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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Under Iraqi town, IS militants built network of tunnels

November 25, 2015

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Under the Iraqi town of Sinjar, Islamic State group militants built a network of tunnels, complete with sleeping quarters, wired with electricity and fortified with sandbags. There, they had boxes of U.S.-made ammunition, medicines and copies of the Quran stashed on shelves.

The Associated Press obtained extensive video footage of the tunnels, which were uncovered by Kurdish forces that took the city in northwestern Iraq earlier this month after more than a year of IS rule.

"We found between 30 and 40 tunnels inside Sinjar," said Shamo Eado, a commander from Sinjar from the Iraqi Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga. "It was like a network inside the city." "Daesh dug these trenches in order to hide from airstrikes and have free movement underground as well as to store weapons and explosives," Eado said using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. "This was their military arsenal."

The video, shot by a freelancer touring the town with Kurdish fighters, showed two tunnels running several hundred meters (yards), each starting and ending from houses, through holes knocked in walls or floors.

The narrow tunnels, carved in the rock apparently with jackhammers or other handheld equipment, are just tall enough for a man to stand in. Rows of sandbags line sections of the walls, electrical wires power fans and lights and metal braces reinforce the ceilings. One section of the tunnel resembled a bunker. Dusty copies of the Quran sit above piles of blankets and pillows. Prescription drugs — painkillers and antibiotics — lie scattered along the floor.

In another section of the tunnel, the footage shows stocks of ammunition, including American-made cartridges and bomb-making tools. IS has been digging tunnels for protection and movement throughout the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, even before the U.S.-led coalition launched its campaign of airstrikes against the group more than a year ago. "This has been part of ISIS' strategy from the very beginning," said Lina Khatib a senior research associate at the Arab Reform initiative, a Paris-based think-tank. "ISIS has been well prepared for this kind of intervention."

The Islamic State group took control of Sinjar in August 2014, killing and capturing thousands of the town's mostly Yazidi residents. Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq with roots that date back to ancient Mesopotamia, are considered heretics by the hard-line Islamic State group. Hundreds of women are thought to still be in IS captivity, those who have escaped say many Yazidi women are forced to convert to Islam and marry IS fighters.

After pushing IS out of Sinjar, peshmerga officials and local residents have uncovered two mass graves in the area. One, not far from the city center is estimated to hold 78 elderly women's bodies. The second grave uncovered about 9 miles (15 kilometers) west of Sinjar contained between 50 and 60 bodies of men, women and children.

Eado, the peshmerga commander, said that as Kurdish forces clear Sinjar of explosives, he expects to find more tunnels and evidence of atrocities. "It's just a matter of time," he said.

Associated Press writers Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Susannah George in Baghdad, Iraq, contributed to this report.

Study: Defectors call Islamic State brutal, corrupt

September 21, 2015

BRUSSELS (AP) — A survey of defectors from the Islamic State group has found that many quit the organization because they decided it was too brutal or corrupt, or because it made war too frequently against other Sunni Muslims.

The survey, issued Monday by a London-based think tank, relied on the public statements of 58 people known to have left IS since last year. Peter Neumann, the report's author, said its findings shatter the image of unity and determination that IS seeks to portray.

The survey found common narratives among defectors, including disappointment that life under IS is so harsh, that the group is corrupt and un-Islamic, and that it commits atrocities against other Sunni Muslims.

Neumann said the defectors' statements, if given wide circulation, could deter future recruits from joining Islamic State.

Turkey shoots down Russian jet it says violated its airspace

November 25, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on Tuesday that it said ignored repeated warnings and crossed into its airspace from Syria, killing at least one of the two pilots in a long-feared escalation in tensions between Russia and NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced what he called a "stab in the back" and warned of "significant consequences."

The shoot down — the first time in half a century that a NATO member has downed a Russian plane — prompted an emergency meeting of the alliance. The incident highlighted the chaotic complexity of Syria's civil war, where multiple groups with clashing alliances are fighting on the ground and the sky is crowded with aircraft bombing various targets.

"As we have repeatedly made clear we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference after the meeting of the alliance's decision-making North Atlantic Council, called at Turkey's request.

The pilots of the downed Su-24 ejected, but one was killed by Syrian rebel fire from the ground as he parachuted to Earth, said the Russian general staff, insisting the Russian jet had been in Syrian airspace at the time. One of two helicopters sent to the crash site to search for survivors was also hit by rebel fire, killing one serviceman and forcing the chopper to make an emergency landing, the military said.

Stoltenberg urged "calm and de-escalation" and renewed contacts between Moscow and Ankara. Russia has long been at odds with NATO, which it accuses of encroaching on Russia's borders, as well as with Turkey's determination to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.

In Washington, President Barack Obama said Turkey "has a right to defend its territory and its airspace." At a news conference with French President Francois Hollande, he said the incident underscored the "ongoing problem" with Russia's military operations in Syria, where the Russians have been targeting groups near the Turkish border. Calling Russia an "outlier" in the global fight against the Islamic State group, Obama said that if Moscow were to concentrate its airstrikes on IS targets, mistakes "would be less likely to occur."

On Sept. 30, Russia began a campaign of massive airstrikes in Syria, which it says are aimed at destroying fighters of the Islamic State group but which Western critics contend are bolstering Assad's forces.

Before Tuesday's incident, Russia and the West appeared to be moving toward an understanding of their common strategic goal of eradicating IS, which gained momentum after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, as well as the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai desert. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Turkey said its fighter pilots acted after two Russian Su-24 bombers ignored numerous warnings that they were nearing and then entering Turkish airspace. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turkey said the Russian warplanes violated its airspace "to a depth of 1.36 miles and 1.15 miles ... for 17 seconds" just after 9:24 a.m.

It said one of the planes then left Turkish airspace and the other one was fired at by Turkish F-16s "in accordance with the rules of engagement" and crashed on the Syrian side of the border. Russia insisted the plane stayed over Syria, where it was supporting ground action by Syrian troops against rebels. Rebel forces fired at the two parachuting pilots as they descended, and one died, said Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman for the 10th Coast Division rebel group. The fate of the second pilot was not immediately known.

A visibly angry Putin denounced what he called a "stab in the back by the terrorists' accomplices" and warned of "significant consequences" for Russian-Turkish relations. Hours later Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a planned visit to Turkey on Wednesday.

Russia "will never tolerate such atrocities as happened today and we hope that the international community will find the strength to join forces and fight this evil," Putin said. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted his country had the right to take "all kinds of measures" against border violations, and called on the international community to work toward "extinguishing the fire that is burning in Syria."

But despite the harsh words, some analysts believe that Russia and Turkey have reasons not to let the incident escalate, because of economic and energy ties and their common opposition to IS. "Relations have been very strained between Russia and Turkey of late, so Moscow will be trying its utmost to contain the damage this might cause," said Natasha Kuhrt, a lecturer in international peace and security at King's College London.

A Turkish military statement said the Russian plane entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yayladagi, in Hatay province. Turkish officials released what they said was the radar image of the path the Russian plane took, showing it flying across a stretch of Turkish territory in the country's southernmost tip.

Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said the U.S. heard communication between Turkish and Russian pilots and could confirm that Turkish pilots issued 10 verbal warnings before the plane was shot down.

A U.S. defense official in Washington said the Russian plane flew across a 2-mile section of Turkish airspace before it was shot down, meaning it was in Turkish skies for only a matter of seconds. The official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Turkey has voiced concern over Russia's bombing of ethnic Turkmen areas in Syria and complained that the Russian operations have complicated the possibility of creating a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians, as well as moderate rebels fighting Assad.

Syrian Turkmen are Syrian citizens of Turkish ethnicity who have lived in Syria since Ottoman times and have coexisted with Syrian Arabs for hundreds of years. They were among the first to take up arms against Syrian government forces, as Turkey lent its support to rebels seeking to topple Assad.

In late 2012, they united under the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, a coalition of Turkmen parties which represents Syrian Turkmens in the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group. The military wing of the assembly is called the Syrian Turkmen Brigades and aims to protect Turkmen areas from government forces and the Islamic State group.

Turkey has vowed to support the Syrian Turkmen and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday criticized Russian actions in the Turkmen regions, saying there were no Islamic State group fighters in the area.

Turkey has complained repeatedly that Russian planes supporting Assad are straying across the border. On Friday, Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador demanding that Russia stop operations in the Turkmen region.

Last month, Turkish jets shot down an unidentified drone that it said had violated Turkey's airspace. The country changed its rules of engagement a few years ago after Syria shot down a Turkish plane. According to the new rules, Turkey said it would consider all "elements" approaching from Syria an enemy threat and would act accordingly.

Following earlier accusations of Russian intrusion into Turkish airspace, the U.S. European Command on Nov. 6 deployed six U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters from their base in Britain to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to help the NATO-member country secure its skies.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Robert Burns in Washington, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Turkey's Erdogan asks PM Davutoglu to form new government

November 17, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday reappointed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to form a new government after his party's stunning victory in the Nov. 1 election.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, founded by Erdogan, secured a dramatic gain that few had predicted in the parliamentary election, regaining a majority that it lost in the previous election in June.

The Nov. 1 election was a re-run called by Erdogan after Davutoglu failed to form a coalition partnership with any of the three opposition parties in parliament. The new election was held amid renewed violence in Turkey, and Erdogan and Davutoglu argued that only a single-party majority could restore stability. The renewed fighting between Turkey's security forces and Kurdish rebels has left hundreds of people dead and shattered an already-fragile peace process.

Turkey also suffered two massive suicide bombings at pro-Kurdish gatherings that killed some 130 people, apparently carried out by an Islamic State group cell. Davutoglu was expected to present a Cabinet list for Erdogan's approval either on Thursday or Friday.

Earlier Tuesday, newly elected lawmakers were sworn into office during a ceremony at parliament's first session since the election. The oath taken by prominent Kurdish legislator Leyla Zana however, was declared invalid, after she failed to keep to the wording and swore allegiance "before the great nation of Turkey" instead of the "Turkish nation" — avoiding a term many Kurds object to.

Zana also began her oath by turning toward Erdogan and expressing — in Kurdish — her wish "for an honorable and lasting peace" between Turks and Kurds. It was not clear if she would retake the oath. Officials said she would not be able to participate in parliament until she is formally sworn-in.

Zana had caused a storm during a similar oath-taking ceremony in 1991, when she spoke Kurdish in parliament, defying a ban on using the language in official settings. She later spent 10 years in prison for alleged links to the Kurdish rebels.

Zana's pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, or HDP, favors the resumption of peace efforts to end the Kurdish conflict.

Tunisia declares state of emergency after bus blast kills 12

November 25, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's president declared a 30-day state of emergency across the country and imposed an overnight curfew for the capital Tuesday after an explosion struck a bus carrying members of the presidential guard, killing at least 12 people and wounding 20 others.

The government described it as a terrorist attack. The blast on a tree-lined avenue in the heart of Tunis is a new blow to a country that is seen as a model for the region but has struggled against Islamic extremist violence. Radical gunmen staged two attacks earlier this year that killed 60 people, devastated the tourism industry and rattled this young democracy.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack against the presidential guard, an elite security force that protects only the president. President Beji Caid Essebsi, who wasn't in the bus at the time, declared the state of emergency and curfew on the Tunis region. He convened an emergency meeting of his security council for Wednesday morning.

Speaking on national television, he said Tunisia is at "war against terrorism" and urged international cooperation against extremists who have killed hundreds around Europe and the Mideast in recent weeks, from Paris to Beirut to a Russian plane shot down over Egypt.

"I want to reassure the Tunisian people that we will vanquish terrorism," he said. Police fanned out throughout central Tunis after Tuesday's explosion, and ambulances rushed to the scene, evacuating wounded and dead. Top government ministers visited the scene of the attack after it was cordoned off by police.

Interior Ministry spokesman Walid Louguini told The Associated Press that at least 12 were killed and 20 wounded in the attack. Witness Bassem Trifi, a human rights lawyer, said the explosion hit the driver's side of the bus, describing a "catastrophic" scene.

"I saw at least five corpses on the ground," he told the AP. "This was not an ordinary explosion." The attack came days after authorities visibly increased the security level in the capital and deployed security forces in unusually high numbers.

Earlier this month, Tunisian authorities announced the dismantling of a cell that it said had planned attacks at police stations and hotels in the seaside city of Sousse, about 150 kilometers (95 miles) southeast of Tunis. Sousse was one of the targets of attacks earlier this year.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking in Washington, said the U.S. government was still seeking details on what happened in Tunis, but added, "We strongly condemn the attack." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Tunis earlier this month, pledged expanded economic and security support for Tunisia, whose popular uprising unleashed the democracy movements across the region in 2011 that became known as the Arab Spring.

Kerry said the U.S. and Tunisia would soon begin negotiations on a major loan guarantee and were discussing expanded military cooperation, including intelligence sharing and the possible use of drones to collect information about potential threats. A U.S. military team was expected in Tunisia around late November to begin those talks.

Tunisia is the only Arab Spring country to have solidified a new democracy, but it is facing serious economic and security challenges. Tunisia's tourism industry has been hit especially hard this year. Shootings at a luxury beach hotel in Sousse last June killed 38 people, mostly tourists, while in March, an attack by Islamist extremists at Tunisia's famed Bardo museum near the capital killed 22 people.

The attack came two weeks before a group of Tunisians heads to Oslo to receive this year's Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the country's National Dialogue Quartet for negotiations that rescued the country's fledgling democracy from a constitutional crisis.

Tunisia's influential Islamist party also denounced the explosion, and urged Tunisians to unite behind the security forces as they hunt for the perpetrators. "Tunisia is targeted because it is a democracy and represents a model of moderate Islam," it said.

The U.N. Security Council "stressed that no terrorist attack can reverse the path of Tunisia towards democracy and its efforts towards economic recovery and development." Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations "will continue to stand with the people of Tunisia as they confront the scourge of terrorism and continue to consolidate and strengthen their democracy."

Charlton reported from Paris. Matthew Lee in Washington also contributed.

Netanyahu still faces arrest in Spain

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A Spanish judge is standing firm on his decision to reopen a legal case against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others linked to the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid if any of them ever step foot in Spain. Anadolu Agency has gained access to a decree from Judge Jose de la Mata, which, despite a request from the district attorney’s office to cancel the order, maintains the position that could lead to the arrest of Netanyahu or other Israeli officials if they enter Spanish territory.

De la Mata has ordered the addition of seven names to the police database and for police or national security to notify him if any of the people named are in, or are trying to enter, Spain. Once notified, the judge could reopen the case into the Freedom Flotilla which would allow the Spanish National High Court to notify, charge and even arrest the accused.

Six civilian ships in the Freedom Flotilla were raided in international waters by Israeli forces on 31 May, 2010, as the vessels tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed and 30 other people were wounded, including one who died nearly four years after being critically injured. Three Spanish citizens were also on board at the time.

The names in De La Mata’s order are of those who made up the so-called “Forum of Seven”, a committee of Israeli ministers who made key decisions about security issues when the flotilla was attacked. They include Netanyahu, ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, ex-defense minister Ehud Barak, ex-deputy prime ministers Moshe Ya'alon (who is current defense minister) and Eli Yishai, former state minister Benny Begin and former Israeli naval commander Eliezer Marom.

“It is confirmed that the requirements exist to activate Spanish jurisdiction in this crime, for example the presence of the accused in Spanish territory,” the document, issued on 17 November, says. The appeal by the district attorney’s office was filed on 13 November.

The Israeli government is, predictably, outraged by the decision, said the Jerusalem Post. "We consider it to be a provocation,” explained Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon on 14 November. “We are working with the Spanish authorities to get it cancelled. We hope it will be over soon."

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/22405-netanyahu-still-faces-arrest-in-spain.

Pro-independence protest in Catalonia draws around 3,000

November 22, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Around 3,000 protesters have gathered in Barcelona to support an organization that seeks the creation of a Catalan state independent from Spain and urge regional lawmakers to reach an agreement to form a transitional government.

The Catalan National Assembly, with about 30,000 fee-paying members, called Sunday's rally to lobby 10 lawmakers from the far-left CUP group and 62 parliamentarians from the "Together for Yes" alliance to set aside differences and break a logjam that is paralyzing progress toward an independent Catalonia.

"We ask all 72 lawmakers from Together for Yes and CUP to be responsible, courageous and firm, and to show a willingness for dialogue to reach the best possible agreement for the formation of a strong and united government," said CNA president Jordi Sanchez.

The parliament of Catalonia has until Jan. 10 to elect a leader and form a government or it must call a new election. Sanchez asked the lawmakers to try and reach a deal by Nov. 27. With 72 seats, pro-secessionists would hold the majority in the 135-seat regional parliament, although they only secured 48 percent of the popular vote in September elections.

Former South Korean President Kim Young-sam dies at age 87

November 22, 2015

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Former President Kim Young-sam, who formally ended decades of military rule in South Korea and accepted a massive international bailout during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, died Sunday. He was 87.

The chief of Seoul National University Hospital, Oh Byung-Hee, told a televised briefing that Kim died there early Sunday. He said Kim is believed to have suffered from a severe blood infection and acute heart failure before he died.

Kim was taken to the hospital on Thursday due to a high fever, Oh said. In recent years, Kim had been treated at the hospital for stroke, angina and pneumonia, Oh added. Kim was an important figure in South Korea's pro-democracy movement and opposed the country's military dictators for decades. As president, Kim laid the foundation for a peaceful power transfer in a country that had been marked by military coups.

During his presidency from 1993-1998, he had his two predecessors indicted on mutiny and treason charges stemming from a coup. Still, Kim pardoned the two convicted military strongmen — Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo — at the end of his term.

Kim also launched a popular anti-corruption campaign and vowed not to receive any political slush funds, though this was later tarnished when his son was arrested on charges of bribery and tax evasion.

He led South Korea in 1994 when the Clinton administration was considering attacking Nyongbyon — home to North Korea's nuclear complex — north of communist North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. Kim lobbied against the idea, fearing a possible war.

A U.S. aircraft carrier and a cruiser had been deployed near South Korea's east coast in preparation for a possible airstrike, and the United States planned to evacuate Americans, including its soldiers and their families, Kim said in a memoir.

A U.S. airstrike "will immediately prompt North Korea to open fire against major South Korean cities from the border," Kim said in his memoir, describing his dawn telephone conversation with President Bill Clinton in June 1994.

The crisis eased when former President Jimmy Carter met with the North's leader and founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un, in Pyongyang, which led to an accord aimed at freezing North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear programs.

That deal collapsed in 2002 when the United States accused North Korea of running a secret uranium-based program, sparking another nuclear crisis. After years of denials, North Korea announced in 2009 that it was enriching uranium, a process that gave it a second way to make nuclear bombs.

During the '94 crisis, Carter tried to arrange a summit between Kim and the North's founder — in what would have been the first such meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas since the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.

But the summit didn't take place because the North's Kim suddenly died of heart attack in July 1994. It took six years before the leaders of the two Koreas — South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Il — held a summit in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il was the father of Kim Jong Un.

North Korea continued to cause security jitters for rival South Korea during Kim's presidency. In 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground off South Korea's eastern shores. The North later expressed its "deep regret" for the intrusion that left 24 North Korean agents and 13 South Koreans dead. It was an unprecedented apology from the North — though it said the sub drifted into southern waters while on a routine training exercise.

Kim was credited with disbanding a key military faction and bringing transparency to the South's murky financial system. But he was also accused of mismanaging the economy during the Asian financial crisis that toppled some of the country's debt-ridden conglomerates and forced the government to accept a $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Kim was born into a rich fishing family on Dec. 20, 1927, in Geoge Island off the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule. During the Korean War, he anchored a defense ministry propaganda radio program.

In 1954, Kim was elected as the youngest member of the National Assembly. At that time, he was a member of the ruling party of the late Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first president. But a few months later, he broke with the ruling party in protest over a constitutional revision and joined the opposition party, drawing anger from military rulers.

In 1979, Kim was expelled from the assembly for his anti-government activities, shortly before then President Park Chung-hee — who seized power in a military coup in 1961 — was assassinated by his intelligence chief.

During that chaotic period, Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan and his military cronies rolled tanks and troops into Seoul to seize power in another coup that ended an interim government. In the early 1980s, Kim was placed under house arrest twice and staged a 23-day hunger strike to protest political oppression.

Kim spent more than three decades in opposition as an advocate for democracy, though he later joined hands with military leader Roh Tae-woo and others to create a new ruling party. In 1992, Kim became the head of the ruling party and was elected president, five years after his first unsuccessful presidential bid.

Kim is survived by his wife and two sons and three daughters.

Former Associated Press writer Kim Kwang-tae and Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

EU flags disappear from Polish government press briefings

November 24, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's new prime minister has broken with the practice of pro-European predecessors and has removed the EU flag from her weekly news conference.

Beata Szydlo appeared Tuesday to brief reporters after the first working meeting with her Cabinet since the conservative Law and Justice party took power last week, and stood in front of Polish flags only.

Asked about the change, Szydlo said that in these difficult times she is grateful that Poland belongs to NATO and the EU, but that government press briefings devoted to national matters will from now on take place "against the background of the most beautiful white-and-red flags."

The blue EU flag still hangs at the entrance to her chancellery and in Parliament.

New Polish ruling team slammed for choice of special judges

November 20, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's new conservative ruling party faced strong criticism Friday for rushing through legislation that allows it to stack the nation's top court with its supporters.

The legislation, passed late Thursday, comes at the end of a politically eventful week in which the ruling Law and Justice party and President Andrzej Duda took decisive steps to strengthen their own power and weaken political rivals from the liberal Civic Platform party who had dominated Poland's government for the past eight years.

"As of today, Poland is no longer a law-abiding democracy," said Andrzej Zoll, a former head of the Constitutional Tribunal who protested the actions regarding the court. After Duda swore in the government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo on Monday, he pardoned a government minister who had been convicted of abuse of power, Mariusz Kaminski, before a court could rule on an appeal.

Then, Duda's office issued a report saying furniture and art went missing from presidential buildings under the previous president. The report also listed last-minute steep wage raises and other bonuses for the previous political team and cases of what it called "unjustified spending."

Jacek Michalowski, a close aide to the previous president, said some of the furniture was moved among various government buildings while items in poor condition were destroyed, which, he said, is noted in appropriate documents.

Meanwhile, Szydlo's government ordered the arrest of a former lawmaker who backed the previous government, Jan Bury, over corruption allegations. Szydlo also moved quickly to accept the resignations of four intelligence services chiefs appointed by the previous government. Changes at the top of the secret services are common with a change of power, but Szydlo's critics said the changes were too hasty, given the security challenges after the Paris attacks last week.

The biggest controversy surrounds legislation affecting the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of laws. The parliament, dominated by Law and Justice, approved an amendment that voids the appointment of five judges made by the previous government and allows for other judges to be proposed and appointed instead.

Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski claimed the previous government turned the tribunal into a "party-run institution." "We want to change that in the name of the interests of the majority of Poles," he said.

But the head of a small centrist opposition party, Ryszard Petru, says the new law is unconstitutional and he will appeal the legislation to the same tribunal. Yet Petru also said the previous government provoked the situation by appointing two of the new judges two months before their terms expire in December. The appointments were made two weeks before the October election that the ruling Civic Platform team lost.

Still, the European Council's Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, tweeted this week that "the amendments altering the composition of the Constitutional Court currently rushed through Polish Parliament undermine rule of law and should be withdrawn."

Migrants barred from crossing into Macedonia hold protest

November 22, 2015

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Migrants barred from crossing the Greece-Macedonia border held a fourth day of protests Sunday, as Macedonia's president criticized the European Union over the refugee crisis for a lack of financial support and data sharing.

The influx of migrants into Macedonia has heightened tensions in the country, President Gjorgje Ivanov said. "The risk of possible conflict between refugees and migrants, the migrants and police and army, and between migrants and local people is rated as high," Ivanov told reporters Sunday after meeting with visiting European Council president Donald Tusk in Macedonia's capital, Skopje.

Several European countries, including EU members Slovenia and Croatia and non-members Serbia and Macedonia, have declared they will only allow "war-zone refugees" from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to transit through their countries on their way to central and northern Europe.

This policy has left many others stranded in the Greek border town for four days, demanding to be let in and chanting slogans such as "Freedom!" and "We are not terrorists." On Sunday, an Iranian man threatened to cut his wrists with a razor if not allowed into Macedonia. Police intervened to disarm him, but, in the scuffle, he cut his face.

The number of migrants being barred from entering Macedonia has fallen significantly Sunday, from more than 2,000 to around 1,300 in the early evening. Many of them took buses and taxis to Athens and Thessaloniki. Greek police believe they may be trying to find other routes, including with the help of smugglers.

Ivanov also said that Macedonia has the capacity to shelter about 2,000 people in its temporary transit centers. "Any increase in these numbers will increase permanent and direct threats and risks for the national security of Macedonia," he added.

A total of 6,000 refugees crossed into Macedonia from early Saturday through early Sunday, police say. About 500,000 refugees have transited through Macedonia in 2015.

Konstantin Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia. Demetris Nellas contributed to this report from Athens, Greece.

Merkel: 10 years in office and no signs of stopping

November 21, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel marks her 10th anniversary at the helm of Germany on Sunday, becoming only the third post-World War II chancellor to hit that milestone. Over Merkel's decade in charge, she has presided over Germany's strong re-emergence on the world scene — showing leadership in the European financial crisis, pioneering the use of renewable energies and embracing a role as a key negotiator in the Ukraine conflict and a moral authority in Europe's migrant crisis.

At home, the European Union's most populous country has seen plenty of change, but Merkel has won over voters with an aura of reassuring stability that has earned her the nickname "Mutti" or "mom." Even amid turbulence over her welcoming attitude toward refugees, there's little sign of an alternative to Merkel.


Under Merkel, Germany has found a new assertiveness — at least in economic diplomacy — since the Eurozone debt crisis erupted in Greece. Berlin has been key to designing the response, a combination of aid in exchange for budget cuts and economic reforms, and has shown determination in applying it, despite widespread criticism abroad for what many view as a damaging focus on austerity. Since Merkel's third-term government took office in 2013, Germany also has shown signs of playing a more active diplomatic role — in particular, anchoring the diplomacy-and-sanctions strategy over Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Germany remains reluctant to expand its military role abroad, though it remains one of the biggest contributors to NATO's mission in Afghanistan and has armed Kurdish fighters in Iraq — a contrast to Germany's previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.


When Merkel took office in 2005, Germany's unemployment was 11 percent, with more than 4.5 million people out of work. It had peaked a few months earlier at more than 12 percent. Under Merkel, the economy reaped the benefits of the package of welfare-state trims and economic reforms that were initiated by center-left predecessor Gerhard Schroeder. Merkel hasn't had to inflict similarly painful reforms of her own on Germans, with the exception of an early move to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.

Merkel's government was able to keep the economy largely on track through the 2008-2009 economic crisis, with unemployment kept in check thanks to a government-backed short-term work program. Strong tax income generated by the healthy economy allowed Merkel to balance the budget, getting by without new borrowing for the first time since 1969 — one of her proudest achievements. Unemployment stands at 6 percent on Merkel's 10th anniversary, with about 2.6 million registered jobless.


Merkel has been relentlessly pragmatic, nudging her conservative Christian Democratic Union toward the center. Electoral math has twice forced her into coalitions with the party's traditional rivals, the Social Democrats — in her first four-year term and again since 2013. That has allowed her to dominate the center ground of German politics. She has irked some supporters with a willingness to sacrifice conservative sacred cows — scrapping military conscription and, most dramatically, abruptly accelerating the shutdown of Germany's nuclear power plants following meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima plant in 2011. That move hurt her ratings in the short term but, in the long run, has removed divisive issues from German politics.

It remains to be seen how Merkel's move to open the door to Syrian refugees flowing into Europe will play out; conservative critics have decried a perceived loss of control and order, and complain that Germany's capacity to welcome newcomers is exhausted. Still, under her leadership, the country has quietly undergone a shift in its attitude toward immigration. Where the mainstream position was once that foreigners should eventually go home, there's now widespread acceptance that Germany is a country that welcomes immigrants.


Traditionally a supporter of nuclear power, Merkel made an about-turn after the Fukushima disaster and announced all of the country's reactors would be shut off by 2022 as part of the "Energiewende" — roughly, "energy turnaround." She embarked upon one of the world's most ambitious plans for renewable energy, pledging that sources including wind and sun would make up 40-45 percent of Germany's energy mix by 2025, and 55-60 percent by 2035. The decision was popular in Germany, but readying Europe's largest economy to switch power sources has proven complicated. Germany's coast and flat northern plains offer plentiful wind energy, but planning the ugly power lines to get that electricity to the southern industrial heartland is hitting resistance. In Merkel's decade, Germany's energy mix has gone from 10 percent renewables to 25.8 percent through 2014. In June when Germany hosted the G-7 summit in Bavaria, Merkel was able to use her own record to help leverage a commitment from the other countries, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and the U.S., to move away from using fossil fuels by the end of this century.


Few people would have expected Merkel to become such a long-lasting leader after she barely won Germany's 2005 election. She had turned off voters with talk of far-reaching reforms and nearly blew a huge poll lead to finish only just ahead of then-Chancellor Schroeder's Social Democrats. Merkel then emerged atop a coalition of the rival parties. As chancellor, she dropped talk of deep reform and spoke instead of taking "many small steps" to revive the economy — an approach that has continued to serve her well in various policy areas.

Merkel is the first woman and first person to grow up in communist East Germany to serve as chancellor — reaching the peak of German politics via an improbable route. She entered politics in her mid-30s after an early career as a physicist behind the Iron Curtain. As communism crumbled, she joined a short-lived new political group, Democratic Awakening. She was a spokeswoman for East Germany's first and only democratically elected leader before being thrust into Chancellor Helmut Kohl's first post-reunification Cabinet as minister for families and women. Merkel also served as environment minister in the 1990s, helping to negotiate the Kyoto accord to curb greenhouse gas emissions. She was elected CDU leader in 2000, benefiting from a corruption scandal that erupted after Kohl acknowledged accepting illegal party donations.


Merkel hasn't said whether she will seek a fourth four-year term in 2017, though so far it's been widely assumed in Germany that she will. By the time of her last victory in 2013, she faced no serious rivals in her own party. The center-left Social Democrats, Germany's other main party, have struggled for years to get support of much more than 25 percent — more than 10 points short of Merkel's conservatives. Merkel has shown no sign of grooming a successor, and no obvious long-term replacement is in the wings despite misgivings in the conservative ranks over the migrant influx.

Asked a week ago about her future, she refused once again to say whether she will seek a fourth term — something she would have to do to pass Helmut Kohl (16 years) as longest-serving chancellor. Political scientist Herfried Muenkler, a professor at Berlin's Humboldt university, says nobody would have predicted 10 years ago that Merkel would be in power for so long. But at this point there are no serious challengers: "I don't see anyone in the current situation who would stand against her," he said.

And true to form, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said Friday he didn't know of any special plans she'd made to mark her 10th anniversary — and she was making no public appearances.

Frank Jordans and David Rising contributed to this story.

Well planned Mali attack took advantage of security lapses

November 22, 2015

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The heavily armed Islamic extremists who shot up a luxury hotel in Mali's capital, killing 19 people, timed their assault for the moment when guards would be the most lax, allowing them to easily blast their way past a five-man security team before turning their weapons on terrified guests, a security guard and witnesses said Saturday.

The timing suggested a well-planned operation that analysts say could be an attempt by al-Qaida to assert its relevance amid high-profile attacks by the rival Islamic State group. The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako began at around 7 a.m. Friday morning when two gunmen, approaching on foot, reached the entrance where five guards who had worked the night shift were waiting to be replaced by a new team, said Cheick Dabo, one of the guards.

The guards had just finished the morning prayer and had put their weapons — a shotgun and two pistols — away in their vehicle when the militants struck. "We didn't see the jihadists until they started firing on us. We weren't concentrating and we didn't expect it," he said.

Four of the guards were shot, one fatally, while Dabo himself managed to hide under a car. Government critics have attacked the level of security at the hotel and in the country but Interior Minister Salif Traore said Saturday that there was little to be done in the face of such determined attackers.

"They were ready to die, so the level of security is hardly important," he told reporters. "The Radisson hotel had a level of security that was considered good." Once inside, at least one of the assailants headed for the kitchen and restaurant, sparking pandemonium, said Mohammed Coulibaly, a cook at the hotel.

"I was busy cooking when a waitress started screaming at the door, 'They are attacking us, they are attacking us!'" Coulibaly said. "I asked everyone to go into the hallway, so everyone headed in that direction. Suddenly we heard the footsteps of the jihadists behind us and there was total panic and people were running in every direction."

Coulibaly said he then hid in a bathroom with one of the guests, but one of the assailants saw him through a window and started firing, prompting him to run to the kitchen where he was nearly overwhelmed by smoke.

"I realized that if I didn't leave the kitchen the smoke would kill me. So I waited until I didn't hear any noise and I ran from the kitchen and escaped the hotel through a window," he said. By that point, the assailants were heading upstairs where they took dozens of hostages, launching a standoff with Malian security forces that lasted more than seven hours and claimed 19 lives in addition to their own. All but one of the victims were hotel guests.

Speaking to reporters briefly after visiting the hotel on Saturday, Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said the attack underscored the global threat posed by Islamic extremists, especially coming just one week after teams of attackers from the Islamic State group in Paris killed 130 people while targeting a stadium, a concert hall and cafes and restaurants.

"These people have attacked Paris and other places. Nowhere is excluded," Keita said. Army Maj. Modibo Nama Traore said earlier Saturday that security forces were hunting "more than three" suspects who may have been involved in the assault. The government on Friday declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency and three days of national mourning beginning Monday.

The Radisson attack was claimed by Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels), an extremist group formed by notorious Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, in a statement Friday that said it was carried out in cooperation with al-Qaida's "Sahara Emirate."

Belmoktar, an Algerian militant and former al-Qaida commander who has long been based in the Sahara, shot to prominence after his group carried out a January 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant that resulted in the death of 39 foreign workers.

Jean-Herve Jezequel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Al-Mourabitoun may be allying with al-Qaida in the face of the losses the extremists have suffered at the hands of French forces that intervened in Mali in 2013 after much of the north fell to radical Islamists.

"Belmoktar may want to revive the alliance with al-Qaida maybe to reassert their position because they have lost a lot," he said. "They have lost a lot of leaders in the last three years because of the French military intervention."

The attack may also be a way for al-Qaida and its allies to assert itself in the face of the highly publicized string of attacks carried out by its chief rival in jihad, the Islamic State group. While IS does not have a major presence in this region, its successes elsewhere in the world have resulted in local radical groups pledging allegiance to it.

"Al-Qaida and its international affiliates have been surpassed by IS and needed to show that they are still there," said Djallil Lounnes, an expert on radical groups in the Sahara based in Morocco. "The attack on the hotel was perfect — only foreign delegations in a highly secure area — so the message would be that we, al-Qaida, can strike high-quality targets, not just random civilians."

Among the dead in the Radisson attack were a 41-year-old American development worker, six Russian plane crew from a cargo company, and three senior executives from the powerful state-owned China Railway Construction Corp., officials said.

Corey-Boulet reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Associated Press writer Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.

Mayor trusts Rio Olympic security, but says 'have to worry'

November 21, 2015

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Mayor Eduardo Paes expressed confidence Saturday in security for next year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but was also cautious in the wake of the attacks in Paris just over a week ago.

"We have to worry," Paes said, speaking at the field hockey venue for the games. "The attacks to Paris were not to Paris, but to the civilized world. ... This can happen anywhere and we are going to take good care of the security of the Olympic Games, and things are going to go well."

Brazilian government officials have said that 85,000 soldiers, police and security agents will be deployed for the Rio games, which is reported to be twice as many as the 2012 London Olympics. Jose Mariano Beltrame, the top security official for Rio de Janeiro state, said earlier in the week that security plans have not changed because of the Paris attacks.

Brazil has little experience with attacks like those in Paris. The major problem in Rio is street crime, robberies and assaults — part of the endemic violence in a city rife with guns. Much of the violence takes place in sprawling hillside slums where police are outnumbered by armed gangs. Some of these areas border Rio's famous beach areas in the south of the city, which will host several Olympic events.

Brazil is larger than the continental United States and has thousands of miles (kilometers) of porous borders, some slicing through the Amazon jungle region.

Japan rocket launches its first commercial satellite

Tokyo (AFP)
Nov 24, 2015

A Japanese rocket lifted off Tuesday and successfully put the national space program's first commercial satellite into orbit, officials said, as Tokyo tries to enter a business dominated by European and Russian companies.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries oversaw the launch from Tanegashima Space Center in southwest Japan.

The launch of the H-IIA rocket was originally scheduled at 3:23 pm (0623 GMT), but was delayed by roughly 30 minutes because a small ship unexpectedly came near the space station.

The rocket successfully launched at 3:50 pm, carrying the TELSTAR 12V communications and broadcasting satellite for Canadian satellite operator Telesat.

About four and a half hours later, it released the payload as planned, said an official of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

"The release was successful and the satellite is on course to the scheduled orbit," the official told AFP.

The satellite later successfully entered an oval orbit, Kyodo News reported.

Japan wants to become a major player in the satellite launching business. It has tried to improve the H-IIA rocket to cut the cost of each launch to make its program competitive...

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Japan_rocket_launches_its_first_commercial_satellite_999.html.

Russia delivers first S-300 missile defense system to Iran

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Russia has delivered the first of five S-300 anti-missile defense systems to Tehran, Iran’s ambassador to Moscow revealed on Monday. “Iran and Russia signed a new contract and the delivery of the S-300 systems has started,” said Mehdi Sanaei.

According to the Iranian Tasnim news agency, Sanaei pointed out that former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, cancelled the missile defense deal in 2010, “under pressure from the West”. That position has “improved” today, he added.

Moscow and Tehran signed the initial S-300 contract in 2007 for the delivery of five S-300 systems worth $800 million. In 2010 the contract was put on hold by Medvedev due to UN sanctions on Iran. In return, Iran started a $4 billion lawsuit at an international court in Geneva against Russia’s arms export agency. The current Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree lifting the ban in April this year.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/22447-russia-delivers-first-s-300-missile-defence-system-to-iran.

SE Asia creates Economic Community, but challenges remain

November 22, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Thirteen years after the idea was mooted, Southeast Asian leaders on Sunday formally created a unified economic community in a region more populous and diverse than the European Union or North America, and with hopes of competing with China and India.

The 10 leaders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed a declaration during their summit establishing the ASEAN Economic Community, as part of a larger ASEAN Community that aims for political, security, cultural and social integration.

Summit host Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia hailed the ASEAN Community as a "landmark achievement," and urged members to accelerate integration. "The region is primed to expand exponentially," he said.

The community, known by its acronym AEC, is already a reality and many of its fundamentals have been applied in the region such as removal of tariff barriers and visa restrictions among others. It has also led to greater political and cultural cooperation.

AEC will bolster income and employment, and provide the region with stronger economic muscle in facing the other giants, said Michael G. Plummer, a professor of international economics at the Europe Center of Johns Hopkins University, based in Bologna, Italy.

"ASEAN integration will help balance the economic power of China and India. Individually, ASEAN countries are, perhaps, too small to be important players in the economic and security game, but as an integrated group of more than half a billion people, they would be in the major league," Plummer said.

But there is a long way to go before the AEC becomes fully functional after becoming a legal entity on Dec. 31. The region's diversity can be a hindrance sometimes. ASEAN has 630 million people, speaking different languages, following various faiths and governed by various systems, including rambunctious democracies, a military dictatorship, quasi-civilian, authoritarian, monarchy and communism.

"The AEC is arguably the most ambitious economic integration program in the developing world. But implementation of the AEC is increasingly uphill. Much remains to be done and the region faces many challenges in finishing. The AEC is a process," Plummer said.

It falls short in more politically sensitive areas such as opening up agriculture, steel, auto production and other protected sectors. ASEAN citizens will be allowed to work in other countries in the region, but will be limited to jobs in eight sectors, including engineering, accountancy and tourism. This accounts for only 1.5 percent of the total jobs in the region, and host countries still can put up constitutional regulatory hurdles restricting the inflow of talent.

Intra-regional trade has remained at around 24 percent of ASEAN's total global trade for the last decade, far lower than 60 percent in the European Union. ASEAN members also struggle to resolve diplomatic flare-ups among each other such as border disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam, or Indonesia's inability to fight annual forest fires that spew noxious haze for months over Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Plummer said progress has been slow in in services liberalization. Cross-border flow of investment is also restricted by large exclusion lists and caps on foreign ownership. Government procurement and curbing monopolies by state-owned enterprises are highly sensitive and untouched, he said.

Although the four poorer economies — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam — have until 2018 to bring down tariffs, economic integration could further reinforce income equalities in the region, he said.

AEC "is not the finished article. Neither is it officially claimed to be. There is much work to be done," said Mohamad Munir Abdul Majid, chairman of a council that advises ASEAN on business matters. "There is a disparity between what is officially recorded as having been achieved ... and what the private sector reports as their experience."

There are also other hurdles, such as corruption, uneven infrastructure and unequal costs of transportation and shipping. A wide economic gulf divides Southeast Asia's rich and middle income economies — Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines — and its four less developed members, Communist Vietnam and Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

The AEC was envisaged in 2002 — and a blueprint created in 2007 — to face competition from China and India for market share and investments. While China's economic growth is expected to slow to an average of 6 percent annually over the next five years, India's expansion is likely to pick up to 7.3 percent in the same period, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

The AEC is one of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, which was created by the signing of the declaration Sunday. The other two pillars are political-security and socio-cultural. After the ASEAN summit, the 10 leaders huddled with heads of state from four other Asian countries as well as President Barack Obama, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key for a two-hour East Asia Summit.