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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Protests over Spanish court probe of Catalan secession poll

October 13, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Thousands of pro-Catalan independence supporters on Tuesday protested the start of a Spanish court investigation into the regional government's symbolic referendum on secession from Spain last year.

New Barcelona mayor Ada Colau headed the demonstration, reading a statement backing Catalonia's demand for the right to self-determination. The rally came after a regional official and a former regional deputy president were questioned over their suspected roles in holding the poll.

Catalonia's regional leader Artur Mas is also under investigation and is scheduled to testify Thursday. Spain's Constitutional Court suspended the Nov. 9, 2014, referendum but Catalonia held it anyway, calling it an informal effort.

Prosecutors accuse Mas of grave disobedience, abuse of public funds, prevarication, usurping powers and obstructing justice. If tried and found guilty, he could face disqualification from office or up to one year in jail.

About 2.3 million Catalans — out of 5.4 million eligible — voted in the poll, with 80 percent in favor of breaking away from Spain. Spain's Constitutional Court later ruled the plebiscite was unconstitutional.

Catalonia last month held a regional parliamentary election that was billed as a de facto vote on secession. The "Together for Yes" pro-independence alliance headed by Mas won 62 seats in Catalonia's 135-member parliament — six short of a majority.

That alliance is currently in negotiations with another pro-independence party to try to form a coalition majority, and Mas has promised to set Catalonia on a path toward independence by 2017 if he gets the majority.

Spain has ruled out any possibility of Catalonia becoming independent, saying that would be unconstitutional.

Giles reported from Madrid. Alan Clendenning contributed from Madrid.

Chinese president begins busy state visit to Britain

October 19, 2015

LONDON (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Britain Monday for a four-day state visit as part of a push to increase trade ties between the two countries.

Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan will spend several nights at Buckingham Palace, hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, after an elaborate formal welcome and a carriage ride to the palace Tuesday.

Prime Minister David Cameron told Chinese Central Television the visit heralds a "golden era" between the two countries. "It's a real opportunity to deepen our relationship and I'm delighted President Xi is spending so much time here," Cameron said, adding that Chinese investment in major British infrastructure projects is generating jobs in Britain.

Cameron will spend time with Xi both at 10 Downing Street and at the prime minister's country retreat, Chequers. The elaborately choreographed visit will also include a trip to the Manchester City football training grounds and a possible unscripted side trip to a pub to dine on that English classic, fish and chips.

The Chinese president plans to address both houses of Parliament on Tuesday before a state banquet at the palace likely to be attended by senior royals, politicians and some figures from the entertainment field.

Protests over China's human rights record are expected throughout Xi's visit, which is scheduled to end Friday. British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has indicated a desire to discuss human rights with Xi when they meet at a palace banquet, but Chinese officials say they would be surprised if he raises the issue.

Prominent Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, a frequent critic of Chinese policies, is having a major exhibit of his works close to the palace at the Royal Academy of Arts. Britain and China are keen to strengthen business ties despite wide differences over human rights policy. It follows a high profile visit to China by Treasury chief George Osborne, who seeks more Chinese investment.

The two governments are already cooperating on nuclear power development, with China making a major investment in a new plant in southeast England. Prince William, who recently made an official visit to China, recorded a speech for broadcast on Chinese TV outlining the need to combat illegal wildlife trade.

He referred to his daughter Princess Charlotte when he warned that children born this year, like her, "will see the last wild elephants and rhinos die before their 25th birthdays" unless urgent steps are taken.

"We have a responsibility to act on the facts we have today," William said.

Migrants the key issue as Swiss vote in national elections

October 16, 2015

GENEVA (AP) — Europe's migrant influx is the burning issue for Swiss voters electing a new legislature this weekend, with polls suggesting a boost for a nationalist party behind efforts to ban face-covering veils and construction of Muslim minarets.

Sunday's election is shaping up as a new sign of European anxiety about the influx of over a half-million migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere into Europe this year. The vote to fill the two legislative chambers — the 200-seat National Council and 46-member Council of States — comes as a poll found nearly half of Swiss listed immigration, integration and foreigners as their top concern. Issues like relations with the European Union, health care, unemployment and the environment scored only single digits as the top issue.

Immigration is the sweet-spot of the nationalist Swiss People's Party, which wants to strengthen rules about who can enter and live — including from the EU member states that virtually surround the Alpine country of about 8.2 million people. A survey by the gfs.bern polling agency projects the nationalists getting about 28 percent of the vote, which would put it first in the constellation of Swiss parties.

If the election goes its way, the People's Party could land a coveted second seat in Switzerland's seven-person Federal Council, the executive branch that makes decisions by consensus and includes the national president — a rotating post. However, there is little chance that the nationalists could emerge as the leading party in a coalition government.

Switzerland hasn't faced a wave of migration like the one seen by some European Union states such as Germany and Sweden. But "the EU's problems with migrants" has fostered a "climate at the moment that helps the People's Party," said Lukas Golder, a gfs.bern political scientist.

The Swiss People's Party is the force behind a proposed ban on face-covering veils and a 2009 law prohibiting construction of minarets, which drew international condemnation. One of Switzerland's main upcoming issues is the implementation of a narrowly adopted referendum calling for immigration caps on all types of foreigners, including those from the European Union, within three years. The result forced the government last year to take up the delicate task of revising its treaties with the 28-nation bloc, and has strained ties with Brussels.

Gfs.bern, in its latest survey published by the national broadcaster, found that the Swiss People's Party had the backing of 27.9 percent of respondents, which would mark an uptick of 1.3 percentage points from their tally in elections four years ago. The second-biggest party, the Social Democratic Party, came in at 19.2 percent, up half a percentage point from the last legislative election.

The free-market Free Democratic Party had the support of 16.7 percent, an increase of 1.6 percentage points. Smaller parties including the Green Party were expected to lose ground, the poll found. The poll of 2,011 respondents was conducted Sept. 20-30 to include a representative sample from Switzerland's four linguistic regions. It has a margin of error of about 2.2 percent.

Fire breaks out at camp in Slovenia as migrants push forward

October 21, 2015

BREZICE, Slovenia (AP) — Freezing temperatures and burning tents heightened the misery of thousands of people Wednesday as they pushed their way through Europe, hoping to find refuge at the end of their arduous treks.

The European Union's executive, meanwhile, summoned leaders of the countries on the migrant trail to a summit in Brussels on Sunday in an effort to better coordinate the flow from one country to another.

A fire broke out on Wednesday at a camp for migrants in Slovenia, the current gateway to Austria and beyond. The cause of the fire at the camp in Brezice, on Slovenia's border with Croatia, was not clear, but migrants had been lighting fires outside their tents to ward off the chilly fall weather.

Several tents were destroyed before firefighters extinguished the flames, and women and children were evacuated from the camp. Many of those at the Brezice camp arrived in the dark after wading or swimming across the Sutla River in temperatures close to freezing.

Slovenian Interior Secretary of State Bostjan Sefic said he was waiting for a police report on the fire. The migrants "just want to go on their way as soon as possible," Sefic said. "They are very dissatisfied and unrestful when they stay at a certain place."

Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia have struggled to cope with the relentless flow of migrants traveling through the Balkans, their journey made more difficult since Hungary erected fences protected by razor wire, police and soldiers on its southern borders, forcing migrants to find new routes west.

Hungary closed its border with Serbia to the free flow of migrants on Sept. 15 and clamped down on its border with Croatia on Saturday. Since then, 21,500 migrants have entered Slovenia from Croatia, including 8,000 on Tuesday, with many thousands more on their way.

Early Wednesday, Slovenian lawmakers granted more powers to the army to work with police in managing the migrant influx along the borders of the small Alpine nation. A few hours later, some 200 soldiers were already taking part in border control.

Slovenia's Sefic said a new entry point into Austria was being discussed with its northern neighbor to relieve pressure on Slovenia. In Austria, at least 1,000 migrants rushed in from Slovenia, eluding police controls. They began walking northward on a smaller road next to the A9 highway to Graz. Police spokesman Fritz Grundnig said officers were blocking entry points to the A9 highway and accompanying the migrants on their march.

Further back, hundreds of migrants pushed into Croatia after spending the night out in the open in freezing cold, waiting to cross from Serbia. Exhausted and chilled, migrants walked down the muddy border passage and over corn fields. Croatian police had deployed on the boundary to stop them but then moved away.

"I am sorry for Europe," said Iraqi migrant Ari Omar in a field in Rigonce, Slovenia, on the border with Croatia. "We did not think Europe is like this. No respect for refugees, not treating us with dignity. Why is Europe like this?"

U.N. refugee agency officer Francesca Bonelli said around 3,000 migrants were there overnight, including little children, the elderly, people in wheelchairs and many sick and exhausted. In Cyprus, an EU country in the Mediterranean Sea, 114 people aboard two fishing boats, including 28 children, came ashore at a British air base on the island's southern coast.

Greek emergency workers joined a search for 15 people reported missing after a small boat carrying refugees sank in Turkish waters on its way to a Greek island. More than 500,000 people have arrived so far this year on Greece's eastern islands, paying smugglers to ferry them across from nearby Turkey.

A statement from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's office said Sunday's summit was a response to "a need for much greater cooperation, more extensive consultation and immediate operational action."

Nations invited to attend are EU member states Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia, and non-EU countries Macedonia and Serbia. "The objective of the meeting will be to agree common operational conclusions which could be immediately implemented," the EU Commission statement said.

Associated Press reporters Philipp-Moritz Jenne in Spielfeld, Austria, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Sabina Niksic in Dobova, Slovenia, George Jahn in Vienna and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.

Slovenia accuses Croatia of lack of control on migrant surge

October 20, 2015

BREZICE, Slovenia (AP) — Slovenia accused Croatia on Tuesday of sending thousands of migrants toward its borders "without control," ignoring requests to contain the surge.

While Slovenia has said it can handle only 2,500 migrants a day, Slovenia's police said that some 8,300 migrants seeking to head toward Western Europe were currently in reception centers in the small country, with thousands more arriving.

Police in riot gear surrounded hundreds of migrants in a muddy field near the border village of Rigonce, from where they were to be escorted on foot to an already overcrowded reception center some 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.

"The pressure of immigrants arriving from Croatia is intensifying," the Slovenian government said in a statement. "They send immigrants toward Slovenia without control, deliberately dispersed." Croatia did not seem ready to slow the flow. On Tuesday morning, a train carrying more than 1,000 migrants from the town of Tovarnik and some 20 buses full of migrants from the Opatovac refugee camp were headed toward the Slovenian border.

Slovenia's parliament is expected to decide later Tuesday on a government proposal to allow the army to assist police with border control. Slovenian authorities say 6,000 migrants arrived on Monday and at least 4,000 more, including many babies and young children, had entered the country early Tuesday.

Slovenia has been confronted by the surge since Hungary closed its border with Croatia to the free flow of migrants on Saturday, forcing migrants to find new routes to Austria, Germany and other favored destinations in the European Union.

Not a single migrant has entered Hungary from Croatia since the border was closed with a fence protected by razor wire, soldiers and police patrols.

Associated Press reporters Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Jovana Gec in Berkasovo, Serbia, and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.

Serbia, Croatia agree to speed up migrant flow

October 23, 2015

BAJAKOVO, Croatia (AP) — Serbia and Croatia agreed Friday to ease the flow of migrants over the border between the countries after thousands of people, including children, were forced to spend the night out in the open in near-freezing temperatures along a muddy border passage.

The interior ministers of Serbia and Croatia said they will start shipping migrants by train directly from Serbia to Croatia so that they won't have to cross on foot, often treading kilometers in rain and cold weather, as has been the case so far. Migrants will register when they enter Serbia and will be able to cross into Croatia without any delays, which should speed up the process significantly, the ministers said.

"We have agreed to stop this torture," said Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic. "There will be no more rain and snow, they will go directly from camp to camp." Further west, thousands of migrants aiming to reach northern Europe walked out of refugee camps on the border between Slovenia and Austria on their own, frustrated after waiting long hours in overcrowded facilities.

Eager to move on, thousands spread around along railway tracks, highways and mountain roads. Confused and unaware which roads to take to go west, some migrants later turned back and returned to the refugee camps to wait for bus transport to other locations.

Tensions have been building after the so-called Balkan route shifted. Migrants still cross first from Greece into Macedonia and then Serbia, but now go via Croatia and Slovenia instead of Hungary, which has erected fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia.

Overwhelmed after nearly 50,000 migrants crossed in just a few days, tiny Slovenia said it has not ruled out erecting a fence of its own along parts of its 670-kilometer (400-mile) border with Croatia. Prime Minister Miro Cerar was quoted Friday by the state news agency STA as saying Slovenia will consider all options if left to cope on its own with the influx of thousands of people.

"Our sights are foremost on finding a European solution," said Cerar. "But should we lose hope for this ... all options are open within what is acceptable." The country of 2 million people already has deployed 650 army troops to help the police manage the flow and has asked the European Commission for an aid package, including 60 million euros ($68 million) in financial aid and police gear and personnel.

Several EU nations have promised to send police officers to help Slovenia's force, which is so overloaded that a soccer derby Saturday had to be cancelled because there were no more officers available to guard the game.

Slovenia and Croatia have traded barbs since the start of the crisis, accusing one another of mishandling the crisis. Slovenia initially said it could take in only 2,500 people a day and accused Croatia of dropping migrants uncontrollably at its doorstep.

Croatian police could be seen Friday escorting another group of around 1,500 migrants close to an unmanned section of the country's border with Slovenia before letting them cross the frontier on foot. The group arrived on a train and was led by police in an orderly fashion to a small bridge to cross into Slovenia where they will be taken to a collection center.

Long hours in lines and overcrowded camps have led to several incidents in the past days, including scuffles, a stabbing and a fire in one of the migrant camps in Slovenia. At the Serbian border, some 5,000 people gathered around fires, under tents and wrapped in blankets as they waited all night to cross into Croatia. Ministers said registration of refugees must speed up so that there are no delays in the transfer of migrants toward Western Europe.

Serbian minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said the two countries will ask the EU to recognize the Serbian registration process — which includes finger and palm-printing and biometric passes — so that migrants don't have to undergo the same procedure over and over again.

"With the winter coming, it is important to agree on a speedy flow of these people," Stefanovic said. EU officials have called a summit for Sunday of several EU and Balkan leaders to focus on the migrant crisis.

Ali Zerdin in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Sabina Niksic at the Croatia-Slovenia border, Ivana Bzganovic in Berkasovo, Serbia, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Petr David Josek and Balint Szlanko at the Slovenia-Austria border have contributed.

Poles eager to oust pro-market party in vote despite growth

October 20, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The ruins of an abandoned factory were chosen for effect. For this press conference, other spots in the Polish town of Nowa Sol would not do: not the modern industrial park, or the revitalized port, or the renovated old town.

Beata Szydlo, a conservative campaigning to become Poland's next prime minster, stood before the shuttered factory to make her case that Poland is in a sorry state after eight years of government by a pro-business party and that her conservative and welfare-minded Law and Justice party will revive the country's industrial base and create new opportunities for struggling Poles.

A quarter century after the fall of communism, the nation of 38 million is bitterly divided between successful Poles profiting from one of Europe's fastest growing economies and those struggling with low wages and other inequalities of the capitalist era. In an election year dominated by this clash of views, Szydlo's populist party has tapped into frustration to become the front-runner in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

"This should be a place of production," Szydlo said as cameras took in a wide view of the desolate site. "It should give people jobs and a secure future." The mayor of Nowa Sol was furious and slammed Szydlo's press conference as a "pathetic spectacle."

"Mrs. Szydlo didn't have herself photographed against the background of a beautiful and developing Nowa Sol," Wadim Tyszkiewicz said, "because that would go against the false thesis of her party that Poland is in ruins."

The summer press conference struck a nerve to become a defining moment in the campaign. Since then, thousands have joined an anti-Law and Justice movement on Facebook ironically called "Poland in ruins" (Polska w Ruinie) which mocks the notion with photos of modern cities, gleaming new sports facilities, bustling malls and other evidence of a thriving nation.

"If we applied the criteria of the Law and Justice candidate, Mrs. Szydlo, then the United States is a ruin while under communism our country was flourishing," Leszek Balcerowicz, the economist who authored the pro-market reforms of the early 1990s, said in a recent interview in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

When Poland threw off communism in 1989 it moved quickly to embrace free-market policies, with low taxes on corporations and a weak social safety net by European standards. The policies kept down debt and attracted massive foreign investments, bringing prosperity to many, especially in the cities.

Yet many object to the precariousness of life today. The average monthly salary is 2,800 zlotys ($750; 660 euros) post-tax, but many earn far less. Many Poles also work on temporary contracts with few benefits, widely called "junk contracts." Taken together, these working conditions have driven more than 2 million Poles to seek better opportunities in Western Europe since Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Sociologist Dominik Owczarek says that in the debate over whether Poland is a success or failure, "both sides are right." "Part of society is very successful but a smaller part is unsuccessful and still experiences many difficulties in daily life," said Owczarek, an analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. Even though the poor and disadvantaged are in a minority, they tend to be highly motivated voters with the power to influence the election outcome, he said.

The idea of a Poland in decline is, on one level, a backlash against an opposing narrative promoted by Civic Platform, the pro-business and centrist party that has overseen steady economic growth during its past eight years of rule. As Poland continued to grow even when the rest of Europe fell into recession during the global crisis of 2008-2009, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the EU president, stood before a map of Europe with Poland depicted as a "green island" of growth surrounded by countries colored red, hailing his country's achievement.

That celebratory message angered many Poles, building a widespread sense in Poland that the governing elite had grown arrogant and out of touch with the struggles of regular people, anger that has already caused Civic Platform to lose the presidency earlier this year to the Law and Justice candidate, Andrzej Duda.

Another Law and Justice victory on Sunday would complete the nation's shift to a brand of politics that mixes patriotic rhetoric, deeply conservative social values and a desire to use the state to level out economic inequalities.

The party promises to reverse an unpopular rise in the retirement age and put more money into the pockets of struggling families with tax breaks, monthly cash bonuses for children under 18 and free medication for people over 75. It also wants to raise taxes on the mostly foreign-owned banks and big supermarkets in Poland and give tax breaks to smaller local businesses and those that adopt Polish technologies.

"This party takes care of Poland's interests and of those of ordinary Poles like myself," said Grzegorz Jezewski, a 39-year-old historian at a recent party rally in Krakow. Critics, however, slam its economic policies as irresponsible and a threat to the state's financial health.

Recent polls show Law and Justice with support ranging from 32 to 39 percent, putting it around five to 14 points ahead of Civic Platform depending on the poll and much further ahead of some smaller parties.

It has also gotten a boost from its anti-migrant stance, tapping into a widespread fear that Muslim refugees would erode the nation's strong Roman Catholic identity. Should it win, Law and Justice could strengthen the anti-migrant forces across the continent.

What effect a Law and Justice victory might have on other aspects of foreign policy is less clear given that it shares the current government's skepticism of Russia, support for Ukraine, and its strongly pro-NATO stance.

When it held power in the past, there were sometimes tensions with European powers, mainly Germany, due to the combativeness and Euro-skepticism of party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late brother, President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in 2010.

But President Duda has taken a conciliatory approach to Germany, signaling the possible start of a new era in the party's foreign policy approach.

Monika Scislowska in Krakow, Poland, contributed to this report.

Ksiaz Castle in Poland links WWII secrets, treasure, ghost

October 19, 2015

WALBRZYCH, Poland (AP) — If you are fascinated by World War II secrets, treasures and ghosts, then Ksiaz Castle is the place for you.

A breathtaking site, it sits on a wooded hilltop in the city of Walbrzych, in southwestern Poland. The area drew worldwide attention recently, when two explorers announced they had located a secret tunnel that hides a wartime armored train with precious load. The news revived a local legend of a train laden with gold and valuables that the Nazis reportedly hid from the Red Army in the mountains in 1945.

The authorities are taking steps to verify the explorers' claim, but the former coal mining center of Walbrzych (known as Waldenburg in its German era) and the castle are already the richer for the tourists and reporters whose numbers soared after the news of the alleged find broke.

Even without the train and the gold, visitors will enjoy the beauty of the Owl Mountains in the Sudeten Range, the area's rich and dramatic history and a visit to the magnificent Ksiaz Castle. The castle was seized by the Nazis in 1941 as a future residence for Hitler. Many of the historic interiors were torn down in a misconceived drive for modesty. The Nazis then began to build a bunker some 50 meters beneath the castle to protect Hitler from Allied bombs.

Eventually a labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers was built using forced labor from the nearby Gross-Rosen concentration camp, but the complex was not completed by the war's end and its true purpose remains a mystery 70 years after the war. Some historians say the complex was to become Nazi command headquarters, others believe the tunnels were to house an armaments factory or a nuclear weapons laboratory. Some of the tall, damp tunnels can be visited by tourists, but many remain unexplored. The legend of a hidden gold train was first brought to light by a retired coal miner, Tadeusz Slowikowski, in the 1970s, but it's been kept alive by the mysteries surrounding the complex.

The massive gray and pink castle links many architectural styles, dating back to the 13th century and to Slavic rulers. It passed into Austrian and then Prussian hands and was known as Schloss Furstenstein, while repeatedly being expanded, the last time in the early 20th century. It was private property of the aristocratic Hochberg family since the early 16th century, until the Nazis seized it in order to punish the Hochbergs who did not support Hitler. When borders shifted after World War II, this Lower Silesia region became part of Poland.

The castle's last owner, evicted by the Nazis, was Wales-born Mary Theresa Olivia Cornwallis-West, first wife of Prince Hans Heinrich XV. Bearing the title of the Princess of Pless, but popularly known as Daisy, she was a great beauty, a socialite, and related by marriage to Winston Churchill. Her brother George was the second husband of Churchill's mother, Jennie. The princess died in 1943 and was buried in the Hochberg Mausoleum near the castle, but her servants moved the body a number of times to protect the grave from plunder by Soviet troops, who occupied the area from May 1945 until the end of 1946.

As a result, Princess Daisy's resting place remains unknown. It's another castle mystery with its own legend — that her spirit comes back to visit.

Polish leader debates challenger ahead of weekend elections

October 19, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's pro-business prime minister faced off Monday against her main challenger in a debate ahead of general elections this weekend — the first time two women are the top two contenders to lead the country.

The debate took place Monday evening between Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of the pro-European Civic Platform party and Beata Szydlo of the conservative and populist Law and Justice party, which is leading in the polls.

Two more debates are planned this week that will involve the heads of several other parties, all of which are small and do not have the chance of winning the parliamentary elections being held Sunday, but which could serve as coalition partners to the bigger parties.

The debate focused on economic matters and a range of other issues that reveal the deep differences between the two parties, which are both rooted in the Solidarity movement that fought communism but which have very different profiles today.

Civic Platform, which was led by Donald Tusk until he became the European Union president last year, is a centrist and pro-market party that has governed for the past eight years. It has lost a lot of support and is now second in the polls due to general voter weariness and disgust with scandals in the government ranks.

Law and Justice is a socially conservative party that favors a strong state role in the economy to help struggling Poles and even out economic inequalities. It also promotes Roman Catholic values and is against in vitro fertilization and gay unions.

During the debate, Kopacz said a victory by Law and Justice would threaten Poland's finances and lead to a crisis similar to that in cash-strapped Greece. Kopacz lashed out against Szydlo, a lawmaker, for having voted against women's rights, and claimed a victory by her party would result in Poland becoming a fundamentalist religious state.

Szydlo, in turn, accused the current government of being corrupt and ineffective and said it has failed to fight for Polish interests in Europe.

Montenegro police break up anti-government protest

October 17, 2015

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegrin police have used tear gas to break up a protest by the opposition demanding the government's resignation and an early election in the small Balkan state.

Several hundred opposition leaders and supporters gathered Saturday evening in downtown Podgorica, the capital, and tried to advance through a police cordon. Officers fired tear gas and pushed them away.

Anti-government leaders had staged a dayslong protest in a main street in Podgorica, but police removed their tents earlier on Saturday. Opposition parties have vowed to gather again in a bid to force an early election.

The opposition groups earlier this week also staged an anti-NATO protest during a visit by the alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to Montenegro. Opponents have accused Montenegro's government of authoritarian rule and using pressure against opponents.

Kosovo opposition protests detention of its leader

October 13, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Fifteen policemen and one civilian were injured during a violent protest by the opposition Self-Determination Party (Vetevendosje!) after an opposition lawmaker was taken in for questioning, Kosovo police said Tuesday.

Police spokesman Baki Kelani says opposition leader Albin Kurti was taken to a police station Monday evening to be questioned on the use of tear gas to disrupt the parliament session last week. The opposition had been protesting against the government's recent EU-sponsored deal with Serbia giving the Kosovo's Serb-majority areas greater powers.

Video images of the session showed Kurti opening the first canister of tear gas. "A small group" of protesters gathered in front of the police station where Kurti was being interviewed, hurling stones, other hard objects and putting two cars of the prosecutor's office on fire, Kelani said, adding that half a dozen cars were also damaged.

"They did not respect police calls to disperse and police were obliged to intervene," Kelani said by telephone, adding that Kurti was questioned based on a prosecutor's warrant. Kurti's Vetevendosje! said police did not explain why Kurti was being questioned, adding that hundreds of citizens and supporters faced with "exaggerated violence from police" using tear gas and also iron and plastic batons injuring many of them.

Kurti, a member of parliament, was released after midnight while nine protesters have been arrested, Kelani said Tuesday. The party called for more anti-government protests. "Pristina, Kosovo ... will topple down this government of mafia and collaborationists too," said a statement from the Vetevendosje! party.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but Serbia has refused to recognize it.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

New migrant route opens in Europe as Hungary seals border

October 17, 2015

PETISOVCI, Slovenia (AP) — Hundreds of people started arriving in Slovenia on Saturday as a new migrant route opened in Europe after Hungary sealed its border for their free flow, adding another hurdle in their frantic flight from wars and poverty toward what they hope is a better life in Western Europe.

The closure of Hungary's border with Croatia early Saturday caused redirections of thousands of people — including women and small children soaked in cold rain — further west toward Croatia's border with Slovenia, the small European Union-member state which has limited capacity to process large numbers wishing to head toward Austria and Germany.

This could leave thousands stranded in Croatia and further east and south in Serbia and Macedonia. Several buses packed with migrants arrived in the Slovenian border town of Petisovci on Saturday from Croatia. Police spokeswoman Suzana Raus said that after processing, most of them will be transferred toward the Austrian border.

The U.N. refugee agency said Slovenia has the capacity to accept some 7,000 migrants a day. UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Van Buren said at Slovenia's border with Croatia Saturday that "all is going well" as the first groups of migrants started arriving to the small Alpine nation.

"We have been in cold since two in the morning in Serbia," said Omar Thaqfa, 33, from Mosul in Iraq. "We were sitting in the street. Very cold. Inshallah, I am going to Germany." Slovenia, the country of some 2 million people, has said it would beef up border controls and create entry points for migrants to manage the influx, but would keep accepting migrants as long as Austria and Germany kept their borders open. Croatia has said it will close its border with Serbia if Slovenia does the same with Croatia.

Migrants had been coming through Croatia to get to Hungary and then further west. But Hungary blocked that route after midnight when police pulled a barbed-wire fence over a passage on the border with Croatia where about 140,000 migrants have passed since mid-September.

Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said Hungary's decision won't stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who have been surging into Europe. "Nobody can stop this flow without shooting," Ostojic said, adding that further closure of frontiers for migrants would cause "a domino effect and lot of troubles for all countries" that are on the migrant route.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto announced the decision to close the border after a meeting of the national security Cabinet on Friday. Hungary decided to order the border clampdown after EU leaders who met Thursday in Brussels failed to agree on a plan backed by Hungary to send EU forces to block migrants from reaching Greece.

Szijjarto said in a statement Saturday that the government was defending Hungary and its citizens from the "mass wave of unidentified, uncontrolled migrants." He has said normal border checkpoints with Croatia would remain open, though inspections will be tightened.

Although Croatia is also a member of the European Union, unlike Hungary it is not part of the Schengen zone of passport-free travel. Slovenia is in the Schengen zone. Over 383,000 migrants have entered Hungary this year, nearly all passing through on their way to Germany and other destinations further west in the EU. The country clamped down on its border with Serbia with a similar razor wire fence on Sept. 15 and since then migrants have been taking a detour through Croatia to reach Hungary.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Saturday's edition of the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Germany can control its borders but not close them completely — "that wouldn't even succeed with a fence, as the example of Hungary shows."

Thousands of new arrivals a day have stretched Germany's capacity to house refugees and other migrants. But Merkel said she won't promise "false solutions" because they wouldn't hold even for two weeks and would create bigger disappointment that the problem hasn't been resolved.

"I am working with all my power for sustainable solutions, and they don't depend on us Germans alone and will take time," she said. Turkey's state-run news agency said 12 migrants have drowned after their boat sank off the Turkish coast in the Aegean sea. The Anadolu Agency said the Turkish coast guard rescued 25 other migrants from the sea.

Greece's coast guard said four children drowned when a boat carrying migrants sank off the small island of Kalolimnos. The group was trying to reach the island the Greek island of Lesbos — an entry point for a majority of migrants making the journey from the nearby Turkish coast.

Associated Press reporters Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, and Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.

Next Guatemala president must respond to restive populace

October 23, 2015

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A TV comic and a former first lady will vie for Guatemala's presidency Sunday, and the winner will face a tide of public anger at politicians that already drove the last elected president and vice president from office in disgrace.

The country will have either its first female president or its first political neophyte in the office. Whichever it is, the victor will have to respond quickly to demands for deep reform, said Alejandro Maldonado, who took over as interim president after Otto Perez Molina swapped the presidential palace for a prison cell Sept. 3.

"The new government will have a year before the people fill the plazas, streets, avenues and highways in social protest," Maldonado said during a recent speech to business executives. "And it could once again be successful."

In Sunday's presidential runoff, comedian Jimmy Morales, who boasted of his outsider status on the campaign trail, faces Sandra Torres, a businesswoman and longtime political party operative who in a previous campaign divorced former President Alvaro Colom to try to get around a rule barring presidential relatives from seeking the office.

An opinion poll released Wednesday gave the advantage to Morales with 67 percent voter preference, compared with 32 percent for Torres. The survey published by the newspaper Prensa Libre was conducted Oct. 9-14 by ProDatos O and had a margin of error of three percentage points.

If that trend bears out, it would be a continuation of the citizens' revolt that made Morales the surprise top vote-getter in the election's Sept. 6 opening round, when Guatemalans punished establishment favorite Manuel Baldizon, the 2011 runner-up who campaigned on the slogan, "It's his turn."

The protests began in April after a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal involving bribery at the customs agency was unveiled by Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N. commission that is investigating criminal networks in the country.

Investigators first targeted former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader of the scheme, and then Perez Molina. Morales and Torres have jockeyed to position themselves as the anti-corruption candidate.

Both promise to keep Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a key figure in the investigation, and the U.N. commission in place. Morales vows to strengthen controls and transparency, while Torres would ask the U.N. body for help conducting a government-wide audit.

"From the get-go we must combat corruption at its core," Torres told The Associated Press, offering the "testimony of a life's work." "You can't talk about transparency if you're not transparent," she said.

Morales said in a debate this week that the government has controls and auditing powers at its disposal. "All the elements for auditing available to the presidency and vice presidency are going to be put to work," he said.

But many are skeptical that either candidate will truly work to root out entrenched corruption and find honest public servants to form a government. "I've seen the forums and debates and I'm not convinced," said Oneida de Bertrand, a homemaker who took part in the protests. "They say what we all know about how the country is, but when it comes time to make proposals they don't say how. And the worst part is neither one has said who will be in their Cabinet."

With Baldizon out of the race, the country has broken a cycle of four straight elections in which the previous runner-up won. While the protests focused on corruption, for many they also came to encompass broader demands for profound change in a country with chronic issues of poverty and inequality.

Guatemala also struggles with gangs that buy influence in government and dominate many aspects of society and it has one of the world's highest homicide rates. Observers note that the country's institutions remain dominated by the same political parties and many of the lawmakers elected in September are products of the system that the protests sought to upend.

The new legislators have "the same tricks" as always, said Eduardo Stein, a former vice president and political analyst. He said the next president will have to deal not only with a short-fused populace but also an underfinanced state due to poor budget management. Nonetheless, he sees a moment of historic potential for reform.

"We are facing an extraordinary and unique opportunity to take great steps in the quality of our society," Stein said. Renzo Rosal, another analyst, was more pessimistic, saying the candidates' proposals are merely cosmetic.

"What they have done here is build up a retaining wall for the (people's) demands," Rosal said. "The arrival of a new government is the perfect disguise to make us believe that ... will be different, but they won't."

Fires, stun grenades as students protest in SAfrica

October 23, 2015

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Thousands of South African university students protesting planned tuition hikes flocked to the country's main government complex on Friday, with some setting fires and throwing stones as police responded with stun grenades, tear gas and a water cannon.

President Jacob Zuma met with student leaders and university managers and his office later announced that there would be no fee increase for university students in 2016, a significant concession to their demands.One of the biggest student movements to have emerged since South Africa rejected white minority rule in 1994 poses a challenge to the ruling African National Congress party.

The announcement did not satisfy many student protesters. "We should be having free education," said 18-year-old Bongani Shabangu, who is studying education at a Pretoria university. "Most of us are from poor families."

Troy Mathebula, a student leader who attended the meeting with Zuma, said students were promised a freeze on tuition hikes next year. But Mathebula said student demands for free education were not met.

"What's going to happen in 2017? We have to come up with a solution that's going to cover us for the next many years," he said. "We're not happy about it," Mathebula said. Lucky Mahlatse, a 20-year-old computer science and statistics student, said more challenges lie ahead for graduating students.

"It's not that easy to get a job," he said. Security forces periodically detonated stun grenades to clear students who were trying to force an opening in the fence and throwing stones at police officers. Some knocked over portable toilets and set them alight.

Most of the protesters were not involved in the clashes. The students, some chanting and singing, had gathered in throngs on a large lawn at the foot of the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria, capping more than a week of protests against tuition increases planned for next year. A large statue of the late anti-apartheid icon and former President Nelson Mandela with a wide smile and arms outstretched overlooked the mayhem, which spilled into surrounding streets as armored police vehicles careened toward stone-throwing demonstrators.

Many students accuse the government of not doing enough to support university students and their families who are struggling to pay bills. Students had expected Zuma to address the protesters outside the Union Buildings on Friday and after it became apparent he would not come, protesters threw stones at police who responded with stun grenades and tear gas.

Zuma and other leaders of the ruling party have said they are sympathetic to student concerns and welcome their protests, as long as they are peaceful. A police helicopter flew overhead as some students pushed and pulled on a fence preventing them from getting closer to the government offices.

"Stop corruption, fund students," read one student placard. Another said: "Dear Mr. President: How do you sleep while the rest of us cry?" Costs vary, but annual tuition for undergraduate students in South Africa runs to several thousand dollars at some universities. That amount, combined with textbook and accommodation costs, is a burden for many poor students in a country with a wide gulf between the affluent and those with limited means.

The protests began last week at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, which later dropped plans for a 10.5 percent tuition hike in 2016 and has suspended classes until at least next week because of the disruption.

Many universities are in exam season, and there have been reports of protesters going into lecture halls and forcing some students to stop taking exams. On Wednesday, a student protest outside parliament in Cape Town turned violent and 30 demonstrators were arrested.

Russia, Jordan to coordinate militaries on Syria

October 23, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian news reports say Moscow and Jordan have agreed on creating a center in Amman for coordinating their military activities in Syria.

The reports say the agreement was reached Friday during talks in Vienna between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Syrian counterpart, Nasser Judeh. Lavrov said the center in the Jordanian capital would coordinate the military air campaigns of the two countries over Syria.

Russia began extensive airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, which Moscow says are targeting camps and facilities of the militant Islamic State group.