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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Turkey raises anti-smuggling steps but faces uphill struggle

February 28, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey all but turned a blind eye last year as more than 850,000 people, most of them Syrians, slipped into Greece from Turkey on smugglers' boats. Now it's promised the European Union that will change.

A view of the Aegean Sea as seen aboard a rescue vessel from MOAS, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based organization aimed to rescue migrants on sea, as it patrols between the eastern Greek Island of Agathonisi and Turkish shores, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. Greece is mired in a full-blown diplomatic dispute with some EU countries over their border slowdowns and closures. Those border moves have left Greece and the migrants caught between an increasingly fractious Europe, where several countries are reluctant to accept more asylum-seekers, and Turkey, which has appeared unwilling or unable to staunch the torrent of people leaving in barely seaworthy smuggling boats for Greek islands. About 20,000 migrants are stuck in Greece, authorities say.

Since reaching a deal with the EU in November, Turkey has stepped up its counter-smuggling efforts, increasing sea patrols, detaining thousands before they make the sea crossings, cracking down on trafficking groups and raiding workshops that produce bogus lifejackets or dinghies.

In return for trying to stem the flux, Turkey is set to receive a 3 billion-euro ($3.3 billion) fund to help it deal with the refugee crisis, a much-awaited easing of EU visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and sped-up EU membership talks.

The government — under pressure to get results before a key meeting March 7 with the EU — is upbeat, insisting the measures have already made a "visible difference." But the thousands of migrants still entering Greece every week paint a different picture, underscoring the uphill battle that Turkey and Europe face.

"There has been a visible decrease in the numbers of migrants crossing illegally," Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told journalists. But he quickly added: "To reduce the numbers to zero, however, is impossible. No country has the power to do so."

The International Organization for Migration says more than 102,500 people have crossed into Greece and more than 7,500 into Italy this year. Last year, that number wasn't reached before June. For Turkey to take control of a land-and-sea border that exceeds 10,000 kilometers (6,215 miles) is a huge challenge. The Aegean coast is deeply indented by coves and bays, a perfect venue for smugglers. A senior Turkish government official conceded that stemming the tide of refugees is a "complex task" and it would take time for Turkey's "major efforts" to produce results. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

In response to the crisis, NATO has ordered three warships to sail to the Aegean Sea to help Greece, Turkey and the EU border agency Frontex conduct sea patrols. In the meantime, Turkey has its own migration issues. The number of refugees Turkey is now hosting has swelled to 3 million — 2.6 million of them from Syria — so that last year Turkey overtook Pakistan as the country with the largest refugee population in the world. Along with that, Turkey remains on the main transit route for migrants heading to Europe.

Turkey last year stopped 156,000 migrants attempting to make the illegal journey, including 91,000 caught at sea, Kurtulmus said. It also apprehended nearly 4,800 smugglers in 2015, half of who are on trial or face prosecution, he said.

Last month, Turkey started to require Syrians arriving from third countries to apply for visas in a bid to exclude those who aim to continue on to Greece. It also has agreed to grant work permits to Syrians as an incentive for them to stay in Turkey.

The government has vowed to increase the coast guard's ability to patrol the coast and plans to pass a law that would make human smuggling an organized crime or even a "terror crime," allowing courts to hand down stiffer punishment.

To encourage refugees to build new lives in Turkey, Ankara has also vowed to make sure that all school-aged Syrian refugee children attend school in the 2016-2017 academic year. Currently, only 350,000 of the approximately 650,000 refugee children go to school, a government official said.

In a dramatic police operation last month, authorities raided workshops in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir and elsewhere that were manufacturing defective lifejackets that were being sold to migrants. More than 1,200 lifejackets were seized. Earlier this month, police also raided three factories in Izmir that were producing poor-quality inflatable boats to smuggle migrants to Greece.

As it tries to prevent the flow of migrants to Europe, Turkey is also constructing a wall along parts of its 910-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria, mainly to prevent infiltrations by Islamic State militants. In a reversal of its long-standing open door-policy for refugees, Turkey recently closed its border to tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian government onslaught around northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Turkish authorities decided instead to help the displaced by expanding and setting up new camps close to the border in Syria.

Sylvie Guillaume, a vice president of the European Parliament, told reporters during a visit that Turkey and the EU must work together to crack down on the smugglers by tracking their finances. "It's a flourishing business," Guillaume said. "It is an industry in which people are making millions on the backs of people who then die at sea. Financial surveillance and inspection mechanisms need to be developed" to uncover these gangs.

Associated Press reporters witnessed stepped-up police measures this month at the town of Ayvacik, a major crossing point for migrants heading to the Greek island of Lesbos. At the scene, police detained scores of migrants hiding amid bushes, waiting for smugglers to take them across the water. On the sea, Turkish coast guard boats intercepted smuggling boats full of migrants and escorted them back to shore.

"We know the organizers' crossing points and we are taking extremely effective measures against them," Kurtulmus said. "With our strong measures, the numbers will (decrease) further."

Mehmet Guzel contributed from Ayvacik and Istanbul.

Turkey: World should stop its 'double standards' in fight against terrorism

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The latest attacks on the Turkish capital Ankara were carried out by the PKK and PYD, noting that the world “has to give up its double standards in order to facilitate fighting terror,” the Anadolu Agency reported the country’s foreign minister saying yesterday.

Speaking during his visit to the area where the attacks took place last week, Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “All terrorist groups must be fought indiscriminately … otherwise, terror will win.” He reiterated that Turkey will fight “all forms of terror until the end.”

“Daesh, PYD, PKK, Al-Nusra Front and the Revolutionary Popular Liberation Party are all terrorist organisations and anti-humanity. Fighting these groups is continuous internally and externally.”

“We will clarify that there is cooperation between the PYD and PKK as the prime minister already announced twice. He disclosed documents that the Ankara attack was carried out in cooperation between the two groups and the world has to know this,” he stressed.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/24153-turkey-world-should-stop-its-double-standards-in-fight-against-terrorism.

Poles protest conservative govt, defend Lech Walesa

February 27, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles chanting "We will defend democracy!" and "Lech Walesa!" rallied Saturday in Warsaw to protest moves by Poland's three-month-old conservative government that they say undermine freedoms and the constitution.

The march was organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, which was formed in November in reaction to moves by the ruling Law and Justice party that have essentially paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, preventing it from acting as a check on new government legislation.

"We want a free and open Poland ... a Poland where there is room for everyone," said the head of committee, Mateusz Kijowski. Thousands gathered in the cold, waving flags and banners and listening to speeches that condemned the government. Police estimated the crowd at 15,000, while Warsaw city hall, which is aligned with the political opposition, said 80,000 people took part.

Many people held up images of Walesa, the former Solidarity leader and ex-president who has faced revived allegations that he was a communist-era secret police informer in the 1970s, before he founded Solidarity, the freedom movement which eventually helped to topple communism.

The protest was held under the slogan, "We the people," — the opening words of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and also the words that Walesa used when he triumphantly addressed the U.S. Congress in 1989, when communism collapsed across Eastern Europe.

Walesa's supporters accuse the ruling party of trying to destroy his reputation for political gain. Walesa is a longtime foe of Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. "We came here to defend a symbol of Polish history against hate," Grzegorz Schetyna, the head of the opposition Civic Platform party, told the crowd. "We are defending Poland against Jaroslaw Kaczynski. We will not allow Poland to be taken over."

Kijowski read out a message from Walesa, who denied that he ever cooperated with the hated communist secret police. Walesa has insisted that the documents that have emerged recently claiming he was a collaborator were forged.

Despite the protest, many other Poles support the ruling party, which swept to power in November by promoting Catholic values and measures to help disadvantaged Poles.

Macedonia reopens its border to Iraqi, Syrian migrants

February 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Macedonia reopened its border to Iraqi and Syrian asylum-seekers on Saturday, hours after migrants protested peacefully on the Greek side of the border, demanding admission into Macedonia.

Haider Sahd, a U.N. field officer in Macedonian town of Gevgelija, confirmed the border opening to the Associated Press. According to Greek police, Macedonia will admit 300 migrants Saturday. Macedonian authorities said the number let in could reach 350. A similar number of migrants, who had entered Macedonia earlier in the week, boarded a train in Gevgelija on Saturday, heading to Macedonia's border with Serbia.

Macedonia had effectively shut down the border to all migrants since late Thursday night, enraging the Greek government. Macedonia has repeatedly said it has only slowed down or shut down migrant flows in response to bottlenecks further up along the Balkans migrant route.

In two separate protests Saturday, about 450 refugees gathered close to the fence marking the Greece-Macedonian border, carrying placards reading "Open the border" and shouting the same slogan. Before Macedonia decided to open its border, about 6,000 migrants had crowded a nearby tent camp, braving rainy weather overnight, Greek police said. Another 500 migrants are camped at a gas station 17 kilometers (10 miles) away.

Although the protests were peaceful, tempers were fraying among the migrants. "No one can stop the refugees, because people are dying in Syria and Iraq," said Mohamed Kamel, 39, an Iraqi Kurd from Kirkuk, who was traveling with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.

"People (at the camp) are hungry and angry," Kamel added. "If this situation continues, we will break down the fence." In Athens, about 300 protesters marched to the Austrian embassy, demanding unfettered passage for refugees. Austria has taken the lead in slowing down the refugee flows from Balkan countries, a decision that has strained its relations with Greece.

Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia. Demetris Nellas and Raphael Kominis contributed from Athens, Greece.

Kosovo Parliament elects Hashim Thaci as new president

February 26, 2016

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo's Parliament on Friday elected Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci as the country's new president in the absence of opposition lawmakers who accuse him of being responsible for two deals with Serbia and Montenegro that they reject.

The election committee said Thaci secured 71 votes among the 81 lawmakers that were present in the third round of voting after failing to reach the minimum requirements in the first two rounds. The other candidate, Rafet Rama, got no votes and 10 votes were declared invalid.

Many of the opposition lawmakers in the 120-seat Parliament were suspended from participation after disrupting the legislature with tear gas. Others left and only one remained at the election commission.

"With the greatest pleasure, with the highest responsibility, I will serve to everyone and be willing to cooperate with everyone, including the political parties and every segment of the Kosovan society," Thaci told The Associated Press.

The opposition has been disrupting the chamber since last September with attacks involving tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles to reject a deal between Kosovo and Serbia giving more powers to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement needed to be amended to conform to the constitution.

The opposition also rejects a border demarcation pact with Montenegro. "Someone who has violated the constitution cannot be Kosovo's president," the leader of the main opposition Self-Determination Movement Party, Visar Ymeri, said at a news conference.

The prospect of a Thaci-presidency has prompted thousands of opposition supporters to protest in the capital of Pristina, many hundreds of whom have been camping out in tents in the capital's Skanderbeg Square.

After learning that Thaci won the election, they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks outside Parliament, injuring 21 officers, police said. Police responded with tear gas and water guns to disperse them and five protesters were arrested. Officers also started to remove the tents raised at the Skanderbeg Square and blocked traffic on some streets surrounding Parliament.

Police said they found 39 Molotov cocktails and 38 other bottles with color paint by the tents. Molotov cocktails were also thrown against Prime Minister Isa Mustafa's home, according to police. Meanwhile, hundreds of Thaci's supporters celebrated his election walking along the capital's streets holding Kosovo, U.S. and Albanian flags and shouting his name while firecrackers lit the sky.

Many leading figures within the opposition were partners with Thaci — a former guerrilla leader — during the war, but later turned against him, accusing him of being power-hungry and corrupt. Critics also say the 47-year-old, who led the fighters of Kosovo's successful separatist war against Serbia in 1998-99, is not a unifying individual, which is what the Kosovo constitution requires.

"Thaci's election has closed that door," said Fatmir Limaj, one of his former close associates now in opposition, referring to attempts by incumbent President Ahtifete Jahjaga to resolve the political crisis.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, although that is rejected by Serbia. As president, Thaci would deal with a special war crimes court created last year, which will have international judges and prosecutors try ethnic Albanian guerrillas for the alleged killing of civilian detainees, mostly Serbs, immediately after the war ended in 1999.

Thaci was mentioned in a 2010 Council of Europe report which claimed that leaders of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbs.

Thaci denies the claims. Thaci has resigned as leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo as required for his five-year term.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo, contributed to this report.

Ireland's divided lawmakers mull awkward pacts, 2nd vote

February 28, 2016

DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland's election has produced a parliament full of feuding factions and no obvious road to a majority government, spurring lawmakers to warn Sunday that the country could face a protracted political deadlock followed by a second election.

For the first time in Irish electoral history, the combined popular vote Friday for Ireland's two political heavyweights — the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties — fell below 50 percent as voters infuriated by austerity measures shifted their support to a Babel of anti-government voices.

The results left parliament with at least nine factions and a legion of loose-cannon independents, few of them easy partners for a coalition government, none of them numerous enough to make a difference on their own.

"There's a sense of bewilderment, first of all. We're a long way from sitting down together and talking about what our next options are," said Regina Doherty, a Fine Gael lawmaker for Meath, northwest of Dublin.

With 12 seats in Ireland's 158-member parliament still to be filled, the ruling Fine Gael won 46 seats, longtime foe Fianna Fail 42, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein 22 and junior government partner Labour just six. An eye-popping array of tiny parties, umbrella groups and parochial mavericks won the rest.

Leading members of Fianna Fail — which rebounded in this vote just five years after facing electoral ruin for nearly bankrupting the country — said they would find it extremely hard to forge any coalition that keeps Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael in power.

"I've just fought a difficult three-week campaign during which people said to me they want rid of this government, they don't want Enda Kenny as taoiseach anymore," said Fianna Fail lawmaker Willie O'Dea, using the formal Gaelic title for Ireland's premier. "Our supporting a Fine Gael government would be doing exactly what we told our voters we wouldn't do."

The trouble is, Ireland's voters have never produced a parliament like this before. And there's no third party strong enough to give Fianna Fail or Fine Gael a parliamentary majority of at least 79 seats. Both parties have ruled out working with Sinn Fein, the only party that could get either of them close.

When the new parliament convenes March 10 to elect a prime minister to appoint a government, both Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin say they will put themselves forward as rival candidates. Failure to create a new government would mean Kenny's 5-year-old coalition with Labour continues indefinitely in a lame-duck caretaker role.

While government collapses and grueling coalition negotiations are par for the course in many parts of Europe — Spain has gone the past two months without a government deal; Belgium spent much of 2014 without one, too — this would be highly unusual in Ireland. The country prizes its political stability as a central selling point for the approximately 1,000 multinational companies that underpin Ireland's exports-driven economy.

The Irish, whose closest trading partners are Britain and the United States, have made a rapid economic turnaround under Kenny to lead European growth once again. But the government faces serious challenges to improve health and housing and ease the pressure on debt-struck households.

Leading lawmakers in both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael said they cannot see how two parties so long committed to tearing each other down can form a united Cabinet that survives for months, never mind five years. The two parties evolved from opposite sides of the civil war that followed Ireland's 1922 independence from Britain. Between them, they have led every Irish government over the past nine decades but have never shared power.

Ireland has not suffered back-to-back elections since 1982, but that specter loomed. Finance Minister Michael Noonan of Fine Gael, speaking from an election center in his native Limerick, said: "We may all be back here again very shortly."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party has told grass-roots activists to prepare for a second vote in 2016. "We have put our people on a continued election standby," said Adams, who shifted his power base from Belfast to the border district of Louth in 2011 to lead his Northern Ireland-centric party's growth in the Republic of Ireland. "We said to our people: We don't know how this is going to turn out. Stay on alert. Take your posters down and save them. They could be going up again very soon."

An editorial cartoon in the Sunday Independent newspaper captured the national mood. In it, a reporter asks the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders: "What next?" Kenny replies: "Stable chaos." Martin counters: "Chaotic stability."

Hungary's Orban: EU leaders don't want to stop the migrants

February 28, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Europe has the ability to stop the flow of migrants reaching the continent but its leaders have no plans to do so, Hungary's prime minister declared Sunday. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been at the forefront of those rejecting the refugees and asylum-seekers flooding into Europe due to conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hungary last year built razor-wire fences on its borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop the migrants from freely entering the country — moves that altered the flow of migrants across Europe.

"It is bad enough that Brussels cannot organize Europe's defense, but worse is that even the intention is missing," Orban said in his annual speech about the state of the country. Orban described the EU response to the migrant crisis as "absurd" and compared EU leadership to the captain of a ship about to collide who spends time "designating the non-smoking lifeboats instead of trying to avoid the collision."

"Europe's future is endangered primarily not by those who want to come here, but by those political, economic and intellectual leaders who are trying to transform Europe in opposition to the European people," Orban said, blaming German Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming response to refugees as one of the factors responsible for the crisis.

Orban said he had asked his interior and defense ministers to prepare to build new defenses on the Romanian border. "We will teach Brussels, the human traffickers and the migrants that Hungary is sovereign country," Orban told an audience of steadfast supporters who often interrupted his speech with applause.

Orban declared that mass migration was a "danger" that put at risk Hungary's achievements of the last few years and was not an answer to Europe's problems. "We cannot solve the demographic problems of the undeniably dwindling and aging European population with the Muslim world without losing our lifestyle, security and ourselves," Orban said. "Those coming here have no intention of adapting to our lifestyle."

In Rome, meanwhile, Pope Francis said a concerted response was needed to solve Europe's migrant problem so that countries share equally the burden of helping those fleeing war and other "inhumane" situations.

Francis praised Greece and other countries offering "generous" help while being on the front line of the arrivals. Speaking in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, Francis said a "concerted response can be more effective and distribute equally the weight" of helping the migrants.

Orban, however, said Hungary would continue to oppose EU plans for a quota system to redistribute over 100,000 migrants among its 28 nations and claimed Brussels was also looking to set up a "mandatory, permanent and continuous redistribution system" for the migrants.

"Brussels must be stopped," Orban said. "We can't allow them to force us ... to import the bitter fruits of their mistaken immigration policies. We don't want to and won't import crime, terrorism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism into Hungary."

Hungary has sued Brussels over the refugee quota plan and Orban said this week that the government was hoping to hold a national referendum on any further EU attempts to impose migrant quotas. As 2,000 opposition supporters protested against Orban, the prime minister said Hungarians did not have a "heart of stone" and wanted to help those in need.

"Most migrants are also victims of their collapsing governments of their countries, of bad international decisions and of human traffickers," Orban said. "We keep in mind the most important rule of assistance — if we help here, they will come here. If we help there, they will stay there."

Thousands stranded as Greece becomes a migrant 'warehouse'

February 27, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece is fast becoming the "warehouse of human beings" that its government has vowed not to allow. Hastily setup camps for refugees and other migrants are full. Thousands of people wait through the night, shivering in the cold at the Greek-Macedonian border, in the country's main port of Piraeus, in squares dotted around Athens, or on dozens of buses parked up and down Greece's main north-south highway.

On Thursday, hundreds of frustrated men, women and children abandoned their stranded buses or left refugee camps, setting off on a desperate trek dozens of kilometers (miles) long to reach a border they know is quickly shutting down to them.

About 20,000 migrants were in Greece on Thursday, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said. Of those, Macedonia allowed just 100 people to cross over from Greece's Idomeni border area. By late Friday, not a single migrant had crossed into Macedonia that day, while 4,900 people waited nearby in heavy rain, according to Greek police.

Thousands more were heading north — about 40 busloads of people were waiting along Greece's main highway, while refugee camps in northern Greece and near Athens were full. Greece is mired in a full-blown diplomatic dispute with some EU countries over their border slowdowns and closures. Those border moves have left Greece and the migrants caught between an increasingly fractious Europe, where several countries are reluctant to accept more asylum-seekers, and Turkey, which has appeared unwilling or unable to staunch the torrent of people leaving in barely seaworthy smuggling boats for Greek islands.

Adding to the pressure is Greece's financial predicament. The country has been wracked by a financial crisis since 2010 and still depends on an international bailout for which it must pass yet more painful reforms. Those have led to widespread protests, including blockades on the country's highways by farmers who are furious at pension changes.

The vast majority of those reaching Greece, Europe's main gateway for migrants, have been Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war at home "My only hope is to live in a safe place. That's enough for me actually," said 17-year-old Minhaj Ud Din Wahaj from Afghanistan's Wardak province. "We have been in war since 40 years, so I have been raised in war."

In Athens, hundreds of migrants mill around central Victoria Square, uncertain of where to go next. On Thursday, two men hanged themselves from a tree in the square but were rescued by bystanders. Police said the men were trying to draw attention to their predicament.

In the north, nearly 400 people scrambled out of a former military base set up as a refugee camp in Diavata, near the city of Thessaloniki, and began walking the 70 kilometers (43 miles) to Idomeni on the Macedonian border. Dozens more set off on foot from buses stuck on the highway, where farmers' blockades were hindering traffic.

Still more people flowed into the country, with dinghies full of migrants arriving on Greece's islands and hundreds more people piling on ferries heading to the main port of Piraeus. "We are escaping from war," said Rana, an English teacher from Syria arriving in Piraeus. She would not give her last name to protect those she left behind. "Our house is destroyed, and salaries in some places stopped. ... I think all the people ... seek the shelter and education for their kids."

But Europe appears increasingly unwilling to provide those basics. On the weekend of Feb. 20-21, Macedonia stopped allowing Afghans through. Other countries further up the line appeared to do the same. On Thursday, even Syrians and Iraqis were being allowed to cross over from Greece only at a trickle. Nadica V'ckova, a spokeswoman for Macedonia's crisis management department, told The Associated Press that Macedonia was restricting the entry of refugees to match the number leaving the country.

Bitter sniping has ensued between Greece and other EU members as Greece insists the EU's 28 nations share the refugee burden equally. "Greece, from now on, will not assent to agreements if the proportionate distribution of the burden and responsibility among all member states is not rendered obligatory," Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told Parliament on Wednesday.

"We will not accept the transformation of our country to a permanent warehouse for human beings, while at the same time we continue to operate in Europe and at summit meetings as if nothing is happening," he declared. "We will not put up with a series of countries that not only erect fences on their borders but at the same time do not accept to put up a single refugee."

Athens was enraged when Austria held a meeting of Balkan countries Wednesday on the refugee crisis, excluding Greece. It recalled its ambassador in Vienna the next day. Greece's minister responsible for migration, Ioannis Mouzalas, had harsh words as he arrived for a Thursday migration meeting in Brussels.

"(Many here) will try to discuss how to respond to a humanitarian crisis in Greece that they themselves are intent on creating," Mouzalas said. "Greece will not accept unilateral actions. Greece, too, can take unilateral action."

Peter Szijjarto, Hungary's minister of foreign affairs and trade, didn't mince his words in response. "Blackmailing is not a European attitude," he said. "Maybe Greece, too, should observe our common rules, or at least accept help to observe them together. Then we do not have to face such challenges."

While the politicians wrangle, the refugees still stream in, risking their lives across the winter seas in the hopes of a better future. "If the border closes over there, there will be possibilities, but it may cost a lot of money, not only for me, for everybody," said Jamshid Azizi, a 24-year-old Afghan who once worked as an interpreter for international forces in his homeland.

Many of his friends were already talking to smugglers, but not him. "I prefer to stay here, because I don't have that amount of money to pay for human traffickers in order to pass the borders," he said.

Raphael Kominis and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Costas Kantouris in Idomeni and Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed.

France begins slow dismantling of giant Calais migrant camp

February 29, 2016

PARIS (AP) — French authorities began dismantling the sprawling refugee camp in Calais on Monday, taking down tarpaulin roofs and plywood walls that have been the temporary home for thousands of migrants hoping to make their way to a better life in Britain.

A flashpoint on the edge of the Channel, the camp sprang up years ago in the port city, which has both ferries and the Eurotunnel rail to Britain. But it has grown explosively in the past year amid Europe's migrant crisis, now housing about 4,000 people and fueling far-right sentiment in both Britain and France.

One by one, helmeted workers pulled down makeshift structures where migrants sleep in the southern sector of the camp, after a court ruled that the shanties could be destroyed but not the common spaces that have also sprung up, like places of worship, schools and a library.

A cordon of police formed a perimeter around the demolition crews, to block what local authorities described as "intimidation" tactics by activists. French authorities have offered to relocate uprooted migrants into heated containers installed last month nearby or at centers around France where they can apply for asylum. Many have resisted the move, fearing it will hurt their chances of reaching Britain, and some migrant advocates say there isn't enough space in the new area.

EU Med countries oppose unilateral actions on refugee crisis

February 26, 2016

LIMASSOL, Cyprus (AP) — The rift over how to handle Europe's immigration crisis ripped wide open Friday. As nations along the Balkans migrant route took more unilateral actions to shut down their borders, diplomats from EU nations bordering the Mediterranean rallied around Greece, the epicenter of the crisis.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides — speaking on behalf of colleagues from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta and Greece — said decisions on how to deal with the migrant influx that have already been made by the 28-nation bloc cannot be implemented selectively by some countries.

"This issue is testing our unity and ability to handle it," Kasoulides told a news conference after an EU Mediterranean Group meeting. "The EU Med Group are the front-line states and we all share the view that unilateral actions cannot be a solution to this crisis."

Kasoulides urged EU countries to enact all EU decisions on immigration so there "will be no unfairness to anybody." Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias blasted some European nations for imposing border restrictions on arriving migrants, saying that police chiefs are not allowed to decide to overturn EU decisions.

He said Mediterranean colleagues were "unanimous" in their support for Greece's position on the refugee crisis and that there was "clear criticism to all those who are seeking individual solutions at the expense of other member states."

The Greek government is blaming Austria — a fellow member of Europe's passport-free Schengen Area — for the flare-up in the crisis. Austria imposed strict border restrictions last week, creating a domino effect as those controls were also implemented by Balkan countries further south along the Balkans migration route.

Greece recalled its ambassador to Austria on Thursday and rejected a request to visit Athens by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. The United Nations secretary-general expressed "great concern" Friday at the growing number of border restrictions along the migrant trail through Europe.

Ban Ki-moon's spokesman said the U.N. chief is calling on all countries to keep their borders open and says he is "fully aware of the pressures felt by many European countries." The statement noted in particular the new restrictions in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia.

Thousands of migrants are pouring into Greece every day and officials fear the country could turn into "a giant refugee camp" if they are unable to move north due to borders closures. In Munich, German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed the Mediterranean EU ministers in calling for a unified European approach to tackle the migrant crisis. Merkel, who has said that those fleeing violence deserve protection, said she was encouraged by the recent deployment of NATO ships to the Aegean Sea alongside vessels from the European Union border agency Frontex.

"NATO has started to work in collaboration with the Turkish coast guard and Frontex. It is too early to see the effects of this measure. All 28 (EU) member states want to stop illegal immigration," she said.

But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the ships would only be providing a support role. "NATO ships will not do the job of national coastguards in the Aegean. Their mission is not to stop or turn back those trying to cross into Europe," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Greek government officials said Friday that arriving refugees and other migrants will be kept on Aegean Sea islands and on ferries used as floating shelters. Ferry companies were instructed to limit the number of migrants traveling by ferry to the Greek mainland, where thousands have been sleeping outside in city parks and along the country's highways since Greece's existing migrant shelters are filled to capacity.

In Athens, migrants staged peaceful protests, briefly blocking traffic at the country's main port in nearby Piraeus. "All the people around here are looking to get to Germany," Afghan migrant Muchtar Ahman said, speaking at a central Athens square where he was camped out with friends. "But ... (with) the Macedonian borders closed, we are really disappointed. We are hopeless. We are homeless."

Merchant Marine Minister Theodoros Dritsas said up to two-thirds of the migrants arriving on Lesbos and other Greek islands would be held there until Sunday. "We need more time to prepare additional sites for temporary shelters," Dritsas said.

He said three chartered ferries — with a combined capacity of about 4,000 places — would be used on islands to provide temporary shelter over the next three days. About 2,000 people — more than half from Syria and Iraq — are arriving daily from Turkey using dinghies and small boats, but the number of people crossing into neighboring Macedonia has dropped dramatically in the past week, and was down to just 150 on Thursday, according to Greek police figures.

By late Friday, not a single migrant had crossed into Macedonia, while 4,900 people waited nearby in heavy rain, according to Greek police. A Macedonian Interior Ministry official said the reason for the temporary closure is that Serbia, the next country on the Balkan migration corridor that leads to wealthier central European countries, has stopped letting in migrants from Macedonia. The official said Serbia has not admitted any migrants for the past 40 hours.

In Serbia, police said they been formally notified by Croatia and Slovenia that only 580 people per day would be allowed to cross the border. Athens says it is unable to stop migrants from crossing its sea borders without endangering their lives.

Thanassis Stavrakis and Raphael Kominis in Piraeus, Greece; Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Greece; Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece; Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia; and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

In Sweden's 1st unmanned food store, all you need is a phone

February 29, 2016

VIKEN, Sweden (AP) — It was a chaotic, late-night scramble to buy baby food with a screaming toddler in the backseat that gave Robert Ilijason the idea to open Sweden's first unmanned convenience store.

Home alone with his hungry son, Ilijason had dropped the last baby food jar on the floor, and had to drive 20 minutes from the small town of Viken in southern Sweden to find a supermarket that was open.

Now the 39-year-old IT specialist runs a 24-hour shop with no cashier. Customers simply use their cellphones to unlock the door with a swipe of the finger and scan their purchases. All they need to do is to register for the service and download an app. They get charged for their purchases in a monthly invoice.

The shop has basics like milk, bread, sugar, canned food, diapers and other products that you expect to find in a small convenience store. It doesn't have tobacco or medical drugs because of the risk of theft. Alcohol cannot be sold in convenience stores in Sweden.

"My ambition is to spread this idea to other villages and small towns," said Ilijason. "It is incredible that no one has thought of his before." He hopes the savings of having no staff will help bring back small stores to the countryside. In recent decades, such stores have been replaced by bigger supermarkets often many miles (kilometers) away.

Ilijason receives deliveries at the shop and stacks products on the shelves. Then he lets the customers do the rest. He has installed six surveillance cameras to discourage shoplifting in the 480-square-foot (45-square-meter) store. Also, he is alerted by a text message if the front door stays open for longer than eight seconds or if someone tries to break it open.

"I live nearby and can always run down here with a crowbar," Ilijason said laughing, but added that hasn't been necessary since the store opened in January. A bigger challenge has been getting some of the elderly residents in Viken, a town of 4,200 people, to get the hang of the technology involved.

Tuve Nilsson, 75, said there were many more shops in the town when he moved here with his family in 1976. He welcomed Ilijason's new store, saying it could be convenient for elderly people living alone.

"But if they can manage this (technology), I don't know," Nilsson said. "Sometimes I don't understand it." Ilijason is considering other ways to unlock the door that wouldn't require using an app. He's ruled out face-recognition or fingerprint scanners, but is thinking of installing a credit card reader like some banks use. He's also considering having one person man the store for a few hours a day to help customers who aren't comfortable with modern technology.

Other customers loved the speed of the no-service store. Raymond Arvidsson, a friend of Ilijason's, did his shopping in less than a minute. "No queues," he said, smiling. "Quick in, quick out. I like."

Associated Press videojournalist David Keyton contributed to this report.

Guatemala convicts ex-officer, paramilitary in slavery case

February 27, 2016

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — In a historic ruling, a Guatemalan court on Friday convicted a retired army officer and a former paramilitary for the sexual enslavement of women during the country's civil war. It sentenced them to 120 years and 240 years in prison respectively.

The ruling was the first time a local court handed down a judgment for such crimes in this Central American country, which is seeking to address abuses committed during its brutal 1960-1996 civil war.

The retired officer, 2nd Lt. Esteelmer Reyes Giron, was found guilty of crimes against humanity for holding 15 women in sexual and domestic slavery and for killing one woman and her two young daughters.

Heriberto Valdez Asij, a civilian with military functions, was convicted for the same enslavement, as well as the forced disappearance of seven men. The 120- and 240-year sentences the men received are partly symbolic since Guatemalan law caps the amount of time anyone can spend in prison at 50 years.

The packed courtroom erupted in cheers and chants of "justice, justice!" when the ruling was read. "These historic convictions send the unequivocal message that sexual violence is a serious crime and that no matter how much time passes, it will be punished. It is a great victory for the eleven women who embarked on a 30-year-long battle for justice," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

During the trial, the victims testified to the abuse they suffered during six months in 1982 and 1983 at the Sepur Zarco military base in northern Guatemala. After the army entered their communities, the men were disappeared and when the women went to the military base to ask for them, they were raped and forced to cook and wash clothes for the soldiers.

During 20 hearings, 11 women from the indigenous Q'eqchis communities described how they physically and emotionally deteriorated while being raped and used as slaves for half a year. In court, many wore indigenous garb and had their faces covered.

More than 35 boxes of evidence were presented, including some with human remains and pieces of clothing. The remains were exhumed in 2012 by the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology. "We the judges firmly believe the testimony of the women who were raped in Sepur Zarco," said Yassmin Barrios, chief judge of the court. "Rape is an instrument or weapon of war, it is a way to attack the country, killing or raping the victims, the woman was seen as a military objective."

Moises Galindo, the defense lawyer for Reyes Giron, said the trial was a fabrication and that his client was never at the site of the crimes. "We are going to appeal. We are going to succeed in having this case thrown out," Galindo said. "They should go to the location because the people of Sepur Zarco don't say that all this happened there."

But the judge said the accused couldn't deny knowing about what had happened since they exercised control and power over the area. Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who was present at the reading of the judgment, said, "this is historic, it is a great step for women and above all for the victims."

Guatemala was wracked by a decades-long civil war as the military battled a Marxist guerrilla force. According to the United Nations, some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared during the war.

Soccer's world body elects Gianni Infantino as president

February 26, 2016

ZURICH (AP) — Gianni Infantino is the new president of soccer's corruption-scarred world governing body, winning election after promising national leaders of the sport that he would share the wealth from FIFA's $5 billion World Cup revenues.

Infantino was chosen on the second-ballot Friday to fill the unexpired term of longtime FIFA leader Sepp Blatter, who was forced out by the pressure of U.S. and Swiss investigations of bribery and corruption that emerged two days before the previous vote in May 2015.

The stunning outcome seemed to catch the 45-year-old Infantino off-guard. He had to compose himself before starting his acceptance speech and saluted voters by patting his heart with his right hand. "We will restore the image of FIFA and the respect of FIFA. And everyone in the world will applaud us," said Infantino, who only became a candidate when a case of financial wrongdoing removed his own boss, Michel Platini, at Europe's soccer body UEFA.

"I am convinced a new era is starting," said the Swiss-born former lawyer. Blatter headed FIFA for more than 17 years. Infantino pledged to meet quickly with World Cup broadcasters and sponsors, saying they "they need to regain trust and confidence in football and in FIFA."

There were only four candidates on the ballot after Tokyo Sexwale withdrew during his campaign speech to voters. The four were Infantino, UEFA's general secretary; Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, the Asian confederation president; Prince Ali of Jordan; and Jerome Champagne of France.

Infantino, who had waged a globe-trotting campaign in the four months leading up to the election, gave an impressive 15-minute speech only 20 minutes before the first-round vote. The Swiss-Italian spoke in several languages without notes and portrayed himself as a leader for the world, not just Europe's wealthy confederation.

His campaign promised to spread the World Cup largesse to more federations, including additional guaranteed funds. He also pledged to expand the World Cup from a 32-team tournament to 40 teams, and give more opportunities to countries to stage the World Cup with multinational regional hosting.

"The money of FIFA is your money," he said, jabbing his left index finger to the 207 members of soccer federations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe before the election. "It is not the money of the FIFA president. It's your money," added Infantino, sounding more like a CEO promising a dividend to shareholders.

A rare burst of spontaneous applause followed, signaling a shift in momentum toward Infantino, who since his 30s managed the billion-dollar Champions League revenues for UEFA. It resonated with members of the corruption ravaged soccer bodies of the Americas, known as CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. FIFA froze a combined $20 million of their funds in December in the aftermath of the U.S. Justice Department's sprawling investigation of bribe-taking by top FIFA officials.

"Gianni's speech was a president's speech," said Kohzo Tshima of Japan, a new member of FIFA's long-tainted executive committee, adding that his words changed the atmosphere in the election hall. In the first round, Infantino took a surprising lead with 88 votes — just three more than Sheikh Salman but key to making him look like a winner with valuable momentum. Prince Ali received 27 votes, and Champagne seven.

Then, in the second round, Infantino received 115 votes to earn a decisive majority over Sheikh Salman, who received 88 votes. Prince Ali got four votes, and Champagne none. "I talked to Gianni last night and we said we'd support Prince Ali," said U.S. delegation head Sunil Gulati, "but also he knew where we would be as it unfolded if it did, in the way it did."

No second-round has been needed in a FIFA presidential election since 1974. That year, Joao Havelange of Brazil needed two rounds to defeat 13-year incumbent Stanley Rous of England. Infantino, like the 78-year-old Blatter, is from the Valais region in the Swiss Alps. He will be president until May 2019, completing the remainder of Blatter's term.

Blatter, 79, won a fifth term last year but, amid the escalating corruption scandals, bowed to pressure four days after the election and said he would resign. He was subsequently banned for six years for financial mismanagement and was absent Friday after 40 years as a fixture at FIFA meetings.

"I congratulate Gianni Infantino sincerely and warmly on his election as the new president," Blatter said in a statement. "With his experience, expertise, strategic and diplomatic skills he has all the qualities to continue my work and to stabilize FIFA again."

Sheikh Salman was expected to lead the first round with backing from Africa and the Asian soccer confederation he has led since 2013. He also had behind him the Kuwait-based vote-gathering operation of Olympic power- broker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, his FIFA executive committee colleague, who sustained a rare electoral loss.

Still, he had been the most criticized and scrutinized candidate throughout the campaign. The issue of Bahrain's human rights record was often cited by Gulf activists but had not seemed to seriously trouble voters outside Europe.

Sheikh Salman has strongly denied claims about his role in the Arab Spring protests of 2011 when he was Bahrain's soccer federation president. Infantino takes over a wealthy but vulnerable soccer body whose image and confidence has been shattered by the escalating scandals.

Before electing FIFA's first new president since 1998, 87 percent of the 207 voting federations passed wide-ranging reforms to guard against corruption and curb the powers of its leader. Those include preventing presidents from serving more than three four-year terms, reducing their powers and guaranteeing more independent oversight for FIFA's decision-making and spending. The executive committee will be renamed the FIFA Council, with more female members. Stricter integrity checks will also control top officials.

FIFA and its lawyers hope the reform will help show U.S. prosecutors the soccer body is serious about changing its culture, and protect its status as a victim in the American investigation. A total of 41 people and marketing agencies have been indicted or made guilty pleas, and Blatter is a target.

Associated Press writers Rob Harris and Frank Jordans contributed to this report.

Russian industry workers squeezed but scared of speaking out

February 29, 2016

TOGLIATTI, Russia (AP) — Once intended as a Soviet rival to the capitalist symbol of Detroit, Russia's auto-making hub of Togliatti is sliding into economic depression. And blue collar workers are taking the brunt of the pain as employers use the threat of joblessness to slash or withhold wages at will.

Far from its 1960s roots as a socialist vision of the future, central Togliatti is lined with discount retailers, payday lenders and pawnshops as the recession has cratered the car market. Workers from the vast Lada car factory say they're increasingly desperate but too scared to speak out due to what they claim is the threat of retaliation by managers.

"People are frightened to say even a single word," production worker and union activist Nataliya Yemshanova said at a union meeting in a member's apartment. "I can't remember that happening before. They can pay less money. People will agree to any wage."

Yemshanova provided The Associated Press with pay slips showing monthly earnings of just 10,300 rubles ($135) in January. She said her pay was slashed by half after she refused a demand to switch to cleaning floors, and claimed some managers at AvtoVAZ, the company which owns the Lada factory, were using the threat of unemployment to force workers — especially those critical of the management — to accept lower pay.

A payslip in the name of Yemshanova's brother, who works for the same company, shows earnings of 7,800 rubles ($100) for January. Sitting near Yemshanova at the meeting, union leader Anna Perova, who has worked for AvtoVAZ since the Soviet era, held up her right hand to show how she lost parts of four fingers in 2011 — crushed, she says, by a faulty metal press. She warns of a rise in industrial accidents as budgets for maintenance and training come under strain. "People are sent to different production areas where they don't understand what's going on. That happened recently. A woman pressed a button for an examination and her hand was utterly crushed," she said. Perova's account could not be independently confirmed by the AP.

AvtoVAZ and Renault-Nissan, a French-Japanese alliance that controls AvtoVAZ through a holding company, did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations of wage cuts and industrial accidents.

Many of Togliatti's major employers supply the factory, meaning the car market's malaise infects the city as a whole. AvtoVAZ lost almost $1 billion in 2015 and its liabilities exceed its assets, leading auditors Ernst & Young to warn of "a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt on (Avtovaz's) ability to continue as a going concern."

The company is the highest-profile casualty of a plunging car market, where sales dropped by more than a third last year and some foreign firms, including General Motors, have pulled out entirely. Lada's factory is now implementing a cost-saving plan that includes a reduction in head count. Moving to a four-day week this month has essentially meant a 20 percent pay cut across the board, on top of the arbitrary wage cuts workers claim to have suffered.

President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have shown support for the industry with a string of factory visits and promised some state support, though the numbers are unclear. Under Renault and Nissan's ownership of AvtoVAZ, there has been a drive to modernize the Lada range with new models based on Renault designs, but this has meant importing parts and exposing the Soviet-era network of parts suppliers in the city to extra competition. AvtoVAZagregat, a company which made interiors for AvtoVAZ cars but is under separate ownership, ceased production last year and is now in bankruptcy proceedings, leaving more than 2,000 people out of work. CEO Viktor Kozlov has been arrested on suspicion of tax fraud.

Elena Seliverstova, who worked for AvtoVAZagregat in purchasing for 25 years, showed the AP documents detailing an ever-increasing portion of unpaid monthly wages since July, culminating in January, when she received none of her monthly earnings of almost 23,000 rubles ($300), money she needs to support her elderly mother.

"You know, it's a complete catastrophe," she said through tears. Only financial help from her son has prevented her electricity from being cut off in the middle of winter, Seliverstova said. Mechanic Andrei Dobrokhotov said he had not received any money from AvtoVAZagregat since June, forcing his family to depend on cheap foods like barley. Both he and Seliverstova said they had looked for new work but found none, and that AvtoVAZagregat had retained documents of theirs that are required by law when registering at a new workplace.

More than 1,000 people protested the AvtoVAZagregat collapse on a Togliatti square in November, demanding unpaid wages, in a demonstration organized by local communists. Seliverstova, who was there, doubts political action by workers can force the payment of wage arrears or get support from the city government, which is itself under pressure due to lower tax receipts from the car industry.

Russian legislation stacks the deck against workers, she says. While the Russian constitution guarantees the right to strike, in practice the process of organizing a strike is intensely bureaucratic, involving numerous documents that can easily be ruled invalid by officials or courts. Many companies also agree to recognize only so-called official unions with links to management or local authorities.

Four hours' drive from Togliatti in the city of Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, the UAZ factory is surviving by offering cheap vehicles that have not changed much since Soviet times.

The factory, which had its origins producing cheap wooden-bodied trucks in World War II, produces basic, off-road vehicles popular both with the Russian army and consumers driving on potholed roads in the provinces. Some older models even lack airbags. Last year, its sales in the Russian market dropped two percent, a much better performance than the market as a whole.

UAZ has dropped plans to ditch its Hunter model, a design dating back more than 40 years. The flagship Patriot SUV has its origins in designs from the 1990s, while a 1960s-designed van is also still in production.

"It breaks down sometimes but it's easy to repair, it doesn't need roads and it'll travel through Russian dirt," company representative Konstantin Sazonov said as he watched the vans roll off the production line, which relies heavily on manual labor.

Even in Ulyanovsk, however, workers are under strain. The region has some of the lowest wages outside Russia's impoverished North Caucasus, with pay barely one-third of that in Moscow. Food prices have been rising rapidly since Russia banned imports of European Union food in 2014, and inflation ran at 12.9 percent last year.

While there is no sign of organized public unrest in rustbelt towns like Ulyanovsk and Togliatti, as the ruling United Russia party dominates the political scene, that could change, with some senior government officials voicing concern.

In an interview with the Kommersant business daily last month, Ulyanovsk regional governor Sergei Morozov said he had seen government research reporting that "up to half" of the population would be prepared to protest against tough economic circumstances. "Those are very disturbing numbers for all parts of the government."

Muscovites mark year since opposition leader's murder

February 27, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — More than 20,000 people marched across downtown Moscow Saturday in memory of the slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov to mark the first anniversary of his killing. Nemtsov was shot to death late at night as he and a companion walked across a bridge overlooking the Kremlin. The brutality so close to the center of Russian power both frightened and angered supporters of the beleaguered opposition.

Nemtsov, who had been a deputy prime minister during Boris Yeltsin's presidency, was a charismatic figure and a vehement critic of President Vladimir Putin. "He was the embodiment of freedom and courage, he was a model for me," said marcher Kamala Igamberdiyeva, a 26-year-old accountant. "We still have a chance if the opposition shows wisdom and unites."

In Putin's decade-and-a-half in power, opposition groups have come under severe pressure, criticized by officials and state-controlled media as pawns of the West. Permission for rallies is frequently denied.

Many opposition supporters say that even if Putin had no direct hand in Nemtsov's killing, he bears responsibility for encouraging a truculent authoritarianism. "Nemtsov's death was the result of the atmosphere of hatred in our country," said 78-year-old demonstrator Pavel Movshovich.

City authorities denied march organizers permission to hold a procession to the bridge, but gave permission for another route in central Moscow on Saturday. Some demonstrators also visited the bridge.

On Saturday morning, U.S. Ambassador John Tefft laid a wreath at the bridge, saying he came to express hope that "some of the dreams that Boris Nemtsov had will come true in Russia." Five suspects have been arrested in the killing, all of them Chechens. The suspected triggerman served as an officer in the security forces of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The official probe has failed to identify those who ordered the killing, and Russian liberal opposition activists have criticized the Kremlin for the failure to track down the mastermind. Earlier this week, opposition leader Ilya Yashin released a report accusing Kadyrov of involvement in Nemtsov's killing and demanding his resignation.

Kadyrov, whose term expires in early April, rejected the accusations. At the same time, he tried to secure his position by taking a posture of obedience. "The nation's leadership needs to find another person so that my name isn't used against my people," he said Saturday in televised remarks. "My time has passed."

Putin has relied on Kadyrov to stabilize Chechnya after two separatist wars, making him effectively immune from federal controls. Kadyrov's unparalleled privileges and defiant ways have earned him numerous enemies in Russia's law enforcement agencies, whose leaders have pushed for his dismissal.

Katherine Jacobsen, James Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

In blow to Iran hard-liners, moderates win clerical assembly

February 29, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's moderates have dealt another blow to the country's hard-liners, winning the majority of seats in last week's vote for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body empowered with choosing the nation's supreme leader.

Top moderates — President Hassan Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — both won seats in the assembly, along with 50 other of their allies. The vote for the 88-member Assembly of Experts was held at the same time as the country's parliament elections. The final results of that vote were expected for later Monday.

According to Iran's Interior Ministry, which gave the final results for the clerical assembly, moderates won 59 percent of the seats in the body. And though it's seen as a historic win for the moderates, several prominent hard-liners, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati have also been re-elected.

Jannati, who finished last in Tehran, is also the hard-line leader of the country's Guardian Council, an unelected, constitutional watchdog that vets election candidates. He has been the most potent force to oppose democratic reforms and disqualify reformist candidates from the parliamentary balloting and also the clerical assembly vote. Jannati and his allies in the Guardian Council disqualified Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, from running in Friday's vote.

The most surprising was the loss of seats on the clerical assembly for some prominent hard-liners, including Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the current Experts Assembly chief who was not re-elected. Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the spiritual leader of hard-liners and mentor of former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also lost his seat in the assembly.

The Assembly of Experts serves a function similar to that of the Vatican's College of Cardinals, and will someday have to pick a successor to Iran's current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It also can directly challenge Khamenei's rule, something it has never done before.

The assembly is elected every eight years. After Khamenei, who is 76 years old, underwent prostate surgery in 2014, speculation renewed about the state of his health. Friday's twin elections for parliament and the clerical assembly were the first to be held in Iran since it struck a landmark nuclear deal with world powers last year that brought about the lifting of crippling international sanctions.

The moderates previously held around 20 seats in the assembly and their win is seen as an expansion of their influence within the powerful body. As for the parliament elections, none of Iran's three main political camps — reformists, conservatives and hard-liners — is expected to win an outright majority in the 290-seat house but partial results so far indicate the best reformist showing in more than a decade.

Iranian reformists set to win all Tehran parliamentary seats

February 28, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Partial results released Sunday indicate that Iranian reformists will win all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, handing hard-liners an embarrassing defeat in the first elections held since last year's nuclear deal.

The deal is expected to bolster moderate allies of President Hassan Rouhani, who championed it in the face of hard-line opposition. However, none of Iran's three main political camps -- reformists, conservatives or hard-liners -- is expected to win a majority in the 290-seat assembly.

State TV said Sunday that reformists -- who favor expanding social freedoms and improving relations with the West -- are set to win all of Tehran's seats. It said 62 percent of the capital's votes have been counted.

Tehran is seen as a political bellwether where prominent members of all three camps face off against each other. Across the country, the reformist camp is on track for its best showing in more than a decade.

The final results from the elections are expected on Monday. Friday's election was the first since last summer's nuclear deal, which brought about the lifting of crippling international sanctions on Iran in exchange for it curbing its nuclear activities.

Reformists and moderate conservatives — who supported the agreement -- appear poised to win a majority, which could pave the way for increased economic openness and greater cooperation with the West on regional issues like the war against the Islamic State group.

Reformists currently hold fewer than 20 seats and have been virtually shut out of politics since losing their parliamentary majority in the 2004 elections. Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. Over the next eight years, he aggressively expanded the nuclear program, which Tehran insists is entirely peaceful, and alarmed Western countries by casting doubt on the scale of the Holocaust and predicting Israel would one day be wiped off the map.

Nearly 55 million of Iran's 80 million people were eligible to vote. Participation figures were not immediately available, but Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on Saturday said turnout likely exceeded 60 percent based on the partial counting of the votes.

Iran reformists performing well in early election results

February 27, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Preliminary results early Saturday morning showed reformist candidates heading for their best showing in more than a decade in Iranian parliamentary elections, according to local media and election officials counting the ballots.

Officials have yet to release early results, but reports in the semiofficial Fars and Mehr news agencies showed hard-liners losing ground in the 290-seat legislative body. None of Iran's three main political camps -- reformist, conservative and hard-line -- was expected to capture a majority, but the reformist camp, which seeks greater democratic rights and better ties with the West, is expected to secure its strongest parliamentary presence since 2004.

A strong reformist showing would be a boost for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the newly implemented Iranian nuclear deal with world powers in the face of harsh hard-line opposition.

Nearly 55 million of Iran's 80 million people were eligible to vote. Participation figures were not immediately available, though Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli predicted late Thursday there would be a turnout of 70 percent.

Friday's election for Iran's parliament and a powerful clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts was the first since last summer's nuclear agreement was finalized, lifting international economic sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

Polls were closed at midnight and officials immediately began counting the ballots afterward. In the capital Tehran, officials counting the ballots at three different districts confirmed to The Associated Press that reformists were leading their hard-line rivals.

A substantial reformist bloc could herald a crucial shift in Iran's internal politics. The hard-line camp is largely made up of loyalists of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during his two terms in office avidly stoked tensions with the U.S. and cracked down on internal dissidents. Ahmadinejad also alienated large sectors of the conservative camp, leading some moderate conservatives to ally with reformists in this election in a bid to reduce the power of the hard-liners.

Reformists stormed to power with the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, followed by 2000 parliamentary elections that brought a reformist majority to parliament for the first time. The movement pressed for an easing of Islamic social restrictions, wider freedom of expression and better ties to the international community.

But that hold was broken in the next election in 2004, when reformist candidates were largely barred from running. Ahmadinejad's election victory in 2005 sealed the movement's downfall. Since then reformists have been virtually shut out of politics for nearly a decade until Rouhani was elected.