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Monday, October 10, 2016

Jordan election seen as small step toward democratic reform

September 19, 2016

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan's parliament election on Tuesday is being touted as proof that the pro-Western monarchy is moving forward with democratic reforms despite regional turmoil and security threats.

Officials point to new rules of voting and the participation of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in almost a decade. But critics argue that this year's electoral reform — ostensibly meant to strengthen political parties — has fallen short and that the revised system continues to favor King Abdullah II's traditional tribal supporters.

They expect the parliament being chosen Tuesday to be similar to the outgoing one — largely an assembly of individuals with competing narrow interests, widely dismissed by Jordanians as ineffective in dealing with endemic unemployment and other crises.

Such a legislature is still a long way from what Jordanians have long been told would be the goal of gradual reform — a strong parliament with a say in choosing the government, now the exclusive domain of the king.

The new election rules are "a step forward, but it is not yet enough to create a serious breakthrough on the reform track," said analyst Oraib al-Rantawi. The rules replace the "one man, one vote" system that was introduced in 1993 and weakened political parties.

In Tuesday's election, Jordanians will choose 130 members of parliament, with 15 seats reserved for women, nine for Christians and three for minority Chechens and Circassians. More than 4 million Jordanians over the age of 17 are eligible to vote, more than twice the number in the 2013 election, when voters had to pre-register.

Under the new rules, the country is divided into 23 districts, and voters choose candidates from competing lists in their district. In all, 1,252 candidates are running on 226 district lists. Voters can select one or more candidates on a list.

Only six percent of the lists are affiliated with a specific political party, 11 percent have some party representatives, 39 percent are independent and 43 percent are based on tribal affiliations, according to the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based non-partisan group that seeks to promote democracy.

"The majority of voters base their voting habits on tribal affiliations, community roots and identity rather than approaches to policy," the group said. The most organized party is the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran opposition movement linked to the regional organization of the same name. The IAF competed in 2007, but boycotted parliament elections in 2010 and 2013, arguing the electoral system was unfair.

The Brotherhood has suffered setbacks in the region and in Jordan in recent years, in part because of a backlash of various governments to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In Jordan, ideological arguments split the group into rival factions, with one recognized by the government as the official Brotherhood.

The original group has been outlawed in Jordan, but its political arm, the IAF, remains legal. Al-Rantawi said he believes the IAF is running in this election — despite misgivings about the system — to avoid becoming irrelevant.

The mood among supporters was subdued at an IAF election rally over the weekend in Sweileh, a neighborhood in the capital, Amman. The outdoor gathering on a sandy lot drew a few hundred people, but several back rows of plastic chairs remained empty.

IAF spokesman Murad Adayleh said his party would push for economic and educational reform. "Our role will be to uncover the government's wrong policies and address any mistakes," he said, dismissing suggestions that a vocal, but small IAF faction could inadvertently serve as democratic window dressing.

Adayleh, who is also a candidate, said he expects his party will win between one-fourth and one-third of the seats. Al-Rantawi said he believes about 30 seats are in play for political parties, including about 20 for the IAF, and that the remaining 100 seats would be split among individuals. Other parties are less well known nationally, including leftists, centrists and conservatives.

A debate among candidates from nine parties, held over the weekend at a hotel in Amman, rarely got beyond generalities, such as calls for lowering unemployment. One of the newcomers on the scene, the Maan List, campaigned for separation of religion and state, still a relatively provocative idea in the conservative, overwhelmingly Muslim kingdom. Candidate Mohammed Numan, a pediatrician, called for ending what he described as a culture of shaming those not considered devout enough.

Growing voter apathy may be a key factor this year. In an IRI poll in April, 87 percent of 1,000 respondents said the outgoing parliament didn't accomplish anything worthwhile and more than half said they were somewhat or very unlikely to vote. The survey had an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.

Voter turnout in 2013 was 56 percent, said analyst Ayoub Al-Nmour of Al-Hayat, a civil society group that monitors elections. This year, the percentage of those casting ballots will likely be lower because the pool of eligible voters nearly doubled, though turnout could be higher in absolute terms, he said.

Some voters are discouraged by unequal representation. For example, the urban district of Zarqa, with 1.8 million people, including large numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, gets 11 seats in parliament, the same number as the tribal Karak district, with just 300,000 residents, said Al-Nmour.

Mohammed Momani, the government spokesman, said the new voting system is a significant step toward political reform. "The fact that Jordan is actually holding elections ...in a region that is full of blood and fight and weapons — that in itself is important," he said. "It shows the strength of this country, and the credibility of its institutions and the reform process."

U.S.-based analyst David Schenker said Jordan invests in regular elections in part to polish its image in the eyes of Western military and financial backers. "We know that the West has a special regard for Jordan, and we know that Jordan, because of this high regard ... is able to charge very high rent," said Schenker, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

"It costs money to do these elections and there are some risks involved, but for Jordan it's important to display that the kingdom is different from other Arab states," he said.

Associated Press writers Khetam Malkawi and Sam McNeil in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Observers: Moroccan election overall fair, but turnout low

October 09, 2016

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco's national election observer body says voting last week was largely free and fair, though it is investigating sporadic cases of vote-buying and expressed concern about low turnout.

The moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development won Friday's legislative election, beating out a party with close ties to the royal palace. The PJD, which first won elections in 2011 after Arab Spring protests, is now working on building a coalition government.

The National Council of Human Rights, which oversees election monitoring, released a preliminary report Sunday noting sporadic irregularities. Council president Driss El Yazami told reporters the elections took place in a "serene and transparent climate."

However, he expressed concern about the 43 percent turnout rate. Some Moroccans see voting as futile because ultimate power rests with the king.

Moroccans vote amid worries about jobs, Islamic extremism

October 07, 2016

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Millions of Moroccans hit the voting booths on Friday, with worries about joblessness and extremism on many minds as they choose which party will lead their next government. Adultery scandals and thwarted election-day attacks have marked the unusually venomous campaign in this country, which is allied with the U.S and seen as a model of stability and relative prosperity in the region.

Top contenders are a moderate Islamist party and an up-and-coming rival party seen as close to the royal palace. The palace pledged to loosen control over Moroccan politics after Arab Spring protests five years ago, but retains control over major policy decisions.

Since the last legislative elections in 2011, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) has dominated parliament and led a government coalition comprised of several parties with differing ideologies.

The PJD faces tough competition from the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), widely regarded as close to the palace. It was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Himma, childhood friend of King Mohammed VI and a current royal adviser.

Abdelilah Benkirane, current prime minister and head of the PJD, has come head-to-head with Ilyas El-Omari, head of the PAM, in a number of public spats ahead of elections. "He is a liar," Benkirane told The Associated Press this week. "I don't consider them (PAM) a political party."

Benkirane slammed El-Omari for comments he made to the AP suggesting that state-funded associations were among groups involved in radicalizing Moroccan youth. With high unemployment rates coupled with relatively low literacy, Morocco has been fertile recruiting ground for extremists, with as many as 1,000 Moroccans joining the ranks of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

On Monday, authorities dismantled a 10-member terror cell comprised entirely of women with alleged ties to IS. Abdelhak Khiame, head of Morocco's Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, said that the cell planned to carry out attacks on election day, Friday, according to Morocco's state news agency MAP. Seven of the 10 members were under age, Khiame said.

In addition to security, voters will be deciding on which political party's program is most suited to address Morocco's economic ills, marred by youth joblessness and record high foreign debt. For some parties, like the Federation of the Democratic Left, the choice between the PJD and the PAM is like choosing between a rock and a hard place.

"Our vision represents a third way," says Nabila Mounib, secretary general of the Federation, comprised of three leftist parties. Their message resonates with many voters, who have expressed frustration with the status quo, especially throughout rural areas where Mounib has been campaigning.

Imad Agrili, 31, a painter from the rural town of Skoura, is voting for the first time and has opted for the federation. "They seem clean and transparent," he says. For others, like the banned Islamist Adl wal Ihsan (Justice and Charity) movement, elections in Morocco are futile. The movement has repeatedly denounced the centralization of power and decision-making by the monarchy.

"The person who governs is the king and his entourage and they have deeply-rooted powers," says Hassan Bennajeh, spokesperson for Adl wal Ihsan, which is boycotting the elections. The movement is able to mobilize thousands for its causes.

Low turnout may prove a problem. More than 15.7 million Moroccans have registered to vote out of some 20 million eligible voters. Last time, voter turnout was only around 5 million, says Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, doctoral candidate in political science at George Washington University.

"These elections, specifically, matter a lot," Kayyali said. According to him, the elections "will show whether 2011 was just a blip on the radar screen," in terms of gauging Morocco's path toward reform. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings have left a mixed legacy in North Africa — Tunisia built a fragile democracy, Egypt elected Islamists who were then ousted by the military, Libya descended into deadly chaos.

This year's election in Morocco has also been clouded by sex scandals. Two high-ranking members of the PJD party's ideological arm are currently facing charges for engaging in relations outside of marriage. Their charges are punishable by up to six months to three years in prison if found guilty, according to Morocco's penal code.

While many observers will be monitoring the elections, not all have been welcome, with a drop in foreign accredited observers, including the rejection of the Atlanta-based Carter Center's request to observe.

Friday's election will determine the makeup of the upper chamber of parliament, comprised of 395 seats, 90 of which are reserved for the women and youth quota. Nearly 7,000 candidates are running with 28 different parties in 92 voting districts throughout the country. Definitive results are expected Saturday.

Morocco's elections pose test for law on vote observers

September 17, 2016

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco's elections next month will draw attention from around the region and beyond — but not all eyes will be welcome. Election authorities approved 4,000 national and international observers for the Oct. 7 legislative elections, rejecting requests for about 1,000 others, as new regulations on vote monitors are being put to the test. Among those rejected were observers from the U.S.-based Carter Center.

More than 30 political parties are running in the elections, which will determine the makeup of the government and political direction of the kingdom, a U.S. ally and important regional economy. It's only the second time Moroccans are voting for parliament since thousands took to the streets in 2011 demanding reform through the February 20th Movement. Since then, a coalition of several parties led by the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) has governed, coming to power alongside a new constitution and new laws intended to meet the demands for reform.

One law passed in 2011 dictated the terms and conditions for national and international election observation in Morocco. Civil society groups had wanted a law spelling out the rules, but some now fear it could be used to stifle criticism of the election process.

"Election observation in Morocco has been taking place since 1997, but it was only in 2011 that the Moroccan government instituted a clear, legal framework," said Nadir Elmoumni, director of studies at the National Council of Human Rights.

The council is charged with overseeing the observation process, including reviewing requests to observe from both international and national organizations. Requests must also be approved by a commission including representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Communication Ministry.

The council told The Associated Press that it has accredited 92 foreign observers affiliated with five international organizations. The council did not explain why the numbers are lower this year. The council received requests to accredit some 5,000 Moroccan observers — from political parties and local non-governmental groups — but approved only 4,000, according to state news agency MAP.

The Moroccan government denied accreditation to at least one international organization, the Atlanta-based Carter Center. "We're disappointed by that," said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center's Democracy Program. "The Carter Center has a long history of impartial election observation, having monitored 103 elections in 39 countries, and we hope our observers might be welcome in Morocco's future elections."

The National Council of Human Rights said the organization submitted its request directly to the Moroccan government, not to the council. "I suspect it had to do with the wording of their request," says Ahmed Taoufik Zainabi, the council's director of human rights promotion.

Moroccan government spokesperson Mustapha El Khalfi did not respond to requests for comment. A U.S. group, the National Democratic Institute, was accredited but says it won't send an observation mission due to funding constraints. NDI's report after observing the 2011 legislative elections describing the voting process then as "by and large, procedurally sound and transparent" but "not without flaws."

Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says the rebuff to the Carter Center "could well be part of the trend since 2015 of expelling international NGOs that monitor freedoms in Morocco."

"It's a shame to see Morocco destroy its standing among countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are most transparent with respect to international NGOs," said Goldstein, whose group was long active in Morocco but came under pressure from the Moroccan government last year.

Many of these NGOs monitor human rights in the contested Western Sahara territory, which Morocco annexed in 1975. Within the past year, the Moroccan government has dealt harshly with those it perceives as undermining its claims on the territory, including the European Union and the United Nations.

Official campaigning for the elections begins Sept. 23, with the Islamist PJD and rival Party of Authenticity and Modernity among the top contenders. A law bans political polling in the weeks ahead of the elections, in an effort to avoid swaying voters.

School in Qatar removes Israeli flag from its corridor

September 28, 2016

A private British school in Qatar has come under fire after putting up a display of the Israeli flag this week.

The flag was erected in the main hall of Doha College West Bay where it was spotted by parents.

Qatar’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education tweeted about the incident on Monday, saying the school had “apologized for any distress caused.”

The ministry then explained that the flag was put up to display member nations of the UN and that Israel’s flag was displayed in error and was taken down.

The school’s headmaster Dr. Steffen Sommer told the Doha News the incident involved “an error of judgement.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160928-school-in-qatar-removes-israeli-flag-from-its-corridor/.

Spain's divided Socialists to vote in leadership battle

October 01, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Rent by internal divisions, members of Spain's Socialist Party are voting Saturday to decide if they will keep or oust leader Pedro Sanchez, who has been blocking acting conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy from building a minority government.

Despite nine months political gridlock in Spain, Sanchez insists he will continue blocking Rajoy. If he stays in his post after Saturday's party vote, Spain will be unable to form a new government by Oct. 31 and a new national election will be called. If his party opponents win, they might abstain from blocking Rajoy, ending Spain's political limbo.

In an attempt to force Sanchez to resign, 17 of the party's 38-member executive committee resigned Wednesday, demanding a chance of stance. But supporters of Sanchez gathered Saturday outside Party headquarters in Madrid, chanting his name and "No means no!" in reference to the Socialists refusing to let the conservatives form a coalition government.

Spain has been led for decades by either the conservatives or the Socialists and has never had a coalition government. An inconclusive election last December saw the rise of other parties, and another national election in June did not solve the question of who should lead the country. Unlike lawmakers elsewhere in Europe, Spanish politicians are having a difficult time with the whole concept of a coalition government.

Rajoy has been leading a caretaker government. His conservative Popular Party won the most seats in both elections but needs the support or abstention of other parties to form a government. The 137-year-old Socialist party is reeling in from losses in the Galician and Basque regional elections last month and its worst-ever results in the last two national elections.

Some say, regardless of what the Socialists decide, the only winner will be Rajoy. "The Spanish left is broken. There is no alternative to a Popular Party-led cabinet," said Antonio Barroso of the Teneo Intelligence political risk consulting group. "If Rajoy is not appointed PM before 31 October, new elections will only strengthen his party further and make his re-election more likely."

Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

Spain: Socialists in turmoil as board revolts against leader

September 29, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Spain's leading opposition Socialist party was in crisis Thursday, a day after nearly half of its executive board resigned in a rebellion against leader Pedro Sanchez. The schism comes as Spain is about to enter its 10th month without a fully functioning government following two inconclusive elections in December and June.

Critics of Sanchez blame him for the Socialists' worst results ever in the elections. They also say his insistence on blocking attempts by acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to form a minority government and end the political impasse is damaging the country.

Sanchez was to meet with the remainder of the board Thursday. Sanchez had already called a federal committee session for Saturday to propose a party leadership election next month in a clear challenge to his critics.

The revolt should, in theory, benefit Rajoy but the Popular Party leader has yet to say whether he will try again to win parliament's backing after being voted down twice a month ago. Parliament has until Oct. 31 to form a government or the country will face an unprecedented third election in a year.

The Socialists, who have run most Spanish governments since democracy returned in 1978, won just 85 seats in the 350-seat parliament in the June election, the fewest ever. Wednesday's revolt came after party heavyweight and former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez said he felt cheated because Sanchez had told him he would abstain in the Rajoy vote and let the conservative leader form a government. But Sanchez and his lawmakers opposed Rajoy in the two votes.

Rajoy has been heading a caretaker government. His party won the most seats in both elections, but still lacked a handful of votes or abstentions in Parliament to form a government.

Spanish cities free themselves of Israeli Apartheid

September 18, 2016

Almost 60 local and regional councils all across the Spanish state have passed similar motions over the last two years. Only recently, the provincial capital Cádiz (Andalucia, southern Spain) and eight more councils in the province have joined the effort. At the end of July, the town of Santa Eulària on the island of Ibiza, one the most popular holiday resorts in the Balearic islands, opted to free itself of Israeli apartheid passing such a solidarity motion. Other world-famous places in Spain, including the island of Gran Canaria, Córdoba, Sevilla, Santiago de Compostela and Gijón, are today destinations that offer an unforgettable holiday free of Israeli apartheid.

The wave of support for Palestinian rights among cities across the Spanish state is based on the campaign to build ‘Israeli Apartheid Free Zones’ launched in 2014 by RESCOP to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Wall. The Israeli Apartheid Free Zones are part of the global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and ‘support the creation, in our neighborhoods, towns and cities, of commercial, cultural, political, sporting, academic and social spaces in the Spanish state, which refuse to collaborate with, or passively support, the Israeli colonial and apartheid system’. The campaign aims to ‘create islands of political awareness and to consolidate Israeli Apartheid Free Zones in different parts of the Spanish State’.

In Gijón (Asturias), for example, one can walk into shops, libraries, restaurants, bars and coffee shops that display a logo at the entrance alerting that the space is ‘Israeli apartheid free’. Citizens and visitors can shop or meet friends in environments that guarantee that in these premises no products from Israel or companies that are targeted by the global BDS movement are being sold or used in the food or products. These are spaces where no Israeli propaganda or cultural whitewashing is tolerated.

Since 2015, more and more municipalities in the Spanish state are joining the movement to free themselves of Israeli apartheid. Municipal councils have passed motions committing to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not spent on companies and products that are complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and that the local institutions do not promote relationships with Israeli institutions that would legitimate or support Israeli illegal policies against the Palestinian people. This includes adapting  procurement processes in order to reflect this position and declaring the Israeli ambassador in Spain “persona non grata”. They further promote the logo of the ‘Israeli Apartheid Free Zones’ and support local Palestine solidarity initiatives...

Over decades, an unparalleled number of states, multilateral organizations and all levels of UN bodies have condemned Israeli policies and underlined the urgency for Israel and the international community to stop, prevent and remedy Israeli violations of international law. Yet, governments have remained largely idle. It is therefore encouraging to see that such a large number of Spanish local and regional councils are now taking action to fulfill human rights, clearly understanding the global impact of their local actions and are using local democracy to promote solidarity and consciousness of the public.

In fact, the steps taken by the ‘apartheid free’ local and regional councils are simply the fulfillment of an obligation for all state actors.

Local authorities and other spheres of government bear a legal obligation to withhold recognition, cooperation and transaction with, and/or assistance to parties in any situation that breaches the fundamental principles of international law.

These obligations are self-executing and require no further legislative act or incorporation into national law, but only the opportunity, political will and capacity to exercise them. Failure of federal governments to comply with the state’s obligations does not exonerate other spheres of government within a territory from their duties. Based on this understanding, in December 2014, the International Conference on Local Government and Civil Society Organizations in Support of the Rights of the Palestinian People organized by the UN and local government networks in Seville called in its final statement (‘Olive Declaration’) on local governments to “commit to responsible investment, to refrain from contracting with parties and/or twinning with cities that support or benefit from occupation, or violate related prohibitions under international law”.

Pitiful is thus the reaction of the pro-Israel lobby in the face of growing support for such actions. After supporters of Israeli apartheid policies lost the democratic process in ever more local councils, they have used a recently created NGO to bring legal cases against some of those municipalities. They aim to use district court decisions to prohibit local councils from introducing human rights based criteria in their procurement procedures, arguing this would constitute ‘discrimination’.

Such logic favors impunity not only for all those companies and institutions complicit with Israeli crimes and illegal policies, but would, if successful, promote complete impunity for any human rights violating corporation. Citizens, social justice movements and decision makers alike would see themselves deprived of the possibility to define even the most basic red lines on how their money will be spent.

It is not surprising that pro-Israel efforts once again align with corporate interests and show anti-democratic traits. Israeli occupation, apartheid and colonialism are sustainable exactly because it denies an entire population its rights and ensures corporations can reap profits from its expansionism and repression of the Palestinian people.

It is therefore in the interest of all of us that we defend local democracy, the principles of international law and the values of human rights. While you may start the campaign to free your own city from Israeli apartheid, come and enjoy your holidays in the Israeli apartheid free cities, bars and restaurants in the Spanish state...

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160918-spanish-cities-free-themselves-of-israeli-apartheid/.

Colombia in unchartered territory with peace deal's defeat

October 03, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — After a stunning referendum defeat for a peace deal with leftist rebels, Colombians are asking what comes next for their war-torn country, which like Britain following the Brexit vote has no Plan B to save an accord that sought to bring an end to a half century of hostilities.

The damage from Sunday's vote is still sinking in. Instead of winning by an almost two-to-one margin as pre-election polls had predicted, those favoring the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia lost by a razor-thin margin, 49.8 percent of the votes to 50.2 percent for those against the deal.

Both President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the FARC, having come this far after four years of grueling negotiations, vowed to push ahead, giving no hint they want to resume a war that has already killed 220,000 people and displaced 8 million.

"I won't give up. I'll continue search for peace until the last moment of my mandate," Santos said in a televised address appealing for calm. But it's not clear how the already unpopular Santos can save the deal given the stunning political defeat he suffered. For now, he has ordered his negotiators to return to Cuba on Monday to confer with FARC's top leaders, who watched the results come in with disbelief after earlier ordering drinks and cigars at Club Havana, once Cuba's most exclusive beach club.

"The FARC deeply regret that the destructive power of those who sow hatred and revenge have influenced the Colombian people's opinion," the FARC's top commander, a guerrilla known as Timochenko, told reporters later.

The loss for the government was even more shocking considering the huge support for the accord among foreign leaders, who have roundly heralded it as a model for a world beset by political violence and terrorism. Many heads of state as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were present when Santos and Timochenko signed the deal less than a week ago in an elaborate, emotion-filled ceremony.

With the outlook uncertain, all eyes are on Santos' former boss and chief rival: Alvaro Uribe, the powerful former president who led the grass-roots campaign against the accord. With none of the government's huge PR machine an angry Uribe gave voice to millions of Colombians, many of them victims of the FARC like him, who bristled at provisions in the 297-page accord sparing rebels jail time if they confessed their crimes and instead reserved them 10 seats in congress.

Uribe, in prepared remarks from his ranch outside Medellin after the results were in, called for a "big national pact" and insisted on "correctives" that guarantee respect for the constitution, respect for private enterprise and justice without impunity. But he didn't specify whether he would join Santos in trying to salvage the deal, and took more swipes at the FARC, who he demanded put an end to drug-trafficking and extortion.

"The entire accord was full of impunity," said Ricardo Bernal, 60, celebrating the victory for the "no" side in a Bogota neighborhood where opponents were gathered. "We all want peace but there has to be adjustments made."

Across town, hundreds of supporters of the peace deal who had gathered in a hotel ballroom for what they expected would be a victory party with Santos wept in despair. The FARC's 7,000 guerrilla fighters are unlikely to return to the battlefield any time soon. For now, a cease-fire remains in place.

One option for Santos would be to reopen negotiations, something he had ruled out previously and his chief negotiator said would be "catastrophic." The president, who has a little under two years left in office, could also seek to bypass another popular vote and ratify the accord in congress or by calling a constitutional convention, something both the FARC and Uribe have previously favored.

"I've always believed in a wise Chinese proverb to look for opportunities in any situation. And here we have an opportunity that's opening up, with the new political reality that has demonstrated itself in the referendum," Santos said Sunday night before descending to the steps of the presidential palace to address a small group of supporters, some of waving white flags symbolizing peace.

But bringing Santos and Uribe together might be harder than achieving peace with the FARC. Santos served as Uribe's defense minister, when they worked together with the U.S. to drive the FARC to the edge of the jungles, but the two haven't spoken for years and frequently trade insults.

One of the reasons for the surprise defeat was low turnout, with only 37 percent of the electorate bothering to vote, a further sign to some analysts that Colombians' enthusiasm for the ambitious accord was lacking. Heavy rains from Hurricane Matthew especially dampened voting along the Caribbean coast, where the government's electoral machinery is strongest and the "yes" vote won by a comfortable double-digit margin.

The campaign exposed deep rifts in Colombian society, dividing many families and making clear the road to reconciliation would have been long and torturous even had the accord passed. Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and many considered the accord an insult to victims of the long-running conflict.

"In the end, hate toward the FARC won out over hope for the future," said Jason Marczack, an expert on Latin America at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.

Colombians vote on peace deal after polarized campaign

October 02, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The guns have been silenced, the agreement signed and a historic handshake between former enemies made in front of the entire world. Now it's time for Colombians to decide whether or not to support a peace deal with the country's largest rebel movement.

Polls taken before Sunday's referendum, in which voters will be asked whether they want to ratify or reject a deal ending a half century of hostilities with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, show the "yes" vote favored by an almost two-to-one margin.

But the government isn't taking victory for granted amid a highly polarized campaign that has exposed how steep a challenge it faces implementing the 297-page accord and bringing about real reconciliation. Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, who the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and many consider provisions in the accord that would spare the rebels jail time an insult to the 220,000 killed and almost 8 million displaced by the long-running conflict.

In the past month, ever since the deal was announced in Cuba after four years of grueling negotiations, the government has been spending heavily on television ads and staging concerts and peace rallies around the country to get out the vote. They've even enrolled the help of U2's Bono and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, and for the first time in an election it's making available in braille thousands of ballots so blind Colombians can vote.

"We don't want anyone to be feeling excluded because this is an important decision," said Luisa Fernanda Morena, a 30-year-old volunteer preparing the materials at the National Institute for the Blind.

For the referendum to be ratified at least 13 percent of the electorate, or 4.5 million voters, must cast "yes" ballots. Turnout is expected to be low, no higher than the 40 percent seen in recent congressional elections, a sign to some analysts that Colombians enthusiasm for implementing the ambitious accord is lacking.

The opposition, led by powerful ex-President Alvaro Uribe, argues that the government is appeasing the FARC and setting a bad example that criminal gangs will seize on. But the FARC in recent days have made an effort to show their commitment to peace is real. Twice this week leaders of the group traveled to areas hard hit by the violence to apologize for massacres committed by their troops in the course of the conflict and discuss with communities how they can compensate victims.

"All of us in life have committed mistakes, some with consequences more serious than others," FARC leader Ivan Marquez said Friday at a ceremony in the northern Colombian town where rebels in 1994 disrupted a street party with gunfire, killing 35. "There's nothing to lose in recognizing it. Speaking the pure and clean truth heals the soul's wounds, no matter how deep they are."

On Saturday, in the presence of United Nations observers, they voluntarily destroyed 620 kilograms of grenades and light explosives. They also said they would compensate victims with financial resources and land holdings accumulated during the war.

Although Santos wasn't required to call for a vote ratifying the accord — some of his advisers and the FARC itself opposed the idea — the outcome will be binding. Only if it is ratified will the FARC's roughly 7,000 fighters begin moving to 27 concentration zones where over six months they will gradually turn over their weapons to U.N. observers and prepare for their reintegration into civilian life.

Tearful reunions as Colombia rebels embrace peace

By Rodrigo Almonacid, Alina Dieste
El Diamante, Colombia (AFP)
Sept 27, 2016

Miriam Vanegas had not seen her son for 10 years after FARC rebels took him away into the Colombian wilderness. Now the fighters have signed a peace deal, and she has him back.

As the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- prepared to approve a historic peace deal signed on Monday, Miriam spotted Pablo Esteban in images filmed at a conference held by the force.

"He left when he was 13. They took him away," she said. "I searched heaven and earth for him until last week, when I saw him on television in the conference."

Dressed in a black dress with a blue and pink flower design, she can scarcely contain her tears as she recalls the reunion.

"I traveled six hours on a motorbike to get here," she said of her journey along a remote path through the heat and humidity to the FARC's base in El Diamante, western Colombia.

There, a female FARC member recognized the boy in the photo Miriam held in her hand. She led Miriam to a camp where she found him, transformed into a young man.

"I hugged him and I cried," she said, her voice trembling. "You do not know how happy I am."

- Second chance -

In this remote base in the grassy plains, hundreds of FARC fighters gathered on Monday to watch the signing ceremony on big screens.

They applauded when their leader Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez signed the accord and made a speech hailing the FARC's transition to politics.

The agreement formally ends a conflict Colombian authorities estimate has killed 260,000 people, left 45,000 missing and uprooted 6.9 million.

After watching the signing, FARC members mounted a stage, dressed all in white, and sang the FARC anthem and the "Ode to Joy."

"At last, we have a second chance on Earth," a top commander, Carlos Antonio Lozada, told the gathering.

- Peace and football -

FARC fighter David Preciado celebrated the signing by playing football with his comrades in the camp.

He ran around on a mud pitch with bamboo goalposts, getting dirty, happy as a child.

He lost his left arm after he was shot in an ambush by the army. That slowed him down a bit on the pitch -- as did the lack of practice.

Normally "we are not allowed to play for reasons of public order," he said.

Now in his thirties, David says he joined the FARC when he was 19 because he liked guns.

He had not played football for a decade -- the last time was when the rebels and the government last tried, unsuccessfully, to make peace, from 1999-2002.

"Playing football is one of the ways of celebrating the triumph we have achieved," he said.

"The government did not defeat us, and we did not defeat them. Our 52 years of war were not in vain," he added.

"We are aware that we have to move forward together, united... to finally achieve victory, giving power to the people by political means."

- Resistance -

The FARC's 7,000 fighters must come out of their jungle camps and disarm.

The peace deal grants an amnesty for "political crimes" committed during the conflict, but not for the worst atrocities, such as massacres, torture and rape.

Colombians will vote in a referendum on October 2 on whether to ratify the peace accord.

Two polls published Monday indicated the "Yes" vote would win by a strong margin of around 20 percent, with about 35 percent of voters against the deal.

Some Colombians resent the concessions made to the FARC in the accord.

"The Americans would not grant impunity to Osama Bin Laden," former president Alvaro Uribe said.

"Why should we Colombians grant total impunity to terrorists?"

- 'We are human' -

Ahead of the FARC conference last week during which it approved the peace accord, members welcomed journalists and other outside visitors to their camp.

They spruced it up for the occasion with special huts and bathroom facilities. They played football with visitors.

"We want to show people that we are not the monsters they say we are," said one 32-year old FARC fighter, who identified herself as Patricia.

"We are human beings."

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Tearful_reunions_as_Colombia_rebels_embrace_peace_999.html.

Colombia to sign historic peace deal on ending long conflict

September 26, 2016

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia will take a big step toward emerging from its long nightmare of bloody violence Monday when the government and the country's largest rebel movement sign a peace accord that emerged from four hard years of negotiations.

The significance of the deal can't be overstated: Colombia's five-decade conflict, partly fueled by the nation's cocaine trade, has killed more than 220,000 people and driven 8 million from their homes.

Underlining the importance of the day, the pact is being signed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and by the top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel fighter known by the alias Timochenko. Fifteen Latin American presidents, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are scheduled to witness the signing in the colonial Caribbean city of Cartagena.

The ceremony late Monday afternoon will be charged with symbolism. The more than 2,500 guests have been invited to wear white as a sign of peace, and Santos will put his signature on the 297-page accord with a pen made from a recycled shell used in combat.

The signing won't close the deal, though. Colombians are being given the final say on endorsing or rejecting the accord in an Oct. 2 referendum. Opinion polls point to an almost-certain victory for the "yes" vote, but some analysts warn that a closer-than-expected finish or low voter turnout could bode poorly for the many challenges the country faces implementing the ambitious accord.

Among the biggest and most controversial steps will be judging the war crimes of guerrillas as well as state actors. Under terms of the accord, rebels who lay down their weapons and confess their abuses will be spared jail time and allowed to provide reparations to their victims by carrying out development work in areas hit hard by the conflict.

The government has also committed itself to addressing unequal land distribution, which has been a longstanding FARC demand harkening back to its roots as a peasant army in 1964, and the administration agreed to work with the guerrillas to provide alternative development to tens of thousands of families that depend on the cocaine trade.

Only if the accord passes the referendum will the FARC's roughly 7,000 fighters begin moving to 28 designated zones where over the next six months they are to turn over their weapons to U.N.-sponsored observers.

The rebels were forced to the negotiating table after being pushed to the edge of Colombia's vast jungles by a decade-long, U.S.-backed military campaign that claimed the lives of a number of its top commanders.

Negotiations, which had been expected to take a few months, stretched over more than four years and had to overcome a number of crises, from the military's killing of the FARC's then top commander, known as Alfonso Cano, shortly after he authorized a secret backchannel with the government to the rebels' capture of an army general who until a few months ago would have been a trophy prisoner.

"What's good about the fact that it lasted four years is that it was a very thorough process," Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the ceremony. Norway and Cuba were co-sponsors of the negotiation that began in Oslo in 2012 and then shifted to Havana.

"The mindset of everyone has changed," Brende said. "I feel very genuinely that President Santos and Commander Timochenko want this to work and not go into the blame game."

Wounds heal slowly in Colombian town engulfed by rebels

September 23, 2016

PUERTO RICO, Colombia (AP) — It's a sweltering afternoon and two young women cool off with a juice at a bright green-painted store and watering hole as a few mules relax in the shade. The peaceful scene typical of any tropical village in Colombia makes it hard to imagine this as the site of one of the most-remembered massacres in the country's bloody civil conflict.

At around 2:40 p.m. on May 24, 2005, members of an elite guerrilla platoon swept silently into town by boat, hopped on the back of a red pickup truck and drove a few blocks through a small police barrier to a house where a town hall meeting was taking place. They burst in with a machine gun spraying bullets and in less than 10 minutes killed seven people, including four city council members.

"They entered without God or law and started firing in every direction," remembers Maria Luisa Celis, who survived the attack on her fellow council members by hiding in the kitchen. As President Juan Manuel Santos prepares to sign a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, those who for years who were besieged by guerrillas operating nearby are uneasy about the future. While opinion is divided in this town ahead of an Oct. 2 referendum on the accord, even supporters resent seeing guerrilla commanders who terrorized their town for years now touting themselves as peacemakers and being rewarded with a political future.

FARC leaders on Friday gave their unanimous support to the peace agreement at their final conference as a guerrilla army, taking place in a vast savannah one town away. "The war is over," said rebel leader known by his alias Ivan Marquez.

"Tell Mauricio Babilonia that he can let loose the yellow butterflies," said Marquez, referring to a fictional character in Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "100 Hundred Years of Solitude."

The FARC has apologized and met with victims of other emblematic killings, but has never said it's sorry or explained its motives for the attack in the town of Puerto Rico. But local residents believe it may have had to do with the community's close association with the Turbay family, a local political dynasty whose prominent members were all wiped out by the guerrillas.

"The FARC wanted to annihilate the Turbay family," said Wilmar Castro, an official who now works for the city council. The province of Caqueta, where Puerto Rico is located, has long been a FARC stronghold. Marquez, the chief rebel negotiator, was born in Caqueta. Two of his comrades on the seven-member secretariat, the group's top decision-making body, have deep roots in the province.

It's also the base of operations for one of the FARC's most-violent units, the Teofilo Forero mobile column, which carried out the attack on Puerto Rico as well as the kidnapping of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and the bombing of an elite social club in Bogota that left 36 dead.

The 2005 massacre was neither the town's first nor its last brush with political violence. Two other council members had been killed earlier in 2005 and the remaining seven, including Celis, fled the town with their families after the attack. Some 200 residents reportedly took up exile in Canada. Three of the town's mayors were also killed by the FARC between 2001 and 2009.

The number of violent attacks on the town has declined in recent years as the U.S.-backed military offensive over the past decade pushed the rebels deeper into the jungle. Residents say they're no longer afraid to speak freely against the warlords and the last major security incident, when police found a vehicle carrying almost a ton of explosives near the town, occurred over a year ago.

But the FARC's presence is still felt. Castro, who arrived in the town in 2008, says that a few weeks ago guerrillas told shopkeepers in a rural area that they needed to fork up cash to the FARC in the form of "peace contributions." In July, the FARC's maximum commander, alias Timochenko, ordered his troops to stop extorting all businesses in areas where it is dominant.

"Even those selling hot dogs had to pay vaccines," Castro said, using a popular slang term to describe extortion payments collected by the FARC. "The guerrillas are used to mocking the state and society."

Resentment is also directed toward the government. Celis said she's seen no assistance despite having to uproot her family. She and others have sued the state for neglecting its duty to provide protection for city officials.

On the day of the attack, there was no sign of police even though because of security concerns the town hall meeting had been moved a block away from the police station to the house that is now being used as a store. The government agency that attends to needs of the conflict's millions of victims did not immediately return a request for comment.

Whether or not the town endorses the peace deal in the referendum, residents say they don't believe the FARC will change. Gildardo Martinez, a barber and brother of a council member killed before the 2005 attack, said he still doesn't know how he'll vote.

"God says we have to forgive and I'm very faithful," said Martinez during a short conversation between two haircuts. "But I'll never forget how they assassinated my sister."

AP Writer Libardo Cardona contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

Colombia rebels unanimously approve peace accord with govt

September 23, 2016

YARI PLAINS, Colombia (AP) — Leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia gave their unanimous support on Friday to a peace agreement reached last month with the government. The rebel leader known by the alias Ivan Marquez made the announcement Friday at the conclusion of a week of deliberations by the guerrillas in a remote rural area of southern Colombia. It was the FARC's last conference as a rebel army and was supposed to provide a roadmap of how the group would compete electorally once it turns over its weapons to United Nations-sponsored observers over the next six months.

But in a brief press conference, Marquez didn't provide details about the new political movement being formed. He didn't take questions from reporters. President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader alias Timochenko are expected to sign the agreement Monday in the Caribbean city of Cartagena in an event that will be attended by more than a dozen regional heads of state, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Ukrainian war prisoners languish in limbo on both sides

October 09, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Just three days after Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Lazarenko was taken prisoner in the war in Ukraine's east, a peace agreement was signed under which the sides agreed to an "all-for-all" prisoner exchange. A year and a half later, his wife still waits desperately for his return.

The so-called Minsk Agreement on ending the war between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces is floundering on many issues, but prisoner releases appear to be one of the most intractable. Amnesty International and Human Rights watch allege that both sides have arbitrarily detained civilians, sometimes holding them incommunicado for months in prisons that authorities don't acknowledge exist.

The sides cite widely varying figures for how many prisoners they're holding. Both appear to be holding the issue over the other's head to force concessions on other topics, which include holding elections in Ukraine's separatist region and restoring Ukraine's full control over its border with Russia.

"Our expectations have been thwarted by politicians' plans," Lazarenko's wife, Natalya, told The Associated Press. "After Minsk, the prisoners became an instrument of political trading, they're seen as political commodities."

Even that frustration and anxiety is something of an improvement. For three months after her husband was seized, she had no information on whether he was dead or alive. Lazarenko was captured by a Cossack formation that was not under the rebels' control. Eventually, he and 12 others were found by the rebel government's Committee on POWs and transferred to a detention facility in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the rebels' main stronghold.

Finally allowed to call his wife, Lazarenko said the Cossacks had held him in a windowless basement where he could only lie down on sacks of potatoes. He told her that he and the other prisoners were beaten and fed scraps.

"Sasha simply ceased to exist," his wife said. Although the numbers held by each side are in dispute, it's clear that the pace of releases has slowed markedly for Ukrainians held by the rebels. Since the Minsk agreement was signed in February 2015, 83 Ukrainian prisoners have been released, but only 12 of them were freed this year.

Before the agreement, prisoners were handed over more freely. Yuri Tandyt, an adviser to Ukraine's national security service, told Ukrainian media in August that a total of 3,080 Ukrainian prisoners had been released by rebels or had been located since the beginning of fighting in April 2014. Ukraine now lists 112 names as soldiers held by the rebels, suggesting that thousands had been released prior to the Minsk agreement.

The separatists acknowledge only holding less than half that many. Irina Gerashchenko, Ukraine's deputy parliament speaker and a key figure in negotiations to implement the Minsk agreement, says the rebels admit to holding 47 and "we don't know where the other hostages are held."

Rebel officials said last month they had reached a tentative agreement with Ukraine to release 47 prisoners, in exchange for Ukraine freeing 618. Who those 618 might be is uncertain. Rebel military spokesman Eduard Basurin told the AP that Ukraine is holding 962 easterners, of whom 316 are fighters and the rest are either political prisoners or civilians with no connection to the conflict. Ukraine in turn says it is holding about 500 people in connection with the war.

Vadim Karasev, a Ukrainian political analyst, suggests that many of those held by the Ukrainian side are not combatants. "Kiev is seeking to increase its weight in the negotiations by the count of separatists detained," he said. "Simply disgruntled citizens often end up (in that category), and then are proposed for exchange."

"In many cases, the only reason for the detention of prisoners may be to use them as bargaining chips," said Oksana Pokalchuk, Amnesty International's executive director for Ukraine. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the mediator in the peace process, "does not have the instruments to force the exchange of prisoners. Kiev and the separatists cannot even agree on the prisoner lists. The OSCE cannot do this work for them," Karasev said.

Nikolai Vakaruk, a 34-year-old coal miner, says he was a blameless civilian improperly held in detention by Ukraine for a year and half. He told the AP he was seized during a search of his home in the front-line town of Ukrainsk and held in the security-service detention facility in Kharkiv, where he was repeatedly beaten in an attempt to get him to confess to being a separatist.

"I was beaten and tortured but they could not turn me into a separatist," said Vakaruk, who believes he was detained for being a critic of the Ukrainian authorities. Amnesty International says Vakaruk was one of 13 prisoners released from the Kharkiv facility in July following the group's report on war prisoners.

Vakaruk also said when international groups came to Ukraine's security services building, he and other prisoners held in connection with the war were spirited away to other locations. "I realized that in the new Ukraine, I can disappear just because I think differently," he said.

Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

Hungary's left-wing paper suspended days after breaking news

October 08, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's largest left-wing political newspaper suspended publication because of "considerable" losses, its owner said Saturday. The move was condemned by opposition parties across the political spectrum, who accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government of trying to extend its dominance over the media.

In the capital of Budapest, thousands of people attended a rally Saturday afternoon to support freedom of the press and the Nepszabadsag paper outside parliament. Some lit a bonfire using copies of a pro-government newspaper.

Mediaworks said it was searching for the "best business model" for the Nepszabadsag paper, offering subscribers alternative publications or refunds. The company did not say when the newspaper might reappear but said it wants to "preserve Nepszabadsag for the future."

Mediaworks said the paper lost more 5 billion forints ($18.4 million) since 2007 and was generating "a considerable net loss" so far this year. Journalists at the newspaper said they weren't given advance notice and described the suspension of the paper's print and online editions as a "coup."

"The Nepszabadsag newsroom found out at the same time as the public that the newspaper had been shut down effective immediately," journalists wrote on the paper's Facebook page. "Our first thought is that it's a coup. We'll be in touch soon."

Many questioned the timing of the suspension. In the past few days, the paper had broken several stories highlighting suspicions of government corruption — including reporting on the extravagant travel arrangements of a senior minister and a personal scandal involving the president of the National Bank of Hungary.

"The total undermining of Nepszabadsag is the latest example of Viktor's Orban's megalomania," said Adam Mirkoczi, spokesman of the far-right Jobbik party. "The only aim of Fidesz is to either gain 100 percent control over Hungarian media or to obstruct it."

"I have a lot of respect for my colleagues who wrote the investigative journalism stories, these very strong articles," said Zoltan Trencsenyi, a journalist at the suspended paper who attended the rally.

Hungary's media landscape has changed considerably in the last few years, with many print and online publications as well as radio and television stations coming under the control of Orban's inner circle and then taking on a noticeable pro-government bent.

"My modest opinion is that it's high time for Nepszabadsag to unexpectedly shut down," said Szilard Nemeth, vice chairman of Orban's governing Fidesz party, alluding to the newspaper's communist-era roots.

There had been considerable speculation that Nepszabadsag and other Mediaworks publications will be sold to one of Orban's allies. Ad expenditures from government and state-owned enterprises, an important revenue source for media, have notably favored publications toeing the government line.

Mediaworks, owned by Austrian private equity firm Vienna Capital Partners, controls a large sector of the Hungarian print media market, including the Vilaggazdasag business daily and the Nemzeti Sport sports daily. Last year, it acquired the 27.7 percent stake in Nepszabadsag that had been owned by a foundation set up by the Socialist Party, the country's largest leftist opposition group. Last week, the company announced the acquisition of regional newspapers in 12 counties.

The leftist Together party said Orban moved to get the paper suspended because investigative journalism stood in his way. "With this action, the Orban regime's battle against freedom of the press has reached its peak," said Together chairman Viktor Szigetvari.

Nepszabadsag, launched in 1956 and under the control of Hungary's ruling communist party until 1989, has a circulation of around 40,000, down from around 115,000 in 2008 and 270,000 in 1995.

Andras Nagy contributed to this report.

Germany's Merkel in Mali to strengthen development, ties

October 09, 2016

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday that Germany wants to strengthen its cooperation with Mali to improve development in the West African country's unstable north to help fight against extremism, assure the implementation of a peace accord and stem migration to Europe.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita greeted Merkel at Bamako's airport where she spoke before meetings with him, other officials and the German representative for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. She is expected to focus on the implementation of a peace deal reached in June 2015 between Mali's government, Tuareg separatists and armed groups in the northern part of the country.

"We attach great importance to the implementation of the peace accord. We will go into more details to see how we can help improve things more concretely, enabling our bilateral ties," Merkel said. Unrest continues in Mali's north, and Germany is contributing more than 550 soldiers to the U.N. peacekeeping mission there trying to help stabilize the country and fight al-Qaida-linked extremists. Extremists who took hold of the north in 2012 were pushed from strongholds by French-led forces in 2013, but targeted attacks against peacekeepers and Malian security forces continue in central and northern Malli.

Germany also is contributing to the European Union training missions in Mali and other countries in the region to help protect borders and fight against extremism. "Development cooperation must be strengthened next year in all parts of Mali's northern region," including on water and sanitation projects, Merkel said, stressing that this could help with stability and therefore also prevent migration.

"The Mediterranean has become an open air cemetery, a situation we are not indifferent to," said Keita, Mali's president. "We will find an appropriate solution for a framework with the cooperation of Germany."

A German official has said that on Monday Merkel will visit Niger, a major transit point for African migrants making their way north toward Europe. She will visit Ethiopia on Tuesday.

French towns protest plan to take in migrants from Calais

October 08, 2016

PIERREFEU, France (AP) — French villagers are protesting the arrival of migrants who are being dispersed around the country as the government shuts down the slum-like camp in Calais that has become a flashpoint in Europe's migrant crisis.

Competing rallies were held Saturday in Pierrefeu in Provence in southeast France, under watch of gendarmes. The mayor led several hundred people protesting a government proposal to house a few dozen migrants in an abandoned wing of a psychiatric hospital while they apply for asylum or study other options.

Left-wing activists answered with their own, smaller rally to welcome the migrants — but then were drowned out by yet another gathering organized by the anti-immigrant, far-right National Front party.

The National Front is making the Calais relocation plan a nationwide cause, urging mayors to resist and organizing protests across the country. Resistance to immigration is central to the campaign platform of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in her bid for the French presidency next year.

President Francois Hollande has pledged to close the Calais camp before winter and relocate as many as 9,000 migrants living there to 164 sites around France while their cases are examined. The Calais camp has been an embarrassment to the French government and symbol of Europe's failure to find solutions to the migrant crisis.

Authorities are already busing migrants out of Calais in small numbers ahead of what aid groups expect to be a larger operation starting in the next couple of weeks. Pierrefeu residents hostile to the migrants say they fear the newcomers will threaten their security and worry about potential tensions with psychiatric patients. The government is considering sending up to 60 migrants to this town of 6,000 for up to five months.

"Even if we can understand the dismantling of Calais ... our small towns are not the solution for this dismantling. We are too small to host so many people," said Mayor Patrick Martinelli. At the National Front rally, residents wore French flags on their shoulders. Some shouted "France is for French people!" and said they feared terrorists would be among the migrants.

National Front Senator David Rachline came to Pierrefeu to push Le Pen's presidential bid. "French people will have to choose at the presidential election: Do they want — yes or no — to continue with those crazy immigration policies?" he declared.

Pro-migrant locals called for solidarity. "I am ashamed because we repress the poorest. They need us, the people who are coming from abroad and are dying in the seas. We have everything here, we are a rich country, we have a rich village," said Pierrefeu resident Laure Paul.

National Front politicians were also at a protest Saturday in Forges-les-Bains, south of Paris. About 200 people marched through town to protest the arrival of about 40 Afghan migrants relocated from Calais to an unused building.

In Forges-les-Bains, villagers largely said they were not hostile to the migrants themselves — they just don't want them in their towns. Posters at the march read "Not against migrants, but against the state" and "Plan imposed from above = mounting anger."

Angela Charlton in Paris and Christophe Ena in Forges-les-Bains contributed.

Social Democrats face challengers in Lithuania's election

October 09, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuanians were voting Sunday in the first round of a parliamentary election, with the governing Social Democrats facing challenges from conservatives and an agrarian party.

Lithuania, the biggest of the three Baltic countries, has struggled to stem emigration since regaining independence in the early 1990s and joining the European Union in 2004. Both the Social Democrats, which have led a coalition government since 2012, and opposition parties have promised to raise living standards in the country of 2.9 million.

Many Lithuanians complain that prices have gone up since the country introduced the euro, the EU's common currency, in 2015, while salaries have not. The country was hit hard by the global economic meltdown and is just emerging from a recession.

Pre-election polls showed the Social Democrats in the lead, ahead of the agrarian Peasant and Green Party and the conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats in the race for parliament's 141 seats.

Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius leads the Social Democrats while the conservatives are led by Gabrielius Landsbergis, who at 34 is trying to become Europe's youngest prime minister. He is the grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania's first head of state after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Lithuania remains highly suspicious of Russia and tense relations with Moscow are expected to continue regardless of the outcome of the election. Polling stations will close at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT). A second round will be held on Oct. 23 in constituencies where no candidate wins a majority of votes.

No party is likely to get more than 20 percent support so coalition-building talks are sure to follow the election.

Baltic region worried about Russian missiles in Kaliningrad

October 08, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland and Estonia expressed concerns Saturday that Russia has moved nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian region on the Baltic Sea, with one official saying Russia appears eager to dominate that body of water.

Russia, meanwhile, says the missiles are being deployed as part of regular military maneuvers to Kaliningrad. The development comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over Syria. "It seems to me that this is yet another step in the general context of escalation that we see, at least in rhetoric," said outgoing Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, according to Estonian broadcaster ERR.

Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said Poland considers the matter of "highest concern" and is monitoring the situation. The chief of staff of the Estonian Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Riho Terras told ERR that he sees the move as part of a larger Russian attempt to dominate the Baltic Sea.

"In the long term, Russia's wish is to bring the Baltic Sea and the passages leading to it more and more under its control, and to control it much like it does the Black Sea," Terras said. Wedged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad is vital to Russia's strategic position. Separated from the Russian mainland by 435 miles (700 kilometers), it is the westernmost part of Russia. It houses the Russian Baltic Fleet, as well as multiple land forces and an air force detachment with fighters, bombers and helicopters, as well as an early-warning radar system and other equipment.

The Iskander, which can be equipped with a conventional or a nuclear warhead, has a range of at least 500 kilometers (310 miles), placing most of Poland within its reach when it is in Kaliningrad. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov played down the concerns.

"The Iskander ballistic missile system is mobile," he said in a statement Saturday. "As part of the plan of combat training, missile troops are engaged in training on a year-round basis, covering great distances of the Russian territory in various ways: by air, by sea, and under their own power."

He also said Russia used the deployment to figure out what range a U.S. spy satellite has. "We exposed one Iskander before loading it on the Ambal (a cargo carrier) right under a U.S. reconnaissance satellite flying above in order to verify the parameters of that space apparatus. We did not have to wait too long (for results)," he said, without elaborating.

Other countries in the region are also nervous. Finland and the United States signed a bilateral defense cooperation pact Friday pledging closer military collaboration at the time when the Nordic country is increasingly concerned over neighboring Russia's activities in the Baltic Sea.

Heintz reported from Moscow. Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

Exit polls: Georgian ruling party leads parliamentary vote

October 08, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Two exit polls in Georgia's parliamentary election on Saturday showed the ruling party in the lead, but the polls differed sizably on the margin of victory. Regardless of the election's outcome, the former Soviet republic appears determined to integrate more closely with the West, including keeping alive distant hopes of joining the European Union and NATO.

A poll conducted for Georgia's public broadcaster and other stations showed the ruling Georgian Dream party with nearly 54 percent of the vote Saturday and the opposition United National Movement at 19.5 percent support.

But an exit poll for the independent channel Rustavi-2 put the figures at 39.9 percent for the ruling party and 32.7 percent for the opposition. The discrepancy could feed tensions after a campaign that included a car bombing of one prominent opposition politician and shots fired at another candidate.

About 100 assailants attacked a polling station Saturday in the town of Marneuli, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the capital, Tbilisi. Police said the assailants were supporters of the UNM. Based on the exit polls, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told Georgian Dream party members: "I congratulate you on a big victory."

"These elections are a very important step forward toward reinforcing Georgia's image as a democratic European state," Kvirikashvili said after casting his ballot. But UNM leader David Bakradze told journalists he believes his party will prevail once single-constituency races are tallied. Of the 150 seats in parliament, 77 are chosen by proportional representation and 73 are in single districts.

The small, pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots was likely to pass the 5-percent threshold it needs to be allotted seats, according to the exit polls. The contest highlighted the often disorderly political climate in a country that has endured revolutions both violent and peaceful over the past three decades. Enthusiasm among the electorate was low; just 51 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the national elections commission.

In all, 25 parties or groups competed for the 77 seats that will be chosen by party-list voting; more than 800 candidates ran for the 73 single-district seats. Each of the two main parties carries substantial baggage.

Georgian Dream, which came to power in the 2012 elections, is the creation of tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister who appeared prominently in the "Panama Papers" leak about officials with offshore accounts.

Although Ivanishvili does not currently hold office, he is believed to wield enormous influence. Many Georgians consider him a Trojan horse for Russia because of his business connections there and his attempts to improve relations with Moscow, which were badly damaged by the 2008 war between the two countries.

Adding to the tensions, one of the campaign's most prominent figures has been Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship after he became leader of one of Ukraine's most troubled regions, Odessa.

Saakashvili is vowing a triumphant return if his UNM supporters in Georgia win power but he is a divisive figure. While Saakashvili and the UNM are credited with enacting important police and economic reforms after the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, opposition to him grew for being hot-tempered and uncompromising.

He had to address the rally in Tbilisi through a video linkup because he left the country after his term ended in 2013, then was charged in absentia with abuse of office. Saakashvili declared that if UNM regains power in Georgia, "I will cross the sea" to return to his homeland.

Georgian Dream continued the reform path that Saakashvili laid out and this year achieved an agreement with the EU that boosts trade and political relations. But Georgia remains troubled by high unemployment of about 12 percent, low pensions and other economic concerns.

The tensions underlying the election surfaced in violent incidents over the past week. On Sunday, two people were wounded by gunshots at a campaign rally for candidate and former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili. He claimed the gunmen were affiliated with Georgian Dream.

On Tuesday, an explosion destroyed the automobile of lawmaker Givi Targamadze, a Saakashvili ally. Georgia's Interior Ministry says police have identified a suspect in the bombing and that weapons and explosives had been seized as part of the investigation.

Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.