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Monday, January 18, 2016

Pakistan's Imran Khan calls for compensation to drone victims

Islamabad (AFP)
Dec 10, 2015

Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan Thursday said that he would seek compensation for victims of a controversial US drone strike program, vowing to take their cases to parliament and the courts.

Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party opposes drone attacks, was speaking at the launch of a report demanding compensation for drone victims, organized by the independent Foundation for Fundamental Rights and international legal aid charity Reprieve.

Drone attacks are meant to target militants but are controversial among rights groups because of the high reported numbers of civilian casualties and lack of transparency over targets.

Islamabad officially opposes US strikes in its territory, calling them a violation of its sovereignty, though leaked documents in the past have shown the two countries worked together on the campaign.

"PTI will raise this issue in parliament and also go to court to get compensation for the drone victims," Khan said.

Afghanistan's government gets compensation for the families of civilians killed in strikes, he said -- but Islamabad neither receives any from the US government and nor has any been offered to a single victim.

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, said that the US does not acknowledge the innocent civilians it has killed in drone strikes.

"This report reflects in stark terms the fact that we value Pakistani life at zero, a situation that is offensive and simply cannot continue. I therefore, call upon my own government to compensate those innocent people caught in America's cross-fire," he said.

Fahim Qureshi, 18, whose entire family was killed in a drone strike in 2009 in northwest Pakistan that left him critically wounded, said he still did not know why they had been targeted.

"There is a question in my heart, why did it happen to us? What did we do?" he said, adding that they had no links with militants.

According to the independent Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since 2004 the CIA has carried out 421 drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan killing up to 3,989 people, as many as 965 of whom were civilians, including dozens of children.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Pakistans_Imran_Khan_calls_for_compensation_to_drone_victims_999.html.

Iraqi troops advance in battle for IS-held city of Ramadi

December 22, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces on Tuesday reported progress in the military operation to retake the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State group, saying they made the most significant incursion into the city since it fell to the militants in May.

Losing Ramadi — the capital of sprawling western Anbar province and Iraq's Sunni heartland — was a major blow to the Iraqi government. It was the government's biggest defeat since IS militants swept through areas in the country's north and west, including Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, in the summer of 2014.

Iraqi forces announced a counteroffensive shortly afterward Mosul fell but progress has been sluggish and clawing territory back from IS has proven more difficult than expected. Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said there are 250 to 350 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi, as well as several hundred outside the city on the northern and western perimeter.

"I think the fall of Ramadi is inevitable," Warren told Pentagon reporters. "But that said, it's going to be a tough fight ... it's gonna take some time." He said American military advisers remained outside the city at al-Taqaddum, a desert air base that is serving as a training site. It was a U.S. military hub during the 2003-2011 war.

Iraqi spokesman Sabah al-Numan said troops crossed the Euphrates River north of the city and its Warar tributary to the west and pushed into downtown Ramadi. From the south, troops led by the counter-terrorism agency made progress in the Dubbat and Aramil neighborhoods, about 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) from the city center, Gen. Ismail al-Mahallawi, the head of operations in Anbar province, told AP.

Sporadic clashes broke out and advancing Iraqi forces were forced to remove roadside bombs planted by the extremists, al-Numan added. On Tuesday, the Dubbat neighborhood saw heavy fighting, with one soldier killed and 14 wounded, said an official in the Anbar operations room, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Warren said U.S. officials found a pamphlet in Fallujah that was distributed to IS fighters, calling on them to disguise themselves as Iraqi security forces and then film themselves committing atrocities, such as killing and torturing civilians and blowing up mosques.

According to a copy of the document distributed to reporters, it said the video clips should be distributed to television outlets "to depict the conflict as if it is a sectarian war." It was signed by a security and military official named Abou Hajer al-Issawi and dated early October.

Warren said he believed the document is legitimate, but so far there were no reports of IS fighters posing as Iraqi forces. Al-Numan said no paramilitary forces — a reference to pro-government Shiite militias whose actions have raised concerns in Sunni territory — were taking part in the operation. The Iraqi air force and the U.S.-led international coalition were providing air support to troops on ground and bombing IS targets, he said.

Since overrunning Ramadi, just 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Baghdad, the Islamic State group has destroyed all the bridges around the city. It also demolished the Anbar operations command and fanned out into the city's residential areas to set up less conspicuous centers of command.

As the military operation continues, Ramadi's civilian population — estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 — remains mostly trapped inside the city. Iraqi officials say they believe civilians will be able to get out, but coalition officials report that so far they have only witnessed small groups doing so.

Warren said Iraqi forces had dropped leaflets telling residents what routes to use to escape. Ramadi, like the rest of Anbar province, is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the minority community that complains of discrimination by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Some Sunnis in other parts of Anbar and in northern Iraq welcomed IS rule, at least initially.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

Iraqi family braves perilous journey to new life in Germany

December 22, 2015

HEIDELBERG, Germany (AP) — The Qasus do not normally cry, but this felt nothing like normal. Like hundreds of thousands before them and untold more to come, the Iraqi family had just completed a disorienting dash across Europe and found refuge in Germany.

Settling down in the city of Heidelberg, the parents comforted their four children as the reality of what they had just endured struck like a thunderclap and the tears flowed freely. They were tears of trauma, loss — and flickering hope.

"We used to have a home. A fine life. We used to have money and never needed anyone," said the mother, Bessi Qasim, who uses her father's surname. Dabbing at her eyes, the 42-year-old homemaker said her job now was to make a new home.

"I just want my children to be happy and see them growing up. I want to be able to replace the bad memories with new good ones."

Those bad memories include at least three brushes with death: with murderous invaders, the fear of drowning, a daughter's cancer.

Had they not left Iraq so quickly, the Qasus might well be dead or abducted now. They are Yazidis, a religiously distinctive ethnic group within Iraq that has been singled out for persecution by Islamic State miltants, who have slain thousands, particularly in and around Sinjar, where the Qasus are from.

The Qasus escaped as IS forces seized the city on Aug. 3, 2014. All six — Bessi, husband Samir, daughters Delphine and Dunia, sons Dilshad and Dildar — climbed aboard a truck heading north for the Turkish border. They soon heard word of wholesale slaughter, rapes and kidnappings back home as thousands behind them retreated without food or water to Mount Sinjar.

"We took nothing with us. I didn't need to see IS to know how horrifying they are," said Samir, 45, who abandoned his convenience store in Sinjar. He said cousins who stayed behind have vanished.

For 15 months, the Qasus existed on the fringe of Turkish society. As a refugee, Samir was barred from working legally and said his children faced intimidation at school because of their Yazidi identity.

"We had a miserable life," said Samir, who kept his family out of Turkish refugee camps and rented an apartment, but struggled to pay bills by working illegally part-time in construction jobs. "I reached a point where I couldn't take it anymore. We had no dignity. I just wanted my children to live in a safe, peaceful place."

The smuggler in Istanbul demanded $10,000 for the six of them to join 26 others on a cabin cruiser designed to carry perhaps a quarter that many. They left the Turkish coast before dawn on Dec. 3 bound for the island of Lesbos, the first port of EU call for nearly 400,000 asylum seekers this year. Scores have drowned as boats, typically helmed by novice refugees, are swamped or overturned.

Samir paid in part with money provided by his brother, who had already made it to Sweden. The boat appeared more substantial than the typical rigid inflatables that smugglers deploy as one-use throwaway items. That didn't stop the engine of the overloaded boat from breaking down midway, leaving the Qasus to bob helplessly on the choppy Aegean.

"I was 95 percent certain that death would take us," said Samir, who said he prayed for God to claim him and save his loved ones.

Greek rescue officials spotted their dying craft and towed them close to shore, where aid workers waded knee-deep to carry the Qasu family the final few meters into Europe. This was the moment The Associated Press met the Qasu family: struggling to remove their knotted life vests and caressing each other with shaking hands, emotions overwhelming them.

An AP photographer spent that week following the Qasus as they nimbly hopped from border to border. Their rapid progress reflects Europe's concession that German-bound asylum seekers should not be left pointlessly stranded for days outdoors in the bleak Balkans winter.

Within two days, the Qasus had traveled by midnight ferry from Lesbos to Athens and then by bus to Greece's northern border with Macedonia. They slept chiefly on trains, buses and benches while passing through registration centers in four Balkan countries, getting their first proper sleep in a bed in a massive tent holding hundreds of asylum seekers near the Austrian city of Salzburg on Dec. 7.

Life has been a German whirlwind since then: ID photographs and fingerprints, housing in a former development for U.S. Army families that now holds 5,500 refugee applicants, distributions of free food and clothing — and most importantly for the Qasus, the most thorough medical check in years for 13-year-old Dunia.

In February 2012, Turkish doctors performed a life-saving liver transplant on the girl, removing a cancerous section and replacing it with a liver portion donated by her mother. The liver is the only human organ able to regenerate in this way, but Dunia remains vulnerable to infections and must take daily injections to block antibodies from attacking her mother's donated tissue. Underscoring her vulnerability, she wore a surgical mask throughout December's odyssey from Turkey to Heidelberg.

"I want to be cured and grow up. I love Germany and the people here," Dunia said.

Samir said the German doctors at the Heidelberg camp "have been so kind to us. As soon as they learned about her situation, they went through all the proper procedures to check her and told us that she is fine."

Dildar, 10, now dreams of becoming a soccer star in Germany. As he kicks a ball outside with siblings Dilshad, 17, and Delphine, 18, their talk turns to the possibility of school in January and of using one of their first German words: "Danke" — thank you.

Delphine says she hopes to train to become a doctor and continue the cycle of aid to others less fortunate.

"I dream of helping people, the ones who need the most," she said.

The parents watch from a park bench, pleased to be in a land that offers a future now unimaginable where they came from.

"Iraq is destroyed, shattered into millions of pieces," Samir said. "It's no longer my home and no longer a home for my family. ... Home is where your family is safe and happy."

Muheisen, the Associated Press' chief photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, followed the Qasu family from Greece to Germany on Dec. 3-10. Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

Iraq: Turkey troops near Mosul violating international law

December 05, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — The presence of Turkish troops near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq is a "violation" of international law, Iraq's president said Saturday.

President Fuad Masum called the move a "violation of international norms, laws and Iraq's national sovereignty," and said it was contributing to increased tensions in the region. Hakim al-Zamili, the head of parliament's security and defense committee, went a step further, calling on Iraq's prime minister to launch airstrikes against the Turkish troops if they remained in Iraqi territory.

Turkey has said a military battalion equipped with armored vehicles has been in the Bashiqa region close to Mosul in the northern Ninevah province for the last five months as part of a training mission to help forces fighting the Islamic State group. Mosul fell to the extremists in June 2014 amid a stunning collapse of Iraqi security forces.

Plans to try to retake Mosul last spring were sidelined as the extremist group advanced on other fronts. The founder of the training camp outside Mosul, former Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, told The Associated Press that the Turkish trainers were at his base at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi. He said the Turkish forces are training but not arming Sunni fighters.

"They didn't give us any weapons even though we asked them to," he said. "We equipped this force from the black market with our own money and we believe they're the best force to liberate Mosul... These people will be very effective to hold ground because they are from there and there'll be no resistance to them from local people."

Sunni fighters in Ninevah and the western Anbar province say the Shiite-dominated government has failed to provide them with the support and weaponry needed to defeat the IS group. The government fears that arming Sunni tribes and militias could backfire. Sunni grievances were a key factor fueling the rise of the IS group, and many Sunnis initially welcomed the extremists as liberators.

The U.S.-led coalition launched 12 airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq on Friday, including two near Mosul targeting tactical units and fighting positions.

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

Qatari housing project in Gaza concludes 1st stage

January 16, 2016

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — More than 1,000 Palestinian families took possession of new apartments Saturday as part of a large Qatari-funded housing project in the Gaza Strip.

The units are the first batch of a 3,000-apartment complex that was announced when the former Qatari ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to visit Hamas-ruled Gaza in 2012.

Hamad City sits on dunes that were part of the former Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. They started before the Israel-Hamas war in 2014 that damaged or destroyed nearly 100,000 homes. The construction of the residential city is separate from the post-war rebuilding, but being the largest housing project ever makes it significant for the 1.8 million residents of the coastal enclave, who live under Israeli and Egyptian blockade and travel restrictions.

Israel restricts building materials to Gaza for fears that the coastal strip's Islamic Hamas rulers may use them in building its attack tunnels. To overcome the restrictions, Qatar arranges with Israel and the Palestinian Authority directly to deliver the needed materials for its projects.

Qatar allocated $145 million for Hamad City. The Qatari envoy overseeing the project, Mohammed al-Amadi, says Gaza needs 130,000 housing units. "We are replenishing parts of Gaza's needs," he said. On Saturday, Qatari and Palestinian flags adorned the complex as buses dropped hundreds of people who will receive the apartments. Posters of the former Qatari emir, his succeeding son and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hung from the buildings.

The families received certificates at the event, but won't move in for another two months due to minor infrastructure work, such as paving the roads to the city and connecting it with water network. Among those who received certificates was Samia al-Nakhala, 39, who lives with her husband and son in a home that costs $250 a month in rent. Now she will pay the cost of the house in monthly installations of $170. "Instead of throwing my money in the air every month, now I will be paying for my own home," she said.

Ismail Haniya, Hamas' chief in Gaza, described the opening of the first part of the city as "a historic moment." Hamas still holds control of Gaza despite ceding power to a transitional government it formed after a reconciliation deal with Abbas' Fatah party in 2014.

Serbian PM urges early election in 2016 to cement power

January 17, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's populist prime minister on Sunday urged holding an early election this year in an apparent bid to consolidate his power.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told a meeting of his Serbian Progressive Party that the vote is necessary so a new, stable government can step up economic reforms. He said the current government has faced criticism from the opposition but also needs changes within its Cabinet.

"We go to the polls, to a victory," Vucic said. "When we face opposition calls for changes, we need to let the people decide." Opposition parties hailed the announcement Sunday. Center-left Democratic Party said an election will show that Vucic has lost his citizens' trust.

Vucic, a former extreme nationalist who now says he is a pro-EU reformer, became Serbia's prime minister in 2014 after his Progressive Party and allied parties won a landslide victory in a parliamentary vote.

The coalition still holds a clear parliamentary majority, but Vucic apparently wants to cement his influence amid rumors of disagreements within his party. The government also includes the Socialists and several smaller groups.

Vucic has pledged to seek EU membership, but still maintains strong ties with Serbia's traditional Slavic ally Russia. He has faced accusations from liberals of pressuring political opponents and curbing the freedom of speech.

No election date was immediately set. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, an ally of Vucic, would formally call the vote.

Thousands in Germany protest racism, attacks on refugees

January 16, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Thousands of people have gathered in the German city of Stuttgart to protest racism and violence against asylum-seekers amid the country's massive influx of migrants.

Saturday's demonstration in the southwestern city was organized by churches, labor unions and other groups to protest attacks on refugees. Germany registered nearly 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year, and the country saw regular attacks on migrant housing. Tensions have been heightened lately by hundreds of New Year's Eve assaults on women in Cologne and elsewhere that have been blamed largely on foreigners.

Police estimated 7,000 people turned out for the protest, the news agency dpa reported. Protestant bishop Frank Otfried July told protesters: "Whether it's cowardly arson attacks on homes for asylum-seekers, foreigners being chased or sexist violence, we are showing it the red card."

10 German victims of Istanbul suicide attack are sent home

January 16, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Coffins with the remains of 10 German tourists killed in a suicide bomb attack in Istanbul have been flown to Germany.

Police escorted the convoy of 10 funeral vehicles from a forensic institute morgue to Istanbul's Ataturk airport on Saturday. They were put on a German air force plane, which landed a few hours later at the Tegel airport in Berlin.

The suicide bomber set off the explosion near German tourists visiting the city's landmark Blue Mosque on Tuesday, killing 10 of them. Authorities said the victims ranged in age from 51 to 75. Turkish officials say the bomber, a Syrian, was affiliated with the Islamic State group but no organization has claimed the attack.

Turkish authorities have detained seven people in connection with the Istanbul attack.

Blizzards, high winds batter Eastern Europe, cause havoc

January 17, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Blizzards battered parts of Eastern Europe on Sunday, forcing roads to close, trains and flights to be canceled and producing power outages.

The snow blanketed parts of Romania, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Poland, while Croatia's Adriatic coast was hit by unseasonably low temperatures and high winds. Romania's transportation ministry said 12 major roads were closed Sunday because of heavy snow and three Black Sea ports had to shut down because of high winds. Railway authorities said 20 trains had been canceled. At least three flights were also canceled.

Some 14 communities in Romania suffered power outages and the Education Ministry said schools would close Monday in Bucharest, the capital, and in other southeastern regions. The Interior Ministry said 6,000 officers were helping to clear the snow.

The cold snap also gripped other countries, causing traffic problems and power outages. Poland's Interior Ministry said Friday that 72 people have frozen to death since November, when temperatures first dipped below zero (32 F) while a further 29 people were asphyxiated by fumes from coal heaters.

In Bulgaria, heavy snowfall of up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) were recorded in some parts of the Balkan nation and temperatures dipped to -10 C (14 F). Hundreds of refugees traveling from Macedonia trudged through the snow, bracing freezing temperatures to arrive Sunday at the registration center in Presevo in southern Serbia.

Milica Nikolic, a doctor at the registration camp, said the refugees risked frostbite due to the low temperatures. Aid workers inside the camp handed out warm tea and soup to the migrants Sunday before they resumed their journey to Western Europe.

Sub-zero temperatures and strong winds battered the Adriatic Sea coast in Croatia, disrupting some ferry lines and air traffic in the coastal city of Dubrovnik.

US, EU lift sanctions against Iran amid landmark nuke deal

January 17, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — The U.N. nuclear agency certified Saturday that Iran has met all of its commitments under last summer's landmark nuclear deal, crowning years of U.S.-led efforts to crimp Iran's ability to make atomic weapons. For Iran, the move lifts Western economic sanctions that have been in place for years, unlocking access to $100 billion in frozen assets and unleashing new opportunities for its battered economy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the top diplomats of Iran and the European Union hailed the accord, reached after years of setbacks and a full decade after the start of international diplomacy aimed at reducing the possibility that Tehran could turn its nuclear programs to weapons making.

"Today marks the first day of a safer world," Kerry declared in Vienna. "This evening, we are really reminded once again of diplomacy's power to tackle significant challenges." Additionally, Kerry linked the trust built between Iran and the United States over the past two years of talks to the release by Iran Saturday of four Americans who also hold Iranian nationality.

"Thanks to years of hard work and committed dialogue," he said, "we have made vital breakthroughs related to both the nuclear negotiations and a separate long-term diplomatic effort" that led to the freeing of the Americans.

EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini — in a statement also read in Farsi by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif — said the accord "demonstrates that with political will, perseverance, and through multilateral diplomacy, we can solve the most difficult issues and find practical solutions that are effectively implemented."

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama signed executive orders lifting economic sanctions on Iran, while Kerry confirmed that the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency could verify that "Iran has fully implemented its required commitments."

The July 14 deal, struck after decades of hostility, defused the likelihood of U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran while creating an opening for future cooperation on calming the tumultuous Middle East. But proof that it had been fully implemented had been lacking until Saturday.

For Tehran, the report translates into a huge financial windfall while also helping its efforts at international image rehabilitation. Beyond sanctions lifting and the unlocking of frozen assets, certification by the IAEA opens the path to new oil, trade and financial opportunities that could prove far more valuable for Tehran in the long run.

Not even waiting for the IAEA report, Iranian Transport Minister Abbas Akhondi said his country had reached a deal with the European consortium Airbus to buy 114 passenger planes once the sanctions are lifted.

As diplomatic maneuvering on the nuclear issue dragged into the night, another source of U.S.-Iranian tension moved toward resolution with officials of both nations announcing the prisoner releases. The four Americans imprisoned in Iran were exchanged for seven Iranians held or charged in the United States.

U.S. officials said the four — Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari — were to be flown from Iran to Switzerland on a Swiss plane and then brought to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment.

In return, the U.S. will either pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians — six of them dual citizens — accused or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions. The U.S. will also drop Interpol "red notices" — essentially arrest warrants — on a handful of sought Iranian fugitives.

Rezaian is a dual Iran-U.S. citizen convicted of espionage by Iran in a closed-door trial in 2015. The Post and the U.S. government have denied the accusations, as has Rezaian. He had been held more than 543 days.

U.S. officials said a fifth American detained in Iran, a student, has been released in a move unrelated to the prisoner swap. They said the student, identified as Matthew Trevithick, was already on his way home.

Among the sanctions lifted will be those imposed between 2006 and 2010 by the U.N. Security Council as it attempted to pressure the Islamic Republic to curb uranium enrichment and other activities that could also be used for nuclear weapons. Iran sees that move and the recent closure of a decade-long investigation of whether it worked on such weapons as a formal end to the allegations against it.

But the deal is also a boon for the White House. U.S. President Barack Obama's greatest foreign policy triumph, it has turned tensions into a first step toward cooperation with Iran, a major regional power instrumental for ending the Syrian conflict and other Middle East crises.

The July 14 deal with six world powers puts Iran's various nuclear activities under IAEA watch for up to 15 years, with an option to re-impose sanctions should Tehran break its commitments. It aims to increase the time Iran would need to make enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from several months to a year, primarily by capping Tehran's ability to enrich uranium, which can create material ranging from reactor fuel to warhead material. Under the deal, Iran committed to reduce its operating centrifuges enriching uranium by two-thirds, to just over 5,000 machines.

The IAEA report, obtained by The Associated Press, ticked off that commitment and others as met. With news of the deal's implementation breaking long after midnight in Tehran, there was no repeat of the boisterous street celebrations that met agreement in July on the accord. But social media networking sites were abuzz.

"Hello to life without sanctions," said one message. Another praised both Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose taking office in 2013 led to the start of serious negotiations after years of essential deadlock. "Thank you Rouhani," one said. "Thank you Zarif."

Since the world's attention focused on Iran's nuclear program more than a decade ago with revelations of its secret uranium enrichment program, Tehran has insisted that it was working only to power a future network of reactors and on medical and scientific research.

Iran denied any work or interest in nuclear arms even after the IAEA closed a prolonged probe with a November assessment that Tehran had an organized research and development program into such weapons up to 2003 and more scattered research and development activities up to 2009.

Still, it had little choice but to negotiate an end to the conflict after years of seeing as its revenues from oil sales — its chief income — dry up due to increasing U.S., European Union and other sanctions.

But the talks turned serious only after the pragmatic Rouhani took office in 2013. For years, Washington had refused to even sit at the same table with Iran, joining the nuclear talks only in 2008, five years after the first international attempts to negotiate a deal.

By the fall of 2013, however, Kerry had met with his Iranian counterpart and Obama had called Rouhani in what was the first direct communication between a U.S. and Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution led to the U.S. Embassy hostage taking and a diplomatic freeze.

The public goodwill quickly faded, however, and the realities of negotiating a mutually acceptable deal sank in. Deadlines were repeatedly extended by months. The bickering went on to the very end, with the July 14 agreement emerging only after a series of white-knuckle late and overnight sessions, punctuated by threats from both sides to walk away from the table.

Both sides took hits amid the diplomatic maneuvering — Iran from hardliners accusing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of selling out his country's interests and the White House from skeptics at home and abroad — particularly in the Middle East — who said the deal would keep Tehran's bomb-making capacities intact.

All-out lobbying by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the agreement also was unsuccessful. Warning that Iran has not given up its nuclear ambitions, his office urged world powers Saturday to respond harshly to any violations of the deal by Iran.

Without that, "Iran will think it can continue to develop a nuclear weapon, destabilize the region and spread terror," the statement said.

Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed

UK Labor leader calls for back channel to Islamic State

January 17, 2016

LONDON (AP) — British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn says there should be a communications channel created with the Islamic State group in hopes of ending the war in Syria.

The Labor leader told the BBC on Sunday that a back channel — similar to the one created with the Irish Republican Army during the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland — should be established. Corbyn says "There has to be a route through somewhere," particularly given that some IS commanders are former officers in the Iraqi Army.

He says "there has to be some understanding of where their strong points are, where their weak points are." Corbyn also reiterated his long-standing opposition to Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent and suggested that submarines could be deployed without nuclear warheads on them.

4 members of Ukrainian family among dead in Burkina Faso

January 17, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Four members of a Ukrainian family, including a 9-year-old child, were among those killed when al-Qaida fighters attacked a popular cafe and hotel in Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou, Ukraine's foreign minister said Sunday.

The dead included a Ukrainian woman who together with her Italian husband owned the cafe, and their child, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevgeny Ignatovsky told 112 Ukraina television. He gave no further details. Nor did Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who used Twitter to report the deaths of four family members, including a 9-year-old child.

The Italian foreign ministry said in a statement Sunday the 9-year-old son of Gaetano Santomenna, the Italian owner of Cafe Cappuccino, was inside the cafe with his mother when the attack took place, but it had no confirmation that the boy had been killed.

Ukrainian websites identified the other two Ukrainian victims as the sister and mother of the cafe owner's wife. This information could not immediately be confirmed. Friday's attacks left 28 people dead from at least nine different countries including Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Libya, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Ukraine and the U.S.

Burkina Faso hotel seizure ends; 4 jihadis, 28 others dead

January 17, 2016

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — The Al-Qaida fighters who stormed a popular hangout in Burkina Faso's capital at dinnertime came with a mission to kill as many people as possible, firing at people as they moved to a nearby hotel and setting the cafe ablaze, survivors and officials said Saturday. When the gunfire stopped after a more than 12-hour siege, at least 28 people had been slain in an unprecedented attack on this West African country long spared the jihadist violence experienced by its neighbors.

Like the extremist attacks from Paris to Jakarta, the assailants in the Friday evening attack targeted an area where people from different nationalities gathered to enjoy life. Here in Ouagadougou, the victims had been grabbing a cold drink outside or staying at one of the capital's few upscale hotels. In this city with a large aid worker presence, the attackers sought to shoot as many non-Muslims as possible, screaming Allahu akhbar (Arabic for God is great) as they entered.

An audio tape later released by the al-Qaida group claiming responsibility for the carnage was entitled: "A Message Signed with Blood and Body Parts." Among the victims from 18 different countries were the wife and 5-year-old daughter of the Italian man who owns the Cappuccino Cafe, where at least 10 people died in a hail of gunfire and smoke after the attackers set the building ablaze before moving on to the Splendid Hotel nearby. Some survivors cowered for hours on the roof or hid in the restaurant's bathroom to stay alive. Two French and two Swiss citizens were confirmed among the dead late Saturday by the two countries' foreign ministries.

The mother-in-law of an American missionary confirmed Saturday that he was among the dead. Carol Boyle said Michael Riddering, 45, of Cooper City, Florida, had been working in Burkina Faso since 2011. Riddering died in the Cappuccino Cafe, where he was to meet a group planning to volunteer at the orphanage and women's crisis center he ran with his wife Amy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement Saturday that six of the dead were Canadians. Authorities said the four known attackers — all killed by security forces — had come in a vehicle with plates from neighboring Niger. At least two of them were women and one was of African descent. Witnesses said they wore the turbans often worn in the sand-swept countryside of the Sahel, and some spoke in French with an Arabic accent, suggesting some may have come from further north in Africa.

"I heard the gunfire and I saw a light by my window and I thought it was fireworks at first," said Rachid Faouzi Ouedraogo, a 22-year-old accounting student who lives near the scene of the carnage. "I raced downstairs and once outside I saw people running through the street and four people firing on the people at Cappuccino."

Burkinabe forces backed by French soldiers based in neighboring Mali managed to help free at least 126 hostages though officials have said the true number of those held hostage may be higher. Dozens were wounded in the overnight siege, including many suffering gunshot wounds.

"We appeal to the people to be vigilant and brave because we must fight on," President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said on national radio Saturday. The North Africa branch of al-Qaida, founded in Algeria, claimed responsibility for the bloodbath even as it was unfolding in a series of statements published and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. The al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM — now working in tandem with feared extremist Moktar Belmoktar — later released an audio clip it said was a conversation with one of the fighters later slain in Ouagadougou.

The message said the attack was directed at "the occupiers of our lands, the looters of our wealth, and the abusers of our security," according to SITE and sought to punish them "for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali, and other lands of the Muslims, and to avenge our prophet."

Burkina Faso is a largely Muslim country though it is home to a number of French nationals as a former colony of France. Islamic extremists in the region have long targeted French interests, incensed by France's military footprint on the continent more than a half century after independence. France led the military effort in 2013 to oust extremists from their seats of power in northern Mali, and continue to carry out counterterrorism activities across the Sahel region.

French special forces were also front and center early Saturday, as police and military forces fought to take back the Splendid Hotel. After freeing the hostages there, forces then scoured other buildings including the Hotel Yibi where they killed the fourth attacker, the president later said.

The horror closely mirrored the siege of an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali in November that left 20 people dead and shattered the sense of security in the capital of a nation whose countryside has long been scarred by extremism.

Burkina Faso was better known for the role its president and officials played in mediating hostage releases when jihadists would seize foreigners for ransom in places like Niger or Mali. Now though, it appears Burkina, too, has been turned into a place where Westerners are at high risk.

On Sunday, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that an Australian doctor and his wife had been kidnapped in Burkina Faso's north. The two were abducted from the town of Djibo near the border with Mali.

Australian media reported the couple are surgeon Ken Eliot and his wife Jocelyn. The couple are in their 80s and are originally from the Australian city of Perth. The reports said the couple have lived since 1972 in Djibo, near Baraboule, where they work in a volunteer medical clinic which they built.

Jihadists also hold a third foreigner: a Romanian national who was kidnapped in an attack last April that was the first of its kind at the time. Some analysts point to the security vacuum that has emerged in Burkina Faso since late 2014, when the longtime strongman leader fled power in a popular uprising. Members of the military jockeyed for power, and the country suffered through a short-lived coup earlier this year before democratic elections were allowed to go forward in November.

Most in Burkina Faso recoil at the idea of extremism now taking hold here, adding to the woes of one of the poorest countries in the world. "We know that the gunmen won't get out of the hotel alive," said one witness of the overnight siege, who gave only his first name, Gilbert. "Our country is not for jihadists or terrorists. They got it wrong."

Associated Press writers Ludivine Laniepce in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Krista Larson and Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal; and Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Rob Gillies in Toronto and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

Iran releases Americans in breakthrough prisoner exchange

January 17, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — Four Americans detained in Iran will be coming home and seven Iranians in U.S. custody also will win their freedom in a breakthrough swap negotiated by the longtime foes, officials in both countries said. As well, a fifth American was freed separately.

The news emerged as a landmark deal took effect Saturday relieving sanctions on Iran in return for its progress in pulling back its nuclear program. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose name had not been previously made public, were freed from custody in Iran and were to be flown to Switzerland, U.S. officials said. U.S. student Matthew Trevithick was released independently of the exchange on Saturday and already was on his way home.

In turn, the U.S. will pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians — six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens — accused or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions. Three were serving prison terms and now have received a commutation or pardon. Three others were awaiting trial; the last one made a plea agreement.

It's unclear if they will leave the U.S. for Iran. They are free to stay in the United States. In addition, the U.S. will drop Interpol "red notices" — essentially arrest warrants — on 14 Iranian fugitives it has sought, officials said.

The announcement of the exchange came shortly before Iran was certified as having met all commitments under the nuclear deal with six world powers. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other officials involved in the accord met in Vienna as the diplomatic achievement unfolded.

The release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal developments capped weeks of intense U.S.-Iran diplomacy that took several unexpected turns after an Iranian ballistic missile test in October and then the detention on Jan. 12 by Iran of 10 U.S. Navy sailors and their two boats in the Persian Gulf.

The four Americans released in Iran under the negotiated prisoner exchange were still in that country early Sunday as arrangements progressed to get them out, a senior Obama administration official said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, the official said efforts were underway to get the four together and on a plane out of Tehran.

Kerry said the Americans had been released from Iranian custody. Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., publisher of The Washington Post, said in a statement, "We couldn't be happier to hear the news that Jason Rezaian has been released from Evin Prison. Once we receive more details and can confirm Jason has safely left Iran, we will have more to share."

Hekmati's family released a statement saying: "We thank everyone for your thoughts during this time. There are still many unknowns. At this point, we are hoping and praying for Amir's long-awaited return."

Trevithick's parents said he was freed after 40 days at a prison in Tehran. They did not say why Iran detained him. Trevithick, who is from Hingham, Massachusetts, co-founded a research center based in Turkey that assesses the humanitarian crisis in the area and traveled to Iran in September for a four-month language program.

Negotiations over detainees grew out of the Iran nuclear talks. In discussions in Europe and elsewhere, Kerry and nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman were able to establish a separate channel of talks that would focus on the U.S. citizens.

American officials didn't want the citizens used as leverage in the nuclear talks, and didn't want to lose their possible release if the talks failed to produce an agreement. The discussions then gained speed after last July's nuclear deal. In talks in Geneva and elsewhere, a team led by Obama's anti-Islamic State group envoy, Brett McGurk, worked on the details of a possible prisoner swap. The Iranians originally sought 19 people as part of the exchange; U.S. officials whittled down the number to seven.

Among American politicians, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul Ryan gave cautious praise to the release of the prisoners, particularly Abedini, but said they never should have been held in the first place. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders praised diplomacy as the key to solving the detainee issue. Hillary Clinton also welcomed the developments while saying Iran should not be thanked because it should never have detained the Americans.

Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission, wasn't part of the deal. American officials are unsure if the former FBI agent is even still alive. The Iranians have always denied knowing his location.

Levinson's case was aggressively pursued, officials said, adding that Iran has committed to continue cooperating in trying to determine Levinson's whereabouts. The exchange also didn't cover Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who advocated better ties between Iran and the U.S. He was thought to have been arrested in October.

According to the official IRNA news agency, the seven freed Iranians are Nader Modanlo, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahraman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi. It didn't provide any further details.

The lawyer for Mechanic, who has been jailed since his indictment last April on charges of illegally exporting microelectronics technology to Iran, said his client was "elated" to be pardoned. "He's been incarcerated for nine months for a crime that he's just accused of but did not commit," said lawyer Joel Androphy. "To me, it's just an injustice. You would expect this in some third-world country, not the United States." The Justice Department uses the spelling of 'Mechanic' in court filings.

Dareini reported from Tehran, Iran; Lee reported from Washington. Darlene Superville, Donna Cassata and Eric Tucker in Washington, Amy Anthony in Providence, Rhode Island, Adam Schreck in Dubai and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.

Iran warmly welcomes sanctions' end, though long thaw ahead

January 17, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The announcement on Saturday that Iran had satisfied its obligations under a nuclear deal with world powers was expected to pave the way for a new economic reality in the Islamic Republic, free from years of harsh international economic sanctions.

The formal declaration in Vienna marked the official implementation of the landmark deal reached in July by Tehran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. In advance of that announcement, Iran and the U.S. conducted a prisoner swap that saw seven Iranians held in America released in exchange for four Iranian prisoners with dual nationalities — including Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian.

"All sides remain firmly convinced that this historic deal is both strong and fair," said European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. "This is an encouraging and strong message that the international community must keep in mind in our efforts to make the world a safer place."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking separately, said Iran "has kept its word and we shall do the same." However Kerry emphasized the need for the UN and world powers to remain vigilant in ensuring Iranian compliance going forward.

As the speeches in Vienna were still taking place, Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani, a strong supporter of the deal, tweeted in celebration: "#ImplementationDay--I thank God for this blessing & bow to the greatness of the patient nation of Iran. Congrats on this glorious victory!"

While some financial issues may take days to figure out, Iran greeted the news with muted celebrations since the Vienna statement didn't come until well after midnight in Tehran. However celebratory messages circulated on social media.

"Hello to life without sanctions," said one message shared on the Telegram app and other social messaging apps. Another read: "Thank you Rouhani, Thank you Zarif." For Iran, long out in the economic cold over its contested atomic program, implementing the nuclear deal will be a welcome thaw.

More than $30 billion in assets overseas will become immediately available to the Islamic Republic. Iran's Central Bank Governor, Valiollah Seif, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying that Iran will not transfer the cash and instead will use it to import the goods it needs. Official Iranian reports have set the total amount of frozen Iranian assets overseas at $100 billion.

A European oil embargo on Iran will end. Already, some 38 million barrels of oil are in Iran's floating reserves, ready to enter the market, according to the International Energy Agency. All that means even more money coming into the country, allowing it to undertake needed repairs to its oil and gas fields to boost its own production. Iran is home to the world's fourth-largest proven reserve of crude oil and ranks second in proven natural gas reserves behind Russia.

Tehran already seems to be making plans for its post-sanctions economy and infrastructure. Transport Minister Abbas Akhondi told the official IRNA news agency Saturday that his government had agreed to buy 114 new planes from the European consortium Airbus. Iran is looking to buy up to 400 new planes to replace its aging commercial fleet — some of which has been grounded due to a lack of spare parts.

Sizable financial challenges will remain for Iran, a country in which ATMs don't link to the global banking system and restaurants can't accept foreign credit cards. Local banks remain lumbered with bad debt, inflation is still high and unemployment stands around 10 percent.

The International Monetary Fund in October noted that some businesses and consumers were putting off major purchases in hopes of getting higher-quality foreign goods when sanctions end. This delayed spending is dragging down domestic growth, but could amplify the economic boost delivered by the sanctions lifting.

Meanwhile, the global economy is still staggering after the Great Recession and oil is selling at around $30 a barrel, a 12-year low already affecting Iran's oil-producing neighbors in the Gulf. Any new Iranian supply to the market is likely to keep oil prices down.

"In terms of the global backdrop, Iran's reintegration could hardly come at a worse time," an October report by the Dubai-based bank Emirates NBD said. "Ultimately, we still suspect that growth can rebound sharply."

Under the deal, the United Nations' arms embargo on the country continues, as do ballistic missile restrictions. Since July, there has been some hard-line pushback. Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard has launched missiles and shown footage of an underground weapons base in the Islamic Republic, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned against Western influence spreading in the country.

But this week, when U.S. sailors were captured by Iran after straying into its territory, the Islamic Republic let them leave within a day after direct contacts between Kerry and Zarif. The two diplomats formed close ties during the nuclear negotiations.

Kerry said Saturday that the mutual prisoner swap was not formally linked to the nuclear deal, but that it was "accelerated in light of the relationships forged ... in the nuclear talks." The deal also could affect Iran's upcoming parliamentary election in February, further changing the balance of political power in the Islamic Republic. Already, analysts have said they believe it will boost allies of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration helmed the deal.

But since the deal, there have been a series of legal cases in Iran targeting poets, filmmakers, artists, activists and journalists, which analysts attribute to hard-liners' continuing struggle with moderates.

Prominent analyst Sadeq Zibakalam said implementation of the nuclear deal has brought a genuine rapprochement between Iran and the West for the first time in nearly four decades. "It's the first time, 37 years after Iran's 1979 revolution, that Iran has succeeded in détente with the West, specifically with the U.S. despite radical and hard-line opponents both inside Iran and America as well as the Israeli lobby and Saudi opposition," Zibakalam said.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.