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Sunday, February 7, 2016

US to deploy missile attack drones in South Korea

Tokyo (Sputnik)
Jan 28, 2016

The United States intends to deploy in South Korea the newest MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones, that can not only conduct reconnaissance flights, but also missile attacks, a South Korean news outlet reported Wednesday.

According to the Chosun Ilbo, citing a US military source, deployment of Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), that are superior in combat characteristics to drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan, is scheduled for July.

Equipped with night vision cameras, they can make flights lasting up to 30 hours, and are designed to monitor the areas along the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea.

With the new drones the US and South Korean armed forces will be able to strike helicopters, as well as enemy's tank within distance of about 4,9 miles. For that purpose, each vehicle is equipped with four anti-tank missiles "Hellfire", four glide bombs GBU-44/B, and also can be equipped with air-to-air missiles "Stringer," according to the source.

The United States began a new strategic deployment of weapons in South Korea, following a hydrogen bomb test announced earlier in the month by Pyongyang.

The United States has already deployed a B-52 strategic bomber capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and up to 31 metric tons of bombs to South Korea.

On January 6, Pyongyang claimed it had carried out its first hydrogen bomb test, triggering condemnation from the international community which denounced the test as provocative and undermining stability in the region.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_to_deploy_missile_attack_drones_in_South_Korea_999.html.

Taiwan military drills in face of China tension

Kaohsiung, Taiwan (AFP)
Jan 27, 2016

Taiwan carried out military drills Wednesday with naval chiefs assuring residents the island is safe, as concerns grow that tensions will escalate with China after recent presidential elections.

The drills were the first since Tsai Ing-wen of the China-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept to victory in the elections earlier this month.

She ousted the ruling Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), bringing to an end eight years of unprecedented rapprochement with China.

On Wednesday, the Taiwanese navy displayed eight warships and fired flares from a missile corvette during an exercise in waters off Tsoying in southern Taiwan, home to the island's naval headquarters.

It was the second and final day of the drills which saw a group of elite frogmen land on a beach in motorboats Tuesday on the island of Kinmen -- a Taiwan-controlled outpost island near China's southeastern Xiamen city.

A fleet of F-16 fighter jets were also scrambled in another exercise Tuesday at the southern Chiayi airbase.

"With the Lunar New Year approaching, our citizens can feel at ease we are able to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait," Vice Admiral Tsai Hung-tu, head of the navy's political warfare office, told AFP.

Military exercises are routinely carried out by Taiwan before the Lunar New Year holidays which fall in February this year.

Although Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo with Beijing, relations are widely expected to cool as the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party.

It does not recognize that Taiwan is part of "one China" -- a principle insisted upon by Beijing.

Taiwan is self-ruling after splitting from China in 1949 following a civil war, but has never formally declared independence. Beijing still sees it as part of its territory to be reunified.

China's state-controlled CCTV last week released footage it claimed depicted a drill recently carried out by Chinese forces, off the southeast coast of the mainland, near Taiwan.

Taiwan's defense ministry dismissed the footage, saying the images were collated from past maneuvers.

A Taiwanese defense ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity told AFP that the move was part of Beijing's "psychological warfare" against Taiwan.

China has 1,500 missiles trained on Taiwan, according to the island's defense ministry.

China fired test missiles into the Taiwan Strait in a bid to deter voters in the island's first democratic elections in 1996.

Source: Sino Daily.
Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Taiwan_military_drills_in_face_of_China_tension_999.html.

Japan unveils first stealth fighter jet

Komaki, Japan (AFP)
Jan 28, 2016

Japan on Thursday unveiled its first stealth fighter jet, officials said, with the maiden test flight planned for next month.

The defense ministry's acquisition agency showed off the domestically developed, radar-dodging X-2 fighter at a regional airport near the central city of Komaki.

Its first flight is scheduled in mid-February before delivery to the defense ministry by the end of March next year, the acquisition agency said.

The X-2, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, measures 14.2 meters (47 feet) long and 9.1 meters wide and was built as a successor to the F-2 fighter jets developed jointly with the United States.

Presently, only the United States, Russia and China have been internationally recognized as having successfully developed and flown manned stealth jets, the agency said.

Japan has reportedly spent about 39.4 billion yen ($332 million) to develop the aircraft.

In November Japan's first domestically produced passenger jet, also developed by Mitsubishi Heavy, made its maiden test flight, a landmark development for the country after being barred from developing aircraft following its defeat in World War II.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Japan_unveils_first_stealth_fighter_jet_999.html.

China governor fired for 'disloyalty' as Xi tightens grip

February 05, 2016

BEIJING (AP) — The governor of a major Chinese province has been accused of disloyalty to the ruling Communist Party and removed from his post, amid a growing consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping that some have likened to a personality cult.

Deposed Sichuan Gov. Wei Hong joins a long list of those sidelined in a sweeping crackdown on dissent, civil society and corrupt officials. Unusually, the accusations against Wei made no mention of graft. He was accused only of violating "party discipline," not of breaking the law, demoted to a vice departmental post and removed from his party duties.

Wei had been "disloyal to the party, dishonest and failed to value the many opportunities to receive education and rectify his wrongdoing," the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in an unusually long statement on its website.

Along with "seriously violating political and organizational discipline," he also sought to subvert the investigation, refused to confess and interfered with judicial activities, the commission said. No details were given about the specific accusations against Wei, who had spent most of his career in the Sichuan party apparatus and was also a delegate to the national party and government congresses.

The commission also announced an investigation into a vice governor of the southern province of Guangdong on the same charge. It said Liu Zhigeng was under investigation but gave no details about his alleged violation of party discipline.

The accusations appear to show an expansion of Xi's anti-corruption campaign to include those who fail to profess fealty to his leadership personally, said Willy Lam, who closely follows China's elite politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Whereas previous leaders had tolerated some degree of factionalism, Xi appears intend on removing all who would fail to toe the line, Lam said. Wei may have been suspected of being under the sway of one of Xi's two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he said.

"This is a warning to party members that they can lose their place," Lam said. "It is an alarming development in the personality cult around Xi." The son of a founder of the communist state, Xi has increasingly turned to well-worn methods of state propaganda to promote his image. He's appeared on decorative plates, medals, and billboards, and even established a presence on social media within China's narrowly confined online world.

More so than usual, Xi has dominated state broadcaster CCTV's newscasts in recent days, visiting mountainous areas of central China where the nascent Communist Party established its foothold in its early days.

During the visit, local residents grasped Xi by the arm, clapping, smiling and singing revolutionary folk songs. Xi then held forth in front of local government officials and military units, cementing his image as the paramount leader.

Xi now appears to be moving to elevate his status to the "core" of the party leadership, rather than simply its general secretary, Lam said. The distinction is highly significant in Chinese politics, raising him above Hu and placing him on the level with Jiang, who ruled from 1989 to 2002.

Ukrainian official resigns, says reform efforts blocked

February 03, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine's government, already under strain from political infighting, a frozen conflict in the country's east and a sagging economy, fell under scrutiny again on Wednesday when its economy minister handed in his resignation, saying the leadership routinely blocked his reform efforts.

The country's minister of economy Aivaras Abromavicius said he and his team could no longer drive forward much-needed reforms and received pushback on their efforts from government leaders including members of President Petro Poroshenko's party.

"My team and I have no desire to be a front for blatant corruption or puppets for people who want to take control over state funds as they did in the old government," Abromavicius told reporters at a press conference in Kiev. "It wasn't just a lack of political will. (They were) actively seeking to paralyze our work in the government."

Abromavicius, a Lithuanian native and former investment banker, advocated deregulation and wide-scale privatization in Ukraine. He was appointed as the finance minister 14 months ago along with a cadre of other political-newcomers from the private sector including finance minister Natalia Jaresko, an American. Their appointments were cautiously viewed as indicators that the new government would go through with long-overdue economic reforms.

However, the changes to Ukraine's government remain largely cosmetic and oligarchs still maintain huge sway in its decisions. As he announced his resignation, Abromavicius said Ukraine needed a total reset of power.

"We know how Ukraine ended up in the condition that it's in today. It's not just Yanukovych, it's the total lack of reform over 20 years," he said in a reference to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

A group of 10 ambassadors, including those from the United States, Britain and Canada, expressed their disappointment at Abromavicius' resignation in an open letter. "During the past year, Abromavicius and his professional team have made important strides -- implementing tough but necessary economic reforms to help stabilize Ukraine's economy, root out endemic corruption, bring Ukraine into compliance with its IMF program obligations, and promote more openness and transparency in government," the ambassadors wrote.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Abromavicius had delivered real reform results and made a difference in Ukraine on many fronts. "Ukraine's stable, secure and prosperous future is going to require the sustained efforts of a broad and inclusive team going forward of dedicated professionals like him, who put the Ukrainian people's interest above their own," he said.

Abromavicius said that Igor Kononenko, a Poroshenko-ally in Ukraine's parliament, put pressure on the economy ministry to appoint his allies. Kononenko told Ukrainian TV channel Espreso that Abromavicius' comments were false and his resignation "emotional."

Ukraine's anti-corruption bureau said they would investigate Abromavicius' accusations against Kononenko. Abromavicius' predecessor, Pavlo Sheremeta, resigned after spending under a year in office over frustrations with the slow pace of reforms.

Divisive Polish party leader Kaczynski pulls the strings

February 07, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a secret five-hour meeting in a secluded mountain resort with the most powerful person in Poland, he didn't convene with his counterpart or the Polish president.

Instead he spoke with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland's ruling party, a man who has no official government position. The mysterious meeting recently in a guest house on Poland's southern border enhanced the perception that Kaczynski, rather than Prime Minister Beata Szydlo or President Andrzej Duda, is the main decision-maker in Poland today, and that, like Orban, he might steer his nation down an anti-democratic path.

The 67-year-old Law and Justice party leader, whose identical twin brother Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia, has been in the Polish public eye since childhood. He and Lech first won fame as child actors in the 1960s. During the 1980s, they embarked on their political careers by joining Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa's anti-communist Solidarity movement.

But observers say Jaroslaw Kaczynski changed dramatically after the death of his twin. "He hardened. He is a lonely man and this is very visible in the way he does politics. He wants to rule with a strong hand and it's clear that all the power comes from his office," says Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who was prime minister in a Law and Justice government in 2005-2006.

Last year Kaczynski led his conservative party to two electoral victories, so it now controls both the presidency and the Cabinet and has a majority in Parliament. In Poland's 26 years of democracy, no other party has ever enjoyed so much power.

As the new government took office, it moved swiftly to consolidate that power, passing laws that gave the ruling party some influence in the Constitutional Tribunal and direct control over public media. It also strengthened the state's surveillance powers.

The European Union is alarmed, and recently opened a preliminary inquiry into whether the government is guilty of a "systemic threat to the rule of law." Liberal Poles are also furious at the changes, and have turned out for large street protests over the past two months.

Kaczynski is viewed as the mastermind of these changes. "He has built himself into this head of state without any real position and this is very comfortable for him. He has no direct responsibility and is free to change the pawns on his chess board," Marcinkiewicz told The Associated Press.

Marcinkiewicz has his own experience taking directions from Kaczynski, who eventually took the prime minister's job from him in 2006. He says Kaczynski now gives instructions to the government on a daily basis.

Kaczynski mixes social welfare ideas with support for national and Catholic traditions and opposition to gay marriage and abortion. His party swept to power denouncing the inequalities of the previous government's liberal market policies, striking a chord with voters by promising to help those left out of Poland's economic success.

"He is an honest man who surely is not after private gains, but who really thinks about the kind of life people have," says one supporter, 42-year-old cook Agata Remisz. Still, many are wary of the government's tactics.

Walesa, who fell out with the Kaczynski brothers in 1991, has denounced the Law and Justice-led government as a threat to democracy. "Kaczynski is definitely a great intellect and his diagnosis of the situation in Poland is right, but the cure he applies is very disputable," the former president told the AP.

Never married, Kaczynski lives alone in a modest house in Warsaw, where he lived with his mother until her death in 2013. Since Lech's death, he only wears black in public and has said he will be in mourning for the rest of his life.

He rarely gives interviews and prefers adulatory Catholic outlets. According to a recent book, "Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Secrets" by journalist Michal Krzymowski, he only reluctantly watches TV news. The same book describes how he took great pains to spare his ill mother the shock of his brother's death. For almost two months he told her the president was making a lengthy return from a visit to America by ship because of volcanic ash that had grounded many planes. He even had a fake copy of a newspaper printed with that story for her to read. Eventually, when his mother was better, he told her the truth.

In foreign relations, Kaczynski is distrustful of Russia, which he sees as a constant threat to Poland. He also cultivates resentment against Germany for its brutal World War II occupation of Poland. The party also sows divisions inside Poland. The first government sought to purge communist-era collaborators, a key Kaczynski policy, but many said its methods were too vengeful.

During the 2015 election campaign, Kaczynski took an anti-migrant stance, saying they could carry threatening "parasites." He also denounced his pro-EU opponents as the "worst sort of Poles," ones that follow foreign values.

Marcinkiewicz believes Kaczynski's distrust of foreigners may come from his aversion to flying, which he had even before his brother died in the plane crash. Kaczynski has rejected the findings of Polish and Russian investigations that say the crash was an accident resulting from a string of human errors and has ordered repeat investigations, seen by some as an obsession.

Still, Marcinkiewicz says the party leader is a great interlocutor on many subjects. Kaczynski is "an outstanding person, a sad person, a very friendly person ... (and) probably the only one who has a plan for Poland," Marcinkiewicz said. "But that plan is very conservative and I don't think it goes along with the plan that most Poles have."

Poland salutes plan to boost NATO presence in Eastern Europe

February 03, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Poland's foreign minister says the protection of NATO's eastern borders needs to be increased in light of the "apparently unresolvable" conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Witold Waszczykowski said Wednesday during a visit to Budapest, Hungary, that stationing troops from the military alliance in Eastern Europe is not a "confrontational measure" but only an "absolutely preventive" one. Waszczykowski was responding to questions about U.S. plans to quadruple spending on troops and training in Europe in 2017 as part of efforts to deter Russia.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that Hungary had received no official request to host NATO troops or American military equipment, though he noted that "larger efforts than ever" are needed to face NATO's "double challenge" from the east and the south.

Teachers, students protest education system in Hungary

February 03, 2016

MISKOLC, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of teachers, students and parents in several cities in Hungary protested Wednesday against the government's centralization of the education system and the increasing overburdening of pupils and educators.

A torchlight march under steady rain in the eastern city of Miskolc drew some 5,000 people, including trade unions, demonstrating against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's policies of increasing direct state control over ever more aspects of Hungarian life.

Protesters said the current system is taxing students with superfluous, mandatory content and increasing teachers' administrative duties, favoring factual knowledge over "real learning." "I want to talk with the children and educate them, not just teach them," said Magdolna Nagy, who teaches history in the nearby city of Tiszaujvaros. "Students, parents and teachers ... experience the same oppression every day. The future of our children and of Hungary is at risk."

Teachers also complained about the lack of choice in textbooks and about new evaluations they must undergo that do not take into account their past achievements. "The changes introduced by the government since 2010 have turned the clock back on education policies by 100 years," said Laszlo Mendrey, head of the Teachers Democratic Union. "The present education system reflects the future of the country."

Mendrey said that higher wages in the education sector had mollified some of the discontent, but that increases in the number of mandatory classes taught and the longer working hours neutralized the pay increases.

Reacting to Wednesday's rallies and plans for others, authorities promised to cut teachers' administrative burdens and launch consultations with teacher, parent and student representatives. An analyst said that the government is trying feverishly to placate dissatisfied teachers, fearing it could lead a wider wave of demonstrations and discontent.

"There is potential for this protest to become the starting point of more rallies," said Csaba Toth, strategic director of the Republikon Institute think tank in Budapest. "It depends greatly on what will happen" at a similar demonstration announced for Feb. 13 outside Parliament in Budapest.

The lack of a charismatic, strong leader for the fragmented opposition, however, could prevent the discontent from really challenging the government.

Why pensions are the new flashpoint in Greece's crisis

February 05, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Combine a rapidly aging population, a depleted work force and leaky finances and any country's pension system would be in trouble. For debt-hobbled, unemployment-plagued Greece, it's a nightmare.

Hemmed in by a grim economic reality and tough-talking bailout creditors, the leftwing-led government in Athens is now attempting the seemingly impossible: to reform the pension system without cutting pensions, largely through a steep increase in social security contributions.

The overhaul, which creditors are demanding in return for rescue loans, means Greeks who have a job — and who are outnumbered by the unemployed and retired — have to pay for the rest. Unions are up in arms about the move, which has become the main hurdle in Greece's negotiations with its European creditors and the International Monetary Fund.

Critics say the reform will heap the most pain on self-employed professionals and farmers, forcing them to pay up to three quarters of their income in pension contributions and taxes. They warn the majority will be forced to change jobs or emigrate — accelerating the brain drain the country has suffered since the crisis started in 2010.

"We are fighting for our very survival," said Georgios Stassinos, head of the country's biggest engineers' union. If the reforms are adopted, he said, "the country will be left without engineers, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and economists."

The head of Greece's bar associations, Vassilios Alexandris, said the new system would reduce some lawyers' net incomes to as little as 31 percent of their gross intakes, from the current 46 percent. "Professionals will not pay their (pension) contributions, not out of choice but because they will be unable to," he said.

In Greek cities, a wave of protests has become known as the necktie revolution, from a series of demonstrations by formally-dressed professionals. The discontent is even more obvious in the countryside, where farmers have manned highway blockades for over two weeks.

Costas Alexandris, a farmers' union leader in the northeastern area of Thrace, said he stands to pay 75 percent of his income in taxes and contributions next year under the government's proposals, which include taxation on subsidies and a leap in farmers' pension contributions from 7 to 28 percent.

But if Greece wants to make its pensions system viable, it has few options. Current retirees have already seen their pensions cut repeatedly under austerity programs since 2009 and the retirement age has been raised from about 62 to 67.

Greece has the sixth oldest population in the world, according to United Nations data, and spends more than 16 percent of GDP on pensions — above the European average — up from 11.7 percent of GDP before the financial crisis, as the economy shrank.

Out of a population of nearly 11 million, Greece has 3.6 million workers — but 2.66 million pensioners and 1.2 million unemployed. The situation will only get worse in years ahead, as deaths have overtaken births since the financial crisis broke out.

Past governments sweetened voters by offering mass pension rights to people who contributed little to the system, were generous on early retirement and provided pensions that were sometimes higher than what retirees earned at their jobs.

The average pension is currently about 900 euros ($1,000), and a recent study found that pensions are the main source of income for 52 percent of all Greek households — up from 40 percent in 2011. In defense of the proposed reforms, farmers had until now contributed very little for their pensions, and retirement contributions are based on declared income, which is often understated in Greece.

"We want a pension system that doesn't place the burden of subsidizing other people's pensions on the usual victims, salaried employees," Labor Minister George Katrougalos said. His draft would involve merging all pension funds into one with common rules for all, and providing a basic, state-funded pension for all — 384 euros — that is supplemented with contributions. Katrougalos insists current core pensions will be left untouched, while future pensions will not change drastically for the worse.

The popular protests against the government are ironic, because for years as a small opposition party, the now-governing Syriza was the standard bearer of demonstrations against pension reform. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was first elected on pledges to reverse creditor-demanded austerity, but was forced into a U-turn last year after other European countries threatened to kick Greece out of the eurozone.

The pension proposals, which opposition parties reject, are likely to be submitted this month to Parliament, where Tsipras' coalition controls only a slim majority, 153 of the 300 seats. "So far these protests have not threatened government cohesion, but this will not always be the case," said Megan Greene, chief economist of Manulife Asset Management. "The Tsipras government has little room for maneuver."

Former labor minister Tassos Giannitsis, who attempted sweeping reforms 15 years ago, only to be defeated by a union revolt, argues that Greece's pension problems triggered the country's financial crisis in the first place by bloating the budget deficits before 2009.

"As long as the target is to avoid any new (pension) cuts, people who work will have to sacrifice much more than previous generations, through higher contributions or new taxes ... and bear the burden of future repayment of the heavy debts of the past," he told a recent panel discussion. "Furthermore, they lack any certainty regarding their own future pensions."

40,000 protest pension reform as general strike grips Greece

February 04, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Sporadic clashes broke out in central Athens Thursday as tens of thousands marched to the Greek Parliament during a general strike called to protest planned pension reforms that are part of the country's third international bailout.

Dozens of hooded anarchists threw petrol bombs and stones at riot police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Police said a journalist was attacked by rioters and taken to hospital but was not in serious condition.

Overall, police said about 40,000 people took part in two separate, consecutive demonstrations through central Athens. Smaller protests were held in other major cities. Unions are angry at pension reforms that are part of Greece's third international bailout. The left-led government is trying to overhaul the country's ailing pension system by increasing social security contributions to avoid pension cuts, but critics say the reforms will lead many to lose two-thirds of their income.

Opposition to the reform has been vociferous, uniting a disparate group of professions, including farmers, artists, taxi drivers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and seamen among others. Thursday's general strike is the most significant the coalition government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has faced since he initially came to power a little more than a year ago. As an opposition party, Tsipras' radical left Syriza party had led opposition to pension reforms, but he was forced to ditch his earlier stance when faced with the stark choice of signing up to a third bailout or the country having to leave the euro currency.

Syriza's difficulties with the pension reform plan were evident in the party's statement that it was backing Thursday's strike. Athens pensioner Yannis Kouvalakis said Tsipras' government "fooled" Greeks by promising to reverse austerity cuts.

"Because they are from the left, what happened? Was the situation saved? Things got worse. They'd said they'd give some money to pensioners or the unemployed, increase the minimum wage to 750 euros (per month)," he said. "They cut five euros from my pension ... What can they give? Forget it."

The strike comes as the government negotiates with Greece's international debt inspectors, who returned to Athens this week to review progress on the country's bailout obligations. The central Athens hotel where the inspectors were staying was heavily guarded by police.

Ferries between Greece's islands and the mainland remained tied up in port as part of the strike, while only limited public transport was operating in Athens for a few hours in the day and taxis also stayed off the streets. More than a dozen domestic flights were canceled, while farmers maintained their blockades of highways that have forced motorists into lengthy detours.

State-run hospitals were functioning on emergency staff, while state schools, many shops and gas stations were shut.

Scientists in Germany switch on nuclear fusion experiment

February 03, 2016

GREIFSWALD, Germany (AP) — Scientists in Germany flipped the switch Wednesday on an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power.

Following nine years of construction and testing, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald injected a tiny amount of hydrogen into a doughnut-shaped device — then zapped it with the equivalent of 6,000 microwave ovens.

The resulting super-hot gas, known as plasma, lasted just a fraction of a second before cooling down again, long enough for scientists to confidently declare the start of their experiment a success. "Everything went well today," said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved with the project. "With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there's always a risk."

Among the difficulties is how to cool the complex arrangement of magnets required to keep the plasma floating inside the device, Wolf said. Scientists looked closely at the hiccups experienced during the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland more than five years ago to avoid similar mistakes, he said.

The experiment in Greifswald is part of a world-wide effort to harness nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms join at extremely high temperatures and release large amounts of energy that's similar to what occurs inside the sun.

Advocates acknowledge that the technology is probably many decades away, but argue that — once achieved — it could replace fossil fuels and conventional nuclear fission reactors. Construction has already begun in southern France on ITER, a huge international research reactor that uses a strong electric current to trap plasma inside a doughnut-shaped device long enough for fusion to take place. The device, known as a tokamak, was conceived by Soviet physicists in the 1950s and is considered fairly easy to build, but extremely difficult to operate.

The team in Greifswald, a port city on Germany's Baltic coast, is focused on a rival technology invented by the American physicist Lyman Spitzer in 1950. Called a stellarator, the device has the same doughnut shape as a tokamak but uses a complicated system of magnetic coils instead of a current to achieve the same result.

The Greifswald device should be able to keep plasma in place for much longer than a tokamak, said Thomas Klinger, who heads the project. "The stellarator is much calmer," he said in a telephone interview ahead of the start. "It's far harder to build, but easier to operate."

Known as the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, or W7-X, the 400-million-euro ($435 million) device was first fired up in December using helium, which is easier to heat. Helium also has the advantage of "cleaning" any minute dirt particles left behind during the construction of the device.

Over the coming years the device, which isn't designed to produce energy itself, will slowly increase the temperature and duration of the plasma with the goal of keeping it stable for 30 minutes, Wolf said.

"If we manage 2025, that's good. Earlier is even better," he said. Scientists hope that the W7-X experiment will allow them to test many of the extreme conditions such devices will be subjected to if they are ever to generate power.

David Anderson, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin who isn't involved in the project, said the project in Greifswald looks promising so far. "The impressive results obtained in the startup of the machine were remarkable," he said in an email. "This is usually a difficult and arduous process. The speed with which W7-X became operational is a testament to the care and quality of the fabrication of the device and makes a very positive statement about the stellarator concept itself. W7-X is a truly remarkable achievement and the worldwide fusion community looks forward to many exciting results."

While critics have said the pursuit of nuclear fusion is an expensive waste of money that could be better spent on other projects, Germany has forged ahead in funding the Greifswald project, costs for which have reached €1.06 billion euros in the past 20 years if staff salaries are included.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, personally pressed the button at Wednesday's launch. "As an industrial nation we want to show that an affordable, safe, reliable and sustainable power supply is possible, without any loss of economic competitiveness," she said. "The advantages of fusion energy are obvious."

The Polish government, European Union and the U.S. Department of Energy also contributed funding for the project. The U.S. contribution, which included crucial error-correcting coils and imaging equipment, gives American scientists a chance to help develop cutting-edge technology and participate in the experiment, said Edmund J. Synakowski, the agency's associate director for fusion energy sciences.

Although there are about a dozen stellarator experiments around the world, including in the U.S., Japan, Australia and Europe, scientists say the Greifswald device is the first to match the performance of tokamaks.

"If the United States isn't at the table once scientists start asking questions that can only be answered here, then we're out of the game," Synakowski said.

EU ministers want to buttress borders to stem refugee flow

February 06, 2016

AMSTERDAM (AP) — European Union nations anxious to stem the flow of asylum-seekers coming through the Balkans are increasingly considering sending more help to non-member Macedonia as a better way to protect European borders instead of relying on EU member Greece.

With Athens unable to halt the tens of thousands of people making the sea crossing from Turkey, EU nations fear that Europe's Schengen border-free travel zone could collapse, taking with it one of the cornerstones on which the 28-nation bloc is built.

"If Greece is not ready or able to protect the Schengen zone and doesn't accept any assistance from the EU, then we need another defense line, which is obviously Macedonia and Bulgaria," Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Szijjarto said at Saturday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Amsterdam.

An estimated 850,000 migrants arrived in Greece in 2015, overwhelming its coast guard and reception facilities. Aid groups say cash-strapped Greece has shelter for only about 10,000 people, just over 1 percent of those who have entered. Most of the asylum-seekers then travel on across the Balkans and into the EU's heartland of Germany and beyond.

Szijjarto said EU nations are "defenseless from the south. There are thousands of irregular migrants entering the territory of the EU on a daily basis." Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the cash-strapped government in Athens still underestimates the crisis.

"I still don't have the feeling that it has dawned on Greece how serious the situation is" for receiving nations like Austria, he said. The situation has pushed some EU nations to send bilateral aid to Macedonia, a non-EU nation, to control its border with EU member Greece. There has been even talk of sending military troops to Macedonia to beef up the Greek border.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said after the meeting it did not matter what the aid was technically called. "The essential thing is that we have people and equipment to control the border and do registration where legal crossing should happen," he said.

He said Macedonia has already put its own military on the job. "They're making sure that we have decreased the illegal crossings through our border and we're going to continue to make these efforts," he said.

Because of the relentless influx of people, several EU members have re-imposed border crossings to manage the flow into their nations better. EU officials, however, are doing their utmost to keep the Schengen zone as open as possible and want member states to focus on reinforcing the zone's external borders only.

And the EU is also looking at Turkey to make a better effort to make sure that refugees from the Syrian war do not make the dangerous sea crossing. EU nations have committed 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to Turkey for helping refugees as part of incentives aimed at persuading it to do more to stop thousands of migrants from leaving for Greece.

The EU also called on Turkey to open its borders to thousands of Syrians fleeing fierce government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes and said it is providing aid to Ankara for that purpose. "Unquestionably, the fact that people coming from inside Syria are Syrians in need for international protection," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Saturday. "On top of that: the support that the EU is providing to Turkey, among others, is aimed exactly at guaranteeing" that Ankara can protect and host Syrians needing asylum.

EU foreign ministers met with their Turkish counterpart for informal talks in Amsterdam on Saturday and Mogherini said "this was the message we delivered."

Anti-Islam groups rally across Europe; clashes in Amsterdam

February 06, 2016

DRESDEN, Germany (AP) — Protesters rallied against Islam and immigration in several European cities Saturday, sometimes clashing with police or counter-demonstrators amid growing tensions over the massive influx of asylum-seekers to the continent.

Riot police clashed with demonstrators in Amsterdam as supporters of the anti-Islam group PEGIDA tried to hold their first protest meeting in the Dutch capital. Only about 200 PEGIDA supporters were present, outnumbered by police and left-wing demonstrators who shouted, "Refugees are welcome, fascists are not!"

Dutch riot police detained several people as officers on horseback intervened to separate the two groups of demonstrators. It was not immediately clear how many people were detained. In Germany, up to 8,000 people took part in a PEGIDA rally in Dresden, according to the independent group Durchgezaehlt, which monitors attendance figures. Up to 3,500 people took part in a counter-demonstration on the other side of the Elbe River that divides the city, it said.

No incidents were reported at the event. In the northern French city of Calais, police dispersed a rowdy anti-migrant protest with tear gas after clashes with protesters and detained several far-right demonstrators.

Around 150 militants from the anti-Islam, anti-immigration group PEDIGA gathered Saturday chanting slogans like: "We must not let Calais die!" Calais has been a focal point for migrants who want to slip into Britain via the Channel Tunnel. Several thousand have been living there in slums for months.

PEGIDA, whose German acronym stands for 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,' has become a magnet for far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment since it was founded in Dresden two years ago. After a drop in attendance last spring, the group saw a rise in support from people angered by the unprecedented influx into Europe of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Aside from its nationalist and anti-Islam stance, the group has also sided strongly with Russia. Several Russian flags were flown at Saturday's rally in Dresden, along with banners including "Peace with Russia" and "Stop war against Syria."

Smaller PEGIDA-style protests were also taking place in France, Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Estonia.

Haiti leader departs as he came: amid uncertainty, disorder

February 07, 2016

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Michel Martelly came to office promising a stronger Haiti following a messy election that provoked widespread skepticism. He is due to leave power Sunday at the close of his five-year term with few accomplishments and a legacy clouded by a new political crisis.

The singer-turned-politician had urged Haitians to set aside deep divisions at his May 2011 inauguration. But his hostile relations with Parliament resulted in gridlock. Many Haitians say Martelly squandered a golden opportunity to turn impoverished Haiti around as international aid poured into the country following a devastating 2010 earthquake that flattened much of the capital and surrounding areas. The disaster killed an estimated 300,000 people.

"He said he'd help the population and I hoped it was true. But here we are still struggling, same as ever," said fruit vendor Nadine Suzie, selling oranges on a street corner by piles of smoldering garbage. Haiti has long been one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world.

Some who worked with him closely see Martelly as a charismatic but flawed leader who doomed his presidency by surrounding himself with an entourage of unsavory cronies, including a number from his previous career as "Sweet Micky," the self-proclaimed "bad boy" of Haitian pop music.

"It hurts me to say this because I still like him as a person, but the Martelly years were a big zero. There were people around him who were very corrupt and money had a way of disappearing," said Georges Sassine, a prominent industrialist who was tasked with overseeing the country's industrial parks until he was abruptly replaced in 2013.

Martelly's former prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, who was forced to resign under pressure in late 2014 after some 2 ½ years in office, is distancing himself from the president during his shambolic last days. He asserts Haiti made clear gains during their partnership but political feuding over the last year has rolled them back.

Lamothe told The Associated Press that the endless infighting between the president and Parliament "brought Haiti back to its old days of gridlock and self-serving policies that collapsed the economy and destroyed any progress that was achieved."

The dysfunction deepened last year when the mandates of the entire lower house and a third of the Senate expired in the absence of elections, leaving Martelly to rule by decree. Martelly came to office after winning an election process marred by allegations of fraud, and only international pressure got him in the runoff. He leaves on Sunday, less than a day after he and Haitian lawmakers reached an agreement to form a short-term provisional government under an interim president who will serve until a newly elected leader can take power May 14.

Violent opposition protests and deep suspicions of electoral fraud favoring his chosen candidate, Jovenel Moise, derailed a scheduled runoff last month. Martelly, through a party official, declined to be interviewed for this article. But at a Saturday ceremony with legislative leaders, the president somberly said: "Even though I didn't accomplish everything I hoped to get done for Haiti, we did our best."

While he's unpopular with some of those in the political class and many struggling to raise families, the forceful, self-confident leader still has many admirers among the young. "This is the first government in my lifetime that's worked to build up basic infrastructure," said 25-year-old student Pierre Richardson Olson in Haiti's crowded capital. "That's worth something, isn't it?"

Martelly's most ardent supporters insist he's been Haiti's best leader, while hardline critics often characterize him as a dictator who enriched himself illegally. His legacy is more complicated than either of those extremes.

Kenneth Merten, the U.S. State Department's special coordinator for Haiti, said it's easy to lose sight of accomplishments made during the Martelly years amid the current disorder. "I think we would have all hoped to see that more was accomplished. But I think it's important for people who don't really know Haiti to understand that there has been progress made," said Merten, attributing gains in large part to partnerships with the U.S. and other foreign powers that supported the pro-business president.

Haiti has more paved roads, more children in school, a stronger police force and less extreme poverty. The World Bank said that the local economy had its best performance in decades, with a real growth rate averaging 3.3 percent yearly from 2011 to 2014. Parts of the capital have seen new construction, including major hotel chains, and the number of people in dismal tent camps has dropped from 1.5 million after the quake to about 60,000 now.

But these gains, spurred by international aid, are fragile. Haiti's chronic problems of widespread poverty, lack of opportunity and exclusion remain entrenched. Martelly's government relied so heavily on Venezuela's Petrocaribe trade initiative, which provided subsidized oil to allied nations, that Haiti's debt to Caracas is nearly $2 billion. His government used savings from the program to fund building and social programs.

One of Martelly's final acts in office was releasing a Carnival song under his stage name, aiming sexually suggestive lyrics at a respected female journalist amid the political crisis. Some former insiders see this as a sign that he was never all that serious about improving Haiti.

"I think he saw power as an excuse to party," said Chantal Elie, a foreign affairs adviser to Martelly who quit after a year because she was fed up with various tensions, including, allegedly, frequent sexist comments by the president and officials close to him.

South African rangers seek to track rhinos in wildlife park

February 04, 2016

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa (AP) — A heavily pregnant rhino lay in the scrub in a South African wildlife park, sedated by rangers who attached a tracking device to the threatened animal as part of efforts to stop poaching in a country with most of the world's rhinos.

Journalists witnessed the operation last weekend in Kruger National Park, where poachers have killed rhinos in record numbers to meet consumer demand for their horns in parts of Asia, particularly Vietnam.

Such tracking devices will allow rangers to monitor rhino movements and develop better ways to protect them, said Markus Hofmeyr, a senior veterinarian for South Africa's national parks service. "We're going to be intensively monitoring a certain percentage of the rhinos because that will give us coverage of where other rhinos are as well," Hofmeyr said. He requested that media not report details about the tracking device, saying poachers search for information that could help their illegal activities.

The black female rhino that was sedated Saturday was at least 15 years old and had been pregnant for about a year. The gestation period is about 16 months. The sleeping rhino snorted at times, eyes covered with a cloth to reduce the chance that she would awaken.

The total population of critically endangered black rhinos is about 5,000, roughly one-quarter of the white rhino population. Black rhinos breed less quickly and are less adaptable to new environments than white rhinos, Hofmeyr said. Many people think rhinos are solitary, but they often socialize at night in groups of half a dozen, he said.

The darted rhino had been accompanied by a male rhino and a calf. "As soon as she wakes up, she'll go looking for them," Hofmeyr said. "It's not a crisis because she's in her area that she knows."