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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Turkey urges renewed global efforts to stem refugee wave

September 29, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the international community on Monday to step up efforts to address the refugee crisis which has uprooted thousands from their homes and forced them to flee to surrounding countries and Europe.

Davutoglu, speaking with journalists at the U.N. on Monday, said that the only way to prevent new waves of refugees flowing from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is to stop atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and the Islamic State group and to create safe areas for Syrians within their country.

"The refugee issue was seen by the international community at first as if it's a Syrian issue, later it was seen as a Turkish or neighboring countries' crisis, but now it is clear that the refugee issue is a global crisis, a crisis which we cannot ignore, which we cannot forget."

Of the 1.9 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey, only about 300,000 are in refugee camps, while the vast majority has taken up life in towns and cities along the border. Turkey this year began stopping cargo ships from taking Syrians and others to Italy. The Turkish action drove those migrants to try the shorter but dangerous Aegean Sea crossing to Greece.

Decrying what he sees as the "minimal" engagement of the international community in tackling the issue, he expressed hope that "after this U.N. General Assembly's meetings, there will be more awareness and the international community will be more effective on this matter."

The prime minister laid heavy blame on Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has used barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians.

Amid migrant mobilization, signs Turkey is hardening rules

September 23, 2015

ISTANBUL (AP) — As refugees try to use a land route from Turkey as an alternate way into the European Union, Ankara has begun enforcing long-dormant rules on Syrians' travel, in part over concerns about how the flow is affecting the country's image, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with officials and migrants.

So far the moves appear ad hoc and aimed only at preventing refugees from reaching the Turkish frontier city of Edirne, where hundreds are staging a sit-in near the Greek border. But one academic said it was a sign of a more-determined effort by Turkey to get a handle on the country's massive refugee population.

"In the case of Syrians, this is the first time they are trying to be strict on movement," said Ahmet Icduygu, who directs the Migration Research Center at Istanbul's Koc University. "They're clamping down."

The one-page Interior Ministry document, dated Aug. 29, says officials consider that "Syrians who are trying to go to third countries through our country illegally are posing a threat to public order and public security and are negatively affecting our country's image internationally."

It orders checks on Syrians' documents at the entrance and exit to each province and asks law enforcement to tell transport companies that Syrians are not allowed to leave the provinces where they have registered without permission. The document only refers to Syrians, who constitute the overwhelming majority of Turkey's roughly 2 million refugees.

The effect of the order, whose authenticity was confirmed by two government officials, was that hundreds of Syrians who tried to reach Edirne to join their fellows last week found themselves stuck for days just outside a sprawling bus terminal in Esenler on the European side of Istanbul.

Hundreds of people, most of them Syrian, camped for days in and around a nearby mosque, many sleeping rough behind a cordon of police in riot gear. Most were mystified by the refusal of bus companies to sell them tickets.

"I don't know why they say no, really," Muthana Al-Abdullah, a 22-year-old engineering student from Aleppo, told the AP at Esenler. Three bus company managers at the station confirmed that they had been instructed to refuse tickets to Syrians. On Sunday — when the crowds were leaving — one of the managers said rules had been relaxed again.

Ankara has been extraordinarily generous to people from Syria in the years since civil war broke out there. The number of refugees Turkey hosts far outstrips all neighboring European countries put together and has turned the country into the world's No. 1 host of refugees overall. But even though the Turks have spent some $7.6 billion feeding and housing the influx, many struggle to make ends meet.

"There is no future for my my children here at all," said Mohammed Ali Al-Baya, a 40-year-old cell phone salesman from Aleppo who was among those stuck at the bus station. He and his compatriots say they don't want to risk the dangerous boat trip across the Aegean Sea taken by so many others and had organized with the help of a Facebook group to travel to Edirne and try to walk to Greece en masse and on foot.

That border rush appears to have been a step too far for Turkish officials, who continue to block the refugees who reached Edirne from approaching the border. For Al-Baya and others stuck at the station, it was it the first time they had ever been prevented from traveling within Turkey.

One senior government official said the Interior Ministry document was a reminder of pre-existing rules that bar Syrians from leaving the province they have registered in. He said the aim was to prevent "unauthorized mobilizations" and that Syrians with travel passes could still circulate freely. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be named.

Nazir Hakim, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group with offices in Turkey, said that it was wrong to speak of new restrictions on his fellow Syrians. But he acknowledged that Ankara was reinforcing its existing rules.

"Before, they closed their eyes," he said. "Now, they apply the law."

Key Afghan city falls to Taliban in major government setback

September 29, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban captured the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday in a multi-pronged attack involving hundreds of fighters, the first time the insurgents have seized a major urban area since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The fast-moving assault took military and intelligence agencies by surprise as the insurgents descended on the city, one of Afghanistan's richest and the target of repeated Taliban offensives as the militants spread their fight across the country following the withdrawal last year of U.S. and NATO combat troops.

Within 12 hours of launching the offensive around 3 a.m., the militants had reached the main square, tearing down photographs of President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders and raising the white flag of the Taliban movement, residents reported.

More than 600 prisoners, including 140 Taliban fighters, were released from the city's jail, and many people were trying to reach the airport to flee the city. "Kunduz city has collapsed into the hands of the Taliban," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Associated Press. "Security forces in Kunduz were prepared for an attack, but not one of this size, and not one that was coordinated in 10 different locations at the same time."

The Taliban used social media to claim the "conquest" of Kunduz and reassure residents that the extremist group — responsible for the vast majority of nearly 5,000 civilian casualties in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations — came in peace.

A statement attributed to the group's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the self-styled Islamic emir of Afghanistan, said: "The citizens of Kunduz should not worry about safeguarding their lives and properties. Carry out your ordinary livelihoods in absolute security. All traders, workers, staff of hospitals, municipality and governing bodies should continue their daily routines without any fear or intimidation."

The Taliban have a history of brutality toward those they regard as apostates, and have banned girls from school as well as music, movies and other trappings of modern life in areas under their control.

The fall of Kunduz marks a major setback for government forces, who have struggled to combat the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO shifted to a supporting role at the end of last year. The city is a strategic prize for the Taliban and its capture, however short-lived, is sure to be used as a propaganda victory. This year's fight has severely tested Afghan forces, who lack air power and must rely on the United States for selective airstrikes, and suffer huge casualties and low morale. Nevertheless, they have largely held their ground in the face of a Taliban strategy clearly aimed at forcing them to spread resources ever-thinly across the country.

Sediqqi said military reinforcements were being sent to Kunduz, where government forces managed to fend off a major Taliban assault in April, the start of the insurgents' annual summer offensive. "We are trying our best to clear the city as soon as possible," he said.

Kunduz has been regularly targeted by the Taliban, who have allied with other insurgents, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and militants driven into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan by an assault on their hideouts near the porous border.

Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the deputy chief of army staff, said Monday's attack involved a large number of Taliban drawn from across the north and included foreign fighters, likely Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members with an eye on the Central Asian states to Afghanistan's north.

"Strategic areas, including the airport, are controlled by Afghan security forces," he said. "Reinforcements have already arrived and attacks on the insurgent positions will be launched soon," he added, without elaborating.

Sediqqi said the target of the Taliban assault was the city's main prison and police headquarters. Earlier, deputy presidential spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, had called the situation "fluid," saying Ghani was "in constant contact with the security and defense leadership to provide them with guidance."

"Our first priority is the safety and security of residents," he said. Analyst Faheem Dashty said Afghan security and intelligence agencies had been "caught by surprise" in what appeared to be a "big failure" of security and intelligence.

"They were expecting a big attack but couldn't defend the city," he said. Authorities were similarly blind-sided by the April attack and subsequent massing of fighters across the northern provinces, raising questions about the adequacy of the government's security and defense agencies.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an ongoing military operation, said the U.S. military was aware the Taliban had taken control of a hospital and a number of government buildings in the city, and that both sides — the Taliban and government forces — had sustained a significant number of casualties.

Early indications were that the Afghan forces were in position to push back the attackers and regain control of the city, although the outcome was still in doubt, said the official, speaking earlier Monday before the government announced the fall of the city.

The Kunduz assault highlights the resilience of the Taliban following the revelation earlier this year that their reclusive longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died two years ago. A bitter internal dispute over the appointment of Mansoor has yet to be fully resolved, but seems to have had little impact on the battlefield.

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

Taliban insurgents raid Afghan prison and free inmates

September 14, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — More than 350 inmates escaped an Afghan prison following a coordinated attack by Taliban insurgents, an Afghan official and the Taliban said.

Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, deputy governor of Ghazni province, said Monday that insurgents wearing military uniforms launched a well-organized attack early Monday morning that included using a suicide bomber to breach the compound's walls. Four guards were killed and seven others were wounded, while three insurgents were also killed, Ahmadi said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on the Ghazni prison in an email sent to the media. A total of 355 prisoners escaped, the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement, and only 82 prisoners remain in custody in the prison.

However Ahmadi added that 20 of the prison's most dangerous inmates had been transferred to another facility a day earlier after a fight broke out. Officials in Ghazni said that there were attacks by the Taliban in at least 10 different parts of the city overnight.

"There was an organized attack around 2:00 a.m. on the Ghazni prison, to make their plan successful the enemy at the same time launched attacks in different locations of the city as well," Ahmadi said, adding that the suicide car bomber breached the jail's entrance gates while security forces were busy defending other parts of the city.

"At least 148 of the escaped inmates are considered to be a serious threat to national security," the Interior Ministry statement said, adding that three of the escaped prisoners have been recaptured so far.

Syrian refugees see European dream evaporate in new home

September 18, 2015

CHEMNITZ, Germany (AP) — It was pitch-dark by the time the Syrian refugee family arrived in the eastern German town that was to be their new home. As they prepared to get off the train, a drunken skinhead stumbled past with a glare that made 11-year-old Raghad huddle closer to her mom.

The five members of the Habashieh family took a taxi to the asylum center assigned to them by a computer in Berlin. It was a former army barracks used by the Soviets and by the Nazis before them, surrounded by towering fences topped with barbed wire.

That's when Raghad lost it and began to cry. "I'm scared, I hate this," she burst out, staring at the forbidding gates. For the Habashiehs — mother Khawla Kareem, 19-year-old daughter Reem, sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15, and little Raghad — it was the end of a draining day, the latest in a string of draining days in a terrifying journey to a new life. It has taken them from bombed-out Damascus; over the choppy Mediterranean on a rubber dinghy; across the Balkans at the mercy of human traffickers; and finally through Austria by minibus and into the promised land of Germany.

Beyond the gates, young migrant men lined up in the gloom, dimly illuminated by floodlights, waiting to get plastic bags stuffed with rolls and wrapped cheese, a late dinner. A police officer with a gun in his belt stood nearby, surveying the scene.

The sinister barracks, in a depressed part of Germany that's a far cry from the vibrancy of Berlin, gave the Habashiehs their first inkling that the land of dreams may not be all that they had hoped for.

The latest leg of the Habashiehs' odyssey began in the afternoon in the German capital. Having received their papers — stamped with passport photos — a new address and train tickets, they boarded a red double-decker train Wednesday that wound its way south to Chemnitz, through endless pine tree forests, past green lawns and countless wind turbines with red lights blinking into the gathering gloom.

Inside the train, the Habashiehs sat together in a compartment with their three huge black suitcases, plastic bags stuffed with shoes, winter coats and toys, as well as two umbrellas — all the new belongings they have amassed since arrival in Germany.

After two weeks in Berlin, the family was being uprooted again and heading back into the unknown. Unlike Berlin, with its immigrant neighborhoods, dozens of mosques and Arabic and Turkish stores dotted over the city, Chemnitz — known as Karl-Marx-Stadt during Communist times — has only three mosques and fewer than 500 Syrians among the city's 14,000 foreign inhabitants.

The family wondered what it was getting into.

"I heard from people that the place where we are going to in eastern Germany is not good," Khawla Kareem said, "and the people there do not accept foreigners."

Wearing a black headscarf adorned with yellow flower patterns, the elementary school teacher said she was having second thoughts about whether it was the right decision to flee with her children to Germany. Her husband died three years ago, so it's up to her to make all the decisions. Deep down, she knows that the ongoing war back home in Syria made life too dangerous there.

As unfamiliar landscapes sped by, Raghad practiced some of the German words she has picked up so far. Her mother mumbled a Muslim phrase at sunset, breaking fast with orange juice and some cold left-over French fries. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was one week away, and Khawla Kareem was fasting from dawn until dusk as some believers do in the ten days before the feast.

In the past, before Syria was ravaged by a brutal civil war, the family would sometimes slaughter a sheep for the holiday, according to tradition, but this year they probably won't be celebrating. After all, they don't even know where they will be sleeping a week from now.

When she found out her family had to leave Berlin for eastern Germany, Khawla Kareem was so worried that she considered tearing apart their papers and filing a new asylum application, in hopes of getting relocated to a better place.

"But then I was telling myself that I don't want to do anything illegal, that this is our fate, that we will persevere until residence will be granted," she said. "And then I can pick the best place for my children also for schools and to go to universities."

While the majority of Germans have been giving the recent floods of refugees a warm welcome, a vocal minority has been staging violent protests in front of asylum homes, especially in eastern Germany. Earlier this year, Saxony's capital of Dresden for months saw weekly rallies by tens of thousands of people protesting the perceived Islamization of the West.

Overall, Germany expects as many as a million refugees by the end of this year, with hundreds of thousands coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

While several other European countries have been trying to seal off their borders to keep out the migrants, Germany has surprised the world with its welcoming attitude toward refugees. However, the sheer volume of people — with thousands crossing the southern border into Germany every day — has cities and communities on the edge and struggling to find accommodation for the newcomers. In September alone, Germany expects more than 100,000 asylum-seekers.

Another grim surprise awaited the exhausted Habashieh family at the asylum center.

When Khawla Kareem handed their papers to a guard, he ushered them into the compound through a revolving door. There, another guard told them through gestures that the center was full, and they had to be relocated again. None of the officials spoke much English or Arabic, so they couldn't find out where they were being sent.

The family sat on the lawn in front of two white tents with all of their belongings, until six in the morning. Finally, a bus picked them up and drove them about an hour away, to a cavernous hall filled with hundreds of asylum seekers.

Inside, black cots had been set up behind white sheets, a hopeless effort to grant some privacy.

Nobody told them where in Germany they were. It was only with the help of the GPS on her smartphone that Reem, the oldest daughter, finally found out they were somewhere on the outskirts of Dresden.

They still don't know how long they will have to stay there.

"We have no idea what will happen next," Reem said. "It's a nightmare."

President Abbas raises Palestinian flag for first time at UN

October 01, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised the Palestinian flag at the United Nations for the first time on Wednesday with a promise that it will be raised soon in Jerusalem, "the capital of our Palestinian state."

More than 300 ministers, diplomats and well-wishers who crowded into the rose garden at U.N. headquarters where a temporary flagpole had been erected for the ceremony applauded his words. Among them were the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran and ambassadors from many countries including France. The United States, which does not recognize the state of Palestine, did not send a representative, the U.S. Mission said.

Abbas told the crowd it was an historic moment on the road to Palestinian independence. Palestine was designated as a non-member observer state at the United Nations in November 2012 and Palestinian statehood also has been recognized by many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As the black, white, green and red flag went up the flagpole, cheers and shouts of "Peace! Peace! Palestine!" erupted. The Palestinians campaigned for a General Assembly resolution that was overwhelmingly approved on Sept. 10 allowing U.N. observer states to fly their flags alongside those of the 193 U.N. member states. The Holy See and Palestine are the only two non-member U.N. observer states.

In contrast to the Palestinians, the Holy See flag was raised outside U.N. headquarters alongside flags of the 193 U.N. member states without fanfare or ceremony just before Pope Francis arrived last Friday to address the General Assembly. The permanent flagpole for the Palestinian flag is already in place beside it.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Wednesday a day of "pride" and "hope" for Palestinians around the world. He urged the Palestinians to pursue their long-held dream for their own state by first uniting Gaza and the West Bank, and he urged Israel and the Palestinians to revive negotiations that collapsed last year and conclude "a successful peace process."

That will lead to the unfurling of the Palestinian flag "in its proper place — among the family of nations as a sovereign member state of the United Nations," Ban said.

Palestinians clash with Israeli riot police at holy site

September 28, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians clashed with Israeli riot police after barricading themselves in a mosque at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, throwing firebombs and rocks at officers outside during a major Jewish holiday on Monday.

The hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two biblical Jewish temples. Muslims revere it as the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Police said young protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque at the site, despite an order permitting only men over the age of 50 from entering the compound for prayers. Israel has imposed the ban at times of unrest in the past as it is mostly young Palestinians who throw rocks at the holy site. Women of all ages are allowed to enter.

Spokeswoman Luba Samri said Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other projectiles at the Al-Aqsa mosque overnight. She said police had tried to negotiate with the Waqf — the Islamic religious authority that oversees the compound — to call for calm, but talks failed and police entered the compound to seize the "dangerous devices intended to harm visitors to the site and police and endanger their lives."

Palestinians threw rocks, firebombs and firecrackers from within the mosque at police, Samri said, adding that the fire bombs sparked a fire at the entrance to the mosque. Waqf guards didn't prevent the "desecration of the sanctity of the place," she said.

Officers later managed to restore calm but sporadic Palestinian stone throwing persisted throughout the morning, she said. It was the second day in a row of violence at the site. Monday's unrest occurred on the first day of Sukkot, a weeklong festival that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following the exodus from Egypt.

In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on Sukkot, and many Jews are expected to visit the city throughout the holiday period, raising the risk of further unrest. Rumors have swirled among Palestinians that Jews are planning to take over the holy site, which has fueled tensions. Those rumors were exacerbated earlier this month by calls from a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

Palestinians say in the last two months there has been a new development where Israel has intermittently restricted some Muslims from the compound when Jews visit. Israel says this is to reduce friction, but Palestinians claim that Israel intends to establish Muslim-free Jewish visiting hours, which they fear could upset the fragile arrangement in place.

Israel insists it will not allow the delicate status quo governing the site to be changed. But its actions have drawn criticism from Jordan, with whom it has a peace treaty, and other Arab countries. And the site is so sensitive that even rumors are enough to trigger unrest. Israel has also blamed Palestinian leaders for inciting the unrest.

Non-Muslim visitors are only allowed to enter the site at specific hours and are banned by police from praying there. However many Muslims view these visits as a provocation and accuse Jewish extremists of a plot to take over the site.

The hilltop compound is so holy for Jews that they traditionally have refrained from praying there, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall. Israel's chief rabbis, as well as the rabbi of the Western Wall, have issued directives urging people not to ascend the Temple Mount — arguing that Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.

But there is a movement advocating the rights for Jews to pray at the hilltop. Some try and get around the ban on prayers by secretly mumbling the words. The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, a small group that seeks the construction of a new Jewish temple on the site, has called for a march to the compound on Wednesday — Israeli police have promised to prevent them from getting close to the site.

There were several days of clashes about two weeks ago, Muslim protesters barricaded themselves inside the mosque while hurling stones and fireworks at police. The unrest spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, where Palestinian protesters hurled stones at police and Israeli cars.

An Israeli died when Palestinians pelted his car with rocks and several others were injured in other incidents. Dozens of Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces in violence that followed the Jerusalem unrest then.

Israel responded last week by approving harsher measures that would loosen the rules of engagement for police to respond to stone throwers.

Lebanon to enroll 100,000 new Syrian students-refugees

September 21, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese government is launching a campaign to register 100,000 new students from among the Syrian refugee population in its already overwhelmed public schools.

The figure is double the number of refugees who were able to enroll last year. Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said Monday this will give more refugee children a chance at free education. But he cautioned that nearly the same number of Syrian refugee children are still out of schools.

He says that if more refugee children enroll in schools, this may stem the flow of migrants from the region to Europe. Lebanon is struggling with at least 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees who fled their country's civil war, now in its fifth year.

Bou Saab says Syrians could soon outnumber Lebanese in public schools.

Pilgrims traumatized, asking how Mecca crane could collapse

September 14, 2015

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Jumaa Ibrahim and his wife Hasnaa Karam, a Syrian couple in their early 60s, arrived in Mecca on Friday, and headed straight to Islam's holiest site, the cube-shaped Kaaba.

It had begun to rain in the ancient desert city. Karam, who had waited a lifetime to make the pilgrimage to stand before the Kaaba, stood with her palms facing toward the sky in prayer. Ibrahim stood a few feet to her side, quietly reading verses from the Quran.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoed. Karam found herself surrounded by carnage — body parts were scattered everywhere amid pools of blood on the white marble floor of the mosque. The kingdom's Civil Defense says unusually strong winds tipped over one of the massive cranes around the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba. The crane crashed through part of the mosque's roof and upper floors, sending concrete slabs crashing down.

"I saw a head, legs, blood, dead people," Karam said Sunday, interviewed at her husband's bedside in Mecca's Al-Noor Specialist Hospital. "We started saying 'Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar' as the rain poured down."

She escaped injury, but her husband was among the hundreds injured, his leg broken in two parts. The death toll reached 111 on Sunday as more of the injured died. The Health Ministry on Sunday said 394 people were treated at medical facilities after the crane collapse, and 158 of the injured remain hospitalized.

Ayman Shaaban, the owner of a hajj tour company in Egypt, was praying on the ground floor of the Grand Mosque when the crane collapsed. He says he was tossed some 20 meters (66 feet). He was immediately rushed into a large room with other injured people, the right side of his face broken, bloodied and swollen, unable to open his left eye.

Saudi media reported that a committee has been established to investigate the incident. It is unclear how the kingdom's Civil Defense, which led rescue operations, was able to determine that winds caused the crane's collapse. The spokesman for Civil Defense could not be immediately reached for comment.

Shaaban has questions about the cause of the accident. "Logically speaking, for a crane to fall from wind, even if there were strong winds, something doesn't add up," Shaaban said from his hospital bed. "If there is negligence, because of these souls lost, someone must be held accountable."

Such concerns indicate the sensitivity of the incident for Saudi King Salman, whose title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the first mosque built by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. The king visited the Grand Mosque on Saturday and later met with some of the injured being treated at the government-run Al-Noor hospital.

The Al Saud royal family's legitimacy is rooted in part in its claim to be the protectors of Islam's two most sacred sites that are at the center of the hajj — the pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lifetime if they are able to do so.

The accident comes just over a week before this year's hajj, which is expected to start around Sept. 21 and last four to five days. It will draw between 2 to 3 million Muslims from around the world for a series of rites in Mecca and surrounding areas that are believed to trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

Officials have not yet removed the crane. An Associated Press journalist saw the Liebherr crane on Sunday, its base tipped forward and its superstructure leaning into the mosque where it struck. The Liebherr Group, a large equipment manufacturer, makes many of its cranes at a plant in Biberach an der Riss, Germany, and has its global headquarters in Switzerland.

Liebherr spokesman Kristian Kueppers said in an email to The Associated Press that the company is doing everything in its power "to help bring the accident investigation to a speedy and logical conclusion." The company said it had issued clear instructions on how the crane was to be installed and secured to protect it from winds. The company also expressed its deep sympathy for the families of the victims.

Over the years, the Grand Mosque has undergone several expansions to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims, but in the last decade, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever. Historic sites significant for Islam have been demolished to make way for hotels, causing an outcry among some Muslims. Saudi officials say the overhaul is needed as the number of pilgrims during hajj is projected to reach 7 million by 2040.

The current $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba. The Grand Mosque is now surrounded by dozens of cranes, part of the massive construction effort headed by the Saudi Binladin Group. The Binladin family has been close to Saudi Arabia's ruling family for decades and runs major building projects around the country. Al-Qaida's late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son disowned by the family in the 1990s.

The Binladin Group has not released any statements to the press about the crane collapse and its representatives have not been made available for comment. The company's chairman or a top representative is likely a member of the investigating committee, according to several Saudis familiar with the process.

On Sunday, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais, also visited the injured. Flanked by a team of assistants, he gave patients bags that included a copy of the Quran, a vial of traditional Arab fragrance called oud, and bottles of water from the sacred underground Zamzam well in Mecca believed to have healing properties.

He told patients that that there was great reward for them in being at the Kaaba, just before the hajj. "This is God's will," he told each patient as he passed by their bed. "The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, may God protect him, is very concerned with your well-being."

Dr. Salem Bajuifer, medical director at Al-Noor,, said his team received around 120 patients, many of them with serious injuries requiring amputations. The injured at the hospital come from a range of countries, including Germany, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

The Indian mission in Saudi Arabia says two of its citizens were killed. The Saudi government has not released details about the nationalities or ages of the dead since many are still being identified. Several children are believed to have died.

"It is a big trauma," Bajuifer said when asked about the emotional toll on patients and their relatives. "Of course everybody is traumatized, not only the patients. Even we are traumatized." Karam, whose husband has been in and out of surgery for his leg, says she's too traumatized to think about what comes next. She fled barrel bombs and the civil war in Syria to live in Turkey, never expecting to be so close to death at Islam's most sacred site.

"I am still feeling terrified," she said, as she broke into tears.

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Saudis: 107 dead in crane collapse at Mecca's Grand Mosque

September 12, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A towering construction crane toppled over on Friday during a violent rainstorm in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam's holiest site, crashing into the Grand Mosque and killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage later this month.

Images posted by social media users showed a grisly scene, with police and onlookers attending to numerous bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors. Saudi Arabia's civil defense authority provided a series of rising casualty numbers on its official Twitter account as ambulances whisked the wounded to area hospitals. As of early Saturday, it said those injured in the disaster numbered 238.

A photo released by the authority showed police and workers in hardhats inspecting a pile of collapsed concrete slabs inside a part of the sprawling, ornately decorated mosque. Another showed the base of the toppled red-and-white crane tilted upward at a sharp angle.

Images aired on Saudi state television showed the crane's metal boom smashed through what appeared to be the roof of the mosque. Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of the Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the accident happened late Friday afternoon during a severe storm carrying strong winds and heavy rain.

Authorities did not provide details on the victims' nationalities, but it was likely that the tragedy will touch several countries. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences and said the U.S. stands with Saudi Arabia and "all Muslims around the world in the aftermath of this dreadful incident at one of Islam's holiest sites."

The Grand Mosque and the cube-shaped Kaaba within it draw Muslims of all types from around the world throughout the year, though numbers increase significantly in the run-up to the hajj. The mosque is Islam's holiest site to which Muslims face in daily prayers and a central site among the hajj rituals.

Performing the pilgrimage once during one's lifetime is a duty for all able-bodied adult Muslims. This year's pilgrimage is expected to start around Sept. 22. Al-Mansouri said the crane, which was being used in construction work at the mosque, struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.

Pan-satellite Al-Jazeera Television broadcast footage from inside the mosque compound said to be from the aftermath of the accident, showing the floor strewn with rubble and what appear to be pools of blood.

Another video, on a Twitter posting, captured the apparent moment of the red-and-white crane's collapse during a heavy rainstorm, with a loud boom, screams and confusion. The governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, quickly called for the formation of a committee to investigate the cause of the accident. He directed all appropriate authorities to provide support for all of those injured, according to a statement from Mecca principality public affairs head Sultan al-Dosari that was carried on SPA.

Other Saudi officials could not immediately be reached or referred queries to the civil defense statements. Several cranes surround the mosque to support an ongoing expansion and other construction work that has transformed the area around the sanctuary.

Steep hills and low-rise traditional buildings that once surrounded the mosque have in recent years given way to shopping malls and luxury hotels — among them the world's third-tallest building, a giant clock tower that is the centerpiece of the Abraj al-Bait complex.

The construction giant Saudi Binladin Group is leading the mosque expansion and also built the Abraj al-Bait project. The Binladin family has been close to the ruling Al Saud family for decades and oversees major building projects around the country. The Binladen family disowned one of its many members, late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s.

It was not immediately clear who owned the crane that collapsed. During the week of the hajj, Muslims converge on Mecca to perform a series of rituals, including the circling of the cube-shaped Kaaba, praying and holding vigil at Mount Arafat and perform the symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles at the three pillars in Mina.

Prayers on and around the mount are a climactic emotional and spiritual moment in the hajj. The faithful believe that on that day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins are forgiven.

All male pilgrims, regardless of wealth or status, wear seamless terry white cloths to symbolize equality before God during the hajj. Women cover their hair and wear long loose clothing, forgoing makeup and other adornments to help them detach from worldly pleasures and outward appearances.

It was on Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, where Islam's Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.

While following a route that the prophet once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The millions of pilgrims who visit the country's holy sites each year pose a considerable security and logistical challenge for the Saudi government, and large-scale deadly accidents have occurred on a number of occasions in years past.

In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Mecca. A crush of pilgrims two years earlier left 244 dead. The worst hajj-related tragedy was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Katarina Kratovac in Cairo contributed to this report.

Spain leader: Separatist Catalan campaign causes uncertainty

September 13, 2015

MADRID (AP) — Spain's leader has criticized Catalonia's pro-independence president two days after campaigning began for regional elections that could decide if the wealthy northeastern region secedes or remains part of the kingdom.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalan president Artur Mas was creating uncertainty by effectively turning the Sept. 27 regional parliamentary election into a for-or-against independence ballot. At a rally in the Catalan city of Lleida on Sunday, Rajoy said Mas "had divided Catalan society, families and workmates."

He said it was "a very large irresponsibility" to cause political and economic uncertainty just as "Spanish and Catalan society is making efforts to emerge from a financial crisis." Separatist parties need to win at least 68 seats in the 135-member Catalan parliament to claim legitimacy.

Polish army checks site of alleged tunnel with Nazi train

September 29, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Polish military on Monday deployed chemical, radiation and explosives experts to a site in southwestern Poland where a Nazi train allegedly missing since World War II could be located.

Tomasz Smolarz, the governor of Lower Silesia, said the aim of the work in the town of Walbrzych is to exclude any danger for residents. He said the experts will continue their technical checks through Saturday.

The military's efforts come after two explorers claimed to have found a Nazi train trapped in a tunnel that they say could contain both armaments and precious minerals. The explorers' claim awaits confirmation, but it has sparked hopes it could be a Nazi train laden with treasure that local legend says went missing at the end of World War II. The train was reportedly booby-trapped with weapons.

During the war, Walbrzych was still part of Germany. Called Waldenburg, it was in an area where Adolf Hitler was building a system of secret underground tunnels. The legend says the so-called "gold train" entered one of the tunnels while fleeing the advancing Soviet army in 1945 and was never seen again.

Though there's no evidence the train even existed, news of the possible discovery has sparked global fascination in the case and a local gold rush. The two explorers, a German and a Pole, say they used ground-penetrating radar to locate the train. The men want a reward of 10 percent of the value of the train's contents.

But it's not clear how things will turn out, even if a train is found. Last week prosecutors said they were investigating whether the men committed a crime by conducting a search with radar equipment without official permission.

Excavator: Ancient grave in Greece honored Alexander's pal

October 01, 2015

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — An opulent underground monument in northern Greece that caused a stir when excavated last year may have been a symbolic grave — but not the final resting place of — the closest friend and general of ancient warrior-king Alexander the Great, the excavator claimed Wednesday.

Archaeologist Katerina Peristeri said she believes the vaulted structure, decorated with sculptures and a mosaic floor, "was a funerary monument for Hephaestion." The Macedonian nobleman grew up with Alexander and died in Persia in 324 B.C., predeceasing the king by less than a year and driving him into a frenzy of grief during which he ordered a series of monuments to be built for Hephaestion across his newly-won empire.

But Peristeri said there was no evidence Hephaestion was actually buried at the tomb in Amhipolis, east of Thessaloniki, whose excavation grabbed headlines, provoking speculation that it might belong to Alexander himself, who lived from 356-323 B.C.

Another archaeologist however, who was not involved in the excavation, rejected her identification as "totally unfounded." Panayiotis Faklaris, associate professor at the University of Thessaloniki, told the Associated Press the tomb more likely belonged to some prominent ancient citizen of Amphipolis.

"There is no historic or scientific basis" for what Peristeri claimed, he said. "Hephaestion had no connection with Amphipolis." The discovery caused controversy from the outset. Other experts criticized Peristeri for digging too fast and creating unjustified expectations that the tomb was unplundered.

The monument contained twin marble statues of sphinxes and young women, had a painted frieze — parts of which survive — and, according to Peristeri, was topped with a large marble lion now standing a few kilometers away.

Peristeri has offered no explanation of one of the find's strangest features — that it sheltered at least five skeletons, including an elderly woman and a baby. She argued Wednesday that fragmentary inscriptions link the monument with Hephaestion, and said an Alexander-era coin found in the monument — which she thinks was filled with earth generations later to protect it from vandals — confirms it was built in 325-300 B.C.

Alexander led an army of Greeks to conquer a vast empire stretching as far as modern Pakistan. Ancient writers say he considered Hephaestion to be his alter ego, making him the second most powerful man in the empire.

When Hephaestion died, Alexander is recorded to have granted him hero's rites, declared mourning throughout the empire and had him cremated in Babylon at enormous expense.

Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.

German states lower housing standards amid migrant influx

September 29, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — Refugees coming to Germany can expect a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. But with authorities struggling to find housing for tens of thousands of people each month, many new arrivals will find their lodgings a squeeze.

Smaller, in fact, than what's permitted for a German shepherd dog. An Associated Press survey has found that several of Germany's 16 states have waived the usual rules expected of communal housing. As a result, migrants in some parts of Germany are finding themselves living in cramped conditions that rights groups say are unfit for human habitation.

"The situation is becoming dramatic," said Karl Kopp, an expert on refugee policy with the campaign group Pro Asyl. "If we put people up in undignified conditions then this will have long-term consequences for their health and their ability to integrate in the country."

On Sunday 14 people — including three police officers — were injured when a mass brawl involving hundreds of refugees broke out at a reception center in Calden, near Kassel. The site is a tent city originally designed for 1,000 people but now housing 1,500.

"Improvised, often catastrophically overcrowded emergency shelters offer residents no privacy or place to retreat," Pro Asyl said following the incident. "Every trip to the canteen, to the toilets or the showers becomes a patience test in these mass shelters."

The warning came as the German government agreed on measures Tuesday aimed at helping authorities cope with this year's surge in migrants. According to Bavaria's governor, 169,400 migrants have arrived in the southeastern German state since the beginning of September. Horst Seehofer said 10,000 people arrived on Monday alone, dpa reported.

Critics say that most of the new measures are focused on deterring people from coming to Germany and speeding up deportations, rather than providing immediate relief to ease overcrowding in refugee shelters.

Of the 14 states that responded to an AP questionnaire on housing standards, at least three - including Bavaria- have lowered their requirements for shelters, including for the minimum amount of space available to each refugee. Six states had no minimum requirements, while two required that refugees have at least 7 square meters (75.4 square feet) of space each.

By comparison, animal protection laws stipulate that medium-sized dogs get at least 8 square meters (86.1 square feet) of kennel space. Campaigners and refugees have also noted the lack of sufficient bathrooms, the absence of room locks, and the remote location of some shelters that make it hard for residents to come into contact with Germans.

"You can see what the situation is like," said Gabriel Hesse, a spokesman for the ministry of work and social affairs in Brandenburg, one state that recently suspended its minimum housing standards. "We'll see how things develop, but in the coming months they aren't going to get better."

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere dismissed concerns, saying Friday that "we can't offer any luxury and we don't want to offer any luxury." "Of course a gym with hundreds of people in it isn't nice, but it's better than no roof over the head," he said. "I think Germany doesn't have to be ashamed about the standards it offers refugees."

Rights groups have been particularly critical of a new measure that extends the amount of time asylum seekers can be housed in reception centers from three to six months. "There simply isn't enough time for these standards. Last week alone we opened five emergency accommodations," said Monika Hebbinghaus, a spokeswoman for Berlin's social affairs department. She noted that authorities are struggling to find enough staff for the many shelters they are opening.

One state, Thuringia, recently took steps to prevent unrest between different ethnic groups. It now attempts to house migrants separately by country of origin. Women and children are particularly vulnerable in cramped accommodation.

Meanwhile, there are growing calls from within Chancellor Angela Merkel's party to make it clear that Germany can't take in unlimited numbers of refugees. German President Joachim Gauck, who has no party affiliation, struck a similar note at the weekend: "We want to help. We have a big heart. But our possibilities are finite."

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

EU operation ready to go after migrant smugglers on Med

September 28, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Monday announced that it will be able to go after suspected migrant trafficking and smuggling vessels in the international waters of the Mediterranean as of next week.

Monday's EU statement said Operation Sophia will allow naval personnel of EU nations "to board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking on the high seas, in line with international law" as of Oct. 7.

In reaction to the tens of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean and the thousands of lives lost, the EU set up an operation that initially centered on saving those drifting on the high seas and would later also include directly targeting smuggling and trafficking operations.

The operation had been launched in June and since it reached operational capability on July 27, it has saved 2,186 people from drowning. EU member states now committed enough ships, helicopters and other military equipment to start the active phase of the counter-smuggling operation.

"Today's decision takes the EU naval operation from its intelligence-gathering phase to its operational and active phase against human smugglers on the high seas," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.

EU officials also agreed to rename the EUNAVFOR Med operation "Sophia" after a baby born on a rescue ship this summer off the Libyan coast. As part of the rescue operation, four ships are deployed at the moment and 1,318 people are working on the action involving 22 of the member states. It wasn't immediately clear by how many ships and personnel the enlarged mission, which includes counter-trafficking action, would be expanded.

After the crisis centered on the central Mediterranean during the spring and early summer, action has spread to the east through the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean. The EU says however that the central route remains by far the most deadly with an estimated 2.2 percent of deaths compared to 0.06 percent on the other route.

UK's new Labor leader fires up faithful in 1st speech

September 29, 2015

LONDON (AP) — He smiled, he poked fun at himself, he wore a tie and even told a few jokes.

Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn used his first conference speech — a nationally televised event Tuesday — to try to soften his image as a radical left-winger who will dash the party's electoral hopes by bringing back discredited policies from the past.

The unconventional 66-year-old leader did differentiate himself from Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives by criticizing the government's austerity program as unneeded and unfair to working people.

"Our Labor Party says no," Corbyn said, rejecting what he characterized as Cameron's contention that there is no alternative but to further cut public services, including education and the much-beloved National Health Service.

Corbyn said globalization has been used as a way to justify keeping wages for workers throughout the world low while the leaders of global companies made vast amounts of money. And he repudiated the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was launched with the strong backing and participation of Labor's own Tony Blair, who was prime minister at the time.

"It didn't help our national security when we went to war with Iraq in defiance of the United Nations and on a false prospectus," he said. Corbyn, who had offended some by declining to sing the national anthem at a recent memorial service, emphasized his patriotism, proclaiming his love of Britain and British values.

And he took a few jabs at the unrelenting hostility he has raced from some in British's rambunctious tabloid press, pointing out that one paper had gone so far as to say Corbyn was welcoming the possibility that mankind would be wiped out by an approaching asteroid.

Red Cross: Wounded trapped in C. African Republic capital

October 01, 2015

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Aid officials pleaded for access to the neighborhoods of Central African Republic's treacherous capital on Wednesday, saying that sectarian clashes between rivaling Christian and Muslim militias make it too dangerous to help the wounded and to recover bodies.

Underscoring the chaotic security situation, the U.N. reported that two of its peacekeepers had been severely wounded. The violence marked the second attack of its kind Wednesday as the U.N. forces worked to take down roadblocks that had been put up by militants, said Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General.

At least 42 deaths have been confirmed in Bangui since sectarian clashes erupted on Saturday, including a teenage boy who was decapitated. However, the head of the national Red Cross told The Associated Press that death toll is far from complete as its workers have not been able to get into some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

"I'm calling on people to let the Red Cross circulate and do their humanitarian work because the organization is impartial, neutral and non-political," Antoine Mbao-Bogo said. "As of yesterday there were still many barriers and tensions were high, but people should know we are here for them."

The Red Cross' difficulties highlight how quickly and severely the situation has deteriorated in Central African Republic, which has undergone waves of deadly sectarian fighting since Muslim rebels in early 2013 overthrew the president of a decade. In that violence by Muslim and Christian fighters, untold thousands of civilians were killed, and tens of thousands of Muslims fled the country for their lives. Even convoys of Muslims trying to reach neighboring Chad were frequently fired upon by militants, killing would-be refugees.

A measure of stability was achieved in mid-2014 with the arrival of a U.N. peacekeeping force and the forced migration of most of Bangui's Muslim civilian population. The establishment of a transitional government, headed by President Catherine Samba-Panza, who was charged with leading the country to elections on Oct. 18.

But the slaying last week of a Muslim man whose body was left near a mosque in Bangui re-ignited violence between Muslim and Christian militias in the capital. Samba-Panza rushed home from the U.N. General Assembly in New York because of the violence and the latest fighting is expected to derail plans for the upcoming elections. The violence also has raised doubts about Pope Francis will maintain his scheduled visit to Bangui in late November.

Foreign Minister Samuel Rangba told the General Assembly that Bangui has seen a "horrendous spike" in displaced people, with more than 30,000 now. Many of the people are returning to a squalid refugee camp at the airport that authorities have been trying to dismantle.

Rangba called on the U.N. Security Council to consider lifting restrictions on the training and equipping of his country's military, and he asked for a stronger mandate for the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The concerns about safe access to Bangui's neighborhoods have been echoed by Doctors Without Borders, which said wounded people had been arriving in many cases on foot. The group's ambulances also have been unable to circulate as the capital had become too dangerous.

"Given the situation around town, the number of wounded reaching our medical teams seems strangely low," said Emmanuel Lampaert, the group's head of mission in CAR. "Unfortunately, we think right now many people have no way to reach the emergency medical care they need. They cannot safely move to health facilities, and we cannot move out to reach them."

Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed.

Burkina Faso army attacks, takes over coup plotter barracks

September 30, 2015

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Burkina Faso's army took over the barracks of the presidential guard that carried out a short-lived coup this month, barraging them with gunfire Tuesday after they refused to disarm, the government said.

The government confirmed the takeover on national TV, saying they liberated all of the places formerly occupied by the presidential guard. "Given the situation which has become intolerable for our people, and determined to turn this dark page in our history, our patriotic defense and security forces took responsibility with success," it said.

The government did not immediately give a casualty toll. Burkina Faso's army appeared to have prepared for the offensive all day, earlier surrounding the barracks, and the nearby presidential palace and national radio in the capital, Ouagadougou. Artillery was fired at the barracks of the elite presidential guard before they took control, said army spokesman Capt. Guy Herve Ye.

Gen. Gilbert Diendere, who led the coup earlier this month but handed power back last week, called on his followers to lay down arms. "I call on all the elements to lower their arms and to rejoin the ranks of the army to avoid unnecessary bloodshed," Diendere said in an interview with local Radio Omega after the army attacked.

The elite presidential guard staged the coup because it was unhappy that supporters of former President Blaise Compaore, ousted in a popular uprising in October, couldn't run in elections. The presidential guard arrested interim President Michel Kafando and interim Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida on Sept. 16. Diendere later took power, but stepped down after pressure from the West African regional bloc, Burkina Faso's military and demonstrating citizens. Kafando and Zida were reinstalled on Sept. 23.

Under a peace deal brokered last week, members of the presidential guard are supposed to disarm. Diendere told the radio station that some 100 soldiers, a captain and an interim leader had left the presidential guard and accepted disarmament. But the presidential guard, which initially had around 1,300 members, said Tuesday that it will not give up its weapons under "shameful and violent" conditions.

"Any attempt of aggression against our regiment will result in a clear, clean and decisive response as always," the presidential guard said. In another show of force, the army arrested Djibril Bassole, a former high-ranking minister accused of collaborating with the mutinous soldiers, said Ye.

He is accused of supporting Diendere. The two are also accused of seeking help from foreign forces. Bassole has denied the allegations, calling it a "demonization campaign" against him. Bassole, a high-level diplomat, served under Compaore, who ruled Burkina Faso for nearly 30 years.

Bassole is among 14 people whose assets have been frozen following the coup. Authorities said that presidential guard members found to have played significant roles in the coup earlier this month will face trial, while others will be reintegrated into the army.

Burkina Faso's vote was scheduled for Oct. 11 but interim Prime Minister Zida has said elections have been postponed for several weeks.

Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.

Rosetta comet likely formed from 2 separate objects

September 28, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — When the Rosetta space probe sent back its first close-up pictures of a comet last year, scientists got a bit of a surprise: Instead of the ball of rock and ice they had expected, the comet turned out to have two distinct lobes connected by a "neck."

Some said it looked like a giant rubber duck. Researchers have now concluded that the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko was probably formed when two separate objects collided during the early stages of the solar system, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Nature.

Using data collected by the OSIRIS cameras onboard Rosetta, scientists were able to determine that the flat planes and arcs on 67P's surface are in fact terraces that wrap around the two lobes like layers around an onion.

"For the first time, this study gives observational evidence on how the primordial bodies formed," said Matteo Massironi, one of the study's authors. Thanks to the high resolution of the images, scientists were able to see that the layers on the larger lobe — some up to 650 meters (2,130 feet) thick — are independent of the layers on the smaller lobe. In essence, this means the comet is made of two separate cores.

Jay Melosh, a professor of planetary science at Purdue University in Indiana who wasn't involved in the study, called the study a "wonderful piece of research (that) exemplifies science at its best, bringing order out of apparent chaos."

"The big news is that the layers of each lobe wrap independently, indicating that the two lobes grew separately and only joined together later in their history, gently 'docking' together during an ancient encounter that apparently did little damage to either partner," he said. "This growth is believed to have occurred about 4.5 billion years ago, contemporaneous with the formation of the solar system."

Melosh, who was involved with NASA's Deep Impact, NExT and EPOXI missions to explore comets Tempel 1 and Hartley 2, said "hints of layering had been seen before in other comet nuclei, but it took the exquisite resolution and complete coverage afforded by the Rosetta mission to fully reveal the relatively simple underlying structure of comet 67P and, by extension, to other comets."

"The fusion should have happened when dust was coagulating into larger, layered bodies in the outer regions and planets were still growing in the inner regions," explained Massironi, who works at the University of Padova, Italy.

The knowledge gleaned by the Rosetta photos should help scientists better understand how planets and comets formed, he said.

Russian media talk up Putin's speech

September 28, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — In an hours-long marathon of commentary, Russia's two main TV stations on Monday talked up President Vladimir Putin's speech at the U.N. General Assembly as tough and uncompromising.

Putin is in the United States for the first time since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and threw its support behind separatist rebels in Ukraine. What is more, Russia's recent military buildup in Syria has raised concern in the West about Putin's future steps there.

In the run-up to Putin's speech, Russian media covered the preparations with a bated breath. One channel ran a countdown to the speech on its screen all day and another promised "a speech that will change the world."

The speeches by Putin and President Barack Obama at the U.N. served as a public preview of their private meeting late Monday. The sit-down marks their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year and comes amid escalating Russian military engagement in Syria.

While Obama was halfway through his speech, the Rossiya 1 channel switched the feed from the U.N. headquarters to a live broadcast of Putin's arrival in New York. Putin opened his remarks by criticizing a "single center of dominance" and threw a few more jabs at the U.S. without actually naming it.

While Putin's speech sounded rather moderate, Russia state media sought to make it sound more bellicose than it was and reaching out to the world. Pro-Kremlin bloggers and even mainstream media like the RIA Novosti news agency posted messages on Twitter on Monday with a #PutinPeacemaker hashtag in order to highlight Putin's international outreach while two main TV channels, Channel One and Rossiya 1, ran marathon talk shows discussing Obama and Putin's speeches. Both began at 6 p.m. Moscow time and at least one of them is expected to run through 2 a.m. Tuesday so that the pundits could discuss Obama and Putin's upcoming bilateral meeting.

Kremlin-connected lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov noted the fact that Putin had avoided naming the U.S., but said it was as harsh as Putin's 2007 speech at a security conference in Germany which was seen as his first aggressive statement of geopolitical ambitions.

"He made an intentional omission in order not to create a negative background before the Obama speech," Nikonov said on Rossiya 1, adding that "that was probably the harshest speech against the United States after Munich."

Other pundits didn't shy from overt accolades. "It's a message to all of humanity: Russia in its speech gave its vision of key international issues and offered ways to solve them," military analyst Igor Korotchenko said. "During Obama's speech, people were yawning. When Putin was speaking there was a tense attention on the faces of friends and enemies."

Channel One in its 8 p.m. newscast ran the entire Putin 20-minute speech while Rossiya 1 showed excerpts in a 20-minute segment. Rossiya 1's Olga Skabeyeva, in New York, sought to underscore Moscow's growing international importance and willingness to help solve global problems:

Putin "tried to open the eyes of the world and explain what a short-sighted policy of the United States could lead to."

World leaders at UN lay out sharply different views on Syria

September 29, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Vladimir Putin played it cool, Barack Obama was earnest but firm and Iran's president walked in smiling. World leaders glided through the opening day of a U.N. gathering Monday that aims to wrestle with the globe's biggest crises — a historic flood of refugees, the rise of threats like the Islamic State group and the conflict in Syria.

The U.N. secretary-general for the first time called for the civil war in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran's recent nuclear deal with world powers had a broader goal: "We want to suggest a new and constructive way to recreate the international order."

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a $1 billion pledge for U.N. peace efforts. And Jordan's King Abdullah II made a heartfelt defense of the kinder side of the Muslim world in the face of "the outlaws of Islam that operate globally today."

"When and how did fear and intimidation creep so insidiously into our conversation when there is so much more to be said about the love of God?" he asked, also quoting the Quran on mercy. The king has called the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State, and the crises they have caused, "a third world war, and I believe we must respond with equal intensity." Jordan borders both Syria and Iraq, and Syrian refugees now make up 20 percent of Jordan's population. Iraq and Turkey also groan under the strain of millions of refugees.

In his state of the world address to leaders from the U.N.'s 193 member states, Ban Ki-Moon called for a political solution to the conflict in Syria, now well into its fifth year with more than a quarter of a million people killed.

Ban said five countries "hold the key" to a political solution to Syria: Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Obama and Putin, hours ahead of their first face-to-face meeting in nearly a year, gave no sign of closing their deep divide on the Syrian crisis.

Obama said of Syrian President Bashar Assad, "when a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not a matter of a nation's internal affairs." The U.S. is prepared to work with any country, including Russia and Iran, to resolve Syria's conflict, Obama said.

The U.S. president also took jabs at Russia and China, without naming names. "The strong men of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow," Obama warned. And he added in a critique of restrictions on speech, "You can control access to information ... but you cannot turn a lie into truth."

Putin, who showed up at the U.N. gathering for the first time in a decade and was not at Russia's seat in the chamber when Obama spoke, called for the creation of a broad international coalition against terror, following his country's surprising moves in recent weeks to increase its military presence in Syria and to share intelligence on the Islamic State group with Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The Russian leader dismissed the West's concerns about his country's ambitions in Syria and called it "an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate" with the Syrian government. Ukraine's table just in front of the speaker's stand was empty as Putin spoke. The country struggles against pro-Russia separatists in its east, while Russia denies supporting them.

Rouhani appeared to align with Putin's call for a U.N. Security Council resolution consolidating the fight against terror, saying "we propose that the fight against terrorism be incorporated into a binding international document and no country be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of other countries."

Meanwhile, Obama announced that more than 40,000 new troops and police have been pledged to U.N. peacekeeping missions from more than 50 countries. He spoke at a high-level meeting chaired by the U.S. to strengthen and modernize peacekeeping, which increasingly faces threats from extremist groups while being severely stretched in personnel and equipment.

Other issues at the center of this week's discussions include the refugee and migrant crisis, the largest since the upheaval of World War II. Ban warned that resources to address them are dangerously low. "The global humanitarian system is not broken; it is broke," he said. The U.N. has just half of what it needs to help people in Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen, and just a third of what's needed for Syria.

The U.N. chief, in unusually hard-hitting words, also blamed "proxy battles of others" for driving the fighting in Yemen, and he warned against "the dangerous drift" in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying it is essential for the international community to pressure both sides to re-engage.

Others speaking Monday included French President Francois Hollande, who again declared that Assad "cannot be part of the solution" to the Syrian conflict, and Cuban President Raul Castro, who also has a meeting planned with Obama.

Some, including Obama, Xi and Hollande, already addressed the General Assembly over the weekend during a separate global summit on sweeping new U.N. development goals for the next 15 years.

Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer, Christopher Bodeen and Vladimir Isachenkov at the United Nations contributed to this report.