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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Romanian president nominates regional politician as next PM

December 30, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's president on Friday nominated a regional politician as the next prime minister, after turning down an economist who could have become the country's first female Muslim premier.

President Klaus Iohannis endorsed Sorin Grindeanu, 43, to become premier. Grindeanu is a member of the Social Democratic Party that won Dec. 11 elections, and chairman of the Timis county council. Parliament needs to approve him.

Grindeanu said he hoped the new government would be approved by Jan. 4. He said he hoped that the government would be able to "put in practice" the government's program which includes hiking the minimum salary, reducing the sales tax, increasing students' grants and scrapping taxes for retirees who have low pensions. It is unclear where the government will find the funds to cover the extra expenditure.

Grindeanu said he found out he'd been nominated, after the president sent him a text message wishing him "success." The nomination came after Iohannis declined to endorse Sevil Shhaideh. As well as her lack of political experience, Shhaideh sparked concerns due to reports about her Syrian-born husband's support of Syrian President Bashar Assad on his Arabic-language Facebook page.

However, Social Democrat chairman Liviu Dragnea — who cannot become premier himself because he was convicted this year of election fraud — complained Friday that the president had not publicly said why he declined to nominate Shhaideh.

Polish lawmakers occupy parliament in holiday protest

December 24, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish lawmaker Michal Stasinski arrived at parliament pulling a suitcase and carrying a bag filled with his mother's homemade cabbage-and-mushroom stuffed dumplings. While most lawmakers were home for Christmas, Stasinski on Friday was joining a group of opposition lawmakers hunkering down in the dimly lit and chilly building to protest what they consider backsliding on democracy by a populist government whose anti-establishment and nationalistic views echo those of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

The protesting lawmakers have vowed to stay in the main assembly where laws are voted on, taking turns in shifts, until parliament returns on Jan. 11. In its 13 months in power, the ruling Law and Justice party has moved to weaken the Constitutional Tribunal — the country's highest legislative court — tried to limit certain press freedoms, supported criminalizing abortion and approved some restrictions on public gatherings. Opponents fear that the constitution and free elections might be next.

"What they are doing is building a kind of velvet dictatorship, step by step," Stasinski, a member of Modern, a pro-business party involved in the protest, told The Associated Press. "I cannot agree to what they are doing and this is why I have decided to spend Christmas here."

The way the ruling party is cementing power has unleashed off-and-on street protests in Warsaw and other cities. However, the party's support remains strong in small towns, boosted by cash bonuses paid monthly to families with at least two children and poorer families that have only one child. The party also lowered the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men, a popular change but one economists say the aging society can't afford.

Stasinski's family in Bydgoszcz were sorry he wouldn't be home for Christmas, but even his ailing 86-year-old father supports his decision to protest. The 48-year-old lawmaker planned to get through the holiday on his mother's pierogi, along with food from his fellow lawmakers and supporters, and some warm clothing. Anti-government activists were planning to organize a meal outside the parliament for the protesting lawmakers on Christmas Eve, the most important moment in three days of Christmas celebrations in Poland.

Poland has been in a state of tension since Law and Justice swept to power, winning first the presidency and then a majority in parliament — the most power any party has had in the democratic era. Party leaders argue they have a mandate to rebuild Poland in line with their traditional, Catholic and patriotic worldview. They say they have had to exert greater control over some institutions to remove the continued influence of political opponents who would stifle their agenda — including former communists and members of Civic Platform, the party led by the former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council.

The European Union, while accusing the government of eroding the rule of law, has proven powerless to reverse the course of a nation long seen as one of the most successful democracies to emerge from the ashes of Eastern European communism.

Many of the ruling party leaders accuse the protesting opposition of trying to destabilize the state, saying that they represent an establishment that will not accept its loss of privileges. The reason for the sit-in goes back to events Dec. 16, after news broke that the ruling party planned to impose some restrictions on media access in parliament.

Opposition lawmakers, seeing an attack on democratic freedom, occupied the area around the speaker's podium in parliament, blocking work on legislation. Ruling party lawmakers then moved the session to another room and voted on the 2017 budget.

Authorities, amid the uproar, have since backed away from the plans for media restrictions in parliament. But the opposition parties are demanding a repeat of the budget vote, arguing that the procedure was highly irregular and that there is no evidence there was a quorum.

Ryszard Petru, leader of the Modern party, said if that vote is allowed to stand, it could set a dangerous precedent for the ruling party to hold other votes that violate procedures, "perhaps even changing the constitution."

"If this illegal vote is repeated, then they'll be able to pass whatever they want. It's dangerous. This is a real political crisis, and to some extent a constitutional crisis," Petru told the AP. "We are going to stay here and show that this is unacceptable."

Poland's president talks with opposition, protests spread

December 18, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Police removed several protesters blocking a prominent Polish governing party member's car Sunday in a southern city as the president met in the capital with opposition leaders to help solve a growing political crisis.

The demonstrators sat in a street in Krakow trying to prevent Law and Justice party member Ryszard Terlecki from entering Wawel Castle. He was joining party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was on a private visit to the tomb of his twin brother, the late President Lech Kaczynski.

Police officers dragged the protesters away and ensured safe passage. Later, people chanted "Shame! Shame!" at the car that was carrying Kaczynski out of the castle. Political tension is rising between Poland's conservative government and the pro-European Union opposition over the ruling party's plan to restrict journalists' access to lawmakers in parliament. The wider conflict started building last year after the Law and Justice party took power and began introducing sweeping reforms.

The steps that the government has taken to gain influence over a top court have also put it at odds with EU leaders, who say Poland's democracy and rule of law are threatened. On Sunday, a few thousand Warsaw residents rallied in front of the court, the Constitutional Tribunal. They were supportive of its outgoing head, Andrzej Rzeplinski, for having opposed changes that critics say are against the rule of law. The appointment of Rzeplinski's successor is expected to create further tension in the coming days.

Carrying Polish and EU flags, the crowd then marched to parliament, where Poland's most serious political crisis in years began Friday. Some protesters were still there late Sunday. "We have lost confidence in the government and only the media can watch the government, the lawmakers and tell us what they are really doing," 56-year-old economist Ewa Cisowska said.

Former President Lech Walesa said that there was no easy way out of the crisis unless the Law and Justice party resigns from power. But the government has remained defiant. Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski told a huge crowd of supporters in front of the Presidential Palace that the government was defending democracy.

President Andrzej Duda, aligned with the ruling party, expressed deep concern over the crisis and held talks with four opposition leaders Sunday. He will meet Kaczynski on Monday. The ruling party has increased welfare spending and still remains popular with many Poles, particularly those outside of the cities and on modest incomes. But its declarations that some social groups have been unjustly privileged under previous governments have angered many, especially after government backers started chanting "thieves," in reference to the opposition.

EU's Tusk, Poland's PM differ on nation's democracy

December 17, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Two days of anti-government protests have exposed clashing views on the shape of Poland's democracy, with a European Union leader and the protesters saying it is threatened by the government, and the prime minister insisting the threat is coming from the opposition's actions.

European Council President Donald Tusk and Poland's Prime Minister Beata Szydlo made separate comments Saturday on the rising political tension between Poland's conservative government and the pro-EU opposition.

They spoke after protesters rallied outside the presidential palace and the parliament building in Warsaw for a second day over a ruling party's plan to restrict journalists' access to lawmakers in parliament.

Tusk, Poland's former prime minister, invoked the word "dictatorship" and reminded his audience of protests in Poland under communism that ended in bloodshed. "I appeal to those who hold real power in our country to respect the people, the principles and values of the constitution, the standing procedures and good practices," Tusk said in Wroclaw, southwest Poland, where he was attending a cultural event.

He warned that whoever was undermining the "European model of democracy" in Poland was "exposing us all to strategic risks." A few hours later, Szydlo said in a nationwide televised address that Poland was a firm democracy and that the opposition was guided by a sense of "helplessness and frustration" over having lost power and was hurting Poland's interest with its actions.

"Noise, perturbation, destabilization have, alas, become the tools of the opposition parties," Szydlo said, appealing for dialogue, responsibility and calm. The crowd of a few thousand in Warsaw chanted "Freedom! Equality! Democracy!" and waved Polish and European Union flags, a reflection of the pro-European views of many liberal, urban Poles who oppose the ruling party. Protests were held in Krakow and Lodz, too.

"I feel terrified when I see what is going on around," said Maria Krykiel, a retired bookkeeper. "Only divisions and no calm. Where will that take us?" President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with the ruling party, expressed deep concern and declared a readiness to mediate in the dispute.

The ruling party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has increased welfare spending and still remains popular with many Poles, particularly those outside of the cities and on modest incomes. Some protesters held up copies of the constitution, to show they believe it was not being observed by the ruling party. They also chanted "Solidarity!" reflecting how many link today's protests to the anti-communist opposition of the past.

Ryszard Petru, head of the Modern opposition party, told the crowd in Warsaw that Poles would not accept the "dictators" who are trying to restrict the access of journalists to parliament. He even suggested an early election.

In Poland's biggest parliamentary crisis in years, opposition lawmakers protested the government media plan Friday, blocking a vote on the budget. Governing party members then voted in another hall, but the opposition says the vote was flawed and illegal.

Opposition lawmakers are now demanding a repeat vote on Tuesday. The Senate speaker was to meet with media representatives to discuss the new rules for reporters.

Macedonian conservatives secure win after rerun

December 26, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's conservatives, led by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, secured victory on Sunday in a bitterly contested national election after a poll rerun in a single station did not give the leftist opposition enough votes to overtake their rivals.

The rerun, in the northwestern village of Tearce, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital of Skopje, gave the opposition, led by the Social Democrats, 245 votes to 149 for the conservatives, led by Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party. There were 402 people voting out of 714 registered.

The rerun had been ordered following complaints about voting irregularities from the opposition Social Democrats. The result has not been officially announced but has been posted on the website of Macedonia's Election Commission.

With the rerun result in, VMRO-DPMNE wins 454,577 votes and 51 seats in the 120-member Parliament to 436,981 votes and 49 seats for the Social Democrats. The latter needed to secure 307 votes over the conservatives in a rerun to gain a 50th seat at the conservatives' expense.

What is certain is that Gruevski will need to form a coalition government with onee or more of the Albanian-minority parties, as he has done in the past. But, this time, coalition-building will be complicated by the emergence of two new Albanian-minority parties. The largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, has been a reliable Gruevski partner in the past.

In the annulled vote in Tearce, on Dec. 11, 404 registered voters had cast ballots. VMRO-DPMNE won 91 votes to 87 for the Social Democrats, while the rest were split among four Albanian-minority parties.

In the lead to the rerun, Gruevski's party had been spreading rumors that the Albanians would vote massively for the opposition and had even claimed it would not recognize the result. Antonio Milososki, a VMRO-DPMNE senior official, has blamed the leftist opposition of trying to "falsify the electoral will of the citizens".

"They (the opposition) are trying with some reruns to manipulate or to create conditions for falsifying the will of the people," he said. The national election was called two years early as part of a Western-brokered deal to defuse a two-year political crisis sparked by a massive wiretapping scandal. The left-wing opposition blamed Gruevski for an illegal wiretapping operation targeting more than 20,000 people.

Voting in the rerun went generally smoothly. It was halted for 15 minutes due to problems with the ultra-violet lamps used in the voting verification process. Election authorities use invisible spray on voters' thumb to mark them as having cast votes and check all voters with UV lamps to make sure they will not try to vote again.

Police said Sunday they got a report that two individuals allegedly tried to bribe an unidentified number of residents, offering them from 100 to 500 euros, in order not to vote. The bribers allegedly asked for identity documents from voters as proof they would not vote. Authorities are investigating the allegations.

According to the monitors of civic organization "Civil", attempts were made to bribe about 40 residents.

Brazilian police: Greek ambassador killed by wife's lover

December 31, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Police in Brazil believe that Greece's ambassador to the country was killed by his wife's lover under her orders in a house in the Rio area and have detained three suspects, authorities said Friday.

Ambassador Kyriakos Amiridis went missing on Monday in Nova Iguacu, a city just north of Rio de Janeiro, where the ambassador had been vacationing. The couple lived most of the time in the capital of Brasilia.

On Friday, police investigator Evaristo Pontes Magalhaes said that 29-year-old police officer Sergio Gomes Moreira Filho had confessed to killing Amiridis, alleging self-defense. He said the policeman was having an affair with the ambassador's 40-year-old wife, Francoise.

Filho's cousin, Eduardo de Melo, acknowledged taking part in the killing as a lookout, Magalhaes said. The cousin accused Francoise of offering him the equivalent of $25,000 to participate. A judge ordered the detention of Francoise, her lover and his cousin, and the three were in custody.

Francoise has denied any role in the alleged plot. According to Magalhaes, Francoise said she couldn't stop Filho from killing her husband and insisted she was not at home at the time of the crime. But the police investigator said in a press conference late Friday that the "evidence clearly puts the ambassador's wife as a co-author of the crime."

He said she started plotting with her lover to kill the ambassador after the couple had a serious fight three days before Christmas. "All our evidence suggests that her motivation was to use the financial resources left by the ambassador so she could enjoy life with Sergio," the police officer, Magalhaes said.

The first signs the ambassador had been murdered emerged late Thursday, when police found blood spots believed to be his on a sofa inside the house the couple kept in Nova Iguacu, where the wife's family lives.

Filho told police that he strangled the ambassador during a fight, but the blood evidence found on the scene makes his claim unlikely, Magalhaes said. Neighbors said they did not hear any shots, leading police to believe the policeman stabbed Amiridis.

The investigation showed that Amiridis' body was removed from the house in a carpet at the same time that Francoise arrived with their 10 year-old daughter, who did not see the body of her dead father, Magalhaes said.

Police believe a body found in a burned-out car that Amiridis had rented on Dec. 21 belongs to the ambassador, but forensics experts are still working to confirm that it is him. Brazil's government has offered its condolences to Greece over his death.

The Greek Embassy website in Brazil says Amiridis started his career as diplomat in 1985 in Athens and became Greece's top diplomat in Brazil in 2016. He earlier was Greece's ambassador to Libya and worked as consul in Rio from 2001-2004.

Greek ambassador murdered in Rio; body found in burned-out car

By Andrew V. Pestano
Dec. 30, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Police in Rio de Janeiro said a body found inside of a burned-out car is that of Kyriakos Amiridis, Greece's ambassador to Brazil who has been missing for days.

Amiridis, 59, had been missing since Monday. He was last seen in the city of Nova Iguacu, near Rio de Janeiro, where the car was found underneath an overpass on a main road.

Amiridis was not heard from after he spoke to his wife to let her know he was going out. No ransom was sought.

Brazilian investigators said Amiridis was killed at home and his body was then transported in the car he rented, which was later burned. A blood-stained sofa was found at his home, O Globo reported.

Investigators urged a court to arrest Brazilian military police officer Sergio Gomes Moreira Filho and two alleged accomplices over Amiridis' death.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/12/30/Greek-ambassador-murdered-in-Rio-body-found-in-burned-out-car/7301483108117/.

Merkel tells Germans their country is stronger than terror

December 31, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel is telling Germans in her New Year message that their country is stronger than terrorism and the government will do everything to ensure "security in freedom." Merkel said in her annual televised address being broadcast Saturday that 2016 had been "a year of severe tests," the toughest of them Islamic extremist terror. She added, however, that she is "confident for Germany."

On Dec. 19, 12 people were killed in a truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for that rampage, as it did for two attacks in Bavaria in the summer in which the assailants — who came to Germany as asylum-seekers, like the chief suspect in Berlin — were killed and a total of 20 people were wounded.

"It is particularly bitter and sickening when terror attacks are committed by people who claim to seek protection in our country," said Merkel, who has faced criticism for allowing in large numbers of migrants in 2015.

However, "in going about our life and our work, we are telling the terrorists: you are murderers full of hatred, but you will not determine how we live and want to live," she said, according to the text released by the government ahead of the message's broadcast. "We are free, considerate and open."

Germany is sending the same message in saying, in the face of pictures of the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo, "how important and right it was for our country to help those who really need our protection find their feet here and integrate," Merkel added.

Germany's democracy and values are the opposite of "the hate-filled world of terrorism, and they will be stronger than terrorism," she said. "We are stronger together. Our state is stronger. Our state is doing everything to guarantee its citizens security in freedom."

She pledged that in 2017 the government will take action quickly "where political or legal changes are necessary." Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor in an election expected in September, and already has said that she expects her toughest campaign yet. She called for "an open view of the world and self-confidence, in ourselves and our country."

The chancellor assailed "distorted pictures" of the European Union and of parliamentary democracy. She acknowledged that Europe is slow and difficult and said it should concentrate on "what it really can do better than the national state."

"But, no, we Germans should never be deceived into thinking that a happy future could ever lie in going it alone nationally," Merkel said.

Strike closes Eiffel Tower for 5th day

December 17, 2016

PARIS (AP) — The Eiffel Tower has closed for a fifth day in a strike over working conditions — causing disappointment for scores of tourists. The monument's management apologized Saturday to the visitors.

The CGT Union said it wants workers to be included in the decision-making process and more funds to be directed to the site's maintenance, claiming it fears risks to the employees' health and safety. Unions have held repeated meetings in recent days with officials from the company that manages the tower, SETE.

New negotiations are scheduled on Saturday. The strike comes as Paris is struggling to revive tourism after a string of deadly attacks, floods and polluted air.

It's a crowded starting line for France's Socialist primary

December 17, 2016

PARIS (AP) — France's once-powerful left wing is fighting for its political survival as it prepares for a cacophonous primary for the Socialist presidential candidate. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls leads the pack but is facing tough challengers who say he's betrayed leftist ideals. Here's a look at the left-wing contenders, their rivals, and the issues.


Nine candidates declared their candidacy by Thursday's deadline to represent the Socialist party and its allies in France's two-round, April-May presidential election. The candidates' list was being finalized Saturday for the left's nationwide primary, which will take place in two rounds on Jan. 22 and 29. All French citizens are allowed to vote if they pay 1 euro ($1.04) and sign a document saying they share the values of the left.

Whoever wins the primary will face strong competition: the anti-immigrant far-right represented by the National Front, the traditional conservatives and other centrist and far-left candidates wooing voters fed up with Socialist President Francois Hollande.


Hollande, acknowledging that his personal unpopularity might cost his party the Elysee Palace, decided not to run for re-election — clearing the way for Valls to seek the Socialist nomination instead.

Valls, an immigrant from Spain who became French as an adult, is campaigning against populism and wants to be the candidate of "reconciliation."

The primary is a "great way to be united again," Valls said in his first campaign speech.

Yet divisions within the Socialist party remain deep. The pro-business shift that Hollande and Valls adopted has prompted rebellion among some Socialists who believe they betrayed the leftist values that underpin France's social welfare system and its worker protections.


Among Valls' critics is Arnaud Montebourg, who may be his most serious Socialist challenger. Montebourg, France's industry minister and then its economy minister from 2012 to 2014, lost his portfolio amid feuding over the country's economic policy.

"We have an enormous problem with Valls. His policies have been, if I summarize, pro-free market and authoritarian ... it has dislocated the left," Montebourg told the Le Monde newspaper.

Montebourg pledges to boost the economy through protectionist measures and state intervention.

Former French Education Minister Benoit Hamon is also running to present a more leftist alternative to Valls' centrist views.

A wild card could be Vincent Peillon, another former education minister who presents himself as the candidate of "unity" and has a less divisive reputation than Valls.


In a sign of the French left's deep malaise, other left-wing candidates have decided to run for president without taking part in the January primary.

Polls show far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and centrist figure Emmanuel Macron — Valls' former economy minister — currently have more support than the eventual Socialist nominee and will be on the ballot for at least the first presidential round on April 23.


Whoever wins the Socialist primary must also face strong challengers on the right for France's presidential vote on April 23 and — if the Socialists survive the first round — the presidential runoff on May 7.

Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon was designated last month as the conservatives' presidential nominee.

Another serious presidential contender is far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who wants to restore France's borders and its national currency and has strong anti-Islam, anti-migrant views.

Political analysts say Le Pen may reach the second round of the French presidential election by coming among the top two contenders in April.

At least 26 killed in Congo protests, rights group says

December 21, 2016

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Security forces in Congo killed at least 26 demonstrators Tuesday and arrested scores more amid protests against President Joseph Kabila's hold on power, a rights group said. The deaths were the first reported since Kabila's mandate ended at midnight.

Military and police forces were firing live bullets, raising fears that more people have been killed, Human Rights Watch said. Its researcher Ida Sawyer said on Twitter that the killings took place in the capital, Kinshasa, the southern city of Lubumbashi and elsewhere. Residents told the group that Republican Guards were carrying out door-to-door searches and arresting youths.

Protesters burned the headquarters of the ruling party in Kinshasa. Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father's assassination, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, but a court has ruled that he can remain in power until new elections, which have been delayed indefinitely. They were meant to be in November, but the ruling party says it needs more time — until 2018, at least.

The leader of Congo's largest opposition party, Etienne Tshisekedi, urged peaceful resistance to what he called Kabila's "coup d'etat." In a statement posted on YouTube on Tuesday, he called the president's actions "treason" and appealed to the Congolese people and the international community to no longer recognize Kabila's authority.

Political talks between the ruling party and opposition, which stalled over the weekend, were expected to resume on Wednesday with mediators from the Catholic church. The political impasse has fueled fears of widespread unrest in the vast Central African nation that has trillions of dollars' worth of natural resources but remains one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries.

After Kabila's mandate ended, people blew whistles and rattled pans as part of a protest meant to symbolize the "end of the match." The political negotiations that stalled over the weekend failed to reach an agreement on a date for new elections or the release of political prisoners. Both are key demands of the opposition parties, along with the dropping of criminal charges against opposition leader Moise Katumbi, who fled the country as authorities announced plans to try him. Katumbi's supporters say the charges of hiring mercenaries are politically motivated, as he had been a leading presidential candidate.

Kabila's government has tried to ease tensions by including some opposition figures. A few minutes before midnight, the new opposition Prime Minister Sami Badibanga announced his new transition government.

Although a small part of the opposition, including Badibanga, took part in an earlier national dialogue mediated by the African Union, most of the opposition, including Tshisekedi, refused to take part and rejected an agreement signed in October.

People inside and outside Congo fear a repeat of the dozens of deaths in September, when the opposition took to the streets after the electoral commission failed to schedule the presidential election.

In Kinshasa's Matonge neighborhood on Tuesday, people played soccer in the street to block traffic as a form of protest amid the heavy police and military presence. "Kabila has betrayed our country. He must leave," said Jean-Marcel Tshikuku, a mechanic. "He announced a new government just at the end of his mandate. It's an insult! We don't want him anymore. We don't want negotiations to resume. He must get out, that's all."

AP writers Carley Petesch and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.

Up to 20 dead as Congo police, protesters over president

By Stephen Feller
Dec. 21, 2016

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Residents of the Congo took to the streets Tuesday to protest their president deciding the stay on through 2018 after President Joseph Kabila refused to vacate his office.

Kabila's last day in office was scheduled for Monday but his decision to stay on through at least April 2017 caused protests, leaving at least 20 dead and more than 150 arrested as they react to the president's bucking of the national constitution.

The Congolese constitution allows presidents to serve two terms, but Kabila announced in a last-minute move -- literally five minutes before his term was set to expire -- that he'd formed a new government and expected to stay in office until the next election in 2018.

Protesters gathered in areas of the Congo's capital, Kinshasa, quickly after the announcement, burning tires and erecting barricades, and then protests spread across the country in the latest transfer of power there to not go smoothly.

"Today we are taking things into our own hands," Peter Kabongo, a protester on his way to join the crowds, told The Washington Post. "The police have guns, but there are millions of us who want Kabila out."

Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 and has never had a peaceful transition of power. Kabila became president in 2001 after his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated, winning reelection in 2005 and 2011.

Kabila claimed he should step down until after the next election, noting he could not hold one now because his government does not have the money or logistical ability to run an election.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/12/21/Up-to-20-dead-as-Congo-police-protesters-over-president/6411482288306/.

At least 3 killed in Congo protests, rights group says

December 20, 2016

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Security forces in Congo killed at least three demonstrators in the capital Tuesday and have arrested scores more amid protests against President Joseph Kabila's hold on power, a rights group said. The deaths were the first reported since Kabila's mandate ended at midnight.

Military and police forces were firing live bullets and tear gas, raising fears that more people have been killed or arrested, Human Rights Watch said. Residents told the group that Republican Guards were carrying out door-to-door searches and arresting youths.

Protesters burned the headquarters of the ruling party in the capital, Kinshasa. Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father's assassination, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, but a court has ruled that he can remain in power until new elections, which have been delayed indefinitely. They were meant to be in November, but the ruling party says it needs more time — until 2018, at least.

The leader of Congo's largest opposition party, Etienne Tshisekedi, urged peaceful resistance to what he called Kabila's "coup d'etat." In a statement posted on YouTube on Tuesday, he called the president's actions "treason" and appealed to the Congolese people and the international community to no longer recognize Kabila's authority.

Political talks between the ruling party and opposition, which stalled over the weekend, were expected to resume on Wednesday with mediators from the Catholic church. The political impasse has fueled fears of widespread unrest in the vast Central African nation that has trillions of dollars' worth of natural resources but remains one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries.

After Kabila's mandate ended, people blew whistles and rattled pans as part of a protest meant to symbolize the "end of the match." Angry demonstrators put up barricades in Kinshasa, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowds. Human Rights Watch said there was heavy security deployment in the southern city of Lubumbashi as well. At least 41 opposition members and activists were arrested in the eastern city of Goma on Monday, according to the rights group and local residents.

The political negotiations that stalled over the weekend failed to reach an agreement on a date for new elections or the release of political prisoners. Both are key demands of the opposition parties, along with the dropping of criminal charges against opposition leader Moise Katumbi, who fled the country as authorities announced plans to try him. Katumbi's supporters say the charges of hiring mercenaries are politically motivated, as he had been a leading presidential candidate.

Kabila's government has tried to ease tensions by including some opposition figures. A few minutes before midnight, the new opposition Prime Minister Sami Badibanga announced his new transition government.

Although a small part of the opposition, including Badibanga, took part in an earlier national dialogue mediated by the African Union, most of the opposition, including Tshisekedi, refused to take part and rejected an agreement signed in October.

People inside and outside Congo fear a repeat of the dozens of deaths in September, when the opposition took to the streets after the electoral commission failed to schedule the presidential election.

In Kinshasa's Matonge neighborhood on Tuesday, people played soccer matches in the street to block traffic as a form of protest amid the heavy police and military presence. "Kabila has betrayed our country. He must leave," said Jean-Marcel Tshikuku, a mechanic. "He announced a new government just at the end of his mandate. It's an insult! We don't want him anymore. We don't want negotiations to resume. He must get out, that's all."

AP writers Carley Petesch and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.

Congo opposition: Peacefully resist Kabila's 'coup d'etat'

December 20, 2016

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The leader of Congo's largest opposition party on Tuesday urged peaceful resistance to the "coup d'etat" he said President Joseph Kabila carried out by staying in power after his mandate expired at midnight. Angry demonstrators began putting up barricades in the capital, Kinshasa, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowds.

The political impasse has fueled fears of widespread unrest in the vast Central African nation that has trillions of dollars' worth of natural resources but remains one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries.

At midnight, people blew whistles and rattled pans as part of a protest meant to symbolize the "end of the match" for Kabila. In the early morning hours, barricades were set alight and small groups of protesters in the streets were quickly met by police and army forces using tear gas.

Congo's presidential election once set for November has been delayed indefinitely, adding to fears that Kabila will not step aside. Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father's assassination, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, but a court has ruled that he can remain in power until a new election. The ruling party says there is "no possibility" of one in 2017, saying it needs time to prepare. The opposition wants a vote as soon as possible.

In a statement posted on YouTube on Tuesday, opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called the president's actions "treason." "I launch a solemn appeal to the Congolese people to not recognize the illegal and illegitimate authority of Joseph Kabila, and to peacefully resist a coup d'etat that was carried out with the blessing of the constitutional court," said the 84-yearold Tshisekedi, a longtime Kabila foe who once declared himself president following the 2011 elections.

Until now, opposition figures had refrained from calling publicly for demonstrations, but political negotiations stalled over the weekend without reaching an agreement on a date for new elections or the release of political prisoners.

Both are key demands of the opposition parties, along with the dropping of criminal charges against opposition leader Moise Katumbi, who fled the country as authorities announced plans to try him. Katumbi's supporters say the charges of hiring mercenaries are politically motivated, as he had been a leading presidential candidate.

A presidential adviser said Monday that no election was feasible until 2018 and maintained that Kabila's extended term was legitimate. "The constitution clearly states that the president remains in his position until his successor is elected by the people of the Congo, not by a loud and insistent mob," said Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, the president's diplomatic adviser.

Kabila's government has tried to ease tensions by including some opposition figures. A few minutes before midnight, the new opposition Prime Minister Sami Badibanga announced his new transition government, a blow to ongoing negotiations between the government and the wider opposition coalition.

Although a small part of the opposition, including Badibanga, had taken part in an earlier national dialogue mediated by the African Union, most of the opposition, including Tshisekedi, refused to join in and rejected an agreement signed in October.

In a last-ditch effort to find a political solution, Catholic church officials had been leading talks. Over the weekend, they announced those efforts had stalled and said negotiations would resume Wednesday.

People inside and outside Congo fear a repeat of the dozens of deaths in September, when the opposition took to the streets after the electoral commission failed to schedule the presidential election.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Saturday that concerns about unrest are high, especially since "no one to date has been held accountable" for the protesters' deaths in September.

Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed

Nigeria to open major roads after strike on Boko Haram

25 December 2016 Sunday

Nigeria Sunday will reopen at least two major roads in the country's northeast previously closed due to repeated attacks by Boko Haram militants, the government announced.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed Mohammed said the Maiduguri-Gubio-Damasak and the Maiduguri-Mungono-Baga roads, both strategically important for international trade among Lake Chad nations, would be reopened at a ceremony attended by top government and military officials.

The reopening follows Saturday’s announcement that the army has finally dislodged Boko Haram from the vast Sambisa forest, including the so-called “camp zero” known as the militants’ stronghold.

President Muhammadu Buhari had announced the victory in a statement, claiming it marked the final defeat for Boko Haram.

Mohammed said the reopening ceremony will be witnessed by military chiefs, followed by a lunch with the troops who crushed the insurgency.

Most analysts welcomed the announcement of Boko Haram’s “final defeat” with cautious optimism, warning that security forces letting down their guard could lead militants to exploit this and launch costly attacks on civilians.

Nigeria’s December 2015 announcement of a so-called technical defeat of Boko Haram was followed by rising militant attacks and suicide bombings.

Ambushes on military targets have claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers, including three lieutenant-colonels, although the group's ability to launch physical attacks is thought to have waned considerably.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/182215/nigeria-to-open-major-roads-after-strike-on-boko-haram.

Nigeria: Army claims capture of Boko Haram stronghold

24 December 2016 Saturday

Nigeria’s army has driven Boko Haram militants out of their strongest hideout in the dreaded Sambisa Forest, President Muhammadu Buhari said on Saturday, claiming a huge blow has been dealt to the insurgents.

“I am delighted at, and most proud of the gallant troops of the Nigerian Army, on receipt of the long-awaited and most gratifying news of the final crushing of Boko Haram mlitants in their last enclave in Sambisa Forest,” the president said in a goodwill message to the troops.

He said the militants were driven out of the notorious “camp zero” located deep inside the vast northeastern forest, a day after an army spokesman alerted Nigerians of the need to be vigilant and report strange persons to security agencies.

“I was told by the Chief of Army Staff that the camp fell at about 1:35pm on Friday, Dec. 23, and that the terrorists are on the run, and no longer have a place to hide. I urge you to maintain the tempo by pursuing them and bringing them to justice,” said the president.

“I, therefore, call on all Nigerians to cooperate and support the Nigerian Armed Forces and other security agencies by providing useful information that will expose all the terrorists hiding among the populace.”

He added, “Further efforts should be intensified to locate and free our remaining Chibok girls still in captivity,” referring to 276 female students abducted by Boko Haram in 2014.

Boko Haram occupied Sambisa – a huge colonial-era forest reserve estimated at the size of Lagos – shortly the 2009 crackdown which led to the killing of their leader Muhammed Yusuf. The militants have used various camps in the forest to launch attacks across the northeast region.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/182178/nigeria-army-claims-capture-of-boko-haram-stronghold.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon bids colleagues, staff farewell

December 31, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Ban Ki-moon joked to hundreds of diplomats and U.N. staff as he left United Nations headquarters Friday for the last time as secretary-general that he feels "like Cinderella — tomorrow at midnight, everything changes."

Flanked by the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, the native South Korean thanked U.N. workers for their hard work and commitment over the course of his 10-year tenure, which ends at midnight Dec. 31.

"Tomorrow night on the eve of the new year, I'll be in Times Square for the ball drop. Millions of people will be watching as I lose my job," he said with a broad smile. He told his colleagues he had two words for them: "Thank You."

As the top U.N. official over the last decade, Ban fostered a global agreement to combat climate change and new U.N. goals to combat poverty and inequality. However, he leaves amid continuing conflicts from Syria and Yemen to South Sudan and Libya.

Ban urged staff members to stay focused on advancing U.N. development goals and working to address issues ranging from climate change to gender empowerment. "Keep the focus on people — on people's rights and people's dignity," he told them.

Ban will be succeeded by former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres, who begins a five-year term on Sunday. Ban was thronged by U.N. staff as he made his way out of United Nations headquarters for the last time. At the top of the escalator leading out of the building, a line of staffers held up signs saying "We We Love Love You You SG and Madam," using the initials for secretary-general and paying tribute to his wife Yoo Soon-taek.

At the bottom, a line of top U.N. officials said farewell, many receiving hugs from Ban. The visibly emotional secretary-general, when asked about the sendoff before walking out the door and getting into his car, said: "It's very moving. I'm so grateful for the support and friendship that they have shown me. ... I'm honored to have served this great organization."

Ban returns to South Korea amid widespread speculation he will be a candidate to replace the country's president, who has been impeached.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Putin urges Russian nuclear weapons boost

By Maria Antonova
Moscow (AFP)
Dec 22, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for the country to reinforce its military nuclear potential and praised the army's performance in its Syria campaign.

In a speech that recapped military activities in 2016, Putin said the army's preparedness has "considerably increased" and called for continued improvement that would ensure it can "neutralize any military threat".

"We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems," the Kremlin strongman said.

"We must carefully monitor any changes in the balance of power and in the political-military situation in the world, especially along Russian borders, and quickly adapt plans for neutralizing threats to our country."

He said Russia's military had successfully demonstrated its capabilities in Syria, showcased its technology to potential arms buyers and helped the Syrian army make considerable advances.

"The Syrian army received considerable support, thanks to which it carried out several successful operations against militants," he said.

"The effective use of Russian weapons in Syria opens new possibilities for military-technical cooperation.

"We must take maximum advantage of this. We know there is interest in modern Russian weapons from foreign partners."

Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad, with its special forces also operating on the ground in the country.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military had used "162 types of modern armaments during the military campaign in Syria," including its Sukhoi warplanes and MiG and Kamov helicopters.

"They have shown to be highly effective," he said.

- '35,000 fighters' -

Shoigu produced figures for the entire campaign in Syria but did not mention any estimate of civilian casualties.

Russian warplanes have "liquidated 725 training camps, 405 weapon factories and workshops, 1,500 pieces of terrorist equipment, and 35,000 fighters, including 204 field commanders," he said.

The Russian airforce has conducted a total of 18,800 sorties and carried out 71,000 strikes since the start of its campaign, Shoigu said.

"In general, the operation has allowed (us) to solve several geopolitical problems," he said.

"We have considerably damaged international terrorist organisations in Syria, stopped their expansion... (and) prevented the breakup of Syria."

Russia is prioritizing its Asian partners including India and China for arms sales, he added.

Shoigu said NATO activities along Russia's western borders have grown eight-fold over the past decade, forcing Moscow to send more warplanes to prevent breaches of Russian airspace.

Next year, four additional S-400 anti-missile defense systems will be delivered to the army, and Russia will pay particular attention to its Western flank and the Arctic, he said.

"First and foremost, we will continue to increase military capabilities... take measures to reinforce troops in the western, southwestern and Arctic strategic sectors," Shoigu said.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Putin_urges_Russian_nuclear_weapons_boost_999.html.

Russian ambassador to Turkey shot dead in Ankara art gallery

Monday 19 December 2016

Russia’s ambassador to Turkey has died after being shot by a gunman inside an art exhibition in the Turkish capital Ankara on Monday evening, local media reported.

Andrey Karlov was among a group visiting an exhibition at the modern arts center in Ankara when he was targeted by a gunman. “An unknown person opened fire during a public event in Ankara. As a result, the Russian ambassador to Turkey received a gunshot wound,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told journalists.

Karlov’s condition was initially reported as critical and he was transferred to hospital. A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry confirmed that he had died of injuries.

Russia's foreign ministry said it was in contact with the Turkish government over the shooting, and said they had received assurances that punishment would be meted out to those responsible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly called an urgent meeting with his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the heads of the security services.

The gunman was reported to have been shot dead, according to Turkish media. A media blackout was imposed on the scene shortly after the shooting happened.

The gunman reportedly shouted that the attack was “revenge” for Aleppo. He then shouted, “You will not be allowed to get away with this.”

About 15 to 20 gunshots were reported by eyewitnesses at the scene.

A Hurriyet photojournalist at the scene told broadcaster CNN-Turk that he saw the Russian ambassador get shot. He said the assailant only targeted the ambassador and did not fire at anyone else.

Russian officials at the embassy claim Islamist extremists are behind the attack, according to the Hurriyet newspaper.

The site has been evacuated and is currently surrounded by police.

A number of sources, including Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, said that gunman had been a 22-year old riot police officer named Mevlut Mert Altinas. Gokcek - who has been known for making outlandish claims in past - also suggested he was a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Islamic cleric the government blames for the failed 15 July coup attempt.

Russian and Iranian missions in Turkey have been the site of various protests over the past week, as anger has mounted over events unfolding in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where thousands of people have been stuck in besieged rebel-held areas in the east of the city after a weeks-long offensive by the Syrian government backed by Russian and other allied forces.

Turkish and Russian officials have been in intensive talks during the past fortnight and Moscow and Ankara played a major role in negotiating a ceasefire and facilitating a corridor to evacuate civilians and rebels trapped in parts of eastern Aleppo.

The foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran were set to meet on 20 December to discuss developments in Aleppo.

Russia and Iran are the biggest backers of the Bashar al-Assad government, whose forces launched an offensive and retook rebel-held areas of Aleppo last week.

Separately, Turkey was targeted twice in major terrorist attacks over the past 15 days. On 10 December twin bombings next to the Besiktas football club’s stadium in central Istanbul killed 45 people.

On 17 December, a public transit bus carrying off-duty soldiers was targeted in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, killing 14 soldiers and injuring 55.

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/russian-ambassador-ankara-targeted-gunmen-local-media-1223148265.

Australia and France sign deal to build 12 submarines

December 20, 2016

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia and France signed an agreement Tuesday to build the world's largest diesel-electric submarines in the Australian industrial town of Adelaide. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signed the agreement in Adelaide, where they officially opened the Australian headquarters of DCNS, a French state majority-owned company that will design the Shortfin Barracuda subs.

Turnbull described the 56 billion Australian dollar ($41 billion) contract to build 12 subs as the largest capital project in Australia's history. The contract is also DCNS's largest outside France. A workforce of 2,800 people will begin building the first sub in an Adelaide shipyard in 2022.

"Security is uncertain around the world and that is why we are re-equipping our navy and our defense forces," Turnbull told reporters. France beat German and Japanese rivals to secure the Australian contract in April.

France offered the Australians a diesel-electric version of the Barracuda-class nuclear submarine under construction for the French navy. Japan proposed a longer version of its Soryu-class diesel-powered propulsion system with advanced stealth capabilities.

Germany, which had publicly offered to build the entire fleet in Adelaide for AU$20 billion — less than half the navy's expected cost — offered a larger variation of its Type 214 submarine made for Australian specifications called a Type 216. It promoted as its edge over competitors its partnership with German engineering firm Siemens which would have provided the submarines' software and promised to create a digital shipbuilding center in Adelaide.

The French bid offered the same pump jet propulsion that gave its nuclear submarines their advanced stealth capacity. Other diesel-electric submarines are too small to be fitted with the same stern-heavy technology.

Australia's Shortfin Barracuda Block1A will be 97 meters (318 feet) long and weight 4,500 metric tons (5,000 U.S. tons) — 2.5 meters (8 feet) shorter and 200 metric tons (220 U.S. tons) lighter than its French nuclear cousin.

Australia already has one of the world's largest conventional submarines, the Australia-built Collins class, and the navy insisted that its replacement at least match its range of 12,000 nautical miles (22,000 kilometers). At 3,100 metric tons (3,400 U.S. tons) and 77 meters (253 feet long), the Collins will be dwarfed by the next-generation Shortfin Barracuda.

World's oldest male panda in captivity dies at 31

By Ed Adamczyk
Dec. 30, 2016

CHENGDU , China, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The world's oldest male panda in captivity has died at age 31, China's State Forestry Administration announced.

Pan Pan died early Wednesday at the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda in Sichuan province. The panda, referred to as "hero father," was diagnosed with cancer in June, and in his last days stopped eating and moving, his keepers said. They added his health deteriorated rapidly in the three days before his death.

He was born in the wild but lived in captivity at the center for all but the first few months of his life. Although pandas are difficult to breed in captivity, his 130 descendants account for one-quarter of the world's captive-bred pandas.

An autopsy will be undertaken to learn the exact cause of death, Tan Chengbin of the center said. The current oldest female panda is Basi, 36, who also lives in China.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature announced in September that the status of pandas in the wild was changed from "endangered" to "vulnerable" due to an increase in their numbers. An estimated 1,864 adult pandas now live in the wild, all in China. The State Forestry Administration added 422 more live in captivity. The IUCN has warned that climate change is predicted to wipe out more than one-third of the panda's bamboo habitat and food source in the next 80 years.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/12/30/Worlds-oldest-male-panda-in-captivity-dies-at-31/9891483108323/.

Monday, December 19, 2016

UK restores order after worst prison uprising since 1990

December 17, 2016

LONDON (AP) — Security officers restored order Saturday at a prison in the central English city of Birmingham a day after an estimated 600 inmates seized control and launched a destructive rampage. Authorities called Friday's 13-hour takeover of HMP Birmingham the worst prison uprising since the 1990 riot in Strangeways in Manchester, which lasted 25 days and left one prisoner dead.

No staff members were injured but one prisoner remained hospitalized Saturday with a suspected broken jaw and eye socket. Trouble flared as prisoners rushed a guard and stole his keys, giving them eventual access to all four wings of the Victorian-era prison in England's second-largest city. Inmates lit fires, set off fireworks, broke into guards' offices to steal clubs and helmets, and smashed windows and toilet blocks.

A stream of security vans came and went Saturday from the prison. The Justice Ministry said at least 240 Birmingham inmates were being transferred to other prisons nationwide while more than 1,000 remaining would face greater restrictions on movement.

Justice Minister Liz Truss said the security failure will be fully investigated, while those convicted of rioting will face longer sentences. But prison officer leaders and other authorities warned that the scale of the latest unrest underscored a system-wide crisis of understaffing and overcrowding.

They pointed to a string of trouble in the past two months, starting with the stabbing death of an inmate Oct. 18 inside Pentonville in north London, a riot Oct. 29 in Lewes south of the capital, and another riot Nov. 6 in Bedford to the north.

Mike Rolfe, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, said overcrowding and staff cuts meant Britain inevitably would face disorder. "Birmingham's lost over 30 staff in the last few weeks through resignations, people just not wanting to work there," Rolfe said. "It's such a difficult and dangerous job, and the whole service is in crisis."

Steve Dagworthy, a former convict who advises prison-bound clients, said spending cuts since 2010 had cost 7,000 guard positions and curtailed programs. "We have too few officers looking after too many prisoners (who) have too little to do," he said. "If you cage these prisoners like animals in these Victorian prisons, with two men to a cell which was designed for one, and you unlock them and say immediately, 'Sorry guys, you've got to go back to your cell,' inevitably they'll turn around and say: 'We've had enough, we're rebelling.'"

Talks stall over Congo's delayed election; violence feared

December 17, 2016

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Talks in Congo between President Joseph Kabila's party and the opposition are on hold after they failed to reach an agreement before the date Kabila was originally supposed to step down from power, mediators said Saturday.

Kabila's original mandate ends Monday, and many fear widespread unrest if he stays in office unless some kind of political compromise is reached. Anti-government demonstrations are expected Monday and Tuesday. Police and military forces were already patrolling, searching cars and setting up checkpoints Saturday in Kinshasa, the capital. Authorities plan to cut off access to social networks Sunday for an undetermined period of time.

The national election once set for November in this Central African nation has been delayed indefinitely, allowing the president to remain in power until a vote is held. Congolese authorities say that updating the voters' registrar will take until at least until July 2017 and budgetary constraints may delay the election even further.

Catholic church officials who have been mediating the talks announced Saturday evening that the negotiations won't resume until Wednesday, raising fears of potential violence in the sprawling nation that has suffered decades of dictatorship and back-to-back civil wars.

"Given the breadth of the topics, participants came to the conclusion that these questions should not be dealt with hastily," Monsignor Marcel Utembi said in a statement Saturday, adding that several church officials are now headed to Rome for a few days.

"Meanwhile we ask everyone to pray for our country," he added. Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi said he and his supporters maintain that a new election "must be held and can be held in 2017," despite calls from the presidential majority to hold them in April 2018.

Opposition parties also want political prisoners released and for the case to be dropped against opposition politician Moise Katumbi, who left the country after prosecutors said they would charge him with hiring mercenaries for his protection.

Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba said the presidential majority was taking part in the talks with "an open mind to put an end to the crisis." He said while some prisoners could be released immediately, others might have to be pardoned by a commission.

Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father. Congo suffered through years of civil war, and some observers fear that tensions over Kabila's continued rule could once again unleash fighting in the mineral-rich country.

Massive demonstrations broke out in Kinshasa and several other cities across Congo in September when the electoral commission failed to call an election and clashes with police left over 50 people dead.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Saturday that concerns about unrest are high, especially since "no one to date has been held accountable" for the protesters' deaths in September.

"We call on the government, and especially its security forces, to take all necessary measures to guarantee the rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly," he said.

Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

Legislature: Ex-Mali president won't face treason charges

December 17, 2016

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's National Assembly has rejected the idea of trying former President Amadou Toumani Toure on treason charges. The former president was overthrown in a March 2012 coup that ushered in an era of instability throughout the Sahara Desert nation. He lives in exile in neighboring Senegal and could now return home unless the government takes other action.

Youssouf Toure, a National Assembly spokesman, said Saturday that members voted overwhelmingly 104-to-5 not to pursue charges. The allegations against the former president stems from accusations that his leadership had left the military in such a state of disarray that it could not defend Mali against foreign jihadists. The French military ousted the jihadists from power in northern Mali in 2013 but extremist remnants continue to launch attack on U.N. and Malian forces.

West African leaders aim to enforce Gambian election upset

December 18, 2016

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — West African leaders promised Saturday to enforce the results of a Gambian election that was won by a little-known businessman backed by an opposition coalition but rejected by the country's longtime coup leader.

A summit of the Economic Community of West African States ended with all leaders stating they will attend the Jan. 19 inauguration of Gambia's new president, Adama Barrow. They also pledged to "guarantee the safety and protection of the president-elect," who has said he fears for his life.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh surprised his fellow citizens by conceding defeat the day after the Dec. 1 vote, and then changed his mind and called for a new election. The United Nations, the United States and the African Union have all condemned the move.

The summit in Abuja, Nigeria, attended by 11 presidents with Jammeh absent, agreed "to take all necessary actions to enforce the results" of the Gambian election. It called for Jammeh to accept the results and refrain from compromising a peaceful handover of power.

A new deployment of soldiers across the country risks increased intimidation and harassment, the U. N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, warned late Saturday. "This is deeply worrying, given the record of human rights violations in Gambia, including excessive use of force against demonstrators, arbitrary detention and deaths in custody, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees," Zeid said.

The summit named a mediation committee headed by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari with his deputy Ghana President John Dramani Mahama, who conceded defeat in an election a few days after Gambia's. It was Ghana's first electoral defeat of a sitting president.

The president of the West African community, Marcel de Souza, said this week that if diplomacy fails, a military intervention and "draconian measures" must be considered for Gambia. He spoke in an interview with Radio France International.

Jammeh's defiance challenges the first regional community in the world to agree to military interventions in member states accused of abusing human rights and democratic principles. It has spent 25 years nurturing democracy in a region once prone to military coups.

Jammeh acted after an opposition coalition official said he should be prosecuted for rights abuses. Jammeh used the excuse of errors in the vote tally, ignoring the country's Independent Electoral Commission, which said the winner remains Barrow with a revised count of 227,708 votes to Jammeh's 208,487.

The ruling party filed a court challenge against the results Tuesday, a constitutional move complicated by the fact that Gambia's Supreme Court does not have a quorum. The United States said it doubts it is "a credible court dedicated to ensuring the integrity of Gambia's democratic process."

Jammeh on Tuesday sent troops to take over the electoral commission's office in Banjul, the capital, shortly before a delegation of West African leaders arrived on an inconclusive mission. Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994 in the country of 1.9 million people known for its beaches.

Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.

Iran appoints ambassadors to Syria, Oman

December 17, 2016

Iran’s foreign ministry has announced that it had made decisions on its new ambassadors to be appointed to both Syria and Oman, and that their names would soon be released, The New Khaleej reported yesterday.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that the names of the two ambassadors to the two countries would be released when a series of diplomatic and strategic considerations were concluded.

He noted that the sensitivity of the situation in Syria is one of the reasons why the appointment of the ambassador to Damascus was delayed.

The news website noted that the appointment of Iranian ambassadors is subject to strict censorship by the intelligence branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force brigade that focuses on Iran’s extraterritorial activities.

Reports indicated that the administration of President Hassan Rouhani had been severely criticized in the Iranian parliament due to the delay of the appointment of the ambassadors for the two aforementioned countries, especially to Syria, where there are Iranian forces fighting alongside Assad regime forces.

In April, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, was chosen to head up the Iranian embassy in Muscat, but he withdrew himself from consideration for “personal reasons”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161217-iran-appoints-ambassadors-to-syria-oman/.

Iran threatens Bahrain, Yemen with 'Islamic conquest' like Aleppo

December 17, 2016

A senior Iranian military commander has threatened further wars of conquest after describing the recent collapse of the Syrian opposition in Aleppo as an “Islamic conquest”, as footage has appeared showing Syrian refugees attempting to evacuate the ravaged city being shot at by Iran-backed Shia jihadists.

In comments to local Iranian media, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Hossein Salami said: “It is now time for the Islamic conquests. After the liberation of Aleppo, Bahrain’s hopes will be realized and Yemen will be happy with the defeat of the enemies of Islam.”

The IRGC commander also said that “the people of Mosul will taste the taste of victory,” in reference to the ongoing Mosul operations.

The taste of “victory”, however, tasted of blood and terror in Aleppo as the Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed News tweeted footage of what pro-Assad regime Iranian proxies were doing there.

Borzou Daragahi tweeted “This is what hell on earth looks like,” as video footage from the devastated city shows “hungry, freezing men, women and children” who are trying to evacuate Aleppo are fired upon by the Shia jihadists.

This footage was supported by further reports and footage from Syrian journalist Rami Jarrah. Jarrah’s footage shows witnesses recounting their stories of how their convoy that was travelling with the Red Cross was waylaid by the Assad regime.

As the men in the video are talking, they and a vast convoy of cars come under attack by Assad regime, creating panic as people try to escape.

Iran's 'empire' and 'Shia Liberation Army'

Salami’s comments are not the first to emerge from within influential and powerful Iranian official circles.

In March 2015, Presidential Adviser Ali Younesi said that the Iraqi capital of Baghdad was now a “capital of the Iranian empire,” inflaming the Arab world and especially Iraqis who have felt Iran’s pervading and dominating influence in their country.

Last November, Iranian army Chief of Staff General Mohammed Bagheri said that his country would in all likelihood set up military bases in Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries.

Speaking to the state-run Mashregh news agency in August, retired IRGC General Mohammad Ali Falaki said that Iran had created a “Shia Liberation Army” under the command of IRGC Qods Force commander Brigadier-General Qassem Soleimani.

According to Falaki, the Shia Liberation Army was already active on three “fronts” in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161217-iran-threatens-bahrain-yemen-with-islamic-conquest-like-aleppo/.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Iraq: Daesh reverse army assault in Mosul

December 7, 2016

Daesh militants have managed to force Iraqi soldiers to withdraw from districts in southeast Mosul today, less than a day after Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) claimed to have made advances towards the Tigris River, sources including an army officer and Amaq news agency have said.

The fighting came after the army’s campaign commander for the Mosul operation said soldiers surged into the city and took over the Al-Salam hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris River which divides eastern and western Mosul.

Yesterday’s apparent rapid advance was thanks to an apparent change in military tactics after more than a month of grueling fighting in the east and southeast of the city, in which the army has sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block.

However, the new tactics have now turned out to have been undone by Daesh ambush tactics that drew ISF units into areas before subjecting them to fierce counterattacks.

Attacking ISF were exposed, and Daesh’s Amaq news agency said today that some units were surrounded. It said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the hospital, killing 20 soldiers. Eight armored personnel carriers (APCs) were also destroyed in the fighting that led to an Iraqi withdrawal, Amaq said.

There was no official Iraqi military comment on the fighting but the army officer, whose forces were involved in the clashes, said they had come under multiple attacks by suicide car bombers in the Al-Wahda district where the hospital is located.

“We managed to make a swift advance on Tuesday in Al-Wahda but it seems that Daesh fighters were dragging us to an ambush and they managed later to surround some of our soldiers inside the hospital,” he told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said an armoured regiment and counter terrorism units, backed by US-led air strikes, were sent to support the stranded troops early today and had opened up a route out of the neighborhood.

“They have secured the position, evacuated the wounded and pulled out the destroyed military vehicles from around the hospital,” he said, adding that they were coming under fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Amaq said it attacked the relief convoy as it advanced in the Sumer district, south of Al-Wahda near the outer edge of the city. This led to the convoy being forced to withdraw, in addition to the losses suffered by the ISF in the Al-Salam hospital.

Iraqi forces and allies numbering 100,000 men have been battling for seven weeks to crush Daesh fighters in Mosul, now estimated to be around 3,000 men strong. The city was seized by the militants in 2014 and is the largest in Iraq or Syria under their control.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161207-iraq-daesh-reverse-army-assault-in-mosul/.

Battle for IS-held Mosul nears ancient site

By W.G. Dunlop with Delil Souleiman in Ain Issa, Syria
Baghdad (AFP)
Nov 10, 2016

The battle for Iraq's second city Mosul neared the remains of ancient Nimrud on Thursday, as the offensive against the Islamic State group's Syrian stronghold Raqa was hampered by a sandstorm.

Backed by a US-led coalition, Iraqi forces and a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance are advancing on Mosul and Raqa in separate assaults aimed at driving IS from its last major bastions.

The coalition, which launched air strikes against IS two years ago, is looking to deal a fatal blow to the self-styled "caliphate" the jihadists declared in mid-2014.

Launched on October 17, the Iraqi offensive has seen federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters advance on Mosul from the east, south and north, pushing inside the eastern city limits last week.

On Thursday the military said troops and allied militia were moving forward on two IS-held villages near Nimrud, which is some 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Mosul.

"Units of the 9th Armored Division and the Hashed al-Ashaeri (tribal militia) are beginning to advance to liberate the villages of Abbas Rajab and Al-Nomaniyah, toward Nimrud," the Joint Operations Command said, later announcing that Abbas Rajab had been retaken.

Nimrud was the one of the great centers of the ancient Middle East. Founded in the 13th century BC, it became the capital of the Assyrian empire, whose rulers built vast palaces and monuments that have drawn archaeologists for more than 150 years.

- Third of the way to Raqa -

In April last year, IS posted video on the internet of its fighters sledgehammering monuments before planting explosives around the site and blowing it up.

It was part of a campaign of destruction against heritage sites under jihadist control that also took in ancient Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul, Hatra in the desert to the south and Palmyra in neighboring Syria.

IS says the ancient monuments are idols that violate the teachings of its extreme form of Sunni Islam.

In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said their advance on Raqa was being held back by a sandstorm that had hit the desert province.

"The situation is dangerous today because there is no visibility due to a desert sandstorm," an SDF commander told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We fear that Daesh will take advantage of this to move in and launch a counter-attack," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Speaking in Ain Issa, the main staging point for the operation some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Raqa, the commander said the sandstorm was also impeding visibility for coalition warplanes.

The SDF launched the offensive on Saturday and has been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqa.

The commander said SDF forces advancing south from Ain Issa and Suluk were close to converging at a position some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Raqa.

"We have been able to cover a third of the distance that separated us from Raqa," SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said, adding that 15 villages and hamlets had been taken.

- Thousands flee homes -

Ahmed said thousands of civilians had fled their homes since the start of the assault and pleaded for international assistance.

"More than 5,000 displaced people have arrived in regions liberated and secured by our forces. They are coming from combat zones through a corridor we opened for them," she said.

"We need international help because our capacities are limited and, with winter coming, there is no camp to host them," she said.

Dozens of families have been seen fleeing towards SDF lines in recent days.

Many have been arriving in trucks and cars around Ain Issa, loaded down with belongings and in some cases with livestock including cows and sheep.

Raqa had a population of some 240,000 before the eruption of Syria's civil war in 2011 but more than 80,000 people have since fled there from other parts of the country.

Mosul is much bigger, home to more than a million people, and more than 45,000 people have fled since the offensive began.

Aid workers have expressed fears of a major humanitarian crisis once fighting begins in earnest inside the city, where IS is expected to use civilians as human shields.

Rights groups have also raised concerns for fleeing civilians, amid accusations of abuses by some Iraqi forces.

Amnesty International called Thursday on the Iraqi government to investigate the killings of six residents south of Mosul who it said were executed by men in federal police uniforms during the offensive.

Iraq's federal police issued a statement denying its forces had been involved in extrajudicial killings.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Battle_for_IS-held_Mosul_nears_ancient_site_999.html.

Daesh invades Shirqat, 'liberated' by Iraqi forces 2 months ago

November 4, 2016

Daesh launched yet another surprise attack against Iraq’s rear areas in a town that was supposed to have been “liberated” in September, exposing how Iraqi forces have been ineffective in securing towns and cities before moving on to launch their almost three-week-old offensive against Mosul.

In the early hours of this morning, Daesh assaulted Shirqat in Salahuddin province, over 100 kilometers from Mosul, Iraq’s second city and Daesh’s last major urban stronghold in the country.

Daesh claims that it has taken over several districts in the small town, and has apparently torched a police station, capturing five police officers and killing other Iraq Security Forces (ISF) troops, including an officer. Daesh also control the main hospital.

Local activists have confirmed that several Iraqi armored vehicles and personnel carriers were destroyed by the militants, including supply trucks apparently destined for Shia militias near the Mosul frontlines.

Fighting in Shirqat is ongoing, with ISF in disarray.

When Shirqat was recaptured by ISF in September, their victory was touted as a stepping stone on the road to prising Mosul from Daesh’s grip. At the time, it was hailed as a significant advance but today’s attack highlights the weakness of ISF soldiers in holding territory.

Iraqi authorities failing to prevent Daesh attacks

Since the Iraqi government launched its US-backed offensive to recapture Mosul on 17 October, Daesh have not only managed to hold off any real advance into the city itself, but have also managed to launch devastating attacks across the country.

Daesh first breached Kirkuk’s defenses, more than 170 kilometers from Mosul, and put the city into disarray for almost a week. The attack was eventually repulsed, but not before dozens of Kurdish security forces died, shaking confidence in their ability to detect and prevent attacks.

Following the assault on Kirkuk, Daesh successfully attacked Rutba, almost 600 kilometers south of Mosul, and held it for three days until ISF forces managed to take it back with air support from the international US-led coalition.

Analysts have said that this may herald a future Daesh strategic shift from holding towns and cities to disrupting security and economic activity in these cities once they are retaken, making the rule of Iraqi and Kurdish authorities untenable.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161104-daesh-invades-shirqat-liberated-by-iraqi-forces-2-months-ago/.

Yemen army removes over 30,000 mines

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Yemeni army source said they removed 36,000 landmines which Houthi militias and forces loyal to deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh had planted in the Marib province.

Brigadier General Sheikh Zayd Thabet, chief of the military engineering unit in the national army, told reporters that thousands of the mines they found date back to the era of World War II, in addition to other Russian and Iranian-made mines and locally-produced mines, adding that they have so far destroyed 6,500 mines.

A recent Yemeni human rights report said 47 civilians were killed in Marib while 98 others were injured by these mines.

Popular resistance sources had said Houthi militias and forces loyal to Saleh have planted more than 40,000 mines in different areas in Taiz since March 2015. Human Rights Watch said in a report that 23 people were killed and 56 others were injured in Taiz by these mines.

Official sources in al-Jawf province had said that the rebels planted more than 30,000 mines in the province.

Source: al-Arabiya English.
Link: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2016/11/30/Yemeni-army-removes-over-30-000-landmines-in-Marib.html.

Formation of new Houthi government does not help Yemen: U.N. envoy

Tue Nov 29, 2016

The formation of a new government by Yemen's armed Houthi movement and its political allies will hinder peace efforts in the country, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen said on Tuesday.

The move, reported by the Houthi-run state news agency on Monday, has been seen as a blow to U.N.-backed efforts to end 20 months of war in Yemen.

"The announcement by (the Houthi) Ansar Allah and the General People’s Congress on the formation of a new government in Sana’a represents a new and concerning obstacle to the peace process and does not serve the interests of the people of Yemen in these difficult times," Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in a statement.

The unilateral declaration contradicted recent comments by the Houthis to the U.N. and to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and only complicated the search for a peace deal, which needed to be based on U.N. talks, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.

"There is still a chance to pull Yemen back from the brink," he said, adding that all parties to the conflict should recommit to a cessation of hostilities, including a complete halt to ground and air military activities.

The formation of the new government was also condemned by the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose member Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition backing Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the internationally recognized president.

The coalition has carried out thousands of air strikes on the Houthis but failed to dislodge them from the capital Sanaa.

"The step of forming a government indicates the enormous importance of reinforcing our domestic position and serving the people, despite the difficult economic situation," the Houthi group's leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, said in a statement carried on the website of a Houthi-controlled news channel.

Diplomats had hoped the Houthis, who control Sanaa, would hold off on putting together a cabinet of their loyalists and instead form a unity government with their Yemeni foes, whom they pushed into Saudi exile.

The Houthis, who control territory with more than half of Yemen's population, previously said forming a government with their allies did not mean abandoning the U.N.-sponsored peace process.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, Katie Paul and Ali Abdelatti; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

Source: Reuters.
Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-un-idUSKBN13O2K1.

Car blast kills 16 at police station in Somalia's capital

December 11, 2016

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A suicide car bomber killed at least 16 people and injured nine others at a police station in the Somalia capital, a Somali police official said Sunday. The attack early Sunday targeted a police station adjacent to Mogadishu seaport, said Capt. Mohamed Hussein.

At the blast scene, medical workers carried bodies burned beyond recognition to ambulances. Human limbs and bloodied shoes were scattered across the blast scene. Most of the victims are port workers and police officers.

Somalia's Islamic extremist rebels, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack, the second blast in the seaside capital in two days. The insurgents said they had killed "apostates" in the attack, according to the group's Andalus radio.

On Saturday, a suspected suicide car bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle at a security checkpoint near Mogadishu when soldiers stopped him for security checks. Despite being ousted from most of its key strongholds in south and central Somalia, al-Shabab continues to launch deadly guerrilla attacks against the Somali government and African Union forces across large parts of the horn of Africa nation.

More than 22,000 peacekeepers are deployed in Somalia in the multi-national African Union force. Al-Shabab opposes the presence of the foreign troops. A surge in attacks by al-Shabab could lead to further delays in the country's presidential elections, which have been set for Dec. 28.

The elections have already been delayed three times.

UK group delivers Rohingya petition to Myanmar embassy

23 November 2016 Wednesday

A U.K.-based pressure group has delivered a thousands-strong petition to Myanmar’s London embassy calling on the country’s government to confront the crisis plaguing the Rohingya minority.

Burma Campaign U.K. said Tuesday it delivered 3,164 signatures on a petition calling on Myanmar’s NLD-led government to tackle hate speech, lift humanitarian aid restrictions, repeal a 1982 citizenship law and support United Nations efforts to investigate the situation.

Mark Farmaner, the group’s director, said Myanmar’s military was using the ruling party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as “a human shield against criticism and action from the international community over the human rights violations they are committing.

“A new military crackdown on the Rohingya since attacks on border guard posts on 9th October has left hundreds of Rohingya dead, and at least 30,000 displaced. Restrictions on humanitarian aid, which were already causing deaths and suffering, have been significantly increased,” Farmaner said in a statement.

He added: “The international community continues treating the Rohingya as expendable in their efforts to present the situation in Burma as one of a successful transition requiring just technical assistance.

“The human rights situation for the Rohingya is getting worse, not better, and it is time their approach matched that reality.”

Rohingya Muslims -- described by the UN as among the most persecuted minority groups worldwide -- have for years been fleeing conflict in western Myanmar, with many using Thailand as a transit point to enter Muslim Malaysia and beyond.

The camps in which many live was recently described by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as “prison-like”, while satellite images of Rohingya villages in Myanmar's western Rakhine State showed 820 newly-identified structures had been destroyed in the space of eight days.

Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in droves since mid-2012 after communal violence broke out in Rakhine between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya -- described by the United Nations as among the most persecuted minority groups worldwide.

The violence left around 57 Muslims and 31 Buddhists dead, some 100,000 people displaced in camps and more than 2,500 houses razed -- most of which belonged to Rohingya.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/180555/uk-group-delivers-rohingya-petition-to-myanmar-embassy.

New reports emerge of army attacks on Myanmar's Rohingya

October 31, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Just five months after her party took power, Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is facing international pressure over recent reports that soldiers have been killing, raping and burning homes of the country's long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims.

The U.S. State Department joined activist and aid groups in raising concerns about new reports of rape and murder, while satellite imagery released Monday by Human Rights Watch shows that at least three villages in the western state of Rakhine have been burned.

Myanmar government officials deny the reports of attacks, and presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said Monday that United Nations representatives should visit "and see the actual situation in that region." The government has long made access to the region a challenge, generally banning foreign aid workers and journalists.

But the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said serious violations, including torture, summary executions, arbitrary arrests and destruction of mosques and homes, threaten the country's fledgling democracy.

"The big picture is that the government does not seem to have any influence over the military," said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that focuses on the Rohingya. Myanmar's widely criticized constitution was designed to give the armed forces power and independence.

A three-week surge in violence by the military was prompted by the killings of nine police officers at border posts on Oct. 9 in Rakhine, home to Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingya. There have been no arrests, and a formerly unknown Islamist militant group has taken responsibility.

Although they've lived in Myanmar for generations, Rohingya are barred from citizenship in the nation of 50 million, and instead live as some of the most oppressed people in the world. Since communal violence broke out in 2012, more than 100,000 people have been driven from their homes to live in squalid camps guarded by police. Some have tried to flee by boat, but many ended up becoming victims of human trafficking or were held for ransom.

When Suu Kyi's party was elected earlier this year after more than five decades of military rule, the political shift offered a short, tense window of peace. But that quickly ended as the former political prisoner and champion of human rights failed to clamp down on military atrocities.

The current crackdown has prompted an estimated 15,000 people in the Rakhine area to flee their homes in the past few weeks. The satellite images from Human Rights Watch show villages burning, and residents report food supplies are growing scarce as they are living under siege.

U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel has urged Myanmar's Foreign Ministry to investigate the allegations of attacks and restore access for humanitarian groups trying to help. "We take reports of abuses very seriously," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Jamie Ravetz in Yangon, Myanmar. "We have raised concerns with senior government officials and continue to urge the government to ?be transparent, follow the rule of law, and respect the human rights of all people in responding to the original attacks and subsequent reports of abuses."

Families in Rakhine depend largely on humanitarian aid for food and health care, but that support has been cut off for weeks by officials who will not allow outsiders into the region. A government-sponsored delegation of aid agencies and foreign diplomats was supposed to visit the region on Monday, but local officials said they hadn't seen anyone yet, and have not been informed they were coming.

"The government should end its blanket denial of wrongdoing and blocking of aid agencies, and stop making excuses for keeping international monitors from the area," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Mendoza reported from Bangkok.