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Friday, December 9, 2016

Website seeks to match migrants with employers in Germany

December 03, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — A startup company in Berlin is trying to help integrate last year's flood of migrants into the German workforce with a tailor-made online job market for new arrivals. The website www.MigrantHire.com was founded earlier this year by a mix of Germans and migrants, and operates with a staff of five volunteers out of a shared working space in a former industrial building in Berlin's trendy Kreuzberg district.

More than 8,000 migrants have registered on the website — a fraction of the 890,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany last year but good sign that some are serious about finding employment. The website helps migrants create resumes that match German standards, then connects the applicants to German companies. It's free for the migrants and relies on donations and volunteers.

MigrantHire co-founder Hussein Shaker has channeled his own experience trying to find work as a migrant into helping others. Back in the Syrian city of Aleppo, he studied information technology, but when he came to Germany he couldn't find any work in the IT sector. Instead he ended up working in a call center while learning German.

When he was approached with the idea of MigrantHire by Remi Mekki, a Norwegian entrepreneur living in Berlin, he immediately quit his job and threw himself into the project. On a normal workday he and others help migrants write resumes, answer questions about German employment law and help migrants apply for jobs that companies have posted on the website.

"It is not easy," he says about the thousands of migrants looking for jobs. "The migrants had to leave everything behind but I think that, in the end, I think it will all work out." For Syrian migrant Naji Negmah, it already has. After a year spent learning German, Negmah was put in contact by MigrantHire with a security company in Berlin. After an interview, the 24-year-old from Damascus who arrived in 2014 was given a 10-day training course, then started working as a security guard at an asylum-seekers home in Berlin.

Now he works fulltime on the same contract as all the other staff. Negmah is greeted by a group of children as he enters the four-story former office building that now houses around 200 asylum-seekers, mostly from Syria but also Afghanistan and Iraq. He speaks Arabic to the children, and they think of him as one of their own.

"When I came here, I knew I wanted get a job that let me help other migrants," he said in fluent German. "This job lets me do that." At the security company, recent migrants make up about 25 percent of the guards.

Owner Seyed Ali Khatoun Abadi, who came to Germany as a refugee from Iran in 1986, says the recent arrivals are the perfect fit since they can speak to most of the asylum-seekers in their own language and they understand the stress and issues facing them.

But not everyone's had as much luck as Negmah. Even with Germany's national employment rate at only 4.1 percent, the government says 400,000 asylum-seekers are currently looking for work. According to a study published by the Federal Department for Migration and Refugees, only 13 percent of asylum-seekers find work in the first two years after arriving in Germany — but that figure increases to 22 percent in the third year and 31 percent in the fourth year.

Negmah is grateful to the website. "I like this work," he says. "I want to continue working as a security guard."

Germany takes G-20 chair, Merkel condemns protectionism

December 01, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Germany has taken over the presidency of the Group of 20 world powers, with Chancellor Angela Merkel insisting protectionism isn't the answer to fears about globalization. Germany's yearlong presidency started Thursday and will culminate in a summit in Hamburg in July. Merkel said in a video message that the stability of the world economy and "responsible global climate policy" will be central issues.

Merkel said "there will be no return to a world before globalization" but it can be shaped in ways that put people at the forefront. She added: "Isolation, new nationalism and protectionism will not help us in this."

The G-20 comprises Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, France, Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the U.S. and European Union.

Parisians grapple with worst winter pollution in a decade

December 08, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Under deceptively blue skies, the marvels of Paris beckoned. But art dealer Sophie Vigourous wore a face mask to appreciate them because of the pollution. The 38-year-old has lung cancer, putting her in the groups most at risk from the toxic, throat-tickling broth of tiny particles — far smaller than the width of a human hair — blanketing France's capital and other cities. It has prompted vehicle bans and other extraordinary but only moderately effective anti-pollution measures.

When viewed from the 210-meter (690-feet) tall Montparnasse Tower, Paris' tallest skyscraper, the city's worst episode of winter pollution in a decade was clearly visible, a brown haze punctured by the Eiffel Tower.

But from street level, the fog of lung-penetrating pollutants was less obvious, making the danger more insidious than the gritty, almost chewy, smog of notoriously unhealthy cities like Beijing. Out on their morning jog, a group of heavy-breathing fire officers in shorts and T-shirts sucked in lungfuls, either oblivious or uncaring. Likewise, the jogger who bounded up the Champs-Elysees, a smug smile on her face.

Vigourous, however, knew better: hence the paper face mask. "A nice day like this makes you want to go out for a walk and get some fresh air," she said. "You can't really feel it, the pollution." But by the end of the day, "it stings," she noted.

Large red stains showing the pollution cloud have covered daily maps produced by Airparif since last week, broken up by a two-day window of cleaner air last weekend. The monitoring agency says a high-pressure weather system and a low-altitude blanket of warmer air over the city are acting like a saucepan lid, forcing Paris to breathe its own trapped emissions.

"An anti-cyclone with very little wind that prevents the dispersion of pollutants," Airparif spokeswoman Amelie Fritz explained. The problematic pollutant this time is particulate matter — "very fine dust," mostly from vehicle emissions and wood-burning heating, Fritz said. Able to penetrate the lungs and bloodstream, the tiny PM10 particles can cause heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and acute respiratory infections, according to the World Health Organization.

The response from Paris authorities involves both carrot and stick. To encourage car users to switch to public transport, the Metro, suburban trains and buses have been free since Tuesday, at a cost, Paris region authorities say, of about 4 million euros ($4.3 million) per day. Paris' Velib bicycle-sharing service and Autolib electric cars are offering special deals.

On the punitive side, the Paris police chief has reduced speed limits, banned outdoor and indoor fires and even required homeowners to restrict their heating to no more than 18 C (64 F). The headline measure, an alternating ban on cars, depending on whether they have odd or even-numbered plates, has been extended into Friday. Drivers face fines of between 22 ($23) and 75 euros ($80) for ignoring the rule. A similar scheme will be implemented Friday in the city of Lyon, as pollution hits various regions, including the Rhone valley.

But the Paris ban doesn't apply to small trucks, trucks delivering food and other essentials, to cars carrying at least three people and to certain professions. Undertakers and journalists, for example, aren't affected. The boulevards still hum with vehicles.

"We've noticed that the measures haven't been followed that much," said Fritz at Airparif. "We've noticed only 5 to 10 percent less traffic." Among those who abided by the rule on Thursday were Marion Le Mouroux, her mother and sister. Leaving their diesel-burning Renault at home, they rode together to work in an Autolib. The electric cars weren't affected by the ban.

"It's worrying for our future," Marion Le Mouroux said after connecting the vehicle for a recharge. "If we are generating this much pollution, what's going to become of us."

Paris bans half of cars to tackle new peak of pollution

December 06, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Paris has temporarily barred half of all cars from traveling on city streets and made public transportation free for the day as it battles a peak in pollution. Facing red-alert levels of pollution since Nov. 30, Paris City Hall said the situation poses a significant risk to residents' health. Authorities say pollution is due to weather conditions and a heavy dependence on diesel fuel.

To tackle what City Hall describes as an "exceptionally serious" crisis, Paris's Velib bike-share and Autolib electric cars were made free Tuesday, as well as the Paris metro and bus services. In addition, only cars with even-numbered plates were allowed to drive Tuesday in the French capital and its close suburbs.

City officials say it's the ninth time this year that Paris is facing a pollution peak.

PM Valls bids for French presidency under Socialist banner

December 05, 2016

PARIS (AP) — French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced his candidacy Monday for next year's presidential election, saying he will step down immediately from his current job to focus on his bid. Valls hopes to unite the Socialists under his banner and give the left a chance to stay at the Elysee Palace — the most ambitious challenge of his political life after his boss, the highly unpopular President Francois Hollande, decided not to run for a second term last week.

Valls will face other contenders in the Socialist primary next month ahead of France's two-part presidential election in April and May. "I want to give everything for France," the 54-year-old said in a speech in the Paris suburb of Evry, adding he would quit his job Tuesday.

Valls portrayed himself as a "lucid" politician, experienced enough to face authoritarian leaders in China, Russia, Turkey and "the America of Donald Trump." "I want an independent France," he insisted.

Valls said he wants to defeat the far-right, led by National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and the conservative candidate Francois Fillon — both of whom have already been chosen to represent their parties.

A center-leaning Socialist who backs a tough line on security and immigration, Valls is somewhat more popular than his boss, but their party is in deep disarray over the government's handling of the economy.

As Hollande's prime minister since 2014, Valls has promoted pro-business policies and implemented plans to cut over 40 million euros in government spending and to cut taxes. This strategy has prompted rebellion from some Socialists who think he is not left-leaning enough.

Former Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and former Education Minister Benoit Hamon, among those Socialist rebels, have both announced their candidacies for the primary, alongside other lower-profile candidates.

Valls backed pro-European policies and pushed for reforms loosening France's labor rules — the latter move prompting violent protests for months. He was forced to use a special power to pass the laws without a vote at parliament, an act that reinforced criticism from the left.

At critical times, Valls has overcome divisions, embodying France's national unity in a speech at parliament following deadly attacks in January 2015 by Islamic extremists at the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.

"France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism. France is not at war with a religion. France is not at war with Islam and Muslims," he said, prompting unanimous applause. Still, his nervous, authoritarian style has drawn comparisons with former conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Like Sarkozy, Valls is known for his frank, sometimes shocking words — and he cherishes an image of "top cop" inherited from his time as Interior Minister from 2012 to 2014.

Valls at the time promoted policies to "assimilate" immigrants with the French population and favor their naturalization under strict rules. He expelled Roma residents from the country, saying their lifestyle is "in confrontation" with that of the French and they should return to Romania or Bulgaria.

As a prime minister, he denounced a "territorial, social, ethnic apartheid" that affects France's troubled housing projects — admittedly a powerful term aimed at shaking up public opinion in favor of more inclusion.

Last summer, Valls supported local bans on burkinis on French beaches. He wrote on his Facebook page that denouncing the swimsuit, worn by a small minority of Muslim women, "in no way puts into question individual freedom" and is really about denouncing "fatal, retrograde Islamism."

Valls was born in Barcelona in 1962 and became naturalized as French 20 years later. He has four children from a first marriage that ended in divorce, and since 2010 has been married to his second wife, the violinist Anne Gravoin.

His first bid for the presidency failed in 2011, when he got less than six percent of the votes at the Socialist primary. He then joined Hollande's successful presidential campaign in 2012.

French president rules out 2017 run to help boost Socialists

December 01, 2016

PARIS (AP) — France's President Francois Hollande announced in a surprise televised address Thursday that he would not seek a second term in next year's presidential election, acknowledging that his personal unpopularity might cost his Socialist party the Elysee.

"I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election," Hollande said in the prime time slot, adding that he hoped by stepping aside to give the Socialists a chance to win "against conservatism and, worse still, extremism."

The 62-year-old president — the country's least popular leader since World War II — said he was "conscious of the risks" his lack of support posed to a successful candidacy. "What's at stake is not a person, it's the country's future," he said.

The announcement Thursday came just a few days after Hollande's No. 2, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, said he was "ready" to compete in next month's Socialist primary. In a written statement on Thursday night, Valls praised Hollande's "tough, mature, serious choice."

"That's the choice of a statesman," he said, without confirming if he plans to seek the presidency himself. In his address Hollande avoided saying if he would support Valls — or any other candidate. Hollande's popularity plunged soon after he took power in 2012, and polls show most voters don't want to see him stay in office.

Voters expressed disappointment over the lagging economy, higher taxes and the pro-business shift Hollande adopted midterm after first claiming as a candidate his "real adversary" would be the "world of finance".

His image also suffered from personal scandals. He broke up with ex-partner Valerie Trierweiler amid reports that he was having an affair with French actress Julie Gayet, an episode later exposed in a stinging book by the former first lady.

Not only did Trierweiler reveal intimate details of Hollande's infidelities, but she also depicted the Socialist leader as someone who dislikes the poor — a grave political sin for a left-wing leader.

The Socialist party has also been deeply divided over Hollande's leadership from within, with rebels within the party openly criticizing his pro-business strategy and calling for more left-leaning policies.

Two of his ex-colleagues, former Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and former Education Minister Benoit Hamon, have already announced they will run next month. Hollande faced the Dec. 15 party deadline for entering the primary contest — and was expected to say in the coming weeks whether he would run again.

His announcement nevertheless came as a shock to political commentators, many of whom had thought the one-term Socialist leader was posturing to seek re-election despite being low in the polls. French network TF1 only said late in the day that the embattled leader would be speaking on its popular 8 p.m. news broadcast, throwing French media into a frenzy of second-guessing as to what he might have to say.

In a September speech, he repeatedly suggested he was eyeing a re-election bid. "I will not let the image of France be spoiled ... in the coming months or the coming years," Hollande said at the time.

Hollande said he would seek re-election if he were able to curb the unemployment rate in France, which for years has hovered around 10 percent. The latest figures showed a slight decrease in the jobless numbers, but this didn't seem to quell the criticism.

Valls may launch his bid on Saturday, when he expected to speak at a political rally in Paris hosted by a group linked to the Socialist party. Whichever candidate Socialist voters choose in January will face former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, among other rivals, in the two-round presidential election in April and May.

Fillon, 62, who won France's conservative presidential primary on Sunday, has promised drastic free-market reforms, along with a crackdown on immigration and Islamic extremism. Polls suggest the sober, authoritative Fillon would have a strong chance of winning the general election amid the widespread frustration with France's current leadership.

He did not waste time in hammering Hollande and the Socialists in a statement sent out minutes after Thursday's televised address. "Tonight, the president of the republic is admitting, with lucidity, that his patent failure is stopping him carrying on," Fillon said.

"This term ends in political mess and in the decay of power," Fillon added, promising "action" and "results." Fillon, who was prime minister from 2007-2012 under ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, enjoyed a surprise surge in popularity in recent weeks. A rise in nationalist sentiment across Europe may have favored his strict conservative positions.

However, it's expected he'll face a strong challenge from Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, Le Pen is running an anti-establishment campaign that particularly targets immigrants, France's Muslim minority, and the European Union.

The series of terror attacks on French soil by Islamic extremists that have left hundreds dead over the last two years has energized the country's political right, which has vowed to take a tougher stance against immigration.

Centrist Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister under Hollande, also is seeking the presidency in the general election scheduled for April-May, but has decided not to take part into the Socialist primary.

Ex-minister launches Socialist bid for French presidency

December 01, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Former French economy minister Arnaud Montebourg has formally entered the country's presidential race. Montebourg announced his candidacy Thursday in the presidential primary France's Socialist party has scheduled for January.

The 54-year-old Montebourg's politics are firmly left-leaning. He lost his cabinet position in 2014 because he denounced president Francois Hollande's pro-business shift. During a speech in Paris, Montebourg says he favors a strong state to protect France's industry from "foreign interests."

Another former economy minister of Hollande's, centrist Emmanuel Macron also is seeing the presidency but without taking part into a primary. Macron advocates free market policies. Hollande must say whether he will stand for re-election before a Dec. 15 deadline.

The French conservatives have chosen former prime minister Francois Fillon as their nominee for the April-May presidential election.

Divided Cyprus' rival leaders agree to restart stalled talks

December 02, 2016

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The rival leaders of ethnically divided Cyprus have agreed to resume reunification talks, the United Nations said Friday, breaking a nearly two-week stalemate that threatened to sink 19 months of solid progress.

In a statement issued early Friday, the U.N. said Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci agreed to meet in Geneva next month over four days to tackle the most difficult issues in the way of ending one of Europe's most intractable conflicts.

The talks starting Jan. 9 in the Swiss city will aim to hammer out an agreement on the pivotal aspect of how much territory each side will control in an envisioned federation. They will also bring together Greece, Turkey and Cyprus' former colonial ruler Britain to decide on ensuring on-the-ground security after an accord is signed.

The U.N. said teams of negotiators from either side will step up meetings in Cyprus ahead of the Geneva summit to mark further progress on other issues that remain unresolved. The leaders will meet as necessary.

A 1974 Turkish invasion following a coup aimed at union with Greece split the island into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a breakaway, Turkish-speaking north. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the north.

The announcement came after Anastasiades and Akinci met over four hours at a dinner hosted by U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide inside the U.N. controlled buffer zone that splits the capital Nicosia. It was their first face-to-face meeting after talks in the Swiss resort of Mont Pelerin broke down last month amid disagreement over how many displaced Greek Cypriots would be eligible to reclaim lost homes and property in redrawn federal zones. Anastasiades wanted as many as 90,000 people to be able to reclaim homes and property, while Akinci offered a maximum 65,000.

Anastasiades said after the dinner that there's a good chance to wrap up most of the issues on which the two sides differ ahead of the Geneva meeting. "I want to reiterate our determination and from what I've concluded the determination of the other side to finally create the kind of fertile ground that will lead us to a successful conclusion," Anastasiades said.

The decision to resume talks came amid much finger-pointing about who was to blame for the Mont Pelerin impasse. According to a schedule for the talks, the two leaders will present respective maps on how much territory their federal zones should comprise on Jan. 11. An enlarged meeting on security that will include Greece, Turkey and Britain will take place the following day.

The Greek Cypriot side says federal boundaries should be redrawn in a way that would allow the majority of Greek Cypriots displaced by the invasion to reclaim homes and property. That would reduce the cost of a peace accord by limiting the amount of compensation that would be paid out to those who wouldn't be able to get property back and would help shore up support for a deal among the Greek Cypriot electorate when the deal is put to a vote in referendums on both sides.

Turkish Cypriots insist that territorial adjustments should keep the number of Turkish Cypriots who would be forced to relocate to the bare minimum. Another key sticking point in talks is a Turkish Cypriot demand to cede Turkey the right to militarily intervene and to keep troops on the island under any deal. The minority Turkish Cypriots see Turkey's as vital for their security, while Greek Cypriots consider them as a threat undermining the island's sovereignty.

Military intervention rights were granted to Greece, Turkey and Britain under the island's 1960 constitution. The Greek government opposes keeping these rights in place after a peace deal. The decision to resume talks comes after remarks by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week in which he suggested that Greek Cypriots won't be permitted to fulfill their goal of controlling the entire island. Anastasiades decried the remarks as unacceptable.

Austrian right-winger Hofer plans 2022 run for presidency

December 06, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — Austria's defeated right-wing candidate for the presidency says he will run again in six years, when the term of the left-leaning winner ends and new elections are held. Norbert Hofer says results "can look differently" in the next race for the position, adding "I hope I will win then."

Hofer spoke Tuesday as final results were tallied. They show Van der Bellen extending his lead with 53.79 percent of ballots cast in his favor, compared to 46.27 percent for Hofer. Sunday's vote was viewed Europe-wide as a proxy test of populist strength in other EU countries fielding strong euroskeptic candidates in elections next year.

Mainstream relief as leftist candidate wins in Austria

December 04, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — Left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed over his right-wing rival Sunday in the vote for Austria's presidency, a victory welcomed by moderate politicians across Europe as a blow against the populist forces looking to weaken the European Union.

While the Austrian presidency is a mostly symbolic post, it had attracted attention from across Europe as the next possible victory for populists after political outsider Donald Trump's presidential win in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain.

"What happens here today has relevance for all of Europe," Van der Bellen said he cast his ballot, later noting that his win showed most voters backed his message of "freedom, equality, solidarity." With all votes except for absentee ballots counted, Van der Bellen had 51.68 percent of the vote to 48.32 percent for Norbert Hofer. But pollsters predicted a final result of 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent in favor of Van der Bellen once the approximately 500,000 absentee ballots were tallied. The final result of Sunday's vote was expected by Tuesday at the latest.

Van der Bellen said the win sends a "message to the capitals of the European Union that one can win elections with high European positions." He said he would work to unite a country deeply split between the moderate liberals who voted for him and supporters of Hofer's anti-immigrant Freedom Party.

Powerful euroskeptic populist politicians facing elections next year in other EU nations shrugged off Hofer's loss as a temporary setback, but the result was greeted with relief and congratulations by mainstream politicians.

French President Francois Hollande said Austrians "made the choice of Europe, and openness." Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who heads Germany's center-left Social Democrats, told the Bild newspaper that "a load has been taken off the mind of all of Europe." He called the result "a clear victory for good sense against right-wing populism."

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said Van der Bellen "will represent Austria domestically and abroad in an excellent manner" — alluding to fears by establishment politicians that a victory by Hofer, whose anti-immigrant Freedom Party is critical of the 28-nation EU, would hurt Austria's image. Van der Bellen is liberal, left-of-center and pro-EU.

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, called the victory a defeat for "anti-European, backward-looking populism." With polls estimating that the two candidates were neck-and-neck ahead of the vote, Van der Bellen's margin of victory was unexpected.

Political scientist Kathrin Stainer Haemmerle told the Austria Press Agency said that despite widespread disenchantment with establishment parties in Austria, the results show "the majority of the population is not looking for radical change."

Still, Van der Bellen's victory presages new possible divisions. The new Austrian president-elect has said he would refuse to swear in a government led by the Freedom Party. But with the Freedom Party given a good chance of winning the parliamentary election less than two years away, Van der Bellen might be forced to act on that pledge. If he is true to his word, he would plunge Austria into a political crisis with unforeseen consequences.

Hofer, meanwhile, conceded his loss in a Facebook posting. Acknowledging that he was "endlessly sad," Hofer said "I would have been happy to take care of our Austria." He urged voters of both camps to bury their differences and work together.

Appearing later with Van der Bellen, Hofer said his loss "is really very painful ... but the voter is always right in a democracy." Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen of France and anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands tweeted their support for Hofer as voting took place Sunday, then later made the best of his loss. The two, who both face their own national elections next year, congratulated Hofer on his strong showing.

Le Pen, who hopes to ride anti-immigrant, anti-EU sentiment to the French presidency, tweeted that Hofer and his Freedom Party "fought with courage." "Victory will be theirs in the next legislative election!" she added.

Congratulating Van der Bellen, EU Council President Donald Tusk said "the continued constructive contribution of Austria to finding common European solutions and keeping our European unity will remain essential."

In Germany, top opposition Green leader Simone Peter called Sunday's result "a good day for Austria and Europe." "The right-wing rabble-rousers have to be stopped!" Peter declared. The election Sunday was a rerun of a vote in May that Van der Bellen narrowly won. Austria's Constitutional Court ordered the repeat following a court ruling after Hofer's Freedom Party claimed widespread voting irregularities.

Philipp Jenne, Amer Cohadzic, Zenel Zhinipotoku, Florent Bajrami, Matteo Wick and Eldar Emric in Vienna and Geir Moulson in Berlin, Angela Charlton in Paris and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

Lithuanian civilians fearing Russian attack train for worst

December 01, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Rasa Miskinyte spent the day in a freezing forest near Lithuania's capital learning to gather water from a pond with a condom, to filter it through sand, charcoal and cloth, and to make her own stove from a beer can. She thought some basic survival skills would be helpful if Russian troops ever entered Vilnius and her family escaped into the woods.

"Russia is a very dangerous kind of neighbor," said Miskinyte, a 53-year-old film producer. "They are always aiming at us." Across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, fears are intensifying that Moscow, after displaying its military might in Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria, could have the Baltic states in its sights next. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned he wouldn't hesitate to defend Russians wherever they live — words that feel like threats since significant numbers of ethnic Russians live in the Baltics.

Whether the danger is real or just bluster remains to be seen. But in Lithuania, a country that experienced a Russian occupation before, some people aren't waiting to find out. Young Lithuanian civilians are learning counterinsurgency tactics on weekends. Others, like Miskinyte, have taken steps to protect themselves. The government, in response to pleas from a fearful public, has issued a preparation manual.

Rimvydas Matuzonis directs a project that teaches weekend guerrilla warfare courses. He explained the resolve to be ready by citing a popular saying in the forests of Dzukija, the southern region where his father grew up.

"Spring will come, the cuckoo will sing and we will pave our roads with the corpses of Russian soldiers," Matuzonis said. To be sure, some in the Baltic states feel confident their NATO membership would protect them from a Russian invasion. Others describe a dull anxiety that flares up only sometimes. But there are some who are truly afraid and already preparing for the worst.

When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Miskinyte packed a bag with bread, salt and some essential items and planned to flee to a village where she has a house. She has urged relatives to join her there, if her fears are confirmed.

"In the village you always survive," Miskinyte said. "There is land, there are vegetables. There is everything there." Exacerbating the dread lately is Moscow's move to build up troops and nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian region wedged between NATO members Lithuania and Poland.

Poland is creating a so-called Territorial Defense Force to train thousands of volunteers in cyber-warfare and other low-intensity forms of combat seen in Ukraine. Some of the new volunteers will be assigned to protect Polish territory near Kaliningrad.

But the foreboding is no doubt greater in the ex-Soviet republics, whose decision to regain independence when the Soviet empire collapsed humiliated the Kremlin. In response to calls for guidance from citizens fearing war, Lithuania's Defense Ministry issued a manual that includes information on survival skills and recognizing Russian weaponry.

The best way to prevent war is to "demonstrate to the aggressor that we are ready to fight for our freedom, for every centimeter of our land," Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said. "The capabilities, the readiness — this is the only way to stop Russian aggression in the region," Olekas said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lithuania re-established a conscript army last year, but so many citizens have volunteered for military duty that a draft hasn't been necessary. Many civilians in the hugely patriotic nation of 3 million people remain eager to do their part.

Last weekend, in an area of pine woods and fields outside Vilnius, a group of young men donned military fatigues, loaded pellets into replica assault rifles and practiced counterinsurgency tactics. Using armored vehicles and other retired military equipment, they stormed a pretend enemy position amid explosions and thick smoke. Target practice with real weapons followed.

Many of the men said military exercises have been a hobby for years, a way to release stress after a week in the office. But their instructors from Defense Project, a warfare training group, make clear the drills carry a new urgency given Russia's assertiveness.

"We have a border not only with Russia, but also with Belarus, and we should be aware that the little green men might appear from other borders or even from within," said Zilvinas Pastarnokas, a 45-year-old retired soldier who helped found Defense Project.

Fears of stewing Russian aggression have raised questions about the loyalties of the ethnic Russians who live in Lithuania and make up about 6 percent of the population. Many settled there when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union and remained.

Lithuanian officials insist they are not under any suspicion. Yet many Lithuanians worry if war ever came, ethnic Russians would side with Moscow. "The Russians will absolutely be on Putin's side," said Miskinyte, the film producer who took the survival course.

For their part, Lithuania's ethnic Russians decry what they call the "anti-Russian propaganda" of Lithuanian officials, and many hold pro-Kremlin views. "Everything in the Lithuanian press is represented from the one side — that the Russians are the bad guys, that the Russians are coming, that Putin is always bad," complained Roman Nutsubidze, 30,

Nutsubidze, expressed frustration that the West doesn't see Putin as a good leader who has restored national pride. He said he loves Lithuania, but thinks Putin has no reason to want to seize the Baltic states.

"I don't see what he has done bad," Nutsubidze said. "I don't actually see it."

Fidel Castro laid to rest in private ceremony in east Cuba

December 05, 2016

SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP) — A wooden box containing Fidel Castro's ashes was placed by his brother and successor on Sunday into the side of a granite boulder that has become Cuba's only official monument to the charismatic bearded rebel who seized control of a U.S.-allied Caribbean island and transformed it into a western outpost of Soviet-style communism that he ruled with absolute power for nearly a half century.

The private, early-morning ceremony was attended by members of Fidel Castro's family, the ruling Politburo of the single-party system he founded, and Latin American leaders who installed closely allied leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Brazil.

After nine days of fervent national mourning and wall-to-wall homages to Castro on state-run media, the government barred independent coverage of the funeral, releasing a handful of photos and brief descriptions of the ceremony later in the day.

The ceremony began at 6:39 a.m. when the military caravan bearing Castro's remains in a flag-draped cedar coffin left the Plaza of the Revolution in the eastern city of Santiago. Thousands of people lined the two-mile route to Santa Ifigenia cemetery, waving Cuban flags and shouting "Long live Fidel!"

The ashes were delivered to Castro's younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro, who wore his olive general's uniform as he placed the remains into a niche in the enormous grey boulder that will serve as his tomb. The niche was sealed with a green marble plaque emblazed with the name "Fidel" in gold letters.

The tomb stands to the side of a memorial to the rebel soldiers killed in an attack that Castro led on Santiago's Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, and in front of the mausoleum of Cuban national hero Jose Marti.

As the funeral ended, martial music could be heard outside the cemetery, where Ines de la Rosa was among the mourners gathered. She said she would have liked to watch the interment on television, but "we understand how they as a family also need a bit of privacy."

The decision to keep the final farewell private came the morning after Raul Castro announced that Cuba would prohibit the naming of streets and monuments after his brother, and bar the construction of statues of the former leader and revolutionary icon, in keeping with his desire to avoid a cult of personality.

"The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality and was consistent in that through the last hours of his life, insisting that, once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statutes or other forms of tribute would never be erected," Raul Castro told a massive crowd gathered in the eastern city of Santiago.

He said that Cuba's National Assembly would vote in its next session on the law fulfilling the wishes of his brother, who died last week at 90. The legislature generally holds a meeting in December and under Cuba's single-party system, parliament unanimously or near-unanimously approves every government proposal.

Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 after falling ill, kept his name off public sites during his near half-century in power because he said he wanted to avoid the development of a personality cult. In contrast, the images of his fellow revolutionary fighters Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara became common across Cuba in the decades since their deaths.

Mourning for Castro has been fervent and intense across the country since his death, particularly in rural eastern Cuba, where huge crowds have been shouting Castro's name and lining the roads to salute the funeral procession carrying his ashes.

"All of us would like to put Fidel's name on everything but in the end, Fidel is all of Cuba," said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, a 70-year-old retired economist. "It was a decision of Fidel's, not Raul's, and I think he has to be respected."

Castro's reign over the island nation 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Florida was marked by the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Castro, who outlasted a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died 10 years after a life-threatening illness led him to turn over power to his brother.

Castro overcame imprisonment at the hands of dictator Fulgencio Batista, exile in Mexico and a disastrous start to his rebellion before triumphantly riding into Havana in January 1959 to become, at age 32, the youngest leader in Latin America. For decades his defiance of the U.S. and dedication to social equality, free health care and universal education was a source of inspiration and support to revolutionaries from Latin America to Africa, even as Cubans who fled to exile loathed him with equal measure.

Michael Weissenstein reported from Havana. Fabiola Sanchez contributed from Havana.

Cuba to prohibit naming of monuments, streets after Fidel

December 04, 2016

SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP) — President Raul Castro announced that Cuba will prohibit the naming of streets and monuments after his brother Fidel, and bar the construction of statues of the former leader and revolutionary icon in keeping with his desire to avoid a cult of personality.

The announcement late Saturday came after a week of national mourning for Fidel Castro that reached near-religious peaks of adulation and a half-day before his ashes are interred in Santiago's Santa Ifigenia cemetery, ending the official mourning period.

"The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality and was consistent in that through the last hours of his life, insisting that, once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statutes or other forms of tribute would never be erected," Raul Castro told a massive crowd gathered in the eastern city of Santiago.

He said that Cuba's National Assembly would vote in its next session on the law fulfilling the wishes of his brother, who died last week at 90. The legislature generally holds a meeting in December and under Cuba's single-party system, parliament unanimously or near-unanimously approves every government proposal.

Fidel Castro, who stepped down in 2006 after falling ill, kept his name off public sites during his near half-century in power because he said he wanted to avoid the development of a personality cult. In contrast, the images of his fellow revolutionary fighters Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara became common across Cuba in the decades since their deaths.

Mourning for Castro has been fervent and intense across the country since his death, particularly in rural eastern Cuba, where huge crowds have been shouting Castro's name and lining the roads to salute the funeral procession carrying his ashes.

"All of us would like to put Fidel's name on everything but in the end, Fidel is all of Cuba," said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, a 70-year-old retired economist. "It was a decision of Fidel's, not Raul's, and I think he has to be respected."

Raul Castro, 85, spoke at the end of a second massive rally in honor of Fidel as Cuba neared the end of a nine-day period of public mourning. Castro's ashes arrived Saturday afternoon in Santiago, ending a four-day journey across Cuba that began after a massive rally in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution.

Thousands of people welcomed the leader's remains to shouts of "Fidel! I am Fidel!" Hundreds of thousands more gathered in Santiago's Revolution Plaza Saturday night, cheering speeches by the heads of state-run groups of small farmers, women, revolutionary veterans and neighborhood watch committee members.

The event was attended by Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, along with former Brazilian presidents Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva. Castro's ashes will be interred Sunday morning in Santiago's Santa Ifigenia cemetery, ending the official mourning period.

Top Gambian opposition leader, 18 others out of prison

December 05, 2016

BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — A top Gambian opposition politician and 18 other protesters were released from prison after an appeals court granted them bail on Monday, just days after strongman ruler Yahya Jammeh agreed to step aside after losing the presidential election.

The ruling prompted people in the courtroom to stand and sing the national anthem. Ousainou Darboe, the head of the United Democratic Party, and the 18 others had been arrested in April after they took part in a peaceful demonstration. They each had been sentenced to three years in prison after they marched for electoral reform and to demand the body of party member Solo Sandeng, who was arrested days earlier and was tortured and died in prison.

Darboe is also a mentor to 51-year-old Adama Barrow, the man who defeated Jammeh in Thursday's vote. Barrow has vowed to free all political prisoners and has urged exiles who fled Jammeh's 22-year reign to return and help him reform this tiny West African country.

"It's a great day! It's a new Gambia. It is clear to Jammeh today that the power belongs to the people," said Darboe's wife, Mymuna, who planned to cook his favorite dish of rice and fish known as benechin when he came home. "It's going to be celebration, celebration, celebration!"

Darboe and the other defendants were released and home by late Monday night, after checking into the Mile Two prison to turn in their international passports and have a Gambian citizen vouch for them. Hundreds lined the road leading from the prison for miles to greet them as they left. The 19 will still need to attend appeal hearings.

"The release of Ousainou Darboe and other peaceful protesters on bail is a big moment for them and their families, yet we still await their full and final acquittal," said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International's West Africa Researcher, who was present at the court.

"We must also not forget others prisoners of conscience who still languish in jail simply for having expressed their opinion or participated in peaceful protests," said Mahtani. Dozens were arrested in April and May in some of the first protests in years against the government.

A hearing for 14 other protesters, who were arrested and charged with "unlawful assembly" for taking part in protests in May, has been postponed to Tuesday. Eleven others, who took part in peaceful protests on April 14 and were arrested along with Sandeng, have been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Their bail hearings are scheduled for next week.

"We're hoping that the others will be released within the course of this week and next," said Annie Njie, one of the lawyers representing the many people arrested for protesting. It is unknown whether the cases will proceed now that Jammeh has indicated he will cede power in January.

Human rights groups say Jammeh's regime has long imprisoned and often killed political opponents in an effort to maintain his grip on power. Darboe told reporters before the appeals court hearing that he had not been mistreated in prison since being detained in April, and attributed his thinner frame to meditation.

"When I get out today, I plan to go hug my president-elect," he said. As for Jammeh's reaction to the release, "I know he cannot take pride in it, because I know, lawyers know, not only in this country but throughout the world, it was not against the law," Ousainou said of the demonstrations.

Gambia's president concedes defeat after election loss

December 03, 2016

BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — Gambia's president of 22 years acknowledged his election defeat on state television Friday night, vowing to step down hours after news of the results prompted thousands to celebrate in the streets in an unprecedented display of disdain for his rule.

With cameras rolling, Yahya Jammeh called the winner, opposition coalition leader Adama Barrow, on a mobile phone to praise the election and vow not to contest the result. "Allah is telling me my time is up and I hand over graciously with gratitude toward the Gambian people and gratitude toward you," Jammeh said.

Jammeh, a man long accused of heading a government that tortures opponents and silences all dissent, was jovial on the call, promising to help Barrow through the transition period before retiring to his home village to begin a new life as a farmer.

It was a stunning turn of events in a country where critics have long alleged votes are rigged. Just five years ago, Jammeh said he could stay in power for a billion years. According to the electoral commission's tally, Barrow received 45 percent of Thursday's vote compared to Jammeh's 36 percent.

Many Gambians stayed up all night Thursday listening to the radio and tallying results as they were read out constituency by constituency. Once the results were announced on Friday, some tore down posters of Jammeh as the military stood by. Men in pickup trucks rode through the streets of Banjul screaming "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!"

For the tens of thousands watching abroad from political exile, it was a day they thought might never come. Speaking by phone from Washington, Gambian activist Pasamba Jow said the election was a "great victory" for the country and the entire African continent, though he anticipated a "difficult task of rebuilding our country and healing our nation."

Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, in a statement Friday congratulated Barrow and welcomed Jammeh's concession, saying the country's first democratic transfer of power is a "moment of great opportunity."

"The United States looks forward to being a strong partner in efforts to unify the country," he said. Eight opposition parties united behind Barrow, a former businessman, and the campaign period featured large opposition rallies.

Nevertheless, Jammeh had projected confidence, saying his victory was all but assured by God and predicting "the biggest landslide in the history of the country" after he voted. "We are happy to be free," said Omar Amadou Jallow, an opposition leader for the People's Progressive Party, which joined the coalition that backed Barrow. "We are able to free the Gambian people from the clutches of dictatorship, and we are now going to make sure Gambia becomes a bastion of peace and coalition. Our foundation will be based on national reconciliation."

Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994 and then swept elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 after a 2002 constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits. Critics say those earlier elections were not free and fair.

All internet and international phone service was cut on election day in what Jammeh's government said was a bid to thwart unrest. Jammeh's ouster demonstrates that even Africa's most entrenched leaders can be brought down if opposition politicians overcome their divisions, said Jeffrey Smith, a human rights activist and founding director of Vanguard Africa, a U.S.-based group that worked with Gambia's opposition coalition.

"This is going to have resonance way beyond the tiny borders of Gambia," Smith said, describing the result as "a momentous occasion for the region writ large."

Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay in Banjul and AP writers Abdoulie John in Dakar, Senegal, and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed.

Crown prince formally becomes Thailand's new king

December 01, 2016

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand has a new king, with the country's crown prince formally taking the throne to succeed his much-revered late father, who reigned for 70 years. The new monarch, who received the title "His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun," assumed his new position Thursday, according to an announcement broadcast on all TV channels. He will also be known as Rama X, the tenth king in the Chakri dynasty that was founded in 1782.

A videotaped broadcast showed senior officials presenting the formal invitation to the prince to become king, and then his acceptance. It then showed the officials prostrate themselves at the feet of the new king, who was wearing a formal white uniform with decorations.

Vajiralongkorn's father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died on Oct. 13 at age 88 after many years of ill health. In 1972, Bhumibol designated Vajiralongkorn — his second child and only son — as his successor. "I would like to accept in order to fulfill his majesty's wishes and for the benefit of all Thais," Vajiralongkorn said in the videotape.

Vajiralongkorn, 64, was originally expected to assume the throne the day his father died, but in a surprise announcement, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the prince asked for the succession to be put off so he would have time to mourn.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy — although currently under military rule — but Bhumibol played an important role in stabilizing his country through a time of enormous change which saw neighboring monarchies collapse under the pressures of the Vietnam War. He was especially known for his energy in development activities, doing hands-on inspections in remote rural areas. He calmed the country through several political crises.

Vajiralongkorn faces the challenges of a country that has become fractured over the past decade, as contending political forces engaged in bitter battles that sometimes turned violent, leaving a residue of bad feeling and shaking faith in the democratic system.

The new king, with a less intense interest in state affairs and a reputation as a playboy, does not command the same level of respect as Bhumibol. He has gone through divorces with three women who have borne him seven children, and in recent years has spent much of his time residing in Germany. Although most Thais are devoted to the royal institution, it is hard to gauge how they feel privately about Vajiralongkorn because of harsh laws that mandate a prison term of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of insulting the monarchy.

Information about the succession has been tightly controlled, and international news broadcasts about Thailand have been blocked in recent days. The prince made his first public appearance in more than a week earlier Thursday, attending a religious ceremony honoring his late father. He was accompanied by his three sisters, two adult daughters and 11-year-old son.

Shortly afterward, he granted an audience to National Legislative Assembly President Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, Prime Minister Prayuth, Supreme Court Chief Justice Veerapol Tungsuwan and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who had been one of his father's closest advisers and served as regent in the period since Bhumibol's death.

The Cabinet, proceeding according to a 1924 law on succession, on Tuesday had forwarded to the National Legislative Assembly the late king's appointment of his son to succeed him. The assembly in turn acknowledged the appointment, and its president then issued an invitation to Vajiralongkorn to become king.

Huge crowds have been paying respects to the late king's remains at the ceremonial Grand Palace. His remains will be cremated in an elaborate ceremony that may take place a year or more after his death. The official coronation of Vajiralongkorn will occur only after the cremation. Bhumibol's coronation was in 1950, four years after succeeding his brother King Ananda Mahidol, who died of gunshot wounds in unclear circumstances.

Associated Press journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa and Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.

Turkey launches second military surveillance satellite

05 December 2016 Monday

Turkey launched its second military surveillance satellite -- the Gokturk 1 -- from the Kourou Launch Center in the French Guiana on Monday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with several other top Turkish officials witnessed the launch of the communication satellite during a ceremony at the Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) in Ankara.

The satellite put into orbit is a high-resolution optical earth observation satellite for civilian and military applications, which has a capability of scanning high-resolution images (up to 0.8 meters) and an onboard X-band digital imaging system to handle data compression, storage, and downloading, according to the Turkish Armed Forces.

Addressing the ceremony, Erdogan said developing and manufacturing more advanced satellites than Gokturk 1 was the next target for Turkey.

“With a scanning capability up to 0.5-meter (1.64-foot) resolution, we will benefit from the satellite in wide areas ranging from damage assessment after natural disasters to harvest forecasts,” the president said in televised comments.

“Today, Turkey’s external dependence in the defense industry is half the amount of what it used to be 14 years ago. Domestic participation rate in this satellite [industry] is 20 percent,” he added, highlighting that Turkey remains committed to ending its foreign dependency in the defense and space sectors.

Apart from its military applications, the satellite’s imaging capabilities could be used to monitor forest control, illegal construction, crop management, and casualty assessment after natural disasters.

Television broadcasts and satellite communication signals of the satellite would be able to cover the entire Africa continent.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/181245/turkey-launches-second-military-surveillance-satellite.

Russia: Space ship malfunctions, breaks up over Siberia

December 02, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — An unmanned Russian cargo spaceship heading to the International Space Station broke up in the atmosphere over Siberia on Thursday due to an unspecified malfunction, the Russian space agency said.

The Progress MS-04 cargo craft broke up at an altitude of 190 kilometers (118 miles) over the remote Russian Tuva region in Siberia that borders Mongolia, Roscosmos said in a statement. It said most of spaceship's debris burnt up as it entered the atmosphere but some fell to Earth over what it called an uninhabited area.

Local people reported seeing a flash of light and hearing a loud thud west of the regional capital of Kyzyl, more than 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles) east of Moscow, the Tuva government was quoted as saying late Thursday by the Interfax news agency.

The Progress cargo ship had lifted off as scheduled at 8:51 p.m. (1451 GMT) from Russia's space launch complex in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to deliver 2.5 metric tons of fuel, water, food and other supplies. It was set to dock with the space station on Saturday.

Roscosmos said the craft was operating normally before it stopped transmitting data 6 ½ minutes after the launch. The Russian space agency would not immediately describe the malfunction, saying its experts were looking into it.

This is the third botched launch of a Russian spacecraft in two years. A Progress cargo ship plunged into the Pacific Ocean in May 2015, and a Proton-M rocket carrying an advanced satellite broke up in the atmosphere in May 2014.

But both Roscosmos and NASA said the crash of the ship would have no impact on the operations of the orbiting space lab that is currently home to a six-member crew, including three cosmonauts from Russia, two NASA astronauts and one from the European Union.

Orbital ATK, NASA's other shipper, successfully sent up supplies to the space station in October, and a Japanese cargo spaceship is scheduled to launch a full load in mid-December. NASA supplier SpaceX, meanwhile, has been grounded since a rocket explosion in September on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company hopes to resume launches in December to deliver communication satellites.

This version corrects the spelling of the region to Tuva, not Tyva.

Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russia's men increasingly see army as good job, not dead end

December 06, 2016

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (AP) — Increasingly, the young men of Russia say they see military service as an opportunity, not a dreaded obligation to avoid. The Associated Press recently visited Russia's newest military recruitment center in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, and talked with several men who plan to turn their one-year mandatory military service into a longer-term job. The cultural shift is significant in an army long dependent on barely paid, low-morale conscripts who leave within 12 months, if they ever report for duty at all.

Tomorrow's soldiers stress they see Russia's army, navy and air force as offering competitive pay and better opportunities for training and adventure than life behind a desk.


The 21-year-old has just earned a university degree in finance and law, looked at the civilian jobs on offer and concluded that a military life would be far more exciting.

So like many university students able to defer their required one year of military service, Batalov now plans to avoid conscription and sign on as a two-year "volunteer," a step that will give him 10 times the pay of a conscript — and perhaps a fast track to joining an elite fighting unit like his uncle, a special forces trooper who saw action in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia's restive North Caucasus.

"I always wanted to be like my uncle," said Batalov, who says he has had corrective eye surgery, lost weight and trained as a boxer in hopes of increasing his chances of selection for special forces training.

Batalov says he's broken up with his girlfriend because she opposed his career ambitions. "Self-realization is more important for me," he said.


The 22-year-old graduate in information technology says he's joining the military because it offers better job prospects in a depressed economy. Volkhin hopes to learn plenty about high-tech computers and communications systems in uniform.

"The army is changing for the better," he said, noting that his military contract would allow him to work regular hours and still live with his parents.


The 17-year-old says he hopes to hone his mechanic skills in Russia's tank corps. Those like him who don't progress from high school to university cannot proactively enlist and instead first serve one year as a poorly paid conscript earning just 2,000 rubles ($31) a month.

But Galaktionov says he aims to stick around once his 12 months is up, gain a place in a military academy and eventually become a tank commander.

Galaktionov says his main motivation is to help protect Russia like his soldier father, who won medals in Chechnya. He says many of his classmates are similarly content to be drafted into service, a stark contrast from the mood only a few years ago.

"Previously, nine out of 10 were trying to dodge it, find a way to avoid it," he said. "Now it's considered cool and most people want to serve."


The 18-year-old attended the same high school as Galaktionov and both took part in the school's military-focused summer camps. Mogutov says he enjoyed the camps' Spartan conditions featuring shooting practice, nighttime alerts and other drills.

Mogutov says he hopes after his year of conscription to study medicine under army sponsorship and become a military doctor.

"I also would love to visit hot spots," he said, citing adventure as more important than pay. "I want to test myself."

Associated Press reporter Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this story.

Putin's Russia seeks to project power with modern military

December 06, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — With an aircraft carrier deployed off Syria's shores and hundreds of new jets, missiles and tanks entering service each year, President Vladimir Putin can project Russian military power on a scale unseen since Soviet times.

A massive reform effort launched in the wake of Russia's 2008 war with Georgia has transformed a crumbling, demoralized military into agile forces capable of swift action in Ukraine and Syria. Long gone are the days when Russia was forced through financial hardship to scrap dozens of warships and ground most of its air force. Whereas many young men long dodged their obligatory military service, recruits today speak of extending assignments in a better equipped, trained and paid army.

"The military reform has given Russia, the Kremlin (and) Mr. Putin a usable instrument of foreign policy which Russia did not have for a quarter century," said Dmitry Trenin , director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

This dawning reality casts a shadow from Moscow to Washington and beyond. The key question: Will an emboldened Putin keep deploying his forces in bitterly disputed unilateral actions, or could the U.S. election of Donald Trump mean a potential thaw in relations and new era of cooperation? Trump's nominee for national security adviser, retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn , has said he sees Russia as a possible military partner in Syria and elsewhere.

Putin's military power today stands in stark contrast to the dying days of the Soviet Union, when the Russian Federation inherited conscript-heavy forces with 4 million mouths it could barely afford to feed.

Russia rapidly reduced those ranks to barely 1 million, and then found itself struggling through much of the 1990s to defeat rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. During its five-day war with tiny Georgia, army units starved of new equipment for 15 years experienced chronic vehicle breakdowns, communications failures and friendly-fire casualties from inaccurate salvos. Incensed by those setbacks, Putin and military commanders committed to a program of radical restructuring and spending.

Perhaps the most important change today is in the caliber of the soldiers themselves. While all men aged 18 to 27 still face a mandatory year of military service, Russia increasingly is attracting volunteers for at least two years and building a culture emphasizing the military as a career.

While conscripts are paid a paltry 2,000 rubles ($31) a month, those signing contracts for longer tours of duty receive 10 times the starting pay and extra privileges. Promotion to sergeant could mean a monthly paycheck of around 40,000 rubles ($620), better than average civilian wages.

Russia's Defense Ministry says contract soldiers, most of them former conscripts who opt to stay, have outnumbered conscripts in the ranks since 2015. Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Russia's 2-year-old recession had weakened the jobs market and made it "much easier to recruit volunteer contract soldiers."

At a newly opened recruitment center in Yekaterinburg, the largest city in Russia's central heartland, officers in crisp new uniforms distribute colorful army leaflets and run computerized assessment tests on candidates.

"The military is getting stronger as the number of contract soldiers is rising," said Maj. Gen. Alexander Yarenko, who oversees the Yekaterinburg recruitment office. "Weapons are quite complex, requiring a high level of training."

Some recruits offer pragmatic reasons for joining, others gung-ho visions of adventure. "I have decided to sign the contract because it offers good prospects for the future, particularly for university graduates," said Vladislav Volkhin, a 22-year-old with a degree in information technology.

"Civilian jobs are routine, while military service is more colorful and interesting," said 21-year-old Dmitry Batalov, who holds a degree in finance and law but prefers to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, a special forces veteran who fought in Chechnya. Batalov said he hoped his career would involve "constant risk, the fight against evil, special operations."

The prospect of such deployments is real. Russia since 2014 has stoked tensions with the West in ways unseen since the Cold War. First came Russia's lightning seizure of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine, followed by surreptitious aid to pro-Russian rebels in the country's breakaway east. Next, Russia launched an air campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad and against American-backed rebel groups as well as their shared Islamic State foe.

In the past month Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov , has joined land-based aircraft in bombing targets in Syria — the first attacks mounted by carrier in Russia's history. Russia is using the Syria campaign to test several new designs of cruise missiles, fighters, bombers and helicopter gunships in combat for the first time.

At the start of the decade, the Kremlin pledged to spend 20 trillion rubles (more than $300 billion) on defense through 2020, a commitment unaltered by Russia's slide into recession under the twin weight of weak oil prices and Western sanctions imposed because of the Ukrainian fighting.

Last year alone, Russia spent a record 3.1 trillion rubles ($48 billion) on defense, 25 percent higher than in 2014 and more than a fifth of Russia's entire budget. Russian forces received 35 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than 240 warplanes and helicopters, and nearly 1,200 tanks and other armored vehicles — a growth in Russia's arsenal unseen since Soviet times.

Analysts warn that Putin's forces could be poised to act more freely in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere in expectation that Trump will prefer to cut deals with Russian interests, not confront them. Trenin said the prospect of personal rapport between Trump and Putin "could mean a better way to manage a fairly difficult relationship."

Felgenhauer noted the irony that, regardless of whether the West might meaningfully push back, Russia's top brass can cite any opposition to its actions as justification for even higher defense spending.

"The Russian military," he said, "has a vested interest right now in having more and more confrontation with the West."

Associated Press reporters Dmitry Kozlov in Yekaterinburg, and Kate de Pury and Veronika Silchenko in Moscow, contributed to this story.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key resigns after 8 years

December 05, 2016

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand's popular Prime Minister John Key stunned the nation on Monday when he announced, in a breaking voice, he was resigning after eight years as leader. Key had been widely expected to contest his fourth general election next year. But he said he wanted to ensure he didn't make the mistake that some other world leaders have done, and instead wanted to leave while he was on top of his game.

Speaking in a shaking voice, Key said he had made personal sacrifices for the job and the role had taken a toll on his family. Key said his National Party caucus would meet Dec. 12 to decide on a new party leader and prime minister, and that he expected to formally submit his resignation to the Governor-General that same day.

He said he would back his deputy Bill English to take over. English said he would likely decide in the next day or two if he would seek the role. The New Zealand dollar fell by nearly 1 percent on the news and was trading at $0.71 U.S.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he'd sent Key a short message: "Say it ain't so, bro." "John Key is one of the most outstanding national leaders in the world today," Turnbull told reporters. "He has done an extraordinary job for New Zealand. He is somebody that all of us, right around the world, leaders in countries large and small, draw inspiration from."

New Zealand's opposition leader Andrew Little said the decision had taken everybody by surprise. "He is entitled to be recognized for what he has done for New Zealand," Little said. "He's been there through some pretty difficult times."

Key was a successful currency trader before turning to politics. He was elected to the nation's parliament in 2002 and enjoyed a quick rise, becoming leader of his center-right opposition party in 2006. He won his first general election and became prime minister in 2008.

He won subsequent elections in 2011 and 2014 and retained unusually high popularity ratings. His party was a clear favorite to win the most votes at next year's election, at least until his announcement on Monday.

Key said that steering the country of 4.7 million through the economic crisis of 2008 and on to improved fortunes was a proud accomplishment. "Very few countries are in the financial position we are in," Key said. "We're strong, we're in surplus, we're growing, we're creating jobs, we're doing well."

New Zealand is enjoying relatively robust annual GDP growth of over 3 percent and the unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent, thanks in part to growth in tourism and construction. Key also talked about the importance of standing beside the people of Christchurch after an earthquake in 2011 killed 185 people.

"Simply put, it has, for me, been the most remarkable, satisfying and exciting time of my life," he said. "But despite the amazing career I have had in politics, I have never seen myself as a career politician."

He said the role came with costs. "For my wife Bronagh, there have been many nights and weekends spent alone," he said. "My daughter Stephie and my son Max have transitioned from teenagers to young adults while coping with an extraordinary level of intrusion and pressure because of their father's job."

He said he wasn't sure what life after politics would bring, other than he would probably take up positions on a couple of company boards and accept international speaking engagements. He said he would remain on as a member of parliament long enough that he wouldn't force a special election ahead of next year's general election.

"All I can say is that I gave it everything I had," he said. "I left nothing in the tank."

Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk, in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.