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Monday, July 3, 2017

Albanian vote in election seen as key to moving toward EU

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians were voting Sunday in a general election that follows a landmark agreement between the country's two biggest political parties to look past their bitter differences and back efforts for Albania to eventually join the European Union.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday's vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama's Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama's Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

"We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign," Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. "Today, Albania needs God more than ever," Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

Preliminary results from the vote are expected Monday.

Taliban leader: Afghan war will end only when NATO leaves

June 23, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The leader of the Afghan Taliban said on Friday that a planned U.S. troop surge will not end the protracted war in the country and vowed to fight on until a full withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The remarks by Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah came in a message ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan — something the Taliban do every year to rally followers.

It also followed a horrific suicide car bombing claimed by the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand province that targeted Afghan troops and government workers waiting to collect their pay ahead of the holiday.

By Friday, the death toll from that attack rose to 34 people, most of them civilians, provincial government spokesman Omar Zwak told The Associated Press. In the Taliban message this year, the militant leader seemed to harden his stance, saying the Afghan government is too corrupt to stay on and warning of another civil war in Kabul — along the lines of the 1992 fighting when mujahedeen groups threw out the Communist government in Afghanistan and turned their guns on each other. That conflict killed more than 50,000 civilians and gave rise to the Taliban.

The Taliban say they are waging war against the Kabul government and not targeting civilians. In their claim of the Helmand attack, they insisted no civilians died. Zwak, however said, most of the dead in the attack in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, were civilians, although there were soldiers inside the bank at the time of the explosion. Witnesses said children were among the dozens wounded.

Earlier, the Defense Ministry had urged soldiers to collect their salaries from banks located inside army bases. If they do go to banks elsewhere, they should refrain from wearing their uniforms, the ministry's deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanish told the AP.

Outside a hospital in Lashkar Gah, Esmatullah Khan, 34, said Friday he had donated blood to help some of the nearly 70 wounded in the attack. Akhunzadah, the Taliban leader, also boasted of allegedly growing international support, saying "mainstream entities of the world admit (the Taliban) effectiveness, legitimacy and success," an apparent reference to reports of overtures by Russia and China to the Taliban amid concerns of an emerging Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.

While the IS affiliate's stronghold is in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, the branch has managed also to stage high-profile attacks in Kabul and other cities. The presence of battle-hardened Uzbek militants in the ranks also further worries Moscow.

After urging Afghans to embrace holy war, or jihad, to oust foreign troops, Akhunzadah's rambling message went on to touch upon the conflict between Gulf Arab states and Qatar, saying he was "saddened" by the feud.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have accused Qatar of supporting extremists, a charge that Doha denies.

Associated Press Writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Abdul Khaliq in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

Nearly half a million displaced Syrians return home: UN

2017-06-30

GENEVA - Nearly half a million displaced Syrians have returned to their homes since the beginning of the year, mainly to find family members and check on property, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

The agency said it had seen "a notable trend of spontaneous returns to and within Syria in 2017."

Since January, about 440,000 people who had been displaced within the war-ravaged country had returned to their homes, mainly in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus, Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the agency, known as the UNHCR, told reporters in Geneva.

In addition, around 31,000 refugees in neighboring countries had also returned, he said, bringing to 260,000 the number of refugees who have returned to the country since 2015.

But Mahecic said this is a mere "fraction" of the five million Syrian refugees hosted in the region.

He said the main factors prompting the displaced to return home were "seeking out family members, checking on property, and, in some cases, a real or perceived improvement in security conditions in parts of the country."

He said it was too early to say if the returns might be directly linked to a palpable drop in violence since Turkey agreed at talks in Astana in May with Russia and Iran, allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to establish four safe zones across Syria to ban flights and ensure aid drops.

But this week, the UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told the Security Council that since the May 4 deal, "violence is clearly down. Hundreds of Syrian lives continue to be spared every week, and many towns have returned to some degree of normalcy."

Mahecic nonetheless cautioned that "while there is overall increased hope linked to the recent Astana and Geneva peace talks, UNHCR believes conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria."

"The sustainability of security improvements in many return areas is uncertain, and there remain significant risks of protection thresholds for voluntary, safe and dignified returns not being met in parts of the country," he said.

"Access to displaced population inside Syria remains a key challenge," he added.

But "given the returns witnessed so far this year and in light of a progressively increased number of returns", the agency had begun scaling up its operations inside Syria to better be able address the needs of the returnees, he said.

Syria's war has killed more than 320,000 people and forced millions from their homes since it began in March 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83717.

Syrian family on cusp of resettlement resigned to travel ban

June 30, 2017

IRBID, Jordan (AP) — A month before Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, Mohammad Al-Haj Ali, a 28-year old Syrian with a second child on the way, was taking cultural sensitivity classes in Jordan to prepare to start a new life in Illinois.

The International Organization for Migration-run class ended in a graduation ceremony that Al-Haj Ali remembers well, standing next to his pregnant 25-year old wife, Samah Hamadi, and 2-year-old son, Khaled, surrounded by about 20 other families.

"Ten to 15 days and you'll go — get yourselves ready," they were told. Al-Haj Ali was interviewed five times in the Jordanian capital, Amman, about his family history— at times in sessions lasting more than 12 hours — over a two-year period. Sometimes months would go by with no news, but he thought the stress was worth it.

Assured their refugee life was coming to an end, he quit his job working with kids in Zaatari refugee camp, sold his furniture for 150 dinars ($212), bought five suitcases and packed them. His uncle in Rockford, Illinois, rented him an apartment and furnished it in anticipation.

Gradually good news for other families came — an Iraqi family gone, followed by a Syrian. His was one of the last still awaiting permission to go when news of the White House executive order banning travel from six Muslim nations sapped their hope.

Two months later, Samah gave birth to the couple's second son, two months premature — a tragedy al-Haji Ali still blames on Trump. The family waited in the hospital for a month as the baby struggled to survive in an incubator with partially formed lungs and an umbilical hernia.

They named him Laith, after Al-Haj Ali's brother, who was killed by the Syrian regime. The baby's brother, Khaled, had been named after their grandfather, who died in a regime prison. The family says they've received no clarification of their status from the coordinating refugee agencies and feel stuck in limbo. Their five suitcases remain in storage.

As he waits in northern Jordan, mere miles from his hometown in war-ravaged Deraa in southern Syria, jobless in a mostly empty house, Al-Haj Ali is desperate to escape the region. He dreams of a better life, proper medical treatment for his infant son, and of pursuing a doctorate in economics. But not in America.

"Maybe there will be a new law: Refugees aren't allowed to study in universities, refugees aren't allowed in certain hospitals, not allowed to go into New York or some other state," he said, sitting in the family's sparse apartment.

"The future there is not secure."

Former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass dies in Paris

2017-06-27

PARIS - Syria's former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad's father and predecessor Hafez, died in Paris on Tuesday, his son Firas said. He was 85.

Tlass, whose other son Manaf was among the most high-profile regime officials to defect during the early days of Syria's uprising, died in a hospital on the outskirts of the French capital.

Tlass "died this morning at the Avicenne hospital and will be buried in Paris in the hope he can one day be buried in Damascus," Firas Tlass said.

The former minister, who settled in France five years ago, had been admitted to hospital in mid-June after suffering a hip fracture, his son said.

He fell into a coma on Monday evening.

The former minister's other son General Manaf Tlass defected from Assad's regime in July 2012, several months into the uprising that was brutally crushed by security forces.

A childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, Manaf Tlass later said French secret agents had helped him escape the country.

The uprising later turned into a devastating multi-sided war that has killed more than 320,000 people.

But Mustafa Tlass long refrained from publicly criticizing the regime.

A leading member of Syria's ruling Baath party, he was close to Hafez al-Assad, succeeding his friend as defense minister in 1972 following the coup that brought Assad to the presidency.

Assad went on to rule the country with an iron fist until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by his son Bashar, who was 34 at the time.

Tlass remained in his post until he finally quit in 2004.

Originally from Rastan in central Syria, under rebel control since 2012, Tlass was one of the most senior Sunni Muslims in the Assad regime's Alawite-dominated security apparatus.

"He had a minor role in military strategy, which was decided by Hafez al-Assad and the Alawite officers who controlled the army," said Alain Chouet, a French former intelligence officer who spent many years in the Middle East.

In a rare 2005 interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, the former minister defended a 1980s crackdown against a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, despite admitting that at its height, 150 people a week were hanged in Damascus alone.

"We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons," he said.

He wrote several books including his 1983 "The Matzah of Zion", a bestseller in the Arab world, in which he claimed that Damascus Jews had killed two Christians in 1840 in order to use their blood in religious rituals.

The "blood libel" allegations were commonly used against European Jews in the Middle Ages.

Tlass was also known for his crush on Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida.

He famously claimed to have ordered pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon's war to avoid targeting Italian troops -- "because I do not want a single tear falling from the eyes of Gina Lollobrigida".

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83677.

Aleppo girl Bana Alabed named among Time's most influential people on internet

June 27, 2017

An eight-year-old Syrian girl who drew global attention with her Twitter updates from the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo was named one of the most influential people on the internet by Time Magazine.

Other people on this year's list included British author J.K. Rowling, pop singer Rihanna, celebrity Kim Kardashian, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Time makes its annual choice based on those with global influence on social media and in generating news headlines.

Helped by her mother Fatemah, who manages the @AlabedBana Twitter account, Bana Alabed uploaded pictures and videos of life amidst the Syrian war, gaining around 365,000 followers on the micro-blogging site since last September.

"I can't go out because of the bombing please stop bombing us," Bana wrote when she first joined Twitter on Sept. 24, 2016.

"Aleppo is very good city but we need peace. I want to live like a child but instead I am stressed now," she wrote.

Last December, Bana, who was seven at the time, and her family were evacuated safely from the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo to Turkey, where they were greeted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at his palace.

Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011 when Bashar Assad's regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests, which erupted as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Since then, more than 400,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million have been displaced, 6.3 million internally and 5.1 million externally, across the war-battered country, according to the U.N.

Turkey, hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees, which accounts for around 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region, has spent around $25 billion helping and sheltering refugees during that time.

Source: Daily Sabah.
Link: https://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2017/06/27/aleppo-girl-bana-alabed-named-among-times-most-influential-people-on-internet.

Suicide bomb attacks target refugee camps in Lebanon

2017-06-30

BEIRUT - Seven Lebanese soldiers were wounded on Friday as five militants blew themselves up and a sixth threw a grenade during raids on two refugee camps near the border with Syria, the army said.

The civil war, which has raged in Syria since March 2011, has triggered an exodus of more than 1.1 million refugees into neighboring Lebanon and has repeatedly spilt over.

Four of the suicide bombers struck in one camp near the border town of Arsal, wounding three soldiers, the army said.

Troops recovered four explosive devices during the raid on the Al-Nur camp.

One militant blew himself up in a second camp near the town -- Al-Qariya -- while another militant threw a grenade at troops wounding four of them.

The raids, which are aimed at "arresting terrorists and seizing weapons," were still continuing in mid-morning, the army command said.

A military source said that troops made a number of arrests.

"The objective of the operation was to arrest a wanted man and it was this man who was the first to blow himself up," the source said.

There have been multiple clashes along the border between the Lebanese army and jihadists of the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda.

In August 2014, the army clashed with jihadists of IS and Al-Qaeda's then Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front in the Arsal region, with militants kidnapping 30 Lebanese soldiers and policemen as they withdrew back along the border.

After long and arduous negotiations, 16 of the kidnapped men were released in December 2015 in exchange for Islamist prisoners held in Lebanese jail.

The jihadists executed four of their hostages while a fifth died of wounds he suffered in the initial Arsal clashes, leaving nine members of Lebanon's security forces still in their hands.

Since 2014, both the Lebanese army and Shiite militant group Hezbollah have carried out attacks on Syria-based jihadists in eastern Lebanon.

Hezbollah has intervened in the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, sending tens of thousands of fighters.

Its strongholds in Lebanon have been hit by several deadly attacks claimed by IS.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83713.

Lebanon's grocery business booming thanks to refugees

2017-06-28

BEIRUT - In three years, Lebanese grocer Ali Khiami hired six staff, invested in property and funded his children's university education. Business is booming -- thanks to Syrian refugees using UN debit cards.

Displaced Syrian families in Lebanon are using electronic cards, topped up each month by the United Nations' World Food Program with $27 (24 euros) per person, for their grocery shopping.

The WFP scheme has both helped refugees and delivered a windfall to cash-strapped Lebanese shop owners.

"This program changed my life. I bought an apartment in Beirut and I paid for my three children's college degrees," said Khiami.

Since registering with the WFP, he has seen his personal income skyrocket from $2,000 per month to $10,000, allowing him to pay off a long-standing debt.

"I used to sell goods worth about 50 million Lebanese pounds (around $33,000) per year. Today, my turnover reaches 300 million pounds," said Khiami.

A small blue sticker in the window of his cosy store in southern Beirut identifies it as one of the 500 shops taking part in the WFP scheme.

Lebanon, a country of just four million people, hosts more than one million refugees who fled the conflict that has ravaged neighboring Syria since 2011.

The influx has put added strain on Lebanon's already frail water, electricity, and school networks.

The World Bank says the Syrian crisis has pushed an estimated 200,000 Lebanese into poverty, adding to the nation's one million poor.

- Changing perceptions -

With 700,000 Syrian refugees benefiting from the program, the debit cards are offsetting at least some of that economic pressure.

When they buy from Lebanese shops, the country's "economy is also benefiting from WFP's program, not just Syrian refugees," WFP spokesman Edward Johnson told AFP.

The UN agency says Syrian refugees have spent $900 million at partner shops in Lebanon since the program was launched in 2012.

It selects stores based on their proximity to gatherings of Syrian refugees in camps or cities, as well as cleanliness, prices and availability of goods.

Umm Imad, a Syrian customer at Khiami's store, said shopping with the card makes her feel much more "independent" than with the WFP's previous food stamp program.

"Now I can buy what I need at home," she said.

The scheme has also changed perceptions.

Instead of seeing refugees as a burden, shopkeepers like Khiami see them as potential customers to be won over.

He has begun stocking items favored by his Syrian customers, such as clarified butter, halwa -- sweets made of sesame, almonds, and honey -- and plenty of tea, "which Syrians love".

"Syrian customers have bigger families, so they buy more than Lebanese customers," he said.

- 'We sell more' -

Ali Sadek Hamzeh, 26, owns several WFP-partnered shops near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where dozens of informal refugee camps have sprung up on farmland.

"In eight months, I rented three new locations to stock merchandise and opened up a new fruit and vegetable store," Hamzeh told AFP.

He said Syrian refugees make up around 60 percent of his customers, but he has also attracted new Lebanese clients with his lower prices.

The debit card scheme is set to scale up after three large supermarket chains signed contracts with the WFP.

They include the United Company for Central Markets (UCCM). Its 36 stores across Lebanon are even offering a seven percent discount on purchases made using the cards.

"At the end of the day, we're a business and we're here to make a profit, but we also want to help out the WFP," the company's Sleiman Sleiman told AFP.

"We sell more, so we buy more from our suppliers. All this generates economic activity," he said.

But for some shop owners, partnering with the WFP has had a downside.

Omar al-Sheikh manages a shop in Nuwayri, a district of western Beirut.

Since he registered his store with WFP in 2013, his monthly profits have nearly doubled from $5,000 to $8,000 -- but at a price.

"My profits went up, but I've lost about 20 percent of my Lebanese customer base. Lebanese customers don't like it when it's busy, and maybe they have some racist views," he said.

Sheikh, 45, said a Lebanese shopper was annoyed one evening last week when he found the store's bread supply had run out.

"You're just here for the Syrians, you only work for Syrians now!" the customer said.

But Sheikh said he would continue to serve his Syrian customers.

"These are human beings. Their country is at war and we should help them."

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83687.

Qatar's neighbors issue steep list of demands to end crisis

June 23, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that have cut ties to Qatar issued a steep list of demands Thursday to end the crisis, insisting that their Persian Gulf neighbor shutter Al-Jazeera, cut back diplomatic ties to Iran and sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a 13-point list — presented to the Qataris by Kuwait, which is helping mediate the crisis — the countries also demand an end to Turkey's military presence in Qatar. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the list in Arabic from one of the countries involved in the dispute.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke ties with Qatar this month over allegations the Persian Gulf country funds terrorism — an accusation that President Donald Trump has echoed. Those countries have now given Qatar 10 days to comply with all of the demands, which include paying an unspecified sum in compensation.

Qatari officials in Doha did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP. But the list included conditions that the gas-rich nation had already insisted would never be met, including shutting down Al-Jazeera. Qatar's government has said it won't negotiate until Arab nations lift their blockade. The demands were also likely to elicit Qatari objections that its neighbors are trying to dictate its sovereign affairs by imposing such far-reaching requirements.

Only a day earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had warned the demands must be "reasonable and actionable." The U.S. issued that litmus test amid frustration at how long it was taking Saudi Arabia and others to formalize a list of demands, complicating U.S. efforts to bring about a resolution to the worst Gulf diplomatic crisis in years.

According to the list, Qatar must refuse to naturalize citizens from the four countries and expel those currently in Qatar, in what the countries describe as an effort to keep Qatar from meddling in their internal affairs.

They are also demanding that Qatar hand over all individuals who are wanted by those four countries for terrorism; stop funding any extremist entities that are designated as terrorist groups by the U.S.; and provide detailed information about opposition figures that Qatar has funded, ostensibly in Saudi Arabia and the other nations.

Qatar vehemently denies funding or supporting extremism. But the country acknowledges that it allows members of some extremist groups such as Hamas to reside in Qatar, arguing that fostering dialogue with those groups is key to resolving global conflicts.

Qatar's neighbors have also accused it of backing al-Qaida and the Islamic State group's ideology throughout the Middle East. Those umbrella groups also appear on the list of entities whose ties with Qatar must be extinguished, along with Lebanon's Hezbollah and the al-Qaida branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.

More broadly, the list demands that Qatar align itself politically, economically and otherwise with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional club that has focused on countering the influence of Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led nations have accused Qatar of inappropriately close ties to Iran, a Shiite-led country and Saudi Arabia's regional foe.

The Iran provisions in the document say Qatar must shut down diplomatic posts in Iran, kick out from Qatar any members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, and only conduct trade and commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. sanctions. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were eased but other sanctions remain in place.

Cutting ties to Iran would prove incredibly difficult. Qatar shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Iran which supplies the small nation that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup its wealth. Not only must Qatar shut down the Doha-based satellite broadcaster, the list says, but also all of its affiliates. That presumably would mean Qatar would have to close down Al-Jazeera's English-language sister network.

Supported by Qatar's government, Al-Jazeera is one of the most widely watched Arabic channels, but it has long drawn the ire of Mideast governments for airing alternative viewpoints. The network's critics say it advances Qatar's goals by promoting Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that pose a populist threat to rulers in other Arab countries.

The list also demands that Qatar stop funding a host of other news outlets including Arabi21 and Middle East Eye. If Qatar agrees to comply, the list asserts that it will be audited once a month for the first year, and then once per quarter in the second year after it takes effect. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

Hussain Al-Qatari in Kuwait, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Vivian Salama in Washington contributed to this report.

New crown prince widely welcomed in Saudi Arabia

2017-06-25

In a surprise move, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud appointed his son Prince Mo­hammed bin Salman bin Ab­dulaziz as heir to the Saudi throne and relieved Prince Moham­med bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz of his positions as crown prince, deputy prime minister and interior minister.

The Saudi royal court announced the reshuffle June 21 with a statement that said Prince Moham­med bin Salman would take over as deputy prime minister, remain as defense minister and retain his other posts.

The statement said the appointment was approved by 31 of the 34 members of the Saudi Allegiance Council, which includes senior members of the royal family who determine succession in the king­dom.

On Twitter, Saudis preferred method of social media interaction, numerous hashtags related to the new crown prince trended heavily, with many celebrating the appointment and others pleading allegiance, bringing traditional Saudi customs into a modern technological context.

“I pledge my allegiance to his Royal Highness, Prince Moham­med bin Salman. May God protect our country and preserve its glory,” wrote Saudi user Fahd Alsaqabi . Abdullah Alshehry wrote: “May God help our new crown prince to elevate our country economically, politically and socially for the good of its citizens.”

Domestically, the news was reported with a sense of optimism and the reshuffle had a positive effect on the Saudi stock exchange, the largest in the Middle East. The Tadawul index increased more than 5%, an indication of trader confidence related to the appointment.

The choice of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, as crown prince makes him the youngest heir to the throne in Saudi history and comes at a time of major changes in the kingdom, known traditionally for its measured pace in dealing with matters related to domestic policy. Several young princes were appointed to high-profile government positions, ushering in a new generation of power.

Since entering the political spotlight in early 2015, Prince Moham­med has generated a reputation as a hard-working, results-orientated reformist, unafraid of making difficult decisions and with a clear vision of where he wants Saudi Ara­bia to be, domestically, regionally and internationally.

One of the prince’s biggest achievements has been the kingdom's Vision 2030 economic and social reform plan, described by the Wall Street Journal as “the most far-reaching and ambitious program for Saudi reform and restructuring ever seriously proposed.”

The plan is designed to wean the Saudi economy off its traditional dependency on the energy sector, while creating jobs, stimulating the private sector and modernizing Saudi Arabia. A large component of the plan is focused on issues related to the kingdom’s young people, who are estimated to be more than half of the country’s population.

The centerpiece of Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Plan is to be the initial public offering of 1-5% interest in Saudi Aramco, the world’s most valuable company, valued at an estimated $2 trillion. Prince Mohammed said the measures would raise at least $100 billion a year by 2020, tripling non-oil income.

Another aspect of Vision 2030 is the promotion of a kingdom-based entertainment industry, with the goal of bringing commerce and recreation together. In February, the kingdom had its first Comic Con exhibition, which attracted more than 20,000 visitors, despite fears of a backlash from the religious establishment.

In May 2016, the kingdom set up the General Authority for Entertainment, tasked with putting together an entertainment industry. One of its first endeavors was signing a deal with the Six Flags Entertainment Corporation for a $500 million theme park to be built outside of Riyadh.

General Authority for Entertainment Authority CEO Amr al-Mada­ni said that, by 2020, there will be more than 450 clubs providing a variety of cultural activities and events in Saudi Arabia, creating 100,000 jobs.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83658.

Saudi king upends royal succession, names son as 1st heir

June 21, 2017

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Wednesday appointed his 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince, placing him first-in-line to the throne and removing the country's counterterrorism czar and a figure well-known to Washington from the line of succession.

In a series of royal decrees carried on the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the monarch stripped Prince Mohammed bin Nayef from his title as crown prince and from his powerful position as the country's interior minister overseeing security.

The all-but-certain takeover of the throne by Mohammed bin Salman awards near absolute powers to a prince who has ruled out dialogue with rival Iran, has moved to isolate neighboring Qatar for its support of Islamist groups and who has led a devastating war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.

The prince already oversees a vast portfolio as defense minister. He has become popular among some of Saudi Arabia's majority young population for pushing reforms that have opened the deeply conservative country to entertainment and greater foreign investment as part of an effort to overhaul the economy.

He had previously been second-in-line to the throne as deputy crown prince, though royal watchers had long suspected his rise to power under his father's reign might accelerate his ascension. The young prince was little known to Saudis and outsiders before Salman became king in January 2015. He had previously been in charge of his father's royal court when Salman was the crown prince.

The Saudi monarch, who holds near absolute powers, quickly awarded his son expansive powers to the surprise of many within the royal family who are more senior and more experienced than Mohammed bin Salman, also known by his initials MBS.

Meanwhile, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud, 33, was named the new interior minister tasked with counterterrorism efforts and domestic security. His father is the governor of Saudi Arabia's vast Eastern Province, home to much of the country's oil wealth and most of its minority Shiites. The prince is also Mohammed bin Nayef's nephew, and previously served as an adviser to the interior and defense ministries.

The royal decree issued Wednesday stated that "a majority" of senior royal members from the so-called Allegiance Council support the recasting of the line of succession. However, that vote of support appears to have been from a past gathering of the council two years ago when Mohammed bin Salman was named second-in-line to the throne, and Mohammed bin Nayef was named the king's successor.

The Allegiance Council is a body made up of the sons and prominent grandsons of the founder of the Saudi state, the late King Abdul-Aziz, who vote to pick the king and crown prince from among themselves. The council does not appear to have met again before Wednesday's sudden change.

Over the weekend, the king had issued a decree restructuring Saudi Arabia's system for prosecutions that stripped Mohammed bin Nayef of longstanding powers overseeing criminal investigations, and instead ordered that a newly-named Office of Public Prosecution and prosecutor report directly to the monarch.

The prince had appeared to be slipping from public eye and was not believed to have played a significant role in Saudi and Emirati-led efforts to isolate Qatar for its support of Islamist groups and ties with Iran.

Instead, it was his nephew, Mohammed bin Salman, who embarked on major overseas visits, including a trip to the White House to meet President Donald Trump in March. That visit to Washington helped lay the foundation for Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia in May, which marked the president's first overseas visit and which was promoted heavily by the kingdom as proof of its weight in the region and wider Muslim world.

Saudi-U.S. relations had cooled under the Obama administration after Washington pursued a nuclear accord with Shiite-majority Iran that the Sunni-ruled kingdom strongly opposed. The warm ties forged between Riyadh and Washington under the Trump administration may have helped accelerate Mohammed bin Salman's ascension as crown prince.

Despite his ambitions, which include overhauling the economy to make it less reliant on oil, the prince has faced failures and criticism for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which he oversees as defense minister.

The war, launched more than two years ago, has failed to dislodge Iranian-allied rebels known as Houthis from the capital, Sanaa, and has had devastating effects on the impoverished country. Rights groups say Saudi forces have killed scores of civilians and have called on the U.S., as well as the U.K. and France, to halt the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemen war.

The U.S. already is helping the Saudis with intelligence and logistical support for the bombing campaign in Yemen, and the Trump administration has signaled it could assist with greater intelligence support to counter Iranian influence there.

The newly-minted crown prince also raised eyebrows when he ruled out any chance of dialogue with Iran. In remarks aired on Saudi TV in May, Mohammed bin Salman framed the tensions with Iran in sectarian terms, saying it is Iran's goal "to control the Islamic world" and to spread its Shiite doctrine. He also vowed to take "the battle" to Iran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia's rivalry has played out in proxy wars across the region. They back opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen and they support political rivals in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq. The conflicts have deepened Sunni-Shiite enmity between hard-liners on both sides.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Spain says fire that threatened Donana park "under control"

June 27, 2017

MADRID (AP) — Spain's interior minister says firefighters have brought under control a wildfire that threatened Donana National Park, a celebrated conservation wetland and home to the endangered Iberian lynx.

In a note on his official Twitter account Tuesday, Juan Ignacio Zoido says that roads had been reopened in the area and some 250 soldiers deployed to combat the blaze were returning to base. Some 600 firefighters, including the soldiers, have been working to prevent the fire on Spain's southwestern coast from spreading east to Donana, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994.

It was not immediately known when the fire, which started Saturday, might be fully extinguished. There were no casualties although some 2,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and campsites.

Battle resumes to extinguish fire near Spain's Donana park

June 26, 2017

MADRID (AP) — Spanish authorities were hopeful Monday that dropping temperature and favorable winds would help firefighters battling to extinguish a forest fire on the fringes of the Donana national park, one of one of Europe's most celebrated conservation wetlands.

"Today is a key day," Andalusia regional president Susan Diaz told reporters. "Before dawn, (the fire) advanced. There were moments of much difficulty and it was out of control. Today all the news is positive."

Andalusia's forest-fire prevention department said the some 550 firefighters had managed to encircle and confine two of the three blazes raging in the area but that a third one closer to the park was still out of control, mainly due to blustery winds.

Spokesman Ignacio Fernandez said the fire "has not affected the park at all" but had damaged protected areas nearby. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said there were no casualties. There were no immediate details on how much land had been scorched so far.

Diaz said they were not ruling out the possibility that the fire was started deliberately Saturday. The blaze comes a week after wildfires killed 64 people in neighboring Portugal, which like Spain is suffering a severe lack of rain and soaring temperatures.

Donana Nature Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994. It protects over 107,000 hectares (264,403 acres) considered of extreme ecological value for their mix of ecosystems including wetlands, dunes and woods. It is a key stop for migratory birds and home to a variety of animals, including Iberian lynxes, one of the world's most endangered feline species.

Park authorities said one of the lynxes, a female called Homer, died as a consequence of the stress after workers tried to get her and other adults and cubs out of a breeding center close to Donana. Enormous efforts have been made to recover the Iberian lynx population in recent years. There are now 483 cats in the wild or in breeding centers, most in southern Spain.

Maximum temperatures in the Donana area were forecast to drop to 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit) from close to 40 Celsius in recent days. Authorities also hoped for favorable changes in winds. Some 1,000 people were evacuated from campsites and houses near the town of Moguer, where the fire started.

Moguer Mayor Gustavo Cuellar said 160 people, mostly tourists and agricultural workers evacuated from hotels and farms, had spent the night in a sports facility.

Marchers in Madrid urge Spain to take in more refugees

June 18, 2017

MADRID (AP) — Protesters marched in Spain's capital Saturday to demand the conservative government fulfill its pledge to give shelter to refugees from war-torn countries like Syria. Braving temperatures that reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), several thousand marchers followed a huge banner reading: "We Want To Welcome Them Now! Enough Excuses, No More Barriers." They marched along the city's Gran Via street.

Spain has taken in less than 10 percent of the refugees it had pledged to accept by last September. It has relocated or resettled 1,304 refugees, while it promised in September 2015 to take in 17,337 people — 15,888 from camps in Italy and Greece and 1,449 from Turkey and Libya.

In February, at least 160,000 people marched in Barcelona to demand the Spanish government fulfill its commitment on refugees.

Portugal battles to contain deadly wildfires amid heat, wind

June 20, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Emergency services in Portugal said Tuesday they were making headway in their battle to control a major wildfire that killed 64 people in the central area of the country, but another blaze nearby grew in size and caused concern.

The Civil Protection Agency said about 1,200 firefighters and nine water-dropping aircraft were fighting the deadly wildfire in Pedrogao Grande, which was raging for a third consecutive day about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon. Officials said that blaze was mostly contained though still burning fiercely.

Temperatures forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), gusting winds and bone-dry woodland were fueling the blazes, Commander Vitor Vaz Pinto told reporters. Some resources were being diverted to Gois, about 20 kilometers from Pedrogao Grande, where almost 800 firefighters and four planes were battling the flames. Vaz Pinto said the Gois wildfire was "very fast and very explosive" and had forced the evacuation of 11 hill villages.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Antonio Costa ordered an investigation into what happened on Saturday night when the deaths occurred, 47 of them on a road as people fled the flames. Costa's order asked three questions: whether the extreme weather could explain the scale of the disaster, why emergency services communications at times didn't work, and why the road where the deaths occurred was not closed.

Thousands protest in German city of Hamburg before G20

July 02, 2017

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — Thousands of people are taking part in the first major protest in the northern German city of Hamburg before the Group of 20 meeting next weekend. About 4,000 people marched through the city center Sunday to protest against the climate and trade policies of the world's major developed and emerging economies.

The demonstration, which also saw protesters take to the water with a flotilla of hundreds of small boats, was organized by environmental, labor, human rights and church groups. Authorities are putting in place tight security and declaring certain areas of Hamburg off limits to protesters during the July 7-8 summit.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a video address Sunday that she wants discussion among leaders to include issues such as sustainable development, labor rights and environmental protection.

Germany to limit foreign election rallies after Turkey spat

June 30, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany is clamping down on election rallies by foreign officials following a spat with Turkey ahead of that country's constitutional referendum, the government said Friday. All embassies were informed Friday that they will have to apply for permission to stage political rallies addressing their citizens in Germany, Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said.

Permission will automatically be denied if the country in question is scheduled to hold an election within three months of the rally, Schaefer said. Other countries in the 28-nation European Union will be exempt from the rule.

Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, of "committing Nazi practices" after some local authorities blocked appearances by Turkish ministers hoping to campaign ahead of Turkey's referendum on expanding the president's powers.

The German government said its new rule is a consequence of that dispute, though Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel insisted that it is not specific to Turkey. He also pointed to rules inside Germany that prevent German politicians from visiting public institutions, such as police stations or schools, in the three months before the country's own elections.

Germany announced Thursday that it would deny permission for Erdogan to address Turks when he visits for the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg. Germany's relations with Turkey have been frayed by a widening range of issues that also include Turkey's jailing of two German journalists.

Germany's vote to OK gay marriage likely to benefit Merkel

June 30, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel has dominated German politics for over a decade thanks to a combination of flexibility, tactical savvy and luck — and she looks likely to benefit from Germany's legalization of gay marriage as she seeks a fourth term in September.

Those qualities helped enable parliament's lightning-fast vote Friday to legalize gay marriage. Though Merkel herself probably didn't intend for it to happen so quickly and voted against the measure, it dispatched the issue before election campaigning really started.

The chancellor, a longtime though apparently lukewarm skeptic on same-sex marriage, set the ball rolling Monday for the stunningly fast decision by declaring the issue a matter of "conscience." That meant her conservative lawmakers wouldn't have to follow a party line and could vote however they wanted.

Her center-left challenger in Germany's Sept. 24 election, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, took the chance to seize the limelight and force a long-standing demand though the outgoing parliament on its last day. The Social Democrats have been struggling to dent Merkel's double-digit poll lead.

But that allowed Merkel to defuse an awkward issue — gay marriage is popular with German voters — without actually nailing her colors to the cause of "marriage for everybody," which could have annoyed her conservative base.

In nearly 12 years in power, Merkel has been relentless in throwing conservative orthodoxy overboard as public opinion evolves. She now has one issue fewer to worry about without having invested significant political capital.

Same-sex couples in Germany have been able to enter civil partnerships since a center-left government allowed that in 2001. While other Western European countries since legalized full marriage, there was little movement in Germany, largely due to resistance from Merkel's conservative Union bloc.

Merkel has showed an ability to shift positions from the start. In 2005, after barely squeaking through an election she was expected to win easily, she dropped talk of far-reaching economic reforms at home.

Since then, she has dropped military conscription, introduced benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children and abruptly accelerated the shutdown of Germany's nuclear power plants following Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Those switches, not always popular in conservative ranks, have deprived rivals on the left of rallying themes and allowed Merkel's party to occupy center ground. She has also distanced herself from U.S. President Donald Trump, who is very unpopular in Germany, by suggesting that Europe can no longer entirely rely on the U.S. — cutting off another potential line of attack for her rivals.

The 62-year-old chancellor, a Protestant pastor's daughter, has never looked comfortable discussing gay marriage and has said relatively little about the matter. Merkel voted Friday against legalizing gay marriage but said she's fine with full adoption rights for same-sex couples. She said she believes the German constitution views marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Recent polls show large majorities in Germany in favor of legalizing gay marriage. All three of Merkel's potential coalition partners in the next government were demanding it: Schulz's Social Democrats, who are her current partners in an awkward "grand coalition" of rivals; the pro-business but socially liberal Free Democrats; and the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

Merkel faced the prospect of having to commit her conservatives to gay marriage to get a coalition deal this fall. With only a quarter of her caucus backing its legalization Friday, that might have been tough.

On Monday, at a discussion organized by the women's magazine Brigitte, Merkel was challenged by a man asking "When can I call my boyfriend my husband?" She replied that she preferred to view it as a "decision of conscience rather than me pushing something through by majority vote." She added that "the decision will have to be made some time."

That signaled Merkel was backing off the conservatives' long-standing refusal to budge. Schulz leapt on the about-turn and pushed for a vote this week on a nearly four-year-old bill. Due to timing, that carried little immediate political risk. An open rift earlier might have brought down Merkel's coalition government, but Friday was the outgoing parliament's last session before the September vote.

In fact, the vote Friday offered both sides an opportunity to highlight their differences after four fractious years of governing together. Schulz joined two left-leaning opposition parties to force Friday's vote, so the conservatives can hope to scare voters with the notion of a left-wing government including the Left Party, which has communist roots.

The nationalist Alternative for Germany, which hopes to enter parliament for the first time in September, still opposes same-sex marriage but the issue hardly seems likely to rally voters behind it. A popular satirical program, public broadcaster ZDF's Heute Show, summed up Merkel's flexibility and longevity with a backhanded compliment Friday on Twitter.

"Merkel votes against 'marriage for everybody.' Shame. But she has another eight terms as chancellor to think about it," it wrote.

French president vows support in Africa anti-extremist fight

July 02, 2017

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France's president on Sunday promised strong support for a new multinational military force against extremists in Africa's vast Sahel region, saying the "terrorists, thugs and assassins" need to be eradicated.

President Emmanuel Macron, meeting in Mali with leaders from the five regional countries involved, said France will provide military support for operations as well as 70 tactical vehicles and communications, operations and protective equipment.

The 5,000-strong force will be deployed by September, and its funding will be finalized by then, Macron said at a press conference. The leaders of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad — known as the G5 — must clarify their roles and contributions for the force to attract more support from outside countries, the French president added.

"We cannot hide behind words, and must take actions," he said. The new anti-terror force will operate in the region along with a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, which has become the deadliest in the world, and France's own 5,000-strong Barkhane military operation, its largest overseas mission.

The new force is not meant to replace those missions, Macron said. "It's a force that fights against terrorism, and the trafficking of drugs and humans." Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said each of the Sahel countries would contribute 10 million euros ($11 million) toward the force's overall budget of 423 million euros ($480 million).

The European Union already has pledged some 50 million euros ($57 million) in support of the new G5 force. In mid-June, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution welcoming the deployment of the new force. The U.N., however, will not contribute financially.

Sunday's meetings came a day after the recently formed extremist group Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, based in Mali, released a proof-of-life video showing six foreign hostages seized in the region in recent years. The video claimed that "no genuine negotiations have begun to rescue your children."

Macron said he welcomed the first sign of life for several months from the French hostage in the video, Sophie Petronin. "They are terrorists, thugs and assassins," Macron said of the extremists. "And we will put all of our energies into eradicating them."

The threat in the region has been growing for years. A French-led intervention drove out Islamic extremists from strongholds in northern Mali in 2013, but the extremists have continued targeting peacekeepers and other forces. Religious extremism has spread south, and attacks have become more brazen.

In March, the extremist groups Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb declared that they had merged into Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen.

Associated Press writers Philippe Sotto in Paris and Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed.

Poland 1st: Why Trump visits ex-communist nation before UK

July 02, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — President Donald Trump is breaking with tradition by visiting Poland, an ex-communist country in central Europe, before making a presidential visit to longtime allies Britain, France or Germany.

The White House has stressed Poland's importance as a loyal NATO ally and its potential as an energy partner as reasons for the visit, which he will make Thursday just before attending a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. But there are several other reasons that make Poland a logical early destination for the new U.S. president.

POLAND FIRST FOR A POPULIST WELCOME

Trump will be welcomed in Poland by populist leaders who are closely aligned with his worldview and who gained power in 2015 with the same brand of nationalistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric that has put both the new U.S. leader and the Poles in conflict with leaders in Western Europe. Like Trump, Poland's leaders seek to restore more national sovereignty and weaken international institutions like the European Union. Some political observers worry that the visit could further deepen divisions between Poland and its Western European partners. There is also concern Trump's visit could embolden the Polish government and encourage what the EU sees as an erosion of the rule of law in Poland.

WARSAW CAN PRODUCE CHEERING CROWDS

Trump can probably count on large enthusiastic crowds to greet him in Warsaw, where he is expected to give a major televised address to the nation. In fact, according to Polish media reports, that is exactly what Poland's government promised the White House in its invitation. To make good on that pledge, ruling party lawmakers and pro-government activists plan to bus in groups from the provinces to hear Trump's speech. A warm reception would certainly be a plus for Trump after his somewhat awkward debut in Europe in May. He also could get a frosty reception at the G-20 due to his recent decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord and other policies. Some NATO allies have also been annoyed by Trump's repeated calls for them to increase military spending.

POLAND SEES U.S. BOOTS ON THE GROUND

Poles, on the other hand, can expect only praise from Trump on their defense expenditures. A U.S. ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, Poland is one of the five NATO members that spends the expected 2 percent of gross domestic product on its military. The Poland-U.S. security relationship has also gotten a boost this year with the deployment of some 5,000 U.S. troops to Poland as part of two separate American and NATO missions. The deployments are meant to reassure allies on NATO's eastern flank that the alliance is serious about protecting them from Russian aggression.

Many across the region hope to hear Trump commit himself to NATO's Article 5, which says an attack on one member is an attack on all. After months of waffling on that defense pact, Trump finally did so in June standing alongside the Romanian president in the Rose Garden. Still, it would mean a lot to an anxious region to hear those words spoken on soil closer to Russia.

POLISH-AMERICANS VOTE IN U.S. ELECTIONS

The hundreds of thousands of Polish-American voters in the United States represent an important constituency in several battleground states, and last year they helped give Trump the edge he needed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They will certainly be grateful for Trump's visit to Warsaw, especially since he has chosen to address Poles at Krasinski Square, a location that symbolizes Polish heroism during World War II. That large square has a memorial to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a courageous but doomed uprising against Nazi Germany that resulted in more than 200,000 Polish deaths and the destruction of Warsaw.

ENERGY TIES

During Trump's visit to Warsaw, he will also attend a summit devoted to the Three Seas Initiative, an effort to expand and modernize energy and trade links among 12 countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas. One driving purpose of the initiative is to make the region less dependent on Russian energy. Under the project, U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which began arriving in Poland in early June, would have the potential to supply more of the region. The visit coincides with efforts by Trump's administration to become a net exporter of oil, gas and other resources to boost U.S. revenues and influence.

Protest against bullfights in Pamplona before famed festival

July 01, 2017

PAMPLONA, Spain (AP) — Around 400 people have protested bullfighting in Pamplona, a week before the city hosts its famed festival featuring dangerous bull runs. Holding signs that read in English "Bullfight Is Cruel" and "No Tradition Trumps Reason" in Spanish, the protesters marched Saturday through the city's old quarter. The route included a stretch of the narrow streets that will be used for the bull runs that have made the San Fermin festival known worldwide.

Tens of thousands of partygoers from Spain and abroad come each year to Pamplona to witness or take part in the early morning bull runs, when crowds of runners risk being gored or trampled as they lead a pack of bulls to the ring where they will be used in bullfights.

The festival runs from July 6-14.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Portugal awaits foreign help to fight deadly wildfires

June 19, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — More than 1,500 firefighters in Portugal are still battling to control major wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed 62 people. Reinforcements are due to arrive Monday, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy as part of a European Union cooperation program.

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after 62 people were killed in a wildfire Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, which is by far the deadliest on record. Just over 1,000 firefighters are still attending that blaze about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as well as strong winds and dry woodland after weeks with little rain are fueling the blazes.

Maduro says helicopter fired on Venezuela's Supreme Court

June 28, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro said a stolen police helicopter fired on Venezuela's Supreme Court Tuesday in what he called a thwarted "terrorist attack" aimed at ousting him from power.

The confusing exchange, which is bound to ratchet up tensions in a country already paralyzed by months of deadly anti-government protests, took place as Maduro was speaking live on state television. He later said the helicopter had fired on the court with grenades, one of which didn't go off, helping avoid any loss of life. The nation's air defense system was immediately activated.

Adding to the intrigue, pictures of a blue police helicopter carrying an anti-government banner appeared on social media around the same time as a video in which an alleged police pilot, identified as Oscar Perez, called for a rebellion against Maduro's "tyranny" as part of a coalition of members of the country's security forces. Authorities said they were still searching for the man.

"We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government," the man said while reading from a statement with four people dressed in military fatigues, ski masks and carrying what looked like assault rifles standing behind him.

Maduro sounded alternately calm and angry as he told the audience about what had happened in the airspace just beyond the presidential palace where they were gathered. "It could've caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured," he said.

Later, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement from the government accusing the helicopter of firing 15 shots against the Interior Ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people celebrating national journalist's day. It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and launched what he said were four Israeli-made grenades of "Colombian origin," two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.

The pro-government president of the high court said there were no injuries from the attack and that the area was still being surveyed for damages. Villegas said security forces were being deployed to apprehend Perez as well as recover the heisted German-built Bolkow helicopter. Photos of the pilot standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter were displayed on state TV to further bolster the government's case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the U.S. Embassy

Meanwhile many of Maduro's opponents took to social media to accuse the president of orchestrating an elaborate ruse to justify a crackdown against Venezuelans seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution. Venezuela has been roiled by anti-government protests the past three months that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured.

Maduro said one of the pilots involved in the alleged attack used to fly for his former Interior Minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who he accused of working for the CIA. Rodriguez Torres, who has been leading a campaign against by Maduro made up of leftist supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, immediately dismissed the accusation as baseless.

As the drama was unfolding outside the courtroom, inside magistrates were busy issuing a number of rulings further hemming in the opposition. One dismissed a challenge against Maduro's plans for a constitutional assembly by chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime loyalist who broke with the government over the issue. Another broadened the powers of the nation's Ombudsman, giving him the authority to carry out criminal investigations that until now had been the exclusive prerogative of Ortega's office.

The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued Tuesday when opposition lawmakers got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.

At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, which is about a 90 minute drive from Caracas. Maduro condemned the violence but with a stern warning to his opponents that's likely to only further inflame an already tense situation.

"We will never surrender. And what we couldn't accomplish through votes we will with weapons," he said. On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved National Assembly President Julio Borges as he's walking away from a heated discussion.

At nightfall, a few dozen people were still gathered inside the neoclassical building as pro-government supporters stood outside threatening violence.

Venezuelan protesters, security forces clash at air base

June 25, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Young protesters broke down a metal fence guarding an air base in Caracas on Saturday before being repelled by security forces firing tear gas in another day of anti-government protests in Venezuela's capital.

Demonstrators threw stones, and some protesters were injured. The clashes took place after a peaceful mass demonstration next to La Carlota base where a 22-year-old protester was killed this week when a national guardsman shot him in the chest at close range with rubber bullets.

Protesters also fought with security forces outside the base Friday, and activists burned some vehicles during the confrontation. President Nicolas Maduro said in an address to troops Saturday that he had managed to break up a U.S.-backed plot to oust him. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of trying to topple Venezuela's socialist administration.

Maduro praised Venezuela's military for standing by the government and he warned that attempts are underway to try to sow further dissent. More than 70 people have been killed and hundreds injured in almost three months of demonstrations.

Colombia: Bombing at mall kills 3, including French woman

June 18, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A bomb rocked one of the busiest shopping centers in Colombia's capital Saturday, killing three people, including a 23-year-old French woman, and injuring nine others. Witnesses told of being evacuated from movie theaters and stores after the blast in a second-floor women's restroom at the upscale Centro Andino in the heart of Bogota's tourist district. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene and the injured were taken to a hospital, where two later died.

Police said a bomb from an undetermined explosive had caused the destruction. Mayor Enrique Penalosa called it a "cowardly terrorist bombing," and attention immediately focused on the National Liberation Army, which is the last rebel movement still active in Colombia. The group, known as the ELN, carried out a spate of recent attacks in Bogota, but leaders denied involvement in the latest bombing.

Penalosa said the French victim, identified as Julie Huynh, had been in Colombia the past six months volunteering at a school in a poor neighborhood. He said she was preparing to return to France in the coming days in the company of her mother, who was with her in Bogota.

The ELN, which is engaged in long-running peace talks with the government, rejected accusations it was behind the attack. "We ask for seriousness from people making unfounded and reckless accusations," ELN negotiators at peace talks taking place in neighboring Ecuador said on Twitter. "This is the way people are trying to tear up the peace process."

The ELN in February claimed responsibility for a bombing near Bogota's bullring that killed one police officer and injured 20 other people. But the group said it doesn't target civilians. Penalosa urged residents of Bogota's wealthier districts to be on high alert but cautioned that there was no hint of other attacks being planned. Police said they were still trying to determine what the device that exploded was made of.

The government last year reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which was much bigger than the ELN. Some analysts attribute an uptick in violence in Colombian cities to the ELN's desire to wrest concessions from the government at the negotiating table.

Bogota has seen dramatic improvement in security over the past decade as the country's long-running conflict has wound down. But the capital remains vulnerable to attacks as residents have let down their guard

Still, the Andino shopping center would seem a difficult target. All vehicles entering the parking garage are screened by bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards are present throughout the mall. President Juan Manuel Santos was expected to visit the mall to personally oversee the investigation and in a message posted on Twitter he expressed his solidarity with the victims.

Serbia's first gay PM- designate honored by nomination

June 16, 2017

VRNJACKA BANJA, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's Prime Minister-designate Ana Brnabic says it is an honor to serve the country and thanked the president for trusting her. Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic nominated Brnabic as the conservative country's first openly gay prime minister, a move which infuriated nationalists.

Brnabic said Friday: "I'm proud and still too emotional from all of this." Her government needs formal approval by Serbia's parliament next week for her to become the first female head of government in Serbia.

Brnabic's nomination is considered part of Vucic's tactics to please the West amid strong pressure from Moscow to maintain influence in the region and keep Serbia away from Western integration. Pro-Russian opposition official Bosko Obradovic says U.S.-educated Brnabic is "a foreign agent" who was nominated to the position by the West.

Romania: president, political parties in talks over new PM

June 26, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's largest party has nominated a former economy minister to be the next prime minister. The nomination of 50-year-old Mihai Tudose was announced before President Klaus Iohannis and Liviu Dragnea, the powerful leader of Romania's biggest party, the leftist Social Democratic Party.

Normally, as party leader, Dragnea would be prime minister, but in 2016 he was convicted of vote-rigging, which disqualifies him from holding the post. The Social Democrats withdrew support for Premier Sorin Grindeanu saying he had underperformed. He refused to resign and the party and its allies ousted Grindeanu's government in a no-confidence vote last week.

Romania ruling party goes to Parliament to remove premier

June 18, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's ruling party plans to submit a vote of no-confidence against its own government Sunday after it withdrew its support for the prime minister. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has refused to quit, sparking a political crisis.

The center-left Social Democratic Party convened lawmakers to read out the motion against the government, a day earlier than scheduled, in its efforts to remove Grindeanu, accused of not implementing the party's program. Parliament will vote Wednesday on whether to dismiss the government.

Grindeanu, in office since January, denies that he has underperformed. He claims the powerful party chairman, Liviu Dragnea, who can't be prime minister because of a conviction in 2016 for vote rigging, wants to install a party loyalist as premier.

Ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta, an ally of the prime minister, called for talks with Dragnea to resolve the crisis and avoid a no-confidence vote, which he called "an atomic war between the Social Democrats and the Social Democrats."

Ponta said the party in-fighting would benefit President Klaus Iohannis, a political rival, who nominates a premier who is then approved by Parliament. The Social Democrats and their political allies need 233 votes out of a total of 465 seats to remove the government.

Migrant pressures grow; Italy presses EU nations to do more

June 29, 2017

ROME (AP) — Italy's leader pressed his European Union allies Thursday to take in more migrants, saying the relentless arrival of tens of thousands on Italy's shores is putting his country under enormous strain. He spoke after 10,000 migrants were pulled to safety from the Mediterranean Sea in the last few days alone and were heading to Italy.

With an election due in less than a year, political pressure is building on Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni's center-left government to push for relief from fellow EU nations. Flanked by EU national leaders and EU officials at a news conference in Berlin, Gentiloni said the growing number of arrivals "puts our welcome capability to a tough test."

Italy has already taken in hundreds of thousands of migrants in the last few years. Some estimates say 220,000 migrants could land in Italy by the end of 2017. In addition to those who arrive, over 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to the U.N.

"It's a country under pressure, and we ask the help of our European allies," Gentiloni said, when asked about reports that Italy is considering blocking its ports to non-Italian NGO ships that pluck to safety migrants from distressed dinghies and other unseaworthy boats off the Libyan coast.

While acknowledging that European nations take part in patrols to deter smuggling in the central Mediterranean, Gentiloni said the job of caring for the migrants "remains in one country only" — Italy.

On Sunday, Italy's anti-migrant Northern League Party teamed up with the center-right opposition forces led by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi and triumphed in several mayoral races. The Democrats, Italy's main government party, took an embarrassing drubbing.

Many Italian towns say they just can't handle hosting hundreds of migrants any more. Right-wing parties remind citizens that Italians themselves are suffering from high unemployment and a practically flat economy.

In one port alone Thursday, in Reggio Calabria, 1,066 migrants disembarked from the Save the Children rescue ship Vos Hestia. Among them were 241 unaccompanied minors. This ship's rescued migrants came from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Somalia and several sub-Saharan nations of Africa and included a four-day-old boy. Six migrants had chicken pox and some 250 showed signs of scabies, so officials set up pressurized showers.

From 2015 to 2016, the number of unaccompanied minors doubled to more than 25,000, according to the Interior Ministry. Populist leader Beppe Grillo, founder of the opposition 5-Star Movement, slammed as a "suicide pact" the accord that lets the European sea patrol off Libya bring all the migrants they rescue to Italy.

There's also concern that if Italy, a stalwart supporter of the EU, sours on Brussels because it feels abandoned on the migrant issue, the EU's very survival itself could be compromised. "Either the Union can shake itself up, or the fear is that it can collapse definitively," said Francesco Laforgia, a left-leaning lawmaker.

"The situation is no long sustainable," Nicola Latorre, head of the Senate's defense commission, told the Il Messaggero daily. "Obviously saving human lives remains a priority. But it's unthinkable that Italy does it all by itself."

That Italy is considering prohibiting some NGO ships from bringing migrants to southern Italian ports reflects growing frustration in the country toward others in the EU, said Elizabeth Collett, director of MPI Europe, an independent research institution studying migration in Europe.

"What they see is an insufficient willingness of other countries to step up and help out," Collett said. One rescue group, SOS Mediterranee, expressed understanding, saying Italy has been "at the front line of this humanitarian tragedy for too long."

Still, their statement said: "NGOs are not the cause, nor the solution, to this humanitarian crisis but a response to the failure of the European Union to find a common approach to the tragedy." Earlier Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted that other EU countries share the burden of caring for migrants. But previous plans hatched in Brussels to make other EU countries take in a fixed number of migrants from Italy and Greece have largely stalled.

Several central and eastern European EU members — including large countries like Hungary and Poland — have flat out refused to take in a quota of the asylum-seekers. French President Emmanuel Macron, in Berlin along with Gentiloni, insisted that France would do its part as far as those deserving asylum. But Macron noted that more than 80 percent of the people flowing into Italy from across the sea have been described as economic migrants.

"How to explain to our fellow citizens, to our middle classes, that suddenly there is no limit anymore?" the French leader asked.

AP reporter Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.

Center-right set to win top race in Italian mayoral runoffs

June 26, 2017

ROME (AP) — Exit polls early Monday indicated that center-right forces, including an anti-immigrant party, were headed to victory in several key mayoral runoffs, two weeks after a first round of voting saw most populist candidates eliminated in all big cities up for grabs.

An election alliance of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservatives, the anti-migrant Northern League party and a right-wing party with its power base in Rome, appeared to have triumphed in the most-watched race, Genoa, a working class port city in the Liguria region which had long been a stronghold for the political left.

In Sunday's runoffs, center-left alliances anchored by former Premier Matteo Renzi's Democrats had been hoping for support from voters who backed losing populist 5-Star Movement candidates in the June 11 first round. In that vote, the Movement, which bills itself as anti-establishment, failed to capture any main city, including Genoa, where 5-Star founder-comic Beppe Grillo lives.

National elections for Parliament and the premiership are due by spring 2018. In the past, local voting results didn't always correlate with national elections to choose a new Parliament in Rome as well as premier.

But conservative party leaders, buoyed by the makings of victory in Genoa and some other smaller cities Sunday, touted the runoff results as a possible formula for a winning team of parties when national elections are held.

"I think the center-right can tranquilly stay together on a national level too," Liguria Gov. Giovanni Toti told Sky TG24 TV. Toti is a leader in Forza Italia, the party founded by media mogul and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi. He noted that in Genoa on Sunday, the winning ticket grouped together local forces from center-right Forza Italia, the Northern League party, and a right-wing party with a Rome power base.

In the affluent northern city of Parma, incumbent mayor Federico Pizzarotti, a former 5-Star politician who became disenchanted with Movement after Grillo declined to back him in a probe in which the mayor was eventually cleared, appeared headed to re-election on a ticket grouping various civic forces.

Dutch government partially liable in 300 Srebrenica deaths

June 27, 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A Dutch appeals court ruled Tuesday that the government was partially liable in the deaths of more than 300 Muslim men killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The ruling formally struck down a civil court's landmark 2014 judgment that said the state was liable in the deaths of the Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were turned over by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 and subsequently killed.

But the appeals panel largely upheld the earlier case's findings while significantly cutting the amount of damages relatives of the dead could receive by assessing the victims' chances of survival had they remained in the care of the Dutch troops.

The court estimated the chances of Muslim males' survival if they had stayed in the Dutch compound at around 30 percent. "The state is therefore liable for 30 percent of the losses suffered by the relatives," the court said in a statement. The 2014 judgment didn't include that qualification.

In a written reaction, the Dutch Defense Ministry said the government would carefully study the latest ruling. "The starting point is that the Bosnian Serbs were responsible," the statement said. Rights group Amnesty International welcomed the ruling as drawing a line in the sand for peacekeepers.

"More than two decades after the Srebrenica massacre, this decision establishes that peacekeepers can be held responsible for a failure to protect civilians and that their governments can and will be held to account for their conduct," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe Director.

The appeals judgment is the latest in a string of legal cases in the Netherlands concerning the country's role in the Srebrenica massacre and whether the country's soldiers could or should have done more to prevent the mass killings.

The ruling came the morning after a lawyer told a late-night television show that he was filing a claim for 206 veterans of the Dutch Srebrenica mission seeking compensation and recognition for the suffering they have endured since the fall of the enclave.

Lawyer Michael Ruperti told talk show host Eva Jinek he is claiming 22,000 euros ($25,000) per veteran, a symbolic amount of 1,000 euros per year since the fall of Srebrenica. Defense Ministry spokesman Klaas Meijer said the ministry already handles claims filed by veterans with "demonstrable" physical or psychological complaints as a result of their deployment.

"If people have demonstrable suffering they can come to our veterans department and file a claim," Meijer said. "It is important that we can handle the claims individually and carefully," he added. Hague Appeals Court presiding judge Gepke Dulek said the Muslim men in Srebrenica were killed after being removed by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers from their compound during a mass evacuation. Bosnian Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic had overrun the U.N.-declared safe haven in eastern Bosnia.

"By having the men leave the compound unreservedly, they were deprived of a chance of survival," presiding judge Gepke Dulek said. The men were among around 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Europe's worst massacre since World War II.

The ruling angered a group of female relatives of victims of the massacre who were in court for the ruling. Munira Subasic, who leads an organization called the Mothers of Srebrenica that brought the case, stood up and waved her finger at the judge after the ruling, saying "this is a huge injustice."

Lawyers for the victims can now begin discussions with government lawyers about compensation. Lawyer Marco Gerritsen, who represented the relatives, said he understood the relatives' anger. "But from a legal point of view it is not that bad. Of course we would have hoped for more and I think we had a good case," he said.

Gerritsen called the court's assessment of the men's survival chances "very arbitrary." He said he will study the judgment to see if it is possible to appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court. On July 13, 1995, Dutch peacekeepers bowed to pressure from Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic and forced thousands of Muslims out of their fenced-off compound, where they had sought refuge.

The Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then trucked the males away and began killing them in what would become the bloody climax to the 1992-95 Bosnian war, a slaughter that international courts have ruled was genocide. The war claimed 100,000 lives in all.

The Srebrenica bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves, which were later bulldozed and scattered among other burial sites in an attempt to hide the evidence. Mladic is on trial for genocide and other offenses at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague for his alleged role in the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes during the war.

Dutch royals return from Vatican with royal heirloom

June 22, 2017

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Dutch king and queen are returning home from a state visit to the Vatican with a royal heirloom: the baton purportedly carried by William of Orange during the 16th century Dutch War of Independence from Spanish rule.

The head of the Jesuit religious order, the Rev. Arturo Sosa Abascal, handed over the wooden baton Thursday at a ceremony in the Apostolic Library after King Willem-Alexander and his Argentine-born wife, Queen Maxima, met with Pope Francis.

According to the Dutch royal household, Spanish Catholic forces took possession of the baton after they quashed the Protestant revolt headed by William of Orange at the Battle of Mookerheide in 1574. The baton had been housed in a Jesuit convent in Spain. It's going on display at the Dutch military museum in Soesterberg.

Garbage crisis hits Greek capital over job freeze

June 26, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — With a heat wave expected later this week, Greece's government Monday urging striking garbage collectors to return to work after a 10-day protest has left huge piles of trash around Athens.

Striking workers scuffled with riot police in central Athens outside the stuttered entrance of a ministry building, where a union delegation was expected to present its demands. Temperatures are forecast to reach 42 degrees Celsius in Athens (107 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the week, prompting a public health agency to issue a warning over the continuing strike.

"The continued accumulation of garbage ... combined with high temperatures poses a risk to public health," the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention said. Despite the strike, municipal crews agreed to collect some garbage in busy tourist areas, outside hospitals and at intersections where tumbling piles of trash were slowing traffic.

Later Monday, the government is due to submit draft legislation to parliament to renew job contracts for thousands municipal garbage works. Striking unions are demanding that government fulfill commitments to provide permanent jobs for long-term contract workers — an action that could breach strict budget obligations set out under the Greece's international bailout agreements.

Greece has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union for its heavy reliance on open landfills and low rates of recycling, and has been fined on many occasions for failing to close illegal dump sites.

Germany denies permission for Erdogan rally on G-20 visit

June 29, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany will deny permission for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to address Turks at a rally when he visits for the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany's foreign minister said Thursday.

Turkey officially requested permission Wednesday for Erdogan to make the appearance while in Germany for the July 7-8 summit, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said during a trip to Russia. Gabriel said he had told his Turkish counterpart weeks ago that "we don't think this is a good idea."

"We are telling Turkey that we are convinced such an appearance in Germany is not possible," Gabriel said, according to news agency dpa. Earlier Thursday, Gabriel said that "Mr. Erdogan is an important guest at the G-20 and will be received with all honors by us there. But we believe everything that goes beyond that is inappropriate at this point in time."

He pointed to stretched police resources around the G-20 summit as well as Germany's current tensions with Turkey. Erdogan last addressed supporters in Germany in May 2015. Germany has a large ethnic Turkish minority.

Earlier this year, Erdogan accused Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, of "committing Nazi practices" after some local authorities blocked appearances by Turkish ministers hoping to campaign in Germany ahead of Turkey's referendum on expanding presidential powers.

Relations between the two countries have been frayed by a widening range of other issues, including Turkey's jailing of two German journalists.

German parliament remembers former Chancellor Helmut Kohl

June 22, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's parliament honored former Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a memorial on Thursday, remembering him as the architect of German reunification but also as someone who wasn't without flaws.

Norbert Lammert, the parliament speaker, said that because of Kohl "the peaceful unity of our country and a free and pacified Europe is today a reality." Kohl, who spearheaded German reunification in 1990 and was an architect of the euro, died Friday at age 87.

Remembering the party financing scandal that embroiled Kohl after he left office in 1998, Lammert said the former chancellor himself "acknowledged some mistakes." Lammert told Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others that "Kohl's path was sometimes painful, sometimes caused by himself and sometimes caused by others."

Kohl is being honored with an official European memorial event, a first for the European Union, at the European Parliament on July 1. A requiem mass will then be held at the cathedral in Speyer, in Kohl's home region, where the former leader also will be buried. Unusually, however, there won't be a state funeral in Germany beyond the official European event — apparently at Kohl's wish.

Lammert, a member of Kohl's party, remarked in his speech to parliament that the location and format in which Kohl is honored for his political work in Germany is "with all due respect, not just a family matter."

Kohl's death has highlighted rifts in the ex-chancellor's family. He had fallen out with his two sons and one of them, Walter Kohl, said he and two of the former leader's grandchildren were turned away from Kohl's home when he tried to visit Wednesday.

Stephan Holthoff-Pfoertner — a lawyer for Maike Kohl-Richter, Kohl's widow and second wife — accused the younger Kohl of ignoring earlier efforts to organize contact and deliberately setting up the scene by turning up unannounced. Walter Kohl denied that.

UK lawmakers face key vote on Conservative govt's agenda

June 29, 2017

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers were set to vote Thursday on whether to approve the Conservative government's plans for a Brexit-dominated parliamentary session, in a test of Prime Minister Theresa May's shaky minority administration.

The vote comes at the end of debate on last week's Queen's Speech, which set out the government's proposed legislation for the next two years. The slimmed-down agenda jettisoned several pledges made by the party before Britain's June 8 election, in which voters stripped May's Conservative party of its majority in Parliament. Several of the planned new laws relate to Britain's exit from the European Union, due in 2019.

The election left the Conservatives with 317 of the 650 seats in Parliament, several short of a majority. It also severely undermined the authority of May, who called the early vote in a misjudged attempt to increase her grip on power ahead of Brexit negotiations with the EU.

As May struggles to short up her support, the main opposition Labour Party is seeking to disrupt her plans by putting forward amendments that would reverse Conservative policies on Brexit and spending cuts.

But the government is likely to get its way Thursday thanks to Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 lawmakers have agreed to support the Conservatives on key votes. On Wednesday the government, with the help of the DUP, managed to defeat a Labour motion calling for a reversal of public spending cuts. The vote was 323 to 309 — the first of what is likely to be many close calls for May's administration in Parliament.

The DUP deal — secured with a promise of 1 billion pounds ($1.29 billion) in new spending for Northern Ireland — has dismayed some Conservatives on account of the smaller party's socially conservative policies on issues including abortion, which is all but outlawed in Northern Ireland.

One amendment up for a vote Thursday will test the unity of Conservative lawmakers. It calls on the government to pay for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England for abortions. Voting down the measure could be hard to stomach for some liberal Tory legislators.

Ride-hailing services transform Vietnam's transport culture

June 29, 2017

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Nguyen Kim Lan used to make a decent living shuttling customers around town on his Honda motorbike. But his clientele has dwindled as young and tech-savvy Vietnamese increasingly use ride-hailing apps like Uber and Grab to summon cheaper, safer motorbike taxis.

The expansion of the ride-hailing services across Southeast Asia is shaking up traditional motorcycle taxi services that are a key source of informal work for people like Lan. In some cases, the Xe Om, or motorbike taxi, drivers are venting their anger in attacks on the new competitors.

Lan is just frustrated. He says his income has fallen to just 20 percent to 30 percent of what it used to be. "Nowadays, my frequent customers have all booked Grab and Uber, so they don't come here anymore," said Lan, 62, as he waited for customers at an intersection in downtown Hanoi.

"Before, office workers would come here after work. Now they just sit in their offices and get picked up at the door," he said. As elsewhere in the region, motorbikes are Vietnam's main form of transportation, especially in the capital Hanoi and the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City. They can maneuver through crowded, narrow city streets more easily than cars and are less expensive to buy and run.

Having invaded the conventional taxi market, ride hailing apps like Uber and Malaysia-based Grab are now elbowing aside the Xe Om with their UberMoto and GrabBike services. Vietnam, a communist-ruled country of 93 million, has about 45 million motorbikes, the highest rate of motorcycle ownership per capita in Southeast Asia. Some 3.1 million new motorbikes were sold last year.

Practically everyone has mobile phones, and cheap Internet access has enabled most Vietnamese city dwellers to get online. Nguyen Tuan Anh, chairman of Grab Vietnam, said the number of GrabBike drivers has jumped from 100 when they first launched in late 2014 to more than 50,000, with hundreds joining every day.

The growth of passengers is "explosive," he said. Many Vietnamese now prefer to use ride hailing apps, viewing their services as safer and cheaper, Tuan Anh said. "GrabBike brings transparency and that's why customers love it. They know that they will not be cheated by the drivers."

But Tuan Anh said he knows of more than 100 cases where GrabBike drivers were attacked in the past year, often by Xe Om drivers worried about losing business. Bus stations, hospitals and schools are hotspots for conflict. In one case, a GrabBike driver was stabbed in the lung. In another, police fired warning shots to disperse crowds of Xe Om and GrabBike drivers who were battling near a bus station in Ho Chi Minh City.

Similar problems have been reported in Thailand and Indonesia. Tuan Anh said GrabBike tells its drivers to be cautious and to seek help from police. Many Vietnamese seem keen to use such services despite the potential for conflict.

Tran Thuc Anh, a 21-year-old video games designer, says she switched to using GrabBike to commute from bus stations to and from her office about six months ago. It costs her half as much as using Xe Om did, she says.

"I just need to be online to book a bike without going around to look for a traditional Xe Om, so it's very convenient," Thuc Anh said. Many GrabBike drivers originally worked as Xe Om, but not all are willing to sign up. Older motorbike taxi drivers say they don't know how to use online apps or lack the cash to buy smart phones. Others are put off by the cheaper fares GrabBike charges.

But Nguyen Quang Trung, a 30-year-old salesman who began moonlighting for GrabBike six months ago, said Xe Om drivers who try to overcharge their customers are finished. "Uber and Grab are safe and their fares are reasonable and customers see this," Trung said. "Only elder people or those who are in hurry use traditional Xe Om. Young people and people who are not short on time never use Xe Om."