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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Azerbaijan frees rights activist after 2 years in prison

March 28, 2016

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A court in Azerbaijan has ordered the release of a human rights activist who spent the last two years in jail. Intigam Aliyev was convicted last year of economic crimes that critics have dismissed as retaliation for his work.

His lawyer, Fariz Namazly, said the Supreme Court of this former Soviet republic issued a ruling Monday converting Aliyev's seven-year prison sentence into a five-year conditional one, meaning his immediate release.

The ruling comes amid a flurry of other court decisions that triggered the release of 16 activists and journalists this month who have spent years in prison. The Caspian Sea nation has come under criticism for a crackdown on human rights, with journalists and activists hit with charges they say are retaliation for their work exposing official abuses.

Chile to countersue Bolivia at UN court over water dispute

March 28, 2016

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said Monday that her government is ready to countersue Bolivia over a water dispute at the International Court of Justice. Bolivian President Evo Morales said Saturday that his country would sue Chile in the Netherlands-based court seeking to force Chile to pay compensation for using the Silala river in a border region.

Bachelet said that Bolivia is claiming ownership over shared water resources and that the Silala flows into Chile by the simple law of gravity. She said Bolivia has recognized the Silala as an international river for more than 100 years.

Landlocked Bolivia asked the international court in 2013 to order Chile to negotiate over Bolivia's claim for access to the Pacific. The case is being heard by the court, whose rulings are final and binding.

Argentina hails UN decision to expand its maritime territory

March 28, 2016

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's government celebrated on Monday a decision by a U.N. commission expanding its maritime territory in the South Atlantic Ocean by 35 percent to include the disputed Falkland islands and beyond.

The Argentine foreign ministry said that its waters had increased by 0.66 million square miles (1.7 million square kilometers) and the decision will be key in its dispute with Britain over the Islands. Argentina lost a brief, bloody 1982 war with Britain after Argentine troops seized the South Atlantic archipelago that Latin Americans call the Malvinas.

The U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf sided with Argentina earlier this month, ratifying the country's 2009 report fixing the limit of its territory at 200 to 350 miles from its coast.

"This is a historic occasion for Argentina because we've made a huge leap in the demarcation of the exterior limit of our continental shelf," Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra said. "This reaffirms our sovereignty rights over the resources of our continental shelf."

Oil exploration is already pumping millions of dollars into the Falkland Islands economy. Many islanders remain concerned about Argentina's claim as well as the potential for problems from rapid change brought by the new industry.

The U.N. commission's finding included the caveat that there is an unresolved diplomatic dispute between Argentina and Britain over the islands. The Falklands are internally self-governing, but Britain is responsible for its defense and foreign affairs. The British government says islanders cannot be forced to accept Argentine sovereignty against their will.

The Falkland Islands government said Monday that it is seeking clarification from the British government on "what, if any, decisions have been made, and what implications there may be" for the territory in relation to the U.N. ruling.

"As soon as we have any firm information we will make it available," Mike Summers, chairman of the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands, said in an e-mailed statement. "Our understanding has always been that the UN would not make any determination on applications for continental shelf extension in areas where there are competing claims."

There was no immediate comment from Britain's government.

Ally to power broker Suu Kyi sworn in as Myanmar's president

March 30, 2016

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Htin Kyaw, a trusted friend of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, took over as Myanmar's president Wednesday, calling it a "historic moment" in the country's long-drawn transition to democracy after decades of military rule.

In a day full of ceremony and symbolism, Htin Kyaw was sworn in along with his two vice presidents and 18-member Cabinet that includes Suu Kyi in an austere hall of parliament with lawmakers dressed in traditional costume.

While a momentous day in the history of this impoverished Southeast Asian country, democracy still feels incomplete. The military retains considerable power in the government and parliament, and the president himself will play second fiddle to Suu Kyi, who has repeatedly said she will run the country from behind the scenes because the military has ensured — through a constitutional manipulation — that she cannot be the president.

Still the day belonged to Htin Kyaw — and Suu Kyi — who sat in the front row watching her confidant become head of a government she had long aspired to lead. "The Union Parliament has elected me as president, which is a historic moment for this country," Htin Kyaw, 70, said in his speech after being sworn in. He pledged to work toward national reconciliation, peace between warring ethnic groups and improving the lives of the country's 54 million people.

Rightfully, the job belonged to Suu Kyi, who led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide win in November elections, ushering in Myanmar's first civilian government after 54 years of direct and indirect military rule.

Suu Kyi who has been the face of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement endured decades of house arrest and harassment by military rulers without ever giving up on her non-violent campaign to unseat them. The constitutional clause that denied her the presidency excludes anyone from the position who has a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband. The clause is widely seen as having been written by the military with Suu Kyi in mind.

She has repeatedly made it clear that she will run the government from behind the scenes, and in his speech Htin Kyaw signaled the dominant role Suu Kyi will play in his government. "The new parliament and new government is formed in accord with the policies of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi," he said, and referred to the party's goal to amend the constitution.

"I have the obligation to work toward achieving a constitution that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation," he said. "I want to tell the new government, we must constantly try to fulfill the hope and will of the people of this country. I wish all citizens of this country a successful and peaceful life."

The constitution, drafted by the former junta, reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament for military officers, guaranteeing that no government can amend the constitution without its approval. The military also heads the Home Ministry and the Defense Ministry, which gives it control over the corrections department, ensuring that the release of political prisoners is its decision to make.

The military also ensured that one of Htin Kyaw's two vice presidents is a former general, Myint Swe, a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe. Myint Swe remains on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist that bars American companies from doing business with several tycoons and senior military figures connected with the former junta.

As Htin Syaw was sworn in, Suu Kyi sat in the front row watching. The same pledge was simultaneously read by First Vice President Myint Swe and Second Vice President Henry Van Tio. After a 20-minute tea break, all 18 members of Htin Kyaw's Cabinet, including Suu Kyi took a joint oath of office read out by the speaker.

Although names of Cabinet ministers are known, their portfolios have not been formally announced. Suu Kyi is expected to hold four portfolios including foreign minister, education and energy minister and head the Ministry of the President's Office.

Despite her inability to become president, Suu Kyi's entry into the government is a remarkable turn of fortunes not only for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate but also for the country, which had been under iron-fisted military rule since 1962. For decades the junta kept Myanmar in isolation and economic stagnation while refusing to listen to international counsel or homegrown demands for democracy.

Suu Kyi came to prominence in 1988 when popular protests were building up. The junta crushed the protests that had turned into anti-government riots, killing thousands of people and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989.

The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year later while under house arrest.

The junta finally started loosening its grip on power in 2010, allowing elections that were won by a military-allied party after the NLD boycotted the polls as unfair. A former general, Thein Sein, was installed as president for a five-year term that started March 30, 2011, and ended Wednesday.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Iraqi cleric meets with PM after beginning Green Zone sit-in

March 27, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Sunday night after beginning a sit-in in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone intended to be a show of force following his calls to combat government corruption.

Earlier in the day security forces stepped aside to allow al-Sadr to enter the Green Zone after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital. Al-Sadr has repeatedly called on al-Abadi to enact sweeping economic and political reforms.

"I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone)," al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound's walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.

As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of the compound's security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair. Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shiite militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, al-Sadr's supporters started erecting tents and laying down mattresses.

In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country's powerful Shiite militias be incorporated into the defense and interior ministries. After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met. Baghdad's Green Zone, encircled by blast walls and razor wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country's political elite as well as most of the city's foreign embassies. Al-Sadr has called it a "bastion" of corruption.

Most Iraqis blame the country's politicians for the graft and mismanagement that are draining Iraq's already scarce resources. Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr's demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.

Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr's supporters to march up to the Green Zone's outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering "unauthorized." The move called into question Prime Minister al-Abadi's ability to control security in the capital.

"I thank the security forces," al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. "He who attacks them, attacks me," he added. While al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented as the leader has made several political missteps and struggled with the country's increasingly sectarian politics amid the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group. Shiites dominate the central government, while the country's Kurds in the north exercise increasing autonomy and much of the Sunni population has either been displaced by violence or continues to live under IS rule.

For 3rd day, Sadrists rally near Baghdad's Green Zone

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Supporters of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday continued to demonstrate outside the gates of Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone - for the third day in a row - to demand that the government carry out a raft of promised reforms.

"We will continue our sit-ins outside the Green Zone in response to al-Sadr’s call," Ayoub Ismail, a protester, told Anadolu Agency.

On Friday and Saturday, thousands of al-Sadr supporters staged protests and sit-ins outside the gates of Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the prime minister’s office, Iraq’s parliament and a number of foreign diplomatic missions.

Al-Sadr wants Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reshuffle his cabinet and form a government of technocrats untainted by corruption or sectarianism - both of which, critics say, have hamstrung Iraq’s previous post-invasion governments.

According to Ismail, demonstrators are abiding by the law and cooperating with Iraqi security forces.

"We are here to demand the formation of a technocratic government, the prosecution of corrupt officials and the return of funds pilfered from the state," he said.

Last month, al-Sadr gave al-Abadi a 45-day deadline to present a list of nominees for the sought-for technocrat government.

The Shia leader went on to warn that his followers would storm the Green Zone if the demands were not met.

On Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum held a meeting with political party leaders in hopes of negotiating an end to the ongoing demonstrations.

Al-Sadr, however, refused to attend the meeting.

Last summer, Iraq’s parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms proposed by PM al-Abadi. The reforms are intended to meet longstanding popular demands to eliminate widespread government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy.

Al-Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in parliament holds 34 seats in the 328-seat assembly and three ministerial portfolios in Iraq’s current government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24585-for-3rd-day-sadrists-rally-near-baghdads-green-zone.

A look at Palmyra, the historic Syrian town retaken from IS

March 27, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A look at Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Syrian troops took back from Islamic State fighters.


A desert oasis surrounded by palm trees in central Syria, Palmyra is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. Home to 65,000 people before the latest fighting, the town is located 155 miles (215 kilometers) east of Damascus.


A UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. Syrians affectionately refer to it as the "Bride of the Desert."

Palmyra was the capital of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly rebelled and carved out its own kingdom in the 3rd Century, led by Queen Zenobia. Before the war, it was Syria's top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Palmyra was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium B.C., according to UNICEF's website. The town was the hub of a network of caravan trails that carried silks and spices from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean.

Palmyra became a prosperous region during the Hellenistic period and later became part of the Roman Empire. But its rebellious Queen Zenobia challenged Rome's authority. The city was plundered in A.D. 272 after she was captured during a long siege.

In more recent times, Palmyra has had darker associations for Syrians. It was home to the Tadmur prison, a notorious facility where thousands of opponents of President Bashar Assad's government were reportedly tortured. IS demolished the prison after capturing the town.


Last year, IS destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a structure of stone blocks several stories high fronted by six towering columns. The militants also blew up the Arch of Triumph, which had been built under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus between A.D. 193 and A.D. 211.

The extremists have destroyed ancient sites across their self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as monuments to idolatry. In August, IS militants beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had devoted his life to studying Palmyra. His body was later hung from a Roman column.

A video circulated online purportedly showed IS fighters shooting dead some 25 captured Syrian soldiers in a Palmyra amphitheater. The killings are believed to have taken place in May, shortly after the extremists captured the town. Another video showed militants killing three captives by tying them to Roman columns and blowing them up.

It's not yet clear whether the ruins were damaged when Syrian forces retook the town. The Antiquities Ministry said ahead of the town's fall that the remaining ruins are in good condition. It has vowed to restore the site.


The loss of Palmyra marks a major setback for IS, which has been losing ground for months in both Iraq and Syria. The capture of the town brings Syrian forces closer to Raqqa, the IS group's de facto capital, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which is almost entirely held by the extremists.

Despite its battlefield losses, IS retains the ability to carry out large attacks in the Middle East and further afield, such as the bombings in Brussels last week, which killed 31 people.

Ireland recalls 1916 Easter Rising against British rule

March 27, 2016

DUBLIN (AP) — Thousands of soldiers marched solemnly Sunday through the crowded streets of Dublin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ireland's Easter Rising against Britain, a fateful rebellion that reduced parts of the capital to ruins and fired the country's flame of independence.

The Easter parade through Dublin featured military ceremonies at key buildings seized in 1916, when about 1,200 rebels sought to fuel a popular revolt against Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. The five-hour procession paused at noon outside the colonnaded General Post Office on O'Connell Street, the rebel headquarters a century ago, where commander Padraig Pearse formally launched the revolt by proclaiming to bemused Dubliners the creation of a "provisional" Republic of Ireland.

A soldier in today's Irish Defense Forces, Capt. Peter Kelleher, stood in front of the restored post office Sunday to read the full, florid text of Pearse's 1916 proclamation. "In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom," Kelleher said to an audience that included Ireland's leaders and scores of grandchildren of the rebels.

Many donned their ancestors' Easter Rising bronze service medals, which Ireland issued in 1941 on the rebellion's 25th anniversary. British forces, among them many Irishmen focused on fighting Germany in World War I, were caught off guard by the seizure of largely unguarded buildings in 1916. Most officers were attending horse races in the Irish countryside. But Britain quickly deployed army reinforcements who were cheered by some locals as they marched into Dublin. Artillery based at Trinity College and a gunboat on the River Liffey which bisects the city shelled the post office and other rebel strongholds, forcing their surrender within six days.

The fighting left nearly 500 dead, most of them civilians caught in the crossfire or shot — by both sides — as suspected looters. Some 126 British soldiers, 82 rebels and 17 police were slain. Many Dubliners opposed the insurrection as an act of treason in time of war, but public sentiment swiftly swung in the rebels' favor once a newly arrived British Army commander decided to execute Pearse and 14 other rebel leaders by firing squad in Dublin's Kilmainham Jail.

A 16th figure, Roger Casement, who days before the Easter Rising was caught trying to smuggle German weapons by sea to Ireland, was hanged inside a London prison. In the rebellion's immediate wake, the poet W.B. Yeats reflected Ireland's conflicted feelings about how violent nationalism appeared to be hastening Ireland's journey to political freedom but at a debatable cost. His "Easter, 1916" poem, among the most quoted works in all of Irish literature, listed the names of executed Rising commanders and concluded that Ireland had "changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born."

Easter Rising veterans led Ireland's 1919-21 war of independence, their ranks swelled by combat veterans returning to Ireland from World War I trenches. As the newly founded Irish Republican Army fought police and soldiers in the predominantly Catholic south, Protestants in northeast Ireland carved out a new U.K.-linked state of Northern Ireland.

A treaty accepted by most southern rebels established an Irish Free State in 1922 that grudgingly accepted the reality of the island's partition. The new Irish state survived a fratricidal 1922-23 civil war between IRA factions. Michael Collins' pro-treaty forces crushed IRA die-hards who, backed by Eamon de Valera, rejected the treaty because the new state was not fully independent of Britain. Both men had fought in the 1916 Rising.

Ireland remained neutral in World War II and declared itself a republic on Easter Monday 1949. Ireland long has struggled to embrace Easter as its effective independence day, in part because the enemy camps from the Irish civil war forged the country's two dominant political parties: Fine Gael by allies of the slain IRA leader Collins; and de Valera's Fianna Fail party. Both parties claim to be the true defenders of the 1916 rebels' ideals.

Official unease with 1916's disputed legacy grew from the early 1970s as a new Belfast-based IRA launched a ruthless campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the U.K. and into the republic. This outlawed faction called itself the Provisional IRA and killed nearly 1,800 people before calling a 1997 cease-fire to support leaders of its revived Sinn Fein party, who today help govern Northern Ireland alongside British Protestant politicians.

In a sign of changing times, leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein stood side by side at Sunday's events, including a ceremony inside Kilmainham Jail, where Pearse and other commanders were executed.

Sunday's commemorations are the centerpiece of an estimated 2,500 events nationwide this spring and summer reflecting on the uprising's legacy. The anniversary date is imprecise, given that Easter falls on different dates each year and the 1916 rebellion actually started on Easter Monday — an official holiday in Ireland — not on the Sunday. The rebellion began April 24 and ended on April 29, 1916. The executions began four days later.

Migrants' protest at Idomeni camp fizzles out

March 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — A protest by hundreds of migrants, egged on by activists to demand that the border between Greece and Macedonia be opened, passed without any serious incidents on Sunday. However, it exposed rifts between different ethnic groups among the over 11,000 refugees and migrants stranded at this makeshift encampment, some for weeks, after Balkan countries on what used to be the busiest migrant route to central and northern Europe shut down their borders.

The European Union has effectively approved this policy by signing a deal with Turkey that discourages war refugees from making the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and ending the hopes of migrants from other countries of being admitted into Europe.

Several hundred Iraqis and Syrians in the Idomeni border camp stood between protesters and police on Sunday, thwarting the protesters' efforts to march toward the fence separating Greece from Macedonia. Scuffles broke out between the two groups.

The protesters twice broke through the barrier the Iraqis and Syrians have formed, only to be pushed back by Greek riot police who used only their shields. People speaking for the Iraqis and Syrians, including Kurds from both countries, told police that they are not taking part in the protest, which they said was mounted by people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also said that activists were circulating at the camp Saturday.

"There were people, whom we do not know, telling us that they would help us open the border at noon today, but obviously this was not true," Syrian refugee Hassan Fatuhlla told The Associated Press. Fatuhlla, one of those who have formed a chain around the police, has been at the camp for 37 days. His child was born in a tent 10 days ago, he said.

Leftist activists from Greece and other European countries have staged protests outside the transit centers and appear determined to sabotage the deal. The rumors they spread that the border would open Sunday led some people who had gone to the centers to return to Idomeni. These people then began protesting that the border has not opened. With the protest having ended, many of those, often whole families loaded with baggage, took taxes or buses back to the transit centers, in a decidedly subdued mood.

"Some people lied to us about the border opening," said Delbar Kalbey, 35, a Syrian Kurd from the city of Kobane, who made the trip from a transit center to Idomeni with his wife, their 7-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl.

Greek police said they stopped two buses and 10 cars carrying Italian activists slightly over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the border protest.

Demetris Nellas contributed to this report from Athens, Greece.

Iraqi, Syrian refugees block other migrants' protest

March 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Several hundred Iraqis and Syrians in the Idomeni border camp stood between protesters and police on Sunday, thwarting the protesters' efforts to march toward the fence separating Greece from Macedonia. Scuffles broke out between the two groups.

The protesters twice broke through the barrier the Iraqis and Syrians have formed, only to be pushed back by Greek riot police who used only their shields. People speaking for the Iraqis and Syrians, including Kurds from both countries, have told police that they are not taking part in Sunday's protest and that the protesters are from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also say that activists were circulating at the camp Saturday, urging people to join the

"There were people, whom we do not know, telling us that they would help us open the border at noon today, but obviously this was not true," Syrian refugee Hassan Fatuhlla told The Associated Press. Fatuhlla, one of those who have formed a chain around the police, has been at the camp for 37 days. His child was born in a tent 10 days ago, he said.

Iraqis and Syrians are allowed into the European Union as war refugees, although the route through the Balkans is now closed and refugees discouraged from taking the perilous sea journey to Greek islands from Turkey.

Leftist activists from Greece and other European countries have staged protests outside the transit centers and appear determined to sabotage the deal. The rumors spread by them that the border would open Sunday led some people who had gone to the centers to return to Idomeni. These people then protesting that the border has not opened.

Greek police said they stopped two buses and 10 cars carrying Italian activists slightly over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the border protest.

Stranded migrants protest in Greece, demand open borders

March 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Hundreds of migrants, egged on by activists, are protesting near the fence separating Macedonia from Greece, demanding that the border be opened to allow them to continue their journey into central Europe.

Greek riot police are standing between the fence and the protesters, who are chanting "Open the borders!" and holding placards. Macedonian police are also standing ready in case the border is breached.

About 11,500 refugees have been stranded in a makeshift camp in the Greek border town of Idomeni after the European Union effectively endorsed the Balkan countries' moves to seal their borders, shutting down the busiest migrant route.

The Greek government hopes the Idomeni camp will be evacuated by the end of April and that migrants will move to "transit centers" set up throughout Greece.

Riot at Brussels attacks shrine; 13 anti-terror raids made

March 27, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian riot police clashed Sunday with hundreds of right-wing hooligans at a temporary shrine honoring victims of the Brussels suicide bombings, as investigators launched fresh anti-terror raids, taking four more people into custody.

Police used water cannon when scuffles broke out in front of the Bourse, which has become a symbolic rallying point for people to pay their respects to those who died in Tuesday's attacks. Black clad men carrying an anti-Islamic State group banner with an expletive on it trampled parts of the shrine, shouting Nazi slogans. Ten were arrested and two police officers injured.

"We had 340 hooligans from different football clubs who came to Brussels and we knew for sure that they would create some trouble," Police Commissioner Christian De Coninck said. "It was a very difficult police operation because lots of families with kids were here."

Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur expressed his disgust, with Belgium still in mourning over the suicide bombings at Brussels airport and subway, which killed at least 31 people and injured some 270. "The police were not deployed to protect people from these hooligans but a whole other threat," said Mayeur told RTL television.

People trying to pay their respects were also dismayed. "It was important for us to be here symbolically," said Samia Orosemane, a 35-year-old comedian. But, she added, "there were lots of men who were here and doing the Nazi salute, shouting 'death to Arabs' and so we weren't able to get through."

"We are all here today for peace, and for the brotherhood among peoples. Not for right-wing ideas. It's neither the time nor the place," said Theophile Mouange, 52. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, said Sunday morning's raids were linked a "federal case regarding terrorism" but did not specify whether it had any links to the March 22 attacks.

Thirteen raids were launched in the capital and the northern cities of Mechelen and Duffel. An investigating judge was to decide later whether to keep the four in custody. Five were released after questioning.

Suspected plotters also were arrested Sunday in Italy and the Netherlands, though few details of their activity were released immediately. Tuesday's bomb attacks are also tearing at the fabric of the government, justice system and police, and Belgium's interior minister sought Sunday to contain the growing criticism of the government's handling of the tragedy.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon conceded Sunday that decades of neglect had hampered the government's response to violent extremism. He said the government has invested 600 million euros ($670 million) into police and security services over the past two years but that Belgium's justice system and security services are still lagging behind.

Jambon, whose offer to resign Thursday was declined by the prime minister, also acknowledged some shortcomings prior to the attacks. "There have been errors," he said on VRT television. Jambon said it takes time to hire anti-terror specialists and specialized equipment and insisted that the government's new investments need time before they become visible to the public.

As international pressure on Belgium has mounted for serving as an unwitting rear-base for extremist fighters who launched the Nov. 13 massacres that left 130 dead in Paris, the government has felt forced to defend its choices and the actions of investigators. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are demanding an inquiry.

Belgian police and the army have been deployed, sometimes around the clock, at major buildings and sites in the capital in increasing numbers since November, when Brussels went into lockdown over fears that top Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam had returned and was hiding there.

As it turned out, Abdeslam did return, but police did not find and arrest him until March 18, four days before suspects from his network exploded suicide bombs in Brussels. Belgian investigators have been slammed for not questioning Abdeslam long enough or hard enough after he was shot in the leg during his arrest. Police have also been criticized for taking too long to get to Zaventem airport on Tuesday morning after two suicide bombers blew themselves up there — and left an even bigger third suitcase full of explosives that did not go off.

Jambon and Justice Minister Keen Goens were grilled by lawmakers Friday over how authorities failed to arrest suicide bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui before he blew himself in the packed departure hall at Brussels Airport.

Turkey has said that Bakraoui — whose brother Khalid was the suicide bomber at the Maelbeek subway station on Tuesday — was caught near Turkey's border with Syria in 2015 and Ankara had warned Brussels and the Netherlands that he was "a foreign terrorist fighter." Belgian authorities said they did not know he was suspected of terror-related activities until after he was deported to the Netherlands.

Jambon also said the Brussels subway network had been told to shut off services around 20 minutes before the attack at the subway station, which is close to both the European Union headquarters and the U.S. embassy. He did not fully explain why it was not closed in time, raising more questions about the efficiency of Belgium's security services.

Dutch police arrested a 32-year-old Frenchman in the port city of Rotterdam on Sunday at the request of French authorities who suspect him of "involvement in planning a terror attack," prosecutors said. The suspect, whose identity was not released, is expected to be extradited to France soon.

The suspect was allegedly involved in a plot disrupted by police in the Paris region last week, the Paris prosecutor's office said. Another Frenchman, Reda Kriket, was detained Thursday in that plot, and remains in custody.

An official with the Paris prosecutor's office said there is no sign of a link at this stage between Kriket's purported plot and a network behind attacks in Brussels and Paris in recent months. Three other men were detained in the Dutch raids; two with Algerian backgrounds and a third man whose identity could not immediately be established.

Italian police in the southern city of Salerno said Sunday that they had arrested an Algerian wanted in Belgium for an alleged false ID crime ring. Djamal Eddine Ouali was arrested Saturday in the town of Bellizzi, said Luigi Amato, the head of Salerno police's anti-terrorism squad. Ouali, 40, was being held in jail while authorities expect extradition procedures to soon begin.

Belgian prosecutors said Sunday that the man is thought to have made false documents for some of the attackers in the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, including top suspect Salah Abdeslam. Investigators are trying to establish whether the same false ID ring provided papers for the March 22 attackers.

David Keyton in Brussels, Angela Charlton in Paris, Mike Corder in Amsterdam and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.

Russia has no plans to withdraw its air forces from Syria

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said that his country is not planning to completely withdraw its air forces from Syria, stressing that Daesh and Al-Nusra Front are still “legitimate” targets.

“We have made it clear on more than one occasion that our forces in Syria are there to fight terror,” Ryabkov said, “and Daesh and Al-Nusra Front, who are banned in Russia, are still legitimate targets.”

Relatedly, Ryabkov said that the absence of a Kurdish delegation in the Syrian talks in Geneva remains an “obstacle” and this might undermine the negotiations

He reiterated that if Turkey drops its opposition to the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the negotiations this would lead to better results.

Russia had earlier announced the withdrawal of most of its air forces from Syria after a five-month period of active engagement.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24685-russian-has-no-plans-to-withdraw-its-air-forces-from-syria.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Indonesia gets State Dept. approval for missile purchase

Washington (UPI)
Mar 11, 2016

An Indonesian request to purchase AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles from the United States has been approved by the State Department.

The proposed deal under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program is worth about $90 million, said the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which manages the FMS program.

"The proposed sale improves Indonesia's capability to deter regional threats and strengthen its homeland defense," DSCA said in its required notification to Congress. "Indonesia is able to absorb this additional equipment and support into its armed forces."

The proposed sales package is for 36 AIM-120C-7 AMRAAMs and one Missile Guidance Section. Also included are control section support equipment, spare parts, services, logistics, technical contractor engineering and technical support, and loading adaptors.

The prime contractor for the proposed sale will be determined by competition, DSCA said, and its implementation will not require the assignment of any U.S. government or contractor representatives to Indonesia.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Indonesia_gets_State_Dept_approval_for_missile_purchase_999.html.

Egypt's justice minister sacked after insulting Islam's Prophet

Monday, 14 March 2016

Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend has been sacked after making "offensive" remarks about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Anadolu Agency reported Prime Minister Sharif Ismail announcing yesterday.

"Sharif Ismail, head of the Council of Ministers, has decided to dismiss Ahmed Al-Zend, minister of justice, from his post," government spokesman Hossam Al-Qaweesh told Anadolu.

Earlier yesterday, two separate lawsuits were raised with Egypt’s prosecution authorities against Al-Zend accusing him of "insulting" Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

A judicial source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Anadolu that Egyptian Attorney-General Nabil Sadiq had received two legal complaints against Al-Zend based on recent televised remarks in which he had "insulted the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him".

According to lawyer Amr Abdel-Salam, who lodged the first complaint, when replying to a question about the detention of journalists, Al-Zend said: "If the Prophet Muhammad - peace be upon him - insulted me, I would put him in jail."

After his comments sparked widespread public outrage, he was asked by the Council of Ministers to tender his resignation. When he refused, the decision was taken to sack him, according to state media.

Al-Zend, a prominent judicial figure under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, was a vocal supporter of the 2013 military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/24473-egypts-justice-minister-sacked-after-insulting-islams-prophet.

Istanbul soccer match called off over unspecified threat

March 20, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish authorities called off the Galatasaray-Fenerbahce derby in Istanbul about two hours before kickoff on Sunday, citing an unspecified threat, and said the match would be played at a later date.

A brief statement from the Istanbul governor's office said the match was canceled following "the assessment of serious intelligence," but didn't provide details. It said the decision was made following "the request and the agreement" of the two bitter rivals.

Unconfirmed media reports said there was a bomb threat at the stadium. The decision came a day after an Islamic State group-linked suicide bomber killed himself and four foreign tourists on Istanbul's main pedestrian street. The attack was the sixth suicide bombing in Turkey since July that have either been blamed on the IS group or claimed by Kurdish militants.

It came amid heightened alert in Turkey in the run-up to the Kurdish spring festival of Newroz, which have led to violent confrontations between Kurdish protesters and Turkish security forces in the past.

Earlier, fans were told that the game would be played without spectators, the state-run Anatole Agency reported, leading to protests by fans who were already inside the stadium. But authorities later decided to delay the game.

Also Sunday, Turkey's national team canceled training scheduled for Monday in Istanbul ahead of international games against Sweden and Austria, Hurried newspaper reported, adding that training would take place in the city of Antalya.

Suicide bomb attack in Istanbul kills 5, including Israeli

March 19, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — A suicide attack on Istanbul's main pedestrian shopping street Saturday killed five people, including the bomber and an Israeli citizen, in the sixth suicide bombing in Turkey in the past year. Several foreigners were among 36 people wounded, according to the health ministry.

Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said the explosion occurred outside a local government office on Istiklal Street, which is also home to cafes, restaurants and foreign consulates. Police swiftly sealed off the area as ambulances and a forensic team rushed to the scene after the bombing about 11 a.m. Normally packed cafes were either closed or virtually empty, with business owners making frantic calls to loved ones to assure them of their safety. Rattled tourists wondered where to go.

"It was one loud explosion," said Muhammed Fatur, a Syrian who works at a butcher shop near the scene of the explosion. "Police came to the scene and sealed off the area." Eli Bin, the head of Israel's rescue service MDA, told Channel 2 TV "there is one Israeli killed whose family has been notified" and said 10 Israelis were wounded in the attack. Turkey's private Dogan news agency said the Israeli killed in the attack was a woman. Israel was investigating to see if its nationals were purposely targeted.

Turkey's health minister, Mehmet Muezzinoglu, said the 36 people wounded included six Israelis, two Irish citizens and one person each from Iceland, Germany, Dubai and Iran. Turkey was already on edge following two recent suicide car bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a Kurdish militant group that is an off-shoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The most recent bombing attack, on March 13, targeted bus stops on Ankara's busiest street, killing 37 people including two bombers.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu convened a security meeting in Istanbul following the attack. His deputy, Numan Kurtulmus said in televised remarks "it is clear that some people are giving logistic support (to terrorists), that some are giving political support and that they are even providing financial support as well as arms."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday's attack. A senior government official said authorities were still trying to determine who carried it out, with suspicion focusing on Kurdish militants and the Islamic State group. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists on the issue.

British singer Skin wrote on Facebook that the blast went off near her ISTANBUL HOTEL and that buildings "shook like paper." She also expressed solidarity with the "innocent people and their families caught in this evil situation."

Turkey has had heightened security in Ankara and Istanbul in the run-up to a Kurdish spring festival of Newroz on March 21, which Kurds in Turkey traditionally use to assert their ethnic identity and demand greater rights.

Cengiz Fidaner, who owns a cafe near the explosion site, told the AP "the explosion was not so big but I felt it in my heart because our people died. They want a war but our people want peace. This is because of Newroz."

NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the attack in Istanbul, describing it as "yet another terrorist outrage targeting innocent civilians and our ally Turkey." And the U.S. embassy in Turkey expressed shock over the attack on its Twitter account. "We mourn with the families of the lost, and we wish the injured a speedy recovery."

Iranian Foreign Minister Javar Zarif, who was in Istanbul to meet with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, also condemned the "inhumane" attack and offered his condolences. The Irish foreign and trade minister, Charlie Flanagan, expressed "horror and sadness" at the attack and confirmed that a number of Irish citizens were among the injured.

Video posted on social media apparently capturing the aftermath of the blast showed several motionless bodies lined up at the foot of shuttered shops as a second ambulance arrives at the scene. On Thursday, Germany had closed its embassy in Ankara, the German school in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, which is in the same neighborhood as the blast, following a security warning. Twelve German tourists were killed in a January suicide attack in a historic district of Istanbul.

Saturday's explosion marks the sixth suicide attack in the country since July. The previous five attacks, which have killed more than 200 people, were either blamed on the Islamic State group by Turkish authorities or claimed by the PKK's off-shoot.

The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey for three decades in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. A 2-1/2 year peace process between the government and the PKK broke down in July, reviving the conflict. Since then, the country's security forces have launched large-scale operations against Kurdish militants in several southeast cities and towns, which have raised human rights concerns amid scores of civilian deaths.

Turkey, which is also a partner in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, has also been drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict and forced to absorb 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

Fraser reported from Ankara. Bram Janssen in Istanbul, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

Syria regime retakes Palmyra in major victory over ISIL

27 March 2016 Sunday

Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured the famed ancient city of Palmyra from the ISIL group on Sunday in a major victory over the extremists.

Army sappers were defusing mines and bombs planted by ISIL in the city's ancient ruins, a UNESCO world heritage site where the extremists sparked a global outcry with the systematic destruction of treasured monuments.

"After heavy fighting during the night, the army is in full control of Palmyra -- both the ancient site and the residential neighborhoods," a military source told AFP.

ISIL fighters pulled out, retreating towards the towns of Sukhnah and Deir Ezzor to the east.

ISIL overran the Palmyra ruins and adjacent modern city in May 2015.

It has since blown up two of the site's treasured temples, its triumphal arch and a dozen tower tombs, in a campaign of destruction that UNESCO described as a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court.

The extremists used Palmyra's ancient amphitheater as a venue for public executions, including the beheading of the city's 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

The oasis city's recapture is a strategic as well as symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, since it provides control of the surrounding desert extending all the way to the Iraqi border.

ISIL, behind a string of attacks in the West including last week's Brussels bombings, is under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi military offensives to retake key bastions in its self-proclaimed "caliphate".

On Thursday, the Iraqi army announced the launch of an offensive to recapture second city Mosul, held by the extremists since June 2014.

- 'Heaviest losses' for ISIL -

ISIL lost at least 400 fighters in the battle for Palmyra, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

"That's the heaviest losses that ISIL has sustained in a single battle since its creation" in 2013, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

"It is a symbolic defeat for ISIL comparable with that in Kobane," a town on the Turkish border where Kurdish fighters held out against a months-long siege by ISIL in 2014-15, he added.

Russian forces, which intervened in support of longtime ally Assad last September, have been heavily involved in the offensive to retake Palmyra despite a major drawdown last week.

Russian warplanes conducted more than 40 combat sorties in just 24 hours from Friday to Saturday, targeting "158 terrorist" positions, according to the Russian defense ministry.

Elsewhere in Syria, a ceasefire in areas held by the government and non-extremist rebels has largely held since February 27, in a boost to diplomatic efforts to end a five-year war that has killed more than 270,000 people.

The recapture of Palmyra sets government forces up for a drive on the extremists' de facto Syrian capital of Raqa in the Euphrates valley to the north.

"The army will have regained confidence and morale, and will have prepared itself for the next expected battle in Raqa," a military source said on Saturday.

With the road linking Palmyra to Raqa now under army control, ISIL fighters in the ancient city can only retreat eastwards towards the Iraqi border.

Palmyra was a major center of the ancient world as it lay on the caravan route linking the Roman Empire with Persia and the east.

Pledging Russian support for the offensive to retake the city earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin described it as a "pearl of world civilization".

Situated about 210 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Damascus, it drew some 150,000 tourists a year before it became engulfed by Syria's devastating civil war.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/170922/syria-regime-retakes-palmyra-in-major-victory-over-isil.

Syrian Kurds declare federal region amid wide criticism

March 17, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — The main Syrian Kurdish group declared a federal region on Thursday in Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, a move that was immediately rejected by both the government and opposition.

Nawaf Khalil, an official with the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, told The Associated Press that the announcement was made at a conference being held in the town of Rmeilan in the northeastern province of Hassakeh.

The move was rejected by the Syrian Foreign Ministry describing it as "unconstitutional and worthless." It warned against any attempt to encroach upon the integrity of Syrian territory. The Syrian National Coalition, one of the main Syrian opposition groups, also said it rejects such unilateral declarations and warned of any attempt to form autonomous regions that, "confiscate the will of the Syrian people."

Khalil said participants in the Rmeilan meeting have approved a "democratic federal system for Rojava-Northern Syria." Rojava is a Kurdish word that refers to three distinct enclaves, or cantons, under Kurdish control in northern Syria: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin.

Khalil said participants who include Turkmen, Arabs, Christian and Kurds in northern Syria said after they approved the draft that they are now preparing a final statement that will be read later Thursday.

"Federal and Democratic Syria is a guarantee of coexistence and brotherly relations between people," read a banner posted online from inside the room of the Rmeilan conference. Salih Muslim, the co-president of the PYD, said by telephone that those meeting "are setting up the basis on how constituencies will deal with each other."

Meanwhile in Moscow, the commander of the Russian Air Force said the withdrawal of the bulk of the Russian forces from Syria should be complete in two to three days. Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev said in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily on Thursday that the Air Force aims to meet President Vladimir Putin's deadline and pull out in the next two to three days.

Putin on Monday announced the withdrawal of most of the Russian forces from Syria to end a five-and-a-half-month campaign there. The first group of bombers left for Russia on Tuesday. Moscow didn't specify how many aircraft and troops would be withdrawn. It has not revealed how many soldiers it has deployed to Syria, but U.S. estimates of the number of Russian military personnel vary from 3,000 to 6,000.

UNRWA distributes $6m for reconstruction of Gaza

Monday, 21 March 2016

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced yesterday that it would pay around $6 million to reconstruct and repair Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip, Arab48.com reported.

Some $1.78 million has been allocated for rebuilding houses which were destroyed by the Israeli occupation during the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza.

The remaining $4.22 million, UNRWA said, has been allocated for repair works in the partially damaged houses during the same offensive.

UNRWA said repairing and rebuilding damaged homes is a top priority, stressing that it is still committed to supporting families affected by the unrest.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24597-unrwa-distributes-6m-for-reconstruction-of-gaza.

Trash pickup resumes in Lebanon, ending eight-month crisis

March 19, 2016

NAAMEH, Lebanon (AP) — Sanitation workers began removing mountains of trash from the suburbs of Beirut on Saturday in what residents hoped would mark the end of Lebanon's eight-month garbage crisis. Early in the day, dozens of trucks started carrying trash to the Naameh landfill just south of the capital, one of three landfills opened as part of a temporary solution announced by the government a week ago.

As garbage began piling up in Beirut last year, protesters formed the "You Stink" movement, demanding sweeping reform in Lebanon's government. Since the peaks of the protest in the summer, authorities managed to blunt the public anger by ensuring that the streets of Beirut were kept relatively garbage-free. However, the trash was instead pushed to the city's periphery, where it piled up along roadsides and the banks of the Beirut River.

The government said last week that Naameh, the country's main landfill, will open again for just two months. The crisis began in July, when the Naameh landfill was scheduled to close with no realistic alternatives; Naameh area residents said the dump was over capacity and began blocking the roads to prevent garbage trucks from reaching it.

Despite anger by residents, there were no protests against the reopening of the landfill on Saturday. In the north Beirut suburb of Jdaideh, home to one of the largest trash piles, a bulldozer loaded thousands of trash bags into trucks. Fadwa Saad had to put a mask to avoid the smell of the trash that could be seen from her balcony.

"We are coughing, we have allergies and there are mosquitoes and flies in our homes," she said. "They say they are removing trash. We hope that they really remove it, not only do it for one day and leave the rest."

Spain bus crash kills 13 exchange students; 34 injured

March 20, 2016

MADRID (AP) — A bus carrying university exchange students back from Spain's largest fireworks festival crashed Sunday on a main highway in the northeast, killing at least 13 passengers and injuring 34 others, officials said.

The passengers included Spaniards and foreign nationals from around 20 countries, authorities said. The bus, which was carrying 57 passengers, appeared to have hit a guardrail of the AP7 highway before cartwheeling across the road, slamming through a divider and landing on its side, said Jordi Jane, spokesman for Spain's northeastern Catalonia province.

The students, part of the Erasmus exchange program, had traveled to the eastern city of Valencia to take part in the renowned Fallas fireworks festival and were returning when the bus crashed, Jane said. Most were studying at two universities in Barcelona.

The crash took place near Freginals, halfway between Valencia and Barcelona. Initially, Jane said 14 had died in the crash, but Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz later confirmed the death toll was 13. He said 28 passengers received medical treatment in local hospitals and others received first aid at the crash site.

The regional government of Catalonia said in a statement in the early evening that "according to the latest data, the ill-fated bus had students from Hungary, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Italy, Peru, Bulgaria, Poland, Ireland, Japan, Ukraine, Holland, Belgium, France, Palestine, Turkey, Greece."

It added that two countries — New Zealand and Finland — were still pending confirmation. The statement said autopsies had been completed on nine of the 13 dead and a judge would release the bodies to families once full identification was complete in all cases.

Italy's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Italian citizens were among the dead, but did not say how many. But the Italian news agency ANSA, reporting from Madrid, said as many as seven Italians died in the crash.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said in a tweet that his heart is "broken for the Italian victims and for the other young lives destroyed.". Five Italians were reported to be among the injured who were taken to hospitals in Spain.

Poland's Foreign Ministry said one Polish man was hospitalized after the bus crash and Swiss authorities said one young Swiss woman was injured, but had been discharged from a hospital. The bus that crashed was one of five that had traveled to the festival with students from Barcelona, the Catalan government said in a statement.

Television images from state broadcaster TVE showed the bus also crashed into an oncoming car on the opposite side of the highway. The passengers in the car were injured, the Catalan government said. The bus driver was being held at a police station in the city of Tortosa, Jane said. Road conditions were good at the time of the crash and investigators were looking into the cause of the tragedy, he said.

Fernandez Diaz said the driver passed alcohol and drug tests he was given. Jane said emergency rescue workers were working to clear the wreckage that had closed the major highway linking Spain with France along the Mediterranean coast in both directions.

The Erasmus program provides foreign exchange courses for students from counties within the 28-nation European Union and enables them to attend many of the continent's best universities. The Fallas festival is held each year in Valencia on the feast day of St. Joseph and draws thousands of tourists from across the world.

Large wooden monuments and effigies representing famous people often in humorous postures that local workshops take a year to build are burned in a colorful ceremony accompanied by a cacophonous barrage of very noisy fireworks.

Spain's acting PM won't give up on forming "grand coalition"

March 19, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Spain's acting prime minister rejects stepping aside to ease the political deadlock that has made it impossible for parties to form a government three months after a general election. Mariano Rajoy, speaking at a political rally in Guadamur in the central province of Toledo, vowed he "won't give up" on his idea of forming a "grand coalition government" with the Socialist Party.

Elections held Dec. 20 produced a fragmented parliament with no party winning a majority in the 350-seat chamber. Rajoy, whose Popular Party came in first, insists his party should head a government, but Pedro Sanchez, whose Socialists came second, says he won't work with him.

Lawmakers must form a government within the next two months or another general election will be held June 26.

Scottish police investigate killing of Muslim shopkeeper

March 26, 2016

LONDON (AP) — Scottish police say the killing of a Muslim shopkeeper who wished Christians a happy Easter is being investigated as "religiously prejudiced." Vigils were held Friday and Saturday in memory of 40-year-old Asad Shah, who was killed Thursday night in Glasgow.

He had apparently posted messages on Facebook calling for religious harmony: "Good Friday and very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation x!" Police say a 32-year-old man has been arrested in connection with Shah's death. The suspect, who police say is Muslim, has not been identified or charged.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon joined the Friday vigil in support of Shah and his family in Glasgow. Many lit candles and left flowers. Roughly 150 people also gathered in a light rain on Saturday to honor him, an event organized by local teens.

Police Scotland said that "a full investigation is under way to establish the full circumstances surrounding the death which is being treated as religiously prejudiced."

Computer specialist becomes face of Polish protest movement

March 26, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Only months ago Mateusz Kijowski was a computer specialist unknown to the Polish public. Today the 47-year-old is leading the largest civic protest movement that Poland has seen since Lech Walesa's Solidarity defied the communist regime.

His Committee for the Defense of Democracy took form in November, soon after the right-wing party Law and Justice took office and started consolidating its grip, weakening the power of the constitutional court and other institutions that should be checks on government power. That has prompted the European Union and international human rights groups to express alarm about the state of democracy and the rule of law in the EU's largest eastern member.

Kijowski's group, which is supported by many former Solidarity activists and embraces the same values of nonviolent resistance, has organized a string of protests over the past months that have brought many thousands of people into the streets. But he has come under withering verbal attack from the Law and Justice leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has denounced the movement as anti-patriotic and even guided by foreign interests.

In early April Kijowski will travel to Washington for meetings on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, a trip organized by Freedom House, the U.S.-based group that advocates human rights worldwide. His said his message to U.S. officials will be that democracy is under attack but that much of Polish society remains committed to democratic values — and that the country should therefore not be sidelined internationally.

"We want to put strong pressure on the government but we do not want to build barriers between Poland and other countries," Kijowski told The Associated Press in an interview. As the movement, generally known by its Polish acronym, KOD, has brought people to the streets over the past four months, Kaczynski has lashed out. First he called the protesters "Poles of the worst sort" — a slogan they adopted and now use sarcastically on buttons and banners.

Recently, with the country under greater international censure, Kaczynski's accusations have become stronger. He said the supporters of KOD "despise" Poland and have taken their complaints to the Russian embassy. An adviser to the president also accused the protests of being an element in Russian "hybrid warfare" aimed against Poland.

"I have never been in the Russian embassy," retorted Kijowski. "They are trying to discredit us, and are lying about us to show that we are not true Poles, that people shouldn't trust us." "If we treat the language seriously it is horrible because it's going in the direction of fascism," Kijowski said. "But it's probably more funny because he wants to be a dictator but doesn't have the power for that."

Kaczynski is on a mission to create a stronger nation state that is built on traditional, small-town Catholic values, pushing back against pressure to accept gay rights and other values that have arrived with EU membership. A key mainstay of his worldview is that the country is radically flawed by the 1989 deal that ended communism because it left a large degree of influence and wealth in the hands of former communists, the price paid at the time for a peaceful transition. Law and Justice defends its various political moves as necessary to root out liberal and post-communist influences that it sees as harmful.

Kijowski criticizes the ruling party's values, saying they exclude many Poles who don't share its conservative view. "We are trying to be a civic society that connects every citizen, which is open to every citizen, open to all political sympathies, all religions," he said.

He accuses the ruling party of dismantling the legal order. Like the EU and human rights groups, he points to new laws that have paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, tightened government control over the state media, given police greater power to spy on citizens and broadened its scope for investigating citizens.

"But the most dangerous thing is the whole affair around the constitutional court because all the other things could be stopped by the Constitutional Tribunal if it could proceed normally," he said. Kijowski was too young to be a part of Solidarity but says that a lot of his movement's support comes from people active in that anti-communist resistance. He said he has sought the advice of Walesa, who has given the movement his support.

"The people who knew communism have deja vu now," Kijowski said.

Poland's president: good talks on security with US senators

March 20, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's president said Sunday that he had held very good talks with U.S. senators about the security situation in Central and Eastern Europe, before a NATO summit that Poland will host in July.

Andrzej Duda said that the five members of the U.S. Senate's Intelligence Committee were "not interested in" and didn't discuss Poland's current political crisis that has paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, which has drawn censure from European Union leaders and concern from three other U.S. senators.

Duda said the two-hour talks Saturday in the southern city of Krakow centered on threats to security in the region and on issues that Poland considers key for the NATO summit July 8-9. Warsaw wants to obtain greater NATO security guarantees for the region nervous about Russia's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.

He said the closed-door talks were "very good, held in very good atmosphere." The U.S. senators who met with Duda were Richard M. Burr, Republican from North Carolina; Dan Coats, Republican from Indiana; Angus King, Jr., independent from Maine; Barbara Mikulski, Democrat from Maryland; and Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia.

Tourist-packed Dublin braces for St. Patrick's Parade

March 17, 2016

DUBLIN (AP) — Tourism officials forecast a record crowd for the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin, centerpiece of a weeklong festival celebrating Ireland's patron saint. An estimated 125,000 visitors are joining hundreds of thousands of locals at Thursday's two-hour parade down O'Connell Street to St. Patrick's Cathedral in central Dublin.

In his St. Patrick's message the leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, Archbishop Eamon Martin, called on the faithful to pray for Europe to provide a better home for people fleeing war and poverty.

Martin described Patrick — a Briton originally brought to Ireland as a slave, who returned to spread Christianity across the pagan island — as an undocumented migrant, too. "I ask you to pray for refugees and for all displaced families," Martin said.

1,000 opposition supporters march in Belarus capital

March 25, 2016

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — About 1,000 supporters of Belarus' beleaguered opposition have held a march in the center of Minsk, the capital. The march Friday was the largest opposition gathering of the past year. It was held in commemoration of what the opposition calls Freedom Day, the anniversary of the 1918 founding of the independent Belorussian People's Republic, which fell about nine months later to the Bolsheviks.

Police did not interfere with the march. Under authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, Belarus has cracked down on opposition and independent news media. In February, however, Belarus released all its political prisoners, leading to the lifting of European Union sanctions that had been imposed five years ago.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Greek buses sent to Idomeni camp to pick up refugees

March 25, 2016

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — A fleet of buses has arrived in the sprawling refugee camp of Idomeni on Greece's northern border with Macedonia to take some of the estimated 12,000 people stranded there to nearby refugee camps.

Authorities sent 20 buses to transport 1,000 people to refugee camps set up in northern Greece. But refugees were reluctant to board as they had not been informed of where they would be taken. Greece's border with Macedonia has been shut to refugees since earlier this month after a string of countries shut down what has become known as the western Balkan route which migrants used to go from Greece to central and northern Europe.

Those stranded in the camp and surrounding fields have been living in dire conditions in small tents pitched in muddy fields.

Greece: Aid workers protest deportations as delays mount

March 24, 2016

LESBOS, Greece (AP) — Aid workers on the island of Lesbos Thursday protested planned deportations of migrants and refugees from Greece, as the government said the process would not start for at least another 10 days.

Blowing whistles and banging aluminum containers, dozens of aid workers gathered outside a refugee registration center on the island where hundreds of people are now being detained. "We organized this protest ... to give a face to the people because they almost have none anymore, since they are locked inside," independent aid worker Nefeli Gazis said.

More than 2,000 refugees and migrants have been detained on Lesbos and other islands near the Turkish coast since an international agreement went into effect Sunday to fast track deportations to Turkey.

Last week's EU-Turkey agreement stipulates those arriving on Greek islands from the Turkish coast as of March 20 would be detained and sent back. For every Syrian returned, another Syrian in Turkey will be relocated to a European country.

European officials say the system aims to discourage refugees from risking their lives to cross the Aegean. Human rights and aid groups have strongly criticized the decision as inhumane and illegal, with most scaling back operations that involve assisting the government.

In Athens, a government official told the AP that deportations would start on April 4, and would carried out by the European Union's border protection agency, Frontex. Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for a government refugee crisis committee, said the send-backs would start with migrants who had made no asylum claim while being held in detention in Greece.

"It's unclear what vessels will be used to make the transfer, but Frontex will have the authority over those operations," he said. Earlier, Kyritsis announced the government was creating 30,000 new places at refugee shelters — extending capacity at existing sites and creating new ones — over the next 20 days for voluntary evacuation of refugees camped out at the Greek-Macedonian border and the country's main port of Piraeus.

Some 12,000 people remain at the border camp near the village of Idomeni, most living in squalid conditions. "We will intensify our efforts to persuade people to leave Idomeni. Chartered buses will be available starting tomorrow for people who want to start leaving," Kyritsis said.

Legislative amendments needed for the EU-Turkey deal to take full effect in Greece, would be submitted to parliament next Wednesday, he said.

Famed publisher opens Paris' first on-demand only bookshop

March 20, 2016

PARIS (AP) — To many Parisians, the letters PUF have always been associated with the intellectual heart of the French capital. So when the 95-year-old venerable publishing house specializing in human and social sciences was forced to close its historic bookstore on the Place de La Sorbonne in 1999, it left a big void in the heart of many students and researchers.

But Les Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) is back in town, just a stone's throw from their previous location in the Quartier Latin neighborhood. While the PUF's new bookshop is not as big as it used to be, its riches could fill the life of any reader. The few books on the shelves aren't for sale, but around 3 million titles are available in the 72-square meter (775-square foot) store, which opened last week.

"This is the first all-digital bookshop in Europe that sells books on demand only," PUF general manager Frederic Meriot told The Associated Press. "It is a model for the future, a model in which digital and paperback books can work together."

PUF's comeback in the City of Lights couldn't have been possible without the Espresso Book Machine, the robot that prints, binds and trims books in a few minutes. Available since 2006, the first one was installed briefly at the World Bank's bookstore. There are now more than 100 in bookstores and libraries across the world.

At PUF, it has been installed at the back of the shop and arouses interest from all kind of visitors. When the AP visited the shop earlier this week, three police officers patrolling the neighborhood were passing by and came in to learn more about books on demand.

"In France it's a small revolution," says Pauline Darfeuille, a project engineer from the Printers' national union who helped PUF set up the machine. "There are only five (machines) of this type in the country."

The Espresso Book Machine uses two PDFs, one for the cover and another for the text. While the cover can be printed in color, the inside of the book is black and white only. It takes only a few minutes to create a book.

"In the meantime, readers can enjoy a cup of coffee from the shop at a reasonable price," says Alexandre Gaudefroy, who has managed the PUF project since its inception. "The idea was to create a tea room and a bookshop at the same time."

"It's unbelievable," says Zeina Genadry, who used to buy books at the historic PUF bookshop, as she flips through the pages of the biography of Montaigne from Stefan Zweig that just came out of the machine.

Although the cover of the books are a bit sticky compared to those of traditional paperbacks because of the gloss used during the process, the machine produces library-quality books sold at the same price as in traditional bookshops.

According to Meriot, the on-demand-only model that PUF is developing in parallel to its traditional publisher's activities has a bright future. "Not only because at an equivalent price all readers, even among the young generations, prefer paper to digital," he said. "But also in terms of costs for us. We could not have afford to rent a 600-square-meter (6,450-square-foot) shop like we had in the past. With the Espresso Book, we don't need warehouses to stock the books, we don't spend money to pulp the books already printed that didn't sell, and it's also a low-carbon way of making books."

Meriot said he needs to sell about 15 books daily to break even. He sold 60 on the opening day of business. "It was almost a riot, our booksellers didn't even find the time to take a break for lunch," he said.

For now, about 5,000 titles from the PUF catalog are available at the bookshop, with an extra 3 million titles from other publishing houses and sources put together by On Demand books — the company behind the Espresso Book Machine — also printable at the shop.

Gunmen attack EU mission in Mali capital; 1 attacker dead

March 21, 2016

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Gunmen launched an attack Monday evening on the European Union military training mission's headquarters in the Malian capital, Bamako, in what appeared to be the latest in a series of attacks on Western interests in the region.

Armed forces killed at least one man, who lay outside the hotel in jeans and a shirt in a pool of blood next to a Kalashnikov rifle. His backpack lay beside him. Cmdr. Modibo Naman Traore, a spokesman for the Malian special forces, said three other attackers were still being sought. As of late Monday, no group had claimed responsibility.

Sgt. Baba Dembele from the anti-terrorism unit in Bamako told an Associated Press reporter at the scene that it was believed some attackers had entered the Hotel Nord-Sud, where the mission is headquartered.

The EU training mission later released a statement saying it had come under attack by small arms fire but no personnel had been wounded, and that Malian security forces were securing the area. EU soldiers, the Malian army, national police and other security forces stood outside the hotel.

The assault comes about four months after jihadis attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital, killing 20 people. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for that attack, saying it was their first joint attack since al-Mourabitoun joined al-Qaida's North Africa branch in 2015.

In January, extremists from the same militant groups attacked a cafe near a hotel popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso's capital, killing at least 30 people. And just last week, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for an assault on a beach in Ivory Coast that left at least 19 dead, identifying the three attackers as members of al-Mourabitoun and Sahara units.

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the coup that unleashed widespread chaos in Mali. After the overthrow of the democratically elected president, extremists in the northern half of Mali took over major towns and began implementing their strict interpretation of Islamic law. The amputations and public whippings only ended when a French-led military mission forced them from power in 2013.

Over the past year, the jihadis have mounted a growing wave of violent attacks against U.N. peacekeepers who are trying to help stabilize the country. The EU launched a training mission to help support and rebuild the Malian armed forces in February 2013 at the request of Malian authorities. The training is carried out in Koulikoro, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast of the capital.

Exiled Tibetans vote for government shunned by China

March 20, 2016

DHARMSALA, India (AP) — The prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile called Sunday for China to engage in dialogue on autonomy for his people's homeland, as tens of thousands of Tibetans around the world voted for new leaders of a government that Beijing does not recognize.

Buddhist monks in crimson robes lined up along with hundreds of Tibetan men and women in schools, government buildings and the courtyard of the Tsuglakhang Temple in India's northern city of Dharmsala, where the exiled government is based, to cast their votes for prime minister and parliament.

They started to line up early Sunday, carrying their "Green Books" — passport-size booklets that record their paid taxes and are mandatory for Tibetans to be eligible to vote. The voters stood patiently, at times for more than an hour, as they waited for their turn to mark their choices on ballot papers printed with the images of the two prime minister candidates. Elderly Tibetans carrying walking sticks and rosaries were assisted by government officials in voting.

The ballot boxes were fashioned out of painted tin boxes with hinged lids. Separate boxes were marked in Tibetan for the election of the prime minister and for parliament. It was the second election since the Dalai Lama stepped down as head of the government-in-exile in 2011 to focus on his role as the Tibetans' spiritual leader. Some 80,000 voters were registered, and results are expected next month.

Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent prime minister, arrived with his young daughter to cast his vote at a polling booth in a government building. "The dialogue (with China) will be the main initiative," Lobsang, who is running for re-election against parliamentary speaker Penpa Tsering, told reporters.

"I hope Chinese President Xi Jinping in his second term in 2017 will look at the Tibetan issue and take the initiative" to hold talks with Tibetan exiles, he said. Lobsang added, however, that the reality on the ground "is repression."

China doesn't recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile, and hasn't held any dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama since 2010. "We never recognize this so-called government-in-exile," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular news conference Thursday in Beijing. "We hope that all countries in this world, especially those that want to maintain friendly relations with China, will not provide facilities or venues for any anti-China, separatist activities by the so-called Tibet independence forces."

China says Tibet has historically been part of its territory since the mid-13th century, and the Communist Party has governed the Himalayan region since 1951. But many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of their history, and that the Chinese government wants to exploit their resource-rich region while crushing their cultural identity.

The Dalai Lama and his followers have been living in exile in Dharmsala since they fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Both prime minister candidates support the "middle way" approach advocated by the Dalai Lama, which calls for seeking regional autonomy under Chinese rule.

Some Tibetan groups advocate independence for Tibet, since little progress has been made in dialogue with China. But their representatives couldn't win enough support in the first round of voting last year to be in the running for the prime minister's post.

"There has been little discussion about the future of Tibet," said Bhuchung D. Sonam, a Tibetan writer. "For example, how the two candidates would approach the issue of Tibet in terms of talking to China."

Lobsang said he wants India's government to recognize Tibet as a core issue of its policy. New Delhi considers Tibet as part of China, though it is hosting the Tibetan exiles. He said that Tibet has become more of an issue for India, and mentioned New Delhi's concerns over the falling water levels of the Brahmputra River, which flows from Tibet into India, as well as plans for a railway link.

"In that sense, I think Tibet is becoming an important issue not just simply for human rights, but also from a geopolitical point of view, an environment point of view and from a climate change point of view," he said.

Exiled Tibetan officials say at least 114 monks and laypeople have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule over their homeland in the past five years, with most of them dying. U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia puts the number of self-immolations at 144 since 2009.

Beijing blames the Dalai Lama and others for inciting the immolations and says it has made vast investments to develop Tibet's economy and improve quality of life.

China's aim to explore Mars

Beijing (XNA)
Mar 22, 2016

China is preparing to launch a Mars probe in 2020, and it is expected to arrive on the red planet in 2021, aerospace expert Ye Peijian has said. "Although we are not the first Asian nation to send a probe to Mars, we want to start at a higher level," said Ye, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The probe will include an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The orbiter will conduct global surveys of Mars, and the entry device will land a rover on the surface. Parachute and reverse thrust engine technologies will probably be used in the landing, according to Ye.

"We have less than five years till the launch, but we are confident. The probe is being developed by the team that completed the Chang'e-3 lunar probe," says Ye, leader of the team with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

A 3D demonstration video from CAST shows how the Mars probe will fly about 10 months before closing on the red planet. Controllers on Earth will guide it into a large elliptical orbit and the orbiter and lander will separate. The orbiter will stay in orbit for at least a year to photograph key areas and monitor the planet's environment.

Unlike the lunar lander of the Chang'e-3 probe, the Mars lander will carry a gasbag, a parachute and reverse thrust engines, which will together secure a safe landing, according to experts from CAST.

Zheng Yongchun, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatory, says that combining orbiting exploration and a roving probe in one mission is a rational choice for starting Mars exploration at a high level.

"The best and most direct method to look for evidence of life on Mars is to explore the surface. Mars will be a key focus of China's deep space exploration in the future," Zheng says.

But communicating with the Mars probe is still a great challenge. China needs to develop a long-life, powerful relay communication device on the orbiter, says Zheng.

So how will the Mars rover differ from lunar rover Yutu (or Jade Rabbit), which China sent to the moon at the end of 2013?

In an exclusive interview, Jia Yang, deputy chief designer of the Chang'e-3 lunar probe, tells Xinhua the Mars rover will have a better autonomous capability as Mars is much further away than the moon. The distance between Mars and Earth ranges from 55 million kilometers to 400 million kilometers.

"The Mars rover should be able to sense the environment, plan its route, conduct scientific exploration and detect faults autonomously. It should be a mobile intelligence," Jia says.

Two-way signal transmissions between Mars and the Earth could be as long as 40 minutes. So most of the time, the rover will deal with things on its own. Ground controllers will solve the complicated problems, Jia says.

Chinese space experts say they still face a lot of technological hurdles in developing the Mars rover, which should be stronger than the lunar rover Yutu.

Since Mars is further from the sun than the Earth's moon, its solar panels should be as large as possible to generate more electricity, Jia says.

"Although the temperature change on Mars is less drastic than that on the moon, the Mars rover still needs an 'overcoat' to keep warm," Jia says.

Sandstorms often form on the red planet during summer, which inspired the story in the Hollywood blockbuster "The Martian." During the sandstorms, the solar energy will drop dramatically. Chinese space experts will design a "sleep" mode for such occasions, says Jia.

A prototype model of the Mars rover was displayed at the Airshow China 2014. It was about 2 meters long, with six wheels. Its size, weight and technologies were close to those of the American Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Unlike the rover Curiosity, which uses a nuclear battery, the Chinese Mars rover will use solar power.

"Exploring the red planet and deep space will cement China's scientific and technological expertise. The knock-on effect is that innovations and independent intellectual property rights will surge, and, as a result, China's core competence will increase, pushing development in other industries," says Jia.

"As China continues with its lunar mission, glimpsing further and further into deep space, it will play a bigger role in solving key frontier scientific questions," Jia says.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Chinas_aim_to_explore_Mars_999.html.

Astronomers Discover Colossal 'Super Spiral' Galaxies

Pasadena CA (JPL)
Mar 22, 2016

A strange new kind of galactic beast has been spotted in the cosmic wilderness. Dubbed "super spirals," these unprecedented galaxies dwarf our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, and compete in size and brightness with the largest galaxies in the universe.

Super spirals have long hidden in plain sight by mimicking the appearance of typical spiral galaxies. A new study using archived NASA data reveals these seemingly nearby objects are in fact distant, behemoth versions of everyday spirals. Rare, super spiral galaxies present researchers with the major mystery of how such giants could have arisen.

"We have found a previously unrecognized class of spiral galaxies that are as luminous and massive as the biggest, brightest galaxies we know of," said Patrick Ogle, an astrophysicist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author of a new paper on the findings published in The Astrophysical Journal. "It's as if we have just discovered a new land animal stomping around that is the size of an elephant but had shockingly gone unnoticed by zoologists."

Ogle and colleagues chanced upon super spirals as they searched for extremely luminous, massive galaxies in the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED), an online repository containing information on over 100 million galaxies.

NED brings together a wealth of data from many different projects, including ultraviolet light observations from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, visible light from Sloan Digital Sky Survey, infrared light from the Two Micron All-Sky Survey, and links to data from other missions such as Spitzer and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

"Remarkably, the finding of super spiral galaxies came out of purely analyzing the contents of the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database, thus reaping the benefits of the careful, systematic merging of data from many sources on the same galaxies," said George Helou, a study co-author and the executive director of IPAC. "NED is surely holding many more such nuggets of information, and it is up to us scientists to ask the right questions to bring them out."

Ogle, Helou and their colleagues expected that humongous, mature galaxies called ellipticals - so named for their football-like shapes - would dominate their search within NED for the most luminous galaxies. But a tremendous surprise lay in store for the scientists.

In a sample of approximately 800,000 galaxies no more than 3.5 billion light-years from Earth, 53 of the brightest galaxies intriguingly had a spiral, rather than elliptical, shape. The researchers double-checked the distances to the spiral galaxies and saw that none were nearby - even the closest lay some 1.2 billion light-years away. With the correct distance estimates in hand, the stunning properties of this newfound batch of whirlpool-shaped galaxies came to light.

Super spirals can shine with anywhere from eight to 14 times the brightness of the Milky Way. They possess as much as 10 times our galaxy's mass. Their gleaming, starry disks stretch from twice to even four times the width of the Milky Way galaxy's approximately 100,000 light-year-wide disk, with the largest super spiral spanning a whopping 440,000 light-years.

Super spirals also give off copious ultraviolet and mid-infrared light, signifying a breakneck pace of churning out new stars. Their star formation rate is as high as 30 times that of our own run-of-the-mill galaxy.

According to established astrophysical theory, spiral galaxies should not be able to attain any of these feats because their size and star-making potential are limited. As spiral galaxies grow by gravitationally attracting fresh, cool gas from intergalactic space, their masses reach a tipping point in which any newly captured gas rushes in too rapidly. This headlong gas heats up and prevents subsequent star formation in a process known as "quenching." Bucking this conventional wisdom, though, super spirals remain unquenched.

A vital hint about the potential origin of super spirals is that four out of the 53 seen by Ogle and colleagues clearly contain two galactic nuclei, instead of just one as usual. Double nuclei, which look like two egg yolks frying in a pan, are a telltale sign of two galaxies having just merged together.

Conventionally, mergers of spiral galaxies are destined to become bloated, elliptical galaxies. Yet Ogle and colleagues speculate that a special merger involving two, gas-rich spiral galaxies could see their pooled gases settle down into a new, larger stellar disk - presto, a super spiral.

"Super spirals could fundamentally change our understanding of the formation and evolution of the most massive galaxies," said Ogle. "We have much to learn from these newly identified, galactic leviathans."

Other authors of the new study are Lauranne Lanz of IPAC and Cyril Nader, an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on this project during a summer internship at IPAC.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Astronomers_Discover_Colossal_Super_Spiral_Galaxies_999.html.

Cygnus Set to Deliver Its Largest Load of Station Science, Cargo

by Steven Siceloff for KSC News
Kennedy Space Center FL (SPX)
Mar 22, 2016

A new 3D printer and research projects examining everything from adhesive technologies to the behavior of large fires in space are packed inside an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft for launch Tuesday, March 22, at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window extends for 30 minutes.

Launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, the Cygnus, which carries no crew, will steer itself to the station during the course of three days. Astronauts and ground controllers will use the station's robotic arm to grapple Cygnus and connect it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module. Cygnus will stay connected to the Earth-facing laboratory for about two months before being released to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Much of the science will be conducted by astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they continue landmark research above Earth for the benefit of those on the Earth and future astronauts making the journey to Mars. Other science, such as the fire research and reentry data collection, will be conducted at the end of the mission and only after Cygnus drops off its materials and is flying on its own far from the station.

Named the S.S. Rick Husband in tribute to the astronaut who commanded the STS-107 mission which was lost Feb. 1, 2003, this will be the second flight of an enhanced version of Cygnus which first flew in December on a successful return to the flight for the company. Able to carry about 25 percent more volume than its predecessor, the enhanced models also feature more efficient solar arrays and other upgraded systems.

While docked to the station, Cygnus will be unloaded by astronauts who will set up the experiments and stow the fresh supplies. Altogether, the mission's cargo manifest totals more than 3 0.5 tons, including experiments by government and private researchers. Two expeditions - 47 and 48 - will conduct the research in NASA's continuing drive to unlock the secrets of long-duration space exploration.

"It's like Christmas when a supply craft arrives," said Orbital ATK's Dan Tani, a former shuttle and station astronaut who is now senior director of mission cargo and operations. "It's always fun to watch another vehicle approach and then it's like opening a box of goodies and finding some stuff you've been wanting and some surprises you didn't know about."

This Cygnus will carry more to the station than any of the previous five missions, Tani said.

A few of the scientific highlights:

- Gecko Gripper, testing a mechanism similar to the tiny hairs on geckos' feet that lets them stick to surfaces using an adhesive that doesn't wear off,

- Strata-1, designed to evaluate how soil on small, airless bodies such as asteroids behaves in microgravity.

- Meteor, an instrument to evaluate from space the chemical composition of meteors entering Earth's atmosphere. The instrument is being re-flown following its loss on earlier supply missions.

- Saffire, which will set a large fire inside the Cygnus in an unprecedented study to see how large fires behave in space. The research is vital to selecting systems and designing procedures future crews of long-duration missions can use for fighting fires.

- Cygnus is carrying more than two dozen nanosatellites that will be ejected from either the spacecraft or the station at various times during the mission to evaluate a range of technology and science including Earth observations.

The station residents depend on cargo missions from Earth to supply them with daily clothes, food, water and air, along with the equipment they need to work in orbit. For instance, this mission is carrying a spacesuit for the crew and high-pressure cylinders to recharge the station's air supply.

As the Cygnus approaches the end of its time connected to the station, astronauts will pack it with trash, spent experiments and other equipment no longer needed. It will all burn up as the spacecraft blazes through the atmosphere to end the flight with a safe impact in the Pacific Ocean.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Cygnus_Set_to_Deliver_Its_Largest_Load_of_Station_Science_Cargo_999.html.