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Friday, September 11, 2015

Huge Malaysia rally for Najib's resignation enters 2nd day

August 30, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Big crowds of protesters returned to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to demand the resignation of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak over a financial scandal, after the first day of the massive rally passed peacefully.

The protesters camped overnight wearing yellow shirts of the Bersih movement — the coalition for clean and fair elections — even after authorities blocked the organizer's website and banned yellow attire and the group's logo in a bid to deter the rallies, which were also held in other Malaysian cities.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been spearheading calls for Najib's resignation, added momentum to the rally when he made a surprise brief appearance late Saturday with his wife to loud cheers from the crowd, and telling protesters to "carry on."

Najib has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB. He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East, fired his critical deputy and four other Cabinet members as well as the attorney general investigating him.

He slammed the protests for tarnishing Malaysia's image. "Those who wear this yellow attire ... they want to discredit our good name, scribble black coal on Malaysia's face to the outside world," Najib was quoted as saying by national news agency Bernama.

Police estimated Saturday's crowd at 25,000, while Bersih says 200,000 participated at its peak. The rally was scheduled to last until midnight Sunday to usher in Malaysia's 58th National Day. "This is a watershed moment. Malaysians are united in their anger at the mismanagement of this country. We are saying loudly that there should be a change in the leadership," said protester Azrul Khalib, who slept on the street with his friends.

He said he was aware that the rally will not bring change overnight, but he wants to be "part of efforts to build a new Malaysia." Some used colored chalks to scrawl their demands on the street: "We want change," and "We want clean and fair (elections)."

Scores of police barricaded roads leading to the Independence Square, a national landmark that authorities declared off-limits to protesters ahead of the national day celebrations on Monday. Previous two Bersih rallies, in 2011 and 2012, were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons.

Analysts said the rally attracted a largely urban crowd with a smaller participation of ethnic Malays, which could be the reason why the Najib government allowed it to go on. "They feel safe because it has not really affected the rural Malay segment, their bedrock support," said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian. However, he said this doesn't mean that rural Malays are happy with the government, as many are upset with the plunging currency and economic slowdown.

A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim with significant Chinese and Indian minorities. Its ambitions to rise from a middle income to a developed nation this decade have been stymied by slow-paced reforms and Najib's increasing authoritarianism.

Support for Najib's National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance. Concerns over the political scandal partly contributed to the Malaysian currency plunging to a 17-year low beyond 4 ringgit to the dollar earlier this month.

Apart from Najib's resignation, the demands being sought are institutional reforms that will make the government more transparent and accountable.

Thousands gather for rally urging Malaysian leader to quit

August 29, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Defying authorities, thousands of Malaysians wearing yellow T-shirts and blowing horns began gathering Saturday in Kuala Lumpur for a major rally to demand the resignation of embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The crowds were undeterred by heavy police presence after authorities declared the rally illegal, blocked the organizer's website and banned yellow attire and the logo of Bersih, the coalition for clean and fair election that's behind the protest.

Najib has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB. He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East, fired his critical deputy and four other Cabinet members as well as the attorney general investigating him.

Protesters in yellow Bersih T-shirts and headbands converged at five different locations, in preparation to march to areas surrounding the Independence Square, where celebrations to mark Malaysia's 58th National Day will be held Monday.

Scores of riot police have sealed off roads leading to the square, which authorities have said is off-limits to protesters. Some activists were carrying canvas bags with the words "My Prime Minister Embarrasses Me." Some held placards saying "We will not be silenced," while others chanted "Bersih" and waved Malaysian flags.

In one area near the square, a comedian entertaining the crowd poked fun at Najib. Dressed up as an Arab, he pretended to hand over a multi-billion-ringgit check as a donation to a rally participant. "Stop treating us like fools, Mr. prime minister," said businessman Tony Wong. "We deserve to know the truth about 1MDB. Where has the money gone to?"

1MDB, set up by Najib in 2009 to develop new industries, has accumulated 42 billion ringgit ($11.1 billion) in debt after its energy ventures abroad faltered. Critics have voiced concern about 1MDB's massive debt and lack of transparency.

Concerns over the political scandal partly contributed to the Malaysian currency plunging to a 17-year low, beyond 4 ringgit to the dollar, earlier this month. Apart from Najib's resignation, the rally, which will go on overnight, is also demanding institutional reforms that will make the government more transparent and accountable.

A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim with significant Chinese and Indian minorities. Its ambitions to rise from a middle income to a developed nation this decade have been stymied by slow-paced reforms and Najib's increasing authoritarianism.

This is the fourth rally organized by Bersih, and the third one since Najib took power in 2009. Tens of thousands of people turned up for the last two rallies in 2011 and 2012, which were dispersed by authorities using tear gas and water cannon.

Bersih activists said rallies were also held simultaneously in Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Kuching in Malaysia's Sarawak state and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state. Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed has warned police will take action if the rally turns violent or protesters break the law. He has said that protesters should show their unhappiness with the government at the ballot box, not in the streets.

Support for Najib's National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance.

More Brotherhood members get life sentences

Monday, 31 August 2015

Nine more members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Egypt, Anadolu has reported. In the same session, four other members of the movement were each sent to prison for four years.

Those convicted by the Criminal Court in Ismailiyah included a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office, Mohamed Taha Wahdan, and the local spokesman for the movement in the city, Ali Abdullah, in addition to the main Brotherhood official in the governorate, Sabry Khalafallah.

All were arrested following the dispersal of a pro-democracy demonstration in December 2013. They were accused of attempting to undermine Egypt's security, public safety, taking part in an illegal demonstration and being affiliated with Egypt’s largest Islamic movement.

A source in Ismailiyah added that the Appeal Court had released a number of pro-Brotherhood individuals on bail.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/20736-more-brotherhood-members-get-life-sentences.

Lebanese protests resume as leaders debate trash crisis

September 09, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Lebanese demonstrators braved a sandstorm and oppressive humidity to take to Beirut streets on Wednesday and rally against government dysfunction, as politicians met for the first round of talks aimed at averting a political crisis that stemmed from a trash crisis that has engulfed the country's capital.

Activists near the parliament building, which was closed off by security forces, shouted "thieves!" and hurled eggs as politicians' convoys drove by. Tensions rose further after a morning gathering of lawmakers and senior politicians ended without results, while the Cabinet convened late into the night to discuss the deadlock. Outside the government building, protesters chanted: "Revolution, revolution against the system."

Just before midnight, the government said it had approved a plan that promises to end the trash crisis. "They are feeling the sand shifting under them," Elias Nassour, a 28-year-old protester, said of the government leaders. "Nothing will pass so easily anymore. They can't belittle us anymore."

The trash crisis has ignited the largest Lebanese protests in years and has emerged as a festering symbol of the government's paralysis and failure to provide basic services. It was sparked by popular anger over the heaps of trash accumulating in Beirut's streets after authorities closed the capital's main landfill on July 17 and failed to provide an alternative.

The protests quickly moved beyond just the trash in the streets to target an entire political class that has dominated the country and undermined its growth since the civil war ended in 1990. Lebanon has a confessional power-sharing system that often leads to incessant bickering and cronyism among the country's politicians.

Thousands of people have taken part in huge demonstrations over the past two weeks. Among other things, they are demanding new parliament elections, to be followed by presidential elections. The country has been without a president for over a year, and members of parliament have illegally extended their term twice amid disputes over an election law.

After meeting for three and a half hours, leaders of Lebanon's various sectarian blocs issued a brief statement, saying the talks would resume in a week. "They did not even bother to meet tomorrow or the day after, they postponed it for a week and came out without any decision," said Assaad Thebian, an organizer with the main group behind the protests, which calls itself "You Stink."

"They showed that they are indifferent and should not be in leadership positions," he told The Associated Press. "This dialogue is a joke. They are meeting to see how they can split the cheese," said Marwan Basha, a 57-year-old engineer taking part in the sit-in near parliament, as riot police stood nearby. His T-shirt had Arabic words on the front, asking: "Where is the water, where is the electricity, where are the job opportunities?"

On the barbed wire that separates protesters from the building, activists pinned a large banner with the pictures of the 128 members of parliament reading: "You have failed at everything ... Go Home."

So far, the only response to the growing protest movement has been a promise by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, for the high-level talks among the politicians. His call has been backed by the main political leaders, who attended the meeting Wednesday, but it was unclear how such talks among the same veteran politicians being vilified by the protesters would help break the deadlock.

The leaders are deeply divided over core issues, such as what a new election law would look like, and whether it should be passed before or after a president is elected. Following the meeting, a government official said they discussed the urgent need to elect a president. Adnan Daher said the next dialogue session would be held on Sept. 16.

At Beirut's main Martyrs' Square, thousands waved red-and-white Lebanese flags and chanted anti-government slogans as night fell. "The people want to topple the regime," many shouted — a chant common during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Ahmad Amhaz, a 23-year-old activist who is among eight who have been on a hunger strike for days, called for the resignation of the environment minister. "This dialogue is a failure. If they agree, we starve and if they disagree we get killed," he said. His flip-flops were plastered with photographs of Lebanese politicians.

Earlier on Wednesday, 61-year-old Albert Aswad who owns a printing house, brought more than two dozen eggs and a bag of tomatoes and hurled them at the politicians' convoys as they passed by on the way to their meeting. "Politicians in this country have no morals," he said.

Just before the morning meeting, Prime Minister Tammam Salam urged the politicians to make every effort to help end the paralysis. He then called for a Cabinet meeting. "I hope at the Cabinet meeting today ... there will be an immediate solution to rid the country of garbage as a way to propagate trust in the country," Salam told journalists.

After nearly six hours of Cabinet meeting, and shortly before midnight, minister of Agriculture Akram Chehayeb said a plan has been approved to remove trash from the streets, open new landfills and allow municipalities to manage the portfolio previously handled by the government.

Details of implementation are still unclear, but the plan meets some of the protesters demands, such as passing the trash handling to the municipalities level.

Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut.

Jordanian parties criticize election law

Thursday, 03 September 2015

More than 20 Jordanian parties on Wednesday criticized the new election law for 2015, which was announced by the government two days ago. The government said that it adopted the election law of 1989, Quds Press reported.

In a press conference held in the head office of the United Jordanian Front, the representative of the parties said that lawmakers did not adopt the mixed electoral law, which maintains involvement of political parties in the political and parliamentarian life.

The opposition parties said that the “adoption of this law [of 1989] does not achieve the interests of the country or citizens in the upcoming parliamentarian elections and the parties will re-evaluate their positions towards the elections.”

In addition, the parties said that this law does not contribute to the development of the country or the reformation of the political process, which has been ongoing for a long time. They called on MPs to turn down this law for the sake of the country.

The parties said that the new law is based on prioritizing social representation over political processes.

The Islamic Action Front, which is the largest acting party in the country, in addition to other Islamist, secular and leftist parties, has been vocal in its opposition to the law.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/20840-jordanian-parties-criticise-election-law.

Catalonia's separatists try to stage Spain breakaway attempt

September 10, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — For a fourth consecutive year, hundreds of thousands of pro-independence Catalans are gearing up to rally Friday to break away from Spain, kicking off a fresh secession bid in a push to carve out a new European nation.

After the central government rejected efforts by separatists to hold an independence referendum, Catalan politicians are now heading toward a Sept. 27 regional parliamentary election with candidates staking out positions for or against an independent Catalonia. The northeastern region of 7.5 million people is marked by fierce pride in Catalan language and traditions.

The massive rally for the Catalan National Day holiday on Sept. 11 marks the kickoff of campaigning for secessionists who say Catalonia is culturally different from Spain, doesn't get back what it pays in taxes — and that independence is the only way forward. The latest effort follows rebukes to requests for greater self-governance by the Madrid central government.

The protest also starts an end-game for the independence drive because the election results will determine whether the region embarks on an 18-month "path to independence" or puts its secession aspirations on hold. Madrid has vowed to block any formal secessionist process.

Pro-independence parties need to win at least 68 seats in the 135-member regional parliament to push their effort forward, and polls show they're on track to win a slim majority. "If there is a clear result for the 'Yes,' it would be a very powerful message that Catalans want to move toward a Catalan state," said Artur Mas, Catalonia's regional president and the top-ranking politician in the secessionist camp, which includes parties from across the political spectrum.

Failure to win a majority, however, would mean a setback of years, if not longer, for a movement based on generations-old dreams of a Catalan state, boosted in recent years by Spain's economic downturn.

Mas says the campaign marks a now-or-never historic moment because if the 'Yes' side fails, "the first big party will be in Madrid that night. And that day (secession opponents) can then say that this doesn't have a future."

But a separatist electoral victory would set them on a collision course with Madrid and could cause a ripple of secessionist fervor around Europe. Though secessionists say an independent Catalonia wouldn't necessarily be expelled from the European Union, Spanish officials say it would. Former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and British Prime Minister David Cameron have said regions like Catalonia that secede from an EU member state would have to apply for re-admittance.

And investors cringe at the uncertainty an independence drive would create for Spain's economy, just as it recovers from a punishing recession and is finally reducing a 22 percent jobless rate. Highly industrialized Catalonia is responsible for about 19 percent of the country's economic output.

"Independence is not feasible, it would produce a social crisis that would be terrible for Spain and would interrupt the economic recovery," Spanish Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro warned this week.

While Scotland rejected independence from the United Kingdom last year in a referendum, a victory for the Catalan separatists could jumpstart secession sentiment in areas of Europe where it has waned or lies largely dormant like Spain's Basque region, Flemish-speaking Belgium and Northern Italy.

But even if pro-independence supporters win a significant majority, analysts predict they will be unable to convince European nations to recognize a unilateral declaration of independence. Such a declaration would happen only after regional lawmakers spend 18 months drafting a constitution, setting up institutions and forging laws for the new state.

One big problem is that the vote is an indirect plebiscite, unlike the Scottish referendum that saw voters cast ballots on a clearly worded question. To have lawmakers, rather than voters, make the official call on secession is an unprecedented situation, but independence supporters say they've been forced into it by Madrid's refusal to allow a referendum.

Recent polls by three Spanish newspapers, and one released Thursday by a respected Spanish government polling center, forecast pro-independence parties winning at least 68 seats. But the surveys also show they would get less than half of the overall vote tally, further hurting the legitimacy of a possible 'Yes' outcome.

The twist stems from Spanish voting rules that give more weight to votes cast in under-populated regions. And separatist sentiment runs higher in rural Catalan regions than it does in urban areas like the regional capital of Barcelona, Spain's largest city after Madrid.

A majority win for pro-independence parties in the regional parliament isn't enough to obtain "recognition of the international community because we are talking about a result of elections and not about a result of a referendum," said Ferran Requejo, a political science professor at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University.

But it would reinforce "the idea in the international community that there is a big problem in Spain regarding the 'Catalan question' which deserves attention and some kind of solution," Requejo said.

A win would also create more than a year of uncertainty over the future of Spain and Catalonia, with the region running the risk of Madrid stripping it of its governing powers. "We are facing a complicated situation," said Jordi Matas, professor of political science at the University of Barcelona. "A government will be formed with the primary goal of negotiating for and creating institutions to become a state."

The run-up to the vote starts with Friday's rally. David Jardi i Fort, an architect from the city of Tarragona, says he will attend with his parents because they don't want to miss the watershed event for Catalonia.

The event "will make history, whatever happens things will not be the same," he said. While the pro-independence side's rallies win support from the ruling regional government and Catalonia's public television, Catalans who want their region to stick with Spain usually lay low on the sidelines and avoid speaking out publicly for fear of being ostracized.

The central government is counting on citizens who consider themselves Catalan and Spanish — and do not want to risk losing any part of their identity — to defeat the effort. Jaime Bautista, a 67-year-old retired leather worker, will stay at home for Friday's rally and vote for a party opposed to independence.

"I see that Catalonia and Spain can live together. Union makes us strong," he said. "Where would Catalonia be without Spain? What currency would we have? What army?"

Clendenning reported from Madrid.

Ex-rebel chief in eastern Ukraine: ouster due to 'intrigue'

September 09, 2015

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A former rebel chief in eastern Ukraine, who has lost his job in a sudden reshuffling, on Wednesday attributed his downfall to unspecified "intrigue."

Andrei Purgin said in a telephone interview that he had spent four days under arrest at the local security agency headquarters in the rebel-held city of Donetsk before being released. He refused to discuss the reasons behind his arrest and his ouster from the post of speaker of the separatist legislature.

Purgin said he would continue his political activities even if he loses his lawmaker's seat. Some observers see Purgin's dismissal as part of Moscow's efforts to bring the rebel leadership to heel to observe a February peace deal.

The Minsk accord, brokered by Germany and France, requires that Ukraine and the rebels coordinate on holding local elections, but the rebels have set a vote for October without reaching agreement with Kiev.

Ukraine's government and the rebels have blamed each other for the failure to fulfill the accord. Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kiev-based independent political analyst, said Purgin was pushing Russia to annex the rebellious territories in the east, something Moscow doesn't want.

Fesenko described Purgin's successor, Denis Pushilin, as a follower of Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin aide who helps set course on Ukraine. He said that Pushilin is "always ready to precisely follow Kremlin orders."

A separatist rebellion erupted in eastern Ukraine weeks after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, following the ouster of the country's former Moscow-friendly president. At least 7,962 people have died in fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian government forces since April 2014, according to the United Nations.

The Minsk deal has helped reduce hostilities, but clashes have continued. At least 105 civilians have been killed and 308 others wounded by fighting from mid-May to mid-August, according to the U.N. human rights agency.

Polish referendum declared invalid because of low turnout

September 07, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's electoral commission says the results of a weekend referendum aren't binding because fewer than 8 percent of registered voters took part, far below the 50 percent required for it to be valid.

The commission said Monday that turnout in the balloting Sunday was only 7.8 percent, a record low. Former President Bronislaw Komorowski set the referendum after a surprisingly poor showing in the first round of the presidential election in May. It was seen as a last-ditch attempt by him to stay in power by giving disgruntled voters the chance to weigh in on issues that seemed of concern to them at the time. He lost anyway.

The three-part referendum asked if Poles wanted changes to the electoral system, the funding of political parties and the tax system.

Poland opens referendum on voting system, party funding

September 06, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poles voted in a referendum Sunday in which they were asked to weigh in on whether to change the voting system, the funding of political parties and taxation rules.

At least 50 percent of registered voters must cast ballots for the results to be binding. After polls closed in the evening, the state electoral commission said it wouldn't announce the results and the turnout until Monday evening.

The vote was set by former President Bronislaw Komorowski after a surprisingly poor showing in the first round of the presidential election in May. The move was seen as a last-ditch attempt by Komorowski to hold onto power by giving disgruntled voters the chance to weigh in on issues of concern to them. The tactic did not work — he lost the final round anyway to new conservative President Andrzej Duda.

Komorowski had been a popular president but lost amid a rising wave of frustration in a system many believe to be unresponsive to popular needs. In the first round of the vote, a rock star, Pawel Kukiz, came in a surprise third by promising to introduce a British-style single-member constituency voting system to the lower house of parliament. Some Poles feel that that would make lawmakers more responsive to voters than they are under the current system of party lists.

The referendum asks voters if they want to introduce such a voting system. It also asks if they want to end public funding for political parties and whether disputes between taxpayers and the authorities should be resolved in favor of the taxpayers.

Northern Ireland first minister steps down amid impasse

September 11, 2015

LONDON (AP) — The future of the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government in Northern Ireland is hanging by a slender thread with First Minister Peter Robinson's decision Thursday to step down, along with all but one of his ministers, because of a series of disputes.

Democratic Unionist leader Robinson left one party figure, Arlene Foster, in place as temporary first minister and finance minister, but the coalition government has been seriously weakened by developments and may ultimately be suspended, leading to a restoration of direct British rule from Westminster.

The crisis stems in large part from a police finding that that Irish Republic Army dissidents were involved in last month's killing of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan, a development that Robinson said raised serious doubts about the future of the coalition government that is a prime achievement of the 1998 peace agreement.

Robinson said "business as usual" is impossible because of "the assessment of the chief constable of the involvement of the IRA in murder, the continued existence of IRA structures, and the arrests that followed has pushed devolution to the brink."

He said he was leaving Foster in place as a gatekeeper to prevent other parties from taking advantage of the situation in what may be the final days of the power-sharing government. Robinson, who leads the major Protestant-backed party, said crisis talks with the government will continue. Downing Street officials said Prime Minister David Cameron is "gravely concerned" by the developments and that he will seek a solution.

The unlikely coalition of former enemies, formed in 2007 after earlier governments were suspended, has lasted for eight years, longer than many had expected. But it hasn't functioned fully for the past year, with Catholic-based parties blocking budget plans because too many British-ordered welfare cuts were involved.

There had been four earlier suspensions of the Northern Ireland government since the 1998 peace agreement was reached after years of delicate negotiations that followed the IRA's declaration of a cease-fire.

If direct rule from Britain is imposed again, it would mark the first time since 2007 that decisions would be made in London, not Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, whose party represents the Catholic minority, called for more talks so that the government could continue to operate.

He spoke before Robinson stepped down, but after several parties including Sinn Fein had voted against Robinson's request that the government be suspended to give delicate negotiations a chance to bear fruit.

Several prominent figures have been arrested as part of the murder investigation in recent days, including Sinn Fein regional chairman Bobby Storey. Press Association reported Thursday night that Storey was released from custody without charge.

The killing was a suspected revenge attack for the killing of a former IRA commander several months earlier. Critics say the killings show the IRA remains an active and violent paramilitary force despite the peace agreement.

Icelandic people tell gov't to take more refugees from Syria

September 07, 2015

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — "Future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate." That's how an Icelandic author is describing refugees seeking European shores, in a Facebook campaign that has helped to spark a surge of support for welcoming migrants in her remote North Atlantic island.

As much of Europe hesitates, Iceland — which has just in recent years emerged from the effects of a devastating economic meltdown — seems to be warming to the idea of taking in Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland. It's a historic shift for an island that has long been reluctant to take in foreigners.

A grassroots movement in support of migrants making the perilous journey to Europe is already having an impact on government policy, with officials reaching out to the United Nations refugee agency to say Iceland is willing to accept more refugees.

Even small towns are involved, with the northern Iceland town of Akureyri expressing an interest in adding Syrian refugees to its population of 17,000 hardy residents. "I think most Icelanders are very interested in helping refugees have a better life," said Akureyri town council chairman Gudmundur Baldvin Gudmundsson. "We have a society that is very good for them and we have experience in taking refugees."

The government said in July that it would take in 50 Syrian refugees over the next two years, but that meager figure — consistent with a policy that has seen just 549 refugees accepted since 1956 — is expected to rise in the face of public pressure. Officials already are making plans to accept more and some citizens are calling for up to 5,000 to be admitted.

The movement started before a photograph of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach sparked worldwide concern about the fate of the migrants trying to reach Europe. The generous spirit is remarkable because Iceland suffered a disastrous 2008 financial meltdown that saw the collapse of its major banks and a steep fall in living standards.

One driver of the grassroots movement is the "Syria Calling" Facebook page launched last week by Icelandic author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir. Some 15,000 people have "liked" the page in an apparent endorsement of her call for Minister of Social Affairs Eyglo Hardardottir to let more refugees live legally in Iceland.

"Refugees are human resources, experience and skills," Bjorgvinsdottir wrote. "Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children's band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we'll never be able to say to: 'Your life is worth less than mine.'"

Hardardottir said Thursday her ministry has informed the UN that Iceland is prepared to accept more than the 50 refugees it had committed and asked residents to contact the ministry if they want to volunteer or provide material assistance to newcomers who may arrive with virtually no resources.

"I encourage people to get in touch with the ministry and the Red Cross to ask how they can help," said Hardardottir. "People need jobs, homes, and clothes, for example, and to learn how the banking system works."

Iceland's residents are taking action as well. More than 900 people have signed up as Red Cross volunteers in the last few days to assist Syrian refugees when they arrive in Iceland. "What has happened in the last few days is something very interesting_a bottom up movement," said Red Cross Iceland spokesman Bjorn Teitsson. "The people of Iceland seem to have woken up from a bad dream and are embracing the refugee crisis that the world has to face. We have been very pleased about this positive energy and the will to help."

Hundreds surge past police near Hungary border, march north

September 08, 2015

ROSZKE, Hungary (AP) — Hundreds of angry and frustrated asylum-seekers broke through police lines Monday near Hungary's southern border with Serbia and began marching north toward Budapest, while Britain and France pledged to take in tens of thousands more refugees to try to ease the crisis.

As European leaders debated how to share responsibility for the more than 340,000 people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who are already seeking refuge, Germany promised to spend billions of euros in extra aid for those already there and those yet to arrive. France weighed whether increased airstrikes against Islamic State militants would help to stem the flow of those fleeing Syria.

But the Hungarian prime minister scoffed at a proposed quota system for refugees in the 28-member European Union, saying it wouldn't work unless Europe first secured its borders. Hungary's inability to control the flow of people across its southern border with Serbia was on graphic display Monday. Crowds who had grown tired of waiting for buses at Hungary's first migrant holding center near the border village of Roszke tore down flimsy police tape, advanced down a country road and walked around and straight through rows of police trying to block them.

Police shoved individual migrants and fired jets of pepper spray, but it had little effect as about half of the 500-strong crowd reached the M5 highway that connects Serbia and Hungary. They headed north along the shoulder, raising their arms and chanting "Germany! Germany!"

Police merely walked beside them as a lone helicopter monitored the marchers' progress north as darkness fell. The highway was blocked for nearly 50 kilometers (30 miles) as a precaution. A few hours later, as the marchers paused by the roadside to try to sleep in the cold on the pavement, police delivered buses and requested they board for delivery to a refugee camp. Most refused.

The northward march mirrored Friday's surge of people down Budapest's motorway toward Austria, which forced Hungary to concede defeat and bus thousands to the Austrian border. Germany's rail company said Monday it had carried 22,000 asylum- seekers over the weekend on more than 100 trains, a number boosted by the fact that Hungary again has dropped visa checks on foreigners buying train tickets for the wealthier countries to the west, particularly Germany.

Following an overnight Cabinet meeting, Germany said it would set aside 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to boost aid for asylum-seekers and hire 3,000 more federal police. It also planned to make it easier to build refugee housing and for non-German speakers to hold jobs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reflected on what she called "a moving, in some parts breathtaking weekend behind us," when Austria and Germany threw open their borders for thousands of asylum-seekers trying to get out of Hungary. She said all EU countries could help accommodate the families fleeing war and poverty.

Britain and France, seen as less generous than Germany so far, overcame reluctance and stepped up their commitments Monday. British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would resettle up to 20,000 Syrians from camps in Turkey, Jordan and Syria over the next five years.

"The whole country has been deeply moved by the heartbreaking images we have seen over the past few days," he told Parliament. "It is absolutely right that Britain should fulfill its moral responsibility to help those refugees."

French President Francois Hollande said his country would take in 24,000 refugees over the next two years. To relieve the burden on Germany, he told Merkel that France would take in 1,000 of the migrants who have just arrived from Hungary. Most say they are fleeing the 4-year-old civil war in Syria.

Saying France has to target "the causes of these horrors," Hollande announced possible airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, an idea he previously had resisted. France will send reconnaissance flights over Syria starting Tuesday, he said, and "we will be ready to strike."

Calm returned Monday to the main Austrian-Hungarian border point, where thousands crossed over the weekend by foot, bus, train and car after complaining of neglect and human rights violations in Hungary and refusing to stay in refugee camps there.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and other EU leaders said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban bungled Hungary's intake of migrants so badly that it left Austria and Germany no choice but to open their borders Saturday.

Orban compared Hungary to a "black sheep" representing a voice of reason in the European flock of countries. He argued that the EU first must focus on security measures to force those from troubled lands to seek asylum in neighboring countries, not in the heart of Europe. He said the current discussions on a new quota to handle 120,000 migrants soon would lead to discussions on hosting millions more.

In a related development, Hungarian Defense Minister Csaba Hende resigned Monday. The statement from Orban's government didn't explicitly blame him for failing to complete the construction of a fence along Hungary's 175-kilometer (110-mile) border with Serbia, but it was supposed to be finished last month and remains largely incomplete.

The marchers heading for Budapest and, they hoped, eventually Germany blamed Hungary for their difficult and slow journey. "They treated us very badly. They left us without tents, without blankets, on the ground ... without toilets for two days. We could not ever bear that," said one Syrian man walking along the highway who would give only his first name, Saadi.

Migrants trying to reach the heart of Europe via Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Hungary have faced dangers, difficulties and delays on every link of the journey. Scuffles broke out Monday near the village of Idomeni on Greece's northern border with Macedonia, where police angered a 2,000-strong crowd by permitting only small groups to cross every half hour. Tensions eased only when police permitted larger groups to proceed.

Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas estimated that at least two-thirds of the more than 15,000 travelers stranded on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos would be ferried to mainland Greece in the next five days. Lesbos bears the brunt of the refugee influx from nearby Turkey, with more than 1,000 arriving daily on small boats in often dangerous conditions.

Germany has an open-door policy for asylum seekers, particularly from Syria, but also wants to send back travelers who are only job-seekers, not war refugees. In a late-night meeting that lasted until early Monday in Berlin, the German government decided to make it easier to deport people from stable nations such as Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania.

German media reported that five asylum-seekers were injured in a fire Monday in Rottenburg in southwest Germany — three when they jumped from a burning house and two who were treated for smoke inhalation. No cause for the blaze was given, although right-wing militants in Germany have set fire to other properties earmarked for asylum-seekers recently.

Merkel's deputy, Sigmar Gabriel, said integrating newcomers into society would require confronting the fears of native Germans. "There will be conflicts," the economy minister said. "The more openly we talk about the fact that people are worried, that there's fear in the country and that there may be conflicts will, I think, help us deal with this realistically and confront reality."

Pogatchnik reported from Budapest. Associated Press reporters Angela Charlton, Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley in Paris, Frank Jordans and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Gregory Katz in London, Pablo Gorondi and Alexander Kuli in Budapest, Balint Szlanko in Roszke, Hungary, George Jahn in Vienna, and Giannis Papanikos in Idomeni, Greece, contributed to this report.

Hungarian bus fleet delivers migrants to Austria welcome

September 05, 2015

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of exhausted, surprised and relieved migrants reached Austria on Saturday, clambering off a fleet of Hungarian buses to find a warm welcome from charity workers offering beds and hot tea.

The pre-dawn move eased immediate pressure on Hungary, which has struggled to manage the flow of thousands of migrants arriving daily from non-EU member Serbia. But officials warned that the human tide south of Hungary was still rising, and more westward-bound travelers continued to arrive in Budapest within hours of the mass evacuation of the capital's central rail station.

Austrian police spokesman Helmut Marban told reporters that about 4,000 migrants had crossed into Austria from Hungary by mid-morning. About 800 people had already arrived in Vienna and then left on Germany-bound trains, said Vienna official Wolfgan Mueller. He estimates that about 3,000 migrants would come to Vienna from the border during the day.

Hungary relented in its demand for the travelers to report to government-run asylum centers when challenged by defiant migrants largely from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands marched west Friday from the Keleti train station along Hungary's major motorway and camped overnight in the rain by the roadside. Hundreds more broke through police lines at a train station in the western town of Bicske, where police were trying to take them to a refugee camp, and blocked the main rail line as they, too, marched west.

Austria and Germany made the breakthrough possible by announcing they would take responsibility for the mass of humanity that was already on the move west or camped out in their thousands at Keleti. Hungary on Tuesday had suspended train services from that station to Austria and Germany, compounding the build-up of migrants there, in a futile bid to try to make the visitors file asylum papers in Hungary.

Austrian Federal Railways said the arriving migrants, once they passed through hastily assembled border shelters and refreshments, were being placed on trains to the capital, Vienna, and the city of Salzburg.

The first 400 migrants arrived on a train into Vienna, where charity workers provided them a battery of supplies displayed in separately labeled shopping carts containing food, water and packages of hygiene products for men and women. A mixed crowd of migrants' friends and Austrian onlookers cheered their arrival, with many shouting "Welcome!" in both German and Arabic. One Austrian woman pulled from her handbag a pair of children's rubber rain boots and handed them to a Middle Eastern woman carrying a small boy.

"Austria is very good," said Merhan Harshiri, a 23-year-old Iraqi who smiled broadly as he walked toward the supply line, where newcomers munched apples and bananas. "We have been treated very well by Austrian police."

Earlier in jubilant scenes on the border, hundreds of migrants bearing blankets over their shoulders to provide cover from heavy rains walked off from buses and into Austria, where volunteers at a roadside Red Cross shelter offered them hot tea and handshakes of welcome. Many migrants collapsed in exhaustion on the floor, but with obvious relief etched on their faces.

Many had been awoken by friends at Keleti around midnight with news many didn't want to believe after days of deadlock: Hungary was granting their demand to be allowed to reach Austria and, for many, onward travel to Germany. Many feared that the scores of buses assembling at the terminal instead would take them to Hungarian camps for asylum seekers, as the government previously insisted must happen.

The travelers in many cases have spent months in Turkish refugee camps, taken long journeys by boat, train and foot through Greece and the Balkans, then crawled under barbed wire on Hungary's southern frontier to a frosty welcome. While Austria says it will offer the newcomers asylum opportunities, most say they want to settle in Germany.

Since Tuesday morning, Hungarian authorities had refused to let them board trains to the west, and the migrants balked at going to processing centers, fearing they would face deportation or indefinite detention in Hungary. Government officials said they changed course because Hungary's systems were becoming overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.

Janos Lazar, chief of staff to Hungary's prime minister, said the migrants' surprise movements Friday were imperiling rail services and causing massive traffic jams. "Transportation safety can't be put at risk," he said.

In Berlin, German officials said they felt it was necessary to take responsibility given Hungary's apparent inability to manage the challenge. But they emphasized that Hungary, as an EU member and first port of call for many migrants, needed to do more to ensure that new arrivals filed for asylum there rather than travel deeper into Europe.

"Because of the emergency situation on the Hungarian border, Austria and Germany have agreed to allow the refugees to travel onward in this case," German government spokesman Georg Streiter told The Associated Press. "It's an attempt to help solve an emergency situation. But we continue to expect Hungary to meet its European obligations."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led calls for other EU members to shelter migrants as potential refugees, particularly those fleeing civil war in Syria, said in comments published Saturday that her country would observe no legal limit on the number of asylum seekers it might take.

Merkel told the Funke consortium of newspapers that "the right to political asylum has no limits on the number of asylum seekers." "As a strong, economically healthy country we have the strength to do what is necessary" and ensure that every asylum seeker gets a fair hearing, she was quoted as saying.

Associated Press reporters Alexander Kuli in Budapest; Bela Szandelszky and Frank Augstein in Hegyeshalom, Hungary; Balint Szlanko and Petr Josek in Nickelsdorf, Austria; George Jahn in Vienna and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Tsipras warns Greeks against return to 'corrupt' past

September 06, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Sunday the upcoming national election is a battle between his "honorable" government of the past seven months and "the dark period of corruption, cronyism and power networks" that prevailed in previous decades.

Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza party, said he is the best-placed to improve the bailout deal with Greece creditors which he himself agreed to in July and which he described as "open-ended" on several issues and subject to improvement through negotiations.

Tsipras was speaking at the Thessaloniki International Fair, where the government of the day traditionally outlines its economic program for the next year. But this year, an interim government is in power, after Tsipras and his coalition government resigned on Aug. 20, following the defection of dozens of lawmakers from his party.

Tsipras outlined a government program whose reformist agenda, on education, health, employment, the economy and the civil service, has been, with a few variations, echoed by previous governments but, with exceptions, never implemented.

To put his own progressive stamp on policies, Tsipras said his economic policy would be based on "strong government intervention, with (state) investment to redistribute incomes." He also accused his conservative opponents of championing mass layoffs and flexible forms of work, while he would promote "collaborative social economy ventures with subsidized wage costs."

The latest polls in the run-up to the Sept. 20 election show Tsipras' Syriza and conservative New Democracy almost neck-and-neck and likely nine parties entering Parliament, making a coalition government almost a certainty.

Two polls published Sunday, by research firms Kapa Research and Marc, show Syriza leading New Democracy by 0.6 percent and 0.4 percent respectively, with no party close to getting 30 percent of the vote. In both polls, the extreme right, anti-migrant Golden Dawn is in third place. The size of undecided respondents is 11.6 percent and 14.1 percent, respectively.

The Kapa Research poll was conducted Sept. 2-3, with a sample of 1,015 and an error margin of plus or minus 3.08 percentage points. The Marc poll was conducted Sept. 1-4, with a sample of 1,032 and an error margin of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Costas Kantouris contributed to this report from Thessaloniki.

Merkel: No legal limit to asylum seekers Germany can take

September 05, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday that her country won't stop anyone from seeking asylum, as thousands of migrants desperate to leave Hungary made their way westward to Germany and Austria.

German officials recently predicted that up to 800,000 migrants would arrive by the end of the year, many of them refugees fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. "The right to political asylum has no limits on the number of asylum seekers," Merkel told the Funke consortium of newspapers in an interview.

"As a strong, economically healthy country we have the strength to do what is necessary" and ensure every asylum seeker gets a fair hearing, she added. But Merkel repeated her government's position that migrants who don't meet the criteria for asylum need to be returned to their home countries.

Even prosperous Germany has struggled to meet the demand for additional housing for the tens of thousands of migrants arriving monthly. Merkel said her government wasn't planning to raise taxes to pay for the additional cost. But her governing coalition will be meeting Sunday to discuss how best to cope with the migrant influx.

Germany's willingness to help migrants has contrasted starkly with other European governments, such as Hungary and Britain. This stance has added to the desire among many migrants to strike out for Germany.

Merkel said it was touching to see hundreds of migrants chanting "Germany, Germany" at a railway station in Budapest earlier this week. "This wasn't always the case, but I still have to insist on a fair distribution of the burden across all of Europe," she was quoted as saying. Germany and some other European countries have called for the creation of special reception centers in Italy and Greece, where migrants can stay while their asylum requests are processed.

Merkel said that would prevent the uncontrolled entry into Europe of people who might pose a security threat. "Only this way can the security agencies check whether they have information about certain people," she was quoted as saying.

Merkel said she was confident Europe would meet the challenge. "This should be possible, because Europe is based on common values, and help for those in need of protection is one of them," she said.

France's far-right National Front tries to move past feud

September 05, 2015

PARIS (AP) — France's far-right National Front is holding a party-wide meeting, hoping to move past a family feud that has pitted its head, Marine Le Pen, against her father.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front's founder, was expelled but has won three court battles against his daughter. He wasn't invited to the weekend meeting in Marseille, but on Saturday said he may show up anyway. In a press conference across the city, he said that excluding him is a sign of "paranoia."

Marine Le Pen, who is positioning for a presidential run in 2017, told journalists earlier in the day that the deaths of migrants like the Syrian boy found on a Turkish beach are the fault of political leaders who encouraged them to travel to Europe, according to Le Figaro newspaper.

Cyprus' Christian, Muslim leaders offer peace talks support

September 10, 2015

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Talks between the heads of Cyprus' Christian and Muslim communities and the leaders of the ethnically split island's Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities give "great hope" that religion can better contribute to peace, an official said Thursday.

Religion has never been at the root of the Cyprus conflict, said Peter Weiderud, who heads a Swedish Embassy-sponsored program that aims to get Cyprus' religious leaders more actively engaged in peace-building. But religion and the right to freely worship have become victims of it.

More than 500 churches and monasteries — many hundreds of years old — were left to ruin, looted or converted for other uses in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island after Turkey invaded in 1974 and split the island along ethnic lines following a coup aiming at union with Greece.

In the internationally recognized south, only a fraction of the 110 mosques operate. Weiderud said that the meeting not only served to advance the principles of freedom of religion or belief, "but also how religion and dialogue of the religious leaders can better contribute to sustainable peace on the island."

The meeting which Weiderud said is the first of its kind in Cyprus offers a rare example of Christian and Muslim religious leaders banding together to promote peace in a region engulfed in war and violence often underpinned by sectarian hatreds.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci met Thursday with the heads of Cyprus' Orthodox Christian, Armenian, Maronite and Latin Catholic churches as well as the Turkish Cypriot Grand Mufti.

Very few church services were held in the north after the island's division as the two communities had virtually no contact until 2003 when crossings opened. But the past year has seen a spike in Christian faithful flocking to abandoned churches to worship for the first time in decades.

Belorussian demonstrators call for election boycott

September 10, 2015

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — About 300 opposition supporters rallied Thursday in the Belorussian capital calling for a boycott of next month's presidential vote.

President Alexander Lukashenko, in office for more than two decades, appears set to easily extend his rule in the Oct. 11 election. Belarus' election commission on Thursday registered leaders of two pro-government parties and an obscure opposition activist to compete with Lukashenko, who will run for the fifth straight time. Leading opposition figures called for boycotting the vote they denounced as a farce.

Lukashenko, widely described in the West as Europe's last dictator, has run the former Soviet republic since 1994, cracking down on any opposition and retaining a largely centralized Soviet-style economy in the nation of 10 million people. Most of the candidates who opposed him in 2010 were arrested soon after the polls closed.

The U.S. and the European Union have criticized past Belorussian elections as shams and denounced Lukashenko's crackdown on political freedoms and human rights, but they have toned down their criticism recently after Lukashenko released political prisoners in a bid to improve ties with the West.

Nikolai Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 vote and was only released from prison last month, denounced the election as a "circus." Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, said Lukashenko will likely observe decorum this time, avoiding crackdowns while flirting with the West.

"Lukashenko can hold this election in a decent way, without beating people over the head," Klaskovsky said. "And it could be enough for the West to normalize ties." Lukashenko held the prospect of closer ties with the West to wrest concessions from his main ally and sponsor, Russia. Moscow, whose relations with the West have been shattered by the Ukrainian crisis, has continued to subsidize the Belorussian economy with cheap energy and other benefits.

Austria: A special birthday party for thousands of migrants

September 09, 2015

TRAISKIRCHEN, Austria (AP) — Aytekin Yilmazer's bash will be a night to remember — both for him and the hundreds of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other troubled corners of the world who took up his invitation Wednesday to celebrate his 37th birthday.

Nobody sang "Happy Birthday." There was no cake, no presents and most of those attending were strangers. But both Yilmazer and the guests pouring into the grounds of a Turkish mosque near Austria's main refugee collection center in Traiskirchen, south of Vienna, showed no signs of missing the usual trappings of a birthday celebration.

"I'm having dinner as actually every year at my birthday with my friends," the Turkish-born marketing specialist explained, as migrants formed two lines behind him next to volunteers ladling out lentil soup, rice, vegetables and lamb stew . "This year I found 3,000 new friends at the refugee camp."

It was unclear if all of the nearly 4,000 inhabitants of the center would follow the invitation. But tables set under canopies were quickly filled after the gates to the mosque grounds opened and a babble of languages soon filled the evening air. As people finished eating, new guests came to take their place, with an estimated 500 people taking their fill within an hour.

While the adults concentrated on the stew, most of the children were busy with other delicacies — bananas or Krapfen, Austrian doughnuts filled with jam. Out came the paper napkins to wipe little mouths smeared but smiling in delight at the new taste.

"This food and the camp food? No comparison!" said English literature major Widad Rageb, who came to the camp with her husband from the Aleppo, among the hardest hit Syrian cities in that country's more than four-year civil war. "This is a special night."

Yilmazer said the idea to celebrate his birthday with those less fortunate was spontaneous, at a time Austria and Germany are overrun by tens of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"I never asked myself why," he said. "I just asked what can I do (to help the migrants) and I did." He said his Facebook post advertising the event first drew overwhelmingly negative comments from those opposed to the influx. But the response quickly spun to positive, in line with the outpouring of help from Austrians who have turned out by the hundreds at Vienna's rail terminal since the weekend to help the thousands of migrants arriving from Hungary, near the end of their hazardous Western Balkans route to safety.

Asked about the lack of birthday presents, Yilmazer laughed. This time, he said, they will be the donations by friends to finance the bash — and work from others portioning out food, directing the guests to the tables, translating for them in Dari, Farsi or Arabic, or washing up plates and cutlery in large plastic tubs.

Simon Rehan paused, his hands still dripping suds, when queried about why he was helping out. "A sense of duty to be honest," said the 20-year old law student from Vienna. "We have it so good in Austria.

"That's not the case for everyone in the world."

Migrants flow west on Hungarian trains; 13,000 reach Austria

September 07, 2015

HEGYESHALOM, Hungary (AP) — Hungarian police stood by as thousands of migrants hopped cross-border trains Sunday into Austria, taking advantage of Hungary's surprise decision to stop screening international train travelers for travel visas, a get-tough measure that the country had launched only days before to block their path to asylum in Western Europe.

Fourteen trains from Hungary's capital of Budapest arrived at the Hegyeshalom station near the Austrian border, disgorging migrants onto the platform. Police didn't check documents as passengers, mostly migrants, walked a few yards (meters) to waiting Austria-bound trains, which typically left less than 3 minutes later. Austrian police said more than 13,000 migrants have passed through their country to Germany over the past two days, far more than expected.

Arabs, Asians and Africans who often have spent weeks traveling through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to reach Hungary, a popular back door into the European Union, found to their surprise they were permitted Sunday to buy tickets to take them all the way into Austria and Germany. Hungary had insisted last week they would no longer be allowed to do this.

Ticket sellers at Budapest's Keleti station merely rolled their eyes when asked by AP why they were selling Vienna tickets to asylum seekers. Several migrants told the AP they had expected to be rejected, but easily bought international tickets to Vienna without visa checks.

"No check, no problem," said Reza Wafai, a 19-year-old from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, who hopes to join relatives in Dortmund, Germany. He displayed his just-purchased ticket to Vienna costing 9,135 forints ($32.50). He was traveling without a passport, carrying only a black-and-white Hungarian asylum seeker ID.

EU rules stipulate asylum seekers should seek refuge in their initial EU entry point. But virtually none of the migrants want to claim asylum in Hungary, where the government is building border defenses and trying to make it increasingly hard for asylum seekers to enter.

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told The Associated Press that Hungary had decided to drop visa checks on train ticket customers, a measure introduced only Tuesday, because of the sudden drop in migrant numbers made possible by Germany and Austria's breakthrough decision to take thousands of asylum seekers stuck in Hungary. The country used 104 buses to clear Budapest's central Keleti train station and Hungary's major motorway of more than 4,000 migrants and deliver them to the border.

Sunday's free movement for migrants on trains represented an effort "to return to normality, whatever that is," Kovacs said. "Last week the security situation was such that we had to step up in-depth checking," Kovacs said, referring to Hungary's effort to require suspected migrants to show valid travel visas when trying to buy train tickets. The rule effectively blocked every migrant from a cross-border train.

"Now anybody can buy a ticket again, and this is normal. Police typically do not check tickets and railways do not check visas," Kovacs said. But complicating the ever-changing picture, Austria's railway company told the AP it plans to end its connections to Hegyeshalom on Monday. Direct Vienna-Budapest services will take their place, spokeswoman Sonya Horner said. It remains to be seen whether Hungarian or Austrian police will screen those services for migrants traveling without visas.

Hungary, for its part, is making a concerted effort to make it harder for asylum seekers to reach its territory from non-EU member Serbia. Serbia Railways said Hungarian authorities refused Sunday to permit two passenger trains to travel into Hungary citing, for the first time, large groups of migrants aboard.

Serbia Railways said in a statement that migrants refused to disembark from the train before reaching Hungary, the typical practice in recent months. One train was canceled and its legal passengers permitted to enter Hungary by bus, while the second train entered Hungary after migrants aboard were isolated on two carriages that were decoupled and left behind, forcing the migrants to walk to the border.

The week has seen rapid policy reversals: On Monday, Hungary annoyed its EU neighbors by permitting thousands of migrants to storm aboard trains bound for Vienna and the German cities of Munich and Hamburg. On Tuesday, Hungary announced that travelers would require passports and visas to travel west by train to other EU nations, frustrating thousands more migrants who had just bought tickets. On Thursday, Hungary canceled all westbound international services in a failed effort to woo migrants away from Keleti, where they had camped in their thousands, and into state-run refugee camps.

Now Sunday's bigger than expected flow could create a challenge to the asylum support structures in Germany. Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief of Austria's easternmost Burgenland province, said more than 13,000 migrants have crossed from Hungary over the past two days, far more than expected, and only 90 or so formally sought asylum in Austria, with nearly all planning instead to settle in Germany.

An Austrian police spokesman, Gerald Pangl, said Austria normally would require asylum seekers to complete paperwork on arrival, but there were far too many transients passing through for this to be practical. "At this moment, in this outstanding situation, we cannot handle the procedure, we cannot register all the refugees," he said.

The rapid influx has exposed tensions within Chancellor Angela Merkel's three-party government. She met Sunday with leaders of the Christian Social Union, who are critical of her decision to welcome migrants stuck in Hungary, as well as Social Democrats, who support her move but want more help from the rest of Europe.

Pope Francis on Sunday set an example for Catholic parishes, convents and monasteries across Europe, saying the Vatican will host two refugee families and urging others to commit to sheltering at least one each.

"Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned," Francis told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square.

They arrived by the thousands in Germany, by train, bus and car. Authorities scrambled to register them and provide shelter, and at each stop, migrants received cheers, food and toys for the children. Most Germans have been welcoming, but far-right groups have protested their arrival.

Frontex, the EU border agency, says more than 340,000 asylum seekers have entered the 28-nation bloc this year, the majority fleeing war and human rights abuses in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

Pogatchnik reported from Budapest. Associated Press reporters Frank Jordans in Berlin, Pablo Gorondi and Alexander Kuli in Budapest and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.

Finnish PM's offer to migrants: Take my spare house

September 05, 2015

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Amid Europe's migrant crisis, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila is hoping to set an example for his countrymen by opening his own spare house to refugees.

Sipila said Saturday that after some discussions and consultation with local authorities, he and his wife decided to make their house in Kempele, a town of about 17,000 in central Finland, available as of Jan. 1. The Sipilas have not used the house since moving to Helsinki.

"We all should think what we can do ourselves," he told Finnish television channel MTV. In recent weeks, the Nordic country has seen an increase in the number of asylum seekers — people fleeing poverty and conflict in eastern European countries and the Middle East — coming to Finland via Sweden. Officials expect their number could reach 30,000 by the end of the year, compared to the 3,600 people who sought asylum in Finland in 2014.

"It is easy to outsource everything to the society. Still, society has limited possibilities. The more citizen activity we can find to this matter, the better," he said. An asylum seeker "deserves a human treatment and genuine welcome greeting from us Finns."

Sipila's offer may cause some tensions in his center-right governing coalition including his own Center Party, the pro-EU conservatives and the populist, EU-skeptic Finns Party. The latter, Finland's second largest party, has been calling for tougher immigration laws, though it has distanced itself from Europe's far-right parties.

Sipila urged Finns to refrain from xenophobic and racist comments. "I ask everybody to stop all hate speech and concentrate on taking care of people that are fleeing from war zone, so that they feel safe and welcome here in Finland," Sipila said.

Details of how to apply and how many people the house could accommodate weren't immediately available.

Venezuelan opposition leader convicted of inciting violence

September 11, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Venezuelan judge ordered opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez jailed for almost 14 years for inciting violence during last year's sometimes bloody protests, handing down a maximum sentence despite U.S. calls for his release.

About 200 supporters of the country's most-prominent jailed opposition leader gathered in a Caracas plaza expressed disbelief and sadness late Thursday when they learned of the verdict. Several wept and consoled each other with hugs.

Reflecting the passions stirred by the trial on both sides of Venezuela's deep political divide, an elderly man died and several people were injured earlier Thursday during clashes outside the courthouse between government loyalists and Lopez supporters.

The opposition leader has repeatedly denied the charges and says he only urged peaceful demonstration against President Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela's socialist government, however, blames him for the violence that left more than 40 people dead during street protests in 2014.

Supporters of the 44-year-old, Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy Caracas district say the trial was marred by irregularities. The court rejected all but two defense witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while letting the prosecution call more than 100.

The trial was all but closed to the public, and Lopez sometimes refused to attend out of protest. His lawyers said Judge Susana Barreiros abruptly ended the proceedings last week even though many witnesses had yet to take the stand.

Combined with time served, the sentence of 13 years, 9 months, 7 days, and 12 hours was the maximum punishment for Lopez's crimes. The prosecution focused on Lopez's public statements last year when, under the slogan "The Exit," he and other hardliners pushed for Maduro's resignation just months after pro-government candidates swept regional elections.

Prosecutors say the vitriolic rhetoric encouraged protesters to burn public property and put lives at risk. Officials also accuse him of conspiring with the United States and student demonstrators to try to overthrow the government.

U.S. officials deny that accusation and have made Lopez's release a key demand for normalizing diplomatic relations. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Venezuela's foreign minister Tuesday to express concern about the trial days after meeting with Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, in Washington.

Activists presented in the courtroom told The Associated Press that Lopez in his closing remarks looked at the judge and said that if he's freed he'll go home, kiss his children, ask again for his wife's hand in marriage and then start all over again canvassing the country.

While many of Lopez's supporters never doubted he would be convicted, the stiff sentence came as a surprise to those who thought leniency would be shown in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of December's legislative elections, which the opposition is heavily favored to win.

Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America, said in a tweet she was "deeply troubled" by the verdict and called on Venezuela's government to protect democracy and human rights. Human rights groups condemned the verdict.

But at a rally of government supporters outside the courthouse before the verdict was read, a band played folk songs with lyrics supporting a guilty verdict. "Hold him responsible," went the chorus to one song. The government did not immediately comment on the verdict.

Lopez's lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling. Lopez, a father of two young children, has spent the past year and a half in a military prison outside Caracas where he'll now complete the sentence. With only his family allowed to visit, he managed to release several videos from behind bars.

In May, through a recording shot in his cell, Lopez called the largest rally Venezuela has seen since the wave of anti-government protests in 2014 that led to his jailing. In June he staged a 30-day hunger strike to demand the government schedule congressional elections.

Lopez's team accuses Maduro's government of wanting to sentence him now in hopes that any anger will fade before the vote is held Dec. 6. Polls say Lopez continues to be one of Venezuela's most popular politicians with approval numbers approaching 50 percent, while Maduro's languish below 30 percent.

But the former triathlete is not universally liked by Venezuela's chronically divided opposition. Some leaders consider him too radical and out of touch with the poor masses who still revere Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Crime, inflation and shortages have only gotten worse since last year's protests, though many people have been hesitant to take to the streets again. Three co-defendants, all of whom had been freed before the verdict, received punishments of between 4 and 10 years by the judge on Thursday.

Thailand's army-backed council rejects charter, delays polls

September 06, 2015

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's military-backed legislature on Sunday rejected an unpopular draft of a new constitution, delaying a return to democracy following a coup last year.

The junta-picked drafters had hoped the proposed charter would move the Southeast Asian country past almost a decade of political conflicts, but it was met with strong opposition on almost all sides of political divide.

The legislature appointed by the junta, known as the National Reform Council, voted 135 against vs. 105 in favor with seven abstentions. The rejection, although welcomed by many, still sets back a tentative plan for Thailand's transition to electoral democracy, with the military retaining substantial powers until a new constitution is drafted.

A new 21-member drafting committee will now be appointed with a mandate to write a new charter within 180 days. It also needs approval by the legislature and will be put to a referendum — meaning elections aren't likely until at least 2017, according to analysts, if the new draft is approved.

The government had previously said elections could take place late next year. One of the most contentious provisions in the draft included a 23-member panel, with military members, that would be empowered to take over from the parliament and prime minister in times of "national crisis."

Almost all parties criticized it, and the draft risked being voted down in a referendum that had been planned for early next year. Any new charter under the junta appeared aimed at preventing a political comeback by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the revered king. Thailand has remained divided since, with Thaksin supporters and opponents struggling for power at the ballot box and in the streets, sometimes violently.

The military abolished an earlier constitution after it deposed Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister last year, and the government operates under a temporary charter. The junta later picked the drafters and the 247-member National Reform Council to help write a new constitution.

"We might not be able to say that this is a true democracy as viewed in the Western world; it is transitional democracy," Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, spokesman for the Constitution Drafting Committee, said before the vote Sunday.

He defended the draft as necessary to lessen the supremacy of few political parties, saying that since Thailand became a democracy in 1932, "we found that we haven't had any political stability." "There have been elections and coups during all these 83 years. In the past 10 years, we had two coups already. And two political parties came to power but they couldn't solve problems," he said.

The draft also envisioned an upper house that's only partially elected — 123 out of 200 members would be appointed. A prime minister also could be appointed without having to win a parliamentary seat, as was the case in the past.

Both supporters of Thaksin and his opponents, and academics and activists have criticized the draft, while the ruling military has stifled public debate on it. Although the rejection of the draft delays a return to democracy, it is still better than a "meaningless election" that would take place if the draft had been approved, said Chaturon Chaiseng, an outspoken critic of the junta who had served in previous governments headed by Thaksin and Yingluck.

Lost Australian sheep yields 30 sweaters worth of fleece

September 05, 2015

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A lost, overgrown sheep found in Australian scrubland was shorn for perhaps the first time on Thursday, yielding 40 kilograms (89 pounds) of wool — the equivalent of 30 sweaters — and shedding almost half his body weight.

Tammy Ven Dange, chief executive of the Canberra RSPCA, which rescued the merino ram dubbed Chris, said she hoped to register the 40.45 kilogram (89 pound, 3 ounce) fleece with the Guinness World Records. An official of the London-based organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The most wool sheared from a sheep in a single shearing is 28.9 kilograms (63 pounds, 11 ounces) taken from a wild New Zealand merino dubbed Big Ben in January last year, the Guinness World Records website said.

"He's looking really good, he looks like a new man," Ven Dange said, as the now 44-kilogram (97-pound) sheep recovered at the Canberra animal refuge. "For one thing, he's only half the weight he used to be."

Champion shearer Ian Elkins said the sheep appeared to be in good condition after being separated from his huge fleece under anesthetic. "I don't reckon he's been shorn before and I reckon he'd be 5 or 6 years old," Elkins said.

Chris was found near Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary outside Canberra by bushwalkers who feared he would not survive the approaching southern summer. He was found several kilometers (miles) from the nearest sheep farm. A bushwalker named him Chris after the sheep in the "Father Ted" television comedy series.

Chris was rescued by the RSPCA on Wednesday and taken to Canberra, where he was shorn under anesthetic because he was stressed by human company and because of the potential pain from the heavy fleece tearing skin as it fell away.

Ven Dange said he had suffered skin burns from urine trapped in his fleece and could have died within weeks if left in the wild. "When we first brought him in yesterday, he was really shy, he was shaking, he would move his head away from people and he could barely get up and walk," she said.

"The drugs might be wearing off right now, but he's actually coming to you and actually wants a pat. He's certainly moving a heck of a lot better," she added. She said Chris would be found a new home after vets gave him the all-clear.

Elkins said the fleece was too long to be sold commercially. He hoped it would end up in a museum. "I wouldn't say it's high quality, but you wouldn't expect it to be running around in the bush that long unshorn," he said.

Australian merinos are bred for wool and are shorn annually, with fleeces averaging about 5 kilograms (11 pounds).