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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

How religious movements gained the upper hand in Iraqi protests

April 6, 2016

Author Adnan Abu Zeed

Translator Pascale el-Khoury

BAGHDAD — After weeks of protests in the streets of Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on March 31 handed the parliament his plan for major ministerial changes to fight corruption. The pressure recently brought to bear on Abadi grew from an unusual, arm's-length alliance between religious and secular groups.

In July, religious groups in Iraq such as the Sadrist movement allied with nonreligious civil movements to take to the streets and call for governmental reform, accountability of corrupt officials and improved services. These protests were termed secular because they criticized the clergy’s interference in politics and called for separation of church and state.

However, recently such protests took a new turn. On Feb. 26, hundreds of sympathizers of the radical Sadrist movement led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr swarmed into Tahrir Square. Sadr has been pushing for reforms, a change in government ministers and the formation of a government of technocrats.

Sadrists drowned out the voices of secular protesters, taking control of the demonstrations and escalating them with a sit-in staged March 18 in front of the Green Zone in central Baghdad, which houses the Iraqi government institutions, parliament and embassies amid tight security measures. The protests called for holding corrupt officials accountable and turning them in.

Although the secular movement and the Sadrist movement have some sort of plan for shared political work, one might doubt the viability of their cooperation in these protests, especially since they are completely different.

While the secular movement calls for a modern, nonreligious state, the Sadrist movement calls for an Islamic state based on "velayat-e faqih" (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), which authorizes governance by Islamic clerics and fundamentalist legal views.

One might also wonder if the secular movement is trying to seek protection from a religious party to cover up its failure to achieve demonstrable results in the protests, which have been going on for several months, according to an Iraqi newspaper report March 6.

The shared political events between radical secular and religious movements pushed author Sadek al-Tay to wonder, in a March 8 article in Al-Quds al-Araby, “how the desire to establish a secular state, which is the civil movement’s demand, coincides with the goals of the Sadrist movement, which was founded on the [prospect] of a religious state.”

The Sadrist movement is part of the government and is allied with another religious movement, the Supreme Islamic Council, which is hostile toward secular movements. Jalal al-Din al-Zaghir, one of the council leaders, said in a Sept. 13 video that “secularists are the cause of the destruction of Iraq.”

This alliance between the secular movement and the Sadrist movement seems to be contradictory on many levels. What can possibly bring together a secular movement advocating freedoms and women's emancipation with a religious faction that restricts basic personal freedoms?

The protests called for by Sadr seem to have stifled the secular movement protests.

Parliament member Shorouq al-Abeji, representing the secular movement, decided to wear a veil while visiting Green Zone sit-ins March 18 so as not to offend hard-line members of the Sadrist movement, who formed the majority of protesters. The fact that she wore a chaste outfit, unlike her usual attire, did not go unnoticed, and she was criticized by the secular movement, which described her behavior as submissive.

Jassim al-Hilfi, a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, regularly participates in anti-government protests. He told Al-Ghad Press on March 15 that the alliance between the Sadrists and the secular activists reflects a cooperation, not an ideological alliance or an intellectual convergence.

"Each party has its own peculiarities; we cooperate to raise national demands,” he said.

Author Ali Hussein, a columnist for the left-leaning al-Mada daily, seems to share that attitude. He told Al-Monitor that the secular movement benefits from participating in protests staged by the Sadrists.

“The participation of secular forces in the sit-ins [rebuts] the accusations leveled against them of standing idle as events unfold," he said.

He noted, “Religious parties are skeptical about the Communist Party because of ideological differences."

Civic activist Hassan al-Shanoun, who participates in the protests staged every Friday, told Al-Monitor that the secular movement's association with the Sadrists’ sit-ins shows the rise of religious forces and their influence over the marginalized secular campaigns.

The political landscape in Iraq shows that the influence of political Islam has been on the rise since 2003 — when the United States toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime — in parallel with the decline of the influence of Iraqi leftist forces to the extent that communists, who are part of the leftist current in Iraq, were accused of political isolationism.

Political blogger and social media activist Shabib al-Medhati and Hamza al-Sultani, a supporter of the Sadrist movement, both told Al-Monitor they believe the Sadrist participation turned the protests into religious demonstrations.

However, writer Ali Hassan Fawaz told Al-Monitor, “These are popular protests. Even if some religious groups have joined the protesting masses, the [ongoing protests] revealed the need for a secular state, following the failure by numerous symbols of political Islam to achieve such a state.”

The failure of Arab political regimes such as those in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt — mostly those established after World War II ended in 1945 — led the Arab people to support Islamic parties and oppositions, brandishing the slogan “Islam is the solution." The influence of these religious parties seems to have escalated, while the influence of secular and leftist forces has diminished.

This is especially true in Iraq, particularly after the US invasion in 2003, when strife broke out and the role of religious parties in the Iraqi political arena increased.

The cooperation between secular and religious leaders in the protests reflects a deep-rooted crisis in Iraq. From a political standpoint, this cooperation may indicate a tactic used by both sides to regain people's confidence and reach efficient solutions for Iraq’s political and economic problems.

Source: al-Monitor.
Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/iraq-secular-protests-muqtada-al-sadr-reform-sit-ins.html.

Egypt protests after el-Sissi gives islands to Saudi Arabia

April 15, 2016

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian security forces fired tear gas Friday at demonstrators protesting President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Chants of "leave, leave!" directed at el-Sissi marked the first significant wave of street protests since the former army chief became president in 2014.

Riot police first cracked down on protesters in Cairo's twin city of Giza, where demonstrators had gathered at two prominent mosques after Friday prayers and started marching toward Tahrir Square downtown. Many carried signs reading, "Land is Honor" and denouncing the surrender of the islands. Others chanted, "The people want the fall of the regime" and "Down with military rule!"

After police fired tear gas, the protesters ran in all directions, according to videos posted online by activists. Several photojournalists covering the protests were briefly detained near al-Istiqama mosque in Giza, according to witnesses at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their own safety.

All unauthorized demonstrations in Egypt are illegal and security forces have, in the past, used lethal force against peaceful demonstrators. Egypt's state news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying that the protesters were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group and that they chanted "anti-regime slogans." The official said police responded with tear gas after protesters threw rocks at them.

Another demonstration of nearly 2000 protesters gathered outside the Press Syndicate downtown, a few meters from a collection of armored vehicles and hundreds of police in full riot gear who sealed off the surrounding streets. The protesters there chanted, "They sold our lands to the Saudis." Except for a handful of bearded men and female protesters wearing full-face veils, there was little sign of an organized Islamist presence among the demonstrators.

"If we give up the lands now, there will be more future concessions for him to stay in power, for few more months," said Alaa Morsi, one of the protesters, echoing a widely-held notion that el-Sissi essentially sold Egyptian territory in exchange for much-needed Saudi financial support, to shore up his rule.

What infuriated many was the secretive nature of the deal and particularly its timing. It was announced at the same time the Saudis were pledging billions of dollars of loans, causing critics and even some former el-Sissi supporters to accuse the president of a desperate and humiliating territorial sell-off.

"He should have told us before the deal," said 28-year-old lawyer and protester Rania Rafaat, who was carrying a banner read, "el-Sissi sold his land, leave." El-Sissi has defended his decision on the islands and tried to defuse the controversy.

The government maintains that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belong to Saudi Arabia, which asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them from Israel. Israel captured the islands in the 1967 Middle East war, but handed them back to Egypt under their 1979 peace treaty.

In response, Egyptians have taken to social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, posting numerous old maps to prove Egypt's ownership of the islands. Though relatively small in number, the protests come at a time of public tension and tight security, underscoring increasing public discontent at el-Sissi's rule since he was elected president in the summer of 2014. A year earlier, as army chief, he led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against Morsi's rule. El-Sissi also led the military's crackdown on thousands of Islamists who staged sit-ins and rallies across Egypt to demand Morsi's reinstatement. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds killed in the crackdown.

El-Sissi is Egypt's fourth president in six years, after millions of Egyptians revolted against the longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and his police state in 2011. Hailed by his supporters at the time as the country's savior, el-Sissi has faced a series of crises in recent months including a surging Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, a declining economy, and deeply disenchanted youth and democracy advocates who see him as another version of Mubarak.

Away from the capital, el-Sissi once again defended his decision to give up the islands to the Saudis, saying that they always rightfully belonged to Saudi Arabia and were only temporarily placed under Egyptian protection.

Speaking to a number of carefully-chosen youth in an under-construction Red Sea resort city, he promised to turn Egypt into a new economic and culture powerhouse. El-Sissi acknowledged in his lengthy speech that he kept the talks over the islands secret in order to avoid public debate which he perceived as harmful to Egyptian foreign relations.

The rare show of defiance, the Friday demonstration reinvigorated demands of retribution to killings of the youth protesters. Some protesters waved a banner carrying the picture of Mina Danial, a young protester killed when army troops crackdown in 2011. Others carried pictures of detained Islamists.

El-Sissi still retains a large base of support among Egyptians who fear for their security, and see him as the only protection against an Islamist takeover and state disintegration. At a small rally Friday in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, dozens of supporters carried posters with photographs of the president and chanted, "We love you, el- Sissi!"

The calls for the Friday protests in Cairo prompted the Interior Ministry to beef up security in Tahrir Square, shutting down the Tahrir subway station and positioning dozens of police vehicles mounted by masked riot police around the square and the surrounding area.

Earlier, the state MENA news agency quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying police were "encircling" all the strategic routes into the capital. The official said the precautions would prevent "infiltration of the terrorist group" bent on causing chaos — a reference to Morsi's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamist group, which has been declared a terrorist organization, had joined calls by secular and leftist groups for mass demonstrations over the islands issue. The Islamist presence in the Press Syndicate demonstration was relatively low, and some protesters prevented others from raising pro-Brotherhood signs. One Islamist protester who identified himself by an elias, Abu Shehab, told The Associated Press, "I am protesting against everything. El-Sissi is not fit to be a president."

Egypt cedes two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Egyptian government on Saturday evening said a new maritime border agreement with Riyadh would put the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran - long considered Egyptian possessions - within Saudi territorial waters.

"The Red Sea islands [Sanafir and Tiran] fall within Saudi territorial waters in light of the new border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia," the Egyptian government said in a statement.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail signed the deal with Saudi officials at the presidential palace in Cairo in the presence of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the latter of whom is currently visiting Egypt.

The government statement went on to describe the agreement as an "important achievement" that would allow both countries to take full advantage of their "rich natural resources".

It added that the border demarcation deal was the "result of six years of hard work and 11 rounds of meetings", noting that two technical committees had used the latest scientific methods to accurately demarcate the maritime border between the two countries.

"Ratification of this agreement will allow Egypt to take advantage of the exclusive economic zone in the Red Sea and will provide Egypt with exploration opportunities for additional natural resources," the government statement read.

It went on to note that the deal would be brought before Egypt’s parliament - which is dominated by pro-regime MPs - for ratification.


The agreement came in for heavy criticism by opposition figures, including many prominent former officials and parliamentarians.

In a joint statement, they asserted their "total rejection" of "all agreements concluded by this illegal regime, including the relinquishment of Egypt’s historical right to territorial waters, land and airspace, along with the management of its airports and wealth and its territorial jurisdiction and national sovereignty."

The statement was signed by former MP Tharwat Nafi; Saif Abdul Fattah, a former adviser to ex-President Mohamed Morsi (who was ousted in a 2013 military coup); journalist Abdul Rahman Yousef; former MP Gamal Heshmat; former MP Hatem Azzam; former government minister Amr Darrag; Tariq al-Zumr, head of the Building and Development Party; Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate; Ihab Shiha, head of the Asala Party; Yahiya Hamid, former assistant to ousted President Morsi; and Muhammad Mahsoub, a former government minister.

Tiran Island (80 square kilometers) lies at the entrance of the Strait of Tiran, which separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea only six kilometers from the Sinai coast. Sanafir Island (33 square kilometers) is located to the east of Tiran Island.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/24935-egypt-cedes-two-red-sea-islands-to-saudi-arabia.

Syrian family aims to cycle 1,100 km to Ankara to thank Erdoğan 'for embracing refugees'

14-4-2016 Thursday

A Syrian family aims to cycle to the Turkish capital Ankara to "thank President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for embracing Syrian refugees".

30-year-old Mulhem al-Said, his wife Mey Besrini, 20, their toddler Hamza and six-month-old baby Huzeyfe started pedaling from Midyat district in Turkey's southeastern Mardin province and have arrived in southeastern Şanlıurfa province.

The family fled the five-year civil war and settled in Midyat in 2013.

The distance between Midyat and Ankara is 1,100 kilometers (683 miles).

Thursday's destination was Sanliurfa and the family met officials of a religious school in Viransehir district and took thank-you letters penned by Syrian students there.

Working as a teacher in Mardin, Said said they set out to convey their wishes to Erdoğan and continued: "No country [helped] Syrians other than Turkey; we set out to show our appreciation, visiting districts and provinces and are taking demands and thanking letters from teachers and students there."

Source: Daily Sabah.
Link: http://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2016/04/14/syrian-family-aims-to-cycle-1100-km-to-ankara-to-thank-erdogan-for-embracing-refugees.

Taliban launches attack on Afghan government security agency

April 19, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Armed militants in Afghanistan staged a coordinated assault on a key government security agency in the capital Tuesday morning, killing at least seven people and wounding more than 320. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.

The attack, including a suicide car bombing, appears to have targeted an agency similar to the U.S. Secret Service, providing personal protection for high-ranking government officials. Ismail Kawasi, spokesman for the Public Health Ministry, said so far seven dead bodies and 327 wounded, including women and children, have been brought to area hospitals. An Interior Ministry statement said that dozens of civilians were killed and wounded in the attack. The casualty figures are expected to rise.

Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said that the suicide bombing was followed by an assault by armed militants. "One armed terrorist was shot and killed by security forces and the gun battle is still underway with an unknown number of other terrorists," said Sediqqi.

Later a spokesman for the Kabul police chief, Basir Mujahid, said that the gun battle in the compound had ended. "This was one of the most powerful explosions I have ever heard in my life," said Obaidullah Tarakhail, a police commander who was present when the attack began. Tarakhail said he couldn't see or hear anything for 20 minutes after the initial explosion. "All around was dark and covered with thick smoke and dust," he said.

Dozens of civilian apartment buildings, houses, shops and several government buildings were damaged by the car bomb blast. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack. Taliban insurgents have stepped up their attacks recently since announcing the start of their spring offensive last week.

President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack and saying it, "clearly shows the enemy's defeat in face-to-face battle with Afghan security forces." The attack in Kabul comes four days of another attack by Taliban insurgents in northern Kunduz province which was repelled by the Afghan security forces.

Officials in Kunduz said that security has improved in the city and that the Taliban were defeated in other parts of the province, but operations were still underway to clear militant fighters from the rest of the province.

The Taliban held Kunduz for three days last year before being driven out by a two-week counteroffensive aided by U.S.-airstrikes. It was their biggest foray into an urban area since 2001.

Pope brings 12 Syrian refugees to Italy in lesson for Europe

April 16, 2016

MORIA, Greece (AP) — In an extraordinary gesture both political and personal, Pope Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslims to Italy aboard his plane Saturday after an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has faced the brunt of Europe's migration crisis.

Refugees on the overwhelmed island fell to their knees and wept at his presence. Some 3,000 migrants on Lesbos are facing possible deportation back to Turkey under a new deal with the European Union, and the uncertainty has caused heavy strains.

Francis decided only a week ago to bring the three refugee families to Italy after a Vatican official suggested it. He said he accepted the proposal "immediately" since it fit the spirit of his visit to Lesbos.

"It's a drop of water in the sea. But after this drop, the sea will never be the same," he said of his gesture, quoting one of Mother Teresa's phrases. During the five-hour trip, Francis implored European nations to respond to the migrant crisis on its shores "in a way that is worthy of our common humanity." The Greek island just a few miles from the Turkish coast has seen hundreds of thousands of desperate people land on its beaches and rocks in the last year, fleeing war and poverty at home.

The pope visited Lesbos alongside the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece. They came to give a united Christian message thanking the Greek people for welcoming migrants and highlighting the plight of refugees as the 28-nation EU implements a plan to deport them back to Turkey.

Francis insisted his gesture to bring the 12 refugees to Italy was "purely humanitarian," not political. But in comments on the flight home, he urged Europe to not only welcome refugees but better integrate them into society, so they are not left in ghettos where they can become prey to radicalization.

Many refugees wept at Francis' feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria refugee detention center on Lesbos, where they greeted 250 people individually. Others chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" as they passed by.

Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet, sobbing uncontrollably. The pope also blessed a man who wailed "Thank you! Please Father, bless me!" The Vatican said the three Syrian families, which including six children, who came to Rome will be supported by the Holy See and cared for initially by Italy's Catholic Sant'Egidio Community. They were treated to a raucous welcome Saturday night in Rome, with drummers thumping, a crowd applauding and the three mothers receiving a single red rose.

"I thank you for what you have done," Nour, a mother of a 2-year-old, said of the pope. "I hope this gesture has an effect on refugee policy." Nour and her husband, Hasan, are both engineers who lived in Zabatani, a mountainous area near the Lebanese border that has been bombed. Another family with two children hailed from Damascus and a third family with three children came from Deir el-Zour, a city close to the Iraqi border that the Islamic State group has been besieging for months, leading to malnutrition.

Two of the three had their homes bombed, said Sant'Egidio's refugee chief, Daniela Pompei. She said the three families had been given Italian humanitarian visas and would now apply for asylum. Francis said they were selected not because they were Muslim, but because their papers were in order. They had arrived on Lesbos before the EU deportation date.

"It's a small gesture," he said. "But these are the small gestures that all men and women must do to give a hand to those in need." In perhaps a first, a baby's cry could be heard aboard the papal plane as Francis spoke. The 12 refugees sat right behind the papal delegation on the aircraft, and Francis greeted each one on the tarmac in Lesbos, again on the tarmac in Rome, and during the flight, said Pompei.

Francis seemed particularly shaken by the trauma the children he met at the detention center suffered as a result of their experiences. He showed reporters a picture one Afghan child gave him of a sun weeping over a sea where boats carrying refugees had sunk.

"If the sun is able to weep, so can we," Francis said. "A tear would do us good." Hundreds of migrants have drowned so far this year in the waters between Greece and Turkey. At a ceremony in Lesbos to thank the Greek people, Francis said he understood Europe's concern about the migrant influx. But he said migrants are human beings "who have faces, names and individual stories" and deserve to have their most basic human rights respected.

"God will repay this generosity," he promised. In his remarks to refugees, Francis said they should know that they are not alone and shouldn't lose hope. Human rights groups have denounced the EU-Turkey deportation deal as an abdication of Europe's obligation to grant protection to asylum-seekers.

The March 18 deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands since March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there and promised that its stalled accession talks with the EU would speed up.

During the visit, Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, signed a joint declaration urging the world to make the protection of human lives a priority and to extend temporary asylum to those in need. It also called on political leaders to ensure that everyone can remain in their homelands and enjoy the "right to live in peace and security."

"The world will be judged by the way it has treated you," Bartholomew told the refugees. "And we will all be accountable for the way we respond." Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, lunched with eight of the refugees to hear their stories. They then went to the island's main port to pray together and toss floral wreaths into the sea in memory of those who didn't survive the journey.

Earlier, Francis met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the airport and thanked him for the generosity shown by his people despite their own economic troubles. Tsipras said he was proud of Greece's response when other European nations "were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenseless people from seeking a better life."

Hours before the pope arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained. The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope.

Winfield reported from Rome and Becatoros from Athens.

Plucked from the uncertainty of Lesbos: 12 Syrian refugees

April 16, 2016

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis says his gesture is "a drop of water in the sea" of Europe's migration crisis. Yet for 12 Syrian refugees, the pope's decision to fly them back to Italy from Greece is an act of kindness that will resonate for the rest of their lives.

"Thanks be to God," exulted Wafa, mother of two children who made the trip with her husband Osama as she arrived in Rome. "I thank the pope for this very human gesture." The three Muslim families, including six children, had all fled their homes amid the devastation of Syria's civil war. They were plucked from a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they have been stranded for weeks. They were chosen because they had their documents in order, not to make a political point to Europe about the need to better integrate Muslims, the pope said.

"Their privilege is that they are children of God," Francis told reporters en route home to Italy after an emotional trip to Lesbos on Saturday. The Roman Catholic charity Sant'Egidio, which is providing the refugees with preliminary assistance, welcomed them at their headquarters in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood late Saturday. The mothers were given red roses, and they were applauded as they arrived.

Sant'Egidio released some details about the refugees but didn't give any of their last names due to privacy concerns. Hasan and Nour, both engineers, and their 2-year-old son fled their home in Zabadani, a mountainous area on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus that has been heavily bombed. They headed to Turkey and took a boat across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, like hundreds of thousands before them, hoping to reach Europe. But Austria and several Balkan nations shut their borders to refugees in early March, stranding more than 50,000 people in Greece.

Ramy and Suhila, a couple in their 50s, came from Deir el-Zour, a Syrian city close to the Iraqi border which has been devastated in street-by-street fighting between Islamic State militants and government troops. They arrived in Greece with their three children in February via Turkey. Ramy is a teacher, Suhila a tailor, Sant'Egidio said.

The third family, Osama and Wafa, hail from the Damascus suburb of Zamalka. Their youngest still wakes each night — and even stopped speaking for a time — apparently due to the trauma of the war and the journey to Europe.

They were selected after being identified as vulnerable and deserving of humanitarian protection, and after being interviewed about their hopes for settlement in Europe, said Daniela Pompei, the Sant'Egidio official who helped facilitate the project. She said all 12 had been registered as asylum-seekers in Greece but will now actually make their requests in Italy.

They had all arrived in Lesbos in the past two months, meaning they had lived through the brunt of Syria's civil war, she said. "They resisted for five years," she said. Francis said his decision to bring the refugees to Italy was a "purely humanitarian" gesture and not a political act.

Many human rights groups have criticized the European Union's new policy of deporting some migrants back to Turkey. The Vatican made sure that all 12 it selected Saturday had arrived on Lesbos before a March 20 deadline, and were not subject to any possible deportation to Turkey.

Speaking on the flight home with the refugees sitting behind him, Francis said the idea of bringing some refugees back came to him only a week ago from a Vatican official. He said he accepted it "immediately" because it was in keeping with the message of humanity that he wanted to send with his trip to Lesbos.

Francis said the Vatican would take full responsibility for the 12 Syrians. He said two Christian families had been on the original list, but they didn't have their documents in order. Hundreds of migrants have died in the Aegean Sea this year as the flimsy dinghies supplied by smuggling gangs sink or capsize.

The pope cited Mother Teresa in responding to a question about whether his gesture of bringing 12 refugees to Italy would change the debate about Europe's migrant crisis. "It's a drop of water in the sea. But after this drop, the sea will never be the same," he said.

Heartbreak as Syrians briefly return home to IS-free Palmyra

April 15, 2016

PALMYRA, Syria (AP) — When Islamic State fighters overran the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra almost a year ago, Maha Abderrazak was among tens of thousands of terrified civilians who fled west, many escaping with just the clothes on their backs and the few belongings they could carry by hand.

This week, the 22-year-old is among the few hundred town residents trickling back to Palmyra — now free of IS extremists — to check on their homes. They came to salvage what they can — some carpets, blankets, a fridge or a few family mementos. There is no water or electricity in the town, and it will be at least few months before anyone can return to stay.

The emotional scenes of people hurriedly carting away belongings highlights Palmyra's present-day human tragedy that has been largely sidelined by the magnitude of the destruction inflicted by IS militants on the world famous Roman-era ruins that stand just outside the town.

Much of the ancient Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site that includes 2,000-year-old ruins, was destroyed by Islamic State militants who blew up some of its most famous monuments, filming the destruction for the world to see. The destruction of the Arch de Triumph, temples of Baalshamin and parts of the Temple of Bel, one of the best-preserved Roman-era sites, captured world attention and triggered an outpouring of international concern.

"I understand it, the ruins are stunning," said Abderrazak, with a timid smile. But some of her neighbors were less forgiving, saying their suffering has been ignored by a world fixated on ruins and stones.

Palmyra, a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, was retaken by Syrian government troops backed by allied militiamen and Russian airstrikes in late March. The offensive routed IS militants who had controlled the town for 10 months, imposing their strict interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia and carrying out public beheadings, including that of the antiquities chief whose body they hung from a pole in a main square.

As they retreated, IS militants left behind thousands of land mines, both in the town and inside the archaeological site. Access to the ruins is currently barred as a Russian military team continues to clear the site of mines. Regular detonations can be heard around the town as they work. Near the entrance to the ruins and the Palmyra museum, the streets are plundered with large holes created by controlled IED explosions. On Thursday, experts were documenting the damage inside the Palmyra museum, taking some of the pieces away in trucks for safekeeping, before they can be restored.

The scene on the town's Wadi Street was very different. Residents who came in cars and government buses from the central city of Homs, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) away, had only few hours to check on their homes and quickly assess what they could take away with them. They hurriedly ferried out teapots, cups, electric fans and photo albums, placing them on the pavement next to suitcases of all sizes, to be loaded onto the buses.

Baby prams and bicycles — used by residents to help carry belongings to the buses — were left on the street, discarded amid debris and glass shards from shop windows that had been blown up, presumably by blast waves from airstrikes and bombs.

The scene has become all too familiar in Syria's civil war, now in its sixth year: people coming back home from wherever they were temporarily displaced, only to find their neighborhood an uninhabitable wasteland and their homes in ruins.

Hassan Ali said up to 100,000 people lived in the town before the war. When IS arrived, the people of Palmyra just "melted into the earth," he told The Associated Press. Most fled with just their clothes on, he said, sitting with his wife Asmaa, waiting for the bus to take them back to Homs where they now rent an apartment.

"We have no furniture in Homs, we came to take a few things until we can come back," he said. His wife said she took photos of their 8-year-old daughter when she was a baby. For Nasser Ahmad, 40, it was the second time this week to comeback to Palmyra. He came with his wife and two children, Ghazal and Hatem, aged 4 and 2 years. Their apartment in a four-story building is largely intact, and he's been taking out belongings in batches, including a gas oven to use in Homs. Renting a place in Homs costs about 20,000 Syrian pounds (around $40 dollars), which is exactly what he makes as an agriculture employee, he said.

He also wants to show his children their home as often as possible, so they don't forget it. Ghazal, his daughter, sat on his lap, barefooted and clutching a coin container or "matmoura" — the Syrian equivalent to a piggy bank — she had salvaged from her room. The family watched the bright pink and green buses get ready to leave, mattresses, pillows and carpets piled high on top.

Soad Daher, 63, said she was grateful for the Russians for helping the Syrian army regain Palmyra. "They killed a lot of innocent people," she said of the IS. "They beheaded soldiers and everyone they accused of being with the regime."

She also recounted how some townspeople hid Syrian soldiers in their homes, sometimes giving them women's all-encompassing flowing robes known as abayas, even bras, to wear. Abderrazak, 22, told how in the first days after Palmyra fell to IS, she and her older sister were twice turned back by the militants at a checkpoint because they didn't have a male chaperone and were not covered. On the third try, they were allowed to leave only because their uncle came with them and only after they paid the IS guards money.

Overwhelmed by tears, she said it's an "indescribable feeling" to see her family home still standing. From her neighborhood, Palmyra's majestic hilltop citadel is clearly visible. It has been heavily damaged by the fighting, with one side partially collapsed and showing signs of mortar or dynamite explosion.

"Palmyra was a paradise, truly," she said, choking on the last word.

Associated Press Writer Albert Aji in Palmyra, Syria, contributed to this report.

Jordan axes plans to install cameras at Al-Aqsa

April 19, 2016

Jordan has called off a project to install surveillance cameras at Al-Aqsa Mosque because the matter is in “dispute”, the country’s prime minister announced yesterday.

In a statement to the official Petra news agency, Abdullah Ensour said the cameras were to be used to monitor and document the repeated Israeli violations of the Muslim holy site.

He added that “the goal of having these cameras was to gain legal, political and media wins in the face of repeated attacks on the sanctity of the holy sites that were denied by Israelis because of the lack of documentation. Moreover, the greatest benefit of this project would have been increasing the ties of Muslims in all parts of the world to the holy places, and increasing their sympathy and support.”

Israel had initially tried to block the project, “but we managed to overcome”, he explained.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160419-jordan-axes-plans-to-install-cameras-at-al-aqsa/.

Jordan recalls Iran envoy over alleged 'interference'

April 18, 2016

Jordan recalled its ambassador to Iran on Monday for consultations over alleged Iranian interference in Arab affairs.

Government spokesman Mohammad Momani was quoted by the official Petra news agency as saying that the move was meant to protest “Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states”.

Tensions have been high between Sunni Arab countries and Shia Iran since Saudi Arabia severed relations with Tehran in January after angry protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the execution of a prominent Shia Saudi imam.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160418-jordan-recalls-iran-envoy-over-alleged-interference/.

Qatar agrees to projects worth $20m in Gaza

April 19, 2016

Qatar yesterday signed a $20 million package of new projects in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Minister of Public Works and Housing, Moffeed Al Hasina, and the Chairman of the Qatari Committee for the Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, Ambassador Mohammed Al-Emadi,signed the deal in Gaza City.

“Today we celebrate together the signing of a contract for a new package of projects under the $407 million Qatari grant announced by His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani during his historic visit to Gaza,” Al Hasina said.

Al-Emadi said that Qatar has now spent $300 million of the $407 million grant. The new projects include the construction of the first phase of Hope City for detainees and former detainees, a rehabilitation centre in Khan Younis, in addition to the supply and installation of medical equipment for the Hamad Rehabilitation and Prosthetics Hospital.

Al Hasina explained that Qatar had previously funded the reconstruction of 1,000 destroyed housing units and expressed his hope over the renewed support for the reconstruction of 1,000 more housing units as part of the $1 billion grant pledged by the State of Qatar during the donors’ conference in Cairo.

According to Al Hasina, 30 per cent of the money pledged during the Sharm El-Sheikh conference has reached the Gaza Strip, while hundreds more families are still living in caravans.

He stressed the need for an immediate end to the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip and the unconditional access to all materials and equipment needed for reconstruction in order to bring life and hope back to the besieged territory.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160419-qatar-agrees-to-projects-worth-20m-in-gaza/.

Ecuador quake survivors dig for kin with bare hands

By Florence Panoussian
Manta, Ecuador (AFP)
April 18, 2016

The desperation driving survivors of Ecuador's powerful earthquake to find loved ones trapped under rubble could be seen in the tools many used in their amateur rescue attempts: none.

A small crowd of residents in Manta, a popular beach town in the disaster zone on Ecuador's Pacific coast, clawed away Sunday at big blocks of broken cement and scraps of twisted metal with their bare hands.

"My husband is under there," said Veronica Paladines, a tiny woman tearing at a mound of debris that used to be a hotel and throwing what she could aside, with fury and tears in her eyes.

Her 25-year-old spouse, Javier Sangucho, the father of their two young children, worked at the property.

"He did the painting. He had just gone down to rest a bit when it happened," the 24-year-old woman told AFP.

"It" was the earthquake, a 7.8-magnitude monster that late Saturday toppled buildings along the coast and a ways inland, killing by last count more than 270 people and injuring at least 2,500.

The toll, authorities say, is certain to rise in the next days.

A dozen men, friends and relatives, helped Paladines pick away at the rubble.

The group had been at it for more than a day, ever since the earth shook and brought down the hotel and many other buildings along the town's main road.

A helmeted fireman finally turned up with a jackhammer to chip apart the concrete floor that had collapsed on Paladines' husband.

Energized by the mechanical aid, Paladines redoubled her own manual efforts. Tears flooded down her cheeks as she hurled debris aside.

- Overwhelmed fire brigade -

The captain of the fire brigade, Javier Carpo, said he had just 30 men and women under his command to help in a town ravaged from end to end. The team has more pleas for help than they could handle.

"Yesterday, we brought out the bodies of three children from a hotel," he said.

The quake destroyed and damaged homes, shops and hotels across this coastal town of some 200,000.

Cracks on buildings left standing hint that the structures may be too fragile to withstand the dozens of aftershocks rattling the region.

Some earthmovers and trucks arrived in Manta late Sunday to help remove debris.

"Throughout the town there are a lot of people trapped," Carpo said, with a resigned air. "We don't know how many."

He left to inspect a set of ruins that had attracted the attention of several hungry cats.

- Stench of death -

In the nearby district of Tarqui, the stench of decaying flesh floated over everything.

Manuel Bailon, 49, prepared to lie down for the night in his neighbor's trash shelter, close to what remained of his shattered brick home.

On the exposed first floor of his house part of a bathroom wall still stood, with toothbrushes and toothpaste still in their holders.

"We are helping each other," Bailon said, gesturing towards alleys filled with rubble. Crumpled family photos and toys covered in white dust were among the debris.

On the road between Manta and Portoviejo, another hard-hit town, lines of cars stretched endlessly at fuel stations.

There is still fuel, but little else.

- 'No water' -

"There's no water, no electricity, and if it rains like the other night everything will be soaked," said Karina Bone Valiviese, 39.

The quake survivor attempted to place a plastic sheet over her meager belongings, only to see the wind tear off the flimsy protection.

The mother of four and already a grandmother twice over, Valiviese took refuge with her family in the courtyard of a local church in Portoviejo.

Some 20 families were already there, some with mattresses and armchairs recovered from the wreckage. Someone had even recovered a refrigerator.

The earth had swallowed their homes, which had stood along a road on the side of a river which was now a small lake.

"The earth opened up and the water rose," Valiviese said.

She and several others, such as Yesica Geomara, 36, complained that nobody had come to help them, or even check to see how they were doing.

Her face furrowed with frustration, Geomara steeled herself as she expected to spend the next several nights sleeping outdoors.

"We had just finished our home six months ago. We've lost everything," said her husband, Nilson Moreira, a 46-year-old lathe worker.

"But my machines are still in there, my tools. We're worried about looters."

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Ecuador_quake_survivors_dig_for_kin_with_bare_hands_999.html.

Powerful earthquake kills at least 41 in Ecuador

April 17, 2016

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — A powerful, 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Ecuador's central coast on Saturday, killing at least 41 people and spreading panic hundreds of kilometers (miles) away as it collapsed homes and buckled a major overpass.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the shallow quake, the strongest since 1979 to hit Ecuador, was centered 27 kilometers (16 miles) south-southeast of Muisne, a sparsely populated area of fishing ports that's popular with tourists.

Vice President Jorge Glas said in a televised address that there were initial reports of 41 dead in the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil — all several hundred kilometers (miles) from where the quake struck shortly after nightfall. He said the death toll is likely to rise as reports from the worst-hit areas come in.

"We're trying to do the most we can but there's almost nothing we can do," said Gabriel Alcivar, mayor of Pedernales, a town of 40,000 near the epicenter. He pleaded for rescuers as dozens of buildings in the town were flattened, people trapped and looting broke out amid the chaos. "This wasn't just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town."

Among those killed was the driver of a car crushed by an overpass that buckled in Guayaquil, the country's most populous city. On social media residents shared photos of homes collapsed, the roof of a shopping center coming apart and supermarket shelves shaking violently. In Manta, the airport was closed after the control tower collapsed, injuring an air force official. Hydroelectric dams and oil pipelines in the OPEC-member nation were shut down as a precautionary measure.

President Rafael Correa, who is in Rome after attending a Vatican conference Friday, called on Ecuadoreans to stay strong while authorities monitor events. He said on Twitter he had signed a decree declaring a national emergency but that the earliest he could get back to Ecuador is Sunday afternoon. He said that there were "dozens of dead" from the earthquake.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said hazardous tsunami waves are possible for some coasts. While the government hadn't issued a tsunami alert, Glas urged residents along the coast to move to higher ground and towns near the epicenter were also being evacuated as a precautionary measure. An emergency had been declared in six of Ecuador's 24 provinces, while sporting events and concerts were cancelled until further notice nationwide.

"It's very important that Ecuadoreans remain calm during this emergency," Glas said from Ecuador's national crisis room. The quake was felt across the border in Colombia, where it shook residents in Cali and Popayan, and Peru briefly issued a tsunami warning.

In the capital Quito hundreds of kilometers away from the epicenter, the quake was felt for about 40 seconds and people fled to the streets in fear. The quake knocked out electricity in several neighborhoods and six homes collapsed but the situation under control and power being restored, Quito's Mayor Mauricio Rodas said.

"I'm in a state of panic," said Zoila Villena, one of many Quito residents who congregated in the streets. "My building moved a lot and things fell to the floor. Lots of neighbors were screaming and kids crying."

The USGS originally put the quake at a magnitude of 7.4 then raised it to 7.8. It had a depth of 19 kilometers. At least 36 aftershocks followed, one as strong as 6 on the Richter scale, and authorities urged residents to brace for even stronger ones in the coming hours and days.

Guayaquil's international airport was also closed because of a lack of communications. The quake comes on the heels of two deadly earthquakes across the Pacific, in the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. A magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck Thursday near Kumamoto, followed by a magnitude-7.3 earthquake just 28 hours later. The quakes have killed 41 people and injured about 1,500, flattened houses and triggered major landslides.

AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

Brazil president defiant after impeachment vote, won't quit

April 19, 2016

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Expressing outrage over the congressional vote to open impeachment proceedings against her, President Dilma Rousseff says she will not resign and vows to keep fighting the forces arrayed against her.

The defiant comments came at a Monday news conference at the presidential palace, which was Rousseff's first public appearance since the Chamber of Deputies voted 367-137 the previous night to send the impeachment proceedings to the Senate for a possible trial of Brazil's first female president.

The proceedings against Rousseff are based on accusations that her administration used illegal accounting tricks that allowed government spending to shore up flagging support before elections. Rousseff has said previous presidents used such fiscal maneuvers without repercussions and calls the accusations against her an act of "violence against democracy." She says the claims against her are really a flimsy cover for Brazil's traditional ruling elite to grab power back from her left-leaning Workers' Party, which has governed for 13 years.

"I'm not going to cowed; I won't let myself be paralyzed by this," Rousseff said, adding: "I have the energy, strength and courage to confront this injustice." Rousseff repeated the words "indignant," ''injustice" and "wronged" dozens of times, and she reiterated her argument that she hasn't done anything illegal and is thus the victim of a "coup" orchestrated by political foes.

"Today more than anything I feel wronged — wronged because this process doesn't have any legal basis," she said. The president took aim at her nemesis, lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who has been the driving force behind the impeachment move and is the No. 2 in line to succeed Rousseff. While pushing for her removal, Cunha has been charged with taking $5 million in bribes in a sprawling corruption scheme at Brazil's state-run Petrobras oil giant.

The Petrobras investigation has implicated many of the country's leading political players, including Vice President Michel Temer, who would fill in for Rousseff if the Senate votes to put her on trial.

Rousseff herself has not been implicated in the case or charged with any other crime. "There are no bribery accusations against me, no accusations that I accepted illicit payouts. I wasn't accused of having foreign banks accounts," she said.

Sunday's impeachment vote has heightened the uncertainty already plaguing an increasingly polarized Brazil, which is struggling with the worst recession in decades and the corruption scandal while also preparing to host the Olympic Games in August.

With the impeachment documents handed over from the lower house to the Senate on Monday, Rousseff's fight for survival will now focus on winning support in that legislative body, where an initial vote on impeachment is expected in about two weeks. If a majority of senators vote to put Rousseff on trial, she would be suspended while the vice president took over her duties.

Rousseff has insisted her relationship with the Senate is much better than with the Chamber of Deputies, but the administration appears to have a tough road ahead. According to news reports, 45 of the 81 senators have indicated they intend to vote in favor of an impeachment trial.

Under the complicated guidelines for impeachment, it would be at least 40 days until Rousseff's fate is decided. However, the speed of the process depends on Senate leader Renan Calheiros, who could potentially drag out for months any trial and final decision on whether she should be removed from office.

Analysts are skeptical she will be able to hold onto power, noting she failed in Sunday's lower house vote to win the support of parties that had long been part of her governing coalition. Rousseff was picked by once highly popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed him. She had never held elected office before becoming president and quickly gained a reputation for a prickly leadership style and perceived reticence to play the political game.

She also has been hurt because the galloping economic growth that buoyed Silva's eight years in office began to flag after Rousseff took office in 2011, and she only narrowly won re-election in 2014. Her popularity has plunged in step with the economy's slide, and opinion polls suggest most Brazilians support her ouster.

But at the same time, many people have strong reservations about those in line to replace Rousseff, with much of the country's leadership besmirched by corruption scandals. "I want to see all the corrupt politicians in jail," said Gerivaldo Oliveira, a taxi driver in the capital. "Brazil needs a clean slate; otherwise we're lost."

Rival camps reflect Brazil's divide amid impeachment

April 16, 2016

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Separated by only a boulevard, two rival camps of demonstrators in Brazil's capital underscore the sharp ideological divide that is playing out in Congress as lawmakers debate whether to oust the president.

On one side of Brasilia's showcase Eixo Monumental, which cuts through the center of city and dead ends at Congress, several thousand supporters of embattled President Dilma Rousseff have pitched a tent city, sleeping in hammocks and eating rice and beans served by volunteers at communal kitchens.

Largely union members and land reform activists, and overwhelmingly poor, they have come by bus from across this continent-sized country to defend Rousseff and her left-leaning Workers' Party, which they credit for unprecedented improvements in their lives. They call the impeachment debate in the nearby lower house of Congress that started Friday and is expected to go all weekend an attempt by Brazil's elite to take back power after 13 years of Workers' Party rule.

"They're trying to knock down what the Workers' Party conquered, what we conquered," said Francisco das Chagas, a 47-year-old mechanic who came from his home state of Alagoas, in the impoverished northeastern region that's Rousseff's stronghold. "It's classist."

On the other side of the boulevard, several hundred better-heeled protesters are demanding Rousseff's impeachment, blaming her for the tanking economy and the plague of corruption, which are reflected in the country's sky-high taxes and dismal public hospitals, schools and other basic services. They say a fresh start with a new president is the only hope for breathing life into an economy that's expected to contract around 4 percent this year.

Pro-impeachment protester Joao Pedro Netto says that while the Workers' Party was born out of a desire to help the poor, it is now as corrupt as any other of Brazil's more than 30 political parties. The 30-year-old small business owner said improving the country's woeful public school system for his two small children is his top priority and for this to happen Rousseff's party must go.

Both sides have pledged to flood the city with supporters ahead of a crucial vote Sunday in the Chamber of Deputies, which will determine whether the impeachment proceeds to the Senate. Proponents of impeachment need 342 of 513 votes, and tallies in the main Brazilian news outlets show them hovering near that number.

The proceedings stem from alleged violations of Brazil's fiscal laws committed by Rousseff's administration to shore up public support amid a flagging economy. Rousseff says that such accounting was common practice, insisting that she committed no crime and denouncing the proceedings against her as a "coup."

Her supporters in the tent city, which sprang up early this week as busloads of activists arrived from as far afield as the Amazonian state of Rondonia, say her government and that of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, served the interests of poor people like them.

Ze Silva, a 25-year-old schoolteacher from the agricultural heartland of Mato Grosso, warned that if Rousseff is pushed out "Brazil would return to its same old ways . and the masses would slide back into misery, like it used to be."

However, the irony of the location of the pro-Rousseff camp wasn't lost on their foes across the boulevard. The pro-government tents are pitched in the parking lot of Brasilia's Mane Garrincha stadium, which underwent a $900 million facelift ahead of the 2014 World Cup, making it the world's second most expensive stadium — despite the fact that Brazil's capital does not have a top division soccer team to play in it.

This kind of wanton waste is just what has fueled anger against the government. The fight against corruption has been a rallying cry of the anti-Rousseff movement, fueling massive protests in recent months as an unfolding corruption probe centered around the state-run Petrobras oil company has exposed the extent of the rot.

While Netto and other pro-impeachment protesters want Rousseff out, they worry that the next batch of leaders would also be corrupt. If the Chamber of Deputies votes Sunday to send the impeachment measure to the Senate and that body votes to open a trial against Rousseff, she would be suspended from office and Vice President Michel Temer would take over. Temer is implicated in the vast Petrobras corruption scheme. The next-in-line to take office after Temer is House Speaker Eduardo Cunha. He is also heavily implicated in the Petrobras scheme.

The political crisis has dragged on for months, hamstringing attempts to jumpstart the economy and battle an outbreak of the Zika virus. The country is also gearing up to host the Olympics. "This issue has been an open wound for a long time," said Leonardo Picciani, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro state who has gone against the pro-impeachment position of his party. "It must be closed on Sunday, whatever the result."

The protesters, however, weren't so sure. Both side vowed to keep the encampments going until their side declares a definitive victory. "If Brazil continues like this, it's going to sink," said Netto.

Defying radiation, elderly residents cling on in Chernobyl

By Laetitia Peron
Chernobyl, Ukraine (AFP)
April 18, 2016

Defying radioactive contamination and a government evacuation order, Yevgeny Markevich returned to his beloved Chernobyl shortly after it suffered the world's worst nuclear accident 30 years ago this week.

The sturdy 78-year-old former teacher is among 158 people still living in the 30 kilometer (19 mile) exclusion zone around the Ukrainian nuclear power plant where reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986.

The area remains contaminated by radiation and is deemed uninhabitable by Ukrainian authorities.

"I only want to live in Chernobyl," said Markevich, whose family moved there in 1945 when he was eight.

"I can't explain why people want to live here. Are they following their hearts? Are they nostalgic? Who knows."

The move to Chernobyl, where the soil was once rich and fertile, helped Markevich's family survive famine in the years immediately after the war, he said.

"Here we could plant crops and harvest our own food. I have never wanted to leave," he said.

The nuclear disaster, which the Soviet authorities initially sought to cover up, was directly responsible for the deaths of more than 30 people although a 2005 United Nations report estimated that radiation could eventually claim up to 4,000 lives.

On the day of the accident, a Saturday, Markevich was teaching a class at a local high school, not suspecting that the explosion nearby would forever transform the town and the lives of its people.

"We knew something had happened because buses and military vehicles were driving toward Pripyat," he said, referring to the nuclear workers' town located three kilometers from the Chernobyl power plant.

"Nobody told us anything. There was only silence."

Markevich, along with almost 116,000 other people living in the area, was forced to evacuate in 1986. But he wanted to return home immediately and began creating excuses to re-enter the exclusion zone.

"Once I came here pretending I was a sailor, another time I said I was a police officer overseeing oil deliveries," he said.

During one of these incursions into the exclusion zone, Markevich met the head of the radiation monitoring station and asked him for a job.

He was hired on the spot and has not left the area since, boasting that he has never been ill despite years of eating vegetables grown in contaminated soil.

"There is an element of risk," he conceded.

- 'Crying and screaming' -

Maria Urupa, who is in her early 80s, also calls the exclusion zone home but is less enthusiastic about her living environment.

Like most of the "samosely", or self-returners as inhabitants of the exclusion zone are known, she lives in a dilapidated wooden house in spartan conditions.

These illegal residents, whose average age is 75, never accepted the forced evacuation of the zone surrounding the now shuttered power plant.

In the aftermath of the explosion, which spewed out clouds of poisonous radiation that spread across Europe, more than 1,000 people returned to live in the officially sealed-off area.

Urupa survives off vegetables she grows in her garden as well as the food supplies brought by visitors.

Other residents venture outside the exclusion zone to the town of Ivankiv, where the nearest market is located.

Urupa says she considered hiding in her basement with her husband to avoid the initial evacuation in 1986, but their plan was not to be.

"It was sad. There was crying and screaming," she said.

After spending two months in a displaced persons camp, Urupa opted to return to the area "in a group of six people, walking through the forest like guerrilla fighters".

Another inhabitant of the exclusion zone, Valentina Kukharenko, 77, said she regrets that members of her family have to show their identity papers to visit her and are limited to three-day visits to prevent radiation exposure.

"They say radiation levels are high. Maybe radiation affects outsiders, people who have never come here. But what are old people like us afraid of?" she said.

Kukharenko said that she feels like a "stranger" outside the exclusion zone and rarely ventures outside the area.

"I'm not a nationalist but I love my native land," she said.

"I hope children's laughter resounds again here, even if it takes years."

A baby girl named Maria was born in the exclusion zone in 1999 to a settler couple, the first child to be born in the disaster-hit area.

Born suffering from anaemia, Maria left Chernobyl with her family just a year after her birth. Her whereabouts today are unknown.

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Defying_radiation_elderly_residents_cling_on_in_Chernobyl_999.html.

Polish leader hails shift to Christianity 1,050 years ago

April 15, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's president is leading formal celebrations marking the 1,050th anniversary of Christianity in Poland with a speech declaring the baptism of Poland's first king as the most important historical event in the nation's history.

President Andrzej Duda spoke Friday on the second of three days of fanfare marking the baptism in 966 of Mieszko I, Poland's first king. The event marks the birth of Polish statehood as well as the start of a centuries-long process of Christianization of formerly pagan tribes on Polish lands.

Duda, speaking to a joint gathering of both houses of parliament and bishops in the city of Poznan, says the baptism was a breakthrough for the nation because it brought it into the sphere of Western European civilization.

EU to provide humanitarian funding for refugees in Greece

April 19, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The European Commission says it will be providing 700 million euros in emergency humanitarian funding for Greece until 2018 to help it deal with the massive refugee crisis that has seen tens of thousands of people stranded in the country — the first time such funding has been used to help a European Union member.

The funding, announced Tuesday, will be given to aid organizations that will work with the Greek government in providing assistance such as food, shelter, medical and educational services for refugees.

Christos Stylianides, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, said he was in Athens signing agreements allocating the first 83 million euros to eight aid organizations, including UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the international Red Cross.

15% of Jews from former Soviet Union leave Israel

April 19, 2016

Some 15 per cent of the Jews who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union have now left the country, Israel’s Channel 10 revealed yesterday.

They moved to many countries with the majority now living in Canada.

Many had lived in Israel for 25 years however they did not feel they integrated into society, the report said.

One migrated said: “I came to Israel when I was six alongside hundreds of young families. I served in the army and got married, but I did not feel part of the Israeli community.”

Israeli reports indicate that Jews from the former Soviet Union, who were once the second largest community in Israel, suffered discrimination at the hands of Western Jews and the Israeli government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160419-15-of-jews-from-former-soviet-union-leave-israel/.

Muslim extremists death toll rises as Philippines presses offensive

Manila (AFP)
April 12, 2016

The Philippine military has killed 25 Islamist guerrillas as it presses on with an offensive despite the loss of 18 soldiers, authorities said Tuesday.

Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin gave the toll of Abu Sayyaf fighters as fighting in the southern island of Basilan continued.

"Twenty-five are dead as of now," he told reporters, adding that a senior Abu Sayyaf leader called Furuji Indama was among them.

"This is of major importance because the threat will now lessen because we have gotten one of their heads," he told reporters.

The operation against the Abu Sayyaf suffered a major setback with the death of the 18 soldiers in an initial clash on Saturday.

However the government has said the drive will continue, adding it has already achieved a major objective with the killing of a Moroccan bomb-making instructor, Mohammad Khattab. He was said to be trying to link the Abu Sayyaf up with international groups.

Gazmin said he could not confirm if Khattab was affiliated with the Islamic State group that has captured large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said that "even if we have suffered serious wounds, we are even more determined, so this fight will go on".

The Abu Sayyaf, a small group of militants notorious for kidnapping foreigners and demanding huge ransoms, was established in the early 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Based in the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo, it has been blamed for the country's worst terror attacks, including a 2004 Manila Bay ferry bombing that claimed 116 lives.

Its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

However Padilla said that "up to now, we are still looking for firm proof directly linking them to a larger group" like Islamic State.

Local government offices said more than 500 villagers had fled the fighting in the heavily-forested island.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Muslim_extremists_death_toll_rises_as_Philippines_presses_offensive_999.html.

Defender of Cambodia's dwindling forests wins Goldman Prize

April 18, 2016

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The latest crackdown on illegal logging in Cambodia is "just a game" and big timber traders are winning, says Ouch Leng, a former government official who has spent two decades helping poor villagers fight poaching of precious tropical forests.

Leng's tenacious and perilous crusade to stop illegal logging and stop land concessions from forcing Cambodians out of their homes has won him a Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activism.

The award follows recent announcements that Cambodian authorities plan to expand protected areas of the Southeast Asian country's forests by about a third. Long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom many consider a backer of the biggest logging group, Try Pheap, recently said he had authorized rocket attacks on illegal loggers.

But Ouch Leng (ook leng) and other critics say reports of raids and other high-profile shows of force against illegal loggers belie the lack of arrests or prosecutions of those cutting and trading in illegal timber.

Asked if the crackdown is for real, he said, "It's just a game." "Nobody was arrested. The media was set up," Leng said during an interview. "The Ministry of the Environment doesn't care. They never go inside the jungle to patrol or arrest illegal loggers."

Much of the timber trade is protected by military units that profit from deals with the loggers, and the stakes of fighting it can be deadly. At least five deaths in Cambodia have been linked to illegal logging since 2007, including that of Leng's fellow environmentalist Chut Wutthy, who was fatally shot in 2012 while showing journalists a logging camp in the southwest's Koh Kong province.

It's a risk shared with other environmental crusaders defying powerful companies and government backers around the world. Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, a winner of a 2015 Goldman Prize, was killed by assailants who broke into her home last month. She had received death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners for her efforts to block construction of a dam.

Leng said he accepts the risks as part of his mission. "I don't expect the government to allow me to live long," he said. Leng wins $175,000 for this year's Goldman Prize, as do five other winners: — Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer who led a campaign to shut down a toxic waste dump in Slovakia.

— Maxima Acuna, a Peruvian farmer fighting major mining companies' efforts to take her land for a gold and copper mine. — Destiny Watford, a Baltimore, Maryland, student who helped prevent construction of a trash incinerator in her area.

— Edward Loure, a Tanzanian communal land rights leader. — Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, who campaigned to create a nature reserve in Puerto Rico to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles. Leng travels into the forest armed only with a camera and a GPS locator, tracking illegal loggers. At times he works undercover by cooking for loggers, hauling cargo on docks or posing as a tourist.

Showing determination early on, Leng excelled in his studies in mostly rural Takeo province. When his village chief denied him a permit to travel to Phnom Penh to take university exams, he says he hid on a sugar cane train to get to the city. After studying law, he was assigned to the Foreign Ministry, and later to the Ministry of Planning. Drawn into politics, he moved to a nongovernmental organization and began investigating illegal logging.

Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who lives in Cambodia, says the prize is well-deserved. "Ouch Leng is one of a handful of people fighting to stop forest destruction in Cambodia," Hardtke said. "It is up to activists like Leng and affected local communities to make a stand against the short-sighted, greed-driven policies of the Phnom Penh elite. They are doing just that, often at great personal risk."

Lately, Leng's attention has focused on a conflict between local villagers and a Chinese company that is developing a massive resort on a choice swath of coastland near the Thai border in Koh Kong province.

Residents complain they were forced off their land and lost their main livelihood of fishing when they were relocated inland after the government granted a 99-year land lease to China's Tianjin Union Development Group Co., which has built a golf resort and plans a yacht club, casino, villas and other luxury facilities.

"Before, those people could earn $2,500 a year, or about $100 a night fishing. Now they cannot fish because the Chinese company grabbed everything. They have nothing to eat," Leng said. The United Nations says land rights conflicts have become Cambodia's No. 1 human rights issue. Land concessions have forced villagers to make way for plantations and other projects. Meant to promote development, such arrangements often have left communities worse off, critics say.

They've also accelerated the loss of precious, diverse forests of increasingly rare tropical timber, as loggers push ever deeper into protected areas and also clear-cut land of less valuable wood that is sometimes sold as fuel for factories.

Cambodia remained heavily forested until relatively recently, thanks in part to lingering battles with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and massive use of land mines during the Vietnam War. As the economy opened in the early 1990s, investment from China poured in. Forest cover dropped to 48 percent in 2014 from 57 percent in 2010 and 73 percent in 1990, a loss of nearly 3 million hectares of tropical forest. Rosewood, known as "hongmu" in Chinese, is especially prized, and loggers can get $5,000 for a cubic meter of the brightly-hued timber.

Leng, who chairs the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces organization, says the Goldman Prize money will help support forest patrols and community-level efforts to combat illegal logging. Like many in Cambodia, he views the government's record with skepticism.

"The poverty-reduction policy of the government seems to be just to kill the poor people," Leng said. "Their 'master plan' to improve living standards is set up very well and looks very beautiful. To provide jobs with fair competition and construction of schools, roads, bridges. ... To provide land for the people and conserve their houses," he said. But he added that such talk is generally not put into practice by private companies or the government.

Still, Leng believes he is making headway in convincing the public to resist the loss of their livelihoods and homes. "Many political parties, government officials, students and monks are involved in forest issues," Leng said. "The revolution will come from the land and from the forest."