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Monday, September 28, 2015

Pro-secession parties in Catalonia win landmark vote

September 28, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Pro-secession parties pushing for Spain's northeastern Catalonia region to break away and form a new Mediterranean nation won a landmark vote Sunday by capturing a regional parliamentary majority, setting up a possible showdown over independence with the central government in Madrid.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, the "Together for Yes" group of secessionists from across a broad political spectrum had 62 seats in the 135-member regional parliament. Catalans are fiercely proud of their own distinct language and culture. Many who favor breaking away from Spain say their region, which represents nearly a fifth of Spain's economic output, pays too much in taxes and receives less than its fair share of government investment. Independence sentiment grew during Spain's near economic meltdown during the financial crisis.

If the secessionist alliance join forces with the radical pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party known as CUP, which won 10 seats, they will have more than the 68 seats needed to try to push forward their plan to make Catalonia independent from Spain by 2017.

CUP had insisted that it would only join an independence bid if secessionist parties won more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but analysts predicted it would drop the demand. The pro-independence parties got a majority in Parliament with only 48 percent of the vote because of a quirk in Spanish election law that gives extra weight to rural voters.

Catalonia's pro-independence leader Artur Mas claimed victory as a jubilant crowd interrupted him with cheers and chants of "Independence!" in Catalan, which is spoken side by side with Spanish in the prosperous, industrialized region bordering France.

"As democrats we were prepared to accept the defeat. Now, we demand that they accept the victory for Catalonia and the victory of the 'yes,'" Mas said. "We have a lot of work ahead, we won't let you down, we know we have the democratic mandate. We have won and that gives us an enormous strength to push this project forward."

Catalonia's rural regions are more supportive of independence than urban areas like Barcelona, so the pro-independence parties benefited from the Spanish law giving more representation to rural areas. Critics, however, said the result showed secessionist forces failed to gain legitimacy for their effort and demanded Mas' resignation.

"He said the majority of Catalans were with him. Today the majority of Catalans turned their back on him and the only thing he must do is resign," said Ines Arrimadas, the leading regional parliamentary candidate for the anti-independence Citizens party.

CUP leader David Fernandez insisted in a television interview that his party will help the "Together for Yes" side and "will not be the one to fail independence." But differences are already apparent because he has said he wants an immediate declaration of independence rather than the 18-month secession roadmap outlined by the "Yes" bloc.

CUP's leading parliamentary candidate, Antonio Banos, said his party would not support Mas as president of the regional parliament but analysts predicted it would end up backing the "Yes" bloc and its plan for creating a new state likely to be opposed at every step by Madrid.

"CUP will be under huge pressure to support Mas and the process," said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political risk consultancy. Secessionists have long pushed for an independence referendum, but Spain's central government refused to allow it, saying such a vote would be unconstitutional. So the pro-independence parties pitched the vote for regional parliamentary seats as a de facto plebiscite.

The parliament, based in Barcelona, represents the northeastern region of 7.5 million people responsible for nearly a fifth of Spain's economic output. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ruling Popular Party government says it will use all legal means to prevent Catalonia from breaking away, an exit European leaders have warned would include ejection from the European Union despite claims by secession supporters that a way may be found for an independent Catalonia to stay.

Spain's government has also said secession by Catalonia would disrupt fragile signs of economic recovery for the country struggling with unemployment of 22 percent. The ruling party's candidate to lead Catalonia, Xavier Garcia Albiol, acknowledged that Sunday's result was a blow.

"These are not the results that we expected or wanted," he said. Catalans from both sides of the independence divide extol their Catalan language, spoken by most of the region's residents and suppressed during Spain's 1939-1975 dictatorship under Francisco Franco.

Jordi Perez, a 50-year-old civil servant said he voted for "Together for Yes" because he feels Spain has historically disparaged Catalan culture and the region's language. "I have wanted independence ever since I was young," Perez said after voting in Barcelona. "During three centuries they have robbed us of our culture. We have reached the moment that the Catalan people say 'enough is enough.'"

While the pro-independence camp has organized pro-independence rallies with hundreds of thousands supporters in recent years, those who voted for anti-secession parties have kept a low profile. School teacher Sandra Guerrero, 30, said the election motivated her to cast a ballot for the first time — against independence with her vote for the Citizens party.

"I am proud to be Catalan, but also to be Spanish," she said. "I had never voted before because I was disillusioned with politics. But this time I have because this is an important election."

Clendenning reported from Madrid. Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.

High-profile trial of Ukrainian officer begins in Russia

September 22, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court on Tuesday began hearing the high-profile case against a Ukrainian officer who is charged in the deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine.

Nadezhda Savchenko denied the charges, telling the court "I am a soldier, not a murderer," according to the Tass news agency. In Washington, the U.S. State Department urged Russia to drop what it described as a "baseless case" against Savchenko.

Russian investigators allege that Savchenko, who served in a volunteer battalion fighting alongside government troops against Russia-backed rebels, provided the coordinates for a mortar attack that killed the journalists in June 2014.

Savchenko, who lawyers say was captured by the rebels and smuggled across the border into Russia, also is charged with entering Russia illegally. Charges of attempted murder in relation to six Ukrainian citizens were also added to the case.

Prosecutors told the court on Tuesday that Savchenko intentionally targeted the journalists and other civilians, while the defense insisted the journalists were killed during an attack on separatist fighters, Russian news agencies reported.

"I didn't see journalists," Tass quoted Savchenko as saying. "I have never in my life shot at unarmed people. I am a soldier, not a murderer." Savchenko, who spent 83 days on a hunger strike to protest her detention, has become a hero figure for Ukrainians fighting the separatists and has won a seat in Parliament. Ukrainian officials have campaigned for her release and have been backed by the U.S. and the European Union.

"The United States remains deeply disturbed by the Russian Federation's decision to move forward with this baseless case," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Tuesday. He urged Russia to dismiss the charges immediately and return Savchenko to her Ukrainian home.

The trial was being held in the small southern Russian town of Donetsk, which has the same name as the Ukrainian city that is the main rebel stronghold. Reporters and photographers were barred from the courtroom and watched the proceedings by video link.

Serbia pride march calls for solidarity with migrants

September 20, 2015

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Hundreds of gay and human rights activists at Serbia's gay pride event have called for solidarity with migrants passing through the Balkan country in search of a new life in Western Europe.

The pride march was held Sunday in the capital Belgrade under tight security with thousands of riot police in full gear deployed in the downtown area to protect the gathering. Police say several extremists have been detained. In 2010 extremist groups and soccer hooligans attacked a pride march in the conservative Balkan country, triggering clashes that left more than 100 people injured.

A banner held at the march Sunday read "Europe, Open Your Gates" to the migrants fleeing war and poverty in their home countries.

Snow kidding: Scots have 421 words for the white stuff

September 23, 2015

LONDON (AP) — The Inuit of the Arctic know a lot about snow, and their wide vocabulary for the white stuff is legendary.

But they may face a challenge in snow-describing ability — from Scotland. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have compiled 421 words relating to snow for a new Historical Thesaurus of Scots. They range from "snaw" — plain old snow — to "spitters," small drops of wind-driven snow, and "flindrikin," a slight snow shower.

The first sections of the thesaurus, covering weather and sports, are published online Wednesday. As befits a country renowned for its gray, damp, drizzly climate, Scots also contains multiple words for rain and mist.

"It's a bit surprising that snow would give rain a run for its money," said Susan Rennie, lecturer in English and Scots Language at Glasgow. "That's a nice surprise." Rennie said the wide range of weather-related terms shows how important it was for people in Scotland — for centuries a largely agricultural country — to distinguish "quite subtle gradations of weather."

The Scots language — which is sometimes considered a dialect of English — has been recognized as "an integral part of Scotland's distinctive culture and heritage" by Scotland's nationalist government. It is classed as one of Scotland's three main languages, alongside English and Gaelic.

The compilers of the thesaurus want readers to send in their own words to add to the list, and hope the book may encourage the return of some forgotten terms. "Some words are ripe for revival," Rennie said.

What language would not be enriched by "snaw-ghaist" — an apparition seen in the snow — or "snaw-breaker"? "It sounds like it's going to be a snow plow," Rennie said. "But in fact it's a word for a sheep that breaks a path through the snow for its fellow sheep to follow."

Poles ambiguous over EU's, Francis' call on refugees

September 12, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands held opposing rallies Saturday in several Polish cities, with radical right-wingers marching against hosting asylum seekers and others in smaller numbers supporting helping those in need.

Some 10,000 nationalists and right-wingers marched in the rain through downtown Warsaw, waving national white-and-red flags and chanting "Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists!" and "Poland, free of Islam!"

Some lighted flares that spread smoke over the marchers, but there was no violence. Police in riot gear warily watched over the protest. "The refugees are threat to our culture, they will not assimilate with our society," said marcher Miroslaw Kadziela, 24.

A few hundred others held a "Refugees, Welcome" rally with music at a different location in Warsaw. Similar pro-con rallies were held in Gdansk, Krakow, Poznan and Szczecin. Pope Francis has urged his followers to open their hearts and parishes to refugees, but predominantly Catholic Poles are struggling to heed that call amid widespread fears that Muslim arrivals will threaten their jobs and security.

The European Union wants Poland to accept 12,000 migrants. Warsaw has agreed to receive 2,000 within two years and says it has capacity for more provided they are refugees, not economic migrants. Days before the rallies, even Catholic Poles were voicing reservations.

"On the question of taking in immigrants, Pope Francis is wrong," Jaroslaw Gowin, a prominent Catholic politician, said Friday. "In no case should we take in Muslims." Even the spokesman for Caritas, the Catholic charity, voiced resistance to taking in refugees. Pawel Keska told The Associated Press that "it is impossible to follow Francis' gesture in Poland now, because we have no Syrian refugees."

Not all Poles are against helping refugees. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s, said he would be willing to host refugees under his own roof and would even cook for them — if his wife agrees.

A county near the Baltic Sea coast, Gniewino, became the first place in Poland in recent days to declare it can host and offer jobs to three Syrian families, while parishioners in the western city of Poznan have collected over 24,000 zlotys ($6,300) to help house refugees.

Hungary posts ads in Lebanon, Jordan media warning migrants

September 21, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — The Hungarian government posted ads in Lebanese and Jordanian papers on Monday, warning migrants not to enter Hungary illegally, saying it is a crime punishable by imprisonment.

The move comes as Europe is reeling under pressure from tens of thousands of refugees making the perilous trek to the continent to seek sanctuary there. In a terse statement published as a full-page announcement in several newspapers, including Lebanon's leading An-Nahar and Jordan's Al-Rai, the government of Hungary said that "the strongest possible action is taken" against people who attempt to enter Hungary illegally.

"Do not listen to the people smugglers. Hungary will not allow illegal immigrants to cross its territory," it said in both English and Arabic. Lebanon, a country of around 4.5 million people, has over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan, with a population of 6.5 million, has about 630,000 — some of whom have already shown readiness to migrate to Europe because of dwindling aid and work opportunities.

Hungary, which closed its border with Serbia on Sept. 15, has erected another steel barrier at the Beremend border crossing with Croatia to try to slow the flow but the migrants keep coming. Many, fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, cross the Mediterranean in rickety smuggler boats and rush from one European border to the next to try to reach welcoming countries such as Germany and Sweden. The majority of those arriving on the shores of Europe are Syrians.

Hungary's ads were not the first. Earlier this month, Denmark's Ministry of Immigration, Integration and Housing posted advertisements in Lebanese newspapers aiming to deter migrants, saying that the Scandinavian nation has reduced social aid to migrants by 50 percent recently. Denmark also warned that migrants whose applications are rejected will be deported immediately.

Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed more than 250,000 people and generated more than 4 million refugees. Meanwhile in Lebanon, the education minister appealed to donors to remain committed to helping the country deal with the flux of refugees, including providing free schooling to hundreds of thousands of refugee children currently here.

Elias Bou Saab said his government would absorb more Syrian refugee children in schools this year, aiming to double those enrolled from last year to reach 200,000. But this, he warned, leaves roughly the same number — about 200,000 — still without schooling.

"There are a still a great number of students out of schools, and that is a danger, danger to Lebanon and to the region," Bou Saab told reporters as he launched the Back to School campaign, for which the government raised $94 million in grants — $25 million short of the needed funds.

"When they lose hope that there is no job opportunity or chances to go to school or chances that give them hope in life, they start to look for legitimate and illegitimate ways to go from one place to another," he added, referring to the exodus to Europe.

Tonya Chapuisat, the UNICEF representative in Lebanon, said the Lebanese government has the school capacity to absorb more children but needs long-term donor commitment to do so. "If there was funding, we would hope that would go up to 300,000" students, she told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, German vice chancellor urged the international community to increase aid to Mideast countries hosting millions of Syrian refugees, saying this is key to slowing migration to Europe. Sigmar Gabriel, who was to start a visit to Jordan on Monday, said wealthy Gulf states "aren't paying" and suggested the United States could contribute more. Aid agencies requested $7.4 billion for the Syria crisis for 2015, but received only 38 percent.

Gabriel told German TV on Sunday that the situation in host countries is "dramatically bad."

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Greece: Cabinet member quits on first day on job

September 24, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Hours after starting his new job, a junior minister in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' left-wing government resigned late Wednesday over messages posted on his Twitter account that were considered racist and anti-Semitic.

Dimitris Kammenos, a deputy minister for infrastructure, submitted his resignation hours after Tsipras' new Cabinet was sworn in. The 49-year-old Kammenos is a member of parliament from the Independent Greeks, a small right-wing party that joined the new coalition government after a general election was held Sunday.

Kammenos said offending comments posted in 2014 and 2015 on his account — which has now been canceled — were being investigated at his request by the police's cybercrime division. He added that several members of his staff had helped run the account.

The resignation was an embarrassing start for Tsipras, who won a surprisingly comfortable election victory but now faces a major challenge in implementing the harsh terms of a third international bailout.

Tsakalotos stays on as Greek finance minister

September 22, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's newly re-elected left-wing government has retained Euclid Tsakalotos as finance minister to continue tough negotiations with other eurozone countries on the terms of a large new bailout deal.

The new Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was announced late Monday, and included few major changes to ministry posts. Tsakalotos, 55, led the final stages of talks between the Tsipras government and bailout lenders of the 86-billion-euro ($96 billion) bailout, after Athens abandoned a more combative stance toward creditors and agreed to implement new austerity measures.

Despite Tsipras' U-turn, he was re-elected by a wide margin at a weekend general election, and again formed a coalition government with a small right-wing party, the Independent Greeks.

Left-wing Syriza wins Greek vote, will form coalition gov't

September 20, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A jubilant Alexis Tsipras vowed to continue fighting for his country's pride and to quickly form a coalition government after his left-wing Syriza party comfortably won Greece's third national vote this year on Sunday.

The result was a resounding success for Tsipras' high-risk gamble when he resigned as prime minister last month and triggered an early election, barely seven months into his four-year term, in order to face down an internal Syriza rebellion over his policy U-turn to accept painful austerity measures in return for Greece's third international bailout.

With more than 80 percent of the vote counted, Syriza stood at 35.5 percent of the vote and 145 seats in the 300-member parliament, followed by the conservative New Democracy with 28.3 percent and 75 seats and the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn in third place with 7 percent and 18 seats. Abstention was particularly high, at nearly 45 percent in an election-weary country with a traditionally high voter turnout.

It was the third time this year Greeks have voted, after the January election that brought Tsipras to power on an anti-bailout platform, and a July referendum he called urging Greeks to reject creditor reform proposals, which they resoundingly did — shortly before Tsipras then accepted similar proposals as part of the new bailout.

Six seats shy of an absolute majority, Tsipras said he would form a government with his previous coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks of Panos Kammenos, who joined him on stage to rapturous applause from dancing, cheering Syriza supporters in central Athens. The Independent Greeks were in seventh place with 3.6 percent of the vote and 10 parliamentary seats.

"I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this great victory, a clear victory, a victory of the people," Tsipras said. "I feel vindicated because the Greek people gave us a clear mandate to continue our struggle, inside and outside the country to lift our country's pride."

The 41-year-old vowed to govern for a full four-year term — something few Greek governments have managed, particularly since the country became dependent on international bailouts five years ago. The country has seen six governments and four parliamentary elections since 2009.

"We will place our people's just cause at the forefront faced with asymmetrical powers and enemies more powerful than us," Tsipras said. "But we have achieved it: The flags of Greece are flying in the squares of Greece and the European capitals. Greece and the Greek people represent struggle and dignity. And together we will continue that struggle for an entire four years."

A total of eight parties were set to win parliamentary seats. The new anti-bailout Popular Unity party, formed by rebel Syriza members who objected to Tsipras' agreement to a third bailout for Greece and the stringent austerity attached to it, was falling short of the 3 percent parliamentary threshold.

"We lost the battle, but not the war," said Popular Unity head Panagiotis Lafazanis, Tsipras' former energy minister. New Democracy head Vangelis Meimarakis conceded defeat shortly after exit polls showed a clear Syriza victory, and called for a government to be formed quickly.

"The election result appears to be forming comprehensively with Syriza and Mr. Tsipras coming first," Meimarakis said. "I congratulate him and call on him to form the government that is necessary." The new government will have little time to waste. Creditors are expected to review progress of reforms as part of the bailout next month, while the government will also have to draft the 2016 state budget, overhaul the pension system, raise a series of taxes, including on farmers, carry out privatizations and merge social security funds.

It must also oversee a critical bank recapitalization program, without which depositors with over 100,000 euros ($113,000) in their accounts will be forced to contribute. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of the eurozone's finance ministers' meetings known as the eurogroup, congratulated Tsipras on his election victory. "Looking forward to swift formation of new government with strong mandate to continue reform process," he said in a tweet.

Sunday's result, with Syriza able to form a government with the Independent Greeks and without need to reach out to more euro-friendly centrist parties is one "that Tsipras will likely feel somewhat emboldened by," said Malcolm Barr of J.P. Morgan. "The choice appears to have been made that when push comes to shove, Syriza will opt to keep Greece in the euro. But we note this result provides a platform upon which Syriza will continue to challenge significant parts of the (bailout) program."

Tsipras has clearly stated he disagreed with the spending cuts and tax hikes demanded by Greece's European creditors in return for the new bailout, a three-year package worth 86 billion euros ($97 billion). But he argued that without it, Greece faced bankruptcy and a potentially disastrous exit from Europe's joint currency.

His party supporters were more forgiving than the hardliners who split from his party. "He is young. We had been voting for the others for 40 years," supporter Eva Vasilopoulou. "We are giving (him) a second chance. He is pure, and smart, and I hope that he will govern for many years."

Others said they appreciated that Tsipras had tried to get a better bailout deal for Greece, and his honesty in saying he didn't achieve what he wanted in the troubled negotiations with European creditors.

"He told ... the truth, that this is how things are: 'I have fought I did not achieve what I wanted, and I have brought this (deal). If you want, vote for me'," Syriza supporter Alexis Athanasopoulos said. "And so we voted for him."

Retiree Antonis Antonios, 75, said he was counting on Tsipras to fight for a better deal for Greeks. "It's a great and hopeful result. We are moving forward. I am waiting for the next government to put up a fight," he said. "They are the only ones capable of a brave struggle."

Demetris Nellas, Costas Kantouris and Idyli Tsakiri contributed to this report.

Greek coast guard searches for 26 missing migrants

September 20, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's coast guard was searching Sunday for 26 migrants missing off the coast of the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos after the boat they were traveling in sank.

The coast guard says a Lithuanian helicopter from the European border patrol agency Frontex spotted people in the sea off the southeastern coast of Lesbos in the early morning. Two coast guard vessels headed to the area and rescued 20 people, who said they were in a boat that sank with a total of 46 people on board.

No information was immediately available on the nationalities of the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, mostly Syrians and Afghans fleeing conflict at home, have arrived in Greece from the nearby Turkish coast so far this year. The vast majority pass through Greece, heading north through the Balkans overland toward the more prosperous countries of the European Union.

A search was also continuing east of Lesbos for between 10 and 12 people missing in a separate sinking Saturday morning east of Lesbos. The coast guard rescued 11 people in that incident, and recovered an unconscious girl from the water, who later died in hospital. Another two people managed to swim ashore, while a man among the survivors was treated in a hospital for hypothermia.

Greece: 2 main parties in dead heat before election

September 18, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Opinion polls published on the final day of campaigning in Greece's general election suggest the left-wing Syriza party and conservative New Democracy are in a dead heat before the Sunday ballot.

Three surveys published Friday show the two parties roughly level within the margin of error, with the winner likely to require the support of two smaller parties to form a coalition government. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras resigned as prime minister and called the snap election last month after reaching an agreement with eurozone creditors for a third bailout that triggered a split within his party.

Syriza has maintained a narrow lead in most polls, and has ruled out forming a grand coalition with the conservatives — despite a commitment from both parties to implement the new 86 billion euro ($97 billion) bailout agreement.

Under Greece's electoral system, the top party receives a 50-seat bonus in the 300-member parliament. The leading three parties each have three days to try to form a coalition, in successive rounds of consultations, if the election produces a hung parliament.

Softening earlier objections, Tsipras indicated that he could work with the socialist Pasok party and centrist Potami parties as possible partners. "Our aim is to get a governing majority. But even if we don't get that majority we will have a government in first round of consultations," he told Antenna television Friday.

"What I'm saying is that a government will be formed. It can either be a conservative government or a progressive one." Tsipras will speak at his final campaign rally in Athens' main Syntagma Square later Friday, an event due to be attended by Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Spanish leftwing party Podemos.

Greek election campaign underwhelms voters

September 17, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Cheered by thousands in a central Athens square, Alexis Tsipras made a promise that proved impossible to keep. A vote for his left-wing Syriza party would change Europe and punish the creditors who had imposed economic austerity on Greece.

That was eight months ago. Prominent party members who deserted Syriza stood in the same spot Tuesday night, lining up to attack Tsipras and his short-lived government as Greeks head back to the polls Sunday with political parties fractured by the weight of a massive new international bailout that aims to prevent a potentially catastrophic default and Greece being forced out of the eurozone.

Tuesday's crowd at Omonia Square was much smaller and the rhetoric more bitter. "A small group in the (government) leadership has surrendered and humiliated us," said Panagiotis Lafazanis, a former Syriza hardliner who served as Tsipras' energy minister and formed a breakaway party after Tsipras reached an agreement with eurozone countries to continue receiving rescue funding in exchange for harsh new spending cuts.

"Some people have turned the euro into religion. But it has become a dictatorship," said Lafazanis, who advocates Greece leaving Europe's joint currency. Unlike the January election that brought Tsipras to power and a hastily called July referendum in which voters soundly rejected creditor reform proposals — only to see Tsipras' government later agree to them — Sunday's poll has drawn little enthusiasm. It is the third time this year that Greeks will be voting, with the economy still in dire straits, a quarter of workers jobless and capital controls limiting cash access to savings to 420 euros ($470) per week.

"What's the point of going back to the voting booth all the time? Nobody trusts anyone anymore," said 49-year-old Varavara Michaliarakou, who trained as a nursery school teacher and works as a nanny. She has voted for four different parties since 2009 and still hasn't decided who to back on Sept. 20.

"They all lied to us and nothing has changed — it's still terrible," she said. It is the significant percentage of undecided voters that the parties are vying to woo in the last few days of campaigning.

Opinion polls indicate a race too close to call, with Tsipras struggling to maintain the narrowest of leads over his main opponent, center-right New Democracy leader Evangelos Meimarakis. Late Thursday, about 5,000 supporters — a low number by Greek standards — gathered to attend Meimarakis' main election rally in Athens.

"Voters have a clear choice: Stability or more experiments ... We will do what is necessary to bring jobs, jobs, jobs," the 62-year-old Meimarakis said. Under the Greek electoral system, whichever party comes first wins a bonus 50 seats in the country's 300-member parliament. But if opinion poll indications prove true, even that will not be enough to form a majority government, meaning the winner will have to seek support from smaller parties to form a coalition.

The lackluster campaign has been compounded by the realities of the choice Greeks are faced with. Whichever party wins, it will have little room for manoeuver given that the country's fiscal policy is pretty much dictated by the terms of its new three-year, 86 billion-euro ($97 billion) bailout, noted Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos, assistant professor of political science at the University of Athens.

The race is "open in terms of possible coalition partners and the mix of the next government, it's not open in terms of the major reforms that have to be taken," Sotiropoulos said. "There will be no further transfer of funds to Greece unless Greece starts changing basic patterns of the way the pension system works, taxation is enforced, and so on."

Nine political parties are in with a shot of reaching the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, complicating the coalition math. Newcomers could include Lafazanis' new far-left anti-austerity Popular Unity party and the eccentric Vassilis Leventis, a fringe party staple on the Greek political scene for decades, known mostly for rambling post-midnight diatribes against the political establishment and entertaining outbursts on a marginal TV channel.

Golden Dawn, founded as a neo-Nazi party three decades ago, is on course for third place. Some analysts believe it could end up with more than the roughly 6 percent it currently appears to have as supporters can be reluctant to admit their affiliation to opinion poll interviewers. The stridently anti-austerity and anti-immigrant party could attract voters angry with the prospect of continued austerity under the third bailout, despite the party's leadership and dozens of its members being on trial for a slew of offences.

Tsipras' former coalition partner, the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks, is hovering on the 3 percent margin, meaning it could fail to enter parliament and deprive Tsipras of his preferred partner should he win.

The Independent Greeks "pay the price of being a coalition partner of a government that has contributed to political instability in this country throughout 2015 and a coalition partner to a government which has been totally inefficient in managing the economy," Sotiropoulos said.

In such a scenario, the most likely coalition candidates would be the centrist To Potami, or The River, party, and the once-mighty socialist PASOK party which dominated Greek politics for decades but saw its voter base decimated in the wake of Greece's first bailout. But with both sharing few common views on the bailout with the formerly stridently anti-austerity Syriza, it would be an uneasy coalition.

The same two parties would likely share power with New Democracy should that party win Sunday's vote. The two other potential outcomes would be no party having enough seats to form a government even by teaming team up with smaller parties, leading either to an unstable minority government or a new election; or a grand coalition between New Democracy and Syriza — something Tsipras has repeatedly ruled out.

Greek conservative leader promises jobs, growth, low taxes

September 12, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Conservative leader Evangelos Meimarakis has called on Greeks to give him the chance to form a government with his New Democracy party at "its core" and undo the damage from seven months of a left-led coalition.

Meimarakis told an audience of party supporters and local business people at the Thessaloniki International Fair on Saturday that "voters cannot gamble away" the "last chance" in the Sept. 20 election to save the country from the policies of the leftist Syriza government.

Meimarakis promised business-friendly policies that would bring jobs, growth and, eventually lower taxes, instead of the state-driven economy he accused his opponent, former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, of promoting.

Tsipras called an early election to seek a fresh mandate after securing a bailout from Greece's euro zone and International Monetary Fund lenders.

German minister pushes plan for new EU refugee system

September 21, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's interior minister is proposing a system under which the European Union would take in a fixed number of refugees directly from crisis-hit areas, thus avoiding smugglers, then send any further asylum-seekers elsewhere.

Germany is the prime destination for those flooding into Europe. It expects at least 800,000 to arrive this year — one official has said possibly 1 million — and is struggling to deal with the influx.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Monday his "personal initiative" would see "generous" EU quotas to bring in refugees from crisis-hit regions and spread them around the continent. He said if those are exceeded over the course of a year, people crossing the Mediterranean would be rescued but then taken to "safe regions" outside the continent.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed repeatedly that Germany will take in people fleeing civil wars and persecution, although people arriving for economic reasons must return home. She has said there is no legal limit to the number of asylum-seekers Germany can take.

De Maiziere said his initiative doesn't question that, and people who do seek asylum in Germany would still have their application examined. "We won't be able to, or want to, shut ourselves off completely in Europe," he said. But "we will not be able to take in all refugees from the whole world, or all those who seek their economic future in Europe, that is also clear."

De Maiziere, a member of Merkel's conservative party, wouldn't specify how large the proposed contingents should be. The idea, first floated in a weekend magazine interview, drew an unenthusiastic response from its center-left coalition partners.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, told ARD television Sunday night that it appeared to be "the opposite of what the chancellor has rightly said." "Setting up contingents for asylum-seekers is not a solution," he said.

A look at what EU leaders agreed on at migrant summit

September 24, 2015

After months of delay and debate, European Union leaders agreed early Thursday to mount a broader, more comprehensive response to Europe's migration crisis, including ponying up more money to aid refugees in the Middle East, both to feed them and to reduce the chance they will come to Europe, and to toughen EU border controls.

"In the face of a major challenge, Europe can't just say: we will not deal with this. That would completely wrong," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "We have to find answers together." Here, in brief, is what Merkel and other EU leaders agreed to at their extraordinary summit meeting in Brussels:

EMERGENCY AID "Urgent needs" of refugees currently in the Middle East will be met with at least 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in fresh EU funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Program and other agencies, the leaders decided. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries dealing with refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war should also receive greater injections of EU assistance, including through a "substantial increase" in the EU's Regional Trust Fund.

"We need to do more to stabilize the countries and the regions from which these people are coming," British Prime Minister David Cameron said as the meeting began. He announced Britain would commit another 100 million pounds ($152 million) for Syrian refugee relief.

HARDENED BORDERS Around a half-million people, many of them fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, have entered the 28-nation EU already this year. For the bloc, EU President Donald Tusk said Wednesday, the most urgent question "is how to retain control of our external borders." The leaders agreed to beef up border controls by providing more resources, including personnel and equipment from their countries, to help Frontex, the EU's border agency, Europol and other EU organizations. By November, new EU dedicated teams will be fully deployed to assist local authorities in Greece and Italy — where most people have been arriving — with identification, fingerprinting and registration to see whether they qualify for aslyum.

GREATER COOPERATION The leaders called for stepped-up dialogue with Turkey, home to nearly 2 million refugees, as well as assistance to non EU-member countries in the Balkans through which large numbers of refugees now transit. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to visit Brussels Oct. 5. Member states should also contribute more to stabilize African countries that have become a source of displaced persons, the leaders said.

PEACE IN SYRIA The EU summit called for a "renewed UN-led international effort" to end the war in Syria, which it said has driven an estimated 12 million people from their homes. "The EU commits to doing its part in this respect," the leaders said.

To broker peace in Syria, Merkel said, "you have to talk to a lot of actors, and that includes (President Bashar) Assad." UNITY AGAIN On Tuesday, EU nations clashed on a plan to relocate 120,000 migrants, with four EU countries — the Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — in opposition. Despite that, the official summit communique stressed that all EU member states share the commitment to dealing with the migration crisis together. "We all recognized that there are no easy solutions and that we can only manage this challenge by working together, in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility," the statement said.

WHAT COMES NEXT The decisions taken at the EU summit show "a common understanding that we cannot continue as before," but won't be enough by themselves to end the crisis, Tusk said. The issue will be back on the agenda at the next meeting of EU presidents and prime ministers Oct. 15-16 in Brussels. Between now and then, the leaders said, their governments and EU institutions should take "operational decisions" on the most urgent actions agreed to Thursday.

European ministers agree to relocate 120,000 refugees

September 23, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — Deeply divided European Union ministers agreed Tuesday to relocate 120,000 asylum-seekers to ease the strain on Greece and Italy, which are on the front line of the migrant flood. But a senior European leader conceded the move was only a small step toward resolving one of the worst crises ever faced by the 28-nation bloc.

Four eastern European countries — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary — voted against the plan, and it's unclear if they will even implement it. Those nations have resisted accepting the forced resettlement of refugees on their territory.

Slovakia would rather breach the measure "than accept such a dictate," said Prime Minster Robert Fico. His Czech counterpart, Bohuslav Sobotka, added: "It's a bad decision, and the Czech Republic did all it could to block it."

EU leaders will gather Wednesday evening in Brussels to try to adopt a unified approach to the crisis that has seen 477,906 people stream into Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to estimates by the U.N. refugee agency. Some European countries have reinstated border controls to stem the flood, and Hungary has built a fence topped with razor wire on its frontier with Serbia.

EU Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans insisted that all member states "respect the outcome" of the relocation plan, which he said showed the bloc is "capable of taking decisions even if, for some member states, these are very difficult decisions."

But even Timmermans conceded it was only a small step, and plenty more remains to be done. "In and by itself, the decision we took today is not going to solve the refugee crisis," he said. "The refugee crisis can be brought under control, but make no mistake it will take a tremendous amount of effort, it will take a long time, and it will take many steps in many areas."

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees urged the EU to quickly set up facilities in Greece, where tens of thousands have arrived after making the hazardous sea crossing from Turkey. This may be "the last opportunity for a coherent European response," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.

Tuesday's deal did not set mandatory quotas for each nation — one of the most contentious aspects of the proposed plan. It said that 66,000 asylum-seekers will be relocated from Greece and Italy, and 54,000 more in a year's time.

Amnesty International's Europe Director, John Dalhuisen, cautioned that agreed-upon numbers "are still too low, given the immensity of the current crisis." "At long last, this is a step in the right direction, but EU leaders need to be looking 10 steps ahead, not one," he said.

Timmermans said the EU has to do a better job of protecting its borders, registering arriving migrants, quickly returning those ineligible for asylum, and "providing hope and perspective" for those in conflict-torn countries.

"Maybe something will change," said Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who hoped that his country won't be obliged to take in more than the 1,785 refugees it has offered to absorb. The Romanian news agency reported the country would have to take an extra 2,475 refugees.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, whose country is absorbing most of those pouring into Europe, said Germany would take more than 30,000 of the 120,000 asylum seekers. "We are doing this out of solidarity and responsibility, but also in our own interest," he said. "At the moment, something like 50 percent of those who are arriving in Greece are coming to Germany. With a quota of 26 percent, fewer of this group would come."

De Maiziere said the deal also aims to cut "secondary migration," in which those seeking asylum move from one European country to another. "If people are distributed in Europe, then they can't choose what country they go to. They have to stay in the country they were distributed to," he said.

Along the migrant trail through the Balkans in southeastern Europe, the crisis continued and drew old foes into a new dispute. Serbia gave Croatia an ultimatum to reopen its border, threatening unspecified countermeasures. Croatia shut all but one of its crossings with Serbia last week to block the migrant influx, which has reached 34,900 in just a few days. But the action has crippled the economy in Serbia, a conduit for cargo across Croatia to Europe.

Croatia started letting trucks carrying food from Serbia across the border on Tuesday afternoon, but Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that was not enough, adding that all cargo traffic must be restored

Vucic had called an emergency session of all security services, including the military, to discuss the crisis. The two nations have a tense history after fighting each other in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

"This is a scandal of international proportions," Vucic said. "Croatia has breached all European agreements and directives." Croatia was angry by Serbia busing migrants to its border. "Mix it up a little," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said. "Send them a bit to Hungary and Romania."

Bad weather in Greece compounded the migrants' misery, as thunderstorms drenched hundreds camped out in Athens' Victoria Square. "We have nothing. No water, no food, no shelter. We are living in tents, we need help," said Mohamed Saber Nazari, a 20-year-old Afghan. "You see all the families living in the rain, with small children? Something must be organized for us."

A 45-year-old taxi driver sympathized with their plight. More than 20 years ago, Adrian Mustafa had walked from Albania to Greece, where he has been living ever since. "If you go through what these people are going through, only then will you understand," he said. "They don't want to stay here, but they live under bad conditions."

Kirka reported from Zagreb, Croatia. Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; Lorne Cook and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Karel Janicek in Prague; and Costas Kantouris in Athens contributed to this report.

Labor elects far-left leader in British politics shake-up

September 13, 2015

LONDON (AP) — A veteran anti-war campaigner known for his unapologetically socialist views has won a landslide victory to lead Britain's opposition Labor Party — an outcome that delighted supporters and dismayed others who never imagined he could be elected.

The overwhelming support for far-left lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn, 66, was one of the biggest shake-ups in British politics in decades. His win Saturday marks a sharp left turn for his party — and will significantly challenge the tone of mainstream British politics, which is now dominated by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives.

"It's certainly the most high-profile position an overt socialist has held in British politics since the 1980s," said Martin Wright, lecturer in history and politics at Cardiff University. "It's an absolute earthquake. For the last two decades, the center ground has been moving ever further to the right. This moves the frames of reference to the left and opens up an alternative."

Considered an eccentric outsider and a longshot just months ago, Corbyn won many over with passionate arguments for nationalizing industry, heavily taxing corporations and the rich, increasing spending and ending austerity. Supporters say Corbyn is a refreshing voice in a party that has been moving toward the center ground for far too long.

Under the last two Labor leaders in power, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labor shed its commitment to nationalizing industry and wooed big business. Corbyn's blunt rejection of that strategy attracted scores of enthusiastic new members and supporters to the party, earning him a rock-star welcome from many young people disillusioned with British politics.

But many senior leaders in the party have warned that Corbyn's socialist ideas will alienate moderate voters and make Labor candidates unelectable — dooming the party to opposition status and ensuring that the Conservatives stay in power for years to come.

Blair, who led Labor to three consecutive election victories, recently said his party faced "annihilation" under Corbyn. But cheers and applause erupted in the London conference venue Saturday as it was announced that Corbyn swept almost 60 percent of the vote, far ahead of his closest rival, Andy Burnham, who scored 19 percent. Some 422,664 votes were cast.

The politician, who has been a lawmaker for 32 years but never held government office, divides his own party with his radical views even as it struggles to recover from a heavy defeat in May's national election. Within hours of his victory, several prominent Labor lawmakers announced they would not serve under Corbyn.

In his acceptance speech, Corbyn promised to bring about a more compassionate Britain and tackle "grotesque levels of inequality." "The Tories have used the economic crisis of 2008 to impose a terrible burden on the poorest people of this country," he said. "Poverty isn't inevitable, things can — and they will — change."

Earlier, as he arrived at the conference venue, he was mobbed by dozens of supporters who sang the socialist anthem, "The Red Flag." Corbyn's unexpected surge of popularity against his three younger, more mainstream rivals has already stirred months of vigorous, often bitter, debate within the party about its identity.

But since Labor lost power in 2010 — and suffered even worse losses to the Conservatives in this year's election — some activists have been arguing that it was time to return to the party's ideological roots.

Unlike his younger rivals — Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — Corbyn is seen as a stalwart from "Old Labour" who embraces the socialist values that the party advocated in the 1980s. He wants more public investment in infrastructure, higher taxes for corporations and wealth redistribution. He also opposes Britain's membership in NATO, and wants to scrap Britain's nuclear weapons program and scale back its defense spending.

Rivals say he is inexperienced and argue that his economic policies are idealistic and impractical — although dozens of British economists have backed him. Unsurprisingly, his victory drew a wide range of reactions Saturday. Union leader Dave Prentis said he "has ignited a spark of hope," while the business group Institute of Directors said it believed Corbyn's policies would "undermine our open and competitive economy."

Ed Miliband, who stepped down in May as the Labor leader, urged his party to unite in support of Corbyn. "Jeremy has won a very clear victory. I hope also ... that Jeremy reaches out to all parts of the party, because he has a big job to do to seek to unite the party," he said.

Wright believes Corbyn has what it takes to pose a real challenge to Cameron's Conservatives. "Miliband was trying to come up with populist reforms, whereas what Corbyn is offering is the genuine thing: thorough-going socialist reform," he said. "We'll have to see if the British public has the appetite for that. We might be surprised."

Croatia lifts blockade with Serbia, easing tensions

September 25, 2015

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Southeastern Europe's squabbling leaders moved Friday to ease the border tensions that have escalated for more than a week since Hungary sought to slow the flood of asylum seekers through its territory.

Croatia reopened its main cargo crossing Friday with Serbia after heated exchanges between the two former Yugoslav states. The decision came hours after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pledged to consult with governments in the region before moving ahead with plans to build a fence along the Croatian border.

The concessions came shortly after a European Union summit on the migrant crisis, suggesting that the 28-nation bloc had become alarmed at the lack of cooperation between neighboring governments and the increasingly ugly tone of their exchanges. Just hours before Croatia announced its decision, a senior EU official appealed to authorities in Zagreb to change their minds.

"This crisis is of global dimension," Johannes Hahn, commissioner for regional policy, told reporters in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Hungary's closure of its border with Serbia on Sept. 15 triggered a domino effect that sent those fleeing their homelands scurrying from one European border to the next as they tried to reach Western Europe.

Croatia at first welcomed the migrants, thinking they would transit through to Slovenia, Austria and then Germany. But Slovenia refused to let the people pass, leaving Croatia, one of the EU's poorest nations, responsible for tens of thousands of people. The government in Zagreb then accused Serbia of shunting the refugees into its territory and closed the cargo crossing in retaliation.

Some 60,000 asylum seekers have entered Croatia since Hungary shut its border with Serbia on Sept. 15. Orban on Friday sought to ease tensions, promising to consult with others before Hungary completes a razor-wire fence along its border with Croatia, a move that would insert more confusion into an already difficult situation in the Balkans.

"It is not enough to tell the world through the press what we are doing and why," Orban told reporters in Vienna. "We have to go everywhere and gather support before the closing of the (border) takes place."

The chaos also strained relations between Croatia and Serbia, old rivals who fought a war amid the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After an emergency meeting Friday night, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told Croatian state TV that Serbia will "absolutely" lift its embargo on Croatian goods.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said he lifted the blockade, but that he may reinstate it again if Serbia keeps on busing migrants to the Croatian border instead of sending at least some of them up north to the border with Hungary.

"There is no wall, no (razor) wire that can stop the people," Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said while visiting the Opatovac transit center in Croatia. Djorjde Vlajic, a commentator and acting editor-in-chief of Serbia's state Radio Belgrade 1, said the apparent softening of positions was the result of EU pressure. Key players in Brussels have decided that the smaller players must resolve their differences because the bloc as a whole must develop a unified response to the immense wave of refugees that is still on its way.

"This was a lesson for the voters," Vlajic said. "Europe will now clear up its yard and take care of the school kids." Hungary's conciliatory gesture came after Orban traveled to Vienna for talks with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. Austrian officials have been critical of Hungary's quickly built border fences, saying they damaged bilateral relations.

Austria "denied its friendship to Hungary in particularly difficult times, and I came to restore the earlier condition," Orban said. Faymann, in separate comments, said there was "tensions" between the two countries but said relations were "correct," the Austria Press Agency reported. Friday's meeting "shows we have to talk to each other," he said.

The Austrian leader said Hungary's steps to secure the EU's external border were lawful, but he stressed that asylum is a human right. He called on Orban to honor laws guaranteeing freedom of movement in Europe's passport-free Schengen travel zone and those governing the right to asylum.

Orban got the message, toning down his often-nationalistic diatribes. "It is clear that Orban is being more conciliatory and moderate instead of sticking to the 'Hungary does it alone' position," said Csaba Toth, director of the Republikon Institute think tank in Budapest. "He has gone in a more consensus-seeking direction in the last few days."

On the border in Croatia, rain and colder temperatures added to the misery of the migrants, who huddled under blankets and waited to leave as soon as possible. "I just want to go only to Germany," said Adnan Habbabi, a 36-year-old from Basra, Iraq, who hopes to join family members there.

"Inshallah, we hope," he said. "We hope to be rich there."

Associated Press Writers Danica Kirka in Zagreb and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this story.

Obama and US allies address UN summit, Russia also speaks

September 27, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — President Barack Obama and the leaders of some of America's most stalwart allies will address the United Nations summit on its last day Sunday.

The global meeting is focused on fixing some of the world's greatest problems through a 15-year road map. Endorsed Friday by the U.N.'s 193 members, the plan includes fighting climate change and eradicating extreme poverty.

Also speaking Sunday, along with U.S. allies Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Francois Holland of France, is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Their addresses will complete the list of speakers from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. President Xi Jinping already addressed the meeting Saturday.

The road map's goals are expected to cost between $3.5 trillion and $5 trillion every year until 2030.

As UN peacekeeping veers toward counterterror, US steps in

September 26, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Along a quiet cease-fire line in Cyprus, U.N. peacekeepers handle an increasingly old-fashioned job: actually keeping the peace. The last deadly incident was in 1996. Today's challenges include keeping poachers and rogue farmers out of no man's land. "Most of the time we don't wear weapons," said the force commander, Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund.

In some places, trendy bars and cafes touch the walls of the buffer zone. "Club Med," some peacekeepers call their posting. They know the job has become far more dangerous almost everywhere else the U.N. has forces — notably Mali, where al-Qaida-linked fighters have claimed responsibility for deadly attacks.

Suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices and combatants with little regard for the rules of war are making the work of nearly 125,000 U.N. peacekeepers look more and more like counterterrorism operations.

Some U.N. member states balk at sending their troops into such conditions to protect civilians. Others ask how heavily armored U.N. troops can promote peace. And new allegations of sexual abuses by U.N. peacekeepers expose deep gaps in training and accountability.

President Barack Obama takes on these issues next Monday when he chairs a U.N. meeting aimed at persuading European and other countries to send money, people and high-tech tools to peacekeeping missions in some of the world's volatile places, from South Sudan to the Golan Heights on the Syria-Israel border.

It's a high-profile attempt to shove the "blue helmets" — now engaged in 16 missions at a cost of $8.2 billion — into modern times. The new peacekeeping vision calls for special forces, unarmed drones and intelligence work that brings the U.N. closer than ever to the sensitive issue of electronic surveillance.

The U.N. mission in northern Mali is already a testing ground for these approaches. Peacekeepers seek to calm a vast region of the Sahara, but 40 have been killed in little over two years. Only the U.N. mission in Lebanon, where peacekeepers have operated since 1978, has more total deaths.

Alarmed by the toll in Mali, the U.S. military stepped in to help the U.N. mission counter IEDs. And several European countries staff an intelligence cell there, unprecedented in U.N. peacekeeping, that analyzes input from unarmed drones, sensor-equipped attack helicopters and special forces.

Soon, the mission will be using long-range drones, a senior U.N. official told reporters on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the details were private. As the leader of the country that pays a quarter of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, Obama's goal is to get other nations to step up in similar ways.

Far from the decades-old mandate of the Cyprus mission, where force is only used in self-defense, U.N. peacekeeping now seeks the kinds of tools recently used in the war in Afghanistan. The goal is "small units of high quality," said Jim Della-Giacoma, deputy director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and a former U.N. political affairs officer. Engineering, air support and improved medical facilities for wounded peacekeepers are other needs.

European countries, which contributed more than 40 percent of U.N. peacekeepers two decades ago but now provide less than 7 percent, are crucial to the changes in mind. So are East Asian countries, with China's peacekeeping involvement relatively new and growing.

"It's one of the serious deficiencies of U.N. peacekeeping today that the developed world — the people who have the capacities — are not participating," said Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, who led the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now almost over, Nambiar said, meaning there are no more excuses. More than 40 heads of state have signed up for Monday's meeting, but in order to speak, a country must announce a new peacekeeping contribution, according to Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. European countries make up roughly half the speakers.

Some countries have grumbled at the speaking rule. But the influence of the United States is clear. "To be honest, it's much more difficult to turn the U.S. down when asking for something than turning the U.N. down," said one Western European country's military adviser. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

A U.S. official on Tuesday said European countries are expected to announce the contribution of "one or two discrete military units" such as an engineering company or a field hospital, and the overall pledges of new troops should "significantly exceed" a goal of 10,000. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting.

Obama's effort comes amid a peacekeeping crisis. In recent weeks, the mission in Central African Republic has faced multiple allegations of sexual abuse, including against minors, that prompted Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take the unprecedented step of asking the head of mission to resign.

The uproar is a long way from U.N. peacekeeping's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. As the United Nations marks its 70th anniversary, its credibility is at stake, U.N. officials have said. "Critically, we cannot be the source of additional suffering," Ban said this month, threatening repatriations and more.

But his intention to publicly name states whose soldiers face credible accusations of sexual abuse puts the world body in a bind: Angry countries might withdraw their troops from missions, leaving civilians even more vulnerable.

Having a wider range of countries involved in peacekeeping, beyond the large African and South Asian contributors, could soften that threat. Involving more countries could also draw wider political attention to vicious far-flung conflicts, said Arthur Boutellis, director of the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.

A key question is what the United States, which has just 78 troops, police and military experts in U.N. peacekeeping, will announce as its own contribution Monday. The U.S. official mentioned the possibility of airlift and counter-IED support. But there was little sign that other countries' pressure for the U.S. and other permanent Security Council members to involve more of their own troops has had any effect.

"I wouldn't use the word 'outsourcing,'" the official said when asked whether the U.S. was taking that approach to part of the war on terror. "I'd use the word 'burden-sharing.'"

Hadjicostis reported from Cyprus. Associated Press writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Colombia's president, rebels announce breakthrough in talks

September 24, 2015

HAVANA (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of the country's largest rebel group announced on Wednesday an important breakthrough in peace talks that sets the stage to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.

In a joint statement from Cuba, Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia said they have overcome the last significant obstacle to a peace deal by settling on a formula to punish belligerents for human rights abuses committed during a half century of bloody, drug-fueled fighting.

"We are on different sides but today we advance in the same direction, in the most noble direction a society can take, which is toward peace," said Santos, minutes before a historic, cold-faced handshake with the military commander of the FARC guerrillas, known by his alias Timochenko.

Rebels that confess abuses to special peace tribunals, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive a maximum 8 years of labor under unspecified conditions but not prisons. War crimes committed by Colombia's military will also be judged by the tribunals and combatants caught lying will face penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

Santos flew earlier in the day to Havana, where talks with the rebel group have been going on for three years. Negotiators said the surprise advance came as rebels rushed to demonstrate progress ahead of a visit this week to Cuba by Pope Francis, who during his stay on the communist-led island warned the two sides that they didn't have the option of failing in their best chance at peace in decades.

Santos said the FARC vowed to demobilize within 60 days of a definitive agreement, which he said would be signed within six months. Negotiators must still come up with a mechanism for rebels to demobilize, hand over their weapons and provide reparations to their victims. Santos has also promised he'll give Colombians the chance to voice their opinion in a referendum and any deal must also clear Congress.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he called Santos to congratulate him and his negotiating team. "Peace is now ever closer for the Colombian people and millions of conflict victims," Kerry said in a statement.

As part of talks in Cuba, both sides had already agreed on plans for land reform, political participation for guerrillas who lay down their weapons and how to jointly combat drug trafficking. Further cementing expectations of a deal, the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in July, a move that ushered in most peaceful period in Colombia since 1975, according to CERAC, a Bogota think tank that monitors the conflict.

But amid the slow but steady progress, one issue had seemed almost insurmountable: How to compensate victims and punish FARC commanders for human rights abuses in light of international conventions Colombia has signed and almost unanimous public rejection of the rebels.

The FARC, whose troops have thinned to an estimated 6,400 from a peak of 21,000 in 2002, have long insisted they haven't committed any crimes and aren't abandoning the battlefield only to end up behind bars. They say that they would only consent to jail time if leaders of Colombia's military, which has a litany of war crimes to its name, and the nation's political elite are locked up as well.

"It's satisfying to us that this special jurisdiction for the peace has been designed for everyone involved in the conflict, combatants and non-combatants, and not just one of the parties," Timochenko, whose real names is Rodrigo Londono, said in a brief statement sitting alongside Santos and Cuban President Raul Castro, all three men in white shirts. "It opens the door to a full truth."

The breakthrough was hatched far from the klieg lights of Havana by a group of six lawyers in a 20-hour negotiating session last Thursday at the Bogota apartment of a former president of Colombia's constitutional court, negotiators told The Associated Press.

The marathon session wrapped up at 5:30 a.m. just three hours before the FARC's advisers were on a commercial flight to Havana to get the commanders' blessing, according to Douglass Cassel, a University of Notre Dame law professor who was one of the government's three representatives at the talks.

Cassel said the FARC worked overtime in the hopes of securing the deal ahead of Pope Francis' arrival Saturday to Cuba but in the end fell short of the goal. The sticking point he said was what would happen if the FARC lied to special tribunals and guarantees that the rebels wouldn't be extradited to the U.S., where they face charges for cocaine trafficking, if they honored their commitments.

"Without even being present physically in the room he was a very important presence," said Cassel of the pope. Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi credited the agreement to Francis' appeal. "Maybe we can connect this good news of today with the appeal of the pope on Sunday. I think this is a positive sign," Lombardi said in a statement.

The government has gone to great lengths to insist that its framework for so-called transitional justice doesn't represent impunity for guerrilla crimes such as the kidnapping of civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence. Only lesser crimes such as rebellion will be amnestied.

But even before details have become known, former President Alvaro Uribe lashed out at what he said was excessive lenience on the part of the government, foreshadowing the difficult road ahead to implement any final agreement. Human Rights Watch said it was difficult to imagine how the provisions for justice could survive a review from Colombia's constitutional court and the International Criminal Court if those who committed abuses don't spend a single day in prison.

"The government accepts that the criminals aren't going to jail," Uribe, whose military offensive last decade winnowed the FARC's ranks and pushed its leaders to the negotiating table, said at a meeting with supporters. "This is a bad example for society that will generate more violence."

Santos repeated Wednesday that he'll submit to a popular referendum any final agreement, which also must clear the country's congress. Enrique Santiago, a Spanish lawyer who helped write the agreement on behalf of the FARC, told The Associated Press that the deal had the strongest safeguards against impunity of any peace deal to date.

"If the FARC don't want to step inside a jail they'll have to recognize their crimes," Santiago said.

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP Writers Jacobo Garcia, Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report from Bogota.

Burkina Faso president disbands presidential guard

September 26, 2015

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Burkina Faso's transitional president on Friday signed a decree to disband the presidential guard that staged a coup more than a week ago.

Interim President Michel Kafando also fired the commander of the presidential guard, Col. Boureima Kere, and the country's security minister, Col. Sidi Pare, according to the decree that was read on national television.

Burkina Faso's armed forces said in a communique that they have started disarming the presidential guard and there is an inventory of their weapons. The decision was made after Kafando met with interim Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida and other ministers for the first cabinet meeting since the transitional government was reinstalled Wednesday.

Zida, who formerly served as the second in command for the presidential guard, said earlier he favored the action to disarm and disband the group. Members of the presidential guard mounted the coup last week, unhappy that the transitional government had barred supporters loyal to former President Blaise Compaore from participating as candidates in the country's national election. Compaore was ousted in a popular uprising in October.

Coup leader Gen. Gilbert Diendere on Wednesday stepped down at the order of the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, and under pressure from the military and citizens. At least 11 people died and 271 were wounded in violence that followed the coup, the government said Friday.

Kafando must now organize an election to install a democratic government in Burkina Faso. The vote was originally scheduled for Oct. 11 — but Zida said Friday the election would be postponed by at least several weeks.

"We need to bring security to the country, to the people, before we can restart the electoral process," he said. ECOWAS leaders suggested a Nov. 22 election date and recommended that Compaore's allies be allowed to field candidates. Some civil society associations and political parties have come out against amnesty for coup leaders.

The prime minister said Diendere's future was still being considered and an investigation is being launched into the coup. "Justice will be served after the conclusion of these investigations," Zida said.

Diendere has said he regretted the coup.

Soldiers leave capital, Burkina Faso returns to calm

September 25, 2015

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — People lined up at gas stations and money machines in Burkina Faso's capital on Thursday as life began returning to normal after a week-long coup.

Interim President Michel Kafando and interim Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida were reinstalled on Wednesday and government soldiers who had remained loyal to the government withdrew overnight. Members of the presidential guard that staged the coup were confined to their barracks.

People in Ouagadougou went out early Thursday to buy sheep at the market for slaughter in celebration of Eid al-Adha, known here as Tabaski, one of Islam's most important holidays. During prayers, Muslim leader Aboubakar Sana called for peace and dialogue that will lead to free and fair elections in this West African country. Elections had been scheduled for Oct. 11 before the coup but it is doubtful that date can be met.

Leaders with the Economic Community of West African States suggested a Nov. 22 election date and recommended that allies of former President Blaise Compaore, who was ousted in an uprising last October, be allowed to field candidates. It was members of the presidential guard loyal to Compaore who had mounted the coup, unhappy that the transitional government had barred his supporters from contesting the elections.

Coup leader Gen. Gilbert Diendere expressed his regrets on Wednesday. "My biggest mistake was carrying out this coup," he said. "We have seen what has happened, that the people were not in favor of it. That is why we gave it up."

He said he regretted that lives were lost and time was wasted. At least 10 people were killed and 108 injured during demonstrations against the coup. The U.N. Security Council on Thursday welcomed the reinstatement of Kafando and urged all actors in Burkina Faso to refrain from violence. The council commended ECOWAS and those who exercised restraint, and called for the speedy resumption of the transition including the holding of "free, fair and credible elections."

6 historic moments at the UN General Assembly

September 28, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Khrushchev pounds the table with his shoe. Castro speaks for hours. Gadhafi tears up the U.N. charter. As the United Nations marks its 70th anniversary and world leaders gather in New York on Monday for the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting, here's a look back at six memorable moments from past sessions:


Cuban leader Fidel Castro denounced the United States in the longest timed speech ever at the U.N. General Assembly — 4 hours and 29 minutes — on Sept. 26, 1960. Clad in his trademark green military fatigues, Castro said the revolution he led 20 months earlier had ended the country's status as "a colony of the United States," but the U.S. still believed it had "the right to promote and encourage subversion in our country." In the rambling speech, Castro defended Cuba's links to the Soviet Union, expressed serious concern that America's "imperialist government" might attack Cuba, and called U.S. President John F. Kennedy "an illiterate and ignorant millionaire." Castro also complained of undergoing "degrading and humiliating treatment" in New York, including being evicted from his hotel.


Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev, during a General Assembly debate on colonialism on Oct. 12, 1960, claimed the right to respond to the Philippines representative who was protesting Eastern European states' lack of freedom as Soviet satellites. Khrushchev got to his feet and started pounding the table angrily. He then picked up a shoe that was under the table and banged it several times in indignation. His granddaughter later wrote that he was wearing new shoes that were tight, so he took them off while sitting. She and his interpreter said that when Khrushchev stood up, he pounded the table so hard with his fists that his watch fell off, and when he went to retrieve it, he saw the shoe and switched to banging that instead.


Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, addressed the General Assembly for the first time on Nov. 13, 1974, becoming the first representative of a non-member organization to speak to the world body. He appealed to the U.N. to enable the Palestinians "to establish national independent sovereignty" over their own land. In his most memorable lines, Arafat said: "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." After the speech, the PLO was granted observer status at the United Nations and its right to self-determination was recognized.


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" in a fiery speech to the General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2006, making the sign of the cross in a dramatic gesture and accusing Bush of "talking as if he owned the world." The address by the leftist leader was seen as one of Chavez' boldest moves to lead an alliance of countries opposed to the United States. Referring to Bush's address to the assembly the previous day, Chavez declared: "Yesterday, the devil came here." He also called Bush a "spokesman of imperialism" who was trying "to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world."


Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi swept to the podium of the General Assembly for the first time in 40 years on Sept. 23, 2009, and delivered a rambling speech that lasted 1 hour and 36 minutes — and emptied much of the chamber. Dressed in flowing brown Bedouin robes and a black beret, he chastised the United Nations for failing to prevent dozens of wars, suggested that those who caused "mass murder" in Iraq be tried, and defended the Taliban's right to establish an Islamic emirate. At one point, Gadhafi waved a copy of the U.N. Charter and appeared to tear it, saying he did not recognize the document's authority. Later that day, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the assembly: "I stand here to reaffirm the United Nations Charter, not to tear it up."


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to the General Assembly on Sept. 27, 2012, held up a large, cartoonish diagram of a bomb. The bomb was divided into sections marking 70 percent and 90 percent. Netanyahu said that Iran was 70 percent of the way to enriching uranium for a nuclear weapon and urged the world to draw a clear "red line" and stop the country's nuclear program. He then drew a red line under 90 percent, asserting that the Iranians would be that far along by mid-2013 and must not be allowed to get there. Netanyahu warned that "nothing could imperil the world more than a nuclear-armed Iran" and insisted that "red lines" prevent wars.