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Monday, September 12, 2016

Free Syrian Army liberates new regions

September 4, 2016

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) said late Saturday that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had taken control of 10 regions in northern Syria.

An army statement said the regions include Arap Izzah, El Fursan, Al Athariyah, Sheikh Yakoub, Vukuf, Ayyasa, and Al Mutminah, as well as Idalat, Talyah Darbiyah, and the Kubba Turkuman Airport in the El Rai region.

The statement said that the Free Syrian Army, which performs operations in support of coalition forces, made the territorial gains on day 11 of Operation Euphrates Shield, which began on 24 August.

The statement added that Turkish Air Forces attacked and destroyed two Daesh targets in the Vukuf region, south of El Rai, around 13.00 local time (1000GMT).

Turkey has said Operation Euphrates Shield is aimed at bolstering border security, supporting coalition forces, and eliminating the threat posed by terror organizations, especially Daesh.

The operation is in line with the country’s right to self-defense borne out of international treaties and a mandate given to Turkey’s armed forces by parliament in 2014, which was extended for another year in September 2015.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160904-free-syrian-army-liberates-new-regions/.

Turkey: IS has lost all territory along Syria-Turkey border

September 04, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels expelled the Islamic State group from the last strip of territory it controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border on Sunday, effectively sealing the extremists' self-styled caliphate off from the outside world, Turkey's prime minister and a Syrian opposition group reported.

Also on Sunday, Syrian pro-government forces backed by airstrikes launched a wide offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, capturing areas they lost last month and besieging rebel-held neighborhoods, state media and opposition activists said.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels have cleared the area between the northern Syrian border towns of Azaz and Jarablus, Turkey's prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said. "From Azaz to Jarablus, 91 kilometers (57 miles) of our border has been completely secured. All the terrorist organizations are pushed back, they are gone," Yildirim said, speaking at a dinner with non-government organizations in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

The FSA's advance shut down key supply lines used by IS to bring in foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS "has lost its link with the outside world after losing all border areas" with Turkey. It said the last two border villages that IS held were Mizab and Qadi Jarablus, which were taken Sunday afternoon.

IS had occupied the border area even before it declared its self-styled caliphate in June 2014, and it used the Turkish border to bring in fighters from around the world. The extremist group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, is now surrounded from all sides by hostile forces.

The loss of its territory along the Turkish border follows a series of recent defeats for IS, including its expulsion from the central Iraqi city of Fallujah and its defeat in the former stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have killed a number of the group's most prominent founding members and leaders.

In a statement, Turkey's armed forces said the "the Jarablus-Azaz line has been connected." Turkey has long pushed for a safe zone in Syria between these two towns, with a plan to house Syrian refugees there. Turkey hosts an estimated 3 million Syrian refugees, the highest number in the world.

Meanwhile, the recapture and return to siege of rebel-held parts of Aleppo dealt a major blow to insurgent groups. They have lost scores of fighters in recent weeks in the battle to open a corridor into the city and lift the government's blockade.

After the government laid siege on Aleppo for the first time in July, the United Nations said that nearly 300,000 residents were trapped in rebel-held neighborhoods, making it the largest besieged area in war-torn Syria. The city has been contested since the summer of 2012.

Sunday's push follows a month after insurgents captured several military academies south of Aleppo and opened a corridor into opposition-held parts of Syria's largest city and onetime commercial center. Since then, government forces and their allies have been trying to recapture the area.

State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops are now in full control of the military academies south of Aleppo and are "chasing the remnant of terrorists." It added that all roads linking rebel-held eastern Aleppo with opposition areas outside the city "have been cut."

The Observatory confirmed these gains. "The (rebel-held) neighborhoods are under siege again," said the Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman, by telephone. "The whole areas are under complete siege."

Turkey has launched two incursions into Syria since Aug. 24 in an operation designed to drive IS away from the border and prevent the advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which are also battling the extremist group.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Sunday defended his country's intervention in Syria, pointing to their long shared border. "We are there to protect our borders, ensure the safety of our citizens' lives and property, and to protect the territorial integrity of Syria," Yildirim said in Diyarbakir.

Turkey has also said it will not allow Syrian Kurds to unite their "cantons," the regions under their control in northern Syria, which have emerged as autonomous zones during the civil war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a joint press conference with U.S. president Barack Obama in China that "our wish is that a terror corridor does not form on our southern border."

Turkey views the Kurds as a threat and the Turkey-backed forces have clashed with them outside Jarablus. In an emailed press statement, Turkey's military said the FSA have taken 20 villages from IS, adding that the Turkish army struck 83 Islamic State group targets. Since the Turkish operation began on Aug. 24, the army says it has hit 383 targets with 1,599 rounds.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Neyran Elden in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Qatar or Iran: Who will save Hamas?

Author Shlomi Eldar
September 7, 2016
Translator Ruti Sinai

The top Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud al-Zahar, left Gaza on Sept. 3 for the airport in Cairo through the Rafah border crossing, accompanied by a large delegation of some 50 Hamas officials. This appears to be the largest group of officials, activists and bodyguards ever to leave Gaza as a group. Haniyeh’s family members joined the delegation, too. Ahmad Bahar, a senior veteran Hamas official and the first deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was supposed to join the group, but sources in Gaza told Al-Monitor that Egypt refused to grant him a travel permit at the border and he was forced to return home.

The Egyptians closely scrutinized every name on the list submitted by the Hamas leadership, and all members of the delegation were required to undergo extensive security checks at the border. From there, they headed for the airport in Cairo and boarded a flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the Rafah border crossing, Hamas officials could see hundreds of Gaza residents — hungry and desperate men, women and children who had left Gaza for medical treatment, as the Egyptian authorities imposed on them difficult procedures for entering the Gaza Strip upon their return.

The departure of the Hamas delegation is additional proof of the dramatic changes underway that will determine the movement’s direction and future.

Haniyeh was joined by his wife and three of his youngest children. His son Abed, considered to wield significant influence within Hamas, stayed behind to look after his father’s interests and maintain his link with the Gaza security forces in his absence. As Al-Monitor reported in June, from the moment the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, announced that he would not seek re-election in the upcoming balloting for the movement’s leadership, the road was paved for Haniyeh’s succession. No one else has dared run against him, not even Hamas senior Mousa Abu Marzouk, who established the political bureau and saved it from annihilation at least twice in the past.

Elections for the movement’s leadership will be held at the end of the year, but Haniyeh is planning to relocate with his family and close associates to Qatar, from where he will conduct Hamas' affairs in the coming, most critical months in the movement's history.

It is not yet clear whether he plans to follow in the footsteps of Meshaal, who moved to Doha permanently after escaping from Damascus in 2012, or only to stay there through the election process, until he is officially declared the movement’s leader and the outgoing leadership hands over the reins. Meshaal has headed the political bureau and steered it since 1996.

Upon arrival in Qatar, members of the delegation will be invited for a welcoming meeting with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who has enabled the Hamas political bureau to operate from his country. But the important point is that by moving to Qatar for the next few months, Haniyeh will be able to come and go as he pleases — contrary to his situation in the Gaza Strip. Thus, he will be able to manage freely the bureau and engage in the campaign to raise money for Hamas in those countries ready to accept him.

The delegation’s first stop is Saudi Arabia, where they will fulfill their hajj duty in the holy city of Mecca. The planned pilgrimage enabled the Hamas delegation to get Egypt’s permission to leave Gaza with relative ease. Not all the delegation members will then head for Qatar; Zahar intends to travel to Tehran and meet Iran’s top spiritual leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While Meshaal has in recent years been a persona non grata in Iran, and all attempts at reconciliation between the sides failed, Zahar is the only one among the top Hamas officials to have maintained ties with Iran.

The future direction of Hamas will be determined in Doha and Tehran. If Zahar succeeds in appeasing Iran, mending the deep schism created by Meshaal between Hamas and Iran and getting Khamenei’s blessing, the movement’s leadership can breathe easy and hope for the removal of the stranglehold crippling it in recent years, especially in financial terms. A tightening of the ties with Iran would invariably lead to the loss of Saudi support and restore Hamas’ former obligation to take its marching orders from Iran.

The military arm of Hamas has long been pressing the movement’s leadership to reconcile with Tehran as the only way to strengthen the organization with weapons and military equipment and to prepare it for a possible military confrontation with Israel.

If Iran sends Zahar away with polite words, and does not restore the relationship and the extent of its aid to previous levels, before the crisis between the sides, the burden will fall on Haniyeh’s shoulders. Sources in Gaza believe this is the reason Haniyeh left for Qatar at this time, well before the elections. He wants to put out feelers to all the Arab states to open up new channels of aid, including from Muslim foundations around the world.

Haniyeh and Zahar are two arrowheads heading in separate directions. The direction that yields the most impressive results will dictate Hamas’ future moves. In the event the movement fails in its efforts to substantially increase aid from Iran and Qatar, Haniyeh and Zahar will be forced to adopt a third, least preferable option: reconciliation with the Fatah movement and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

If Hamas is forced to turn to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for help, it will have to cede partial control of the Gaza Strip. This is one of the reasons why senior Fatah officials believe Hamas wants the PA to win many municipal districts in Gaza in the upcoming local elections slated for Oct. 8. Hamas leaders understand, as Al-Monitor reported recently, that the presence in Gaza of Fatah heads of councils could encourage the European Union to resume the infusion of money to Gaza. Now it seems that Hamas also hopes that such a presence will open up a window for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

The Hamas delegation has left on a critical mission to save the movement. If its leaders know how to read the map of tensions and different interests of various Arab state blocs, and to draw relevant conclusions for their movement’s future, they also know there is not much reason to be optimistic.

Source: al-Monitor.
Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/israel-qatar-or-iran-who-will-save-hamas.html.

Turkish aid helps Gazans buy Eid clothes

September 5, 2016

Families who are in need in Gaza City were given vouchers worth 200-250 shekels ($53-66) to spend at an Eid clothing project as part of Turkish aid distribution projects in the city.

Undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Yousef Ibrahim, said funds were distributed based on the number of children in each family. Some 87,000 children benefited from the aid, he added, thanking the Turkish government.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, in collaboration with both the Ministry of Youth and Sports and Young Muslim Women’s Association, inaugurated the project which will run until Eid day.

The first deputy chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, Ahmad Bahar, praised Turkish efforts made in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs in providing assistance to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Bahar also praised the role of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which he said has been very transparent in its aid distribution process. He called on the Arab League and the international community to step in and lift the siege on the Strip.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160905-turkish-aid-helps-gazan-buy-eid-clothes/.

Uzbekistan to hold presidential election on December 4

09 September 2016 Friday

Uzbekistan will elect a new president on December 4 following the death of long-time leader Islam Karimov, Reuters news agency reported.

The country's elections authority made the announcement on Friday, just a day after the Uzbek parliament named Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as interim president.

Under the Uzbek constitution, a presidential election must be held within three months, and Mirziyoyev, who was the official mourner-in-chief at Karimov's funeral is widely expected to be elected.

Karimov died of a stroke last week after ruling the resource-rich country for 27 years. Nearly half of the country's 32 million citizens were born after he came to power.

Many analysts had anticipated that Karimov would be succeeded by his older daughter Gulnara, a businesswoman and pop star, but she fell from favour two years ago and there was no sign of her on Saturday among the family members in the funeral cortege.

With no obvious successor, Karimov's death has triggered an outpouring of grief, mixed with uncertainty about the future.

Unrest would have repercussions for Russia, the regional power and home to hundreds of thousands of Uzbek migrant workers, and for the US-allied government in Afghanistan.

The Kremlin's top political adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said on Saturday that Moscow expected the political situation in Uzbekistan to remain stable.

The Uzbek government has long been repeatedly criticized for human rights abuses, most notoriously in 2005 in the city of Andijan, where government forces are accused of killing hundreds of demonstrators.

Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, accused Karimov's security forces of executing two dissidents by boiling them to death.

Source: al-Jazeera.
Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/uzbekistan-hold-presidential-election-december-4-160909104447868.html.

Muslim pilgrims begin hajj, but this year without Iranians

September 10, 2016

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Close to 2 million people from around the world began performing the first rites of the Islamic hajj pilgrimage on Saturday, which calls for entering into a state of physical and spiritual purity and circling the cube-shaped Kaaba with their palms facing upward in supplication and prayer.

Notably absent this year are Iranian pilgrims. Last year, some 64,000 Iranians took part in the hajj, but disputes with the Saudi government prompted Tehran to bar its citizens from taking part this year.

Saudi Arabia has blamed Iranian officials for the decision and suggests it was politically motivated to publicly pressure the kingdom. Iran says Saudi "incompetence" caused a crush and stampede during last year's hajj that killed more than 460 of its citizens. On Friday, thousands of Iranians marched through the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities to protest Saudi Arabia, chanting prayers against the kingdom's Sunni rulers after midday prayers.

The hajj is one of the world's largest pilgrimages. It draws the faithful to the holy city of Mecca and areas around it for five intense days of rituals and prayers aimed at erasing past sins and drawing Muslims closer to God. The pilgrimage is required of all Muslims to perform once in their lifetime.

To begin the hajj, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims circle the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque. In a sign of humility and equality before God, the pilgrims shed symbols of materialism, entering a state of "ihram." Women forgo makeup and perfume and wear loose-fitting clothing and a head covering, while men dress in seamless, white terry cloth garments.

Since arriving in Mecca over the past several weeks, hundreds of thousands have chanted, "Labayk Allahuma Labayk," or "Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am." While following a route the Prophet Muhammad once walked, the rites of hajj are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The Interior Ministry says more than 1.3 million people from 160 different countries have arrived to the kingdom to perform the hajj this year. Most pilgrims will spend the evening outside Mecca in a valley called Mina that houses more than 160,000 tents. They will head to an area called Arafat on Sunday for the pinnacle of the pilgrimage, an emotional day of repentance and supplication.

For the first time in more than three decades, Saudi Arabia's top cleric will not be delivering this year's prestigious hajj sermon on Sunday. Al-Riyadh newspaper reported Saturday that Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, who has delivered the sermon since 1981, will be replaced by Sheikh Saleh bin Hamid.

Hamid previously served as chairman of the top consultative Shura Council and was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Council before serving as a royal adviser. The newspaper did not give a reason for the change.

The mufti sparked controversy this week when, in response to the Iranian criticisms, he was quoted as saying that Iran's Shiite leaders "are not Muslims."

Hajj 2016: More than a million Muslims head to Mecca

09 September 2016 Friday

Millions of Muslims from around the world have started arriving in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a central pillar of the Islamic faith that re-enacts the actions of the Prophet Muhammad from more than 1,400 years ago.

Worshipers from more than 150 countries began gathering on Friday in the city, one of the holiest sites in Islam, to prepare for the five-day pilgrimage which starts on Saturday, September 10.

A spiritual journey meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God, this year's Hajj is expected to be attended by more than 1.5 million pilgrims.

To address security concerns, nearly a thousand new surveillance cameras have been installed at Mecca's Grand Mosque, which will monitor crowd numbers, and the Jamarat stoning (a symbolic stoning of the devil based on historic tradition) will be more tightly controlled than in previous years.

Also for the first time, pilgrims will be given electronic bracelets storing personal and medical information that will help authorities provide care and identify people.

Water-resistant and connected to GPS, the devices will also instruct worshipers on timings of prayers and a multilingual help desk will guide pilgrims around the various rituals.

Last year's Hajj was marred by a stampede that killed more than 750 people. However, counts carried out by countries who repatriated bodies showed that more than 2,000 people may have died in the crush, according to news agencies.

The disaster deepened tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, as many of the pilgrims killed were Iranian.

Relations between the two countries hit a new low earlier this year when they failed to reach a deal on arrangements for Iranian citizens attending this year's pilgrimage.

Source: al-Jazeera.
Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/hajj-2016-millions-muslims-start-arriving-mecca-160909061605825.html.

Catalonia separatist leader urges binding independence vote

September 11, 2016

MADRID (AP) — The leader of Spain's powerful northeastern region of Catalonia has said he plans to propose a government-approved binding independence referendum to secede from Spain by next year. Catalonia's separatist leader, Carles Puigdemont, spoke Saturday at a news conference before celebrations of the Catalan National Day holiday, which separatists have used for years to rally hundreds of thousands in support of a new European nation.

Around 1.6 million people voted in favor of secession in a non-binding vote held in 2014. Most of the region's 5.4 million eligible voters didn't participate. Polls show most Catalans support a referendum on independence, but are roughly divided over splitting from Spain.

Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, his conservative Popular Party and two more of Spain's main political parties oppose a Catalonian state.

Catalan separatists rally in Barcelona to support secession

September 11, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of separatist-minded Catalans rallied in Barcelona on Sunday to show their support for breaking away from Spain, leaving the country without its powerful and prosperous northeastern region.

Barcelona police estimated on their Twitter account that about 540,000 people attended the rally in support of a legally-binding referendum that would achieve an independent Catalonia. Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont said that he plans to propose a government-approved binding independence referendum to secede from Spain by next year. Spain, which opposes secession, argues that an independent Catalonia would be ejected from the European Union and left out from using the euro currency.

Catalonia held a non-binding vote in 2014, when around 1.6 million people voted in favor of independence. Most of the region's 5.4 million eligible voters didn't participate after Spain's Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of the ballot.

In June, a Catalan judge recommended former regional president Artur Mas stand trial for staging the vote and ignoring the suspension. Mas claims the vote was carried out by volunteers. Catalan National Day has long been used to mobilize the masses in support of secession from Spain.

Polls show most Catalans support a referendum on independence, but are roughly divided over splitting from Spain. Catalonia shares cultural traits with the rest of Spain, but many Catalans feel their customs, especially their language, set them aside from the rest of Spain.

Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, his conservative Popular Party and two more of Spain's main political parties oppose a Catalonian state. Only the far-left Podemos supports allowing Catalonia to hold an independence referendum.

The economically-powerful Catalonia has a thriving population of 7.5 million and accounts for 18 percent of Spain's economic output.

Brazilian police clash with protesters rejecting new leader

September 05, 2016

SAO PAULO (AP) — Police in Brazil's biggest city clashed with protesters who marched to reject the new president Sunday, five days after Dilma Rousseff was ousted as leader of South America's biggest nation.

Sao Paulo authorities said they were forced to use tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to stop vandalism after an "initially peaceful" demonstration against President Michel Temer. In a statement, the public safety department said a group became violent at a subway station, destroying turnstiles and throwing rocks at anti-riot police after the demonstration ended.

Earlier in the day, people gathered on the Copacabana promenade in Rio de Janeiro to demand Temer's removal and call for new elections. Rousseff has vowed to form a strong opposition against Temer, who was her vice president. She is appealing her impeachment to Brazil's Supreme Court, but legal experts say it is unlikely to succeed as several appeals during the months-long impeachment process were rejected.

In comments with foreign media Friday, Rousseff said she would raise her voice if Temer's administration tried to suppress protests. In the days leading up to her ouster and afterward, a handful of small anti-Temer demonstrations were broken up by police.

At a news conference during the Group of 20 meeting in China before the Sao Paulo protest, Temer said demonstrators who damaged property would be punished. "Causing destruction is a crime. That's not a demonstration," he said.

New elections could come if Temer resigned before year end, was impeached himself or was disqualified by electoral authorities for alleged campaign violations in 2014.

2 years after cease-fire weary Ukraine still at war

September 08, 2016

MARINKA, Ukraine (AP) — The gray-bearded officer's summary of the war in eastern Ukraine is terse with weariness. "We stand in place. We shoot over there, they shoot back from over there," Mykhailo Gaiduk said. "It's just burning up time."

The area that Gaiduk calls "over there" is territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists, where a rebel using the nom de guerre of Chester agrees: "Everybody is tired of this pointless war." A cease-fire signed two years ago was supposed to have ended the fighting. So was a cease-fire last year.

A temporary truce called for the beginning of the new school year on Sept. 1 briefly tamped down the fighting — the Ukrainian side reported only one soldier and one rebel were killed Tuesday. But that relative calm is clearly fragile; Ukraine also claimed rebels fired some 90 mortar rounds at troops outside the city of Mariupol, one of the war's tensest areas.

According to United Nations figures, more than 9,500 people have been killed in the fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that began in April 2014, after Ukraine's Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by street protests and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

The region, which is also known as Donbass, forms Ukraine's Russian-speaking industrial heartland and many local residents on both sides of the front line are deeply distrustful of the new Ukrainian government's Western-leaning policies. However, an all-out war didn't break out there until after the arrival of a large number of troops and heavy weaponry, chiefly believed to be Russian supplies.

Despite the carnage and the weariness of those inflicting it, there's little expectation it will actually stop anytime soon. Ukraine says it will propose making the start-of-school cease-fire permanent at a meeting of conflict negotiators on Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus. But the word "Minsk" has become nearly synonymous with broken promises and dashed hopes.

The Minsk Protocol of September 2014, signed by Ukraine, Russia and rebel representatives, called for an end to the fighting. That agreement frayed so fast that five months later a new round of negotiations — this time including France and Germany — were held in Minsk.

Although the agreement coming from that meeting had a firmer grip and saw both sides pull back heavy weaponry from the front lines for a time, other provisions weren't met; attacks resumed and escalated.

Under the Minsk agreements, the two rebel-controlled regions — which call themselves the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics — are to remain part of Ukraine, which disappointed many who sought absorption into Russia or outright independence. But although remaining part of Ukraine, they are to have some powers devolved to them and Ukraine is to conduct regional elections.

However, Ukraine says it will not call elections there until it is allowed full return of control of the Ukraine-Russia border, a concession the rebels are unwilling to give. The leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, which relies heavily on support from Russia, says straight out that the stalemate is in his interest.

"Time works for us. The Minsk agreement is our great diplomatic victory, the guarantee of our independent status ... The Minsk agreement tied Kiev's hands, and we were given the opportunity to become stronger," Alexander Zakharchenko recently told journalists.

And in a way it may work in Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's interest too, says analyst Vadim Karasyov. "War is profitable for both sides. The separatists make money. And Poroshenko can attribute all the problems of (Ukraine's) economy to the war," he said.

As awful as the full-scale war was, some on Ukraine's front lines found it preferable to the seemingly endless grind of today's smaller clashes. "In 2014, we suffered losses, but we won, we went ahead. We squeezed them, we beat them, they were afraid of us," said a Ukrainian sniper who gave his name only as Corporal. "Now we're bearing the same losses, but standing still."

Belgrade's old perfume shop holds back the years

September 07, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — On a cobblestone street in central Belgrade, amid designer boutiques and trendy snack bars, stands a small perfume shop that is the last keeper of a dying craft and a witness to the Serbian capital's turbulent history.

The Sava Perfumery is the only one of its kind still remaining in Belgrade — a small family business of home-made perfumes and other beauty products, the kind that once thrived here but have vanished as mass-production has taken over.

Set up shortly before World War II, the perfumery has held on through the German Nazi occupation of Belgrade, the postwar Communist era and the 1990s bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. Nowadays, the small cherry-red shop still seems to defy time — its wood-rimmed shop window displays old glass jars, small perfume bottles — one of them in the shape of Paris' Eiffel Tower — and black-and-white photographs behind the blurred glass.

The perfumery's old, slightly crooked door opens with a squeak, a door bell announcing a visitor. Behind the counter, a gray-haired man wearing a spotless white shirt greets the customers. "Welcome to the time capsule!" Nenad Jovanov smiles.

Almost everything inside Jovanov's shop dates back to the time when his father and uncle first opened in 1941, just months before the Nazi occupation of Belgrade began. Old wooden shelves are packed with glass bottles of all sizes and perfume-making equipment, an ancient lipstick-making machine is kept in the backroom.

Jovanov's uncle and father had started out ambitiously, creating a perfume line dubbed "L'amour" along with a series of French-style beauty products for glamour-hungry Belgrade ladies. The war soon imposed a totally different reality.

"Many times, my father and uncle had to trade our products for cheese, eggs or a chicken," Jovanov said. "It was pure survival, we had to eat." Testifying to the German occupation period is a small, grayish-green French military typewriter that a German soldier sold to Jovanov's uncle claiming it had been confiscated at the Maginot frontline following the French surrender.

"I would like these things to go to a museum one day. It would be a great pity to see them lost," Jovanov said. Tough times did not end with the war. The Communist authorities closed down the shop in 1948 as part of a wider ban on privately owned businesses, and the Jovanovs had to rely on the help of relatives until the authorities in 1954 allowed them to reopen the perfumery. The business boomed during the 1950s and '60s, while there was still no mass production.

Jovanov, who was born in 1949, played in the shop as a small boy and slowly learned the craft. "I spent my childhood and earned my first pocket money here," he recalled. Jovanov still mixes scents the old-fashioned way — adding various ingredients to the perfume base that he purchases from perfume producers. Long measuring tubes and bottles of all sizes capped with filters fill the working counter at the back of the perfumery, where Jovanov adds minute drops until he gets a perfect mixture.

Once a customer picks a scent, Jovanov fills a small bottle and offers a free spray to go, using a 1930s sprinkler. The next time, a customer can save money by asking only for a refill. "I enjoy everything here, I could talk to Mr. Sava for hours," said Vera Brankovic, an elderly Belgrade woman referring to Jovanov by the shop's name — a common mistake that he does not object to. "This shop has a soul. I could never return to the modern shops."

For a couple living in Australia, the Sava Perfumery presented a curiosity and an opportunity to get a professional's advice about the kind of perfume that would suit them. "It is unique to be able to choose your perfume like this," said 42-year-old Rosanda Kovacevic.

Jovanov said he finds it very hard to run a small business in the era of mass production. Ingredients, bottles and anything else he needs for the perfumes are almost impossible to purchase in small quantities, and there are no other shops to chip in — they all closed down during the crisis years in the 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up in a series of bloody conflicts and Serbia was placed under international isolation.

"My colleagues sold their shops to more profitable businesses such as betting or mobile phones," Jovanov smiled. Jovanov said that his craft has been erased from the state register, listed as "other products" or soaps and detergents. Asked whether his son plans to take over one day, Jovanov only smiled.

"He is more than welcome," he said.

Poland probes financial scam that could see Tusk testify

September 07, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Polish parliamentary commission on Wednesday opened an investigation into one of the country's biggest financial scams that could see Donald Tusk — the former prime minister and current European Union president — called on to testify.

The scam was operated between 2009 and 2012 by a couple and deprived 19,000 people — many of them elderly — of savings worth some 850 million zlotys ($219 million). The committee plans to question state authorities of the time. Observers say that could include Tusk, who led the government at the time. The parliamentary commission is led by a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party, rival to Tusk's party.

Its findings could lead prosecutors to open new investigations into the scam. Law and Justice, which took power in the fall, blames Tusk and his government for many social ills, such as an inefficient legal system and uneven economic development across the country.

The "Amber Gold" financial scam was a pyramid scheme that exemplifies these ills, the party leaders say. In its electoral campaign the Law and Justice vowed to bring those guilty to account. The married couple who ran the scheme, identified only as Marcin P. and Katarzyna P., are on trial.

People were lured by promises of 10 percent or more interest on their deposits. They were put off guard by the fact that the nicely-looking "Amber Gold" offices were often located next door to respectable banks, while its ads resembled those of existing financial institutions.

Commission head Malgorzata Wasserman said the investigation's aim is to determine why government, banking, justice and security authorities failed to stop the scheme or effectively warn citizens against it.

Marcin P. had a number of suspended sentences for fraud before he started the "Amber Gold" scam and it remains to be explained why he had not been put in prison then.

Italian populist backs Rome mayor amid administration chaos

September 08, 2016

ROME (AP) — The leader of Italy's populist 5-Star Movement is giving Rome's embattled mayor a public vote of confidence after her administration fell into disarray over a spate of resignations and judicial inquiries.

In a blog post Friday and a public appearance late Thursday, comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo denounced what he called a media-invented campaign to discredit Virginia Raggi, the first woman to lead Rome's city hall.

"There's not just garbage to cancel, but an entire rotten system of power," read the blog, signed by Grillo and other top officials of the movement. Raggi's new administration was thrown into chaos last week after she dismissed her Cabinet chief and four other officials resigned. This week, she had to respond after reports emerged that her environment minister was under investigation by prosecutors. And on Thursday, she had to ditch the proposed nomination of a replacement budget director because she said his background didn't fit the 5-Star criteria.

Raggi came to office in June promising to fix Rome's transport, garbage and corruption scandals. Her predecessor, from the Democratic Party of Premier Matteo Renzi, had been forced out over an expense account scandal.

Italian newspapers have been rife with reports of internal divisions within the 5-Star Movement over Raggi's choices for administration posts. Her position is important to the upstart movement as it represents its biggest electoral prize yet.

She has admitted mistakes but said Friday: "I'm not giving up."

Greece rejects return of EU rule on reverse migration flow

September 09, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The Greek government is adamantly opposing the revival of a European Union rule that would allow the forcible return to its territory of asylum-seekers who entered the bloc via Greece — a path followed by more than a million people in the past two years.

Immigration is high on the agenda of a meeting Friday in Athens of southern European leaders. The group includes Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country, with Greece, is Europe's main immigration gateway.

Ahead of the talks, a government spokesman on immigration said Athens rejects reactivation of the so-called Dublin Regulation, which would allow other EU members to send asylum-seekers back to Greece.

"A country such as Greece which receives a large number of refugees from Turkey, and also hosts a large number of refugees — practically without any outside help — cannot be asked to receive refugees from other European countries," Giorgos Kyritsis told The Associated Press. "That would be outrageous."

The Dublin Regulation that governs the Schengen passport-free area stipulates that people wishing to apply for asylum must do so in the first member country they arrive in. In most cases that was Greece, whose eastern islands were overwhelmed last year by migrants packed into smugglers boats from Turkey. But even before last year's migration crisis, many of its EU partners had stopped enforcing the rule because Greece's asylum and migrant reception systems were below standard.

Now, however, both Germany and the EU executive are pressing for the rule to be restored, with EU officials saying that Greece must meet the Dublin standards by the end of this year. Brad Blitz, migration expert and professor of international politics at Middlesex University in Britain, said sending large numbers of asylum-seekers back to Greece would apply an ever greater strain on the country's asylum system and reception capacity.

"Unless there is an effective means of redistribution across the EU, a revised Dublin system will force refugees upon receiving states closest to the external border, above all Greece, Italy and to a lesser extent Spain," he said.

"It will do so by insisting they apply for asylum in Greece, and potentially by returning them from other EU states to Greece. In sum, this will enable returns and discourage EU states from accepting more refugees, including Greece," Blitz said.

Kyritsis, the government official, said Greece considers the Dublin rule to be "practically dead" because it does not address current migratory pressures and should be drastically overhauled. He added that calls for its reintroduction are to a degree linked with domestic political concerns in Germany, and he argued that EU members are lagging in implementing commitments to take in refugees from Greece — part of an EU-Turkey deal this year to stem the migratory flow.

Kyritsis said the migrant relocation deal ought to have seen 33,000 people transferred to other EU countries from Greece so far. Instead, only 3,000 have made the journey. "There are 7,000 people ready and waiting to be relocated, so in this field other European countries and the European Union do not appear to ... have done what they ought to have done," he said.

About 60,000 refugees and other migrants remain trapped in Greece since a series of Balkan border closures in March, which were closely followed by a March EU-Turkey deal that provides for the return to Turkey of all migrants who get across to Greece.

Human rights groups have criticized the agreement, saying it condemns refugees to an uncertain future in Turkey, and implementation has proved problematic as Greek authorities struggle to process asylum bids by people arguing that they shouldn't be sent back.

The agreement is also looking increasingly shaky following disagreements over visa-free entry to the EU for Turks and simmering tensions between individual bloc members and Turkey. Kyritsis, however, said Athens has no indication that the deal will not hold.

"There are problems, a negotiation is under way ... we hope for the best," he said. Friday's talks are in preparation for next week's informal EU summit in Bratislava, although Greek organizers insist it's not an attempt to heighten division between Europe's prosperous north and financially beleaguered south.

Greece's left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, together with Italy's Renzi, French President Francois Hollande and the leaders of Portugal, Cyprus and Malta, will also be discussing investment and job creation, as well as security. Spain's prime minister was unable to attend.

German nationalists revel in success, but future unclear

September 09, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — An upstart German nationalist party has gone from ousting its leader amid bitter infighting just over a year ago to reveling in newfound success. The Alternative for Germany party's ratings were as low as 4 percent just 14 months ago. But the party has since tapped into anger over Chancellor Angela Merkel's migrant policies and become a thorn in the side of all of the country's established parties.

Known by its German acronym AfD, the party was founded in 2013 as a group focused on opposing Merkel's eurozone rescue policies. Opposition to immigration and Islam have taken center stage since Frauke Petry ousted co-founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor who dominated its early public profile, to become its best-known face in July last year.

Much remains unclear, though, about the party's long-term strength, aims and leadership. AfD now polls between 11 and 14 percent nationally, and won over 20 percent of votes in two state elections this year in the ex-communist east. It overtook Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats to finish second last weekend in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the chancellor has her parliamentary constituency.

Merkel told the national parliament this week that it is "a challenge for us all." AfD in May approved a policy platform which declares that "Islam is not part of Germany," opposes "unregulated asylum immigration" and rejects Turkish membership in the European Union. It opposes planned free-trade agreements with the U.S. and Canada and urges more direct democracy, including national referendums.

In other areas, AfD embraces policies abandoned by Merkel's conservatives. It advocates the return of military conscription and extending the life of nuclear power stations. All of its top personalities have courted controversy at times — Petry, for example, by suggesting earlier this year that police could shoot migrants trying to enter Germany, and deputy leader Alexander Gauland by reportedly saying that many people wouldn't want a key player on Germany's national soccer team, who is black, as their neighbor.

Public infighting soon resurfaced after last year's split, with at least four figures vying for influence at the top. For now at least, voters don't appear to care. AfD suffers from "personal incompatibilities of the kind there always are in a young party," Gauland said recently. "But I don't think they are at all relevant for the party's success, because they don't involve real political differences."

AfD's fortunes picked up after Merkel allowed in a surge of migrants last September. Gauland said "the chancellor's wrong refugee policy was a piece of luck for the party." In Mecklenburg, a region with few foreigners but scant resources and high unemployment, AfD took voters from almost all of what it calls contemptuously "the old parties." Those rivals range from the Left Party, a descendant of East Germany's communists and once a favorite with protest voters, to Merkel's conservatives.

Its success also eliminated the far-right National Democratic Party from its last state legislature, while many previous non-voters turned out for AfD. AfD is keen to dismiss suggestions it's a one-issue party as it looks to enter Germany's national Parliament in an election expected next September. Petry said this week it will campaign on "the euro crisis, the question of how we deal with Europe and the EU, how do we solve the problems that result from undirected illegal migration regarding family policy, regarding domestic security."

Whether it will have a single lead candidate, and who that might be, remains unclear. And its political profile is complicated by constant jostling at the top. Petry, the most prominent leader, has described her political style as "constructive with an occasional penchant for provocation."

That's a sharp contrast with the consensual approach of the chancellor, who said at a recent campaign appearance: "There are people who are good at provoking, but that doesn't achieve anything for the country."

Petry, a 41-year-old businesswoman and mother of four born in the eastern city of Dresden, studied chemistry in England and Germany and was a newcomer to politics when she became one of AfD's founding leaders in 2013. She shares with the 62-year-old Merkel a childhood in the ex-communist east, a background in science and a late entry to politics — but little else.

Petry vies for influence with co-chairman Joerg Meuthen, Gauland and Bjoern Hoecke, a prominent figure on the party's hard right. All four have regional power bases, leading parliamentary groups in states where AfD has won seats.

Senior figures also sound different notes on whether AfD aims for all-out opposition or an eventual government role. Meuthen said Monday that "we want to govern in the long term in this country — and we will head down that road persistently, unflinchingly and step by step."

Gauland, however, said that in Germany's coalition-based system it would be impossible for AfD to go into government with anything short of a near-absolute majority. "There are four leadership figures who are fighting each other bitterly ... that's a bit much for such a small party," said Hajo Funke, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University. While they present themselves as moderate, AfD has a "radical center that is pushing the party before it," he added.

Funke said that, because it lacks a leadership figure like Joerg Haider, who led Austria's Freedom Party to success, he doesn't see AfD coming close to the success of populist parties in Austria, France or the Netherlands.

It can expect support of "10 to 12 percent, if things stay the way they are, perhaps a bit less," he said.

Merkel takes blame for German vote defeat, but holds course

September 05, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel took responsibility for her party's election defeat in the German state where she has her political base, but strongly defended her migrant policy on Monday even as she vowed to win back voters' trust.

A year before an expected national election, a nationalist, anti-immigration party's second-place finish Sunday ahead of Merkel's conservatives was a jolt that will likely increase tensions in Germany's governing coalition. However, the result didn't pose any immediate threat to Merkel, 62, Germany's leader since 2005.

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union finished third in the election for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's state legislature, behind the three-year-old Alternative for Germany, or AfD. It was held exactly a year after she decided to let in migrants stuck in Hungary, triggering the peak of last year's influx. Merkel conceded the outcome was "almost entirely about federal political issues."

The center-left Social Democrats, Merkel's partners in Germany's national government, remained the strongest party in Mecklenburg. They have led the regional government for a decade with the CDU as junior partner, a coalition they can continue if they choose.

The region is sparsely populated, but the vote was symbolically significant because Merkel's parliamentary constituency is there. It was the first of five regional ballots before a national election a year away. The next is Sept. 18 in Berlin, where local issues are likely to feature more strongly.

Mecklenburg is home to few foreigners, but Merkel acknowledged that migrant policy was a dominant theme. New arrivals have slowed drastically after more than 1 million people were registered as asylum-seekers in 2015, and asylum policies have been tightened. Still, New Year's Eve robberies and sexual assaults blamed largely on foreigners, and two attacks in July carried out by asylum-seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group, have fed tensions.

"We must all consider how we can now win back trust, me first and foremost," Merkel told reporters on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China. "I am the party leader, I am the chancellor — you can't separate those in people's eyes, so I am of course responsible too" for the result, Merkel said. "However, I believe the decisions that have been made were right, and now we must continue working."

She added that "the issue of integration will play a huge role in that, and the question of the repatriation of refugees who have no residence permit here." Merkel's critics have faulted her for sticking to her mantra that "we will manage" the refugee crisis. Sunday's result may make it tougher to smooth over a dispute with the Christian Social Union, her conservative Union bloc's Bavarian arm, which criticized her welcoming approach from the start and wants an annual migrant cap.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, Bavaria's governor, told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the situation for the conservatives is "highly threatening." He was quoted as complaining that his "repeated demand for a change of course" on migrant policy hadn't been heeded and said Sunday's "disastrous" result was a consequence.

Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats' leader and a likely challenger to Merkel next year, underlined his party's increasing distance from the chancellor as it eyes the national election. He accused her conservatives of being too slow to respond to the migrant crisis.

"We have wasted a great deal of time with unnecessary arguments," he said, arguing that Merkel had been guilty of "simply repeating 'we will manage it' without doing it as well." Although Merkel already adjusted migrant policies over the past year, she can't make a clean break from her overall approach because "that wouldn't be credible," political science professor Klaus Schroeder told N24 television. "So the quarrels between the CDU and CSU will continue, and the Social Democrats will turn even more strongly against the Union to have a chance in the national election campaign."

Merkel's bloc leads national polls, although her own popularity ratings have dropped from stellar to respectable. She hasn't yet declared whether she will seek a fourth term next year, but there's no obvious alternative.

AfD polls between 11 and 14 percent nationally and appears strongest in the ex-communist east. It basked Monday in its latest success. Leader Frauke Petry attacked Merkel's party for saying that "they haven't done anything wrong. They just didn't explain their policies."

"This ignorance is exemplary," she said. "It is not just ignorance. What we see here is the continuing arrogance of power." Petry, whose party has no prospect of going into government in the foreseeable future, complained that its rivals "still think they can label AfD as an undemocratic party."

On Sunday, AfD won support from across the spectrum to take 20.8 percent of votes, its second-best result yet. That helped push the far-right National Democratic Party out of its last state legislature.

Germany's Central Council of Jews voiced satisfaction at that development, but also concern about AfD. AfD "was unfortunately successful with its tactic of feeding prejudice against minorities and offering slogans instead of solutions," said the council's head, Josef Schuster.

"Apparently it is not clear to many voters, or they accept this, that AfD doesn't distance itself clearly from the far-right spectrum either in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or nationally."

French presidential primary pits Sarkozy against rival Juppe

September 11, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Nine contenders formally declared their candidatures for France's conservative presidential primary Friday, but the race is expected to come down to a tight battle between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppe. The winner will have a strong shot at the presidency in elections expected to hinge on security and the economy. Here's a look at the two men and their rivalry:

HIGH PROFILE POLITICIANS Nicolas Sarkozy, 61, was France's president from 2007 until 2012, when he lost to Francois Hollande. He has four children from three marriages, the latest with former top model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. He's counting on his image as a staunch advocate of authority, security and strict immigration policy.

Alain Juppe, 71, was prime minister from 1995 to 1997 under then-President Jacques Chirac, and foreign minister under Sarkozy between 2011 and 2012. He has three children from two marriages. Juppe emphasizes his experience to present himself as the wise politician France needs when the country is under threat of terror attacks.

Polls show Juppe is currently enjoying high popularity but Sarkozy, his main competitor out of seven other contenders, is getting closer.


Sarkozy wants a national law banning the burkini swimwear, arguing he's advocating for gender equality and the country's secular values. He also wants to ban the Islamic headscarf from universities, companies and public buildings. He opposes specific pork-free menus for Muslim and Jewish children to be offered in schools.

In France, the Islamic headscarf and all other visible religious signs are already banned in schools and for public servants.

Juppe is also strictly advocating for France's secular values, yet he is campaigning on the concept of a "happy identity" and respect for religious freedom, saying the French should cherish the "joy of living together." He's in favor of the freedom to choose between different menus in schools — including meat, fish or vegetarian— with no religious connotations.

The debate about the relation between religion and the state, in particular Islam — the second largest faith in the country — has been prominent following recent attacks by Islamic extremists in the country.


Immigration is considered a key issue in the upcoming election amid the major migrant crisis in Europe and the conservative presidential candidate will compete against far right National Front's Marine Le Pen, who is expected to score high.

Sarkozy calls for a new European immigration policy. He is opposed to grant French citizenship to children born from foreign parents, if they have a criminal record or if their family entered illegally in the country. He proposes to remove the emergency health care that enables migrants to get medical treatment for free.

Juppe proposes a cap on legal immigration to France, to be decided every year by Parliament.


Sarkozy and Juppe have quite similar economic proposals. They both want to substantially reduce public spending, diminish the number of public servants and put an end to France's 35-hour workweek — a measure they believe has held back France's economic growth since it was adopted in 2000.

They also propose a pension reform to gradually delay the age of retirement from 62 to 64, according to Sarkozy, or to 65 according to Juppe. They vow to decrease taxes, especially those paid by businesses.


A French prosecutor has requested this week that Sarkozy be sent to trial over suspected illegal overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign. In a separate case, Sarkozy was handed preliminary charges of corruption and influence-peddling based on information gleaned from phone taps about an alleged bid to get information from a judge ahead of a decision.

Sarkozy has not been convicted of any wrongdoing or gone to trial and legally, nothing prevents him from seeking office.

Juppe was convicted in 2004 of having taken illegal advantage of public funds — for the benefit of his party — while he was head of the conservative party in the 1990s. He served a 14-month suspended jail sentence and was deprived of the right to run for political office for one year.

Croatia holds snap vote with no clear winner in sight

September 11, 2016

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatian citizens were voting Sunday in an early parliamentary election that is unlikely to produce a clear winner and could pave the way for more political uncertainty in the European Union's newest member state.

The second vote in less than a year was called when a previous, right-wing government collapsed in June after less than six months in power, paralyzed by bickering within the ruling coalition. Political deadlock has delayed reforms that are necessary for Croatia to catch up with the rest of the EU. It has also fueled nationalist rhetoric amid heightened tensions with Serbia — its former Balkan war foe.

Opinion polls suggest that neither the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, known as HDZ, nor the left-leaning Social Democrats and their People's Coalition, will win enough votes to rule alone, though the leftist alliance has been projected taking a slight lead.

This means that that some of the smaller groups could play the role of kingmakers, as was the case with the Most group in the previous government. Some analysts have predicted that Croatia's next government could take months to form and end up as weak as the previous one.

Croatia had tilted to the right under the HDZ-led government that took over following the inconclusive vote last November. However, in the past weeks it has sought to remake its image as a centrist party under new leader Andrej Plenkovic.

The more moderate leader, who took over from right-leaning Tomislav Karamarko earlier this summer, said Sunday he expects high turnout among Croatia's nearly 3.8 million voters. "We are happy," Plenkovic said upon casting his ballot. "It's a beautiful day, so I expect the turnout to be bigger than if it was rainy."

HDZ and the Social Democrats have been the two dominant parties in Croatia since the country split from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The Social Democrats, led by former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, were in power for four years until last November.

Although more advanced than other Balkan countries, Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the EU following years of crisis after the split from former Yugoslavia and the 1991-95 war. After a six-year recession, Croatia has shown signs of recovery with reported growth of more than 2 percent. However, unemployment hovers around 14 percent — among the highest in the EU — and much of the fiscal growth is attributed to tourism along Croatia's Adriatic coast.

Kristijan Naher, a voter from Zagreb said he hopes Croatians "will be smarter now" and vote conclusively to "avoid the agony" that followed the last election. Zagreb resident Jelena Micic said she was hopeful things would improve.

"I think we are moving toward a better future for Croatia," Micic said.

Belorussians cast ballots for parliament, doubt

September 11, 2016

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belorussians cast ballots Sunday for a new parliament in the authoritarian former Soviet republic that has been taking steps toward rapprochement with the West. There are 484 candidates for the 110 lower-house seats that are being contested, but opposition leaders hold little hope of establishing a substantial presence in the legislature. The current House of Representatives has no opposition members.

Belarus' Soviet-style command economy has staggered in recent years. Gross domestic product fell 4 percent in 2015 and is down another 3 percent so far this year. President Alexander Lukashenko is eager to shore it up with Western investment, and the country is seeking a $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Belarus released all political prisoners last year, spurring the European Union to lift sanctions. The U.S. also suspended sanctions against some Belorussian enterprises, saying the issue of fully lifting them would be considered after a review of the elections to the lower house; upper house members are appointed by the president or chosen by local councils

Critics say tight restrictions on campaigning and state control of the news media inhibit a genuinely free election in Belarus. There are also concerns that the state can manipulate the results through early balloting, since ballot boxes were left unguarded during the five days of early voting.

"Lukashenko is showing the West that the opposition figures are not thrown into jail and repression is not open, but he is not capable of more. Parliament will remain sterile, the deputies will be carefully selected," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.

After casting his ballot in the capital, Minsk, Lukashenko said the West should be satisfied with how the elections were conducted. Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has led Belarus since 1994, consistently cracking down on opposition.

"Yes, we did everything so that there would not be any complaints put before us from the Western side," he said. But opposition leaders say nothing meaningful has been done to ensure a fair election. "The ruling regime has not fulfilled even one of the recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on democratic election law and in practice the elections are taking place in the habitual scenario of falsification," said a statement signed by more than 100 opposition candidates.

After the 2012 parliament elections, the OSCE called for such measures including increasing transparency of the vote count and improving rights of free expression. The Central Election Commission said turnout nationwide was nearly 68 percent. About 25 percent of the electorate cast ballots early, according to the commission. It wasn't clear when results would be announced.

Some voters agreed about the election conditions, but appeared resigned. "Yes, nothing in the country has changed, but there is stability and order," Pavel Lastovsky, a 56-year-old engineer who voted at a Minsk school, said. "We don't need a shock."

"I've had time to grow old with Lukashenko, of course he is tired," said voter Tatiana Chernyavskaya, 45, a laboratory technician. "But the authorities guarantee me a job and a salary, even if not very large. What does the opposition guarantee?"

Tanzania quake kills at least 11; president says many dead

September 10, 2016

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AP) — A 5.7-magnitude earthquake shook the Lake Victoria region of East Africa on Saturday, killing at least 11 people in Tanzania, a police official said. The country's president said that many were dead.

The quake was felt as far away as western Kenya and parts of Uganda, which share the waters of Lake Victoria. Tremors were also felt in Kigali, Rwanda. The 11 who died in Tanzania were in brick structures in the town of Bukoba, said Augustine Olomi, regional police commander for the Kagera region.

A statement from the Tanzanian president's office said that he was "shocked by reports of the earthquake that caused the death of many people, injury to others and destruction of property." The statement didn't provide specific figures on casualties.

Saturday's quake was shallow, occurring at a depth of 10 kilometers (six miles). Shallow quakes generally tend to be more damaging than deeper quakes. Seismic waves from deep quakes have to travel farther to the surface, losing energy along the way, while the shaking from shallow quakes is more intense.

Recent earthquakes in the area have caused secondary hazards such as landslides. The last notable quake in the region was in 2004 and measured 4.7.