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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Pirate Party make gains as center-right hangs on in Iceland

October 30, 2016

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — The radical Pirate Party made gains but not a breakthrough in Iceland's election, as returns Sunday showed that voters favored the incumbent center-right Independence Party over the upstart advocates of direct democracy and digital freedom.

No party emerged with a majority of parliament seats from an election dominated by public discontent at the establishment after years of financial crisis and political turmoil. With almost all votes from the balloting Saturday counted, the Independence Party had 29 percent support and the Pirate Party 14.5 percent, putting them in third place behind the Left-Green movement at 15.9 percent.

The result should give the Independence Party about 21 seats in Iceland's 63-seat Parliament, the Althingi, with the Left-Greens and Pirates winning 10 each. It's a better performance than expected for the Independents, who have governed in coalition since 2013.

The Pirates' result fell short of what some polls had suggested — and what the party's fleet of energetic volunteers and supporters had hoped. Founded four years ago by an assortment of hackers, political activists and internet freedom advocates, the Pirate Party drew international attention as its support surged.

Like Spain's Podemos or the movement behind Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential race, it drew in throngs of mostly young supporters fed up with the status quo. Pirate lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir said the results were in line with the party's own prediction of between 12 and 15 percent — up from the 5 percent it secured in 2013.

"We're just amazed that we'll possibly maybe triple our following from last time, and it's only three years," Jonsdottir said. The election result looks set to trigger a period of intense political negotiations. It was not immediately clear whether the Independents had the support to assemble a coalition government with other parties of the center and right.

As early results came in overnight, Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson said he was pleased. "These are very positive indicators for us, we are leading in all constituencies, we are gaining new seats in Parliament, so we are very happy," he said.

Saturday's election was called after then-Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned in April during public protests over his offshore holdings, revealed in the Panama Papers leak. The tax-avoidance scandal outraged many Icelanders, who suffered years of economic upheaval after the country's debt-swollen banks collapsed during the 2008 global financial crisis.

The chief victim of voters' wrath was Gunnlaugsson's Progressive Party, which lost more than half its seats in the Althingi. New parties made gains among weary voters. A kingmaker in government negotiations could be Vidreisn, or Renewal, a liberal party formed this year that advocates Iceland joining the European Union. It will take about seven parliament seats.

The election was dominated by Iceland's economy — now recovering on the back of a tourism boom, with low unemployment and high growth — and voters' desire for political reform. The Pirates campaigned on promises to introduce direct democracy, subject the workings of government to more scrutiny and place the country's natural resources under public ownership

The party also backs tough rules to protect individuals from online intrusion. Jonsdottir, the Pirates' most prominent voice, is a former ally of WikiLeaks who has called on Iceland to offer citizenship to U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Opponents argued that the inexperienced Pirates could scare off investors and destabilize the economy. A wind-lashed volcanic island near the Arctic Circle with a population of 320,000, Iceland has become known in recent years for large street protests that ousted one government after the 2008 financial crash and dispatched another in April. It also has strong Scandinavian policies in support of social equality and women's rights.

But Icelanders — infused with a spirit of Viking self-sufficiency — also have a strong conservative streak that led many to mistrust the Pirates and stick with the status quo. As scores of Pirate supporters from Iceland and around the world watched the election results come in at a Reykjavik brewpub, the boisterous mood was tinged with disappointment.

"I'm really sad and I'm really disappointed in our young generation," said 22-year-old student Bylgja Gudjonsdottir. "This is our next generation that is taking the country to the next level. But they keep voting for the criminals we have here," she said.

Mothers of newborns in Greek refugee camps cope and hope

November 02, 2016

RITSONA, Greece (AP) — Ahmad, Farah and Mohamad drew their first breaths in their Syrian parents' promised land of Europe — or at least on the edge of it. Greece lies at the wrong end of the continent from where the families wanted to land, separated from the prosperous heartland by an array of high fences, razor wire and border checks.

So for now, while their parents wait for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to turn, the infants are learning to smile, turn over and sit up in a refugee camp some 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of Athens. If they're lucky, they'll be resettled in another European Union country by the time they are walking sometime next year.

Hundreds of women who were pregnant when they squeezed into flimsy smugglers' boats for the terrifying — and sometimes fatal — sea crossing from Turkey to the eastern Aegean Sea islands are among the 60,000 refugees and other migrants stranded in Greece. One baby, the youngest of six children, even was named Ritsona, after the camp where she was born with severe disabilities on March 31.

The hastily erected Ritsona camp is the same one where Mohamad, Ahmad and Farah stay. It houses an estimated 570 people in roughly 15-square-meter (160-square-foot) canvas tents that have been reinforced against the rain and sun with improvised tarps. Rows of prefabricated homes equipped with bathrooms and kitchens stand unoccupied, awaiting final adjustments before the refugees can move in.

Meanwhile, the migrants do what they can to create homes. Women bake in makeshift mud ovens. Vegetables and sweet-scented basil grow in small gardens. Neighbors gather on the benches of improvised patios, drinking endless cups of tea or coffee. But for mothers with newborns, the need to nest and the awareness of all that's lacking are especially strong.

"This life is very difficult, but in Syria (it's) also difficult," Hanan Halawa, 39, a mother of four children ages 12 to four months, said. Her youngest, Ahmad, was born June 10 in a hospital in the nearby town of Halkida.

Halawa and her husband, Yousef, a once-prosperous dairy manufacturer from Idlib, crossed with their three older children from Izmir in Turkey to Chios island, the adults paying smugglers 700 euros each and 350 euros for every child.

"I want for my children, not for this baby only but for all my children, a safe place, good education, only," she said, cradling Ahmad. "That's what we want." Her neighbor, Hala Baroud, 28, was 4 ½ months pregnant when she made the sea crossing from Turkey to the nearby island of Lesbos, with her husband and their 5-year-old son. They were evicted from Dubai in late 2015 and had nowhere to return to in their native Syria.

"I hope for my baby a good life, a happy life, and to live in good places," she said, holding her weeks-old daughter Farah. "I hope I can give her everything. I hope when she grows up, her studies and education, it will be good. That's like all mothers. I hope nothing will be missing from her life."

Rima Al Basir, 30, already was in Greece with four children when she learned she was expecting a fifth. Some Greek doctors in Halkida berated her for getting pregnant again and told her the baby would need to be delivered by cesarean section. Their shouts of disapproval stunned her to tears.

She had Mohamad, now 5 months old, in Athens. "After I woke up, I looked beside me, nobody was beside me. I did not expect that. I said to myself, 'If I (had) my baby in Syria, it would be better for me. At least my mother would be beside me.' But here, nobody was beside me."

Al Basir hopes to be resettled in another European country. "Any country is comfortable for my family and my children," she said. "Anywhere, but not in these tents."

Theodora Tongas contributed to this story.

Far-right protesters march in Berlin, demand that Merkel go

November 06, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Hundreds of far-right protesters have marched through Berlin calling for Chancellor Angela Merkel to be removed from office. Police accompanied the protest through the German capital's former Jewish district, at one point forcibly removing a blockade staged by far-left counter-demonstrators.

The protest began at the city's main train station, where speakers criticized the government's decision to allow large numbers of migrants into Germany. A crowd of up to 500 people chanted slogans such as "Merkel must go!"

A Berlin police spokesman says the event passed "relatively peacefully" apart from a few attempts by counter-protesters to break through police lines. Winfrid Wenzel was unable to immediately say whether there had been any arrests or injuries.

He said about 200 far-right protesters reached Alexanderplatz Square in the city on Saturday evening.

Merkel's Bavarian allies tilt right ahead of national vote

November 05, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — The Bavarian sister-party of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats is positioning itself firmly against the chancellor's open-door policy toward refugees in a bid to win voters angered by the influx of migrants.

The Christian Social Union has always been more conservative than Merkel's party, which is active in the rest of Germany outside Bavaria. The so-called Union bloc comprising the two parties is expected to lose ground to the surging nationalist party Alternative for Germany in next year's national election.

At a meeting Saturday in Munich, CSU party delegates unanimously passed a new program that rejects multiculturalism and demands nation-wide referendums of the kind seen in Switzerland. The program also reinforces the CSU's demand for an annual cap on the number of refugees Germany takes in. Some 890,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in 2015, with another 213,000 applying in the first nine months of 2016. Many were fleeing hardship and wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Manfred Weber, the CSU's deputy leader, told the Passauer Neue Presse daily that his party won't join another coalition government unless there's a cap on asylum-seekers. The party has previously said that cap should be 200,000 a year.

Party leader Horst Seehofer told news channel n-tv that he expects the CSU to close ranks with Merkel's Christian Democrats ahead of next year's vote, but acknowledged that it may not be possible to agree on all points, including immigration.

Merkel has rejected a fixed cap on asylum-seekers as legally and practically impossible. The CSU's new program — its first since 2007 — also calls for the Germany army to be able to operate inside the country to fight terrorism.

France moves over 1,600 child migrants out of Calais

November 02, 2016

CALAIS, France (AP) — French authorities bused all unaccompanied children — 1,616 of them — out of Calais' sprawling migrant slum on Wednesday, taking them to special processing centers in one of the final steps to empty the notorious camp in the English Channel city.

The underage migrants climbed into to 38 buses in a day-long operation that began just under a week after adult migrants were cleared out of the camp known as "the jungle" and sent to refugee centers around France.

In the government's final move, women and their children — slightly more than 300 people — in the Calais camp were to be transported to family centers on Thursday. "Then there will be no one at the end of the day," said Steve Barbet, spokesman for the Pas-de-Calais region.

Last week's operation to evacuate and demolish the makeshift camp — whose population soared to more than 10,000 two months ago, aid groups said — was a mammoth logistical task rushed to completion after fires engulfed large swaths of the slum. Clean-up crews finished pulling down shelters Tuesday.

Two agents from the British Home Office traveled on each bus, said Barbet. They will study files of the underage migrants, who often have family members in the U.K., to see who might qualify for transfer to Britain — the goal of most migrants who used the camp as a stepping stone for bids to sneak across the Channel by hiding out in freight trucks.

Since Oct. 17, Britain has taken in slightly more than 300 Calais migrants. France is pressing Britain to do more. Most of the youths lined up calmly to board the buses, though one grabbed onto a fence, begging British officials to take him to the U.K.

Migrants from the Mideast and Africa had converged on the Calais camp over the past 18 months. The filthy, lawless site had become a symbol of Europe's migrant crisis and a source of shame for France.

The child migrants were taken to 60 dedicated centers scattered around France until British officials decide their cases. Those refused access to Britain will be put under the care of French child welfare services.

The operation rekindled tensions among some youths, who feared it means the end of their dream of reaching Britain. "They are saying 'you are young, we can help you'. But they are not helping me," Carlos Osma, a 16-year-old from Sudan, said before boarding a bus.

Four people were injured when clashes broke out Tuesday night between Afghan and Eritrean migrants in the camp, and police used tear gas to separate them. British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Parliament last week that several hundred more child migrants would be brought in soon. But details remain unclear. The issue is complicated by Britain's recent vote to leave the European Union, which highlighted the public's unease with immigration.

"We are absolutely committed to safeguarding and protecting children in Calais and have been working very closely with the French to ensure the camp is cleared as safely as possible," British Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill said Wednesday.

Angela Charlton in Paris and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

French president: No more migrants allowed at Calais camp

November 01, 2016

PARIS (AP) — French President Francois Hollande says migrants won't be allowed to resettle at a now-razed camp in Calais that had become a vast, lawless slum. Authorities cleared the last of the camp's makeshift shelters Monday night after evacuating 5,000 migrants to temporary housing around France.

In an interview published Tuesday in La Voix du Nord newspaper, Hollande is quoted as saying, "I promise (Calais residents) that there will not be a new settlement." He said more than 1,000 underage migrants now housed in containers in Calais will move within days to "dedicated centers" where British authorities can study their cases.

Hollande urged Britain to "do its share" to take in child migrants. Migrants fleeing fighting and poverty in the Middle East and Africa converged on Calais in hopes of reaching Britain.

UK's Labor Party leader says government has no Brexit plans

November 05, 2016

LONDON (AP) — The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party says Prime Minister Theresa May's government is resisting "democratic scrutiny" of the Brexit process because it has not developed any plans for leaving the 28-nation bloc.

Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday called on May to immediately spell out her Brexit negotiating terms to Parliament now that Britain's High Court has ruled that Parliament must give its approval before formal talks begin.

The court's ruling means the prime minister does not have the authority to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU without parliamentary backing. Some believe this will delay the process. The government hopes to overturn the adverse ruling when the case goes to the Supreme Court next month.

Bulgarians to choose a new president from 21 candidates

November 06, 2016

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarians on Sunday were choosing a new president who will have to face both a possible rise in migrants from neighboring Turkey and growing tensions between Russia and the West.

For the first time, voting in the presidential election is compulsory for the Balkan nation's 6.8 million voters. Also on the ballot is a referendum on electoral process issues. Opinion polls suggest that none of Bulgaria's 21 presidential candidates are likely to win in the first round by getting more than the required 50 percent of the vote, and that a presidential runoff will be held on Nov. 13.

The front-runner is the Parliament speaker, Tsetska Tsacheva, a 58-year-old lawyer and member of the governing center-right GERB party of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov. Unlike her party leader, however, she is not a charismatic figure.

To become the first female president of the country of 7.2 million people, Tsacheva must defeat the opposition Socialist contender Rumen Radev, 53, a former fighter pilot and Bulgarian air force chief.

If Tsacheva is elected, she is widely expected to continue the pro-Europe foreign policy of incumbent Rosen Plevneliev, while her main opponent is seen as more sympathetic to Russia. Radev has repeatedly said he would comply with Bulgaria's European obligations but has called for better relations with Russia and called for lifting sanctions against Russia, arguing that "being pro-European does not mean being anti-Russian."

A recent poll by Gallup International Balkan suggests the presidential election will go to a second round, with Tsacheva facing Radev. The poll conducted Oct. 24-31 among 820 Bulgarians found Tsacheva supported by 27.2 percent and Radev by 23.1 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Polling stations will close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) and preliminary results will be available 90 minutes later. Final results will be announced Tuesday.

Bulgaria to pay Russia 600 mn euros for dropped nuclear plant

Sofia (AFP)
Oct 26, 2016

Bulgaria said Wednesday it had agreed to pay Russia over 600 million euros ($655 million) in compensation after cancelling plans to build a nuclear plant on the Danube.

Bulgaria's national electricity company, NEK, will make "full payment" to the Russian nuclear giant Atomstroyexport by December 25, the energy ministry said in a statement.

The Geneva-based International Court of Arbitration ruled in June that NEK should pay Atomstroyexport 601 million euros plus interest for equipment ordered for a planned 2,000-megawatt twin-reactor plant at Belene on the Danube.

Bulgaria and Russia also agreed on Wednesday that Atomstroyexport will waive part of the interest of 130,000 euros per day if NEK repays it ahead of the December 25 deadline, the ministry added.

The Belene scheme was scrapped in 2012, with Bulgaria blaming ever-rising costs.

However, the government is mulling whether to revive it using a private investor, and is in early talks with Atomstroyexport about a possible procurement deal that would reduce the compensation payout.

After joining the EU in 2007, the country -- a former top electricity exporter on the Balkans -- was left with only two operational 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors at its sole nuclear power plant in Kozloduy, also on the Danube.

On Tuesday, the energy ministry announced that a consortium of the Russian Rosenergoatom and French EDF will study options for extending the operational life of one of the Kozloduy reactors by as much as 30 years -- until 2047. The plant's other reactor has a lifetime that is scheduled to expire in 2021.

Source: Nuclear Power Daily.
Link: http://www.nuclearpowerdaily.com/reports/Bulgaria_to_pay_Russia_600_mn_euros_for_dropped_nuclear_plant_999.html.

Sweden declares hero Wallenberg officially dead

October 31, 2016

STOCKHOLM (AP) — World War II hero Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with helping at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews escape the Holocaust, has been pronounced dead by Swedish authorities, 71 years after he disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

The Swedish diplomat is believed to have died in Soviet captivity, but when and how remains unclear. Wallenberg was officially considered a missing person in Sweden, long after authorities gave up hope of finding him alive. But the Swedish Tax Agency, which registers births and deaths in Sweden, confirmed a report Monday in newspaper Expressen that Wallenberg had been pronounced dead.

Pia Gustafsson, who heads the agency's legal department, told The Associated Press that the decision was taken on Oct. 26 after an application from Wallenberg's trustee. She said the date of Wallenberg's death was set as July 31, 1952, a date chosen by default under a rule saying a missing person who is presumed to have died should be declared dead five years after his disappearance.

Wallenberg vanished after being arrested by the Red Army in 1945. The Soviets initially denied he was in their custody, but in 1957 they said he had died of a heart attack in prison on July 17, 1947. Another report suggested he was still alive six days later. There have been numerous unconfirmed witness accounts from people saying they saw him decades later.

Wallenberg, who was born in 1912, helped Jews escape Nazi-occupied Germany by giving them Swedish passports. Many countries have memorials commemorating his work, including Israel, which designated him as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," the highest honor granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Canada holds 2017 immigration target at 300,000 people

November 1, 2016

Canada said on Monday it would let 300,000 immigrants into the country in 2017, maintaining this year’s target despite recommendations to increase it to help spur economic growth and help business leaders bring in more talent.

Immigration Minister John McCallum told reporters that making the 300,000 target permanent laid the foundation for future immigration growth, and fought off the suggestion that he had lost a battle against anti-immigration forces.

“I do believe it is true that more immigrants for Canada would be a good policy for demographic reasons,” McCallum told reporters.

Some business leaders were disappointed with the decision not to increase the target to 450,000 over the next five years, as recommended by the government’s own economic advisory council two weeks ago to offset Canada’s looming demographic squeeze.

While the country bucked international trends last year to bring in thousands of Syrian refugees, it was urged by the advisory council to focus on high-skilled business talent and international students to boost economic growth, which has been tepid for years.

Corporate Canada has long complained about bureaucratic red tape in the system, saying hurdles to get work permits often make the process too slow for employers and new hires alike.

Christopher Reid, founder of software developer Sortable in Kitchener, Ontario, was disappointed by the renewed target.

“If they want to prioritize innovation, the pace that they move makes no sense to entrepreneurs,” said Reid. “Innovators aren’t going to say ‘Let’s put it off for a year.'”

Reid said he tried to hire two high-skilled workers from the United States this year but has mostly given up because the process is too onerous and too slow.

Stephen Lake, chief executive at wearable technology maker Thalmic Labs, said the slow process was the biggest challenge, but not the only one.

Lake said Canada has set the bar so high that even highly qualified candidates are not accepted for immigration – a standard that could have been relaxed if the immigration target had been raised.

“We should be rolling out the red carpet and working hard to attract this type of talent into Canada,” he said.

Under next year’s plan, the number of immigrants admitted under the economic category will increase to 172,500 from 160,600 this year, the government said. The number of refugees will decrease to 40,000 from 55,800.

Canada has a population of about 35 million.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161101-canada-holds-2017-immigration-target-at-300000-people/.

South African opposition to push for president's removal

November 03, 2016

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's biggest opposition party said Thursday that it is pushing for a parliamentary vote to remove President Jacob Zuma next week following the release of a state watchdog report indicating possible government corruption linked to Zuma and some associates.

The Democratic Alliance will even lobby members of the ruling African National Congress party who defeated a similar move in parliament against the president in April, said opposition leader Mmusi Maimane. The opposition has received "provisional confirmation" that the motion will be debated in the National Assembly on Nov. 10, he said.

The opposition party's effort is likely to encounter the same kind of resistance from the ruling party in a new vote as it did earlier in the year, even though more ANC members have spoken publicly against Zuma in recent months.

In April, the South African parliament rejected a motion to remove Zuma by a vote of 233 to 143; the motion required a two-thirds majority for approval. It followed an apology by Zuma after the Constitutional Court ruled that he failed to uphold the constitution in a scandal over millions of dollars in state spending on his private home.

On Thursday, the ruling party said it welcomed the report on corruption allegations linked to the president, but commented only in general terms about curbing graft. "This report provides a concrete basis for the ANC and society in general to discuss the allegations contained therein and deal with its outcomes," the party said in a statement. It said it supports a plan to introduce "lifestyle audits" for all party leaders.

Pressure on Zuma intensified Wednesday when a South African court ordered the release of the state watchdog report about the relationship that Zuma and some state officials had with the Guptas, a business family of Indian immigrants accused of meddling in the government for financial benefit. The report by the public protector's office found possible ethical violations centering on allegations that the Guptas were involved in the removal and appointment of Cabinet ministers and directors of state-owned firms.

The Gupta family wants to present its case and will cooperate with any judicial inquiry, said family lawyer Gert van der Merwe. "We will prepare for the allegations and that is what we concentrate on," eNCA, a South Africa media organization, quoted van der Merwe as saying.

The Guptas have previously denied wrongdoing and said they were being framed as scapegoats for South Africa's economic problems. The watchdog report recommended that a judicial commission investigate the allegations against the president and others. Zuma would be required to appoint the commission, though the chief justice of the Constitutional Court would select a judge to head the panel. Zuma's office said he was not given a chance to provide "meaningful input" in the investigation and is considering whether to challenge the report in court.

Zuma, meanwhile, traveled to neighboring Zimbabwe on Thursday to discuss trade with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. In prepared remarks there, Zuma did not mention the scandals that have sapped his popularity at home. He appeared jovial, joking with some of Mugabe's ministers.

Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980 despite public discontent and economic hardship, referred to Zuma's problems in welcoming remarks. "We are happy you are still in one piece in spite of what the papers are writing every day," the 92-year-old Mugabe said. "So we continue to say, well, long live our solidarity."

Associated Press writer Farai Mutsaka contributed from Harare, Zimbabwe.

South Africa watchdog report increases pressure on president

November 02, 2016

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African President Jacob Zuma faced growing calls to resign on Wednesday after the release of a state report that found possible evidence of corruption at top levels of a government whose leader has been enmeshed in scandal.

The report by a state watchdog agency came out as thousands of South Africans demonstrated for the removal of Zuma, who apologized earlier this year after the Constitutional Court said he flouted the law in a scandal over millions of dollars in state spending on his rural home.

A commission of inquiry should be established to investigate separate allegations centered on Zuma's close relationship with the Guptas, a business family of Indian immigrants that has been accused of meddling in the government for its own financial benefit, according to the report by the state public protector's office.

Zuma is required to appoint the judicial commission, though it would be "headed by a judge solely selected by the Chief Justice who shall provide one name to the President," the report said. The commission would have six months to complete its findings and make recommendations, a process that could slow calls for Zuma to quit. Opposition parties, however, said they could push for a vote of no confidence in the president in coming weeks.

A similar vote earlier this year was rejected because the ruling African National Congress has a majority in parliament, though some ANC members have since become openly critical of Zuma. The president still has the support of some powerful factions in his party.

The release of the 355-page report by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who completed a seven-year term last month, was delayed in court because of efforts by Zuma and associates to block its release.

The president "was not afforded a reasonable opportunity to provide meaningful input into the investigation and asked the court to be given an opportunity to do so," Zuma's office said in a statement. It said he should have been provided with "incriminating evidence" before answering questions from the watchdog agency, and should have been allowed to question witnesses who were interviewed for the report.

"The President will give consideration to the contents of the report in order to ascertain whether it should be a subject of a court challenge," Zuma's office said. The report explores conduct by Zuma and other state officials in connection with allegations that the Guptas were involved in the removal and appointment of Cabinet ministers and directors of state-owned firms.

The Guptas have denied they illegally tried to obtain state contracts and other benefits, and previously said they were the victims of hate speech. A key allegation centers on Zuma's decision in December to abruptly fire Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replace him with a relatively unknown figure, David van Rooyen. The move unsettled markets and prompted a national outcry, compelling the president to replace van Rooyen a few days later with Pravin Gordhan, who previously served as finance minister.

Allegations that the Gupta family knew that Nene was going to be fired, as well as evidence that van Rooyen was at the Gupta home in Johannesburg at least seven times before his appointment as finance minister, are worrying, according to the public protector's report.

It also cited allegations by the deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, that a Gupta brother had offered him the finance minister's post while saying Zuma was aware of the offer. The president denied knowledge of any such offer.

"Consequently the people of South Africa, who Deputy Minister Jonas took into his confidence in revealing this, would lose faith in open, democratic and accountable government if President Zuma's denials are proven to be false," said the report, noting that the executive branch should have investigated Jonas' allegations.

Jonas alleged that the Gupta brother he met offered him $44 million "to be deposited in an account of his choice" and asked if Jonas "had a bag which he could use to receive and carry R600,000 ($44,000) in cash immediately," according to the report. It said Jonas declined the offer.

On Wednesday, business executives, religious leaders and others gathered in a Pretoria cathedral to demand that Zuma quit. They said alleged corruption linked to the president was undermining one of Africa's biggest economies, which is experiencing weak growth, as well as a constitution that was crafted after the end of white minority rule in 1994.

Separate rallies were also held in Pretoria by opposition groups. The marches were mostly peaceful, but some shop windows were smashed and police arrested several people. Later, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, marched to the Union Buildings, which house the offices of Zuma and other government officials. There, protesters briefly clashed with police, who set off stun grenades and fired rubber bullets.

Kenya accuses UN of targeting general fired in South Sudan

November 04, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Kenya accused the U. N. secretary-general on Thursday of instigating an investigation of deadly attacks in South Sudan with the "preordained" outcome of blaming the Kenyan commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force, who was fired over events that occurred just three weeks after he assumed the post.

Kenya's U.N. Ambassador Macharia Kamau told a news conference that Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki was sacked by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon as "a scapegoat" for the systemic failures of the U.N. peacekeeping system.

He said the investigation was demanded "by certain current and future members" of the Security Council who wanted to protect their interests during the July attacks in South Sudan's capital, Juba. He refused to identify them.

The investigation sharply criticized the U.N. peacekeeping force's response to attacks on a U.N. compound in Juba housing 27,000 displaced people. Over three days in July, at least 73 people were killed, including two Chinese peacekeepers and more than 20 internally displaced people who had sought U.N. protection. The investigators also criticized U.N. peacekeepers for failing to respond to an attack on a private compound just over a kilometer away where U.N. staff, aid workers and local staff were robbed, beaten, raped and killed by armed government soldiers.

Kenya's Foreign Ministry, expressing "dismay" at Ondieki's firing and the way the investigation was conducted, announced Wednesday that it was withdrawing its 1,000 troops from the U.N. peacekeeping operation in South Sudan and will not contribute to beefing up the force by 4,000 troops.

"Kenya had warned that any unfair or prejudicial action taken on the basis of this investigation would compel Kenya to re-evaluate completely its engagement in South Sudan," Kamau said. "The secretary-general, in his lame-duck season, seems to have found the courage that has eluded him throughout his tenure by choosing to ignore Kenya's plea."

Ban's 10 years as U.N. chief ends on Dec. 31 and Antonio Guterres will take over as secretary-general on Jan. 1. South Sudan, the world's youngest country, has been riven by ethnic violence since shortly after gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011. Civil war broke out in 2013 when government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, battled rebels led by his former vice president Riek Machar, who is a Nuer. Tens of thousands have been killed, more than 2 million displaced, and despite an August 2015 peace agreement, fighting has continued.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric rejected Kamau's accusations, saying there was "no preordained conclusion" to the investigation led by retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert. He said the investigators looked at "leadership, command decisions taken on that day," and the secretary-general fired Ondieki on the basis of their findings, which "deeply distressed" him.

"The decision to ask for his removal is an initial decision," Dujarric said. "Other decisions might be taken, but obviously the secretary-general stands by the report that Mr. Cammaert did and the way it was done."

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said "there is, of course, the system-wide accountability. We all have a degree of responsibility." As for the firing of Ondieki, he said, "I don't want to add salt to the wound. I think that conclusions were irrefutable."

Ladsous spoke to reporters after briefing the Security Council at a closed meeting. A council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the session was private, said the United States proposed a press statement welcoming the report and the U.N.'s transparency, but there was no agreement because China was not willing to accept any reference to the report.

In the attacks on the U.N. compound, the report said confusing senior leadership and the lack of leadership on the ground, where the Chinese battalion commander had been appointed as the incident commander, "contributed to incidents of poor performance among the military and police contingents at UN House."

This included "at least two instances in which the Chinese battalion abandoned some of its defensive positions" and an "inadequate" performance by Nepalese police to stop looting by some displaced people and control the crowd, it said.

Kamau said "the sources used to inform the investigation, according to our information, were people who were ... in the direct line of command and related colleagues to the force commander. "These individuals, who had been in position years and months before the force commander arrived, have reason to miscue information in a manner that protects them and apportions blame elsewhere," he said.

Kamau said "the investigation could not and should not have been just about the force commander." Instead, the investigation should have centered on response to events, the failure of the peacekeeping system, and the need for collective responsibility and accountability from the U.N. peacekeeping department in New York to the joint operations command at the U.N. mission in Juba, Kamau said.

Associated Press writer Michael Astor contributed to this report from the United Nations.

Under cover of war, Israel expands its occupation of Syria

October 31, 2016

In many ways, the war in Syria has been a gift to Israel. For reasons quite similar to the US, the government in Tel Aviv has an interest in helping to prolong the war for as long as possible. Mostly crudely expressed by the poisonous anti-Muslim demagogue Daniel Pipes as “support whichever side is losing in the Syrian civil war,” this is a classic divide-and-rule imperial strategy.

The Syrian government is an oppressive state which abuses human-rights. It is also a state which is independent of US designs on the region, and often acts in downright opposition to them. The most obvious example of this is the government’s longstanding logistical support for the armed wing of the Hezbollah movement, the main force in Lebanon’s resistance to Israel. Hezbollah fighters are supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in the war.

For this latter reason, both the US and Israeli governments are happy to let the fighting continue for as long as possible, since it means that Syria is less of a threat to the US and Israel’s regional dominance. A side benefit of all this for Israel has been to allow it to increase and further entrench its occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights.

This is a region of south-western Syria, which has been occupied illegally by Israel since the war of 1967. Although the Israeli occupation of Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip is fairly well understood by now, the occupation of the Golan Heights gets less attention.

In 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, it also invaded Syria’s Golan Heights. More than 130,000 native Syrians living in the area were either transferred forcibly from their homes, or compelled to flee by the threat of the war. This represented most of the population of the territory.

Israel then set about destroying villages in the Golan. Within a month of the occupation, Israel began building settlements on the rubble; these were and are all illegal under international law. The Syrian inhabitants of those villages were forbidden by Israel from returning to their land. The situation in many respects is very much like Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, albeit on a smaller scale.

In 1981 – in defiance of international law and the UN – Israel annexed the Golan, designating it to be part of itself according to its own laws and practice. This is a move that it has not made in the West Bank and Gaza, because it would come under immense international pressure to grant the 4.5 million Palestinians in those occupied territories a vote in the Israeli parliament. This is something that Israel, the so-called “Jewish state”, will never countenance, unless it is compelled to do so by outside pressure.

Since then, Israel has increased its occupation of the Golan incrementally. During the current war in Syria, Israel has commenced exploratory drilling for oil in the territory. The parent company of Afek, which is carrying out the drilling, includes on its advisory board former US vice-president Dick Cheney, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and Larry Summers, the former secretary of the US treasury.

Last week, it was reported in the Israeli press that Tel Aviv has authorized the construction of 1,600 new houses in the illegal settlement of Katzrin. According to Al-Marsad, a Syrian Arab human rights center in the occupied Golan, the settlement is built over the destroyed Syrian villages of Qasrin, Shqef and Sanawber.

Al-Marsad explains that “due to [Israel’s] discriminatory land, housing and development policies, Syrian residential areas [in the Golan Heights] are severely overcrowded. As a result of severe restrictions imposed by Israeli planning committees, it is close to impossible for the native Syrian population in the remaining Syrian villages in the occupied Syrian Golan to obtain building permits.” This reflects the situation in, for example, occupied Jerusalem, where Palestinians are rarely granted such permits. “As such,” says Al-Marsad, “the Syrian population is forced to build homes without building permits, as this is the only way to meet their housing needs. Consequently, Syrian home owners run the risk that their home could be destroyed: as was the case with Mr Bassam Ibrahim whose home in Syrian village, Majdal Shams, was demolished by the Israeli authorities last month. Currently, the Syrian owners of between 80-90 houses have been notified that their homes are also due to be demolished.”

The war in Syria remains a convenient cover for Israel’s occupation of this much-neglected region of Syria to continue unabated. Much like its occupation of Palestine, Israel’s occupation of Syria must come to an immediate end.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161031-under-cover-of-war-israel-expands-its-occupation-of-syria/.

Soyuz space capsule returns to Earth from 115-day mission

October 30, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian Soyuz space capsule has landed in Kazakhstan, bringing three astronauts from the United States, Japan and Russia back to Earth from a 115-day mission aboard the International Space Station.

The landing took place Sunday morning near Dzhezkazgan on the treeless Central Asian steppes. Kate Rubins of NASA, Japan's Takuya Onishi and Anatoly Ivanishin of Russia were removed from the capsule and sat on the steppes still in their capsule seats while they readjusted to the forces of gravity after nearly four months in weightless conditions, then were taken to a nearby medical tent for initial examination.

Andrei Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhykov of Russia and NASA astronaut Robert Shane Kimbrough remain aboard the space station. They arrived on Oct. 22 after a two-day voyage. The trip back to Earth was much quicker for the three returnees on Sunday, about 3 1/2 hours from undocking until landing.

The capsule landed as scheduled and was closely tracked by helicopters as it wafted through partly cloudy skies under a parachute marked in red and white concentric circles. The craft landed upright, which made the extraction of the astronauts quicker than when capsules land on their sides.

Russians unconcerned by Kremlin's saber-rattling

November 01, 2016

BALTIYSK, Russia (AP) — Russia held civil defense drills involving 40 million people last month, the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. State media broadcast instantly recognizable Soviet imagery, showing school children trying on gas masks, and urge viewers to find the nearest bomb shelter "before it's too late."

But while these reports fuel Western fears of a new Cold War, ordinary Russians don't seem too worried. Even in Kaliningrad, a heavily militarized Russian outpost surrounded by NATO members Lithuania and Poland, people see the messages as mere posturing.

The harbor of Baltiysk, home of Russia's Baltic Fleet, is downright sleepy. On a recent morning, fisherman lounged by the pier as sailors put a fresh coat of paint on a missile ship across the bay. "It's laughable because no one here is planning to attack anyone," said Olga Zyukina, feeding swans with her 16-month-old son. "I think our president is smart and he has no need to give such orders."

NATO held a high-profile summit in nearby Poland in July, and the Western alliance's troops are building up positions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as tensions with Russia escalate. The United States is sending 1,000 troops to Poland next year, and its concerns about an unwanted confrontation with Russia have played heavily into President Barack Obama's reluctance to engage militarily in Syria's civil war.

In an interview published Tuesday with the Guardian newspaper, the chief of British spy agency MI5 said Russia is an increasing danger to the West. "It is using its whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways — involving propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks," Andrew Parker said, adding: "It is MI5's job to get in the way of that."

Russia, for its part, held a flurry of Baltic Fleet exercises this year, with marines practicing landings, ships firing surface-to-air missiles, fighter jets dropping bombs and troops capturing saboteur divers. Last month, Moscow sent nuclear-capable Iskander missile units to Kaliningrad. With an estimated range of 500 kilometers (300 miles), the missiles could reach the Baltic states, most of Poland and southern Sweden.

Moscow has also upped the bellicose talk. Russian state television presents the NATO exercises as testament to aggressive intentions of the West. News bulletins are filled with rapturous reports about missile testing, and Moscow officials proudly announce that the city's bomb shelters are ready to accommodate all 12 million residents.

"There will be just a few minutes to find a shelter that can save your life — seven minutes to be exact, which is the travel time of the nearest missiles of a potential adversary," an NTV reporter said in front of footage of a screaming crowd rushing for shelter.

This adds to a sense of unease as the military exercises heat up. Oleg Skvortsov, a 36-year old business consultant from Kaliningrad, was celebrating his wife's birthday across the border in Lithuania, enjoying a sunny day on idyllic pastures with rabbits jumping around.

"And then we heard a thud, and a rocket flew in the direction of Kaliningrad. It turned out our guys had held drills, and Lithuanians decided to have their own," he said. "It was really scary. It happened once and I don't want to feel like this all the time."

Alexei Milovanov, editor in chief of the independent news website NewKaliningrad.Ru, dismisses the military displays as "saber-rattling" but says he understands why Kaliningrad's Western neighbors are worried.

"If you keep a rifle at home, you know you have it and you can use it if something happens," he said. "But if you go out on the porch with this rifle every day and parade it in front of everyone, people will start giving you strange looks."

To be sure, some Russians are fearful of another Cold War — 27 percent, according to a nationwide poll by the independent Levada Center last month. The poll, which interviewed 1,600 people in 48 Russian regions, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

"Of course I'm worried," said Natalya Bezprozvannaya, a 43-year-old cook who lives on Russia's westernmost tip, a seven-minute ferry ride from Baltiysk. "To be honest, I'm a little bit scared because they talk about it on television."

But mostly, Kaliningrad residents say their lives go on much as usual. "You don't feel it here. It's all on television," said Yuri Velikotsky, a retired naval captain who is now an amber craftsman. "I don't feel that we're getting prepared for a war. This isn't the way you get prepared for one. It's just the usual war of nerves."

Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.

NATO, Russia to hold parallel drills in the Balkans

October 31, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — NATO is holding an emergency exercise drill in Montenegro while Russian troops will participate in a war game in Serbia as the two Balkan neighbors seem to be heading in different directions strategically.

The five-day drill in Montenegro that started Monday includes fighting floods and chemical attacks. It will involve 680 unarmed personnel from seven NATO countries and 10 partner states. The 13-day armed exercise in Serbia, dubbed "The Slavic Brotherhood 2016," begins Wednesday. It will include 150 Russian paratroopers, 50 air force staffers, 3 transport planes and an unspecified number of troops from Serbia and Belarus, Russia's Defense Ministry said.

Both Serbia and Montenegro — a single state before their split in 2006 — are traditional Russian Christian Orthodox allies. But since the split, Montenegro has pursued pro-Western policies, while Serbia has been struggling to wrestle away from the Moscow grip.

Montenegro has been invited to join NATO, despite strong opposition from Russia. Serbia is under strong pressure from the Kremlin not to join the Western military alliance or the European Union. Serbia, a NATO partner, has held exercises with the Western alliance, but not such a large one or with foreign troops and equipment participating on its soil.

Montenegrin officials have accused Russia of standing behind an alleged coup on election day earlier in October to topple the pro-Western government because of its NATO bid. Some 20 Serbian citizens were arrested in Montenegro during the vote, suspected of trying to stage the coup, while Serbian authorities reportedly deported an unspecified number of Russian operatives from their territory.

Georgia's governing party wins parliamentary majority

October 31, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Early results in the former Soviet republic of Georgia show the governing party winning a large majority of seats following the second round of parliamentary voting. Three weeks ago, the Georgian Dream party took 67 of the parliament's 150 seats. Runoffs had to be staged for 50 other seats in which no candidate received a majority.

Central Election Commission chief Tamar Zhvaniya told reporters on Monday that the Georgian Dream took 48 seats in the runoff, giving the party a healthy majority of 115. Only 37.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the runoffs.

Georgian Dream was started by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He later became prime minister, but even after stepping down from the post he is still seen as the party's dominant influence.

Georgia's governing party seeks constitutional majority

October 30, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The governing party in the former Soviet republic of Georgia aimed to win a constitutional majority of parliament seats in the second round of national voting Sunday, which was marked by low turnout.

Only 37.5 percent of eligible voters took part in the runoffs, which will choose a third of the country's parliament members, the central elections commission said. It also said no complaints of major violations were reported.

In voting three weeks ago, the Georgian Dream party took 67 of the parliament's 150 seats. But 50 seats needed to undergo Sunday's runoff vote because no candidate received a majority. Georgian Dream candidates polled the largest support in most of those races in the first round, but the likelihood of its winning the 46 seats needed for a three-quarters constitutional majority are unclear. In most districts, substantial first-round vote shares went to independents or candidates from a score of small parties.

Both Georgian Dream and main opponent the United National Movement are pro-West, seeking better relations and possible eventual membership in NATO and the European Union. But Georgian Dream has tried to balance these aspirations with developing better relations with Russia.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said Sunday that Georgia will continue to pursue "the principle of integration with the EU and NATO, at the same time reducing tensions with Russia." Russia and Georgia fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing all control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions. Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was a vehement critic of Russia and detested by the Kremlin.

Although Saakashvili was stripped of his citizenship after becoming governor of Ukraine's Odessa region, he is still a key figure in the opposition UNM, which denounces the governing party as the creation of a Russian oligarch.

Georgian Dream was started by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He later became prime minister, but even after stepping down from the post he is still seen as the party's dominant influence.

If Georgian Dream gets the three-quarters majority in parliament that would allow it to change the constitution, an early move is likely to be an amendment to make the presidency a position appointed by parliament.

"We already know what (Ivanishvili) wants to do -- he wants to take away our right to elect the president directly," said Giga Boleria, foreign affairs secretary for UNM. Georgian Dream executive secretary Irakli Kobakhidze justifies the proposed change as "the opportunity to improve the constitution to strengthen the parliament as the main constitutional body in the country and to secure the principle of separation of powers."

Aside from the 27 seats won by UNM in the first round, only one other political bloc entered the new parliament — the Russia-tolerant Alliance of Patriots, with six seats.

Australia, Indonesia mull joint South China Sea patrols

Oct 31, 2016

Australia is considering joint patrols with Indonesia in the disputed South China Sea, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Tuesday, in a move set to irk Beijing.

The possibility was raised by Jakarta during meetings between Bishop and Defense Minister Marise Payne and Indonesian officials including Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu last week.

"We have agreed to explore options to increase maritime cooperation and of course that would include coordinated activities in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea," Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"This is all consistent with our policy of exercising our right of freedom of navigation and that's in accordance with international law."

Ryacudu was cited by the Sydney Morning Herald as saying he had proposed a "peace patrol" with Australia.

"There are no intentions to disrupt the relationship (with China). It is called a peace patrol, it brings peace. It is about protecting fish in each other's areas," he said.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite rival claims from its Southeast Asian neighbors -- most notably the Philippines, which took the case to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The court ruled in July that there was no legal basis to China's claims -- a verdict Beijing dismissed vehemently.

Australia, like staunch ally the United States, has no claims of its own in the area, but insists that all shipping has a right to pass through seas it regards as international waters.

Last month the US sailed a warship near disputed territory in the South China Sea, with Beijing slamming the move as a "serious illegal act" and "deliberately provocative".

Discussion on potential joint patrols comes amid uncertainty in the region with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unsettling Manila's traditional allies by signalling a shift away from Washington towards Beijing.

Unlike some Southeast Asian neighbors, Jakarta has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea and does not contest ownership of reefs or islets there.

But Beijing's expansive claims overlap Indonesia's exclusive economic zone -- waters where a state has the right to exploit resources -- around the Natunas, a remote scattering of islands that are rich fishing grounds.

In June, Indonesian President Joko Widodo toured the islands on a warship, in a move seen as sending a strong message to China to respect Indonesian sovereignty.

Bishop said the Australian navy had already conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea with India and the US as "a regular part of what our navy does and it's also part of our engagement in the region".

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Australia_Indonesia_mull_joint_South_China_Sea_patrols_999.html.