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Friday, February 24, 2017

US and Polish troops hold first joint training in Poland

January 30, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The first joint training exercises in Poland for freshly deployed U.S. troops and their Polish counterparts are underway. A U.S. armored brigade of 3,500 troops from Fort Carson, Colorado arrived this month in Zagan, southwestern Poland, as a deterrence force on NATO's eastern flank.

Exercises that started Monday at the Zagan Military Training Area involved land troops, tanks and armored vehicles of the U.S. and Polish armies. Polish President Andrzej Duda and the U.S. Ambassador Paul Jones observed the training. They stressed that the U.S. troops' presence was strengthening the region's security and also bilateral ties.

Duda said: "God bless Poland, God bless America, God bless American soldiers." Jones noted that the armored brigade is among the best of the U.S. armed forces. The force comes as reassurance to nations in the region that are nervous about Russia's growing military activity.

Court allows Polish government to take over WWII museum

January 24, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Polish court ruled Tuesday in favor of the government in its standoff with a major new World War II museum fighting for its survival. The conflict revolves around the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which has been under creation since 2008 and was scheduled to open within weeks.

The decision by the Supreme Administrative Court is a victory for the populist and nationalistic Law and Justice ruling party, allowing it to take control of one of the last public institutions that had remained independent following the party's rise to power in 2015.

"This is very bad," the museum's director, Pawel Machcewicz, said. "This ruling means that the Museum of the Second World War will be liquidated on the last day of January. It means that I will be gone and that the new director can try to change the exhibition or delay the opening."

The ruling party opposed the museum because it takes an international approach to telling the story of the war, focusing on the civilian suffering of the many nations caught up in the global conflict. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski had for years vowed that if he ever had power he would change the institution to focus it exclusively on Polish suffering and military heroism.

The move is in line with what the ruling party calls its "historical policy" of harnessing the state's power to create a stronger sense of national identity and pride. After assuming power in late 2015 Culture Minister Piotr Glinski moved to try to take control of the museum by merging it with another museum that exists only on paper, the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 — a legal maneuver aimed at pushing Machcewicz out.

That sparked months of legal wrangling as Machcewicz resisted the merger. After the court's decision Tuesday, the Culture Ministry issued a statement saying that it would move ahead with its merger and that on Feb. 1 "a new cultural institution will be created — the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. The combination of both Gdansk institutions with a similar business profile will optimize costs ... and strengthen their positions on the museum map of Poland and the world."

Machcewicz says that even though he is losing his job he still plans to keep fighting for the survival of the exhibition, one created with the help of some of the world's most renowned war historians.

"The culture minister can come with heavy equipment and destroy an exhibition that cost 50 million zlotys ($12 million). But he can't just change some elements, because the exhibition is like a book that is protected by copyright laws," Machcewicz said. "And I am ready to sue the minister if he tries to change the exhibition."

On Monday the museum was presented to a group of reporters, historians and others to let the world get a glimpse of the nearly finished museum before it is too late.

Italy's Tajani poised to lead EU parliament

17 January 2017 Tuesday

Italy's Antonio Tajani, an ally of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, moved closer to being elected the new European Parliament president Tuesday after two key groups formed a "pro-European" alliance against rising populism.

The 63-year-old center-right politician comfortably won the first round of voting with 274 ballots but failed to secure a majority in the 751-seat parliament based in Strasbourg, France.

The silver-haired Tajani is a former European commissioner who has faced criticism over the Volkswagen "Dieselgate" emissions scandal and previously served as spokesman for scandal-plagued Berlusconi.

If confirmed, he will replace Germany's Martin Schulz, a socialist who during five years in office made the office of European Parliament president far more prominent than it had ever been before.

Early on Tuesday the head of the parliament's Liberal group, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, pulled out of the race and threw his support behind Tajani, the candidate of the center-right European People's Party (EPP) grouping.

"It is absolutely necessary. With Trump, with Putin, with many other challenges Europe faces, it is key we cooperate to reform our union," said Verhofstadt.

The deal secures Verhofstadt's important role as parliament's chief negotiator in talks over Britain's departure from the European Union.

EPP party chief Manfred Weber said: "Our partnership is based on content and on reforms for Europe."

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/183278/italys-tajani-poised-to-lead-eu-parliament.

Hungary's Orban renews attack on influence of George Soros

February 10, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's populist prime minister on Friday lashed out against billionaire financier George Soros, claiming he and groups backed by him want to secretly influence the country's politics.

In his annual state of the nation speech, Viktor Orban said groups partly funded by Soros, who was born in Hungary, needed to be made transparent and identifiable. "Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters. This is the trans-border empire of George Soros, with tons of money and international heavy artillery," said Orban, who received a Soros-funded scholarship as Hungary was transitioning from communism to democracy in the late 1980s.

"It is causing trouble ... that they are trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics," Orban said. He did not cite evidence backing his claims, and did not identify the groups he mentioned. Government officials had earlier taken aim at corruption watchdog Transparency International and rights groups like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

In 2014, Orban ordered a crackdown on civic groups supported in part by Norway, but extensive investigations and audits did not uncover any financial irregularities of note. In an email to The Associated Press, a Soros representative said they were "proud to support Hungarians who insist on having a voice in their democracy."

"The Open Society Foundations for over 30 years have supported civil society groups in Hungary who are addressing profound problems in education, health care, media freedom and corruption," said Laura Silber, the organization's chief communications officer. "Any attacks on this work and those groups are solely an attempt to deflect attention from government inability to address these issues."

Orban also claimed that Soros' organizations were still working on bringing hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe, contrary to the wishes of Hungarians and their government. Orban has been outspoken about his strong opposition to taking in refugees and migrants, and in 2015 ordered fences built on Hungary's southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop the migrant flow.

On Friday, he reiterated a government plan to keep migrants in border camps built from shipping containers while their asylum applications are being processed. The proposal drew strong criticism from local and international rights groups, which said it was clearly against EU law and the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Amnesty International said the plan was "yet another disturbing move in a pattern of demonizing" refugees. "Rounding up all men, women and children seeking asylum and detaining them months on end in container camps is a new low in Hungary's race to the bottom on asylum seekers and refugees," said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe.

Orban also painted a bleak picture of Western Europe, saying its "future is casting a long and dark shadow on its present." He joked that Hungary was ready to take in Western Europeans, whom he said are suffering from globalization's effects.

"Naturally, we will take in the real refugees," Orban said to laughter and loud applause. "The panicked German, Dutch, French and Italian politicians and journalists, Christians forced to leave their countries who want to find here the Europe they lost at home."

Orban, who returned to power in 2010, will seek another four-year term in April 2018.

Could 'Nexit' follow Brexit after Dutch elections?

February 19, 2017

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — For a small nation that has grown hugely wealthy thanks to centuries of doing business far and wide, the political mood in the Netherlands has turned surprisingly inward.

As a March 15 parliamentary election looms in the Netherlands — one of the founding members of the European Union — popular lawmaker Geert Wilders is dominating polls with an isolationist manifesto that calls for the Netherlands "to be independent again. So out of the EU."

After Britons voted last year to divorce from the EU, could a Dutch departure — known here as "Nexit," after "Brexit" — be close behind? "I see the European Union as an old Roman Empire that is ceasing to exist. It will happen," Wilders said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Wilders' Party for Freedom is a serious contender to win the popular vote, with most polls a month out from the election showing it ahead of all other parties. Over the past dozen years, the Dutch have already voted in referenda against EU proposals twice.

Few analysts think "Nexit" would materialize: Despite his popularity, Wilders will struggle to find coalition partners among mainstream parties, which shun him and his strident anti-Islam, anti-EU rhetoric.

Then again, few observers predicted last year that Britain would vote to become the first country to leave the EU, so the worries are real about the possible effects of a Nexit — or a further disintegration of European unity driven by the rise of nationalist populism throughout the continent.

An exit from the EU would likely deal a huge blow to Rotterdam, a cosmopolitan city known for its port, one of the world's busiest. The city employs 90,000 people, and a further 90,000 are directly linked to its activities elsewhere in the country.

Port of Rotterdam corporate strategist Michiel Nijdam believed a Dutch exit from the EU seemed unlikely, though not impossible. "Because we are so dependent on our trade with other countries that it would clearly hurt us so much that I don't think it's likely," he said. "But you never know what happens if a lot of people think it's a good idea and you vote on a party that is pro-Nexit."

Nijdam was speaking in the port's imposing Norman Foster-designed headquarters, which commands views over the port and the Nieuw Maas river that bisects the city. Cranes at container terminals can be seen to the west, while low-slung barges glide past, heading eastward along rivers and canals into the heart of Europe.

The port made a profit of 222 million euros last year as it dealt with 461 million metric tons of freight. Some 28,000 sea-going vessels and 100,000 inland waterway barges used the port in 2016. "The effects will be the opposite of the effects we had from the opening of Europe," Nijdam said. "That means that it's more difficult to organize your logistics through the Netherlands, so it will clearly have an impact on supply chains that will shift their routes from Rotterdam to other ports.

"The Netherlands will be less attractive that's for sure. For logistics it's not a good decision to leave the EU." Wilders disagrees, pointing to a report his party commissioned that showed the Dutch economy would benefit from an exit. The Netherlands would remain a strong trading nation while saving billions in funding to the trade bloc, it claimed.

"The position of Rotterdam will really be the same after we would leave the European Union," he said. "It will not be that Rotterdam all of a sudden will have moved to Sweden." Dutch bank Rabobank published four scenarios this month for the future of Europe and its effects. A scenario in which the bloc disintegrates amid a messy divorce from Britain and growing skepticism about Europe among remaining member states doesn't look pretty for the Netherlands or Rotterdam. The bank even suggested that a huge new extension to Rotterdam's port could turn into a "nature reserve."

One Rabobank economist, Elwin de Groot, said Rotterdam's port underscores how deeply embedded the Netherlands is in the EU and its single market. "We are the spider in the logistic web of Europe," he said. "So if that is affected by, for example, a Nexit ... that could have significant consequences for our economy."

A new economic hit is the last thing this nation of 17 million needs. After being pummeled by the global economic crisis in 2007 and 2008, it was struck again around 2012 but is now bouncing back strongly. Figures released this month showed that the Netherlands' economy grew a robust 2.1 percent in 2016.

Rabobank researcher De Groot says a Nexit could slam the brakes on that growth. If the Netherlands were to leave the EU, he said, "suddenly we are confronted with all kinds of trade restrictions. That could have, you know, a very negative impact on the Dutch economy."

Greece: Tsipras marks 2 years as PM with no-austerity pledge

January 25, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's prime minister on Wednesday marked two years in office, promising "not another euro" of new austerity measures by his left-wing government, as talks with bailout lenders over deeper cuts remain at an impasse.

Alexis Tsipras , 42, defeated established political parties in elections on Jan. 25, 2015 on a promise to scrap existing bailout agreements and austerity measures. But he eventually negotiated a third major international rescue deal after months of confrontation with lenders from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

In a newspaper interview published Wednesday, Tsipras urged European Union leaders to help Greece's economy recover from years of recession, arguing it would make the union stronger. "Under no circumstances will we have legislation for any further austerity measures — not another euro — beyond what has already been agreed upon," Tsipras told the daily EfSyn newspaper.

The IMF is pressing for tougher cuts, arguing that fiscal goals set out for Greece, including an ambitious 2017 growth target, cannot be achieved under current budget plans unless the country is granted more generous debt relief.

On Tuesday, the government said it was willing to extend an automatic spending reduction mechanism for an additional year — beyond the current 2016-2018 bailout program. Eurozone finance ministers are likely to consider the proposal at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

Tsipras' government is hoping to overcome delays in bailout talks to try to qualify the country to participate in a European Central Bank bond-buying stimulus program. That, it argues, is key to the economic recovery after years of decline and stagnation.

Near his office Wednesday, a small group of state hospital workers held a protest against ongoing health service cuts. Some briefly scuffled with riot police blocking the road. "It's two years today since the government was formed ... and we've had two years of false commitments on public health," protest organizer Michalis Giannakos said.

"Patients are dying on folding beds and on gurneys because the health system is falling apart."

Srdjan Nedeljkovic and Yorgos Karahalis contributed from Athens.

Germany picks ex-foreign minister Steinmeier as president

February 12, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A special assembly elected former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier by an overwhelming majority Sunday to be the country's new president. Steinmeier was elected in Berlin by the assembly made up of the 630 members of parliament's lower house and an equal number of representatives from Germany's 16 states.

He received 931 of the 1,260 votes. Steinmeier succeeds Joachim Gauck, a 77-year-old former pastor and East German pro-democracy activist who did not seek a second five-year term because of his age. The German president has little executive power, but is considered an important moral authority and symbol of the country as its host for visiting dignitaries.

"Let's be brave, because then we don't have to be afraid of the future," Steinmeier said in his acceptance speech. He said the world faces "rough times," but that Germany, as a functioning democracy, had the responsibility to fight for stability.

"Isn't it actually wonderful, that this Germany, our difficult fatherland, that this country has become an anchor of hope in the world for many," after overcoming wars and totalitarianism, Steinmeier said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Steinmeier and said she was convinced he would be an excellent president who would have the support of the vast majority of the people. "This is a good day for Germany," Merkel said.

Steinmeier, a 61-year-old Social Democrat, had the backing in the election of Merkel's "grand coalition" of center-right and center-left parties. The presidential vote was likely one of the last moments of coalition unity ahead of a parliamentary election in September in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Both sides hope to end the "grand coalition."

A few years ago, Steinmeier took a several-months absence from politics, to donate one of his kidneys to his wife Elke Buedenbender. Buedenbender, who is a judge, will not work during her time as first lady to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

Steinmeier has long been one of Germany's most popular politicians. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's chief of staff, he was a main architect of Schroeder's 2003 package of economic reforms and welfare cuts.

Under Merkel, he served twice as foreign minister — from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until this year, with a stint as opposition leader in between. Steinmeier is normally studiously diplomatic, but he strongly criticized Donald Trump during the U.S. election campaign.

Asked in August about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and elsewhere, Steinmeier criticized those who "make politics with fear." He cited the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, the promoters of Britain's exit from the European Union, and "the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States."

Geir Moulson contributed reporting.

Le Pen refuses headscarf, nixes talks with Lebanon cleric

February 21, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen refused to don a headscarf for a meeting with Lebanon's top Sunni Muslim cleric on Tuesday and walked away from the scheduled appointment after a brief squabble at the entrance.

Le Pen, who is on a three-day visit to Lebanon this week and has met senior officials, was to meet with the country's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian. Shortly after she arrived at his office, one of his aides handed her a white headscarf to put on. Following a discussion with his aides that lasted few minutes, she refused and returned to her car.

Le Pen has tried to raise her international profile and press her pro-Christian stance with her visit to Lebanon, a former French protectorate. On Monday, she met with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. She said Syrian President Bashar Assad was "the most reassuring solution for France," adding that the best way to protect minority Christians is to "eradicate" the Islamic State group preying on them — not turn them into refugees.

Some Lebanese officials including, including Hariri, a Sunni, have taken umbrage at what is widely seen as her stigmatization of Muslims, who her followers claim are changing the Christian face of France. There was also apparent displeasure at her comments on Assad.

Christian right-wing leader Samir Geagea said after meeting with Le Pen on Tuesday that "terrorism has no religion." He described Assad as "the biggest terrorist in Syria and the region." Walid Jumblatt, a leftist politician in Lebanon, tweeted on Tuesday that Le Pen's statements in Lebanon "were an insult toward the Lebanese people and Syrian people."

After walking away from the meeting with the grand mufti, Le Pen said she had previously told the cleric's office that she would not wear a headscarf. "They didn't cancel the meeting, so I thought they would accept the fact that I wouldn't wear one," she said. "They tried to impose it upon me."

The office of Lebanon's mufti issued a statement saying that Le Pen was told in advance through one of her aides that she would have to put on a headscarf during the meeting with the mufti. "This is the protocol" at the mufti's office, the statement said. It said the mufti's aides tried to give her the headscarf and that Le Pen refused to take it.

"The mufti's office regrets this inappropriate behavior in such meetings," the statement said. Le Pen said she had met in the past with Egypt's Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the head of the Sunni world's most prestigious learning institute, without wearing a headscarf. Photos of Le Pen with Ahmed al-Tayeb in 2015 in Cairo show her with the cleric with her hair uncovered.

Le Pen's refusal on Tuesday to don a headscarf would be in line with her strong support for French secularism, and a proposal in her presidential platform. French law bans headscarves in the public service and for high school pupils.

Le Pen's proposal aims to extend a 2004 law banning headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols in classrooms to all public spaces. While the 2004 law covers all religions, it is aimed at Muslims.

Later Tuesday, a group of Lebanese held a small protest in Beirut against Le Pen's visit. One protester raised a drawing of Le Pen between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, with "Neo-fascists" emblazoned underneath.

Associated Press writers Andrea Rosa in Beirut and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

Paris protesters decry police abuse; some clash with police

February 18, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Paris police sprayed tear gas at bottle-throwing demonstrators on the margins of a rally Saturday meant to support a young black man who was allegedly raped with a police baton and other victims of police abuse.

Two police officers were injured and 13 people were arrested in the clashes, which involved about 150 of the thousands of mostly peaceful anti-racism demonstrators. The skirmishes marked the latest in a string of protests around the alleged rape that have degenerated into violence.

Police had installed a security perimeter around Paris' Place de la Republique for the rally. Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, urged the government to ban the protest out of respect for police.

Demonstrators carried banners reading "Justice for Theo," the name of the 22-year-old alleged rape victim. The protesters argue that Theo is just one example of many young minority men unfairly targeted by French police in ID checks and sometimes abused.

One officer has been charged with rape in the case, and three others with aggravated assault. All deny intentional wrongdoing. Former French national soccer star Lillian Thuram was among the Paris marchers Saturday calling for justice.

"Living in the public space is not the same, depending on the color of your skin," he said. "We're in 2017. This is a real shame." Theo, whose last name has not been released, was hospitalized for two weeks after the reported attack in his hometown of Aulnay-sous-Bois northeast of Paris..

After an apparent video of the attack circulated online, angry youth torched cars and clashed with police for several days in suburbs around Paris. The violence was reminiscent of riots in 2005 that exposed France's long-running problems between youths in public housing projects with high immigrant populations and police.

Demonstrator Hamid Djudi, 57, expressed frustration Saturday that successive French governments have failed to prevent abuse and discrimination. "In the 1980s, we were protesting racism ... I was 20 years old in the '80s. I used to face (police) controls four times a day," he said. "History repeats itself. My own children are facing the same troubles."

"One of them is an engineer, the other is a doctor, and my daughter is at the Institute of Political Studies. And they are controlled by police every time they go out of our building," he lamented. "This is not normal. That's why I decided to come here. To protest for my children."

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

Centrist upends French presidential race in era of extremes

February 15, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France's presidential race this year is upending every political assumption that has governed the country for decades. And now Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister who is running an independent, centrist campaign, has a real chance to become France's next president in the country's two-round April-May vote.

Among the startling events: an incumbent president is not running. His prime minister did not win the Socialist primary. The far right is surging. The conservative front-runner who vowed to slash government spending has seen his chances plummet after giving his wife and children well-paid jobs for years.

Jealous rivals call Macron a guru with no substance. Macron, who plans to present a budget for the five-year presidential term next week and a platform later, mostly promises the French a better future — and that may be enough.

"Some people think we are a sect. Welcome," Macron joked in front of hundreds of supporters at the Bobino theater in Paris. Recent polls show Macron could be among the two top contenders to emerge from the April 23 ballot and advance to the presidential runoff on May 7, where he would be in a good position to win against his expected opponent, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

A former investment banker with impressive academic credentials, Macron is young, outspoken and sometimes theatrical. He speaks fluent English and is very familiar with social media. Macron backs free-market, pro-European policies and litters his speeches with references to mythology, philosophy or literature.

Macron became Socialist President Francois Hollande's economic adviser in 2012 and two years later, his economy minister. Last year he launched his own centrist political movement En Marche ("In Motion").

Conservative rival Francois Fillon and far-right politician Florian Philippot of the National Front recently compared Macron to a "guru." Fillon, the former favorite, has seen his popularity sink following revelations about well-paid — and possibly fake — political jobs that he gave his wife, son and daughter. Fillon admits the practice was legal at the time but is "unacceptable" now. Prosecutors are investigating.

Fillon has criticized Macron's "political adventure without a program" but Macron told the Journal du Dimanche that politics are "mystical." "It's an error to think the program is at the core of a campaign," he said.

Macron has proposed to cut taxes for businesses, wants to reduce by half the number of pupils per class in poor neighborhoods. He traveled to Algeria, a former French colony, this week to boost his international stature. He has also visited the United States, Germany and Lebanon in the last few months and will hold a rally in London next week.

In a video on Twitter, Macron urged researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers working on climate change in the U.S. to leave for France. "You are welcome ... we like innovation, we want innovative people!" he said in English, in a bid to capitalize on U.S. President Donald Trump's doubts about global warming.

Macron has also laughed at rumors about his sexuality. He said having a gay affair while also being married would come as news to his wife, Brigitte. "Since she shares my life from morning to night, her only question is how, physically, I would manage," he joked at the Bobino theater.

Brigitte Macron-Trogneux, who was his secondary school theater teacher, is 24 years older than her husband. While French politicians traditionally keep their private lives private, she acts more like an American political spouse, attending her husband's rallies and public events. The couple appears hand-in-hand on the front page of celebrity magazine Paris Match for the fourth time.

"You'll be hearing the worst things about me. It's unpleasant, it's discourteous and sometimes it's hurtful," Macron told his supporters. "I am who I am. I've never had something to hide." The polling institute Ifop says Macron tends to be popular among educated people from the upper and middle-class — and unpopular in the working class.

This illustrates the dividing line between the winners and the losers of globalization, wrote Jerome Fourquet of Ifop. "By designating each other as their main rival, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron pursue a common interest: substitute the traditional confrontation between the left and the right by this new division," Fourquet wrote.

Macron calls the divide "progressives against conservatives" while Le Pen "the pro-globalization against the patriots," he said. Political scientist Thomas Guenole says Macron's rising popularity has been aided by the media. Last year, the proportion of articles about him in French newspapers was oversized compared to his relatively low profile, Guenole told The Associated Press.

"Nobody can detail his program ... yet people have sympathy for him," he said, adding that what he called Macron's "doped" popularity is likely to lead to real results in the presidential election.

Amid protests, UK lawmakers debate downgrading Trump visit

February 20, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Thousands of protesters against U.S. President Donald Trump rallied outside Britain's Parliament on Monday, while lawmakers inside urged the government to rescind its offer to the president of a state visit stamped with pomp, pageantry and royal approval.

In a passionate debate that's unlikely to change the British government's position, Trump was labeled a misogynist, a bigot and a "petulant child" by opposition legislators. They argued that a state visit planned for later this year will demean the U.K. and Queen Elizabeth II, the president's official host.

Conservative lawmakers, however, said revoking the invitation would do far more harm. Tory lawmaker Edward Leigh said canceling the state visit would be "catastrophic" to the trans-Atlantic relationship.

"He is the duly elected president of the United States. ... It would be a disaster if this invitation is rescinded," Leigh said. Monday's debate was called after more than 1.8 million people signed an online petition calling for the state visit to be downgraded.

All petitions on the government's website that receive more than 100,000 signatures are eligible for debate in Parliament, though not a binding vote. Lawmakers on Monday also considered an opposing petition, with more than 300,000 signatures, backing the state visit.

No formal vote was held at the end of the three-hour debate, which took place in a side-room of Parliament rather than the House of Commons chamber. The chants of protesters outside could be heard as lawmakers spoke.

Labour Party legislator Tulip Siddiq said Trump should not be allowed to spread "his bigotry, his misogyny, his division" in Britain. Another Labour lawmaker, Daniel Zeichner, called the president "a disgusting, immoral man."

"We do not welcome bigots," he said. Labour's Paul Flynn pointed out that a state visit was a "rare privilege" given to only two other U.S. presidents since the 1950s — George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

State visits are distinct from official visits, and see foreign leaders welcomed with royal pomp and military ceremony. Most stay at Buckingham Palace as guests of the monarch, and Flynn said a state visit would make it appear as if the queen were "approving the acts of Donald J. Trump" — a man Flynn said had behaved "like a petulant child."

Both Bush and Obama made their state visits several years into their tenures. Prime Minister Theresa May invited Trump a week after his Jan. 20 inauguration. Some lawmakers said May's haste to bolster the trans-Atlantic "special relationship" as the U.K. prepares to leave the European Union had an edge of desperation.

"We didn't do this for Kennedy," Labour lawmaker David Lammy said. "We didn't do this for Truman. We didn't do this for Reagan. But for this man, after seven days, we say 'Please come and we will lay on everything because we are so desperate for your company?'... I am ashamed that it has come to this."

During her 65-year reign, Elizabeth has welcomed many leaders with less-than-spotless records, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. A 2015 state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping drew protests from Tibetan groups and human rights activists.

Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said critics of Trump's pending visit were being hypocritical. "What complaint did the honorable member make when Emperor Hirohito came here?" he asked Flynn. The Japanese emperor's 1971 state visit was highly controversial at the time. But Trump's invitation has sparked unprecedented opposition, especially after he issued an executive order temporarily barring citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The order has since been suspended by U.S. courts.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the order in British towns and cities, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan urged the government to reconsider its invitation in light of Trump's "cruel" migrant ban. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow set aside his customary political neutrality to say that Trump should not be invited to address Parliament when he comes to Britain.

The government insists Trump's visit will take place, though dates have not been announced. "We believe it is absolutely right that we should use all the tools at our disposal to build common ground with President Trump," Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan told lawmakers.

"The visit should happen, the visit will happen," he added. "And when it does I trust the United Kingdom will extend a polite and generous welcome to President Donald Trump."

British foreign secretary: Gambia to return to Commonwealth

February 15, 2017

BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — Gambia will soon return to the Commonwealth under its new government, Britain's foreign secretary said Tuesday after meeting with President Adama Barrow and pledging London's support for this small West African nation following the departure of its leader of 22 years.

Barrow has vowed to reverse actions taken by his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, who announced last year that Gambia would withdraw from the International Criminal Court. Three years earlier Jammeh Gambia from the Commonwealth, a 52-nation group made up mostly of former British colonies.

"We are here to help. The United Kingdom has a close relation with The Gambia," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after his private meeting with Barrow. The visit comes after longtime ruler Jammeh flew into exile last month under international pressure and the threat of a regional military intervention after refusing to accept his December election loss to Barrow. Jammeh, who seized control in a bloodless coup in 1994, is accused of overseeing an administration that tortured and imprisoned opponents.

Barrow's new government promises democratic reforms, freeing political prisoners and a truth commission. Johnson said after meeting with Barrow that the countries would "build on longstanding friendship and partnership." He said key areas such as education, health and security would take center stage.

Last week, the European Union announced an $80 million package of support for Gambia as nations warm to the new government. The United Nations has received the Gambia government's formal notice reversing the country's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, deputy U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq announced earlier Tuesday.

Gambia was one of three African countries that informed the U.N. chief last year that they were withdrawing from the court. The others were South Africa and Burundi.

Russia-Belarus rift grows as Putin loses patience

February 18, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — In more than two decades in power, the autocratic leader of Belarus has cast his nation as Moscow's closest ally, securing tens of billions of dollars in Russian subsidies. At the same time, President Alexander Lukashenko has skillfully exploited Russia's security fears by occasionally reaching out to the West to win concessions from Moscow. Now, the Kremlin finally seems to have lost patience with its unruly ally, spelling an end to a relationship that has been described as giving away "oil for kisses."

The spiraling conflict between the neighbors has reached such a level that some analysts have talked about Russia possibly staging a "palace coup" against Lukashenko. Visibly nervous about Russia's intentions, the Belorussian leader recently assured his nation of 10 million people that "there will be no war" between the two countries.

Lukashenko has sought to present Belarus as an indispensable partner for Russia and a bulwark against NATO. At the same time, he has periodically made overtures to the West, masterfully exploiting Moscow's fear of losing a crucial ally to win more financial aid.

It now seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin has grown tired of Lukashenko's games. A scheduled meeting between the two last week was postponed indefinitely, and Russia has set up border controls on its previously unguarded frontier with Belarus.

Putin and Lukashenko never got along, and it's hard to imagine any affinity between the cold, reserved former KGB officer and the blustery and boisterous Belorussian, a former state farm director. Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994, extending his rule through elections the West has criticized as undemocratic, keeping most of the economy in state hands and relentlessly cracking down on the opposition and independent media.

But Belarus' dependence on Russia and Moscow's desire to keep a key military ally on its western flank have helped bridge differences — until recently. When Belarus balked last year at the price Russia charged for its natural gas, accumulating a $550 million debt, Moscow hit Minsk in its softest spot by sharply cutting oil supplies. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus had used cheap Russian crude for products that accounted for more than a third of its export revenues.

The spat escalated with Lukashenko recalling Belorussian representatives from a Russia-dominated economic alliance and ignoring its recent summit. He then raised the stakes by abolishing visas for short-time travelers from 80 nations, including the U.S. and the European Union. The move vexed Russia, which voiced concern that foreign visitors could cross the uncontrolled border with Belarus.

Moscow responded by unilaterally establishing border controls — a move Lukashenko warned could trigger a "serious conflict." He further challenged the Kremlin by ordering his interior minister to open a criminal inquiry against Russia's top sanitary official for barring imports of Belorussian food products. Russia has banned some agricultural imports from Belarus, accusing it of becoming a conduit for contraband Western food banned in retaliation for the U.S. and the EU sanctions against Moscow.

The Kremlin responded that the Russian official was only doing his job, and noted that deliveries of cheap oil to Belarus had cost Russia over $22 billion in lost revenue in 2011-15. The cheap energy, along with billions of dollars in Russian loans, buttressed Belarus' Soviet-style economy that has relied on its eastern neighbor as its main export market.

Russia and Belarus have had economic disputes before, but each time Moscow caved in to Lukashenko's demands and restored the subsidies. The latest controversy, however, seems deeper, and Putin appears unlikely to back off.

"There are limits to a weak state's ability to dictate its terms to a stronger one," economic expert Vladislav Inozemtsev said on Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio. Lukashenko sounded unusually tense at a recent news conference.

"Why take us by the throat?" he asked. "No one will occupy us, no one will send in troops," he said in an apparent reference to fears that Russia could try to use massive joint military maneuvers scheduled in Belarus later this year to overrun the country. "The Russian troops that will enter Belarus will leave."

The statement seemed to reflect Lukashenko's suspicions about the Kremlin's intentions following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Lukashenko never recognized Crimea as part of Russia, and he also refused to follow suit when Moscow acknowledged Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

The Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk warned recently that the Kremlin could try to send troops into Belarus. "The threat of Russia stirring up an internal conflict in Belarus has reached a maximum level," said Yuri Tsarik, the head of the center's Russia program.

For several years, Lukashenko has firmly resisted the Kremlin's push for Belarus to host a Russian air base, probably fearing it might serve as a foothold for Moscow as in Crimea, where Russia had leased a navy base prior to the annexation.

"Lukashenko remembers quite well that the seizure of Crimea began from the Russian base," said Minsk-based analyst Valery Karbalevich. "After Crimea, Minsk has sensed real danger, and Lukashenko has started searching for ways to resist the Russian pressure."

In a bid to counter Russia, Lukashenko has sought to mend ties with the West, and he scaled back his crackdown on dissent. The EU and the U.S. recently rolled back sanctions they imposed on Belarus following relatively smoother elections and the release of political prisoners. But Belarus' hope of securing a $3 billion IMF loan has remained elusive.

"Lukashenko needs Moscow, and the Kremlin knows that," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political scholar in Minsk. "In exchange for subsidies, Putin expects Belarus to show support and discipline, not wag its tail to the West."

He predicted Putin would be unlikely to resort to force. "The Kremlin's strategy is to scare Lukashenko and then make a deal with him, putting him on a shorter leash," Klaskovsky said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

Austria approves US extradition for Ukrainian oligarch

February 21, 2017

VIENNA (AP) — An Austrian court on Tuesday approved a U.S. extradition request for a Ukrainian oligarch suspected of paying millions of dollars in bribes to Indian officials. The court decision overturns a lower court ruling nearly two years ago against extraditing Dymitro Firtash. The judge then said that the U.S. move was at least partially politically motivated through links to political events in Ukraine, and not supported by sufficient evidence.

Extradition, however, is still not a certainty. Leo Levnaic-Iwanski, who headed the judges' panel of the Upper State Court, said the final decision will be made by Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter.

Firtash was indicted in Chicago by a U.S. grand jury in 2012 for allegedly paying off officials through U.S. banks in a failed attempt to secure titanium mining rights in India. Arrested a year later in Vienna, Firtash posted bail of 125 million euros (more than $130 million) shortly afterward, leaving him free but unable to leave Austria.

One of Ukraine's most influential businessmen, Firtash, 51, is well connected both in Moscow and with Ukrainian politicians opposed to the Kremlin. He earned millions of dollars in the natural gas trading sector under deposed pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Flynn, fired once by a president, now resigns to another

February 14, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fired by one American commander-in-chief for insubordination, Michael Flynn has now delivered his resignation to another. President Donald Trump had been weighing the fate of his national security adviser, a hard-charging, feather-ruffling retired lieutenant general who just three weeks into the new administration had put himself in the center of a controversy. Flynn resigned late Monday.

At issue was Flynn's contact with Moscow's ambassador to the United States. Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak appear to have discussed U.S. sanctions late last year, raising questions about whether he was freelancing on foreign policy while President Barack Obama was still in office and whether he misled Trump officials about the calls.

The center of a storm is a familiar place for Flynn. His military career ended when Obama dismissed him as defense intelligence chief. Flynn claimed he was pushed out for holding tougher views than the Obama administration about Islamic extremism. But a former senior U.S. official who worked with Flynn said the firing was for insubordination, after the Army lieutenant general failed to follow guidance from superiors.

Once out of government, he disappeared into the murky world of mid-level defense contractors and international influence peddlers. He shocked his former colleagues a little more than a year later by appearing at a Moscow banquet headlined by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Given a second chance by Trump, Flynn, a lifelong if apolitical Democrat, became a trusted and eager confidant of the Republican candidate, joining anti-Hillary Clinton campaign chants of "Lock Her Up" and tweeting that "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL."

As national security adviser, Flynn required no Senate confirmation vote or public vetting of his record, and his tenure was brief but turbulent. The Washington Post and other U.S. newspapers, citing current and former U.S. officials, reported last week that Flynn made explicit references to U.S. sanctions on Russia in conversations with Kislyak. One of the calls took place on Dec. 29, the day Obama announced new penalties against Russia's top intelligence agencies over allegations they meddled in the U.S. election process to help Trump win.

While it's not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office, the repeated contacts just as the U.S. was pulling the trigger on sanctions suggests Trump's team might have helped shape Russia's response. They also contradicted denials about such discussions of the sanctions by several Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence.

Flynn later backed off his adamant denials. On Friday, he said he "no recollection" of discussing sanctions policy but "can't be certain," according to an official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

He apologized to Pence, who, apparently relying on Flynn's denials, vouched for him on television. In his resignation letter, Flynn said he held numerous calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the transition and gave "incomplete information" about those discussions to Pence.

For days, Trump was publicly and unusually quiet on the matter. While his aides were declaring the president had confidence in Flynn, Trump privately told associates he was troubled by the situation, according to a person who spoke with him recently.


Flynn's sparkling military resume had included key assignments at home and abroad, and high praise from superiors.

The son of an Army veteran of World War II and the Korean war, Flynn was commissioned as a second lieutenant in May 1981 after graduating from the University of Rhode Island. He started in intelligence, eventually commanding military intelligence units at the battalion and then brigade level. In the early years of the Iraq war, he was intelligence chief for Joint Special Operations Command, the organization in charge of secret commando units like SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. He then led intelligence efforts for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and then took up the top intelligence post on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.

Ian McCulloh, a Johns Hopkins data science specialist, became an admirer of Flynn while working as an Army lieutenant colonel in Afghanistan in 2009. At the time, Flynn ran intelligence for the U.S.-led international coalition in Kabul and was pushing for more creative approaches to targeting Taliban networks, including use of data mining and social network analysis, according to McCulloh.

"He was pushing for us to think out of the box and try to leverage technology better and innovate," McCulloh said, crediting Flynn for improving the effectiveness of U.S. targeting. "A lot of people didn't like it because it was different."

It was typical of the determined, though divisive, approach Flynn would adopt at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which provides military intelligence to commanders and defense policymakers. There, he quickly acquired a reputation as a disruptive force. While some applauded Flynn with forcing a tradition-bound bureaucracy to abandon old habits and seek out new, more effective ways of collecting and analyzing intelligence useful in the fight against extremist groups, others saw his efforts as erratic and his style as prone to grandstanding.

In the spring of 2014, after less than two years on the job, he was told to pack his bags.

According to Flynn's telling, it was his no-nonsense approach to fighting Islamic extremist groups that caused the rift.

A former senior Obama administration official who was consulted during the deliberations disputed that account. Flynn was relieved of his post for insubordination after failing to follow guidance from superiors, including James Clapper, Obama's director of national intelligence, said the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel matters.


Plunged into civilian life for the first time in 33 years, Flynn moved quickly to capitalize on his military and intelligence world connections and experience. He did so in an unorthodox way.

"I didn't walk out like a lot of guys and go to big jobs in Northrup Grumman or Booz Allen or some of these other big companies," Flynn told Foreign Policy magazine in 2015.

Instead, he opened his own consulting firm, Flynn Intelligence Group, in Alexandria, Va. He brought in his son, Michael G. Flynn as a top aide, and began assembling a crew of former armed forces veterans with expertise in cyber, logistics and surveillance, and sought out ties with lesser-known figures and companies trying to expand their profiles as contractors in the military and intelligence spheres.

One "team" member listed on the firm's site was James Woolsey, President Bill Clinton's former CIA director. Woolsey briefly joined Flynn on Trump's transition team as a senior adviser, but quit in January. Another was lobbyist Robert Kelley.

Kelley proved a central player in the Flynn Group's decision to help a Turkish businessman tied to Turkey's government. At the same time that Flynn was advising Trump on national security matters, Kelley was lobbying legislators on behalf of businessman Ekim Alptekin's firm between mid-September and December last year, lobbying documents show.

It was an odd match. Flynn has stirred controversy with dire warnings about Islam, calling it a "political ideology" that "definitely hides behind being a religion" and accusing Obama of preventing the U.S. from "discrediting" radical Islam. But his alarms apparently didn't extend to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government as it cracked down on dissent and jailed thousands of opponents after a failed coup last summer. Erdogan's power base is among Turkey's conservative Muslim voters and many affected by his crackdown are secularists.

Shortly before Trump's election, Flynn wrote an op-ed saying Turkey needed U.S. support and echoing Erdogan's warnings that a "shady" Turkish Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania should not be protected by the United States. Erdogan accuses the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, of orchestrating the coup attempt and has requested extradition. Obama officials widely described Turkey's evidence of Gulen's wrongdoing as insufficient.

Alptekin, the businessman, told The Associated Press he met Flynn several times starting last summer. He wouldn't detail their conversations. Alptekin said he met mostly with Kelley, a former chief counsel to a congressional subcommittee, who registered with Congress as a lobbyist for Inovo BV, a company Alptekin established in the Netherlands in 2005. Alptekin also is a member of a Turkish economic relations board run by an Erdogan appointee, though he says he has no official relationship with Turkey's government.

Kelley said Flynn's consulting firm could help "do something about improving the relations between Turkey and the United States," Alptekin told the AP. He said he didn't consider any need for his firm or Kelley to register with the Justice Department as a "foreign agent in this context" because his firm was "not a government entity."


Kelley also was a registered foreign agent for the National Mobilization Force, a Turkish-backed militia fighting the Islamic State group in Syria. Documents filed with the Justice Department show Kelley was paid $90,000 to "convey the views" of the armed group to Congress, federal officials and the media.

The Justice records do not cite any Kelley affiliation with the Flynn Group. But a December letter from Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to top federal intelligence officials raised questions about whether Kelley inappropriately represented the militia on behalf of Flynn's firm, which they said raises "the potential for pressure, coercion, and exploitation by foreign agents."

Several ethics experts also said Flynn's firm should have registered with the Justice Department. "If a foreign entity is lobbying Congress on influencing U.S policy, they need to file under the foreign agent act," said Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington good government group.

Alptekin said Inovo BV paid Flynn's firm "tens of thousands of dollars." Kelley said Flynn's firm made less than $5,000 for its three months of work on behalf of Alptekin's company when he filed a lobbying termination notice to Congress on Dec. 1.

Kelley and Flynn Intel Group have not responded to multiple calls and emails from the AP. Flynn said in a statement that Kelley provided to Yahoo News in mid-November that "if I return to government service, my relationship with my company will be severed."

The Flynn Intel Group's website no longer operates and AP visits to three northern Virginia locations associated with the firm no longer showed any company activity or identification. Several Flynn Intel Group staffers who worked for the firm and its cyber and flight subsidiaries, FIG Cyber Inc. and FIG Aviation, departed around the November election.


Flynn had other nontraditional business engagements.

In early 2015, he signed on with the cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks as a member of its Public Sector Advisory Council comprising retired military officers working as a "sounding board" to answer "the technology needs of the world's governments."

He advised Conversion Capital, a venture capital firm specializing in tech-oriented investments. He was briefly listed as a board director of GreenZone Systems, a technology firm headed by another Flynn Intel Group partner, Iranian-American investor Bijan Kian.

And then there was Drone Aviation, a firm that makes tethered surveillance drones. Flynn was named vice chairman and a board member in May 2016, and said he would promote the firm's "blimp in a box" concept for military and government use and expand "the role of persistent aerial solutions in the marketplace."

The company later won a $400,000 Defense Department contract. Drone Aviation paid Flynn a $36,000 annual salary and awarded him 100,000 shares of restricted stock. He was re-elected to the board after Trump's election but the company's website no longer lists Flynn as a corporate officer.

Another venture was Brainwave Science, a Boston company publicizing its use of "brain fingerprinting," scans that the firm claims can be used to assess a person's honesty. Flynn briefly joined the advisory board in February 2016. The firm's concept is disputed by critics and one adviser left the board after media reports surfaced that he pleaded guilty in 1996 to selling stolen biotech material to Russia's spy agency.


Like many former military officials, Flynn boosted his profile by appearing on television news and talk shows, including several networks connected to foreign governments. They include Qatar-backed Al Jazeera and RT, the news network aligned with the Russian government. He has said he wasn't paid for the appearances.

But a December 2015 trip to RT's 10th anniversary celebration would put Flynn in some unique company. An RT video from the Moscow event showed Flynn seated next to Putin and rising during a standing ovation following the Russian leader's address.

Flynn has acknowledged being paid for the appearance, but hasn't said who wrote the check or for how much. Flynn's webpage at All American Speakers shows a standard lecture circuit fee in the $30,000-$50,000 range.

According to another attendee at the event, Jill Stein, the former Green Party presidential candidate who won 1 percent of the popular vote last November, RT paid for the Moscow event.

Stein told the AP she turned down the network's offer to pay for her transportation and stay at Moscow's Hotel Metropol, where the event was held. "I didn't think it was appropriate for a presidential candidate to take money from a foreign government," she said.

Before dinner, Flynn was interviewed on international issues by an RT personality. He then joined Stein and others at a front table, seated with Putin and an entourage of aides. Stein said she didn't see Flynn and Putin talk privately at the table.

Flynn later told the Post that he had only a brief introduction with Putin. Flynn shrugged off the meeting as "boring."

Still, several Democratic House members have asked if Flynn accepted payment from RT and if that is a violation of the federal Emoluments Clause, which prohibits even retired military officers from accepting direct or indirect payments from foreign governments.

Flynn was both hopeful and skeptical about Russia relations before joining Trump's administration. In his 2016 book "The Field of Fight," Flynn warned that Russia had joined an "enemy alliance" with Iran. But he also talked publicly of Russia as a possible ally with the U.S. in confronting radical Islam.

Zimbabwe's Mugabe turns 93, says he will stand in 2018 polls

February 21, 2017

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who turned 93 years old on Tuesday, described his wife Grace, an increasingly political figure, as "fireworks" because of her feisty remarks in his defense.

A large celebration is scheduled for Saturday in tribute to Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from white minority rule in 1980. Grace Mugabe has defended her husband against critics who say it is time for him to step down, saying the ruling party should field him as a corpse if he dies before elections next year.

In an interview marking his birthday that was shown late Monday on state broadcaster ZBC, Mugabe noted that his wife's remarks were shown on television. "Fireworks, isn't it?" he said, laughing. Grace Mugabe's political rise has been a source of consternation for opposition figures as well as some officials within the ruling ZANU-PF party who suspect she is positioning herself for a more powerful role in the government. The president described her as "very much accepted by the people" and said the women's wing of the ruling party had chosen his wife as its head because of her political ambitions.

He described her as "well-seasoned" and "a very strong character." Mugabe also repeated his pledge to stand in elections in 2018 despite calls from some Zimbabweans for him to quit amid economic turmoil in the once-prosperous country and numerous allegations about human rights and election irregularities. The president said he was still popular and nobody is qualified to replace him.

"The volume of wishes for the president to stand, the number of people who will be disappointed is galore and I don't want to disappoint them," he said. During the interview, Mugabe often gestured to emphasize points. He spoke slowly and was slumped into a leather armchair most of the time.

South Sudan promises 'unimpeded' aid access amid famine

February 21, 2017

WATAMU, Kenya (AP) — South Sudan's president said Tuesday his government will ensure "unimpeded access" for all aid organizations, a day after famine was declared for more than 100,000 people in the country suffering from years of civil war.

The United Nations and others have long accused the government of blocking or restricting aid delivery in the East African nation. President Salva Kiir's remarks to the transitional national assembly came after the famine was declared in parts of oil-rich Unity state. More than 100,000 people are affected, according to South Sudan's government and U.N. agencies. They say another 1 million people are on the brink of starvation.

South Sudan has repeatedly promised to allow full humanitarian access across the country, but with little effect. Some in Kiir's government have expressed hostility toward the international community, accusing it of meddling in the country's affairs.

Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathan Pedneault wrote Tuesday that the famine is a man-made result of "conflict, warring parties blocking access for aid workers and large-scale human rights violations."

Also Tuesday, the European Commission announced an 82 million euro ($87 million) emergency aid package for South Sudan, saying this is the first famine declared in the country since it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

"The humanitarian tragedy in South Sudan is entirely man-made," EU Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Commissioner Christos Stylianides said in a statement. Crucially what matters is that all parties allow humanitarian organizations to have immediate and full access to do their job and deliver aid."

Tens of thousands have died in the civil war that began in December 2013 and has continued despite a peace agreement in 2015. More than 1.5 million people have fled the country. South Sudan also is experiencing severe inflation, which has made food unaffordable for many families.

Russian supply ship launched to International Space Station

February 22, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — An unmanned Russian cargo ship lifted off successfully Wednesday on a supply mission to the International Space Station. A Soyuz-U booster rocket carrying the Progress MS-05 spacecraft blasted off as scheduled at 11:58 a.m. (0558 GMT) from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch complex in Kazakhstan.

The mission follows the Dec. 1 botched launch of the previous Progress ship, which crashed less than seven minutes after liftoff, spraying fiery debris over a sparsely populated area in southern Siberia near the border with Mongolia.

An official Russian investigation concluded that the failed launch was caused by a manufacturing flaw in the Soyuz booster's third-stage engine. Prior to Wednesday's launch, space officials ran rigorous checks of the engines already built and conducted a comprehensive scrutiny of manufacturing facilities.

The launch went ahead without a hitch and the spacecraft entered a designated preliminary orbit en route to the space outpost. It's set to dock at the station Friday. A Dragon supply ship launched Sunday by SpaceX is also set to arrive at the station this week. NASA said the Dragon spacecraft has waved off Wednesday's docking, adding that the Mission Control Center in Houston is evaluating the next attempt for rendezvous.

The station is currently inhabited by NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson, Andrei Borisenko, Sergei Ryzhikov and Oleg Novitskiy of Russia, and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

Kremlin, Russian lawmakers play down Flynn's resignation

February 14, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin on Tuesday played down the resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a sign that Russia is already looking ahead to talks with the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to improve the nations' strained ties.

Flynn was often perceived as Donald Trump's key contact with Moscow. In 2015, Flynn appeared at a gala dinner for Russia Today, a Kremlin-funded television station, and even sat next to President Vladimir Putin at the event.

Flynn resigned Monday night after conceding that he gave "incomplete information" about his calls with Russia's ambassador to U.S. officials. A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day that the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia after U.S. intelligence reported that Russia had interfered with last year's American election. The Kremlin has confirmed that Flynn has been in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions.

The Russian establishment has not harbored any illusions about the Trump administration's pro-Russia stance for some time now, said Alexei Makarkin at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.

"This infatuation with Trump in Russia is over, and Flynn as a person who has contributed to this infatuation stopped being perceived as a figure who can have a real impact on the U.S. foreign policy," Makarkin said.

The nomination of Tillerson, former chief executive at ExxonMobil, showed the Russians that he, not Flynn, would be doing the negotiating, Makarkin said. Ties between Moscow and Washington plummeted to post-Cold War lows after Russia annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The United States responded with economic sanctions and visa bans.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Flynn's resignation, saying it's an internal matter for Trump's administration and "none of our business." Asked if Moscow still hopes for its relations with the U.S. to improve, he said it is "too early to say" since "Trump's team has not been shaped yet."

The Kremlin earlier said it was not expecting a breakthrough before the two presidents meet in person. Putin has suggested that could take place in Slovenia, the home nation of Trump's wife, Melania, but added that it will be up to Trump to determine the time and place.

Russia's visibly muted reaction to Flynn's departure comes as Tillerson is set to hold his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later this week. Tillerson, who has sealed multiple deals in Russia and was even decorated with the Russian "Order of Friendship" award, is widely described as a tough negotiator who will not make promises to Russia that he cannot keep.

Still, several senior Russian lawmakers expressed their disappointment over Flynn's resignation on social media. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the Federation Council, said in a Facebook post that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is "not just paranoia but something even worse."

Kosachev also expressed frustration with the Trump administration. "Either Trump hasn't found the necessary independence and he's been driven into a corner... or Russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom," he wrote.

Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Federation Council, tweeted shortly after the resignation announcement that "it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia." By early afternoon, some lawmakers began to retract their original indignant comments, in line with the restrained tone taken by the Kremlin.

Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the State Duma, first described Flynn's departure as a "negative signal" for Russia-U.S. relations, but two hours later switched to more moderate language, stressing that it "cannot fundamentally influence Russia-U.S. ties."

Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, a group of Russian foreign policy experts, told the RIA Novosti news agency that it's not yet clear what impact Flynn's resignation may have.

"There's nothing to influence yet, there are no relations as such. Our countries have relations shaped by the former administration, which were awful, and Trump was going to change that," he said. Yet Trump's first telephone call with Putin last month demonstrated that Trump did not have anything to offer to Russia immediately, Makarkin said.

"It has led to a realization that if Flynn wanted to promote better ties with Russia, he would not have the real chance to," he said.

Abundant fish draw 1 million penguins to Argentine peninsula

February 18, 2017

PUNTA TOMBO, Argentina (AP) — More than a million penguins have traveled to Argentina's Punta Tombo peninsula during this year's breeding season, drawn by an unusual abundance of small fish. Local officials say that's a record number in recent years for the world's largest colony of Magellanic penguins, offering an especially stunning spectacle for the tens of thousands of people who visit the reserve annually.

The peninsula's tiny islets are well-suited to nesting and have sardines and anchovies close to the shoreline. The flightless birds come on shore in September and October and stay while the males and females take turns caring for their eggs and hunting for food.

The warm-weather birds breed in large colonies in southern Argentina and Chile and migrate north as far as southwestern Brazil between March and September. They are around 20 inches (50 centimeters) tall and have a broad crescent of white feathers that extends from just above each eye to the chin and a small area of pink on the face.

Zealandia: World's 8th Continent Now Pieced Together

By Clyde Hughes
Friday, 17 Feb 2017

Zealandia is being called the world's eighth continent, but has gone unnoticed until researchers recently surfaced the mostly submerged land mass in a study.

New Zealand and New Caledonia, along with several other territories and islands are now part of the 1.9 million-square-mile land mass that was once part of the ancient super continent Gondwana that broke up about 100 million years ago, according to Sky News.

"Today (Zealandia) is 94 percent submerged, mainly as a result of widespread Late Cretaceous crustal thinning preceding supercontinent breakup and consequent isostatic balance," the researchers said in a Geological Society of America study.

"The identification of Zealandia as a geological continent, rather than a collection of continental islands, fragments, and slices, more correctly represents the geology of this part of Earth. Zealandia provides a fresh context in which to investigate processes of continental rifting, thinning, and breakup."

The researchers said Zealandia meets the criteria for being called a continent, including elevation above the surrounding area, distinctive geology, a well-defined area, and a crust thicker than the regular ocean floor, noted the BBC News.

New Zealand and New Caledonia were once grouped in an ancient continent that included Australia, noted CNN, and the theory of a possible continent sitting under New Zealand has been around for some time, leading geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk to coin the term Zealandia in 1995.

The study's lead author, Nick Mortimer, told TVNZ One News he hopes the research, 20 years in the making, will bring more attention what is just beneath the waves of New Zealand.

"If we could pull the plug on the oceans, it would be clear to everybody that we have mountain chains and a big, high standing continent," said Mortimer said. "What we hope is that Zealandia will appear on world maps, in schools, everywhere."

"I think the revelation of a new continent is pretty exciting."

Source: NewsMax.
Link: http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/zealandia-worlds-8th-continent/2017/02/17/id/774151/.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Germany to elect new president; Steinmeier the favorite

February 11, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A German parliamentary assembly will elect the country's new president on Sunday, with a respected former foreign minister who last year called Donald Trump one of the world's "hate preachers" the overwhelming favorite to win.

The German president has little executive power, but is considered an important moral authority. The new head of state will succeed Joachim Gauck, a 77-year-old former pastor and East German pro-democracy activist, who announced last year that he wouldn't seek a second five-year term because of his age.

The president is elected by a special 1,260-member assembly made up of the 630 lawmakers in parliament's lower house and an equal number of representatives from Germany's 16 states. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister until last month, has the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" of center-right and center-left parties. Between them, Merkel's conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats — her junior coalition partners — hold 923 seats, which should assure Steinmeier's election.

Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, emerged as the government's candidate after Merkel was unable to find a conservative of presidential stature willing to run for the job. He has long been one of Germany's most popular politicians, although he failed in a long-shot bid to unseat Merkel as chancellor in 2009.

The presidential vote is likely to be one of the last moments of coalition unity ahead of a parliamentary election in September in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Both sides hope to end the "grand coalition."

The Social Democrats are currently enjoying a poll boost from their surprise nomination as her challenger of Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament president. Unlike Gauck, who has no party affiliation, Steinmeier has had a long career in German politics. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's chief of staff, he was one of the main architects of Schroeder's 2003 package of economic reforms and welfare cuts, which has been credited with making the German economy more robust.

Under Merkel, he served twice as foreign minister — from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until this year, with a stint as opposition leader in between. He has won respect for his persistence in trying to resolve the long-running crisis in Ukraine.

Steinmeier, 61, is normally studiously diplomatic, but strongly criticized Trump during the U.S. election campaign. Asked in August about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and elsewhere, Steinmeier criticized those who "make politics with fear." He cited the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, the promoters of Britain's exit from the European Union, and "the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States."

When he was nominated for the presidency in mid-November, Steinmeier called for confidence in the face of international crises. A German president "must not be someone who simplifies things; he must encourage people," he said.

"The events of our times — Brexit and its consequences for Europe, the election in the U.S., the situation in Turkey — are truly political earthquakes," he said. "They shake us, but they can also shake us awake."

There are four other candidates in Sunday's election. The opposition Left Party nominated Christoph Butterwegge, a political science professor who opposed Schroeder's economic reforms. A deputy leader of Alternative for Germany, Albrecht Glaser, also is running, as is Alexander Hold, nominated by the small Free Voters party in Bavaria, and Engelbert Sonneborn, the father of a satirist.

German conservatives unite behind Merkel for September vote

February 06, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel's Bavarian conservative allies threw their weight Monday behind her quest for a fourth term, putting aside a long-running argument over her migrant policies as Germany prepares for a national election in September.

The show of conservative unity came as Merkel's rivals, the center-left Social Democrats, are enjoying a strong poll boost from their surprise nomination as her challenger of Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and a relatively fresh face in national politics.

Bavaria's Christian Social Union has dominated its southeastern state for decades and is traditionally an important source of national election votes for the bloc led by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

Their sometimes-awkward alliance has been frayed since late 2015, with CSU leader and Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer one of the most prominent domestic critics of Merkel's welcoming approach to migrants.

A year ago, he threatened Merkel's federal government with a lawsuit if it didn't take measures to further secure the German border and reduce the influx of asylum-seekers, a threat never carried through. More recently, the CSU raised doubts about whether the parties would campaign together.

Merkel, Germany's leader since 2005, announced her candidacy in November. "We are going into this election campaign together," Seehofer said Monday after the parties' leaders met in Munich. Under Merkel, he said, "Germany is an island of stability."

Merkel acknowledged that the conservatives had taken their time to move past their dispute and focus on the Sept. 24 election. "We needed time to make sure about the question of whether what we have in common is viable, and I am convinced that it's better to take one day longer," she said. "I think we have enough time until Sept. 24 to set out this common ground to the population."

However, the parties still disagree on a CSU demand for an annual cap of 200,000 on the number of refugees allowed into Germany. Seehofer has insisted his party won't join the next government without one, a dispute that both leaders skirted.

Germany saw 890,000 asylum-seekers arrive in 2015 and 280,000 last year, many of those before the Balkan migrant route was effectively shut by border closures from other nations. Much has changed since the migrant influx peaked in 2015.

While Merkel insists that Germany will continue to take in people who genuinely need protection, her government has toughened asylum rules and declared several countries "safe," meaning people from there can't expect to get refuge.

Merkel was also a driving force behind an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants and favors a similar deal with countries in North Africa. She has also called for a "national effort" to ensure that rejected asylum-seekers leave Germany.

The CDU and CSU currently govern Germany in a "grand coalition" of the country's biggest parties with the Social Democrats, who nominated Schulz as Merkel's challenger two weeks ago. Both sides want to end that alliance.

Several polls have shown the Social Democrats' previously moribund support picking up significantly, cutting what was a very large conservative lead. It's far from certain, however, whether their momentum will last.

"We have to set out our policies well, and we must run together, and then we've gained a great deal," Merkel said. The conservatives also face a challenge on the right from the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which hopes to enter the national parliament for the first time after assailing Merkel's welcome for migrants.

Merkel to visit euroskeptic Poland in struggle to save EU

February 06, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Warsaw on Tuesday for talks with Poland's top leaders, taking efforts to save the European Union to a country that is keen to keep as much national power as possible and fears being marginalized in a "two-speed Europe."

Her trip is "one of the most important visits in Polish-German relations since 2004," when Poland joined the EU, said Sebastian Plociennik, an expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The 28-nation bloc is struggling for a way forward after Britain's vote to leave.

"This year, 2017, will be very important for European integration and the decisions made this year will set the path for the EU's future," Plociennik said. Poland's populist ruling party, Law and Justice, is often described as euroskeptic, but unlike right-wing populists in France and elsewhere, it does not advocate leaving the EU.

EU membership remains hugely popular in Poland, whose citizens have benefited enormously from development funds and the freedom to work elsewhere in the bloc. However, Law and Justice fears that Poland's national identity has been eroded by liberal Western values and it also has made it a mission to preserve as much power for Europe's national parliaments as possible. Many criticize what they see as the EU's distant and inefficient bureaucracy. Poland is also not eager to join the 19-nation eurozone anytime soon.

But Polish officials are also concerned that the EU could react to Britain's decision to leave by developing a more deeply integrated core made of up Germany, France and the Benelux nations, which could then dictate financial rules to other EU countries.

Those fears of becoming marginalized have flared as Merkel speaks of a "multi-speed" Europe. "We have a Europe of different speeds — every time that is said, it awakens the impression that this is something new, but my opinion is that it is nothing new," Merkel said Monday.

But Poland has also marginalized itself under its current government by taking an obstructionist position on climate change, refusing to accept Muslim refugees and refusing to give up its heavy reliance on coal. It is also in a standoff with Brussels for eroding the independence of Poland's constitutional court.

Merkel is to meet with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, President Andrzej Duda and Law and Justice chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, as well as opposition leaders and representatives of the ethnic German minority in Poland.

The deputy foreign minister of Poland, Konrad Szymanski, said the re-election of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, as head of the European Council, might come up in the talks. Tusk had Merkel's backing for his first term and hopes to serve another term when his ends in May.

Kaczynski, a rival of Tusk, has indicated he won't support Tusk for another EU term. But Plociennik says the matter is still open because there has been no conclusive decision from the Polish government.

Jedrzej Bielecki of the Rzeczpospolita daily said Kaczynski should work with Merkel "to protect the fundamental rights of our country." "If the European Union falls apart or becomes a hollow structure, hardly anyone will lose as much as Poland. Kaczynski must understand this," Bielecki wrote Monday.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Wall goes up around America at miniature world in Germany

February 02, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A wall has appeared around the United States — at a popular miniature world attraction in the German city of Hamburg. Operators of the Miniatur Wunderland erected the wall complete with barbed wire this week, separating the U.S. display from the rest of the world.

The site is one of Hamburg's most popular tourist attractions, featuring a vast indoor model railway stretching across two floors. Co-founder Gerrit Braun said Thursday the idea for the wall arose after staff discussed whether the U.S. display needed changing to reflect "current developments."

Braun said the wall wasn't meant to represent U.S. President Donald Trump's promised concrete barrier along the border with Mexico. Instead, it was intended to encourage visitors to think about what happens "when we build ideological walls around our countries."

German supreme court rejects bid to outlaw far-right party

January 17, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's supreme court has rejected a lawmakers' bid to outlaw a far-right party accused of promoting a racist and anti-Semitic agenda. Andreas Vosskuhle, chief justice of the Federal Constitutional Court, said Tuesday that even though the party had unconstitutional goals, "there are currently no concrete indications ... that its actions will lead to success."

The German parliament's upper house applied for the ban at the end of 2013. It was the second attempt to ban the National Democratic Party, better known by its German acronym NPD. In 2003, the court rejected a previous application because paid government informants within the group were partially responsible for evidence against it.

French city holds its Carnival behind barricades

February 11, 2017

NICE, France (AP) — Behind barricades, the city of Nice was holding its Carnival, keeping up tradition but taking precautions seven months after the Bastille Day truck attack that killed 86. Floats in the Carnival's 133rd edition that kicked off on Saturday were led by the King of Energy, this year's theme, and followed notably by a huge Donald Trump with hair dryers trained on his crown of blond hair. France 24 TV quotes a tourism official saying the image was decided before Trump was elected U.S. president.

French political leaders need not feel shunned. Presidential candidates are featured. Deputy Mayor Rudy Salles, on BFM-TV, said security was "like in an airport" with 36 scanners, pat downs, police and soldiers.

A Tunisian plowed his truck through July 14 revelers in an Islamic State attack.

French farmer convicted for helping migrants

February 10, 2017

PARIS (AP) — A French activist farmer has been convicted of helping migrants enter, travel and stay in France and given a suspended, 3,000-euro fine. The case has called attention to those who have resisted Europe's anti-migrant sentiment and are offering food, lodging or other aid to people from impoverished or war-torn countries.

There has notably been an outpouring of support in the Roya valley in the Alps, where Cedric Herrou has taken in dozens of migrants over the past year. Herrou has called it an act of humanity and not a crime, and says it is his civic duty to keep helping the migrants.

On Friday, he still had teenagers from Sudan and Eritrea staying in caravans on his farm.

17 charged after violent protest rages in Paris suburb

February 08, 2017

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France (AP) — Protesters burned cars and menaced security forces in an eruption of violence in a Paris suburb early Tuesday over a young black man allegedly being raped by a police baton, and authorities said 17 people were being charged.

Six adults would be tried in immediate hearings in a suburb court Wednesday under charges of "ambush" or "acts of violence and gathering with weapons," while 11 minors were to be presented to a juvenile court judge for alleged ambush, the prosecutor's office in Bobigny said Tuesday night.

Police initially detained 26 people during the pre-dawn outburst in which a police car and other vehicles were set afire in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a working class suburb northeast of Paris. At one point, police encircled by an angry crowd fired warning shots into the air using real bullets, according to French press reports. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters raced to restore order after several shops were reported damaged and garbage bins burned in Aulnay-sous-Bois, which has a large minority population. Authorities are wary of unrest in France's poor towns, remembering the fiery 2005 riots that spread through France — beginning in the Paris suburb of Clichy-Sous-Bois and hopscotching through social housing around the country.

The latest violence was a show of outrage in support of a young black man who authorities allege was sodomized with a police officer's baton last week during a spate of identity checks as part of a police operation targeting drug traffickers. One officer was charged Sunday with aggravated rape and three others were charged with aggravated assault.

President Francois Hollande visited the alleged victim, identified only by his first name, Theo, on Tuesday afternoon at the suburban hospital where he has been treated since the incident, the Elysee Palace said.

In a video posted on Twitter page of the newspaper Le Parisien, Hollande stood talking to Theo, who was lying on a hospital bed. The president told him that "the legal process is underway" and that "we must trust it to get to the bottom of this."

Then, speaking to the camera, Hollande said, "We are also thinking about Theo who has always been known for his exemplary behavior in a family ... with good relations with police." With Hollande standing beside him, Theo called for young people in Aulnay-sous-Bois to be calm.

"My town, you know that I love it very much. I would like to find it just as I left it. So guys, stop making war, be united, trust in the justice system and justice will be done," Theo said. "Pray for me so I can return as soon as possible among you and be together. Thank you, thank you, Mister President."

Earlier, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called for "the greatest firmness" should any of the four police officers implicated be proven guilty. Frederic Gabet, a lawyer for the officer charged with rape, has said that any injury inflicted was done accidentally.

After the early morning violence, Police Alliance spokesman Frederic Lagache said one officer narrowly escaped being burned when a protester set his vehicle on fire with a Molotov cocktail. "The objective is to kill cops and this is unacceptable," Lagache said in an interview with Europe-1.

Local youths claim police habitually target them without cause. "Frankly, it's pathetic. The kid (Theo), he plays football, he's serious. He never was in trouble with the police," said Sofiane Hajjobi, a 21-year-old resident. "It's not normal. We're all frustrated. Now we're at war with the police."

Theo, 22, told his story to the BFM television channel Monday. He said officers beat him and peppered him with racist insults. At one point, one of the officers took his truncheon and "he drove it into my buttocks," he said.

The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault. But, in this case, the victim and his family gave interviews to the media, and the French president publicly used the young man's first name in his presence and in front of a camera.

Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley, Sylvie Corbet and Philippe Sotto in Paris contributed to this report.

French presidential hopeful Fillon refuses to drop out

February 06, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Francois Fillon on Monday defiantly refused to drop out of the race to be France's next president despite an investigation into whether well-paid political jobs he gave his wife, son and daughter were genuine, a scandal that has knocked him from his perch as favorite in the April-May voting.

The conservative politician who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, the chief workhorse under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, has long had a reputation as low-key, reliable and standing for moral rectitude, making the corruption scandal particularly shocking to his party, supporters and the French as a whole. On Monday, two weeks after revelations first surfaced, he scrambled to save his candidacy.

"I have nothing to hide," Fillon told a news conference aimed at stanching the blood-letting and conspiring within his party about who might replace him as candidate. "All acts described (in the media) are legal and transparent."

Determined despite unending attacks, Fillon, stressing his 32 years in politics, vowed to stay in the race. "Nothing will turn me from my duty to be candidate in the presidential election," he said. Fillon apologized for employing his wife, while noting that it is not illegal and he is not the only politician to have done so.

"What was acceptable yesterday ... is not today," Fillon said. "It was a mistake. I deeply regret it and I present my excuses to the French." French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides as long as they actually do the jobs for which they are paid.

Prosecutors are trying to determine whether Fillon's family members did the jobs of parliamentary aides. The preliminary probe involves suspicions of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.

As prime minister and in his presidential campaign, Fillon put the accent on cutting back on government spending. A key campaign promise this year is to slash half a million public-sector jobs. Fillon's popularity has dropped in the past two weeks following allegations by the Canard Enchaine newspaper that his Welsh-born wife Penelope was paid 830,000 euros ($900,000) over 15 years without doing anything to earn the salary. The Paris prosecutor's office on Thursday expanded its investigation to include Fillon's son and daughter.

Some conservative lawmakers have pressed for him to step down to improve the party's chances of winning the election. The first vote is on April 23, and the top two finishers compete in a runoff on May 7. If Fillon's bid to win confidence while wading through a legal investigation fails to work, the election could become an unusual face-off without a strong right, or no right at all.

Fillon reiterated he would withdraw if he were charged — but questioned whether the financial prosecutor's office handling the case was the proper jurisdiction. A statement by the prosecutor's office said it was competent.

Officials of the far-right National Front party, including leader Marine Le Pen, also are under investigation for their use of aides in the European parliament. Fillon laid out for reporters in some detail his own facts about the accusations.

"Yes, I employed my wife as an aide," Fillon said. He said she was paid an average 3,677 euros per month over 15 years. "They call this job fictitious," he said, laying out the ill-defined duties of parliamentary aides who work "in the shadows."

"Her salary was perfectly justified because her work was indispensable to my activities as an elected official," he said. Fillon and his family live in an elegant manor in the Sarthe region southwest of Paris. To bolster his reputation he detailed the worth of the building — 750,000 euros — and other holdings, and said he does not have to pay the tax on fortunes demanded of the wealthiest. Fillon said he was publishing his assets online Monday night.

Fillon said the scandal grew out of a political conspiracy to take him out of the race, and make it a face-off between far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whose family he blasted as "untouchable" — and Emmanuel Macron, an untested former banker and Socialist Party maverick whom Fillon called a "guru."

Fillon did not say who would be behind such a plot. "Nothing will change my mind" about running, Fillon said. To members of his own The Republicans party, he said twice, "I'm not the candidate of a party" but of the French people.

Conservative lawmaker Georges Fenech, among those who wanted Fillon to withdraw, changed his mind after the firm defense. "Today we know who will be candidate to the end," Fenech told BFM-TV. "We must back him. We have no other choice."

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Fillon's party hold their weekly meeting, a likely place to examine the fallout from the scandal. There is no procedure in place to put aside his candidacy, and no ready replacement for Fillon.

Besides far-right Le Pen and centrist Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon are running for president. Socialist President Francois Hollande is so unpopular that he decided not to run for a second term.

Philippe Sotto and Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.