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Turkey won’t apologize to Russia over warplane downing

November 30, 2015

Turkey won’t apologize to Russia for shooting down a warplane operating over Syria, the Turkish prime minister said Monday, stressing that the military was doing its job defending the country’s airspace.

Ahmet Davutoglu also said Turkey hopes Moscow will reconsider economic sanctions announced against Turkish interests following last week’s incident. The Turkish resort town of Antalya is “like a second home” to many Russian holidaymakers, he said, but refused to yield on Turkish security.

“No Turkish prime minister or president will apologize ... because of doing our duty,” Davutoglu told reporters after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. “Protection of Turkish airspace, Turkish borders is a national duty, and our army did their job to protect this airspace. But if the Russian side wants to talk, and wants to prevent any future unintentional events like this, we are ready to talk.”

Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian warplane on Nov. 24, sparking Cold War-style tensions between Russia and NATO, of which Turkey is a member. One of the Russian pilots was killed, while a second was rescued.

On Monday, the body of Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov, the Russian pilot, was flown back to Russia following a military ceremony in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Turkey's military said. Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the international climate talks in Paris, on Monday said “we have every reason to believe” that the plane was shot down to protect what he described as Turkish profiteering from illegal imports of oil produced by Islamic State rebels in Syria.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said the United States has corroborated that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace, based on evidence from Turkey and from “our own sources.”

The Russian air force said Monday that its Su-34 fighter bombers in Syria were now armed with air-to-air missiles for defense. Air force spokesman Col. Igor Klimov said the missiles have a range of about 60 kilometers (35 miles), Russian news agencies reported.

Russia began airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30 that it says are focused on IS fighters. But some observers say Russia is targeting other rebel groups to bolster the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia insists that the plane that was shot down didn’t intrude on Turkish airspace.

Douglas Lute, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said he saw American data which “corroborates Turkey’s version of events. So the airplane was in Turkey, it was engaged in Turkey.” Putin on Saturday called for sanctions against Turkey including bans on some Turkish goods and extensions on work contracts for Turks working in Russia. The measures also call for ending chartered flights from Russia to Turkey and for Russian tourism companies to stop selling vacation packages that would include a stay in Turkey.

Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party deserved its win even if many are unhappy

Dr Basheer M. Nafi
Sunday, 29 November 2015

I do not recall a single election in any democratic country during the past ten years that created so much media discourse and aroused so much debate around the world as the recent poll in Turkey did; the exception may be Barack Obama's first bid to be president. The difference, of course, was that the 2008 US presidential election was a historic vote on whether or not the US was likely to have an American of African origins in the White House while racism was still rife across US society. In Turkey, it was not an issue of black nominee versus white, nor was there a new party or one with an odd political agenda. The election focused on whether the Justice and Development Party could win, given that it had thus far won in every single national or local election and in every referendum since 2002. So, the question was whether it could rise again after its minor slip in this year’s June election and could once again form a government on its own.

However, the debate over the November poll took a mostly different path. Instead of finding the result of the June election surprising - because despite the defeat incurred by the Justice and Development Party (JDP) it continued to possess the biggest parliamentary bloc - those who wanted it to be defeated again were taken aback by its success in the second election this year that brought it back to government on its own.

The problem with the rhetoric about Turkey, in which liberals and secularists, Arabs, Westerners and Turks, and nationalists and mystics are engaged, is that it has largely been a product of wishful thinking. It was not a realistic discourse that stood on solid ground with proper knowledge of the history and politics of the country and the mood and inclinations of its people. As such, it was not surprising at all for the Economist, the most influential weekly within Western political and financial circles, to use its lead article on the eve of the elections to call on the Turkish people not to vote for the JDP. Such a problematic approach is not confined to Turkey. Since the 3 July 2013 coup in Egypt, and what followed the decision by Ennahda Party to give up governance in Tunisia, many commentators and experts have rushed to adopt the “end of political Islam” discourse.

When the June election in Turkey revealed that the JDP could not maintain the level it achieved in 2011, it seemed as if that thesis had absolute proof.

How could certain political forces achieve in 2011 and 2012 around 50 per cent of the votes, as the JDP did, or slightly less in the case of Ennahda Party and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, and then reach the end of their political life in 2015? The question, of course, does not pertain to the lack of logic and sensibility in such assumptions but in allowing wishful thinking to overwhelm solid facts.

Most of what the scholars and sensible commentators who specialize in Turkish affairs wrote after the November election was accurate. In June, the Turkish people wanted to send a clear warning message to the ruling party after the JDP was afflicted with sloth and some of its leaders and ministers were smeared with corruption allegations; in fact, it seemed that the party was carelessly overconfident about winning another electoral majority. However, it looks as if the people only wanted to send a warning to the JDP but not prevent it from governing alone. During the five months that separated the two elections, Turkish voters witnessed the uselessness of the coalition government and sensed the danger likely to be posed by a future coalition. They still remember the experiences they had with coalition governments during the 1990s. The Turks could also see the damage inflicted upon the country's economy and its role regionally and internationally by the anxiety and loss of political confidence.

Not only did the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) return, after a rather short-sighted reckoning, to terrorism, but Turkey’s US ally was also no longer much bothered about Ankara’s sensitivities over Syria, especially with regard to the provision of military aid to the PKK branch within its troubled neighbor.

In the early November election, therefore, the voters decided that the Justice and Development Party had heard and listened to the June electoral message and that it was necessary to maintain stability within the country and preserve its role and standing.

Such a reading of the situation, and all the attendant details, are accurate to a large extent. However, there is still something beyond all of this. What was clear during the November election was not only that the JDP achieved a major victory and that its share of the votes was restored to the level of fifty per cent of the electorate as in 2011, but also that the major losers were the two nationalist Turkish and Kurdish parties: the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party and the PKK-linked Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. Together, the two parties lost about five million votes compared to what they obtained in the June poll.

This loss is quite significant, first because it indicates that the unexpected popular support both parties received during the June election appears to have been purely a protest vote against the JDP, and second because the Turkish people soon realized the potential danger posed to the state and the country's unity and stability by the extremist nationalist visions of both parties. This is not just a Turkish lesson. It should by now be understood that the people's mood across the region is not inclined toward supporting the agendas of radical and nationalist forces; such agendas are deemed to be threatening and potentially divisive. The mood is, in fact, more inclined toward building bigger blocs that go beyond narrow nationalist or ethnic dreams.

The second lesson derived from the November election in Turkey is that none of the opposition parties is qualified to replace the JDP. By winning in 63 out of the 81 Turkish provinces, the party proved once again that it is the only party that represents all Turks and speaks for the plurality of Turkish ethnicities and cultures; it is the only political force that is capable of occupying the center, or the backbone, of the republic. This is a solid reality and has very much to do with the collapse of the political center of the Turkish Republic since the mid-1970s and throughout the 1990s, as well as with the cultural and socio-political changes that have taken place within Turkish society during the past half century. The recent elections are not the only pointer to this fact. It is difficult to comprehend the sweeping success made by the JDP in the 2002 election, only one year after its creation, without taking these changes into consideration.

In one way or another, this is also what precipitated in the conscience of the Turkish majority. In a society where one of the supplications made after each congregational prayer has, for many centuries, been “O God Save the Religion and the State”, the JDP emerged rapidly as the sole political force capable of safeguarding the Turkish center.

Ultimately, and no matter what, the major victory in the November election places a heavy burden on the shoulders of the next Justice and Development Party government; a burden that has to do with reform and the Kurdish problem as much as it has to do with regional and neighborhood crises. In the democratic system, though, there exists no political party that enjoys sanctity or permanent immunity. If the JDP manages to meet the challenges facing Turkey with competence and wisdom, it may well achieve another victory towards the end of 2019. Should it fail, the people will bring it down, even if a convincing alternative is not then available.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/europe/22538-turkeys-justice-and-development-party-deserved-its-win-even-if-many-are-unhappy.

Turkey-Russia spat over downed Russian warplane escalates

November 27, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A tug-of-war over a Russian warplane downed by a Turkish fighter jet at the border with Syria escalated Thursday, with Moscow drafting a slew of economic sanctions against Turkey and the Turkish president defiantly declaring that his military will shoot down any new intruder.

The spat reflected a clash of ambitions of two strongman leaders, neither of whom appeared willing to back down and search for a compromise. Turkey shot down the Russian Su-24 military jet on Tuesday, insisting it had violated its airspace despite repeated warnings. The incident marked the first time in half a century that a NATO member shot down a Russian plane, raising the threat of a military confrontation between the alliance and Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the Turkish action as a "treacherous stab in the back," and insisted that the plane was downed over Syrian territory in violation of international law. "Until that moment, we haven't heard a clear apology from Turkey's top political leadership, or an offer to compensate for the damage or a promise to punish the criminals," he said at the Kremlin while receiving credentials from several ambassadors. "It gives an impression that the Turkish leadership is deliberately driving Russian-Turkish relations into a deadlock, and we regret that."

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in no mood to apologize, and warned that Ankara would act in the same way in the event of another intrusion. "Faced with the same violation today, Turkey would give the same response," Erdogan said. "It's the country that carried out the violation which should question itself and take measures to prevent it from happening again, not the country that was subjected to a violation."

Erdogan said Turkey had not specifically targeted Russia when it shot down the plane, saying it was "an automatic response" in line with its rules of engagement. He spoke on a more conciliatory note in separate comments on France 24. Asked if Turkey would still have targeted the plane if it positively knew it was Russian, he said: "If we had determined it, the warnings would have been different."

Speaking later in the Kremlin after the talks with French President Francois Hollande, Putin said he was sorry to hear that Erdogan sees no need to apologize. "For us, Turkey was not just a neighbor, but a friendly state, almost an ally," he said. "It's very sad to see all of it being destroyed so thoughtlessly and brutally."

The Russian and Turkish leaders are often compared to each other. Both are populist, frequently crack down on critics and often revert to anti-Western rhetoric. They had enjoyed close relations until recently, despite differences over Syria, and regularly exchanged visits. In September, Erdogan traveled to Moscow where he and Putin attended the opening of a new mosque, and they also met separately at the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit hosted by Turkey.

On Thursday, Erdogan told France 24 television in an interview that he had tried talking to Putin but that the Russian leader did not respond. Turkey has released audio recordings of what it says are the Turkish military's repeated warnings to the pilot of a Russian bomber before it was shot down at the border with Syria.

The recordings, made available to The Associated Press on Thursday, indicate the plane was warned several times that it was approaching Turkey's airspace and asked to change course, but there is no indication of a Russian reply.

In the recordings, a voice is heard saying in broken English: "This is Turkish Air Force speaking on guard. You are approaching Turkish airspace. Change your heading south immediately." The voice gets increasingly agitated as the warnings appear to go unnoticed.

The audio that was released only involved Turkish warnings, no replies by a Russian pilot. It was not clear if Turkey had received any replies from the Russian pilots but did not release them; if the Russian pilots never replied to the warnings; or if the Russians never even heard the warnings.

A Russian airman who survived the shoot-down and was later rescued by the Syrian and Russian commando, denied veering into Turkey's airspace "even for a single second." Turkey insists the plane was in its airspace for 17 seconds.

Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin also said he and his crewmate, who was killed by ground fire after bailing out, hadn't heard any Turkish warnings. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the audio recording released by Ankara as a fake.

Erdogan accused Russia of using its declared goal to fight the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to target opposition groups including the Turkmen, in order to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He also challenged Russia to prove its accusation that Turkey is buying oil and gas from IS, calling the claims "shameful" and even pledging to step down if the claim is proven. "This is a great disrespect to Turkey and those who make the claims are slanderers," he said. "If they prove it, Tayyip Erdogan would step down."

Commenting on Erdogan's statement, Putin said that at the G-20 summit in Antalya he showed fellow leaders the aerial pictures of convoys of oil trucks carrying the IS oil into Turkey. "Let's assume that Turkey's political leadership knows nothing about it, it's theoretically possible, albeit hard to believe," he said sarcastically. "There may be elements of corruption and insider deals. They should deal with it."

Putin responded to the plane's downing by ordering the deployment of powerful long-range air defense missiles to a Russian air base in Syria. On Thursday, Russian state television stations ran a report showing the S-400 missiles already deployed at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the border with Turkey.

The Russian navy missile cruiser Moskva also moved closer to the shore to help protect Russian warplanes with its long-range Fort air defense system. The Russian Defense Ministry has warned that the military was prepared to destroy any aerial target that may threaten its warplanes, and announced the severance of all military ties with Turkey.

Concerned by the move, Turkey's High Military Council, which included top government and military leaders, called Thursday for keeping all diplomatic and military channels of communication open to avoid new "undesired" incidents on the Turkey-Syria border.

In addition to the military moves, the Kremlin also acted Thursday to inflict economic pain on Turkey. Since the plane was downed, Russia has already restricted tourism, left Turkish trucks stranded at the border and announced the confiscation of large quantities of Turkish food imports.

On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered a range of economic sanctions against Turkey within the next two days. They will include "restrictions and bans on Turkish economic structures operating in Russian territory, restrictions and bans on deliveries of products, including foodstuffs," as well as on labor and services.

Russia was the biggest source of Turkish imports last year, worth $25 billion, which mostly accounted for Russian gas supplies. It also is the largest destination for Turkish exports, mostly textiles and food, and Turkish construction companies have won a sizable niche of the Russian market.

Erdogan lamented Russia's intention to halt economic cooperation with Turkey, saying political leaders should talk first. "We are strategic partners," he said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Nataliya Vasilyeva and James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed.

Erdogan: Palestinians are fighting a 'noble and honorable battle'

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated this morning that the Muslim world is going through a very difficult time, noting that “our brethren in Palestine are confronting the Israeli violations and attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and are fighting a noble and honorable battle.”

In his speech before the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (COMCEC), Erdogan highlighted the fact that the blockade imposed on Gaza continues and has turned Gaza into an open-air prison.

He also stressed the need to not let this situation continue, and mentioned the situation in Syria and the incident with the Russian fighter jet earlier this week.

The Turkish premier claimed that two unknown fighter jets penetrated Turkey’s air space before Turkish air controllers requested the jets to retreat. One jet left while the other remained, so the Turkish fighter jets shot it down.

He added that parts of the fighter jet fell on Turkish territory, resulting in the death and injury of Turkish citizens.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/22478-erdogan-palestinians-are-fighting-a-noble-and-honourable-battle.

US troops killed near Bagram, Taliban insurgency intensifies

December 22, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol Monday, killing six American troops in the deadliest attack on international forces since August. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were wounded.

The soldiers were targeted as they moved through a village near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility. A U.S. official confirmed that six American troops were killed and two wounded. An Afghan was also wounded. The official was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those affected in this tragic incident, especially during this holiday season," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Shoffner, head of public affairs at NATO's Resolute Support base in the Afghan capital Kabul, said in a statement.

In New York, Police Commissioner William Bratton said Monday that a New York City police detective, Joseph Lemm, was one of the six American killed in the attack. Lemm was a 15-year-old veteran of the New York Police Department and worked in the Bronx Warrant Squad. Bratton says Lemm served in the U.S. National Guard and, while a member of the police force, he had been deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the nation's thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and their loved ones, and that the U.S. will continue to work jointly with Afghans to promote peace and stability in their country.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in statement called the attack "a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan." It was the deadliest attack on foreign troops in four months. On Aug. 22, three American contractors with the RS base were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. On Aug. 7 and 8, Kabul was the scene of three insurgent attacks within 24 hours that left at least 35 people dead. One of the attacks, on a U.S. special operations forces base outside Kabul, killed one U.S soldier and eight Afghan civilian contractors.

In the year since the international drawdown, the Taliban insurgency has intensified. Although the combat mission ended last year, around 9,800 U.S. troops and almost 4,000 NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. They have a mandate to "train, assist and advise" their Afghan counterparts, who are now effectively fighting a battle-hardened Taliban alone.

Monday's attack came as Taliban fighters and government forces battled for control of a strategic district in the southern province of Helmand after it was overrun by insurgents, delivering a serious blow to the government's thinly spread and exhausted forces.

Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, Helmand's deputy governor, said insurgents took control of Sangin district late Sunday. Rasulyar had taken the unusual step of alerting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the dire security situation and requesting urgent reinforcements through an open letter posted on Facebook on Sunday, saying that he had not been able to make contact through other means.

"We had to take to social media to reach you as Helmand is falling into the hands of the enemy and it requires your immediate attention," Rasulyar wrote in his Facebook post to Ghani. On Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Afghan Army commandoes and special forces had arrived in Sangin to push a counter-offensive. He told reporters the Afghan air force had conducted 160 combat and transport flights over Sangin in the past 48 hours.

Helmand is an important Taliban base as it produces most of the world's opium, a crop that helps fund the insurgency. Sangin district has bounced in and out of Taliban control for some years, and fighting there has produced some of the highest casualty counts among Afghan and international forces in 14 years of war.

British forces saw intensive fighting there at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. Among the 450 British troops killed during the country's combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 died in Sangin. In 2008, a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand, followed a year later by the first wave of President Barack Obama's "surge" effort against the Taliban, comprising 11,000 Marines who conducted operations across the province.

The head of Helmand's provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control. "In every district either we are stepping back or we are handing territory over to Taliban, but still, until now, no serious action has been taken," he said, referring to a perceived lack of support from the capital.

Districts across Helmand, including Nad Ali, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Gereshk and Garmser, have all been threatened by Taliban takeover in recent months. Insurgents are also believed to be dug in on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Taliban fighters, sometimes working with other insurgent groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have managed to overrun many districts across the country this year, and also staged a three-day takeover of the major northern city of Kunduz. They rarely hold territory for more than a few hours or days, but the impact on the morale of Afghan forces, and people, is substantial.

Atal said more than 2,000 security forces personnel had been killed fighting in Helmand in 2015. He said a major reason Afghan forces were "losing" was the large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts in the face of the Taliban onslaught.

Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since the announcement in late July that the founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, succeeded him, causing internal ructions and delaying the likelihood that a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, halted after the announcement of Mullah Omar's death, will restart in the foreseeable future.

The expected winter lull in fighting has not yet taken place in the warmer southern provinces. U.S. and Afghan military leaders say they are expecting a hot winter, followed by a tough fight throughout 2016.

The Pentagon released a report last week warning that the security situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate as a "resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people."

Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Humayoon Babur and Amir Shah in Kabul and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.

Taliban leader denies being wounded in internal dispute

December 06, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has released a rare audio recording in which he denies claims by an Afghan official that he was wounded in a shootout during a meeting with other commanders in Pakistan last week.

In a 17-minute audio recording sent to media by the Taliban late Saturday, Mansoor dismissed what he called "baseless claims" that were "part of the agenda of the enemy." The Taliban had earlier sent The Associated Press a two-minute version of the recording.

The voice resembled that in previous recordings issued by Mansoor, who succeeded longtime Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar after his death was announced last summer. Mansoor has since faced internal challenges to his leadership, including by a breakaway faction that has battled fighters loyal to him.

"I haven't seen Kuchlak in years," he said, referring to an area near the Pakistani city of Quetta where the dispute was said to have taken place. He ordered his fighters to pay no heed to "baseless rumors" and to continue waging jihad, or holy war, against the Afghan government.

The audio message was released two days after Sultan Faizy, the spokesman for Afghanistan's First Vice President Abdul Rasheed Dostum, claimed that Mansoor was wounded in a firefight that broke out at a gathering of Taliban figures in Pakistan. He said the incident took place in the home of Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, a former Taliban official, and that six Taliban figures, including Sarhadi, were killed.

"I am safe and my colleagues are safe. I am among my colleagues," Mansoor said, adding that he had not wanted to release the audio recording but was convinced to do so by his aides. The Afghan government's announcement last summer that Mullah Omar had died nearly two years earlier in Pakistan derailed nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban that had been brokered by Islamabad.

In the recording, Mansoor insisted the Taliban would continue fighting until they established "Islamic government" in Afghanistan and would resist outside pressure to reach a political settlement. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law until the group was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mansoor established the timing of the recording by referring to a battle between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Wardak province on Friday which killed a number of civilians. He expressed condolences to those killed and wished a swift recovery for civilians who were wounded.

New Indonesian hospital opened to serve North Gaza residents

Monday, 28 December 2015

The Palestinian health ministry opened on Sunday an Indonesian funded hospital to serve residents of north Gaza.

The old hospital that served the area, Kamal Adwan hospital, has been closed down for renovations and maintenance.

The new hospital, built by the Republic of Indonesia, contains 110 beds, including 10 for intensive care cases.

“The Indonesian hospital is an important healthcare addition, with high-quality medical facilities to serve the residents of north Gaza,” the ministry’s spokesman Dr Ashraf Al-Qudra told Quds Press

He added that the hospital provides special medical care service in the fields of internal medicine, surgery and orthopaedics.

Al Qudra also pointed out that the new hospital has CT scan, the most advanced in Gaza yet, and four highly equipped operating theatres, in addition to an intensive care unit, qualified medical doctors and nurses.

He expressed optimism about the hospital’s ability to lead to a significant shift in medical services provided in Gaza.

The ministry will renovate the Kamal Adwan Hospital to improve the quality of its services. While it is being renovated, medical services for children will be temporarily offered in other hospitals in Gaza – namely al-Nasr, al-Durra, Bait Hanoun and Balsam hospitals.

The ministry spokesman called on all citizens who receive health care at the Kamal Adwan hospital to continue doing so at the new Indonesian hospital.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/23073-new-indonesian-hospital-opened-to-serve-north-gaza-residents.

PFLP marks 48th anniversary in Gaza

Dec. 12, 2015

GAZA CITY (Ma’an) -- Thousands of supporters on Saturday joined a rally in the Gaza Strip commemorating the 48th anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Led by top PFLP figures, supporters marched from the Saraya junction in the center of Gaza City to the headquarters of the United Nations waving Palestinian national flags, PFLP flags, as well as photos of Palestinian martyrs .

Member of the PFLP’s politburo, Jamil Mizhir, spoke during the rally, slamming ongoing factional divisions between the Hamas and Fatah movements.

Mizhir said that the divisions are negatively impacting "the ongoing uprising of the Palestinian people," due to both movements utilizing the recent unrest to their own factional interests.

Mizhir also slammed Palestinian leadership in the occupied west Bank for continuing to "impede the implementation of decisions by the PLO’s Central Council" regarding security coordination with Israel.

The Central Council in March called for an end to security coordination with Israel as long as it continued to violate signed agreements.

President Mahmoud Abbas in September said during an address to the UN General Assembly that the PA was no longer bound by the agreements due to Israel’s lack of commitment to the Oslo Accords, and said the council's March decision was "specific and binding."

Mizhir said that despite this, Palestinian security services "continue to harass and go after young Palestinian men" in coordination with Israel.

Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, Mizhir added, the “disastrous conditions continue and worsen in light of the electricity crisis, water problems, the closure of the Rafah crossing and the imposition of new taxes."

Source: Ma'an News Agency.
Link: http://maannews.com/Content.aspx?ID=769310.

Notorious Lebanese militant killed in Syria airstrike

December 21, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese man convicted of one of the most notorious attacks in Israel's history and who spent nearly three decades in an Israeli prison has been killed by an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital, the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group said Sunday.

Hezbollah officials have pledged to avenge the killing of Samir Kantar, sparking fears of escalation in an already volatile region. In a possible first response, three rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon late Sunday.

Kantar had said that he had been working, with the backing of Hezbollah, to set up "the Syrian resistance" to liberate the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed 14 years later.

Hezbollah said Kantar was killed along with eight others in an airstrike in Jaramana, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, on Saturday night. According to Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV, two Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace and fired four long-range missiles at the residential building in Jaramana. It aired footage of what it said was the building, which appeared to be destroyed. Kantar's brother, Bassam, confirmed his "martyrdom" in a Facebook post on Sunday.

In Lebanon Kantar is known as "the dean of Lebanese prisoners," a reference to his long jail sentence. In Israel, he gained notoriety for the kidnapping and grisly killing of a man named Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter, in the coastal town of Nahariya. Kantar was 16 at the time, and a member of the Palestinian militant group the Palestine Liberation Front.

He also killed a policeman during the attack, and is alleged to have beaten the four-year-old to death with a rifle butt. As the attack unfolded, the girl's mother hid inside a crawl space inside their home and accidentally smothered their crying two-year-old daughter, fearing Kantar would find them.

Kantar was imprisoned in 1979 in Israel and sentenced to three life terms, but was released as part of a prisoner swap with Hezbollah in 2008. While many in Israel were outraged at his release, in Lebanon he received a hero's welcome and the following year he was awarded Syria's highest medal by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies. The two countries battled to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006 during which Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into Israel and Israel's air force destroyed wide areas in Lebanon. Since then, Israeli military officials say Hezbollah has upgraded its capabilities and now possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in the country.

Many Israeli officials believe Hezbollah is currently in no position to open a new front with Israel, as it is bogged down aiding its close ally, President Assad, in the Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, Hezbollah legislator Ali Ammar vowed to avenge Kantar's killing, saying the militant group will not allow his blood to go "betrayed." Ammar said the group's military arm would determine the timing and methods chosen "to punish the killers, specifically the Israeli enemy."

In January, the Lebanese group accused Israel of carrying out an airstrike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which killed several Hezbollah members and a prominent Iranian general. Around ten days later, Hezbollah militants fired a salvo of missiles at an Israeli military convoy in a disputed border area, killing two soldiers and triggering deadly clashes that marked the most serious escalation since the 2006 war.

Gil Rabinovich, the former head of the Israeli military intelligence's counterterrorism unit, said it was impossible to predict how Hezbollah would respond, in part because Israel has not claimed responsibility for Kantar's killing. He noted however that Kantar was not a member of Hezbollah's "inner circle," reducing the probability that the group would open a new front against Israel.

"He's important, but not so important to endanger them in a situation where they might be in direct conflict with Israel," Rabinovich said. Israel has previously said it would engage in the Syria conflict for two reasons only: to stop the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to disrupt preparations for attacks on Israel. The country is believed to have intercepted and destroyed a number of arms shipments headed toward the militant group and Israeli warplanes have struck targets inside Syria several times during the country's nearly five-year conflict, although it has rarely confirmed its involvement.

Retired Israeli Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, former National Security Adviser and a Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies said that Kantar was seen as "a pivot in the efforts of Hezbollah to prepare the Golan Heights for another front against Israel."

Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said he was not sorry about Kantar's death but could not comment on the accusations that Israel was behind the killing. It is not unusual for Israel to decline to comment on such operations.

Kantar's killing would mark the first Israeli assassination of a senior figure inside Syria since Russia launched its military operations in Syria on Sept. 30 in support of President Bashar Assad. Israel and Russia have set up a communications channel to make sure their air forces do not clash with each other, though it was not known whether the alleged Israeli strike on Kantar had been announced to the Russians ahead of time. The Russian Defense Ministry declined comment.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under briefing guidelines, said Hezbollah has a limited presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and its efforts there have been focused primarily on aiding Assad's forces against the advances of various rebel groups. He noted, however, that several attacks along the Israeli-Syrian frontier in the Golan in recent years were believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah or its allies.

On Sunday evening, Lebanese security officials speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said militants fired three rockets into northern Israel. No one claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.

Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Tunisian Nobel winners mark 5 years of Arab Spring

December 17, 2015

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians who won the Nobel Peace Prize joined townspeople in the country's beleaguered heartland to mark five years since a desperate street vendor set himself on fire, unwittingly setting in motion upheaval across the Arab world.

Tunisia is the only country to have emerged with a budding democracy. But it's grappling with the threat of violent Islamic extremism, now ravaging the region from neighboring Libya to Syria, after uprisings inspired by Tunisia's revolt that led to lawlessness or civil war.

Members of the Tunisian quartet of non-governmental groups that won this year's Nobel took part in a series of events Thursday in Sidi Bouzid, the epicenter of Tunisia's revolution, where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire on Dec. 17, 2010.

It was a personal gesture of protest by Bouazizi, 27. But his cry of despair captured the plight of the poor and jobless and echoed throughout the North African country, triggering protests that left 300 dead and thousands injured.

Within a month, the country's autocratic ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fled to Saudi Arabia after nearly a quarter-century as president — and soon protests erupted in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Morocco.

A statue of a wooden cart like that used by Bouazizi to sell fruits stands on the main road. A huge banner and posters hail Bouazizi, now a national hero. But its residents are still struggling. "Since Dec. 17th, the only thing is that we can speak freely," said Jamel Saghrouni, a schoolmate of Bouazizi's who has a degree in French literature, but is jobless.

"But there is corruption. There is no work, no progress," Saghrouni said. "We can only speak, but we can't do anything." Tunisian leaders worked tirelessly to establish a new structure to birth democracy in a land that has known no such thing since it gained independence from France in 1956.

It has been a rocky path, and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel for preventing its collapse. It stepped into a political crisis in 2013, pushing rival leaders toward a caretaker government to organize elections. Parties returned to the table to complete a new constitution.

"We are bringing a message of hope to the population of Sidi Bouzid and other regions pushed aside," Abdessattar Ben Moussa, head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights told The Associated Press. "Because five years after the revolution there has been no solution to the economic and social problems they suffer."

The main labor union, the bar association and the employers' association are the other member organizations of the Quartet. Unlike in neighboring Libya or Egypt, where long-time leaders fell, Tunisia has worked to put in place the structural requirements for democracy, and tried to seed the mindset crucial to ensure it flourishes. But, as in those countries, it has contended throughout with rising Islamic extremism.

Deadly attacks this year by extremists on tourists at the Bardo National Museum and a luxury hotel in the resort town of Sousse struck at the heart of the tourism industry, a mainstay of the Tunisian economy. Most recently, a suicide bomber hit a bus carrying presidential guard members down the main avenue in the capital.

"We praise God that Tunisia hasn't fallen into chaos like other countries," said Ali Bouazizi, a political activist and distant cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi. "Our revolution was peaceful from the start and until today. Thanks to dialogue and consensus we've overcome crises," he added, "which is why we're considered an exception."

Ben Bouazza reported from Tunis.

Algerian hero and longtime opposition leader buried in chaos

January 01, 2016

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Tens of thousands of Algerians massed in a mountain village for a chaotic burial ceremony Friday of a national hero of the brutal independence war with France.

Hocine Ait Ahmed, who spent nearly a quarter-century in exile in Europe, was buried in the village where he was born, a day after his remains arrived in Algiers, the Algerian capital. Ait Ahmed, 89, who was the country's leading opposition figure, died Wednesday in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Ait Ahmed had requested a burial in his native village, Ath Ahmedh, next to his mother's grave, 110 kilometers (nearly 70 miles) east of Algiers in the heart of the Kabyle region that is home to Algeria's proud-spirited Berber population.

The ceremony transformed into a scene of chaos as crowds flooded the winding mountain roads to view the flag-draped coffin. "Algeria free and democratic," shouted the crowd, taking up a slogan of the party he founded decades ago, the Front of Socialist Forces, which remains an active opposition voice.

Ait Ahmed had been the last of nine heroes of the independence war to die. But he spoke out against the political system controlled since independence from France in 1962 by the military, overtly in the past, behind the scenes today.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government welcomed Ait Ahmed's remains with fanfare at the Algiers airport. However, the family refused to allow a burial in the capital alongside the other heroes of the independence war. And the chaotic conditions at the burial site forced top officials planning to attend to turn back.

Ganley contributed from Paris.

Allies follow Saudis in cutting ties with Iran amid tensions

January 05, 2016

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Allies of Saudi Arabia followed the kingdom's lead Monday and scaled back diplomatic ties to Iran after the ransacking of Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic Republic, violence sparked by the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Sudan and the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain said they would sever ties with Iran, as Saudi Arabia did late Sunday. Within hours, the United Arab Emirates announced it would downgrade ties to Tehran to the level of the charge d'affaires, while other nations issued statements criticizing Iran.

The concerted campaign by Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia highlights the aggressive stance King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have adopted in confronting Iran, a longtime regional rival.

"What we have seen during the last 24 hours is unprecedented ... It shows you Saudi Arabia has had enough of Iran and wants to send a message," said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at Emirates University. "This is the Saudis saying: 'There is no limit to how far we will go.'"

The standoff began Saturday, when Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others convicted of terror charges — the largest mass execution carried out by the kingdom since 1980.

Al-Nimr, a central figure in the Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, long denied advocating violence. News of his execution has sparked Shiite protests from Bahrain to Pakistan.

In Iran, protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. Late Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the kingdom would sever its relations with Iran over the assaults, giving Iranian diplomatic personnel 48 hours to leave his country.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia's civil aviation authority suspended all flights to and from Iran, saying the move was based on the kingdom's cutting of diplomatic ties. Iran expressed "regret" over the attacks on the diplomatic missions in a letter to the United Nations on Monday and vowed to arrest those responsible. In the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Iran's U.N. envoy Gholamali Khoshroo said more than 40 protesters have been arrested and that authorities are searching for other suspects.

In response to a Saudi letter, the U.N. Security Council late Monday strongly condemned the attacks by Iranian protesters on Saudi diplomatic posts. The council statement, agreed to after hours of negotiations, made no mention of the Saudi executions or the rupture in Saudi-Iranian relations.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long vied for influence in the Middle East. Their rivalry deepened following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the chaos of the Arab Spring, which gave rise to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

An early battleground was Bahrain, where the Shiite majority staged mass protests in 2011 demanding political reforms from the Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates sent in troops to help quash the revolt, viewing it as an Iranian bid to expand its influence.

Bahraini officials since have accused Iran of training militants and attempting to smuggle arms into the country, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. In October, Bahrain ordered the acting Iranian charge d'affaires to leave within 72 hours and recalled its own ambassador after alleging that Iran sponsored "subversion" and "terrorism" and funneled arms to militants.

Sudan, which has been looking to Saudi Arabia for aid since the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011, on Monday announced an "immediate severing of ties" over the diplomatic mission attacks. Sudan once was closer to Iran, but in recent years has tilted toward Saudi Arabia, and has contributed forces to the Saudi-led coalition battling Shiite rebels in Yemen.

The UAE, a country of seven emirates, has a long trading history with Iran and is home to many ethnic Iranians. It said it would reduce the number of diplomats in Iran and recall its ambassador "in the light of Iran's continuous interference in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached unprecedented levels."

Saudi Arabia had previously severed ties with Iran from 1988 to 1991 over rioting during the hajj in 1987 and Iran's attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf. That diplomatic freeze saw Iran halt pilgrims from attending the hajj in Saudi Arabia, something required of all able Muslims once in their lives.

Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Ali Esfanani, spokesman of the Judicial and Legal Committee, said security issues and the fact that Iranian pilgrims wouldn't have consular protection inside the kingdom made halting the pilgrimage for Iranians likely, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

World powers have sought to calm the tensions. On Monday, Germany called on both sides to mend ties, while Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed senior diplomat as saying Moscow is ready to act as a mediator.

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was en route to Riyadh on Monday with plans to later visit Tehran. Iran, a staunch supporter of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the opposition, have participated in three rounds of international talks aimed at ending the conflict. De Mistura has set a Jan. 25 target date for a fourth round of talks.

The White House urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to not let their dispute derail efforts to end the Syrian civil war. "Hopefully they will continue to engage," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "It is so clearly in the interests of both countries to advance a political solution to the situation inside of Syria."

Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah al-Moualimi said late Monday tha tSaudi Arabia will attend the Jan. 25 talks in Geneva on Syria. Iran has not said whether it will attend. Meanwhile, al-Nimr's family is holding three days of mourning at a mosque in al-Awamiya village in the kingdom's al-Qatif region in predominantly Shiite eastern Saudi Arabia. Authorities have already buried the sheikh's body in an undisclosed cemetery, his family said.

Early Monday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said a shooting targeting security forces in the village killed a man and wounded a child. It offered no motive for the attack, nor for another it said saw a mob beat and briefly kidnap a man who was driving through the area.

Associated Press writers Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, Malak Harb in Dubai, Nour Youssef and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Josh Lederman in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Adam Schreck in Koh Samui, Thailand, and Abdi Guled contributed to this report.

Saudis cut ties with Iran following Shiite cleric execution

January 04, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Saudi Arabia announced Sunday it was severing diplomatic relations with Shiite powerhouse Iran amid escalating tensions over the Sunni kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

The move came hours after protesters stormed and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and followed harsh criticism by Iran's top leader of the Saudis' execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Iranian diplomatic personnel had 48 hours to leave his country and all Saudi diplomatic personnel in Iran had been called home.

The mass execution of al-Nimr and 46 others — the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades — laid bare the sectarian divisions gripping the region as demonstrators took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan in protest.

It also illustrated the kingdom's new aggressiveness under King Salman. During his reign, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shiite power Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi Arabia on Sunday of "divine revenge" over al-Nimr's death, while Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting "terrorism" in a war of words that threatened to escalate even as the U.S. and the European Union sought to calm the region.

Al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh that the Iranian regime has "a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions," dating back to the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, and such incidents constitute "a flagrant violation of all international agreements," according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

He said Iran's "hostile policy" was aimed "at destabilizing the region's security," accusing Tehran of smuggling weapons and explosives and planting terrorist cells in the kingdom and other countries in the region. He vowed that Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran "to undermine our security."

"The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls," al-Jubeir said, just before announcing the severing of diplomatic relations.

Al-Nimr was a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted of terrorism charges but denied advocating violence. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia put al-Nimr and three other Shiite dissidents to death, along with a number of al-Qaida militants. Al-Nimr's execution drew protests from Shiites around the world, who backed his call for reform and wider political freedom for their sect.

While the split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the early days of Islam and disagreements over the successor to Prophet Muhammad, those divisions have only grown as they intertwine with regional politics, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia vying to be the Mideast's top power.

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups fighting to oust its embattled ally, President Bashar Assad. Riyadh points to Iran's backing of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups in the region as a sign of its support for terrorism. Iran also has backed Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis.

Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, condemned al-Nimr's execution, saying Sunday the cleric "neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots. The only thing he did was public criticism."

Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saudi Arabia's "medieval act of savagery" would lead to the "downfall" of the country's monarchy. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism."

In Tehran, a protest outside the Saudi Embassy early Sunday quickly grew violent as protesters threw stones and gasoline bombs at the embassy, setting part of the building ablaze, according to Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, the country's top police official, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

Forty people were arrested and investigators were pursuing other suspects, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned Saudi Arabia's execution of al-Nimr, but also branded those who attacked the Saudi Embassy as "extremists."

"It is unjustifiable," he said in a statement. Hundreds of protesters later demonstrated in front of the embassy and in a central Tehran square, where street signs near the embassy were replaced with ones bearing the slain sheikh's name.

Western powers sought to calm the tensions. In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the Obama administration was aware of the Saudis' severing of ties with Tehran. "We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions," Kirby said.

Earlier, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by phone and urged Tehran to "defuse the tensions and protect the Saudi diplomats," according to a statement.

The disruption in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have implications for peace efforts in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and others spent significant time trying to bring the countries to the negotiating table and they both sat together at talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the civil war. Last month, Saudi Arabia convened a meeting of Syrian opposition figures that was designed to create a delegation to attend peace talks with the Syrian government that are supposed to begin in mid-January.

Across the region, demonstrators took to the streets Sunday in protest over the execution of al-Nimr. In Bahrain, police fired tear gas and birdshot at demonstrators on Sitra Island, south of the capital, Manama, wounding some. In al-Daih, west of the capital, Shiite protesters chanted against Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family, as well as against Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family.

In Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called al-Nimr "the martyr, the holy warrior," while protests erupted from Turkey to India to Pakistan. The cleric's execution has also threatened to complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi Embassy is preparing to formally reopen for the first time in nearly 25 years. On Saturday there were calls for the embassy to be shut down again.

Meanwhile, al-Nimr's family prepared for three days of mourning at a mosque in al-Awamiya in the kingdom's al-Qatif region in predominantly Shiite eastern Saudi Arabia. The sheikh's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, told The Associated Press that Saudi officials informed his family that the cleric had been buried in an undisclosed cemetery, a development that could lead to further protests.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, Brian Rohan in Beirut, and Tom Strong and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Spain's Socialist leader wants to head progressive coalition

January 07, 2016

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — If Spain's acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is unable to form a government despite his recent election victory, the main opposition Socialist party will try to take power by forging a broad alliance with parties determined to change the country's direction, Spanish Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez said Thursday.

Rajoy's conservative Popular Party won a Dec. 20 ballot but failed to get a majority in Parliament and is having trouble finding political support to form an administration. "If (Rajoy) fails, the Socialist party will convene a grand coalition of progressive forces to lead the process of change Spain needs," Sanchez told a news conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

Sanchez accused the Popular Party, which has governed Spain for the past four years, of dismantling social services and deepening inequality. He said a Socialist-led coalition would fight for economic growth and jobs, increase pensions and the minimum salary, and introduce fairer taxes.

Sanchez's Socialists came second in the ballot and are eyeing the possibility of emulating Portugal's Socialist leader Antonio Costa, who received Sanchez for talks in the Portuguese capital. Costa's party also came second in an election at the end of last year, but he built an alliance with the Communist Party and radical Left Bloc to form a government — a so-called "coalition of losers." Since November, Costa's administration has set about reversing austerity measures adopted by the previous center-right government.

Spanish custom is that the monarch invites the election winner to form a government, but King Felipe VI could also nominate a coalition of other parties that collected fewer votes if they can deliver a more stable option. The nominated party leader must win a vote of confidence in Parliament to take office.

If the issue is not resolved after two months, a new election is called.

Poland's president signs media law despite EU concerns

January 07, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A new wave of concern for media freedom in Poland rose among European Union leaders and independent journalists after Poland's president signed a temporary new law Thursday that's a step toward giving the government full control of state radio and television.

The legislation will take effect Friday and expires on June 30. By then, a sweeping new law intended to overhaul the state-run broadcasters and the PAP news agency is expected to be in place. President Andrzej Duda signed the new legislation because he wants state media to be "impartial, objective and reliable," his aide Malgorzata Sadurska said. She added that the president believes that the private views of journalists currently interfere with the objectivity of information in state media.

The new law allows for the immediate ending of the terms of the heads of state radio and television, and transfers the authority to appoint successors to the treasury minister, from a separate radio and TV committee that oversees the media. It also limits the number of members sitting on the state broadcasters' supervisory and management boards.

The legislation was proposed and put on a fast track for approval by the new conservative ruling party, which has embarked on sweeping state and social reforms, including the new media law, that have raised eyebrows in Brussels.

The European Commission will debate Poland's rule of law on Jan. 13, a step that could eventually result in the country losing its EU voting rights on matters that concern the entire 28-nation bloc. Poland joined the EU in 2004.

EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said the issue of core democratic principles affected more than just Poland alone, especially considering the authoritarian rule in central and eastern Europe under Soviet domination.

"Looking back over the last quarter of a century, one of the biggest successes of European integration is the transformation of our new member states in Central and Eastern Europe away from dictatorship to fully fledged democracies," Timmermans said in Amsterdam.

He insisted those principles were "a collective responsibility, not just of the member states, but of the union as a whole." The new media law has also provoked concern among independent media organizations, which say that it threatens media freedom in Poland.

The "measures taken by the Polish government are contradictory to media pluralism and independence of public service broadcasting, and to democracy in Poland," the European Federation of Journalists said Thursday in a letter to Gunther Oettinger, the European commissioner responsible for media issues who suggested on Sunday that Poland should be put under a special monitoring mechanism.

"They would be in clear contradiction to EU fundamental values," the letter added. The International Federation of Journalists, with some 600,000 members around the world, said it was "deeply worried" by Duda's signing of the bill.

The law is a "huge leap backward" that puts an end to independent state media in Poland, it said in a statement to The Associated Press. Sadurska said the president is fully aware of the EU concerns, and believes the new law won't be detrimental. She insisted that Duda wants public media to perform their role properly.

The conservative Law and Justice party that took power in November says that state broadcasters are now serving the previous, liberal and pro-EU government. On Tuesday, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks appealed to Duda not to sign the law.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday Poland is an "important and full member of the EU" and he didn't want to speculate about the consequences of the steps being taken by the new government in Warsaw.

Foreign Minister Bert Koenders of Netherlands, which currently holds the EU presidency, noted that dialogue was needed with Poland over the matter. "I have contacted the Polish foreign minister (Witold Waszczykowski) on the importance we attach to a dialogue .... that it does not become a confrontation in the EU," Koenders told The Associated Press.

Waszczykowski said earlier this week he requested to meet with an EU diplomat in Warsaw on Friday to hear why the officials were formulating their concerns based on media reports rather than on actual documents and diplomatic channels.

Raf Casert in Amsterdam contributed to this report.

German Muslims condemn Cologne attacks, fear consequences

January 07, 2016

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) — Members of Cologne's large Muslim community have joined the chorus condemning a string of assaults on women on New Year's Eve that have shocked Germany. But some are also voicing concern that pointing the finger of blame at Muslims in general — and North African immigrants in particular — is unfair when most migrants are law-abiding and the full facts of what happened on the night remain unclear.

In Ehrenfeld, a multi-ethnic neighborhood where streets are lined with colorful Turkish grocery stores and halal butchers, few can believe that those who allegedly carried out the assaults amid the crowds ringing in the New Year may share their religion.

Police said Wednesday that 121 women have filed criminal complaints for robbery and sexual assault — including two allegations of rape. They said the attackers were among a group of some 1,000 men described as being of "Arab or North African origin" who gathered in front of the Cologne's main train station and gothic cathedral that night.

Although there is little solid information so far on who committed the assaults, the incident has put a spotlight on Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming stance toward those fleeing conflict, and has been seized on by Germany's far right, which opposes most forms of immigration.

"It's really sad what happened," said one woman wearing a Muslim headscarf, who only gave her last name, Ozap. She rejected the suggestion by some German politicians that the Muslim attitudes toward women might have played a role in the attacks.

"Everywhere it says that this has something to do with Muslims. What I read and learned in the Quran is completely different. "I've been here for 30 years myself and I've never seen anything like this," she added.

Hassan Akdogdu, a 34-year-old businessman and a second-generation Turkish immigrant, agreed. He accused police of not doing enough to prevent the attacks. "It's nothing to do with religion," he said. "Lack of respect for women isn't a religious problem, as a Muslim I can say that."

Akdogdu also questioned whether the issue might have triggered greater outrage because of an ongoing debate in Germany over how to integrate the nearly 1.1 million refugees who came to the country last year, many of them Muslims from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Refugees are an important political issue at the moment but I don't believe, I don't want to believe, that it was really refugees," said Akdogdu. "Harassment and suchlike isn't just something you need to talk about with refugees, but with everyone."

The assaults have dominated headlines in recent days. German media — initially reluctant to report on the incident last week while many of the details were still hazy — have published grim details and sharp editorials calling for tough justice.

Several media outlets on Thursday published an internal report by German police describing how women had to run through mobs of drunken men outside Cologne train station. The report compiled by an unidentified senior federal police officer recounts how "several thousand male persons with a migrant background" hurled fireworks and bottles into the crowds of revelers who had gathered in front of Cologne Cathedral to celebrate New Year.

"Women had to literally 'run the gauntlet' of very drunk men," the report said. "In the course of the operation numerous crying and shocked women/girls approached officers and told them of sexual assaults by male migrants/groups. Unfortunately it wasn't possible to identify them anymore."

Federal police spokesman Jens Floeren confirmed the authenticity of the report, but noted that it represented one officer's "subjective assessment" of the incident three days after it happened. Merkel described the assaults as "repugnant criminal acts that ... Germany will not accept," and said changes to the law and increasing police presence may be examined.

"The feeling women had in this case of being at people's mercy, without any protection, is intolerable for me personally as well," she said in Berlin. "And so it is important for everything that happened there to be put on the table."

Murat Ornek, the German-Turkish manager of a hair salon in Ehrenfeld, said he was worried both by the assaults and by the possible backlash against Muslims. "To be honest many people don't talk about it, they live their lives as if nothing happened. But many people are afraid too, that things will escalate here too," he said.

Muslims elsewhere in Germany also voiced anguish over the attacks, especially on social media. Among members of a Facebook group for Syrian refugees in Germany, some called for the perpetrators to be strongly punished and deported immediately.

Riham al-Kousaa, a Palestinian-Syrian journalist, warned that it would take much longer to erase prejudices than the time it took to create them. The attackers in Cologne, she wrote for the magazine Cicero, hadn't understood "that they didn't just harm the victims and themselves. They harmed thousands who left their homes because of precisely such crimes."

Police said investigators working with video footage have identified 16 young men — mostly of North African origin — who may be suspects and are working to determine whether they committed any crimes. Authorities have not released names for most of the men.

While officials have cautioned against casting suspicion on refugees in general, Merkel said "we must examine again and again whether we have already done what is necessary in terms of ... deportations from Germany in order to send clear signals to those who are not prepared to abide by our legal order."

In Muelheim, another Cologne neighborhood with a distinct immigrant presence, German-Tunisian lawyer Mehdi Labidi said there was no excusing the attacks — but questioned why police had identified the perpetrators as North African before making any arrests.

Labidi said some of his refugee clients acknowledged being at the train station on New Year's Eve, but denied committing assaults. "They told me there were other men there too, Italians, Albanians, Kurds, Iraqis and Turks. And the number of 1,000 is completely exaggerated."

"Germany is a tolerant country but I find this really strange that an entire ethnic group is being branded as criminals," he added. "If far-right extremists attack North Africans then we are going to file a criminal complaint against police for incitement."

Dorothee Thiesing in Cologne and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Iranian Princess Ashraf, shah's twin sister, dies at age 96

January 08, 2016

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the twin sister of the country's deposed shah whose glamorous life epitomized the excesses of her brother's rule, has died after decades in exile. She was 96.

Many in Iran before the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution believed Princess Ashraf served as the true power behind her brother, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and pushed him into taking power in a 1953 coup engineered by the U.S.

Immortalized in her royal prime by an Andy Warhol portrait with bright red lips and raven-black hair, Princess Ashraf's years out of power more resembled a Shakespearean tragedy. Assassins killed her son on a Paris street just after the Islamic Revolution, her twin brother died of cancer shortly after, while a niece died of a 2001 drug overdose in London and a nephew killed himself in Boston 10 years later.

Still, she always defended her brother's rule and held onto her royal past. "At night, when I go into my room, that's when all the thoughts come flooding in," the princess told The Associated Press in a 1983 interview in Paris. "I stay up until 5 or 6 in the morning. I read, I watch a cassette, I try not to think. But the memories won't leave you."

Reza Pahlavi, a son of the shah, announced his aunt's death in a Facebook post on Thursday night. Her personal website said she died Thursday, without elaborating. A longtime adviser to Princess Ashraf in New York could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

In Iran, local media reported her death relying on international reports. State television reported she died in Monte Carlo and described her as being famous for being corrupt. Born Oct. 26, 1919, Princess Ashraf was the daughter of the monarch Reza Shah, who came to power in a 1921 coup engineered by Britain and later was forced to abdicate the throne after a 1941 invasion by Britain and Russia. By 1953, America helped orchestrate the coup that overthrew Iran's popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, over fears he was tilting toward the Soviet Union. That brought her brother to power and set the stage for decades of mistrust between the countries.

But the shah was "a man of indecision," according to a long-classified CIA account of the coup first published by The New York Times in 2000. To push the coup along, the plotters reached out to "the shah's dynamic and forceful twin sister" who already had been in touch with U.S. and British agents, according to the account. After "considerable pressure" by her and a U.S. general, the shah reportedly agreed.

As her brother's government ruled in opulence and its secret police tortured political activists, Princess Ashraf focused on women's rights in an appointment to the United Nations. She traveled widely and became known for gambling on the French Riviera, the French press dubbing her "La Panthere Noire," or "the Black Panther." She survived a 1977 apparent assassination attempt in Cannes that killed her aide and wounded her chauffer.

The political opposition during the shah's era criticized Princess Ashraf over allegations of corruption, as well as her highly publicized love affairs with Iranian actors and public figures. She and her sister, Shams, also were among the first Iranian women to go in public with their hair uncovered, breaking traditional norms in the Shiite country.

After her brother's 1979 overthrow in Iran's Islamic Revolution, Princess Ashraf shuttled between homes in Paris, New York and Monte Carlo. She published a memoir and remained outspoken immediately after the overthrow.

"After the death of my brother, if we had had the $65 billion some people said we had we would have retaken Iran just like that," she told the AP in 1983. Princess Ashraf married and divorced three times in her life and had three children. She gradually faded from public view in later years, though she attended U.S. President Richard Nixon's funeral in 1994. And she always maintained she regretted nothing.

"I would want to do the same thing. It's passed, now, only memories. But there were 50 years of grandeur, of glory," she once said.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

Berlin elephants enjoy late festive snack: Christmas trees

January 08, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Zoo elephants in Berlin have enjoyed a light festive snack: a late delivery of Christmas trees.

The New Year feeding of unsold pine trees has become an annual event. Zookeeper Mario Hammerschmidt says the trees are certified as pesticide-free. Hammerschmidt said Thursday that the trees are "a good supplement to the food the elephants get during winter time."

The elephants also used the greenery to scratch themselves after keepers put them in the enclosure. But with snow on the ground and temperatures below freezing at the Tierpark, one of two zoos in the German capital, the feast didn't last long.