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Sunday, June 26, 2016

UN warns 20,000 children are trapped in Iraq's Fallujah

June 01, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.N. children's fund on Wednesday issued a stark warning to Iraqi troops and Islamic State militants in the battle for Fallujah to spare the children, the most vulnerable among the tens of thousands of civilians who remain trapped by the fighting for control of this city west of Baghdad.

Backed by aerial support from the U.S.-led coalition and paramilitary forces mainly made up of Shiite militias, Iraqi government troops more than a week ago launched a military operation to recapture Fallujah which has been under control of the extremist group for more than two years.

As the battled unfolded — with Iraqi forces this week pushing into the city's southern sections after securing surrounding towns and villages — more than 50,000 people are believed to be trapped inside the Sunni majority city, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.

The UNICEF estimated the number of the children trapped with their families inside the city at about 20,000, warning that they face a dire humanitarian situation, in addition to the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting by the IS militants.

"Children who are forcibly recruited into the fighting see their lives and futures jeopardized as they are forced to carry and use arms, fighting an adults' war," the organization said in a statement. It called on "all parties to protect children inside Fallujah" and "provide safe passage to those wishing to leave the city."

Fallujah was the first large city in Iraq to fall to IS and it is the last major urban area controlled by the extremist group in western Iraq. The Sunni-led militants still control the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in the north, as well as smaller towns and patches of territory in the country's west and north.

The fight for Fallujah is expected to be protracted because the Islamic State group has had more than two years to dig in. Hidden bombs are believed to be strewn throughout the city, and the presence of trapped civilians will limit the use of supporting airstrikes.

Iraqi army suffers substantial losses in Fallujah

May 30, 2016

The Iraqi army is reported to have suffered heavy losses during the sixth day of an assault to retake the city of Fallujah from Daesh. As many as ten Iraqi soldiers and allied militiamen were killed in a suicide bombing in the south-east of the city, Al-Jazeera has reported. Seven militiamen were also killed in another attack by the militant group near Amiriyah Al-Fallujah, to the west of Baghdad.

Fierce battles have been reported by witnesses in the town of Saqlawiyah, north-west of Fallujah, especially in Alboshgeul, where the militants attacked Iraqi troops with car bombs. The Iraqi army has advanced towards Fallujah from the north-east and reached Alsijir, which now stands between it and the city’s northern neighborhoods.

Army sources said that 40 soldiers and militiamen were killed and others were wounded, including a very senior officer, in a surprise attack by Daesh against Heit, in the west of Al-Anbar Province. The sources added that militants had crossed the Euphrates in the dead of night and launched an attack against the city, 30 kilometers west of Ramadi, and now controlled several neighborhoods. Dozens of families have been forced to flee from the fighting.

The Iraqi forces, with air support from the international coalition, pushed Daesh to withdraw from Heit more than a month ago.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160530-iraqi-army-suffers-substantial-losses-in-fallujah/.

Iraqi MP: Army airstrikes are killing civilians in Fallujah

May 27, 2016

Scores of civilians have been killed in the ongoing Fallujah operation as a result of the Iraqi army’s airstrikes, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s human rights committee said today.

In an interview with the Anadolu Agency, Arshad Al-Salihi said tens of thousands of civilians live in Fallujah and suffer because of Daesh. They are also struggling to survive amid the random airstrikes by the Iraqi forces.

“These people are stuck between Daesh and the Iraqi army’s airstrikes,” Al-Salihi said, asserting that the government has not provided civilians a safe exit route from the area.

On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi announced the launch of a military campaign to regain control of Fallujah from Daesh with the participation of the Iraqi army, counter-terrorism units, the federal police, the Popular Mobilisation Forces and tribal fighters.

“It would be better for the civilians of Mosul and Tal Afar to abandon both cities for the time being,” Al-Salihi said, saying they may face the same fate of Fallujah’s civilians during similar operations.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160527-iraqi-mp-army-airstrikes-are-killing-civilians-in-fallujah/.

Iraq kicks off historic Fallujah operation against Islamic State

Mohammed A. Salih
May 23, 2016

Iraqi security forces have launched Operation Break Terrorism in collaboration with the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units and local Sunni tribal mobilization forces to drive the Islamic State (IS) from the key town of Fallujah, the last major IS stronghold in western Anbar province.

Fallujah, long a bastion of anti-government insurgent groups, was one of the first areas in Iraq to fall to IS and its allies in January 2014, months before the group overran Mosul and other Sunni-dominated parts of the country.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the launch of the operation in the early hours of May 23, saying, "There is no option for Daesh [IS] except to flee," referring to the group by its common Arabic acronym.

The operation was launched from the southeast, southwest, northwest and northern flanks of Fallujah, according to Karim al-Nuri, a spokesman for the mobilization units who spoke to Al-Monitor via phone from the Karmah area to the southeast of Fallujah, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Baghdad.

"Their [IS] resistance has not been as heavy as we have been expecting," said Nuri. "They have been relying on vehicle-borne suicide attacks, planted bombs and snipers so far."

IS supporters' accounts on Twitter circulated what appeared to be an official announcement from IS' Fallujah Wilaya, which claimed that 16 Iraqi forces were killed in a suicide car bomb attack east of Fallujah.

Nuri said that over 10,000 mobilization unit forces have been taking "an active part in the battle," adding that his forces are cooperating with Iraqi security forces as well as tribal Sunni fighters. The Shiite paramilitaries have surrounded Fallujah since last summer.

The US-led coalition also carried out seven airstrikes in the Fallujah area between May 14 and May 20 in preparation for the assault.

US forces are currently involved in Operation Break Terrorism by advising Iraqi forces. But Col. Steve Warren, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, has told Fox News that the US-led coalition is not going to "drop bombs in support of the Shiite militias" who are based on the outskirts of Fallujah. The United States has been worried about the involvement of Shiite paramilitaries in offensives in Sunni areas because those forces are largely supported by Iran.

According to Warren, between 500 and 1,000 IS fighters are believed to have remained inside Fallujah.

No figures have been released by Iraqi authorities about the overall number of forces taking part in the battle of Fallujah, but some Iraqi news outlets have pointed out that as many as 20,000 federal police units have also joined the operation.

Iraqi forces appear to have made some progress. Local media reported that Iraqi forces killed Abu Hamza, IS governor of Fallujah, and another senior leader known as Abu Amr al-Ansari on May 23. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saedi, the commander of the Fallujah operation, said May 23 that IS forces have fled the battlefield in the Karmah and Saqlawiyah areas in the eastern and northern sides of Fallujah. Saedi also told Iraqi news media that Iraqi forces had taken the district of Karmah, 13 kilometers (8 miles) east of Fallujah on the first day of the operation.

The attack on Fallujah by Iraqi forces came after an important victory in the nearby town of Rutba in Anbar on May 19. In December, Iraqi forces also recaptured Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi, from IS.

Fallujah is now the last major urban center in Anbar still under the control of IS jihadis.

"Taking Fallujah will be a big blow to IS," Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani's Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS), told Al-Monitor.

"Strategically, [the success of this operation will mean] IS will not be as close to Baghdad as now, as Fallujah is the strongest IS-controlled point to Baghdad," he said.

But pushing IS out of Fallujah will not mean the end of IS in Anbar province, which occupies around one-third of Iraq's area. Ali believes the extremist group will most likely relocate to the vast deserts of Anbar, "which will be very difficult to control."

Prior to the launch of the operation, the Iraqi military called on Fallujah's residents to evacuate the town. A day before the offensive, the town's mayor had told the official Iraqi news agency, NINA, that over 50,000 civilians were still trapped inside the town.

An important element of the Fallujah operation is the relationship between the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units and the local Sunni forces. In the past, local Sunnis and rights groups accused the mobilization units of abusing Sunnis in areas such as Tikrit and Diyala.

But Nuri said there is no reason for concern now.

"We are fighting with [Sunni] tribal forces from the area and this is the biggest testament of the level of trust between us," Nuri said.

Amid the political turmoil that has engulfed Iraq in recent months and culminated in attacks by angry protesters on Abadi's and parliament's offices, a victory in Fallujah will be a boost to the embattled prime minister, given the symbolic and strategic value of the town.

"A battlefield victory will bolster Abadi's position and help him dictate the points of the political agenda in Iraq," said Ali.

Source: al-Monitor.
Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/iraq-fallujah-liberation-operation-isis.html.

Egypt to build 11th prison in less than 3 years

June 15, 2016

Egyptian authorities are to build a new prison in Qalyubia Governorate, north of Cairo, the third to be built this year and the eleventh since the military coup three years ago, the Anadolu Agency reported yesterday.

Human rights groups have said that there are 40 prisons in Egypt, these along with police stations, military basis and secret prisons are all used to hold prisoners in terrible conditions.

Since the military coup against the first freely elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian authorities have increased arbitrary arrests based on political opinion.

The Arab Organisation for Human Rights said that the number of prisoners held in Egyptian jails and detention centers has reached more than 41,000.

Egyptian authorities have said that the country’s constitution dictates how prisoners are treated and that they adhere to international laws, a claim human rights groups deny.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160615-egypt-to-build-11th-prison-in-less-than-3-years/.

Erdogan rejects formation of political entity on Syrian-Turkish borders

June 15, 2016

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday renewed his rejection of the establishment of any political entity on the Turkish-Syrian borders, Al-Resalah newspaper reported.

“We will reject with all our political, diplomatic and military power the formation of any entity on our borders with Syria,” he said at an iftar at the Presidential Palace.

“The State will target terrorists with an iron hand, but it will show the merciful face to the people in the region [of anti-terror operations].”

“No one has the right to leave Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Libyan and African women and children facing their fate in the dark of the Mediterranean,” he added.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160615-erdogan-rejects-formation-of-political-entity-on-syrian-turkish-borders/.

Kurdish group claims responsibility for Istanbul attack

June 10, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — A Kurdish militant group on Friday claimed responsibility for a car-bomb attack in Istanbul this week that killed 11 people, saying it was just the beginning of a war. In a statement posted online, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons also warned tourists that Turkey was no longer secure for them.

"You are not our targets but Turkey is no longer safe for you," it read. "We have just started the war." The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons is considered an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and has carried out several attacks in the past.

It denounced the ruling Justice and Development Party, which was founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for its "wild war" against Kurds. Turkey's southeast plunged into violence last summer when a 2½-year fragile truce between the state and Kurdish rebels collapsed.

The rush hour car-bomb attack on Tuesday morning targeted a police vehicle in Istanbul and injured 36 people in addition to those killed. Istanbul's bombing was followed on Wednesday by a suicide attack in the southeastern town of Midyat that killed three police officers and three civilians.

On Thursday, The PKK said the Midyat attack was carried out by one of its "comrades," code name Dirok Amed. The authorities were quick to report they suspected Kurdish militants in both cases. The claims of responsibility confirmed those suspicions.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, also known as TAK, was also behind two deadly suicide bombings this year in Ankara, the capital. The PKK routinely attacks military and police targets in the southeast, where large-scale security operations to flush out Kurdish rebels have left hundreds dead, displaced entire communities and done extensive damage to urban infrastructure.

The PKK, labeled a terror organization by Turkey and its allies, is fighting for autonomy for Turkey's Kurds in the southeast. The decades-long conflict has claimed 40,000 lives. In the past year, Turkey has been hit by a series of bombings — including two in Istanbul targeting tourists — which the authorities have blamed on the Islamic State group. The attacks have increased in scale and frequency, scaring off tourists and hurting the economy, which relies heavily on tourism revenues.

In a bid to curb such attacks, the government is mulling measures to keep tabs on the sale of materials made to use improvised explosive devices, such as gas canisters commonly used for cooking, officials said Friday.

The announcement came a day after the agriculture minister said the government has temporarily suspended the sale of fertilizers containing nitrate that can be used to make explosives.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed reporting.

Erdogan ally wins vote of confidence in Turkish parliament

May 29, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's new government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's loyal ally, has easily won a vote of confidence in parliament. Legislators voted 315-138 on Sunday to approve Prime Minister Binali Yildirim's government.

Yildirim, 60, replaced former premier Ahmet Davutoglu, who stepped down after falling out of favor with Erdogan over a range of issues. They included Davutoglu's apparent lack of enthusiasm for constitutional changes, pressed by Erdogan, which would transform his largely ceremonial presidency into one where the president wields more power.

Yildirim has promised to immediately work toward passing the controversial constitutional changes demanded by Erdogan. On Sunday, Yildirim took a more unifying tone, saying the new government would serve the whole nation and advance democracy, human rights and freedoms in Turkey.

Turkey's Erdogan approves new government led by ally

May 24, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday approved a new government formed by one of his most trusted allies, who immediately asserted his intention to institute constitutional reforms that would expand the powers of the presidency.

Binali Yildirim, 60, formerly minister of transport and communications, replaces Ahmet Davutoglu, who stepped down on Sunday amid a range of differences with the president, including Davutoglu's apparently less-than-enthusiastic stance toward an overhaul of the constitution to give the largely ceremonial presidency executive powers.

"We will immediately start work to achieve a new constitution, including a presidential system," Yildirim told lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in his first speech after taking office.

"Our priority is to make the constitution in harmony with the de-facto situation regarding our president's ties to the people," Yildirim said. Many fear the presidential system that Erdogan seeks will concentrate too many powers in the hands of the Turkish strongman, who has adopted an increasing authoritarian style of governing, has cracked down on media and government critics and is accused of meddling in the running of the government in breach of the constitution.

The new government — which Yildirim is widely believed to have formed in consultation with Erdogan — includes nine new names, although most ministers from Davutoglu's previous Cabinet retained key portfolios.

They include Mevlut Cavusoglu, who remains foreign minister, and Mehmet Simsek, the deputy minister who heads economic affairs. Volkan Bozkir, the minister in charge of relations with the European Union, was replaced by Omer Celik, a founding member of the AKP who is known to be close to the president. Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, kept his position as energy minister.

In a clear sign that Erdogan would continue to influence government, he was scheduled to chair the new Cabinet's first meeting at his palace on Wednesday. Domestically, the political reshuffling takes place as Turkey faces serious security threats including increased attacks by Kurdish and Islamic State militants. It is also comes as parliament is in disarray after a government-backed constitutional amendment has left 138 lawmakers vulnerable to prosecution.

Internationally, Turkey is also facing a delicate moment in its relations with the European Union. The implementation of a Turkey-EU deal to help stem the influx of migrants to Europe — which Davutoglu had helped negotiate — has repeatedly come into question.

Erdogan has warned that the migrant deal could collapse if the Europeans renege on their pledges to grant Turkish citizens the right to visa-free travel. The EU says Ankara must meet all of the EU's conditions to secure visa-free travel, including narrowing the definition of "terrorist" — which Erdogan says is out of the question.

Yildirim has served as transport and communications minister since 2002 with a short interruption in 2015. The engineering-trained politician who is a founding member of the ruling party, has been credited for his role in developing major infrastructure projects that have helped buoy Turkey's economy and boost the party's popularity.

Critics, including the leader of the main opposition party, have accused him of corruption — an accusation Yildirim rejects.

Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed.

Turkey threatens to suspend agreements with EU

May 23, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Turkey's president on Monday that Ankara must fulfill all the European Union's conditions to secure visa-free travel for its citizens, but Turkey responded that it would suspend agreements with the EU if the bloc does not keep its promises.

The EU says Turkey must narrow its definition of "terrorist" and "terrorist act." The bloc is concerned that journalists and political dissenters could be targeted. But Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that is out of the question.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Erdogan on the sidelines of the World Humanitarian Summit meeting in Istanbul, Merkel said that she doesn't expect the visa waiver to be implemented at the beginning of July as was originally hoped.

Merkel, who is facing pressure at home to be tough with Erdogan, also expressed concern about a move to strip legislators in Turkey of their immunity from prosecution. But she underlined her commitment to the EU-Turkey deal aimed at stemming Europe's migrant influx, arguing that its success is a matter of "mutual interest."

The EU has offered Turkey a visa waiver as incentive — along with up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) for Syrian refugees and fast-track EU membership talks — to get it to stop migrants leaving for Europe. As part of the agreement, the EU planned to accelerate the introduction of visa-free entry for Turks, with a target date of June 30.

Turkey has fulfilled most of 72 conditions but Erdogan's refusal to revise anti-terror laws has emerged as a stumbling block. Erdogan has increased his belligerent statements against the EU in recent weeks, including accusing it of supporting an outlawed Kurdish rebel group, and has warned that the entire migrant deal could collapse if the Europeans renege on their pledges.

On Monday, his adviser on economic issues complained of "double standards" by the EU and demanded that Brussels keep its side of the bargain. "So long as they continue with this attitude, Turkey very soon will make very radical and clear decisions." Yigit Bulut, the adviser, told state-owned TRT television.

The prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, told reporters in Istanbul that Turkey had to fulfill all obligations for the visa-free travel. An official from Erdogan's office said however, that during their meeting, the Turkish and German leaders agreed that more talks should be held between Turkey and EU institutions over the visa waiver deal to address Turkey's "sensitivities and priorities."

In a statement sent to journalists, the official said that Erdogan and Merkel concurred that the migration deal between Turkey and the EU was "fruitful" and that the cooperation should continue. The official cannot be named in line with government regulations.

Merkel said she "made clear ... that we need the fulfillment of all points to grant visa liberalization." Her comments were broadcast on German television. Erdogan "set out his difficulties in the fight against terrorism" and said that "changing terrorism laws is not up for debate for him at the moment," Merkel said.

She added that "everything must be done to keep talking." Merkel has faced criticism at home, including from within her own conservative bloc, over the deal with Turkey and a perceived unwillingness to address concerns over Erdogan's increasingly autocratic behavior. Several high-ranking German lawmakers called on Merkel to be outspoken during her trip.

"We need independent justice, we need independent media and we need a strong parliament," she said Monday. "And of course the lifting of the immunity of a quarter of the lawmakers in the Turkish Parliament is a cause for deep concern — I made this clear to the Turkish president."

Merkel said that "the fight against the (Kurdish rebels) PKK is important and necessary, but on the other hand everything must be done so that people of Kurdish origin have a fair chance in Turkey to lead a life that allows them to participate in the prosperity and development of the country."

During her trip to Istanbul, Merkel met various representatives of Turkish society, including the head of the Turkish lawyers' association, the editor of Hurriyet Daily News, a local Human Rights Watch official and a professor of Kurdish origin who is a constitutional expert, German government spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said in Berlin.

Moulson reported from Berlin. Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed.

World Humanitarian Summit opens in Istanbul to tackle crisis

May 23, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — An unprecedented summit to revamp humanitarian aid and global responses to modern-day crises has opened in Turkey. The first World Humanitarian Summit is being convened in Istanbul on Monday and Tuesday in a bid to better tackle what the United Nations describes as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

The gathering was conceived four years ago by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In preparation, 23,000 people were consulted in over 150 countries, U.N. officials say. The U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, said the summit's success would be defined not by funds raised but by the number of commitments to action made.

He said the summit is "a once in a generation opportunity to set in motion an ambitious and far-reaching agenda."

Turkey's Erdogan asks longtime ally to form new government

May 22, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has formally asked his trusted ally, Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim, to form Turkey's next government. Erdogan tapped Yildirim on Sunday to replace Ahmet Davutoglu who stepped down amid growing differences with the Turkish leader, including Erdogan's wish to overhaul of the constitution to give the largely ceremonial presidency executive powers. Davutoglu remains caretaker premier until Yildirim forms a new Cabinet.

Yildirim's appointment came hours after the ruling party confirmed him as its new party chairman at an extraordinary convention during which the 60-year-old politician vowed to follow Erdogan's path. He made clear he intends to work toward introducing a new constitution that would change Turkey's political system into a presidential one.

Spain votes again in attempt to break government stalemate

June 26, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Spaniards were heading to the polls Sunday for an unprecedented repeat election that aims to break six months of political deadlock after a December ballot left the country without an elected government.

Opinion polls in recent weeks have unanimously predicted the new ballot will also fail to deliver enough votes for any one party to take power alone. That would likely consign Spain to another period of protracted political negotiations — and, possibly, another election if there is no breakthrough.

Polls are prohibited in the last week of campaigning, but the most recent ones suggested the conservative Popular Party would win most votes but would again fall short of the parliamentary majority it had from 2011 to 2015. Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy is hoping to be re-elected as prime minister.

According to the Spanish Constitution, a government must win a vote of confidence in Parliament with more than 50 percent of the possible 350 votes before taking office. If it misses that target, in a second vote 48 hours later it must get 50 percent of only the votes that are cast — a lower bar which allows parties to abstain from the vote and let a party into power in return for concessions.

A new round of political negotiations could be complicated by support for a new far-left alliance called Unidos Podemos (United We Can). That group, which includes radical leftist party Podemos and the Communist Party, is expected to finish second. That would push the moderate, center-left Socialist Party, which has traditionally alternated in power with the Popular Party, into third place and the business-friendly Ciudadanos (Citizens) into fourth.

The election in Spain comes four days after the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political risk consultancy, said it is "unlikely" that decision would have much of an influence on the Spanish election.

"Nevertheless, the ongoing market turmoil fits well with the campaign message of ... Rajoy, who has framed the election as a choice between economic stability and a radical left-wing government potentially led by Podemos and its allies," Barroso wrote in an analysis Friday.

Polls opened at 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) and were to close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) for the country's roughly 36.5 million voters. Exit polls with projections of the result are expected within minutes of polls closing, and most votes are expected to be counted by 11 p.m. (2100 GMT).

Public anger at high unemployment, cuts in government spending on cherished public services such as welfare and education, and unrelenting political corruption scandals have shaped the two-week election campaign.

After the December election, Rajoy couldn't get enough support from rival parties to form either a minority government or a coalition. The negotiations between parties dragged on for months as Pedro Sanchez, leader of the second-placed Socialists, also failed to clinch a deal that would let him govern.

Spain has never had a coalition government. Pablo Iglesias, the radical college professor leader of Unidos Podemos, has repeatedly said he wants a pact with the Socialists in order to oust Rajoy. But a major sticking point for such a deal is Iglesias's insistence on letting the powerful northeastern region of Catalonia stage an independence referendum — a possibility rejected outright by all the other main parties.

Ciudadanos is willing to talk to both the PP and the Socialists but want no deals with Unidos Podemos. Besides tension over Catalonia, Spanish political debate has been dominated by an unemployment rate that has stood at more than 20 percent for nearly seven years and is the second highest in the EU after Greece, and an unrelenting stream of corruption scandals, mostly involving the Popular Party and the Socialists.

Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.

Colombians cheer deal putting them on verge of peace accord

June 24, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians cried and hugged as the leaders of their government and the country's biggest rebel group signed a cease-fire and disarmament deal moving their country to the verge of a final peace accord to end decades of fighting.

As the agreement was signed in Havana, hundreds of people watched the ceremony live on a giant screen set up in Colombia's capital, Bogota, many singing the national anthem and waving the Colombian flag.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, shook hands and described the moment as historic after their lead negotiators signed a deal setting out how 7,000 rebel fighters will hand over their weapons once a peace accord ends a 52-year war that has killed more than 220,000 people.

Santos has said he thinks the accord could come as early as next month, although negotiators have missed a series of other government-announced deadlines. "Colombia got used to living in conflict. We don't have even the slightest memories of what it means to live in peace," Santos said. "Today a new chapter opens, one that brings back peace and gives our children the possibility of not reliving history."

The disarmament and cease-fire deal does not mean an immediate halt to conflict or the start of rebels surrendering their arms. That will begin only after a final peace deal is formally signed. As nearly four years of peace negotiations seem close to success, attention is shifting to a referendum that Santos has promised to give Colombians a final say on its acceptance.

The peace deal could face difficulties due to the deep unpopularity of the rebels and the desire for revenge still felt by many Colombians over a conflict that killed so many and displaced millions. Supporters of the peace process also fear that too many voters could simply stay home, threatening to leave the referendum below the participation threshold needed to be valid.

FARC's aging leaders agreed to begin negotiations in 2012, after a 15-year, U.S.-backed military offensive that greatly thinned rebel ranks. "The Colombian armed forces that grew enormous during the war are now called to play an important role in peace," said Londono, the FARC commander is better known by the alias Timochenko. "They were our adversaries, but going forward they'll be our allies."

Momentum had been building toward a breakthrough after Santos said this week that he hoped to deliver a peace accord in time to mark Colombia's declaration of independence from Spain on July 20. But the agreement signed Thursday went further than expected.

In addition to a framework for a cease-fire, both sides agreed on a demobilization plan that will see guerrillas concentrate in rural areas under government protection and hand over weapons to United Nations monitors. Disarmament would be required to be completed within no more than six months of a peace accord's signing.

The deal also includes security guarantees for the FARC during its transition to a peaceful political party. A similar attempt in the 1980s led to thousands of rebels and their sympathizers being killed by paramilitaries and corrupt soldiers.

"This is historic, a great hope for Colombia," said Jimmy Gonzalez, a hotel worker in Bogota. "Let this end the spilling of blood that's affected us for so many years." A peace deal won't make Colombia safer overnight. The proliferation of cocaine remains a powerful magnet for criminal gangs operating in Colombia's remote valleys and lawless jungles. And the National Liberation Army, a much smaller but more recalcitrant rebel group, hasn't started peace talks.

The a strong element in Colombia opposed to a deal with the FARC is led by popular former President Alvaro Uribe, who spearheaded the military offensive against the FARC last decade. "It damages the word 'peace' to accept that those responsible for crimes against humanity like kidnapping, car-bombing, recruitment of children and rape of girls don't go to jail for a single day and can be elected to public office," Uribe said Thursday in reaction to the latest agreement.

Still, regional and international leaders were enthusiastic. Cuban President Raul Castro, whose country was one of the guarantors of the talks, said the end of five decades of war is close. "The peace process can't turn back," he said.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement, "Although hard work remains to be done, the finish line is approaching and nearer now than it has ever been."

Associated Press writer Libardo Cardona reported this story in Bogota and AP writer Michael Weissenstein reported in Havana. AP writers Cesar Garcia and Joshua Goodman in Bogota and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.

EU calls for UK to 'Brexit' quickly; Britain wants more time

June 25, 2016

LONDON (AP) — The European Union wants a quickie divorce, but Britain wants time to think things over. Senior EU politicians demanded Saturday that the U.K. quickly cut its ties with the 28-nation bloc — a process Britain says won't begin for several months — as the political and economic shockwaves from the U.K.'s vote to leave reverberated around the world.

"There is a certain urgency ... so that we don't have a period of uncertainty, with financial consequences, political consequences," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at a meeting in Berlin of the EU's six founding nations.

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that the split was "not an amicable divorce" but noted it was never "a tight love affair anyway." Britons voted 52 to 48 percent Thursday in favor of ending their country's 43-year membership in the 28-nation bloc.

But no country has ever left the EU before, so no one knows exactly how the process will play out. Britain must, at some point, unambiguously notify the bloc of its intentions and set a two-year clock ticking for negotiating its departure. Until then, Britain remains an EU member.

In contrast to the clamoring of EU officials, the leaders of Britain's "leave" campaign, who had reassured voters that the EU would offer Britain good terms for a new relationship, were largely silent Saturday.

England's 300-year-old union with Scotland could be another casualty of the referendum, since most people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU but were outvoted by a majority in much-larger England. Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday that her semi-autonomous administration would seek immediate talks with EU nations and institutions to ensure that Scotland could remain in the bloc.

"(We will) explore possible options to protect Scotland's place in the EU," she said after meeting with her Cabinet in Edinburgh, adding that a new referendum on Scottish independence is "very much on the table."

Scotland voted in 2014 to remain a part of the U.K., but that decision was seen as being conditional on the U.K. staying in the EU. The victorious "leave" campaigners have said there's no rush to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which will begin a two-year exit process to renegotiate trade, business and political links between the U.K. and what will become a 27-nation bloc.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation Friday and said his successor, to be chosen by October, should be the one to navigate the tricky process of withdrawing from the bloc. The favorite to succeed him, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, has said there's "no need for haste" — but EU leaders are saying the opposite, in insistent tones.

Juncker said Saturday the British had voted to leave and "it doesn't make any sense to wait until October to try and negotiate the terms of their departure." "I would like to get started immediately," he said.

French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron expressed the frustrations that many EU politicians feel, accusing Britain of taking the EU "hostage" with a referendum called to solve a domestic political problem: challenges to Cameron from right-wing euroskeptics.

"The failure of the British government" has opened up "the possibility of the crumbling of Europe," Macron said at a debate in Paris. Top diplomats from the European Union's six founding nations — France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg — met in Berlin for hastily arranged talks and stressed that the exit process should be speedy.

"There must be clarity," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters. "The people have spoken and we need to implement this decision." France's Ayrault suggested Britain could name a new prime minister within "several days" — but that is likely instead to take several months. The process calls for Conservative lawmakers to winnow candidates down to two choices who will then be voted on in a postal ballot of party members.

Legally, there is little the EU can do to force Britain's hand, since Article 50 must be triggered by the country that is leaving. But political pressure and economic instability may force British politicians to act more quickly than they had hoped.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a conciliatory note, saying it "shouldn't take forever" for Britain to deliver its formal notification of leaving. "There is no need to be particularly nasty in any way in the negotiations. They must be conducted properly," Merkel said at a news conference in Potsdam, outside Berlin.

Britain's "leave" campaigners have been accused of lacking a plan for the aftermath of a victory. Dominic Cummings, director of the "Vote Leave" group, said it would be "unthinkable" to invoke Article 50 before a new prime minister was in place. He tweeted: "David Cameron was quite right. New PM will need to analyze options and have informal talks."

Britain will remain an EU member until the divorce is finalized, but its influence inside the bloc is already waning. Leaders of the bloc will hold a summit in Brussels next week, and the second day, Wednesday, will take place for the first time without Britain.

On Saturday, Britain's representative on the EU's executive Commission, Jonathan Hill, stepped down, saying he was disappointed by the referendum result but "what's done cannot be undone." Juncker transferred Hill's portfolio of overseeing financial services to Latvian commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis — costing Britain a key voice in a sector that is hugely important to London, whose status as Europe's financial capital is threatened by Britain's EU exit.

The referendum has already triggered financial turmoil around the world. Stock markets plummeted Friday, with the Dow Jones industrial average dropping 611 points, or 3.4 percent, its biggest fall since August. It's not clear what will happen in the markets on Monday, the next trading day.

The pound on Friday dropped to its lowest level since 1985, plunging more than 10 percent from about $1.50 to $1.35 before a slight recovery, on concerns that severing ties with the EU single market of 500 million people will hurt the U.K. economy and undermine London's position as a global financial center.

Credit rating agency Moody's downgraded the U.K.'s economic outlook from stable to negative, saying Britain faces "a prolonged period of uncertainty ... with negative implications for the country's medium-term growth outlook."

The vote to leave the EU has upended British politics. The deeply divided Conservatives are facing a leadership battle to replace Cameron, and some members of the opposition Labour Party hope to oust their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who they accuse of failing to promote the "remain" side strongly enough.

"(Corbyn) clearly isn't the right person to actually lead the party into an election because nobody thinks he will actually win," said Labour legislator Frank Field. Corbyn said Saturday he would not resign and said Britain must react "calmly and rationally" to the divisive referendum result.

Grieshaber reported from Berlin. Associated Press writers David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Britain's Labor party leader fires shadow foreign secretary

June 26, 2016

LONDON (AP) — British Labor party leader Jeremy Corbyn has fired his shadow foreign secretary amid a dispute over his leadership in the aftermath of Britain's vote to leave the European Union. Hilary Benn told the Press Association Sunday that Corbyn dismissed him after he told him he had lost confidence in his ability to lead the party.

Benn said that "following the result of the EU referendum, we need strong and effective leadership of the Labor Party that is capable of winning public support." The dismissal follows claims in the Observer newspaper that Benn was plotting against Corbyn.

The opposition leader has faced accusations from his own lawmakers that he led a weak campaign in Britain's EU referendum and is facing a motion of no confidence.

Britons celebrate, bemoan EU exit vote

June 24, 2016

LONDON (AP) — Britain woke up a divided country on Friday as people reacted with jubilation and relief or shock and anger to the result of a historic vote that signals a historic shift in the country's relationship with Europe.

At London's Billingsgate market, vendors were delighted. "Absolutely wonderful, best news ever," said Allen Laurence, 65. "We want England — or Great Britain — to come back how it was years ago, and it's going the way that we want it to go."

Mathew Heart, a 46-year-old vendor, said that while the vote wouldn't affect him, he was pleased. "I think it's just great we've got our independence back," he said. Commuters at the main train station in the well-heeled southwest London borough of Richmond, which voted overwhelmingly to remain, expressed anger and frustration at the vote.

"I'm quite shocked really," said Martin Laidler. "My 9-year-old daughter asked me to vote to remain, so I was voting for her future." Olivia Sangster-Bullers, 24, said the result was "absolutely disgusting."

"My best friend and his partner, one of them is from Spain. How does he feel now?" she said. "I've just seen that the pound's crashed so good luck to all of us, I say, especially those trying to build a future with our children," she added.

Putin praises 'all-embracing' partnership of Russia, China

June 25, 2016

BEIJING (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday emphasized economic ties with China and praised what he called Russia's "all-embracing and strategic partnership" with its neighbor, during a visit to Beijing that takes place against the background of a drop in trade and lingering mistrust.

Putin told Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that ties were based firmly on common economic interests, a reference to Russian hopes for Chinese investment and purchases of its oil, gas and military exports. "Our relations really have the character of an all-embracing and strategic partnership," Putin told Li at the start of their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.

While Russia and China are linked by cooperation on the international stage, as well as in culture, education and other spheres, "in one way or another, everything has an economic base," Putin said. Leaders from both countries have extolled the blossoming strategic partnership between the former communist rivals, despite a major decline in two-way trade and the failure to materialize of a slew of ambitious projects.

Observers attribute the slow progress to Beijing's hard-nosed bargaining position and the Kremlin's deep-seated suspicions about the growing might of China. Putin later met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, to whom he said the people of both countries had a strong desire to "strengthen, develop our relations."

"I'm sure our countries can reach a bigger success in all areas in trade, investment, agriculture, energy, and of course in high tech, which is a priority for us," Putin told Xi. Xi told Putin that the two countries should "promote widely the idea of being friends forever."

The close personal relationship between Putin and Xi and their shared desire to counter perceived U.S. global domination appear to be the main driving forces behind Russia-China cooperation. The renewed push to bolster relations with China came after the United States and the European Union imposed an array of crippling sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, cutting its access to world financial markets and blocking the transfer of modern technologies. Moscow was also purged from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations.

In May 2014, Putin visited Beijing and presided over the signing of numerous deals, including a mammoth 30-year natural gas contract worth $400 billion, seeking to show the West that Russia still had viable options.

A later deal saw a branch of Chinese state-owned energy company CNPC buying a stake in a project to build a giant liquefied natural gas plant on the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic. Also in December, China's Sinopec bought a stake in Russia's Sibur energy company.

China has also promised to offer multibillion-dollar loans to help build a high-speed rail link between Moscow and the Volga River city of Kazan. Other ambitious deals have been expected, but most of them have floundered amid Russia's economic uncertainty.

The sharp devaluation of the Russian currency under the double impact of low global oil prices and Western sanctions has been a key factor behind bilateral trade dropping from nearly $100 billion a year in 2014 to just over $60 billion last year. Energy resources account for two-thirds of Russian exports to China.

Moscow has also been unsettled by Beijing's ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt project, intended to encourage infrastructure development in formerly Soviet Central Asia, which Russia sees as its home turf. China has promised to coordinate the project with the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, but clearly has put an emphasis on bilateral deals with Kazakhstan and other members of the bloc.

The prospect of potential Chinese expansion long has worried residents of Russia's sparsely populated far eastern regions, especially over the Kremlin's decision to surrender significant slices of land along the 4,200-kilometer (2,600-mile) border to China in a 2005 demarcation deal.

While ambitious hopes for closer economic cooperation haven't materialized, Russia and China have bolstered their military ties, which have included joint war games and contacts on missile defense. Russian weapons exports to China, which peaked in the 1990s and fell dramatically in the following decade, have received a new boost recently.