has been written over and so replaced with a later text. But nowadays ultraviolet photography can reveal the original manuscript underneath.

The original manuscript was the Qur’an, but it wasn’t in the order prescribed by the Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656). That Caliph had issued an official version of the Qur’an in manuscript and had it copied out and spread around. It arranged the chapters (surahs) in order of length, with the longest first. This way of doing it meant that the book was more or less arranged backward from a chronological point of view, since the earliest chapters tended to be shorter than later ones. Westerners trying to read the Qur’an should thus begin at the back and read forward, and should read it along with a good biography of the Prophet Muhammad for context (I’ve always liked Montgomery Watts’ “Muhammad Prophet and Statesman”).

So the palimpsest Qur’an was likely older than 650 CE when `Uthman’s official version was promulgated. Later on, radiocarbon dating showed a high likelihood that this book was at least as old as the 640s and so certainly the oldest Qur’an known to exist, going back to within a decade of the Prophet Muhammad’s death. By the way, although the order of the chapters is different from the later standard, the text itself doesn’t show significant variants from today’s Qur’an. It shows that the religion of Islam has a firm grounding in history.

The earliest fragment of the New Testament in manuscript is from 125 CE and full manuscripts are later. So we now have (most of) a Qur’an that is within a decade or two of the death of the Muslim prophet, something that cannot be said for Christianity. I suspect we’ll eventually find very old New Testaments, too. I’m just underlining the historical importance of the Yemen find.

The discovery has been analyzed and published by Behnam Sadeghi of Stanford and Mohsen Goudarzi, though apparently a Yemen MA thesis found about 40 pages of which they were unaware.

I can’t understand why the palimpsest Qur’an isn’t more famous or the work of Sadeghi and Goudarzi not better known. Even in Middle East studies circles, whenever I have brought the Yemen finds up with colleagues, they often seem surprised and hadn’t known about them. And, the flurry of reporting about the Birmingham 2 pages also seems not to know about the Yemeni texts.

Let’s hope the fruitless war in Yemen (you can’t defeat a guerrilla movement with aerial bombardment) ends as soon as possible, and that civilians can stop being endangered, and Yemen’s vast cultural treasures can be safeguarded from further destruction. Since Bush went into Iraq in 2003, Middle Eastern history is disappearing, in what I call Cliocide, even as the security and lives of people are being lost. People need history and identity and it is a crime to rob them of it. The Saudis take pride in being the guardians of the two holy shrines, Mecca and Medina. They should be guardians of the Qur’an, too, and stop hitting Sanaa.

Source: Muslim Village.
Link: http://muslimvillage.com/2015/07/28/111820/oldest-qurans-actually-yemen-danger-bombing/.

Turkey's Erdogan takes a gamble, eyes a new election

August 18, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared a shadow of his former self after his party suffered major losses in the June election — embattled and no longer in control of his political fate. His once-dominant movement was forced into the humiliating position of seeking a coalition with opposition parties intent on reining him in.

Two months later, the shrewd politician seems to be back in the saddle. The coalition-building he reportedly opposed has collapsed, and Turkey is now edging closer toward the new election he has been angling for.

Erdogan appears to be betting that a new ballot could revive the fortunes of the Islamic-rooted party, which he founded and led for more than a decade. That would put him back on course to reshape Turkey's democracy, giving the largely ceremonial presidency sweeping powers that would allow him to wield control over government affairs.

Last week, he claimed since he was elected by popular vote instead of by Parliament, Turkey now had a "de facto" new system with a more powerful president, and a new constitution was needed to reflect the change. Erdogan has already been overstepping the bounds of his symbolic role on most matters of state, including Turkey's fight against terror.

But a new election at a time of escalating violence between Turkey's security forces and Kurdish rebels — and amid Turkey's deeper involvement in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State extremists — could backfire.

In recent weeks, dozens have been killed in renewed clashes between Turkey's military and the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkish jets have conducted air raids on IS targets in Syria and Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq, while U.S. jets last week launched their first airstrikes against IS targets in Syria from the key Turkish base at Incirlik, close to the border with Syria.

The truth is Erdogan is already calling the shots, including on military affairs, behind the scenes. "Erdogan is back in the driver's seat," said Svante Cornell, Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. "But the car's wheels are falling — and the car is breaking down."

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came first in the June 7 election, but fell short of a majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002. A coalition government would have limited Erdogan's ability to influence the government.

After weeks of stalling, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a former foreign minister and Erdogan adviser, embarked on talks with Turkey's pro-secular party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, to seek a possible coalition. The power-sharing talks failed Thursday, days after Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of obstructing the coalition efforts — a view shared by many but denied by Erdogan.

Davutoglu held a last-ditch coalition meeting Monday with the leader of Turkey's nationalist party. On Tuesday, he returned his mandate to form a new government to Erdogan just days before the Aug. 23 deadline to do so runs out. Turkey has now been left with little option but to hold a new election, probably in November.

Erdogan is apparently betting that this time around the party could reverse its losses. Opponents have accused Erdogan of launching the military operations against the PKK in a bid to win nationalists' support and discredit a pro-Kurdish party, whose gains in the June election deprived the AKP of its majority. Last week, Erdogan cited the violence — which has wrecked a nearly three-year old peace process — in stressing the need for a strong government.

The government rejects any political motivation behind the military strikes, insisting that the operations were launched in response to PKK attacks on police and the military. "The gamble is that the people will go back to the safe embrace of the AKP," said Cornell. "He is gambling the peace of the country and even the economy for the sake of his personal gains."

Ahead of the June election, Erdogan defied rules that require the president to be neutral, and openly campaigned on behalf of the AKP, unleashing fierce attacks on rival parties. Erdogan appeared to have kicked off a new campaign again last week, addressing neighborhood administrators and representatives of non-governmental organizations, and mounting an attack on the pro-Kurdish party's leaders.

"To go the polls at a time when people are being killed every single day can have a downside," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank. "The arithmetic in Parliament won't necessarily change."

9 dead as shelling increases in eastern Ukraine

August 18, 2015

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — A night-long artillery exchange in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Russia-backed rebels claimed nine lives on Monday, casting doubt on the already shaky cease-fire.

The fighting between Russia-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government troops in the country's industrial heartland eased after a truce was signed in February. But despite pledges to withdraw heavy caliber weapons from the front lines, both sides seem to be engaged in recent heavy fighting.

The conflict has killed an estimated 6,400 people since April 2014, according to the United Nations. The rebel mouthpiece Donetsk News Agency said artillery fire killed three people in a front line town of Horlivka and two in the rebel capital of Donetsk. Ukrainian officials reported two civilian deaths on their side, in a suburb of Mariupol on the Black Sea. The Ukrainian Security and Defense Council also reported two troops killed and six injured overnight.

The shelling on Monday came after failed talks between Ukraine, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which were supposed to agree on further steps to withdraw weaponry.

An Associated Press reporter in Donetsk witnessed weaponry on the move in the past few days while salvos of incoming and outgoing Grad rockets were frequently heard. President Vladimir Putin, who met representatives of various ethnic communities in the Russia-occupied Crimea on Monday, did not comment on the recent shelling. But he used the opportunity to claim that the current Ukrainian government is not free to make its own decisions because the country "is being managed from the outside."

Putin has alleged that Kiev's decisions are heavily influenced by Western powers including the United States. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday accused the Ukrainian government in Kiev of derailing the recent talks on withdrawal. Lavrov said the uptick in shelling could be the beginning of a new Ukrainian offensive.

"We're worried about events of the recent days, which look very much like preparation for fresh hostilities," he said. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that there was no mistaking who was responsible for the recent increase in attacks.

"Russia and the separatists are launching these attacks, just as they escalated the conflict last August," he said. "Efforts by Russia and separatists to grab more territory will be met with further costs."

OSCE observers warned Saturday about heavy weaponry that has gone missing after it was withdrawn from the front lines. The OSCE monitors were denied access to two locations in rebel-held areas where heavy caliber weapons were supposed to be kept. They were told at one location that 11 Grad multiple rocket launchers had been taken to Donetsk.

Serbian leader criticizes Hungary for migrant border fence

August 19, 2015

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's prime minister has denounced neighboring Hungary's razor-wire border fence to stop migrants, comparing it to Nazi-era concentration camps.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic spoke as he talked to migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who were camping Wednesday in a Belgrade park. He said Serbia has no plans to build fences on its border even though it is being overwhelmed by the flood of migrants.

Vucic says "we won't build those wires, those barbed wires. It only takes for someone to switch the electricity through those wires and to finish the job." Serbia, on the main transit route for migrants who want to reach Western Europe, fears when the fence is completed, it will leave thousands of people stranded inside the Balkan country.

Poland's Vistula River hits record low; shows historic bits

August 19, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Warsaw is having a treasure hunt — exploiting the record low level of the Vistula River to find pieces of historic bridges and boats amid the discarded tires and broken glass littering its banks.

It's all part of city authorities' goal to turn the free-flowing river into a major tourist and sports attraction. After a wave of unusually high summer temperatures, the Vistula, which flows 1,047 kilometers (651 miles) from the Beskidy Mountains to the Baltic Sea, is at its lowest level since measurements started in late 18th century. Only last year, and especially in 2005, the whimsical river had threatened to overflow its banks in Poland's capital after heavy rains.

Now in Warsaw, Poland's main river has dropped to about 50 centimeters (20 inches) at some places from its usual average depth of 200 centimeters (6 ½ feet), stalling flat-bottomed barges and tiny tour boats, exposing both treasures and eyesores.

About 300,000 zlotys ($79,000) is being spent on removing waste and retrieving elements of the city's 18th- century wooden Poninski Bridge, which was destroyed in 1806, and some shattered stone benches from the early 20th-century Poniatowski Bridge, which Germany's Nazis blew up in 1944.

Archaeologists also say a carved log of soaked wood that was found could be a piece of a medieval boat. Promoting the cleanup, top Warsaw officials joined hired cleaners Wednesday in removing broken bottles, umbrellas and metal pieces from the exposed river bed. The cranes needed to do some of the heavier work have to wait for higher water.

"We are taking a positive look at this situation and seizing the opportunity to do some cleaning," deputy Warsaw Mayor Michal Olszewski said.

Macedonia blocks migrants on border with Greece

August 20, 2015

GEVGELIJA, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia declared a state of emergency Thursday as it ramped up security on its border with Greece, stranding thousands of migrants on a dusty field.

The government said it is deploying troops as it tries to stem a surge of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said both police and the army will control the 50-kilometer (30 mile) stretch of the border in order to stop a "massive" influx of migrants coming from Greece.

"This measure is being introduced for the security of (Macedonian) citizens who live in the border areas and better treatment of the migrants," he said. The measure could create a huge backlog of migrants on the Greek side of the border, from which some 2,000 a day have been illegally crossing into Macedonia, an impoverished country overwhelmed by the surge.

Hundreds of migrants from the Greek island of Kos planned to move into Macedonia in the next few days. Thousands of migrants were stranded Thursday in a no man's land near the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, from which they planned to catch trains that would take them to the Serbian border on their way to Hungary, which is building a fence to try to keep them out. A police helicopter hovered nearby and officers in armored vehicles watched the crowd.

Hundreds more people, including many women with babies and children, joined the group as the night fell. They lit fires as they prepared to spend the night out in the open near the Greek border village of Idomeni. Some sat on railway tracks, blocking trains from crossing the frontier.

Small groups who tried to cross into Macedonia were escorted back to the border. "We can't believe that we are here from this morning," said Ahmet Husa of Syria. "People from Syria escaped from war, escaped death and we want to see our future in Europe. We need this road to see our future."

Until now, the border has been porous, with only a few patrols on each side. Sealing it would disrupt the so-called Balkan corridor for migrants who start in Turkey and take boats to Greece or walk to Bulgaria, then make their way through Macedonia or Serbia en route to the wealthier countries of the European Union.

Almost 39,000 migrants, most of them Syrians, have been registered passing through Macedonia over the past month, double the number from the month before. For months, the train station in Gevgelija was the scene of skirmishes between baton-wielding policemen and migrants trying to secure places on overcrowded trains.

Greece: Syriza hardliners split from PM Tsipras' party

August 21, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's president on Friday asked opposition leaders to try to form a new government, a day after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned and called an early election next month to deal with a governing party rebellion over Greece's third bailout deal.

But the opposition has little chance of uniting and forming a government so quickly, meaning that after more than five years of a worsening financial crisis, Greece is headed for its fifth national election in six years. Although Tsipras is widely tipped to win the election again, if he fails to secure an outright majority he would have to seek a complex coalition that could hamper his ability to govern.

Hardline lawmakers in Tsipras' radical left Syriza party announced Friday they were splitting from him and the party and forming their own movement, which becomes the third largest group in Parliament.

Outgoing government officials say the likeliest election date is Sept. 20, just eight months after Tsipras' election on promises to fight creditor-demanded spending cuts and tax hikes, terms he later agreed to in order to secure Greece a third bailout as its economy was on the brink of collapse.

President Prokopis Pavlopoulos met conservative New Democracy party head Evangelos Meimarakis on Friday and asked him to try to form a government. Meimarakis has three days to seek coalition partners before having to return the mandate, which would then go to the third largest party — the new radical group that left Syriza. Those 25 lawmakers, who will be called Popular Unity, are led by former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis.

Announcing his resignation in a televised address late Thursday, Tsipras said he secured the best deal possible when he agreed to a three-year, 86 billion euro ($95 billion) bailout from other eurozone countries to save Greece from a disastrous exit from the shared euro currency.

But the deal came with strict terms for more belt-tightening. Tsipras' reversal in accepting the demands by creditors led to outrage among Syriza hardliners. About one in four Syriza lawmakers refused to back the bailout's ratification in Parliament last week, which was only approved with backing from opposition parties.

Greece's European creditors did not appear dismayed by Tsipras' move, which was widely expected. But Moody's credit rating agency warned the snap election "potentially, puts future (rescue loan) disbursements at risk."

The political uncertainty is taking its toll on Greece's stock market, with the Athens Stock Exchange down 1.6 percent shortly after opening Friday, after closing 3.5 percent down Thursday on election speculation.

Tsipras had delayed a decision on whether to call a new election until after Greece received its first installment from the new bailout and made a debt repayment to the European Central Bank; it did both Thursday.

"Now that this difficult cycle has ended ... I feel the deep moral and political obligation to set before your judgment everything I have done, both right and wrong, the achievements and the omissions," he said.

Tsipras insists he had to accept the unpalatable bailout terms to keep Greece in the euro, the EU's common currency. He is betting on a stronger mandate if polls are held before voters feel the impact of the new steep tax hikes and spending cuts.

He acknowledged Thursday the bailout deal was not what his government had wanted. "I wish to be fully frank with you. We did not achieve the agreement that we were hoping for before the January elections," he said. "But ... (the agreement) was the best anyone could have achieved. We are obliged to observe this agreement, but at the same time we will do our utmost to minimize its negative consequences."

Greek banking is still restricted under capital controls imposed in late June to stem a bank run. There are weekly limits on cash withdrawals and Greeks can only transfer up to 500 euros ($563) abroad per month. Companies have faced problems paying suppliers abroad, with all international payments requiring a laborious approval process.

Some analysts took the early election news as an indication that Greece would struggle to implement the terms of its latest bailout. Teneo intelligence analyst Wolfango Piccoli said while Tsipras' gamble could pay off politically, it probably will delay the first review of the new bailout program because "the caretaker government will not be able to implement any meaningful policy measures."

Greece's Tsipras bets on early polls to boost reform mandate

August 21, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's president will launch the process Friday of asking opposition leaders to form a new government, after a party rebellion over a bailout deal forced Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to call early elections next month.

The opposition is given little chance of uniting and forming a government, meaning that after five-plus years of a worsening financial crisis, Greece appears headed for its fifth national election in six years. Although Tsipras is widely tipped to win the election, if he fails to secure an outright majority he would have to seek a complex coalition deal that could hamper his ability to govern in the long term.

Outgoing government officials say the likeliest election date is Sept. 20, just under eight months after Tsipras' election on promises to fight creditor-demanded spending cuts and tax hikes, terms he later agreed to in order to secure Greece a third bailout as its economy was on the brink of collapse.

On Friday morning, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos will meet the head of conservative New Democracy party, Evangelos Meimarakis, and ask him to try to form a government. If Meimarakis fails within the maximum three-day limit, the next in line to try is the head of the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn party. But neither party has enough allies to gain Parliament's support.

If both fail, Parliament will be dissolved and elections held within the next month. Announcing his resignation in a televised address late Thursday, Tsipras said he secured the best deal possible when he agreed to a three-year, 86 billion euro ($95 billion) bailout from other eurozone countries to save Greece from a disastrous exit from the euro currency.

But the deal came with strict terms for mroe belt-tightening. Tsipras' reversal in accepting the demands by the country's creditors led to outrage among hardliners in his Syriza party, which hamstrung his coalition. About one in four Syriza lawmakers refused to back the bailout's ratification in Parliament last week, which was only approved with backing from opposition parties.

Greece's European creditors did not appear dismayed by Tsipras' move, which was widely expected. But Moody's credit rating agency warned in a statement that the snap elections "potentially, puts future (rescue loan) disbursements at risk."

The political uncertainty took its toll on Greece's stock market, with the Athens Stock Exchange closing 3.5 percent down on election speculation. Tsipras had delayed a decision on whether to call new elections until after Greece received its first installment from the bailout and made a debt repayment to the European Central Bank; it did both Thursday.

"Now that this difficult cycle has ended ... I feel the deep moral and political obligation to set before your judgment everything I have done, both right and wrong, the achievements and the omissions," he said in the address.

Tsipras insists that he had to accept the unpalatable bailout terms to keep Greece in the euro, the EU's common currency. He is betting on a stronger mandate if polls are held before voters feel the impact of the steep tax hikes and spending cuts.

Tsipras acknowledged Thursday that the bailout deal was not what his government had wanted. "I wish to be fully frank with you. We did not achieve the agreement that we were hoping for before the January elections," he said. "But ... (the agreement we have) was the best anyone could have achieved. We are obliged to observe this agreement, but at the same time we will do our utmost to minimize its negative consequences."

Quoting Turkish left-wing poet Nazim Hikmet, he added, "Our best days have yet to be lived." If Tsipras wins the elections, a new mandate will allow him to move away from the rebels in his party, some of whom have openly advocated leaving the euro and returning to the drachma. The hardliners are likely to split from Syriza.

Greek banking is still restricted under capital controls imposed in late June to stem a bank run sparked after Tsipras called a referendum on creditor proposals for reforms following a breakdown in bailout negotiations. There are weekly limits on cash withdrawals and Greeks can only transfer up to 500 euros abroad per month. Companies have faced problems paying suppliers abroad, with all international payments requiring a laborious process of approval by a special finance ministry committee.

Some analysts took the reports of early elections as an indication that Greece would struggle to implement its bailout's terms. Teneo Intelligence analyst Wolfango Piccoli said that while Tsipras' gamble could pay off politically, it probably will delay the first review of the new bailout program, "especially considering that the caretaker government will not be able to implement any meaningful policy measures."

Lorne Cook in Brussels, Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, Raphael Kominis and Pietro de Cristofaro in Athens contributed to this report.

Migrant in Greece says they begged for food, water, blankets

August 20, 2015

PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of migrants reached Greece's main port near Athens on Thursday, with one telling of a perilous journey from Syria dodging armed Turkish border guards and begging for water, food and blankets during her family's quest to reach the safety of Europe.

Greece has been overwhelmed this year by record numbers of migrants reaching its eastern Aegean islands clandestinely from the nearby Turkish coast, with more than 160,000 arriving since January. In a bid to ease the overcrowding on the islands, the government chartered a ferry that transported about 2,500 migrants to the port of Piraeus.

Vian Baker, a 21-year-old Syrian student from Aleppo, said she was heading to Europe along with her father and sister to continue her studies, which were interrupted due to the war in her homeland. "We couldn't live there. Bombs and war," Baker said after disembarking from the ferry.

She described a dangerous 15-day journey from Aleppo to Greece that included hiding for six hours in the woods on the Turkish-Syrian border to find an opportunity to cross at night, and then dodging Turkish border guards who she said fired into the air. From Turkey, she and her family crossed over to the small Greek island of Leros in a three-hour sea journey.

"We faced death," Baker said, adding that once on the island, there were no facilities for the new arrivals. "We slept on the street. We didn't have blankets. We didn't have anything. Even water. I don't know what to tell you. We begged for water, we begged for food," she said.

The ferry had served as a registration center on the eastern Aegean island of Kos earlier this week. It left Kos Wednesday with about 1,300 migrants and picked up hundreds more from the islands of Leros, Kalymnos and Lesbos.

The vast majority of migrants do not want to stay in Greece, a financially troubled country with unemployment at more than 26 percent. They head north to Greece's border with Macedonia and then through the Balkans toward the more prosperous European nations such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

Hamsa Al Halabiah, a 44-year-old Syrian who fled her home country about four years ago to Lebanon and then Turkey, said she was among those heading to Germany, where her brother-in-law lives. "We hope to find a better future for our kids, for our children. (The situation in Syria) is too bad, very bad. It's terrible, it's miserable, no words can express the reality in Syria now," she said.

Germany says it could face as many as 800,000 migrants this year — four times the number from last year. It now handles 43 percent of all asylum applications in the 28-nation European Union and says Europe has to come up with a better way to share the burden.

The Greek government has appeared unprepared for the massive influx, with island authorities complaining they have been left understaffed and underfunded to deal with hundreds of new migrants arriving each day.

The Greek coast guard, meanwhile, said it had picked up 519 people in 16 search-and-rescue operations in the last 24 hours off the islands of Samos, Agathonissi, Kos and Farmakonissi. The figure does not include the hundreds of migrants who made it to the islands themselves in inflatable dinghies.

Delays in registering new arrivals and a shortage of available ferry tickets to the Greek mainland has led to thousands of migrants being stranded on the islands, with tensions running high. Among those from the ferry in Piraeus aiming to head north right away was 17-year-old Ahmad Mohammad, who said it took him 10 days to get to Greece.

"The trip was so tiring and we had a lot of problems," he said. "Now we will go to Thessaloniki and then to Europe. Maybe Germany, maybe Switzerland, I don't know."

Becatoros reported from Athens

Greece gives German firm rights to run 14 airports

August 18, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece has agreed to sell to a German company the rights to operate 14 regional airports. The deal is the first in a wave of privatizations the government had until recently opposed but needs to make to qualify for bailout loans.

The decision, which was published in the government gazette overnight Monday to Tuesday, would hand over the airports, including several on popular tourist island destinations, to Fraport AG, which runs Frankfurt Airport, among others across the world.

The concession, worth 1.23 billion euros ($1.37 billion), is the first privatization decision taken by the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was elected in January on promises to repeal the conditions of Greece's previous two bailouts.

The government had initially vowed to cancel the country's privatization program, but Tsipras has been forced to renege on his pre-election promises in order to win a deal on a third international bailout for Greece, worth 86 billion euros. Without the rescue loans, the country would default on its debts and risk being forced out of Europe's joint currency.

Citing the rescue loan agreement, Fitch international agency late Tuesday raised Greece's credit rating by one notch, from CC to CCC — but still near the bottom of the rating scale and deep in junk bond territory.

Fitch said the bailout agreement has reduced the risk of Greece defaulting to its private sector creditors. But the agency warned that the risks to the bailout's success remain high. "It will take some time for trust to be restored between Greece and its creditors, which increases the risk of delayed (bailout) program reviews," it said. "Meanwhile, the political situation in Greece remains unpredictable."

The bailout deal is getting its final approvals in parliaments in several European states. Lawmakers in Spain and Estonia approved it Tuesday, while those of Germany and the Netherlands are expected to do so Wednesday.

Separately, the government slightly relaxed its restrictions on banking transactions, allowing small amounts to be sent abroad for the first time in about two months. The finance ministry's amendments, also published in the government gazette, include allowing Greeks to send up to 500 euros ($555) abroad per person per month, and allowing up to 8,000 euros per quarter to be sent to students studying abroad to cover accommodation costs.

Greeks can now also open new bank accounts that will have no withdrawal rights, in order to repay loans, social security contributions or tax debts. The government restricted banking transactions in late June to prevent a bank run after Tsipras announced a referendum on creditors' terms for a new bailout.

The government's U-turn on pre-election promises to secure its new bailout has sparked a rebellion within Tsipras' governing left-wing Syriza party, increasing the possibility of early elections being called as early as next month.

The prime minister is widely expected to call a confidence vote in his government this week, after dozens of Syriza lawmakers voted against him during the ratification of the new bailout deal in Parliament last Friday.

Tsipras was meeting with members of his financial team Tuesday, but the government has said any announcements on political developments will be made after Thursday, when Greece must repay a debt for which it needs new loans.

Government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili told the Athens 9.84 radio station that one idea was for Tsipras to ask for a confidence vote, in which the coalition government would be aiming for the support of all 162 lawmakers belonging to the two governing parties.

Decisions would be made in coming days, she said.

Greek coast guard rescues hundreds off Aegean islands

August 19, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's coast guard rescued hundreds of migrants in more than a dozen search and rescue operations, including one in which a toddler was found unconscious in one of the overcrowded dinghies, authorities said Wednesday.

The coast guard said picked up 534 migrants in 14 incidents off the coasts of the eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Agathonissi, Samos, Farmakonissi and Kos from Tuesday morning to Wednesday morning. Those numbers do not include the hundreds more who managed to reach the islands in overcrowded dinghies.

Separately, it said a child of about 2 or 3 years old was found unconscious in a dinghy spotted by a patrol helicopter and carrying 54 migrants off Samos. A coast guard vessel picked up the group and the child was taken to a hospital.

Greece seen record numbers of migrant arrivals this year, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan. About 160,000 migrants have reached Greece so far since January, compared to 43,500 in all of 2014, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. More than four-fifths are from Syria, and 14 percent from Afghanistan.

Few — if any — want to stay in Greece, which is reeling from a financial crisis of its own and has an unemployment rate of more than 26 percent. Instead, they head to Greece's northern border with Macedonia and from there cross the Balkans, heading to the more prosperous European countries of the north, particularly Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

Short-staffed and cash-strapped authorities on islands have been overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of daily arrivals and have struggled to cope with registering the new arrivals. With the tourist season at its peak, another problem has arisen — regular ferries are fully booked with holidaymakers heading to and from the islands, meaning thousands of migrants have been unable to find tickets to get to the Greek mainland and continue their journeys.

Hundreds of migrants have been camping out for days at the port of the island of Lesbos, which for months saw the largest numbers of arrivals in Greece. Similar scenes have appeared in other islands. Authorities chartered a ferry they sent to Kos earlier this week, one of the most severely affected islands, where it acted as an accommodation and registration center for migrants.

The ferry set sail from Kos Wednesday morning with 1,308 migrants on board, the coast guard said, and headed to the nearby small islands of Kalymnos and Leros to pick up hundreds more before heading to the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki. The ship was expected to arrive there early Thursday.

Greek government seen calling confidence vote

August 17, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is likely to call a confidence vote in his government after the country's third bailout deal with international creditors sparked a rebellion within his party, one of his ministers indicated Monday.

Expectations of a confidence vote, which could lead to early elections, heightened after last Friday's parliamentary vote in favor of the 86 billion euro three-year ($93 billion) bailout passed thanks to opposition support and saw dozens of lawmakers in Tsipras' Syriza party dissent.

Without the bailout, Greece faces defaulting on its debts and eventually being forced out of Europe's joint currency, the euro. "I consider it self-evident, after the deep wounding of the parliamentary majority and in particular of the parliamentary group of Syriza, for there to be a move that at least approaches the issue," Energy and Environment Minister Panos Skourletis told Skai television when asked about the possibility of the government calling a confidence vote.

Skourletis added that early elections may also be necessary in light of the political instability. The government has said its priority is currently securing the bailout funding, which it needs by Thursday to meet a large debt repayment to the European Central Bank, and that any further decisions on the political situation will be taken from then on.

In order to secure the bailout deal, Tsipras reneged on the promises that saw his radical left Syriza party win January elections. Syriza's coalition government with the small nationalist Independent Greeks was premised on a pledge to repeal austerity measures tied to Greece's two previous international bailouts.

Instead, after months of floundering negotiations with international creditors, the government accepted demands for steep tax hikes and deep spending cuts. The about-face has angered an increasing number of Syriza lawmakers, including prominent members such as former ministers of finance Yanis Varoufakis, and energy Panagiotis Lafazanis. Both voted against the government.

Last week Lafazanis — who was replaced as minister in a reshuffle last month after opposing the government in a previous bailout-related vote — and another 12 left-wing politicians announced they were creating a new anti-austerity movement, although Lafazanis stopped short of quitting the party.

If a confidence vote is called, a parliamentary debate would start two days later, with a vote held after a maximum three-day discussion. Tsipras will need the support of a majority of lawmakers present in the 300-member parliament — and not less than 120 — for his government to survive.

Opposition parties have indicated they will not back Tsipras in a confidence vote, so the outcome will depend on Syriza dissenters. If many vote against, they will bring down the government. However, if they chose not to be present, Tsipras would need fewer votes and could survive.

The turmoil has raised the possibility of general elections being called as soon as next month. Asked about the possibility, Skourletis said he believed such a move was necessary in order to tackle the political instability. He noted that the bailout meant the situation had now changed compared to when Syriza initially won its popular mandate.

"I would say the elections are necessary," Skourletis said. "Because given the problems in the governing majority, today's situation can be described as anything but stable." "If we don't see it in the foreseeable future, then instability will be what determines developments," he added.

Elections would be held three to four weeks after being declared. Despite his U-turn, Tsipras has remained popular and is believed to be well-placed to win a forthcoming election. Although no opinion polls have been published since the end of last week when Greece's third bailout was finalized, previous polls showed his party enjoying a wide lead over opposition parties.

French far-right party excludes founder Jean-Marie Le Pen

August 20, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded France's far-right National Front, was excluded from his party on Thursday following a disciplinary hearing for belittling the Holocaust and insulting party leaders. He quickly said he would contest the move in court.

The decision regarding a figure who has for decades been one of the mainstays of French politics came in a statement hours after the end of a three-hour hearing by the party's executive bureau. In the tribunal-like session, the 87-year-old Le Pen defended himself against a list of 15 complaints, all consisting of public statements considered a liability to the new image of the anti-immigration party.

Party president Marine Le Pen, his daughter, has been trying for months to oust her father, who held the title of honorary president for life. A statement said the executive bureau "deliberated and decided ... the exclusion of Mr. Jean-Marie Le Pen as member of the National Front."

Le Pen said the decision by six members of the eight-member executive bureau was carried out by an "execution squad" on orders of his daughter and the party's No. 2, Florian Philippot, whom father Le Pen openly distrusts. Speaking to iTele TV station, Le Pen said he would "obviously" contest it. He also contended that his title of honorary president for life, conferred at a 2010 party congress, cannot be removed.

Le Pen has won three recent court decisions in what began as a family feud and mushroomed into a debilitating party crisis as the National Front prepares for regional elections in December. While Marine Le Pen signed off on the complaints — and personally summoned him to appear at the hearing — neither she nor Philippot was present. Philippot had said they preferred not to be both judges and accusers in what amounted to a trial.

Le Pen's lawyer, Frederic Joachim, called the decision a "political assassination." Visibly stunned, he was being interviewed on BFM-TV when the announcement was issued. The party statement said that Le Pen would be notified "shortly" of the reasons behind the decision.

The charismatic Le Pen, who has been convicted in French courts of racism and anti-Semitism, was long a thorn in the side of French politicians on both left and right before becoming what his daughter viewed as a handicap for the party as she scrubbed up its image to make the National Front a respectable political alternative. He made it to the final round of the 2002 presidential race, shocking France and the world.

Le Pen named his daughter as his successor in 2010, and she has since chalked up electoral victories for the National Front, with polls suggesting she could become a leading contender in the French presidential race in 2017 — her ultimate goal.

A new chapter of the father-daughter feud opened with Marine summoning her father before the bureau. The 15 complaints listed in her letter targeted recent public statements by Le Pen, including those in which he downplayed Nazi gas chambers as a "detail in the history" of World War II.

Le Pen contends his remarks fall within the domain of freedom of expression, and says insults targeting Marine Le Pen and Philippot were reactions to their injurious remarks toward him. Philippot at one point compared Le Pen to an aging diva who refuses to leave the stage.

Le Pen contested the executive bureau's right to judge him, noting in a statement issued during the hearing that it was passing judgment for a second time in months even though a court annulled an initial decision.

However, the normally feisty Le Pen left the meeting with a conciliatory tone, offering an outstretched hand in search of a "signal of pacification." "I'm almost a man alone," Le Pen said. Bruno Gollnisch, a member of the party's old guard also present at the hearing, said in a telephone interview that the political consequences of the decision to exclude Le Pen from the party "will be absolutely disastrous."

Apprised of the decision, Le Pen reverted to his feisty nature. He said he will attend a September gathering of the party, and "I'll be there, obviously in my place as honorary president."

Pentagon plans to increase drone flights by 50 percent

August 18, 2015

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AP) — Faced with escalating aggression from Russia and China, the Pentagon is planning to increase its use of drones by about 50 percent over the next several years, using the Army and civilian contractors to put more of the unmanned aircraft in the air.

The decision to add Army and civilian-operated missions to the mix was triggered because the Air Force — which had been running about 65 combat air patrol missions a day — asked to decrease that number to 60 because of stress on the force. But 60 patrols don't come close to meeting the demands of top military commanders facing growing security threats around the world.

Senior U.S. officials said that while drones have been used largely to target terrorists and collect intelligence over combat zones, those needs may shift in the coming years. Top military leaders, including the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, have named Russia as the nation's most serious security threat. And China's rising military power and island-building program in the South China Sea have increased tensions and prompted a greater demand for U.S. surveillance and intelligence across the Pacific.

One senior defense official said Pentagon leaders are taking those security challenges into account as they decide how armed and unarmed drones will be used across Europe and the Pacific. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Pentagon leaders have been wrestling with the problem for some time, as the need for more airstrikes and surveillance by drones over Iraq and Syria to battle the Islamic State group offsets a decline in unmanned flights over Afghanistan as the war there winds down. Under the plans laid out by senior defense officials, the Air Force would continue to provide 60 daily drone missions, while the Army would conduct about 16, and U.S. Special Operations Command and civilian contractors would do up to 10 each.

"It's the combatant commanders, they need more. They're tasked to do our nation's business overseas so they feel that stress on them, and it's not getting better," said Air Force Maj. Gen. J.D. Harris, Jr., vice commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. "There's just not enough of the Air Force to go around."

The civilian contractors would fly surveillance drones, not the armed aircraft. But senior defense officials said they need at least a small contractor contribution in order to reach the total of 90 combat air patrols per day.

The key unanswered questions, however, are how the Pentagon will pay for the additional patrols and how the military will sort out and analyze the growing torrent of data pouring in. Officials said some of the costs could be borne by war funding — the overseas contingency operations in a separate account approved by Congress. The account funded some of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as some counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa.

The use of the Army and contractor flights will give the Air Force time to recover and rebuild its drone staffing. Over the past decade, the Air Force had to very quickly expand the number of unmanned flights over Iraq and Afghanistan. To do that, it made fighter pilots switch to unmanned Predator and Reaper drones, and moved trainers into operations missions.

"Five, six years ago, we overmatched our system and we said we could provide more than what we were capable of providing on a sustained basis," Harris told The Associated Press in an interview at his Langley office. "We actually decimated our training units. We pulled crews that were instructors that should be training the next round of students, and we put them on the operational lines flying missions overseas just to provide everything we could to the combatant commanders."

As a result, the Air Force has trained about 180 air crew members per year, far short of the goal of 300. Harris and other military leaders thought that the demand for drones would dip as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan waned. But the renewed conflict in Iraq, the fighting in Syria, the terror threat in North Africa, the Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region and the simmering tensions in the Pacific have only increased commanders' appetite for drones.

To relieve the burden on the Air Force, the military has already begun using Army Gray Eagle drones in Afghanistan and could expand to other regions as required. But, as the missions increase, the amount of video and other data being funneled to analysts will also spike.

Officials said they are working on ways to filter the data more efficiently so that key intelligence is identified and gets to the right people. "The intelligence analysts who process the information coming from these flights are a critical part of this," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. "So, as we talk about expanding the number of UAV (drone) flights, we also have to look at the workload of the analysts who process that. We have to have the supporting backbone to be able to process that information and turn it into actionable intelligence."

Brazil house leader, ex-president hit with corruption charge

August 21, 2015

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's attorney general filed corruption charges Thursday against the speaker of the lower house of congress and against a current senator who was impeached while serving as president in the early 1990s.

The Attorney General's Office said Chamber of Deputies speaker Eduardo Cunha and Sen. Fernando Collor took part in the sprawling corruption scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras, which ran for over a decade and in which billions in bribes were allegedly paid.

Both Cunha and Collor told the local press that they have done nothing wrong. Prosecutors said in a statement that Cunha is accused of accepting $5 million in bribes between 2006 and 2012 in connection with the construction of two Petrobras drilling ships. He's charged with corruption and with money laundering.

No details in the case against Collor were made public. The prosecutor's office said that was because it is based on accusations from an active informant and revealing details would jeopardize the continuing investigation.

In the early 1990s, Collor became Brazil's first freely elected president in nearly three decades after a long military dictatorship, but he resigned in 1992 after being impeached by the Senate over allegations he received millions from a slush fund run by his former campaign treasurer.

Under Brazilian law, charges against federal congressmen and other top government officials can only be filed and judged by the Supreme Court, which is expected to take years to rule on the cases. The charges against both men have long been expected in the Petrobras scheme, which prosecutors say involved huge bribes to politically appointed executives at the oil company in return for inflated contracts.

Prosecutors allege some of the money made its way into campaign coffers of the governing Workers' Party and its allies as well as into the hands of dozens of lawmakers who are under investigation. President Dilma Rousseff, whose approval ratings are in the single digits amid the scandal and economic problems, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, although she served as chairwoman of the Petrobras board during several years as the scheme played out.

Rousseff, who denies any wrongdoing, has repeatedly said that the investigation will not stop and "will hurt whomever it must hurt," even as several members of her own party and those in her ruling coalition become ensnared.

Thousands of Brazilians turned out for rallies across the country Thursday to voice support for the president, but their numbers were smaller than demonstrations on Sunday that drew protesters calling for Rousseff to lose her job.

Analysts were split on what Thursday's charges might mean for Rousseff. Cunha, a member of the powerful Democratic Movement Party, has for many months played an obstructionist role to Rousseff's initiatives in congress as she tries to push through austerity measures and other bills meant to help propel Brazil's economy out of the doldrums. The nation's economy is expected to contract 2 percent this year and again be in recession in 2016.

"For Dilma, this is a positive outcome since Cunha has positioned himself as one of the major threats to Dilma's political stability," said Thiago Aragao, a political analyst at Brasilia-based Arko Advice.

But he added that a weakened Cunha, who has vowed he will not resign, doesn't mean he will lose all his influence. It is possible that his "level of retaliation against Dilma and her government could increase," Aragao said. "I think there will be two to three weeks of a very tense environment."

David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, said he thinks Cunha's "nastiness as president of the Chamber of Deputies will increase and he may go after Dilma with more passion and hatred than before."

"The consequences of this may be dire and produce a worse situation for Dilma ... he will vent his anger toward Dilma and spare no effort to get her impeached," Fleischer said.

Associated Press writer Brad Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.