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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Polish lawmakers return to work as blockade continues

January 11, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's conservative government and the opposition showed no sign of reaching a compromise in an unprecedented crisis which involves opposition lawmakers blocking the main hall in parliament for weeks.

Parliament was scheduled to open its session Wednesday at noon, but dozens of lawmakers continued a sit-in in the main hall of parliament, occupying the speaker's chair and refusing demands by the ruling party that they move.

It was not clear how the normal functioning of the Sejm, or lower house of parliament, might resume. Party leaders held emergency meetings, each side hoping to get out of the mess without losing face.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the ruling party chairman and the country's de facto leader, has accused the opposition lawmakers of attempting a "putsch" against the authorities. On Tuesday evening he said he would not yield to "those breaking the law, those who want to paralyze the Sejm, those who want to see our great plan to fix the republic fail."

Kaczynski is working to reinforce the country's patriotic and Catholic traditions and rejecting liberal values that have arrived with 13 years of European Union membership. Kaczynski's opponents say his populist methods are increasingly authoritarian and that the blockade of parliament is aimed at defending democratic standards.

The European Union says Poland is violating rule-of-law norms, particularly with moves that have neutralized the constitutional court. Two centrist opposition parties, Civic Platform and Modern, began their occupation of the area around the speaker's podium in the main hall on Dec. 16 to protest government attempts to limit media access to parliament. Amid the uproar the government backed down on that proposal.

The main point of contention now is the budget vote held in a different room in parliament while the opposition lawmakers blocked the plenary hall. The opposition says that was illegal and must be repeated.

The ruling party refuses that demand.

Polish FM sparks jokes with mention of nonexistent country

January 11, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Polish foreign minister has been mocked on Twitter for saying he had a meeting with the representative of a nonexistent country as part of Poland's bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Witold Waszczykowski was in New York this week to lobby for a seat on the council from 2018-19. He told reporters while there on Tuesday that he had meetings with officials from nearly 20 countries, including some Caribbean nations "for the first time in the history of our diplomacy. For example with countries such as Belize or San Escobar."

There is no country called San Escobar. Waszczykowski explained Wednesday that it was just a slip of the tongue made while he was tired and that he had had in mind Saint Kitts and Nevis, a two-island Caribbean country known in Spanish as San Cristobal y Nieves.

"Unfortunately after 22 hours in planes and several connecting flights you can make a slip of the tongue," Waszczykowski said. That hasn't stopped an eruption of jokes under the hashtag #SanEscobar, including an invented flag and a slew of fake news about the fictional place. One tweet said that San Escobar "fully supports Poland's candidacy to the Security Council."

Wind, snow blocks airport, cuts power in northern Poland

January 05, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Strong winds and snow in Poland have delayed flights, cut power lines and flooded some farmland in the north and led to traffic accidents in central and southern regions. Winds of up to 70 kph (44 mph) hit northern Poland late Wednesday and continued into Thursday, before abating.

Some flights to and from Gdansk airport were rerouted or delayed because of snow and ice covering the runway. Some 6,000 households in the north were without electricity early Thursday after falling trees cut power lines. Storm waves flooded low farmland in the Gdansk area.

Part of a highway near the central city of Lodz was closed following four accidents on the snow-covered surface, while three trucks piled up on a slippery road in the Wroclaw region, in the southwest.

Macedonia conservatives face tough coalition talks

January 09, 2017

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonian conservative leader has been formally granted a mandate to form the country's next coalition government following an early general election last month. The 46-year-old former prime minister's VMRO-DPMNE party won 51 seats in 120-member parliament and on Monday was three weeks to secure the 61 seats needed to form a government. Nikola Gruevski is likely to partner with the ethnic Albanian DUI party, which won 10 seats and is headed by former guerrilla leader Ali Ahmeti.

But the country's three main ethnic Albanian political parties have adopted a joint platform demanding reforms that include constitutional changes to make Albanian an official language. Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia's population of 2.1 million.

Kosovo says French police have detained its former premier

January 04, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — French police have detained Kosovo's former prime minister based on an arrest warrant issued by Serbia the Kosovo foreign ministry said Wednesday. Ramush Haradinaj, who is also a former guerrilla fighter, was stopped as he flew in to France from Kosovo's capital, Pristina, on Wednesday.

Kosovo's government said in a statement it is trying to resolve the matter. It said it considered Serbia's charges as "illegal, unfair and tendentious." Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, also a former guerrilla leader and Haradinaj's friend, described the detention as "unacceptable."

"We, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, are proud to have fought against discriminating and criminal laws of Slobodan Milosevic's regime," he said on Facebook. Haradinaj was cleared of war crimes charges in two lengthy trials by a U.N. war crimes tribunal. But Serbia accuses him of committing war crimes including kidnappings, torture and killings against Serb civilians when he was a senior rebel commander in western Kosovo during the 1998-99 war.

Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, although Belgrade has not recognized that. Haradinaj's party is now in opposition.

Germany approves more soldiers for UN mission in Mali

January 11, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — The German government has approved an expansion of the country's military deployment in Mali, with Berlin sending more helicopters to support the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet on Wednesday approved a one-year extension of the mission in Mali. Under the new mandate starting Feb. 1, which requires parliamentary approval, the maximum number of German soldiers in Mali will be raised from 650 to 1,000.

At present, Germany has about 530 soldiers in the U.N. peacekeeping force taking care of reconnaissance and other duties. It plans to send extra transport and combat helicopters, but not until March at the earliest and for a limited period. Those aircraft will replace helicopters being withdrawn by the Netherlands.

Le Pen's world: French nationalism at heart of her campaign

January 13, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France — as envisioned by far-right leader Marine Le Pen — should be its own master and have no globalization issues, European Union membership or open borders. It would join the United States and Russia in a global battle against Islamic militants. Francs, not euros, would fill the pockets of French citizens. Borders would be so secure that illegal immigration would no longer fuel fears of terror attacks or drain public coffers.

It's a vision that holds increasing appeal for voters once put off by the image of Le Pen's anti-immigration party as a sanctuary for racists and anti-Semites. It has made Le Pen a leading candidate in France's presidential election this spring.

A series of deadly extremist attacks, 10 percent unemployment and frustration with mainstream politics in France have helped make the party she has worked to detoxify a potentially viable alternative.

Early polls place her as one of the top two contenders. The other is former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a conservative who would slash the ranks of civil servants and trim state-funded health care — an untouchable area for Le Pen, whose campaign slogan is "In the Name of the People."

Le Pen believes her chance of victory has been bolstered by Britain's decision to leave the European Union and by Donald Trump's U.S. presidential victory. She speaks with confidence of winning, saying "I will" change France.

"This page in the history of the world is turning. We will give back to nations reasoned protectionism, economic and cultural patriotism," she said. On Thursday, Le Pen showed up at Trump Tower in New York and was seen sipping coffee in a basement coffee shop, leading to speculation she was looking to create a bond with the U.S. president-elect. However, no such meeting was on his agenda.

Trump Tower resident George Lombardi, who said he's been friends with Le Pen for over 20 years and is a friend of Trump's, said the French politician attended a private gathering on Wednesday evening at his residence.

She was joined by entrepreneurs, industrialists and diplomats — people she might be able to raise money from and "that have the possibility to help her with the campaign in France," Lombardi said. "We did not reach out to the Trump campaign. We did not reach out to Mr. Trump," he said. "We did not go begging for any interview with anybody on the transition team because she was here to meet other people."

Like Trump, Le Pen, 48, a mother of three and lawyer by training, envisions improved relations with Russia, which she and other National Front officials have visited. But she takes it further. "I want an alliance to emerge between France, the United States and Russia to fight Islamic fundamentalism, because it's a gigantic danger weighing on our democracies," she said last week.

For Le Pen and her supporters, "massive migration," notably from Muslim North Africa, is supplanting French civilization and is at the root of many France's modern woes. "On est chez nous" ("We're in our land") is a mantra at National Front rallies.

Le Pen insists she has no problem with followers of Islam, but wants people who espouse radical political ideas in the guise of religion to be put on trial and expelled before they install Sharia, or Islamic law, in France.

Traditional Muslim dress, which many in France consider a gateway to radicalization, could disappear from public view should Le Pen win the presidency. The National Front's No. 2, Florian Philippot, says Le Pen's platform calls for extending a 2004 law banning "ostensible" religious symbols like Muslim headscarves from French classrooms to include the streets.

Le Pen took over leadership of the National Front in 2011 from her father, party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her make-over included sidelining him. His party membership was revoked last year after he repeated an anti-Semitic reference that had drawn a court conviction.

But the slogan "French First" — coined by the elder Le Pen in 1985 — remains alive under Marine Le Pen. Newcomers to France would have to spend several years paying a stipend before availing themselves of free school and health care, Le Pen has said, benefits she considers a draw for immigrants.

Nonna Mayer, a leading expert on the party, said Le Pen has "gone half-way in changing the party," ridding it of its long-time anti-Semitic image but making Islam the enemy. "At the heart of the party of Marine Le Pen ... there is something which is not really compatible with the values of democracy," she said. "It's the idea that one must keep housing, social benefits, family stipends, employment to the French."

Le Pen emphatically rejects the label of extremist, proudly calling herself "a patriot." The words "democracy" and "democratic" roll off her tongue. Yet her entourage includes one-time members of an extreme-right movement once noted for its violence. A former leader of the hard-core Identity Bloc in Nice, Philippe Vardon, joined National Front ranks and quickly won a councilor spot.

Under Le Pen, the National Front was France's big winner in 2014 European Parliament election, taking more seats than any other French party. But she wants to do away with the 28-nation EU, which she claims has stolen national sovereignty, and ditch the euro currency, which she describes as a "knife in the ribs" of nations, ruining economies.

Her EU exit formula is "very simple:" Try immediately to negotiate a return of borders, national currency and "economic patriotism" to protect French jobs and industry and allow the French to pass laws unadulterated by directives from Brussels.

Six months later, she would call a referendum and counsel remaining in a "new Europe" if negotiations are fruitful, or advise bailing out as Britain has done. "My program cannot be put into place if we remain subjugated by European diktats," she said. "I see the grand return of nationalism."

Le Pen is expected to present her full presidential agenda during a Feb. 4-5 convention. But she set the tone with her New Year's greeting, a "wish of combat" to defeat political adversaries that she contends represent the interests of banks, finance and the media.

Jill Colvin in New York contributed.

French right-wing candidate wants new approach toward Syria

January 10, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Francois Fillon has vowed to make France's voice heard again in the Syrian conflict if he wins the presidential election later this year. Fillon, the conservative nominee, said in a New Year's speech to press Fillon on Tuesday: "I want us to regain our position as an independent actor whose voice is heard between the Americans and the Russians."

Fillon said the situation in Syria is changing and will leave more space this year for what he called France's "imaginative and active" diplomacy, a reference to Gen. Charles de Gaulle's policy to maintain the country's independence during the Cold War.

Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen currently top polls for the first-round of the April-May presidential election. Socialists will choose their candidate in a Jan. 22-29 primary.

Fading French town offers hope of new life for Syrian family

January 05, 2017

GRAY, France (AP) — Gray is a dying town, its residents lament. Big businesses moved away taking jobs with them. Now many stores lie vacant, fading "to rent" signs in the windows. But for one Syrian family, the town's picturesque streets, red-tiled rooftops and quiet river walks offers hope of rebuilding their shattered lives, away from the fear of death lurking around every corner in their homeland.

"I will start to love life another time," said 43-year-old oncologist Abd Alwahab Alahamad. "Because sometimes (in the) last two years, I thought it will be very difficult to stay alive." Like hundreds of thousands before them, the Alahamads risked everything to escape war and the dark brutality of the Islamic State group, embarking on a perilous and uncertain journey through checkpoints, bombs and a nightmarish sea crossing to Greece.

But after months of uncertainty and doubt, their luck began to change. Alahamad, his wife Iman Mshanati, 33, and their three children — 5-year-old Nora, 2-year-old Ahmed and baby Layan, born in Greece six months ago — were among the fortunate few accepted for European relocation.

Launched in late 2015, the program was designed to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy, the main entry points for more than a million people fleeing into the European Union. But it has come under criticism for moving too slowly.

Applicants can't choose their destination country. Neither the Russian-trained doctor nor his wife, a nutritionist and beautician, had ever been to France, which has taken in more people than any other country that's part of the program.

"We are going into the unknown; We do not know the city, the people, nothing," Mshanti said in a small apartment in Athens the day before their flight to Paris, three suitcases neatly packed on the floor. "But we hear from people who had left before us that they are happy, and we felt relieved."

The Alahamads never intended to leave Syria. They didn't expect 2011 anti-government street protests to turn into a full-blown civil war. "At first everybody thought — not only me — that it will finish tomorrow, the day after tomorrow," Alahamad said of the early days of the rebellion.

In 2014, warned government forces were looking for him after he treated a man for gunshot wounds, Alahamad fled Damascus, moving his family east to near the city of Deir-e-Zor. The war followed. IS overran the area. Relentless bombings killed relatives and friends. When rockets landed near their home, Alahamad decided the time had come.

"I left. I left everything behind," he said. With two young children and a pregnant wife, the journey was harrowing. The nighttime treks and border crossing, the smugglers, the truck ride with nearly 100 others. But nothing compared to the boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. A terrified Nora clutched her father's hand, convinced they would die.

They arrived in Greece in early March. Alahamad spent months as a volunteer doctor in refugee camps housing some of the more than 62,000 people stranded in Greece by border closures and an EU-Turkey deal intended to stem the flow of migrants into Europe. The family thought of staying, but Greece's asylum system was overwhelmed.

So they applied for relocation. September brought the news they had been waiting for: their application was successful. The Alahamads were assigned to Gray, a pretty town of about 6,000 people on the River Saone. They would be part of the second group sent there from Greece. The first — five families — arrived in March.

To facilitate integration, Gray Mayor Christophe Laurencot stipulated the town would accept only families, and each assigned a social worker. Housing is provided during the asylum application, a process that takes about four months in the fast-track relocation procedure, said Guillaume Germain, regional director of the French Immigration and Integration Office.

But small, close-knit towns do not always embrace outsiders. Laurencot decided the best tactic was transparency, and informed residents about the program before the first arrivals in March. "We had reactions straight away," he said. "Good, less good or bad, I had them all." There were overwhelmingly generous offers from some, while others questioned why the state should help foreigners.

But, Laurencot said, "France is after all a country of hosts, a country of reception, a welcoming country. And it's not enough to say it; we had to do it." So far, the mayor's tactic appears to be working.

"We see them pass by, there are no worries on that account, everything is going well," said Stephanie Vanhee, who runs an optical shop in Gray. Toddler Ahmed squealed with joy at being allowed to pet her puppy, Morito, during the family's first tour around town. "It must be done, you know. We must receive them."

Clothing store owner Roberte Fouillot said there was some initial reticence to the idea, what with the recent terror attacks and demands on social services by needy French people. But news of the Syrian war shocked her.

"These poor kids, these poor families who are suffering — it's unacceptable in our day and age," Fouillot said. As for the issue of integration, Fouillot didn't foresee problems. "They are people like everyone else. We all have our religion," she said. "Today, if everyone reached out to each other, well, there might be less wars, less misery in the world."

Lawmakers urge British PM May to clarify Brexit intentions

January 14, 2017

LONDON (AP) — A committee of British lawmakers is urging Prime Minister Theresa May to clarify her intentions on Brexit — particularly whether she intends to keep Britain in the European Union's large single market.

The House of Commons' Exiting the EU committee urged May to publish her plan soon and to give lawmakers a vote on whatever deal is concluded with the 28-nation EU. Their report was released Saturday, just days before May is to deliver her vision about Britain's post-EU future in a major speech.

"This is going to be a hugely complex task and the outcome will affect us all," committee chair Hilary Benn said. "The government needs to publish its Brexit plan by mid-February at the latest, including its position on membership of the single market and the customs union, so that it can be scrutinized by Parliament and the public."

Members of the committee also warned that the task of preparing for Brexit was placing a "strain" on departments across the British government and said more staff may be required. The committee is seeking a framework of the U.K.'s future trading relationship with the EU as part of the Article 50 negotiations — arguing that transitional arrangements would be needed for trade to continue if a deal wasn't complete by 2019.

It acknowledged, though, that Britain's government may not be in a position to deliver this objective, since it would also depend on the other 27 members of the EU. "The U.K.'s relationship with the EU is deep and complex, not least in terms of the legal rights of parties in both the U.K. and the EU-27," the report said. "It would be unsatisfactory and potentially damaging to both sides were the U.K. to leave the EU with no agreement having been reached."

The committee said it was important that financial service providers have confidence in the new arrangements and that the government should seek to ensure continued access to EU markets by way continuing passporting rights.

The principle of "passporting" allows any firm registered in one EU country to operate in any other member state without facing another layer of regulation. It allows EU exporters to ship their goods to any EU country free of tariffs.

Losing that freedom is a particular concern for the many foreign firms in London who use the British capital not only as a financial hub but as an entry point into the EU.

Divided Cyprus' leaders conclude 'historic' map exchange

January 11, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — The rival leaders of ethnically divided Cyprus exchanged maps Wednesday outlining the zones the island's Greek and Turkish communities would control in a hoped-for federation, the first time such a swap has occurred after decades of reunification talks.

The maps now have been locked in a United Nations vault due to the sensitive nature of the proposed boundaries, which indicate how many people displaced by the nation's division may be eligible to reclaim lost homes and property relatively quickly.

Discussions to thrash out a single, compromise map will be scheduled for a later date, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said. He said it would be up to Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anasastaides and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to decide when those negotiations take place.

"This is not the end of the road," Christodoulides told reporters. "This is the beginning of negotiations on a very important chapter of the Cyprus problem." Turkish Cypriot spokesman Baris Burcu said both maps conformed to already agreed upon criteria for how much of the island's land would go to the Turkish Cypriot zone — between 28.2 and 29.2 percent.

In the meantime, the talks will move in an international direction on Thursday. The foreign ministers of Cyprus' so-called guarantors — Turkey, Greece and former colonial power Britain — are set to join a discussion on the pivotal issue of post-unification security arrangements.

Anastasiades and Akinci have been meeting in Geneva since Monday to discuss a number of outstanding issues that could restore unity to the island split by ethnic divisions for almost 43 years. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. Many residents were stripped of homes and property when Cyprus divided into an official Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish north where Turkey has more than 35,000 troops stationed.

Top leaders from the European Union, which counts Cyprus as a member, are also expected to join the talks Thursday that will concentrate on how to ensure and who will oversee post-settlement security.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters on Wednesday that the talks were "the very last chance to see the island being recomposed in a normal way." However, United Nations envoy Espen Barth Eide, who is facilitating the talks, sought to downplay expectations. Eide said that the process remains on track to overcome major obstacles.

He pointed to "historic" advances happening at the summit, such as the exchange of boundary maps and the participation of the three guarantor powers at such a high-level. But a deal likely won't emerge immediately from the summit since important technical details need to be sorted out before Cyprus' Greek and Turkish communities can vote on an overall agreement, Eide said.

"So don't expect that we will be walking home from Geneva — or rather flying — to Cyprus with a comprehensive settlement in our hands," Eides told reporters. "But we will go home with a sense that it is coming."

Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Raf Casert contributed from Brussels, Belgium.

House to vote on Obamacare repeal; Paul Ryan vows to 'rescue people'

By Andrew V. Pestano
Jan. 13, 2017

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday will vote on a resolution to fast-track repealing the Affordable Care Act, which House Speaker Paul Ryan said is "collapsing."

During a CNN town hall on Thursday, Ryan said Obamacare was in a "death spiral" that the GOP was responsible of repealing and replacing as quickly as possible, adding that the lawmakers have to "intervene to prevent this from getting worse."

The Senate on Wednesday passed a "repeal resolution" attached to a budget bill that would begin the process of dismantling the healthcare program. Ryan said the House vote on Friday was a "procedural vote" to start the Obamacare repeal process.

"We're going to do this the way Congress is supposed to work, but we do need to move quickly," Ryan said.

Republicans have been criticized for working to repeal Obamacare without a replacement in place, which outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said would have dire consequences for consumers and the U.S. insurance market.

The filibuster-proof bill passed in the Senate and facing the House falls under budget rules that limit what can be included in the measure, meaning Senate Republicans will need to work with Democrats to pass a new bill or several bills reaching 60 votes to fully replace Obamacare.

Ryan said Republican lawmakers and President-elect Donald Trump are "in complete sync" over the Obamacare repeal process. Ryan said the GOP will act "definitely within these first 100 days" of Trump's administration.

"The law is collapsing, and so we've got to rescue people," Ryan said, adding that Republicans are working "as quickly as they can."

A town hall attendee undergoing cancer treatment who said they need Obamacare to purchase their own insurance asked Ryan "why would you repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement?"

"Oh. We wouldn't do that. We want to replace it with something better," Ryan replied.

"We want to do this at the same time, and in some cases in the same bill," Ryan said. "So we want to advance repealing this law with its replacement at the same time."

The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said a full Obamacare repeal could cost $350 billion over the next 10 years.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2017/01/13/House-to-vote-on-Obamacare-repeal-Paul-Ryan-vows-to-rescue-people/6001484306092/.

US troops arriving in Poland draw Russian ire

Olszyna, Poland (AFP)
Jan 12, 2017

US troops and tanks began streaming into Poland Thursday as part of one of the largest deployments of US forces in Europe since the Cold War, an operation that Russia angrily branded a "threat".

The Atlantic Resolve mission will see more than 3,000 American soldiers and heavy equipment deployed in Poland and nearby NATO partners Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary on a rotational basis.

The outgoing US administration of President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of an armored brigade to the region after 2014 to reassure eastern allies after Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The operation has sparked immediate anger from Russia, with the Kremlin describing it as a "threat" on its "doorstep".

"This is unprecedented for Poland," Michal Baranowski, Warsaw office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank, told AFP.

"We have not had this level of a rotational presence since the Cold War."

Baranowski said the arrival of the US troops, along with NATO's coming deployment of four multi-national battalion groups in Poland and the three Baltic states, "changes the security calculus on the alliance's eastern flank" by creating a much-boosted deterrent.

"These forces will have a 'trip wire' function -- no longer will it be possible for Russia to have a quick victory for example in the Baltic states on the cheap," Baranowski said.

"It will not be able to have just a regional conflict because the NATO allies will automatically be affected -- and that's a very big change," he added.

- Calm the air? -

But the operation comes a week ahead of the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested his Republican administration will seek to ease tensions with the Kremlin.

According to Stanislaw Koziej, a retired Polish brigadier general who served as national security chief from 2010-15, the arrival of the US brigade has "somewhat calmed concerns about the direction the US will go after the arrival of the new president".

"If he really wanted to, the president-elect (Trump) could comment on the deployment, but since he hasn't, that's calmed the air," Koziej said.

US troops entered Poland at the Olszyna border crossing with Germany on Thursday and headed to the brigade's headquarters in the nearby Polish town of Zagan.

Heavy equipment, including 87 Abrams tanks and over 500 personnel carriers including military-equipped Humvees were to follow.

"This operation threatens our interests and our security," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

"This is even more pronounced when a third party (the United States) reinforces its military presence on our doorstep in Europe."

Russian deputy foreign minister Alexei Mechkov described the deployment as a "factor destabilizing European security".

But Baranowski disagreed. "No matter how we look at it -- even with full deployment of forces that was agreed at the (2016) NATO summit plus this presence of the armored brigade combat team -- Russia has overwhelming domination when it comes to force ratio" in the region, he said.

"Looking at how many forces they (Russia) have versus how many forces NATO has in the region, we're talking about a discrepancy of ten to 15 times as many."

Last summer, NATO leaders also endorsed plans to rotate troops into Poland and the three Baltic states to reassure them they would not be left in the lurch if Russia was tempted to repeat its 2014 Ukraine intervention.

A separate US-led battalion working within the NATO framework will be stationed near Poland's northeast border with Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.

Moscow has stepped up its presence in the Baltic Sea area over the last two years.

Its jets regularly violate the airspace of smaller ex-Soviet NATO allies like Estonia and in April they even buzzed a US naval destroyer.

Late last year, Poland criticised Moscow's deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_troops_arriving_in_Poland_draw_Russian_ire_999.html.

U.S. Marines move first F-35B squadron to Japan

by Ryan Maass
Iwakuni, Japan (UPI)
Jan 11, 2017

The U.S. Marines have relocated the first operational F-35B Lightning II squadron from a base in Arizona to Japan.

The relocation makes the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan, the first location to receive the branch's F-35 variant as part of the plane's worldwide deployment capability.

Defense News reports 10 F-35Bs from the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, or VMFA-121, departed for Japan, and an additional six are scheduled to join them at a later date.

In a statement, the Marine Corps hailed the event as a milestone for the F-35 program. The relocation follows the final testing period for the 5th-generation fighter, in which Marine Corps pilots operated F-35Bs in Developmental Test III and the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration aboard the USS America in October 2016.

The F-35B was designed by Lockheed Martin and other industry partners to combine short takeoff and vertical landing with stealth capabilities. The Marines plan to use the fifth-generation fighter to replace its legacy fleet of F/A-18 Hornets, A-10 Thunderbolts, and various other aircraft.

Other operators include Italy and Britain.

The Air Force is expected to become the next U.S. armed service to make an international deployment with its F-35 variant, and is eyeing a relocation to Europe.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/US_Marines_move_first_F-35B_squadron_to_Japan_999.html.

Former Somali refugee takes over Canada's immigration ministry

January 12, 2017

During a cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a former Somali-born refugee, Ahmed Hussen, as the new Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

Hussen was the first Somali-Canadian to be voted to parliament in 2015, where he represented the ruling Liberal Party of Canada. He has served on the Justice and Human Rights Committee as well as the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association.

Prior to being elected, Hussen worked as a lawyer, practicing criminal defense, immigration and refugee law. He has served on the board of the Global Enrichment Foundation, which helps women in East Africa go to university and colleges in the region, as well as the board for the Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights.

Since his election, Hussen has become a household name among Somalis in the diaspora, as he headed the Canadian Somali Congress – a community based group that champions the interest of Somalis by engaging the Canadian authorities whiles also at it, strengthening civic engagement and integration.

His election has been touted as a symbol of the Canadian Liberal Party’s openness to immigrant communities.

Ahmed Hussen, a lawyer, and community activist came to Canada in 1993 at the age of 16 after fleeing his hometown, the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170112-former-somali-refugee-takes-over-canadas-immigration-ministry/.

Nigeria leader to head delegation to resolve Gambia crisis

January 09, 2017

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari will lead three West African heads of state to Gambia on Wednesday in an effort to persuade its longtime leader to step down, officials said Monday.

A meeting Monday in Abuja agreed on the mission, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyema said of the second presidential delegation from the Economic Community of West African States to visit Gambia since President Yahya Jammeh lost Dec. 1 elections.

Jammeh initially conceded the loss, but changed his mind. The West African bloc has said it has a military force on standby if Jammeh refuses to cede power when his mandate expires Jan. 19. Leaders meeting Saturday in Ghana said they were working on a diplomatic solution.

But Onyema told journalists on Monday that "every option is on the table" and "violence should be avoided, but nothing is ruled out." He said the regional bloc is "prepared and determined to take advantage of any of the options that it feels is appropriate" to install election winner Adama Barrow as the rightful president.

The United States, European Union and others have condemned Jammeh's stance and supported efforts to enforce Gambia's Constitution. Monday's meeting included the presidents of Liberia and Senegal, which would lead any military intervention.

The leaders expressed particular concern over the deteriorating security situation. Jammeh has mobilized troops, closed radio stations and ordered arrests, leading to a "mass exodus" of Gambians to their country's interior and to neighboring countries, Onyema said.

Nigeria also has said scheduling conflicts prevent it from sending judges to Gambia on Tuesday to help consider a petition from Jammeh's party challenging the election that Barrow won. Gambia's Supreme Court has been dormant for over a year and has only one sitting judge, Chief Justice Emmanuel O. Fagbenle.

"Our Justices are usually scheduled to sit in your Supreme Court in the months of May and November," Nigeria's Acting Chief Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen wrote to Fagbenle in a letter dated Jan. 5. "I regret to inform you that the re-scheduled date for this sitting session of your Supreme Court is unfavorable to us as it will greatly affect our schedule and case management."

Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994, but is accused of gross human rights violations that include arbitrary detentions, torture and the killings of his opponents in the country of 1.9 million people.

AP Writer Abdoulie John in Dakar, Senegal contributed.

Ivory Coast announces deal to end standoff with soldiers

January 14, 2017

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast announced a deal Friday night to end a standoff with soldiers who staged a mutiny last week, though the terms were not confirmed and it was unclear whether security would be fully restored in Africa's fastest-growing economy.

The deal was reached after tense negotiations in Bouake, the country's second-largest city, between soldiers and a delegation led by the defense minister, said government spokesman Bruno Kone. In the hours before the deal was announced, hundreds of soldiers converged on the house where the negotiations were taking place, and gunfire erupted at multiple military bases in Abidjan, the commercial capital.

The mutineers' demands included unpaid bonuses, higher salaries, faster promotions and improved living conditions. The bonuses amounted to nearly $20,000 each for more than 8,000 soldiers, according to several people who participated in the negotiations.

Officials would not confirm the terms of the deal, but one soldier, who insisted on anonymity, said the government had agreed to pay the bonuses in installments beginning with payments of over $8,000 to each soldier on Monday. If accurate, the resolution could end up costing the government over $150 million for the bonuses alone.

It is the second time the government has announced a deal to end the standoff. President Alassane Ouattara said a deal was reached Jan. 7, one day after the mutiny began. But almost as soon as that first deal was announced, some soldiers in Bouake made clear they were dissatisfied with it, firing their weapons and temporarily holding the defense minister hostage.

Ouattara came to power in 2011 after a postelection crisis that claimed more than 3,000 lives. The crisis was triggered by former President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to accept defeat and step down. It capped more than a decade of turmoil that began with the country's first coup in 1999.

Ivory Coast has seen about 10 mutinies since 1990, with the most recent taking place in 2014. Ouattara has criticized the soldiers' tactics during the latest crisis, and many Ivorians expressed frustration with the renewed unrest. Before the talks began Friday, soldiers fired weapons to disperse a protest by civilians in Bouake who were angry that the standoff had disrupted economic activity in the city, said Fanta Kourouma, a Bouake resident.

The security situation deteriorated quickly Friday evening, with soldiers assuming control of main roads in Bouake. Phone service to the city was severely impaired for several hours. In Abidjan, witnesses reported gunfire at military installations in the residential Cocody district and in the central Plateau district, where Camp Gallieni, the army headquarters, is located.

A gendarmerie official in Plateau, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press, said he heard shots near the gendarmerie headquarters there. "They chased our guys from their post," he said, referring to the mutinous soldiers.

The mutiny shows that while progress has been made in demobilizing tens of thousands of combatants and reintegrating fighters from various factions since the 2011 conflict, a sense of discipline and respect for a chain of command are still lacking, said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Corey-Boulet reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Associated Press writer Alexis Adele contributed from Abidjan.

New Ghana president's speech copies US inaugural addresses

January 10, 2017

ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — Ghana's new president is facing criticism after passages in his inauguration speech appeared to be lifted from speeches given by American leaders, an embarrassment for a country that long has been praised as one of Africa's strongest democracies.

President Nana Akufo-Addo took the oath of office Saturday after he won election on his third bid for the presidency. One line in his speech is nearly identical to a phrase used by former President Bill Clinton in his 1993 inaugural address. Another phrase in Akufo-Addo's speech is almost the same as one in the inaugural speech given by former President George W. Bush in 2001.

The Ghanaian presidency refused to comment Tuesday on the similarities that went viral on social media after the inauguration. Akufo-Addo's speech contained the following phrase: "Though our challenges are fearsome, so are our strengths. Ghanaians have ever been a restless, questing, hopeful people. And we must bring to our task today the vision and will of those who came before us."

In 1993, Clinton said: "Though our challenges are fearsome, so are our strengths. And Americans have ever been a restless, questing, hopeful people. We must bring to our task today the vision and will of those who came before us."

Akufo-Addo's speech also contained this phrase: "I ask you to be citizens: citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens building your communities and our nation." At his 2001 inauguration, Bush said: "I ask you to be citizens: Citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens building communities of service and a nation of character."

The 72-year-old Akufo-Addo was declared winner of the Dec. 7 election after defeating incumbent John Dramani Mahama.

No deal in talks to persuade Gambian leader to step down

January 14, 2017

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — No deal was reached Friday in last-ditch attempts by a regional mediation team to persuade Gambia's longtime leader to step down, and while mediation will continue, the inauguration next week of the elected opposition coalition leader will go forward, the spokesman for coalition said.

"This crisis has not been solved by these talks," said spokesman Halifa Sallah, adding that more efforts are needed to narrow differences. Sallah spoke after Nigeria's president led talks Friday with Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh and President-elect Adama Barrow in Gambia as part of mediation efforts led by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.

"The expectation is that the Gambian people and the international community will not sit and wait and preside over a country that is destroyed by war — destroyed in terms of property, destroyed by human beings and human beings suffering," Sallah said, stressing that Gambia's constitution clearly spells out what is to happen on the day a president's term expires. "The person declared elected should take and assume office."

Meanwhile, the African Union announced it will cease to recognize President Jammeh as Gambia's legitimate leader as of Jan. 19, when his mandate expires. The decision by the AU's Peace and Security Council warns Jammeh of serious consequences if his actions lead to the "loss of innocent lives" and calls on Gambia's security forces to exercise restraint.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the U.N. special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, told the U.N. Security Council Friday that the Nigerian-led delegation was "to leave no doubt about the determination of ECOWAS to use all necessary means, including force to have the will of the Gambian people upheld."

If this is deemed necessary, Chambas said, ECOWAS intends to seek the endorsement of the AU Peace and Security Council and the Security Council to deploy troops to Gambia. The political uncertainty has in the past 10 days sent several thousand people, mostly children in buses accompanied by women, fleeing across border to Senegal where they are likely staying with relatives or host families, the United Nations Refugee Agency said Friday.

As the international community looks for a peaceful way out of the crisis, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had been authorized to offer Jammeh asylum, if necessary, during Friday's visit. A definitive plan by ECOWAS will be made after Buhari and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf continue discussions with other leaders, and with Barrow in Bamako, Mali, where a France-Africa summit takes place this weekend, said Nigeria's Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama.

But the West African regional bloc also has a military force on standby to intervene if Jammeh does not step down. A Nigerian army memo, dated Wednesday and seen by The Associated Press, orders officers to prepare a battalion of 800 troops for a possible military intervention in Gambia.

Jammeh at first accepted his Dec. 1 election loss, even making a telephone call to concede on national television, but then changed his mind and declared that "only Allah" can deny him victory. His party is now contesting the results in court.

President-elect Barrow is renewing his offer to Jammeh for direct discussions on the crisis, telling the BBC that "I'll be very willing to talk to him directly." The ruling party's court challenge to the election results shows complications. Gambia's Supreme Court, short of judges, has said it might not be able to consider the challenge until May, and Jammeh says Gambia should await its decision.

Jammeh took power in a coup in 1994 and is accused of gross rights violations including arbitrary detentions, torture and the killings of opponents in this tiny country of 1.9 million people that is nearly surrounded by Senegal.

Jammeh might be wary of a Nigerian promise of safe haven. Nigeria offered asylum to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in 2003 to help end the civil war he started in 1989, but it was forced by international pressure to hand Taylor over in 2006 for trial for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Taylor was convicted in 2013 and is serving a 50-year sentence in a British prison.

AP writers Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Iranians mourn as former leader Rafsanjani interred

January 10, 2017

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Hundreds of thousands mourned the late Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Tuesday, wailing in grief as his body was interred at a Tehran shrine alongside the leader of the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rafsanjani's final resting place near the late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, reflected his legacy as one of the pillars of Iran's clerical-dominated political system, as he served in later years as a go-between for hard-liners and reformists.

But even his hourslong funeral highlighted the divisions still at play. Parts of the crowd along his funeral procession at one point chanted in support of opposition leaders under house arrest. Other politicians did not attend the memorial.

Throngs filled main thoroughfares of the capital, with many chanting, beating their chests and wailing in the style of mourning common among Shiite Muslims. The funeral for Rafsanjani, who died Sunday at age 82 after a heart attack, drew both the elite and ordinary people. Shops and schools were closed in national mourning.

Top government and clerical officials first held a funeral service at Tehran University. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prayed by Rafsanjani's casket, as other dignitaries knelt before the coffin on which his white cleric's turban was placed. Mourners reached out their hands toward the coffin.

Just behind Khamenei was President Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate administration reached the recent nuclear deal with world powers. Rouhani, who is all but certain to run for re-election in May, is viewed as embodying Rafsanjani's realist vision.

Hard-liners also took part in the ceremony Tuesday, like the head of Iran's judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, who stood near his moderate brother, parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Also among them was Qassem Soleimani, a general who heads the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which focuses on foreign operations like the war in Syria.

Both Soleimani and Rafsanjani are from Iran's southeastern province of Kerman and worked together during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. "In my opinion, Mr. Hashemi remained the same person from the beginning until the end and held his line in all stages of his life," Soleimani told state television in a rare public interview. "Nevertheless, Mr. Hashemi sometimes used different tactics."

Apparently banned from the funeral was former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who remains popular among the young but is deeply disliked by hard-liners. State media have banned the broadcasting of any images of Khatami.

There was also no word of hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attending the ceremony, though he offered condolences Monday. There was no love lost between the two as Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani in Iran's 2005 presidential election and later drew his dismay over the crackdown following his contested re-election in 2009.

Outside, mourners carried posters bearing Rafsanjani's image as his casket slowly made his way through the crowds in the streets. "I rarely attend religious ceremonies, but I am here as an Iranian who cannot forget Rafsanjani's contribution to developing the political sphere in favor of people in recent years," said Nima Sheikhi, a computer teacher at a private school.

"I am here to say goodbye to a man who dedicated his life to making Iran better," said Reza Babaei, a cleric from the eastern town of Birjand near the Afghan border. "He founded the university in my city and developed our region when he was in power."

Officials put the number of participants in the funeral at over 2 million, though that figure could not be independently verified. Iran's internal politics also were on display. The semi-official ILNA news agency said that on the sidelines of the funeral, prominent moderate lawmaker Ali Motahari was asked by several mourners to free opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi from the house arrest the two have been under since 2011.

"Our message is clear: The house arrest should be lifted," some chanted. Police and security forces did not react to the chants, nor others that followed and could be heard in state television footage.

Rafsanjani's casket later arrived at the ornate, massive shrine to Khomeini, who led the revolution that toppled the American-backed shah. Rafsanjani's interment there marked a rare privilege inside of Iran's system, where clerics dominate the levers of power. Only Khomeini's son Ahmad, who died in 1995 and served as a close aide to his father, had been buried next to his tomb before Tuesday.

Rafsanjani, a close aide to both Khomeini and Khamenei, served as president from 1989 to 1997. He helped launch Iran's nuclear program and then pushed for reconciliation with the West. Internally, however, his legacy remains mixed. He was massively wealthy and a veteran at maneuvering within Iran's opaque political system.

He was considered a protector of the moderates, but others distrusted him because he was such an insider and because of accusations he was involved in killing dissidents during his eight-year presidency, which he always denied. Hard-liners distrusted him because of his support of moderates and sought to sideline him, with little success.

His absence in balancing the competing powers, however, will affect Iran going forward, especially as the country edges closer to picking a new supreme leader. "The unexpected death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani could be the first scene in Iran's nascent leadership transition theater, whose subsequent acts are probably yet to be written," said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at The Washington Institute.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Zero-emission boat prepares for round-the-world odyssey

January 11, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The first self-sufficient boat powered only by emission-free energy will start a six-year trip around the world in the spring. Energy Observer, a former multi-hull race boat converted into a green vessel equipped with solar panels, wind turbines and a hydrogen fuel cell system, will be powered by wind, the sun and self-generated hydrogen.

The 5 million euro ($5.25 million) boat, which is currently in a shipyard in Saint-Malo, will set sail from the Brittany port and will make its first of 101 stops across 50 countries in Paris as part of a six-year circumnavigation.

"This boat will demonstrate that there are many solutions for energetic transition," said French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot, who attended the project presentation on Wednesday at the UNESCO headquarters. "All solutions are within nature."

Designed in 1983 under the supervision of Mike Birch, the boat enjoyed a successful career in open-sea sailing races, including winning the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994, with Peter Blake at the helm. The Energy Observer project was conceived in 2015 by skippers Frederic Dahirel and Victorien Erussard, with scuba diver and filmmaker Jerome Delafosse also behind the project.

"I'm passionate about new technologies," Erussard said. "Building a self-sufficient boat could have seemed utopian, but this is going to be an incredible vessel. It's very promising for the future." The technology fitted to the 30.5-meter (100-foot) boat, which is also equipped with a kite sail, will enable the production of hydrogen through electrolysis process.

"We bank on the diversity of renewable energies," Essuard said. "And if there is no sun or wind, or at night, we have the option to draw in our hydrogen reservoirs. We will produce this hydrogen in a decarbonized manner through electrolysis of the sea water."

According to Florence Lambert, the director of the CEA Liten research institute which devised the boat's energy system, Energy Observer is a good example of what energy networks will look like in the near future, with its well balanced mix of renewable energies and hydrogen storage system.

"We are not talking about the delirium of an explorer or a scientific," she said, adding that the prospects for hydrogen-powered transport look bright. Mark Z. Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford University who develops roadmaps for countries to convert to 100 percent renewable energies by 2050, proposes that transportation worldwide be transformed into a combination of battery-electric transport and hydrogen fuel cell-battery electric hybrid transport.

"I believe that it is fantastic that a boat powered by hydrogen and electricity will travel the world," he said in written comments to The Associated Press. "It is an important step forward and consistent with this proposed path to 100 percent clean, renewable energy worldwide for all purposes to solve energy security, job creation, air pollution, and climate problems."