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Friday, May 20, 2016

Chinese bullet train in Venezuela stalls as alliance derails

May 14, 2016

ZARAZA, Venezuela (AP) — It was once billed as a model of socialist fraternity: South America's first high-speed train, powered by Chinese technology, crisscrossing Venezuela to bring development to its backwater plains. Now all but abandoned, it has become a symbol of economic collapse — and a strategic relationship gone adrift.

Where dozens of modern buildings once stood, cattle now graze on grass growing amid the rubble of the project's gutted and vandalized factory. A red arched sign in Chinese and Spanish is all that remains of what until 16 months ago was a bustling complex of 800 workers.

That's when the project's Chinese managers quietly cleared out. As with many unfinished politically motivated projects dotting Venezuela — government critics call them "red elephants" — the decaying infrastructure contrasts with the railway's promising beginnings.

A decade ago then-President Hugo Chavez dreamed up the Tinaco-Anaco railway as a way to populate the plains and attract development from long-dominant coastal areas. Stretching 300 miles (468-kilometers), it was intended to move 5 million passengers and 9.8 million metric tons of cargo a year at speeds up to 135 miles (220 kilometers) per hour.

Chavez turned to China, one of his closest ideological allies, for engineering and financing for the project, part of a $7.5 billion deal that has made Venezuela the world's top recipient of Chinese loans. A consortium of state-run companies led by China Railway Group Ltd, the world's largest train maker, was tasked with carrying out construction.

But completion is four years overdue, and work, when it happens at all, has slowed to a crawl. At one barracks facility visited by The Associated Press, half a dozen workers huddled under the shade of a giant cement mixer, while two shirtless managers lounged at a control panel smoking cigarettes.

Nowhere are the project's declining fortunes more visible than in Zaraza, a sweltering crossroads town of 75,000 where what used to be an arena-sized factory churning out concrete railroad ties was located. In government news reels from 2013, the complex can be seen towering over manicured lawns and outdoor basketball courts where Chinese and Venezuelan workers socialized.

Shortly after the last Chinese managers left in January 2015, a mob of local residents — some of them armed — ransacked the site and hauled away everything of value. First to go were power generators, computers and air conditioners on the back of pick-up trucks. Vandals then tore apart dozens of buildings to scavenge for metal siding, copper wiring and ceramic tiles, some of which are now on sale at roadside stalls.

Jesus Eduardo Rodriguez, who owns and lives on the sprawling ranch where the factory was built, said the plundering lasted two weeks. Several witnesses who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said the looting took place in plain view of National Guard troops, who they allege were on the take and working in collaboration with the town's pro-government mayor, Wilfredo Balza, which is why the incident never garnered media attention.

Balza did not return repeated phone calls and text messages seeking comment and was said to be unavailable when AP journalists visited City Hall. "They destroyed everything," said Rodriguez, who eventually moved giant cinder blocks to cut off road access to the derelict property, which had become a haven for criminal gangs. "We just came to the house and almost cried, watching what they were doing."

E-mails to China Railway in Beijing went unanswered and the company didn't comment despite phone calls and two visits to its office in Caracas. The factory's demise appears to have been triggered by Venezuela's cash crunch.

In a June 2013 interview with local television network Televen, the then-head of Venezuela's state rail authority acknowledged owing $400 million to the Chinese. Union leaders who for years complained of late salary payments say that has only multiplied as the economy spins further out of control. With foreign reserves at a 13-year low and inflation forecast to surpass 700 percent this year, Venezuela has fallen behind on payments to foreign enterprises from airlines to the service companies that extract the oil on which this OPEC nation's economy depends.

Until recently, China had been a lifeline for Venezuela. Since 2007 it bankrolled the administrations of Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013, and current President Nicolas Maduro with a mix of cash, loans and investment commitments totaling $65 billion, according to a database maintained by Boston University and the Inter-American Dialogue. Back when commodity prices were high and South America's economies booming, such deals in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region seemed a safe bet.

But lately, as China struggles with its own financial woes and the oil used as loan collateral has plunged in value, Venezuela is finding that kind of support harder to come by. A high-level mission to Beijing in February returned empty-handed.

Kevin Gallagher, a Boston University political scientist and the author of two books on China's economic ties to Latin America, said the Chinese are increasingly concerned about their exposure to an imploding Venezuela.

"Now the whole underbelly is falling out," said Gallagher, who was recently in Beijing gauging the state of the economic partnership. "The Chinese right now are completely panicked about risk." This week senior U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss their assessments by name, said that while China may be willing to ease repayment terms to help Venezuela stave off a meltdown, it is unwilling to provide any more financing to what they described as a bottomless rabbit hole.

Corruption may also be having a chilling effect. Six Venezuelan officials were arrested in 2013 and 2014 for allegedly embezzling $84 million from a Chinese development fund. Outwardly, at least, there's no sign of concern.

"China pays high attention to the development of China-Venezuela relations and will continue maintaining the interactions between the two sides on all fields and at all levels to enhance mutual friendship and trust, promote mutually benefiting cooperation and promote mutual growth," China's Foreign Ministry said in a faxed response to questions.

But President Xi Jinping's government appears to be quietly hedging its bets. In addition to avoiding throwing good money after bad, they've quietly been courting a newly emboldened Venezuelan opposition that is trying to force Maduro's recall or resignation.

The contacts began at a meeting of the Socialist International, a worldwide network of left-leaning political parties, in New York last July attended by opposition Venezuelan politicians and members of the Chinese Communist Party, according to a Venezuelan participant who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize the relationship. The same politician then traveled to Beijing at the party's invitation to brief officials on the opposition's plans following its landslide victory in December's congressional elections.

China's ambassador has also dined privately with opposition leaders, the politician said, despite Venezuelan government warnings to foreign diplomats not to meet with individuals they accuse of trying to destabilize the country. Opposition leaders, who used to accuse China of acting as Maduro's enabler, have softened their criticism, sensing they'll need help digging Venezuela out of its economic hole if they rise to power.

The diplomatic dance means little to Omar Correa, who like many in Zaraza was captivated by the railway project's promise of progress. He still proudly wears the blue overalls emblazoned with the corporate logo of his former Chinese employees, only now he herds livestock amid the factory ruins.

"Are they going to come back?" a visibly stricken Correa asked. "I really hoped to see that train running one day."

Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and Ricardo Nunes in Caracas, Venezuela, and Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

Brazil's Temer promises to bring women to his cabinet

May 20, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Acting President Michel Temer promised on Thursday that he will at some point have women in his currently all white-male Cabinet. Federal lawmaker Josi Nunes told journalists in Brasilia that Temer pledged at a meeting with congresswomen that he would be bringing females into his government "a little further ahead."

Nunes also said Temer denied there will be any setback in policies for women. The interim president has been under heavy criticism for not appointing women and members of racial minorities to any of the current 23 Cabinet positions.

"I told him that in the decision-making table of the ministries it is necessary to have a woman," said Nunes, who is a member of Temer's fractured and scandal-prone Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

"He also said he will work on issues of women, the elderly, the young and the handicapped. He asked us for some time," the lawmaker said. Legislator Mara Gabrilli blamed Brazil's political parties for the lack of women in the new Cabinet. "It wasn't Temer's fault," she said.

Gabrilli said the female lawmakers met with the acting president to advocate for one of them to be speaker of Congress' lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The current holder of the position, Eduardo Cunha, has been suspended by Brazil's top court because he is being investigated on accusations of corruption and obstruction of justice.

Temer took office last week after President Dilma Rousseff was suspended for up to 180 days while the Senate holds an impeachment trial. Rousseff criticized Temer's Cabinet in an open conversation with Facebook users by saying women don't want to be "a decorative fetish."

To counter some of the gender-based criticism, Temer appointed a woman to as chairman of Brazil's state-run investment bank BNDES and another to lead his human rights secretariat, a position that was a Cabinet post under Rousseff.

Temer also reportedly sought to name a female culture secretary but eventually chose a man after five women said they had refused the job.

Ukraine's Jamala wins 2016 Eurovision Song Contest

May 14, 2016

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Ukrainian singer Jamala's melancholic tune about Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars was crowned the winner of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest early Sunday, an unusual choice for the kitschy pop fest.

Susana Jamaladinova, a 32-year-old trained opera singer who uses the stage name Jamala, received the highest score of 534 points for her song "1944," after votes from juries and TV viewers across Europe were tallied following performances Saturday night by the 26 finalists at Stockholm's Globe Arena.

Australia's Dami Im was second with 511 points, followed by Russia's Sergey Lazarev in third with 491. The show was broadcast live in Europe, China, Kazakhstan, Australia, New Zealand and, for the first time, the United States. Last year's contest reached nearly 200 million viewers globally.

Amid entries about love and desire, Jamala's song stood out. With somber lyrics it recalls how Crimean Tatars, including her great-grandmother, were deported in 1944 by Soviet authorities during World War II. Many died during the deportations or starved to death on the barren steppes of central Asia. Decades later some of the survivors were allowed to return to the Crimean Peninsula.

Jamala delivered an emotional performance, her voice soaring as the song built up force from a quiet start. "I was sure that if you sing, if you talk about truth, it really can touch people," she told reporters after the competition.

The focus on Crimea, whose annexation by Russia in 2014 was opposed by its Tatar minority, could be considered a swipe at Moscow, but Jamala insisted there was no political subtext, and contest officials agreed.

The rules of the glitzy competition prohibit political statements. Im, who was born in South Korea and is a former Australian "X Factor" talent show winner, was in the lead following a count of the jury votes, but her song "Sound of Silence" was bumped down to second place when the popular vote was added.

Though Australia is far from Europe, the Eurovision show is hugely popular Down Under where it has been broadcast for more than 30 years. Australia was invited to compete for the second consecutive year.

The annual contest, which started in 1956, is known for its eclectic mix of rock ballads, techno-pop and occasional folkloric tunes. However, in recent years entries have moved away from ethnic influences toward more mainstream dance music.

All but one of the 26 entries in the final were performed entirely or partially in English. The stage production is also getting increasingly elaborate, with pyrotechnics and computer graphics compensating for bland tunes with cheesy lyrics.

Lazarev's club anthem "You Are the Only One" had the most striking visual effects. At one point the black-clad Russian scaled a LED display and rode a virtual iceberg through space. Some Russian fans accused the judges of political bias, noting that Lazarev got the highest score in the popular vote.

"I'm so sad," said Dennis Kalinkin, a 29-year-old Russian who lives in France. "All of Europe voted for Russia. Russia was first. But the jury voted for other countries." Bulgaria placed fourth, ahead of host nation Sweden. Germany's Jamie-Lee Kriewits, an 18-year-old inspired by Japanese schoolgirl fashion, finished last with just 11 points.

The show was broadcast live in the United States by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cable TV network Logo. The Eurovision Song Contest has a cult following in the gay community. It was Ukraine's second Eurovision win; its first came in 2004 when Ruslana won. The victory means Ukraine gets to host the contest next year.

Asked by a Crimean journalist whether she thought the competition should be held in Crimea, Jamala answered "I hope Eurovision will be in Ukraine." The theme of this year's contest was "Come Together," a subtle message for Europe to stay united amid a backlash against migration to the continent and rising nationalism.

In a rare serious moment at the beginning of the show co-host Mans Zelmerlow — last year's winner for Sweden — warned that Europe once again is "facing darker times." The director of the TV alliance that produces the Eurovision Song Contest said the show's message of unity is particularly significant at a time when Europe is seeing its internal borders returning and Britain is holding a referendum on whether to exit from the European Union.

European Broadcasting Union Director-General Ingrid Deltenre told The Associated Press before Saturday's final that "you have reactions in Europe which are very polarizing ... we are sending out a signal. It's a signal about tolerance, about openness, about diversity."

Associated Press videojournalist David Keyton contributed to this report.

Migrants camp on Serbia-Hungary border waiting to cross

May 18, 2016

HORGOS, Serbia (AP) — A small tent city has formed on Serbia's border with Hungary where migrants are waiting to cross into the European Union despite border closures and a deal with Turkey aimed at stopping more people coming.

Dozens of migrants, including small children, were camping Wednesday in a few dozen tents in a litter-covered field by Hungary's border fence, braving rain and cold nights determined to pursue their dream of a better future in the EU.

"All people want is to cross this border," said 17-year-old Mohamad Idrees from Afghanistan "We must cross this border." Aid workers say Hungarian authorities have been letting small groups of up to about 20 people a day into the country, mostly families with small children. Still, a few dozen people have been arriving at the border daily and more are expected to arrive with improved weather conditions, raising concerns of humanitarian problems in the makeshift camp

Although the EU and Balkan nations have sought to curb the arrivals after about 1 million people came last year, the flow has continued on a smaller scale, with hundreds crossing one way or another daily, compared with thousands at the peak of the European migrant crisis last year.

On the Serbia-Hungary border, the migrants are facing dire conditions: they have no toilets or showers, and they depend on aid groups for food, drinks and clean clothes. Some women could be seen washing their clothes at the only tap available, while others lit fires for warmth, curling in the small tents among their belongings.

As a van carrying blankets, shoes and socks stopped by the camp, migrants lined up for their share. Some children walked around wearing shoes with no socks amid occasional drizzle; people inside the tents ate from plastic food parcels given out by the aid organizations.

"The situation is pretty inhuman, they don't have hygiene facilities ... they are using the forest as a toilet," said Zsolt Balla, of the United Nations refugee agency. "As summer is approaching, it will easily lead to infections."

Balla said most people at this and another, smaller makeshift camp at the Serbia-Hungary border arrived in the region after the so-called Balkan corridor for migrants officially closed in early March. He described the Hungary crossing as "the legal pathway to the EU" but added that "we see severe difficulties with this route."

"The numbers are changing on a daily basis," Balla said. "We encourage prioritizing the vulnerable people and families — if you look around, many single men are waiting longer than families." Hungary faced criticism for building a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia last year to keep the migrants away. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has characterized the migrant influx as an "invasion" threatening Europe's security and Christian culture.

When the Balkan route abruptly closed, thousands of migrants got stuck in Macedonia and Serbia. And when the EU-Turkey migrant deal came into effect on March 20, many others were stranded in Greece. Hungary has reported several hundred people detained trying to cross illegally every week, pushing their way through the fence.

While most migrants at the Horgos border camp are hoping to cross into Hungary legally, many who have faced closed doors have turned to smugglers to guide them over. Ahmad Samir Zamari, a 20-year-old from Afghanistan, said he is now thinking of going to Croatia with the smugglers after being detained for 13 days in Hungary before being sent back to Serbia.

"What can I do? They said you can't come to Hungary for one year," he complained. "Now I don't know. We don't have any way." Zamari and other migrants interviewed at the border said they could not return to their home countries, including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, because of the wars raging in those countries. Many traveled from Turkey to Bulgaria and then on to Serbia, using more dangerous clandestine routes.

Balla, from the UNHCR, said it is difficult to predict how the numbers of migrants arriving at the border will change in the coming months. He said around 400 people are currently staying at the two makeshift border camps.

A Serbian police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said numbers have been growing with the spring weather, with many of the new arrivals coming through the new Bulgaria route.

Referring to a camp in Greece where thousands have been stuck for months following the closure of the Balkan route, the officer added that: "I hope this does not become a new Idomeni."

US missile defense site opens in Romania, Russia sees threat

May 12, 2016

DEVESELU, Romania (AP) — A U.S missile defense site in Romania aimed at protecting Europe from ballistic missile threats became operational Thursday, drawing an angry reaction from Russia, which opposes having the advanced military system in its former area of influence.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tried to reassure Russia as he spoke at a ceremony attended by U.S., NATO and Romanian officials at the Soviet-built base, located in remote village 180 kilometers (110 miles) southwest of Bucharest. Romania became a NATO member in 2004.

The NATO missile defense site "in no way undermines or weakens Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent. This site in Romania, as well as the one in Poland, are not directed against Russia," Stoltenberg said at the opening ceremony. "The interceptors are too few, and located too far south or too close to Russia, to be able to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles."

Stoltenberg said the interceptors were designed "instead to tackle the potential threat posed by short and medium- range attacks from outside the Euro-Atlantic area." U.S. officials say the Romanian missile shield, which cost $800 million, is intended to fend off missile threats from Iran and is not aimed at Russia.

Stoltenberg noted that Moscow had unilaterally terminated cooperative dialogue about missile defense in 2013. Earlier, he said Russia had "changed borders by force and continues to intimidate its neighbors," in reference to the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

He said, however, the alliance would continue to try and engage Russia in dialogue where possible. "In times of tension, keeping channels of communication open is even more important," he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Moscow was already taking measures for "securing the necessary level of security in Russia," and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova raised the tone saying: "We continue to regard the destructive activities of the USA and its allies in the area of missile defense as a direct threat to international and regional security."

Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, chairman of the State Duma's defense committee, called the missile defense site a threat to Russia. "This is a direct threat to us," Komoyedov, the former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, told the Interfax news agency. "They are moving to the firing line. This is not just 100 — it's 200, 300, 1,000 percent aimed against us."

"This is not about Iran, but about Russia with its nuclear capabilities," he said. President Klaus Iohannis said Romania wanted NATO to have a "permanent naval presence" in the Black Sea that respected international conventions, and called for increased security for alliance members in the south and east, which border Russia and the Middle East.

"It is important that a credible and predictable presence can be assured of the allied forces on the eastern flank, to balance the northern dimension with the southern and eastern flank," Iohannis said after meeting Stoltenberg on Thursday in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

On Friday, Polish and U.S. officials will take shovels in hand to break ground at a planned missile defense site in the Polish village of Redzikowo, near the Baltic Sea.

Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report

Macedonian lawmakers vote to postpone June 5 election

May 18, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's parliament voted in an urgent session Wednesday to delay an early general election scheduled for June 5, after a top court temporarily suspended all electoral activities.

All 96 lawmakers present backed the delay. No other date was discussed or set. The Constitutional Court's ruling earlier Wednesday followed a request by a party in the governing coalition to examine whether the decision to dissolve Parliament for the vote was constitutional.

Macedonia has been in political turmoil since February 2015 following a wiretapping scandal, and the early election was part of an internationally-brokered deal aimed to defuse the crisis. The European Union, which Macedonia hopes one day to join, hailed the ruling, saying necessary conditions weren't in place for the election to be held on the originally scheduled date.

The court is due to issue a final decision next week. Only one party has been participating in the election campaign — the VMRO-DPMNE of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, which heads the governing coalition. All others have boycotted proceedings, saying there are no conditions for a free and fair election.

In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn, the bloc's top official for enlargement, said Wednesday's decision provides "a renewed opportunity for (Macedonia) to address a number of serious issues at the heart of the prolonged political crisis."

The political crisis in the tiny Balkan country was sparked by opposition allegations that the governing conservatives wiretapped 20,000 people, including police, judges, journalists and diplomats. The conservatives reject the claims.

The crisis deepened after Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov decided to grant pardons that halted criminal proceedings against dozens of politicians, including former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The pardons prompted an angry reaction from both main parties, criticism from the EU and street protests over the past month in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, and other cities.

Wednesday's EU statement called for the swift revocation of pardons. It also urged Macedonia's feuding political parties to "find a common agreement that serves all citizens." The appeal to the Constitutional Court was brought by the junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration.

Political analyst Albert Musliu told The Associated Press that parliament's decision "opens the door for another crisis." "Nobody knows what to expect next," he said. "Many things are not clear — which government would prepare the next election, whether President Ivanov will revoke the pardons."

Constitutional court suspends Macedonia vote campaign

May 18, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's Constitutional Court on Wednesday temporarily halted all activities for the June 5 general election, following a request by a party in the governing coalition to examine whether the decision to dissolve Parliament for the vote was constitutional.

The European Union, which Macedonia hopes one day to join, hailed the ruling, saying necessary conditions weren't in place for the election to be held on the originally scheduled date. The court suspended all election activity pending a decision next week.

Only one party has been participating in the election campaign — the VMRO-DPMNE of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, which heads the governing coalition. All others have boycotted proceedings, saying there are no conditions for a free and fair election.

Macedonia has been in political turmoil since February 2015 following a wiretapping scandal. In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn, the bloc's top official for enlargement, said Wednesday's decision provides "a renewed opportunity for (Macedonia) to address a number of serious issues at the heart of the prolonged political crisis."

The EU officials also called for the swift revocation of pardons issued last month by Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, which halted criminal proceedings against dozens of people, including high-ranking politicians, accused in the wiretapping scandal.

The statement urged Macedonia's feuding political parties to "find a common agreement that serves all citizens." The appeal to the Constitutional Court was brought by the junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration.

Greek government submits new austerity bill to Parliament

May 18, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's left-led government submitted to Parliament late Wednesday a new package of creditor-demanded tax hikes and reforms worth 1.8 billion euros ($2 billion), which it hopes to have approved by lawmakers in time for a meeting of European officials next week.

The country's reform program is under close scrutiny by its creditors — other European countries and the International Monetary Fund — and approval of the draft law could ease the release of a substantial slice of rescue loans, allowing Greece to pay off bonds due in July.

The proposed measures include raising the main rate of consumer tax by one percentage point to 24 percent and increasing taxes on fuel, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, hotel stays, luxury goods, fixed-line phone services, gambling and pay TV.

The draft bill also foresees energy market reforms and the creation of a new state asset management firm as part of the country's massive privatization program. However, the government didn't initially include a creditor-demanded contingency plan that would automatically trigger extra budget cuts if Greece misses savings targets in coming years.

Officials say that will be submitted as an amendment later "for technical processing reasons," but insist that they don't expect the contingency measures will have to be implemented. The draft legislation is the latest in a series of income cuts, tax hikes and reforms imposed on austerity-weary Greeks since 2010, when the debt crisis exploded that brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy and expulsion from the eurozone — the club of 19 European Union countries that use the euro currency.

The country has been keeping afloat with the help of multi-billion euro rescue loans from its European partners and the IMF, released on condition of tough spending cuts and deep structural reforms. But the cost to the economy and society has been severe. Since the crisis started, economic output has fallen by a quarter, the average income has been cut by at least a third and unemployment is above 24 percent. Meanwhile, Greece's debt is expected to peak this year at above 180 percent of annual economic output.

The 16-month-old coalition government had initially opposed any bailout measures but Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras reneged on election promises and signed up to a third round of rescue loans last year.

Growing public discontent has cost Tsipras his lead to the opposition conservatives in opinion polls. Still, his government passed a painful package of pension reforms earlier this month in parliament with no dissenting votes from the ruling party and its coalition partners.

Parliament officials said the new draft legislation is expected to be debated at a Parliamentary committee Thursday, with a view to it being voted on in the plenary session on Sunday. Controlling 153 of Parliament's 300 seats, the coalition has a narrow majority to pass necessary legislation without opposition support.

Eurozone finance ministers will meet to discuss the new measures on Tuesday.

In Greek seaside resort, refugees see dreams put on hold

May 14, 2016

MYRSINI, Greece (AP) — At the end of a long, straight road on the coastal flats between the southern Greek village of Myrsini and the Ionian Sea sits a refugee shelter that could have popped out of a travel brochure.

The 338 Syrians and Iraqis who have been living there since March say they're grateful to be safe in seaside bungalows, but getting restless, eager to continue journeys they hope will take them to the more prosperous nations of western Europe.

Local authorities volunteered the resort, which had been abandoned for years, to a Greek government that encountered strong opposition from some other communities as it quickly tried to build camps for tens of thousands of stranded refugees.

About a million people fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East and Africa arrived in Greece from neighboring Turkey between January 2015 and March 2016, when a series of countries further north closed their borders. New arrivals have since dropped to a few thousand, mainly because of a new European Union deal for Turkey to host people who otherwise would have arrived by boat, but about 54,000 remain stranded in dozens of official camps — and two makeshift tent cities — across Greece, awaiting asylum in the financially broken country or relocation elsewhere on the continent.

Most of the organized camps consist of boxy prefabricated units or canvas tents, set up hurriedly by the military. About 1,300 people live in the former arrivals area of the old Athens airport, and another 2,100 in defunct sports venues built for the 2004 Olympics.

In several cases, local communities bucked sharply at their selection to host migrant shelters, some ploughing the appointed sites overnight or fighting for days with riot police. Not so in Myrsini, part of the municipality of Andravida and Kyllini. Municipality Mayor Nampil Morant is a Syrian immigrant himself, who married a Greek woman and settled in nearby Lechaina almost three decades ago. But he says that wasn't what motivated his municipal council's decision.

"We could see the dramatic situation of these refugees, the children that drowned at sea, the difficulties they face — and that can't leave you untouched," said Morant, a Paris- and Brussels-educated doctor born in Homs, a city ravaged by Syria's civil war. In 2014 he became the first immigrant to win a Greek local election.

"The site was useless to us, it had been abandoned and was in the middle of a court process," he said. "So we told the central government: 'Look, this place is in a mess. If you want, you can have it, fix it up and put them there.'"

The Syrians and Iraqis, mostly families of women and children, moved there from a squalid encampment of thousands that sprang up on the quays of Piraeus, the port of Athens where Aegean island ferries dock.

Morant says he believes things have worked well so far, so much so that refugees from other parts of Greece are turning up on their own. But they're sent away because Morant wants people to live in proper facilities, not in tents.

In the camp, men play volleyball, children throng a playground, mothers hang washing outside the ochre-painted bungalows and young women chat on the beach. At least one baby has been born here and was entered by Morant in the local birth register.

It's a carefree, sheltered existence. But the refugees are antsy. They risked their lives to reach Greece in flimsy boats, paying a small fortune to smuggling gangs, with the ultimate aim of starting a new life. Now that's been suspended, with no clear indication of how long they may have to wait.

Heba Algafer, an English student from Damascus, says it's time to move on. "We don't need a place to live or OK food, we don't need this life," she said. "We need to travel, to find a place to stay, and work, and learn."

Algafer and her fiancé, Damascus car mechanic Ahmed Qasem, crossed to the island of Samos on a boat crammed with nearly 70 people on March 19, a day before the cut-off date after which any refugees reaching Greece are liable for deportation to Turkey, under the agreement with the European Union. They landed destitute, as smugglers forced them to dump their bags with all their cash and belongings into the sea, to make space for more passengers.

The couple is now impatient to register for relocation to Sweden, where Qasem's mother has lived for the past five years. His father, a schoolteacher, remains in Syria. Wis Najjar, 53, a house painter and furniture polisher from Aleppo, has already registered, together with his wife and three sons. But he, too, is frustrated with the wait.

"It's good here, and the people are good, they help a lot and I'm very grateful," Najjar said. "I did my papers a month ago and am waiting, but I wish the process was quicker. All day it's sleep, food, sleep, food — that's not a proper life. I want to work, and the boys to go to school or work."

Morant said he expects the camp will start to empty after September. Some 60 percent of the residents are women with children who should be accepted by countries their husbands have already reached. Another 20 percent, he says, want asylum in Greece, while the rest will either be relocated in Europe or will return to Syria.

While local councilors overwhelmingly backed the camp, what Morant describes as a "small minority" of residents initially opposed it, citing fears of crime, disease or religious discord with the Muslim refugees.

"I had some elderly constituents telling me that they would shut themselves in with shotguns to protect themselves," he said. "Well, now the same elderly people are going to the camp to hand over useful items to the refugees."

Camp residents say they feel welcome. "They are very good people here, they have given me lifts to and from the camp," Qasem said. "Once when I was in the village it started to rain and somebody gave me an umbrella."

He plays a video on his mobile phone shot on the sea journey to Greece, when he says Turkish officials fired warning shots in the air and tried to puncture the rubber boat to stop them. He says he will keep the footage to show his children.

"I want them to see what happened to us," Qasem said.

French police protest the violence they say is aimed at them

May 18, 2016

PARIS (AP) — French police took to the streets in about 60 cities Wednesday to denounce the hatred and violence they say has been repeatedly directed at them during protests against the government's labor reforms. In some places they faced counter-protesters, who said the police themselves were instigating the violence.

In Paris, a few hundred police officers gathered on the Republic Plaza during their lunch break. Several hundred counter-demonstrators came by, chanting slogans like "Everybody hates the police!" and pushing up against the officers until eventually the police deployed pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

Some counter-protesters set fire to a police car in a street nearby. Vanina Giudicelli, one of the counter-protesters, told The Associated Press that the police gathering was "a real provocation." "Since the first demonstration on March 9, we notice that they generate the violence. We have been sprayed by gas, hit with batons, arrested," she said.

Jean-Claude Delage, secretary general of the Alliance police union, denounced an "escalation of violence" in the labor protests and said some people were harassing police officers with projectiles and Molotov cocktails and even hitting them with iron bars.

"Troublemakers provoke clashes in the middle of peaceful protests. So it's very complicated for police forces to isolate and arrest them," Delage explained on BFM television. French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that over 350 police officers have been injured in clashes and 60 people have been convicted amid the labor reform protests.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve says he is offering his "full support" to police following the weekly Cabinet Council meeting. He said the police have instructions to take "firm action" against those who take part in violent clashes.

"Anti-cop hatred comes from a small portion of the population ... but these 10 percent are very violent," Jean-Marc Falcone, general director of the police, told Europe 1 radio.

Chris Den Hond contributed to the story.

Uganda: Opposition leader remanded to maximum security jail

May 18, 2016

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda's opposition leader was remanded Wednesday to a maximum security prison in the capital after being charged with treason for organizing protests against the re-election of long-time President Yoweri Museveni.

Kizza Besigye briefly appeared in a magistrate's court in Kampala to be charged before he was driven away under heavy guard to a jail on the shores of Lake Victoria. Besigye was charged afresh after being transferred from Moroto, where had been detained after the treason charges were first read to him last week, said Solomon Muyita, a spokesman for the judiciary. Treason has a maximum penalty of death upon conviction. Besigye will return to court on June 1.

Besigye came second in presidential elections held in February, but rejected the official results as fraudulent and called for an international audit of the results, one of the reasons cited for charging him with treason.

The polls were marred by violence and delays in delivery of voting materials in areas seen as opposition strongholds, as well as a government shutdown of social media. Election observers cited many irregularities, with the European Union delegation saying the election commission lacked independence.

Uganda's top court heard a petition against Museveni's victory and ruled he was validly re-elected. Despite the court's decision, Besigye has urged his supporters to wage a defiance campaign over the disputed polls as well as what he says is harassment by the security forces.

Besigye has been repeatedly arrested by the police, who sometimes detain him inside his own home. Museveni, who took power by force in 1986, has been elected five times since 1996. All the elections have been marred by allegations of rigging.

Kenya: Police fire tear gas, make arrests during protests

May 16, 2016

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan police fired tear gas on Monday to break up demonstrations urging electoral reforms ahead of general elections next year. Associated Press journalists saw police beating some protesters who had gathered outside the offices of Kenya's electoral commission in the capital Nairobi. Police then chased them through downtown streets and alleyways. Some protesters had hidden in nearby buildings but riot police flushed them out toward waiting colleagues who beat them with wooden clubs and kicked them as they tried to flee.

The protests are led by opposition leader Raila Odinga, who lost the most recent election in 2013 to President Uhuru Kenyatta. Paul Wanjama, police chief for Nairobi central police station, said officers detained at least 15 demonstrators who will be charged Tuesday. He did not say what charges they face.

Odinga said polls in 2017 cannot be free and fair if the current election commission remains in place and called for the commissioners to be removed from office. "We have said now and again and we repeat here: (Electoral Board) commissioners must get out of office, they cannot be trusted to conduct a credible election," said lawmaker James Orengo, one of the protest leaders, to a crowd of about 500 protesters.

Odinga was about to address the crowd when the police intervened, forcing the gathering to disperse.

France deploying anti-drone technology to protect Euro 2016

May 17, 2016

PARIS (AP) — France will deploy anti-drone technology to interfere with and take control of any flying machines that violate no-fly zones over stadiums at the European Championship, part of unprecedented measures to secure Europe's biggest sports event since the Paris attacks in November.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Euro 2016 security chief Ziad Khoury said Tuesday that no-fly zones will be declared over all 10 stadiums as well as training grounds for the 24 teams at the June 10-July 10 tournament.

"We've noted the general proliferation of drone-usage in society," Khoury said in his Paris office. "So no-fly zones will be defined over every training ground and every stadium, and in most stadiums and for most matches anti-drone measures — which are quite innovative — will be deployed, working with the state, which will interfere with drones and take control of them if they are spotted."

French authorities have trained for the possibility of drones being used to disperse chemical weapons over crowds. A training exercise in April in Saint-Etienne, one of the 10 Euro 2016 cities, imagined that a drone carrying chemical agents had plunged into spectators at the Geoffroy Guichard Stadium, which will host three group matches in June and one game in the knockout round.

"When you prepare an event of this size, you must imagine all scenarios, even the most unlikely," Khoury said. He said authorities have no specific intelligence to indicate that drones are a threat, but are preparing for all eventualities. The anti-drone measures to be deployed by the French air force and police "aren't necessarily infallible, because the technology is new and the drone phenomenon is recent. Let's say it is a dissuasive measure that didn't exist at previous sports events," he said.

"The idea is not to destroy the drones, because there could be collateral damage, notably if they crashed into the public. It is to prevent them from flying over the stadiums and perhaps to arrest their pilots," Khoury said.

Expanded security perimeters around stadiums should keep any drone pilots at a considerable distance, he said. "So the risk for matches should be limited. For other sites, it's a different matter," Khoury said.

"With drones, it could be curiosity. It could be fans. It could be something more malicious," he said. "Nothing has been identified in particular. It's simply that we are working on all hypotheses so we could respond."

Indian Space Agency Sets Sights on Homemade Space Shuttle

New Delhi (Sputnik)
May 18, 2016

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is embarking on a landmark experiment to create India's very own "space shuttle." In what has been touted as the country's first attempt, the agency is taking baby steps toward fully developing its own version of its space shuttle.

If the experiment, which is likely to be carried by the end of this May, is successful, scientists are hopeful this could reduce the cost of space launches by up to $2,000 per kg - a significant achievement.

Speaking to Sputnik about the upcoming event, Dr K Sivan, director of ISRO's Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, said: "It is a small experiment we're doing. This is nowhere near to a fully developed shuttle but only a step forward toward that. There are many many technologies required for that. What we're trying is putting one such technology into the experimental stage."

The sleek-winged body is in the final stages of the testing at the launch site of Sriharikota in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The exact date for the testing has not been set as yet.

The idea of the experiment is to produce a winged reusable launch vehicle - the concept which has been abandoned by powerful players in the global space industry. Making the rockets reusable has remained a focus of the Indian scientists for quite some time now.

Once the Reusable Launch Vehicle - Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD), fitted with delta wings, is launched in May, it will attempted to land using a runway in the Bay of Bengal. Though the vehicle is unlikely to be recovered this time, the experiment will determine whether the vehicle is capable of gliding on a runway.

"We still have a long way to go in terms of material development and others. This is just the first step," insisted Sivan.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Indian_Space_Agency_Sets_Sights_on_Homemade_Space_Shuttle_999.html.

Hunting for Hidden Life on Worlds Orbiting Old, Red Stars

Ithaca NY (SPX)
May 18, 2016

All throughout the universe, there are stars in varying phases and ages. Planetary diversity suggests that around other stars, initially frozen worlds could be the size of Earth and provide habitable conditions once the star becomes older.

The oldest detected Kepler planets (exoplanets found using NASA's Kepler telescope) are about 11 billion years old. Our Sun is currently 4.6 billion years old. Astronomers usually looked at middle-aged stars like our Sun, but to find habitable worlds, one needs to look around to stars of all ages, including red giants.

In their work, Ramses M. Ramirez, research associate at Cornell's Carl Sagan Institute and Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, have modeled the locations of the habitable zones for aging stars and how long planets can stay in them. Their research, "Habitable Zones of Post-Main Sequence Stars," is published in the Astrophysical Journal May 16.

The "habitable zone" is the region around a star in which water on a planet's surface is liquid and signs of life can be remotely detected by telescopes.

"When a star ages and brightens, the habitable zone moves outward and you're basically giving a second wind to a planetary system," said Ramirez. "Currently objects in these outer regions are frozen in our own solar system, and Europa and Enceladus - moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn - are icy for now."

Dependent upon the mass (weight) of the original star, planets and their moons loiter in this red giant habitable zone up to 9 billion years. Earth, for example, has been in our Sun's habitable zone so far for about 4.5 billion years, and it has teemed with changing iterations of life.

However, in a few billion years, our Sun will become a red giant, engulfing Mercury and Venus., turning Earth and Mars into sizzling rocky planets, and warming distant worlds like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune - and their moons - in a newly established red giant habitable zone.

"Long after our own plain yellow sun expands to become a red giant star and turns Earth into a sizzling hot wasteland, there will still be regions in our solar system - and other solar systems as well - where life might thrive," says Kaltenegger.

"For stars that are like our Sun, but older, such thawed planets could stay warm up to half a billion years in the red giant habitable zone. That's no small amount of time," said Ramirez, who is the lead author of the study.

"In the far future, such worlds could become habitable around small red suns for billions of years, maybe even starting life, just like on Earth. That makes me very optimistic about the chances for life in the long run," said Kaltenegger.

This research was supported by the Simons Foundation and by the Carl Sagan Institute.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Hunting_for_Hidden_Life_on_Worlds_Orbiting_Old_Red_Stars_999.html.

Russian opposition leader, 5 others hurt in Cossack attack

May 17, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — A group of Cossacks attacked Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his associates outside an airport in southern Russia Tuesday, wounding Navalny and six others, his spokeswoman said.

Kira Yarmysh said Navalny and about 30 employees of his anti-corruption foundation were holding a team-building weekend in the countryside and had arrived at the Anapa airport Tuesday morning when a group of Cossacks attacked them. Yarmysh said the Cossacks yelled: "Get off our land!" before charging at the group, beating up men and women. She says one of the group was hospitalized.

Videos of the attack posted on social media showed more than a dozen men in Cossack hats and coats charging at the group, which included women and Navalny's small son. Navalny in a Twitter post on Tuesday said the attack was coordinated and pre-planned, saying that the group has been under surveillance since it arrived in southern Russia last week. On Friday, Navalny and his associates were stopped by traffic police and detained for several hours for what police later said was a routine check.

Attacks on political activists have become almost routine in Russia lately, with the activists facing physical threats and verbal abuse whenever they travel outside Moscow. Cossacks, a paramilitary group dating back to tsarist times, have gone through a revival in recent years, and in southern Russia the Cossacks had been granted the right to patrol the streets. In arguably the most-publicized incident of Cossack violence, several men attacked members of the Pussy Riot punk collective with whips during an impromptu performance in the Black Sea resort of Sochi during the 2014 Winter Games there.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he could not comment on the incident because he lacked detail of what happened there. In February, opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov said he was threatened by a group of men who then attacked him with a cake while he was dining at a restaurant in Moscow. Navalny has been repeatedly harassed by right-wing activists who have thrown eggs, green antiseptic and cakes at him.

The Kremlin has publicly condemned the attack but there have been no reports of a prosecution of any of the attackers, most of whom did not even hide their faces.

NATO formally invites Montenegro as 29th member

May 19, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO invited the Balkan nation of Montenegro to become its 29th member, agreeing Thursday to expand for only the seventh time in its history despite Russia's angry objections. The decision is still subject to formal approval by the U.S. Senate and the alliance's other national parliaments.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was the "beginning of a new secure chapter" in the former Yugoslav republic's history. Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic attended the signing of an accession protocol at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He said his country, bombed by NATO warplanes 16 years ago, would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the other members of the U.S-led alliance.

"You can count on us at any time," Djukanovic said. Russia has accused NATO of trying to encircle it and friendly nations like Serbia, and vowed to do what's necessary to defend its national security and interests.

Sergei Zheleznyak, a prominent member of the Russian parliament, has said his country would have to alter its relations with Montenegro, historically close to Russia, if it joined NATO without holding a national referendum.

"We would have to change our policy in regard to this friendly country," Zheleznyak said. "If NATO military infrastructure were placed there, we would have to respond by limiting our contacts in economic and other spheres."

Other Russian officials have said their country could ban some imports from Montenegro and levy other trade sanctions. The signing ceremony at NATO headquarters for Montenegro's membership invitation coincided with the start of a NATO foreign ministers' meeting, and Secretary of State John Kerry signed the document on behalf of the United States.

Since NATO's creation in 1949 as a bulwark of the West's Cold War defenses against the Soviet Union, it has grown from 12 founding members to absorb most of the Kremlin's former allies in the communist East Bloc. NATO last added new members in 2009, when Albania and Croatia joined.

Asked by reporters how long it will take for Montenegro to become a fully-pledged member, Stoltenberg said he couldn't predict how fast legislators in NATO member nations will act, but that ratification of the accession protocols took about a year in the last expansion round.

"I expect we will soon see 29 allied flags flying outside the NATO headquarters," Stoltenberg said. Until ratification is complete, he said Montenegro is guaranteed a "seat at the table" at all alliance proceedings as an observer.

Montenegro would be among NATO's smallest members, boasting active-duty armed forces of only 2,000. But Stoltenberg said that as an alliance partner, it has already contributed to NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and that the document signed Thursday "shows once again that NATO's door remains open" to countries like Georgia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that also aspire to become members one day.

"Montenegro is a signal that the alliance is not giving up on the enlargement process and that Russia holds no veto on the accession of an aspirant country," said Bruno Lete, senior program officer at the German Marshall Fund, a Brussels think tank.

Another U.S.-based NATO expert, though, said that for the alliance to open its ranks to Montenegro hardly constitutes a "brave challenge to Russia" and that NATO and the Kremlin alike are exaggerating the significance.

"Montenegro is joining NATO because it is small enough and far away enough from Russia's borders to be a relatively safe decision for NATO governments," said Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Spanish regional government moves to outlaw bull spearing

May 19, 2016

MADRID (AP) — A regional government in Spain outlawed Thursday the killing of bulls at town festivals in a measure that likely will stop the animals being speared to death at one of the country's goriest summer events.

Though it won't affect bullfights, the decision by the Castile and Leon government looks set to end bull killing at the region's annual Toro de la Vega festival in Tordesillas, where men on horseback chase down a bull and spear it in front of onlookers.

The centuries-old event about 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Madrid has drawn increasing protests in recent years, with animal rights activists denouncing it as cruel and calling for a ban. Spain's Pacma animal rights political party cheered the decision, tweeting that "the deadly spears of Toro de la Vega are broken!" Supporters of the festival said they would take unspecified actions to try to defend it.

Regional lawmakers still must vote to approve the decree, but the government has a majority in the legislature to virtually ensure it passes into law for Castile and Leon. The regional government's move came amid growing tension between Spain's anti-bullfighting groups and those who fiercely defend the tradition.

Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the far-left Podemos party which finished third in last December's national elections, praised the decision, tweeting that "The Toro de la Vega festivities humiliate our country's dignity." He wants to end government funding for bull spectacles, but says he wouldn't ban bullfights.

The vice president of the Toro de la Vega organizing committee, Ramon Muelas, said Tordesillas would "fight for its dearest traditions" and warned that the government measure "could end in conflict." Any official voting in favor of the law would not be welcome in Tordesillas, he told Spanish news agency Europa Press.

Spain's Fighting Bull Foundation which represents breeders, matadors, ring workers, groups of aficionados with thousands of members and bull event organizers said it was examining the proposed law and planned to issue a response later.

Barry Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.