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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Peru's president asks Trump to deport fugitive ex-leader

February 13, 2017

LIMA, Peru (AP) — The leader of Peru asked U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday to deport a former Peruvian president sought in the South American nation on suspicion of taking bribes as part of a regional corruption scandal.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's office said the request was made to Trump during a phone conversation between the two men. The White House confirmed the talk, but did not mention Peru's deportation request. It said they discussed the need for strong economic group as well as the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Venezuela.

Last week, a Peruvian court ordered the arrest and detention of ex-President Alejandro Toledo as prosecutors investigate whether he took $20 million in payments from the giant Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.

Peruvian officials have said they believe Toledo is in San Francisco, where he has been researching a book as a visiting scholar at nearby Stanford University. Local media reported he had intended to fly over the weekend to Israel, where his wife has citizenship, until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government said he would be denied entry. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said Toledo was not on a flight from San Francisco that landed Sunday night.

In a posting on his Twitter account late Sunday, Toledo denied that he is a fugitive, saying that "I have never run away." But he did not say where he was and did not say if he would return to Peru. Authorities across Latin America have been moving fast to charge officials accused of taking some $800 million in bribes from Odebrecht. The company acknowledged the bribes when it signed a plea agreement in December with the U.S. Justice Department.

Used to win business in 12 countries, the bribes include some $29 million paid in Peru for projects built during the administrations of Toledo (2001-2006) and two of his successors. So far, three officials have been arrested.

Toledo, a former pro-democracy activist who led street protests that brought down former strongman Alberto Fujimori in 2000, is accused of receiving some $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in exchange for favoring the company in a contract to build a major highway from Brazil to Peru's Pacific coast.

In a nationally televised address Sunday night, Kuczysnki called on Toledo to return immediately to Peru to clarify his legal situation. Earlier, Kuczynski thanked Israel's government for its support in a letter to Netanyahu.

The White House said Trump expressed concerns about developments in Venezuela. Kuczysnki, a 78-year-old former Wall Street banker, has spearheaded calls among Latin American leaders to punish Venezuela's socialist government for allegedly breaking with the nation's democratic order.

Kuczynski, a 78-year-old former Wall Street banker has seen his approval ratings fall as a result of a number of ethical slips by members of his Cabinet, though none of those cases are tied to Odebrecht.

In his address, he announced executive measures meant to strengthen Peru's fight against corruption. They include a bigger budget for prosecutors as well as rewards and protections for whistleblowers and a ban for life on contracting with the state for companies that engage in graft.

"We have to act relentlessly and immediately to stop the rot of corruption in Peru," the president said. Kuczynski's calls for zero tolerance for corruption comes as prosecutors in the Odebrecht case want to speak with the president himself.

As Toledo's prime minister in 2006, Kuczynski signed a law passed by congress allowing Odebrecht to participate in an auction to build two highways despite a ban on it bidding for government contracts at the time because it was facing legal action for irregularities in another project. Odebrecht eventually was awarded the roads contract.

Kuczynski has denied any wrongdoing.

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Striking military police in Brazil agree to return to work

February 11, 2017

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The government of Brazil's southeastern state of Espirito Santo and military police have reached an agreement to end a strike that had paralyzed several cities and led to an uptick in violence.

The agreement reached late Friday came after a week of strikes led by family members of the officers. Wives and other relatives blocked their barracks to demand higher pay for the officers. The government had indicted more than 700 officers for allegedly refusing to work.

The Espirito Santo government released a letter outlining the agreement, which was published by news portal G1. As part of the agreement, the government would not pursue criminal action against officers who returned to work Saturday.

State authorities did not agree to the demand for pay raises, but said they would analyze the system of promotions. Some family members interviewed by local media said they had not been consulted and did not agree, raising the possibility that some barracks might continue to be blocked on Saturday.

Because of the absence of police patrols, schools have been closed and medical services at public hospitals interrupted. Public transportation has been suspended and some shops have been looted. Espirito Santo neighbors the state of Rio de Janeiro to the north. The strike there inspired a handful of much smaller family protests in Rio on Friday. However, in Rio family members did not block barracks, instead demonstrating peacefully outside them.

In Espirito Santo, the union representing civil police officers said 121 people have been killed since police stopped patrolling the streets. The state government has not released a death toll. Earlier this week, Espirito Santo turned over security duties to the army, which has sent 1,200 troops to help quell the violence.

Russia-backed rebels take over factories, mines in Ukraine

March 02, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian-backed rebels are taking over scores of factories and mines in eastern Ukraine, many of them belonging to a tycoon whose foundation has been the largest provider of humanitarian aid to a war-battered population.

The moves announced Wednesday by the rebels came after a weekslong blockade of the east by Ukrainian nationalists and right-wingers. The blockade has seriously disrupted trade on both sides, cutting off much of the coal shipments to government-controlled territory and impeding shipments from the mills and factories that are the east's economic backbone.

The blockade has raised the already high tensions in Ukraine, where a war between government forces and separatist rebels has killed more than 9,800 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. The Minsk agreement, a 2015 cease-fire pact that has been consistently violated, envisions the rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions remaining in Ukraine, although with expanded local powers. But a recent surge in fighting, the blockade and Russia's decision last month to recognize passports and other documents issued by the rebels have threatened the goal of reintegrating the regions into Ukraine.

"We are proud that the blockade has hit the pockets of the occupiers. We should call it a war and stop ... all trade with the occupied territories," parliament member Semen Semenchenko, a blockade advocate, told The Associated Press.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's government has spoken against the blockade, saying it hurts ordinary Ukrainians in the rest of the country by cutting off coal shipments from separatist regions and creating power shortages. However, it has taken no action to break it, fearing to challenge the nationalist groups.

Poroshenko on Wednesday described the rebel takeover of the industrial assets in the east as a de-facto confiscation and a sign of Russia's "occupation" of the separatist territories. He called for Western sanctions against those involved in the assets' seizure.

Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told local media on Wednesday that in retaliation for Kiev's blockade, the rebels have taken over the management of 40 factories and coal mines. They include those owned by tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who is regarded as Ukraine's richest person.

His Metinvest holding company announced last week that it had stopped operations at a steel mill and a coal mine because of the blockade. Stopping all of the company's operations could throw 20,000 people out of work, Metinvest said.

There were no immediate reports detailing how management was being taken over by rebels. Akhmetov's foundation said in a statement that its work in the region was paralyzed after rebels blocked access to Akhmetov's Shakhtar FC arena in the rebel capital of Donetsk, which hosted the 2012 European soccer championships and now serves as a warehouse for the relief effort.

Efforts to block the foundation's access to its facilities in Donetsk "is a threat to the lives of Donbass civilians who have become hostages of the armed conflict and find themselves on the verge of survival in the heart of Europe in the 21st century."

The foundation says it has given away more than 11 million food packages to local residents. The separatists do not allow Ukrainian aid in, and in recent months have barred virtually all international organizations from operating there.

Russia has been delivering aid to the rebel-controlled east too, but some of the deliveries have ended up in the fighters' hands. Unlike Akhmetov's food packages, Russian aid was not distributed directly to the population.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, in view of the blockade, the rebel authorities "hardly had any other choice" other than to seize the businesses. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that Moscow is concerned about a worsening humanitarian situation in the east and pledged that it "will do its best to contribute to a de-escalation" in the area.

Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

5 arrested in Kiev clash between nationalists, police

February 19, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Five people have been detained and one policeman injured in a clash between Ukrainian nationalist demonstrators and police outside the presidential administration building in Kiev.

The Sunday evening clash involved demonstrators in camouflage and balaclavas who tried to set up a tent camp in support of nationalists who have blocked coal shipments from parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists. The blockade has led to power shortages in government-held parts of Ukraine.

Police said those detained included Nikolai Kokhanivsky, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Ukrainian forces have been fighting separatist rebels in the east since April 2014, a conflict that had killed more than 9,800.

Ukraine leader warns West not to "appease" Russia

February 17, 2017

MUNICH (AP) — Ukraine's president warned Friday against any "appeasement" of Russia, arguing that cutting a bilateral deal with Moscow on his country would only make the fighting in eastern Ukraine worse. He said that the new U.S. administration has a "historic chance" to halt Russia's ambitions.

Many in Europe are concerned about the U.S. stance toward Russia under President Donald Trump amid talk of a more cooperative relationship. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the Munich Security Conference, however, that he had been reassured of Western unity and solidarity earlier in the day by new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

"I hear increasingly obsessive calls for at least some degree of appeasement toward Russia's appetite. To move in that direction would be naive, wrong and dangerous — not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe and for the world," he said.

He didn't specify who was making those calls but said now is the time to stop Russia's expansionist ambitions. "This is an absolutely historic chance for all of us, but above all this is a historic chance for the new U.S. administration and solid trans-Atlantic unity," Poroshenko said.

More than 9,800 people have died since April 2014 in fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists. Fighting escalated earlier this month, the worst outbreak since a 2015 peace deal.

On Thursday, Tillerson said Russia must abide by a 2015 peace deal agreed upon in Minsk aimed at ending fighting in eastern Ukraine as the Trump administration searches for ways to work cooperatively with Moscow. He spoke after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a meeting of Group of 20 foreign ministers in Bonn, Germany.

Poroshenko, however, warned against "any agreement behind our back" with Russia on Ukraine. "We have no intention to give up" on defending Ukraine, he said, speaking in English. "Any deal with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin behind Ukraine would only aggravate the situation."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, following a meeting with Lavrov Friday on the sidelines of the security conference, that he again emphasized the need for the Minsk accord to be implemented. He also said Americans officials had assured him that Washington backed NATO.

"The United States remains committed to NATO and to the trans-Atlantic alliance," he told reporters. In eastern Ukraine, the leader of pro-Russia separatist rebels warned Friday that they may use force to drive out Ukrainian troops.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said the rebels aim to "free the occupied territories" in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces by political means, but added that they could do so with military force if political efforts fail.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Zakharchenko's statement defied a 2015 peace agreement, but added that it comes amid tensions provoked by Ukraine's actions.

David Rising contributed to this story

Separatist commander assassinated in eastern Ukraine

February 08, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — A prominent rebel leader in eastern Ukraine has been killed in an explosion in his office, his associates said on Wednesday. The rebels' Donetsk News Agency said Mikhail Tolstykh, better known under his nom de guerre Givi, died early Wednesday morning in what it described as a terrorist attack. The agency said 35-year old Tolstykh was killed by a rocket fired from a portable launcher into his office.

Russian state television showed pictures of firefighters putting out flames in the building where Toltsykh's headquarters is believed to be. The footage from the scene showed several rooms in the building gutted from an apparent explosion.

Tolstykh's death follows the assassination of his close associate Arsen Pavlov, also known as Motorola, last year, as well as other high-profile warlords. Yuri Tandit, an adviser to the chairman of the Ukrainian Security Service in Kiev, said on the 112 television channel that his agency was looking into the reports.

Tolstykh was one of the most recognizable faces in the conflict between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed rebels which has claimed more than 9,800 lives since it began in 2014. Killings of high-profile commanders in Ukraine's Donbass began in May 2015 with the bombing of the charismatic Alexei Mozgovoi. Rank-and-file separatists and local residents reported an increased Russian influence in the area in summer 2015 as Moscow apparently tried to rein in the warlords, some of whom seemingly got out of hand with murder and violence targeting civilians.

The very existence of unruly commanders like Givi bolstered the Ukrainian government's long-standing refusal to negotiate with what it regarded as terrorists. Givi and other warlords who have been killed in the past two years have publicly assaulted prisoners of war and been engaged in what can be classified as war crimes.

While the unruly commanders were dying in car bombings, the leadership of the rebel-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions came to be dominated by bureaucrats with ties to ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Donbass native, rather than the commanders who led the uprising. Unlike the assassinated warlords, the Donetsk bureaucrats are seen as less extreme and more inclined to bargain with Kiev.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, described Tolstykh's death as an attempt to "destabilize the situation" in eastern Ukraine after flare-up of hostilities last week killed more than 33 people.

Peskov denied any Russian involvement in the warlord's death, calling it impossible.

Rebels in Ukraine say commander is killed in a car bombing

February 05, 2017

AVDIIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — A top rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was killed along with another person when their car exploded, rebels said Saturday, blaming Ukraine's special services for the blast. Ukraine's military, meanwhile, said three soldiers were killed in shelling over the past day.

Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels has escalated over the past week in eastern Ukraine, killing at least 33 people, including civilians, and wounding several dozen. More than 9,800 people have died since the war began in April 2014.

The rebels' Lugansk Information Center reported Saturday that Lugansk People's Militia commander Oleg Anashchenko died in the explosion along with an unnamed person. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke late Saturday with President Donald Trump, who he said expressed "deep concern" over the escalation.

The surge in violence began the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with Trump for the first time since Trump entered the White House. Poroshenko has cast the outburst of fighting as an argument for continuing Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.

During Saturday's call, a statement issued by Poroshenko's office said the two leaders "noted the urgent necessity of establishing a complete cease-fire." The Ukrainian president thanked Trump for his "strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

The White House said Trump had a "very good call" with Poroshenko. "We will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border," Trump said in a statement.

The government-held town of Avdiivka, just north of the main rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, has been the focus of the fighting. A temporary cease-fire had been called to allow workers on both sides to restore electricity to freezing residents as shelling eased for much of the day. But the Ukrainian military said rebel forces began a mortar barrage of Avdiivka in the evening.

The daily shelling has left locals in the industrial town of about 35,000 traumatized. Olga Duzhikova's apartment was hit by a shell. "I lost my head. I don't know what I felt — I took my kids to hide them and I was waiting for someone to help me leave the place," she said.

Trump's repeated promises to improve relations with Russia have fueled concern in Ukraine that Washington would back off some of the sanctions. But the new US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has said sanctions imposed for Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea will remain.

Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and Lynn Berry in Washington contributed to this report.

2 Ukrainian troops killed in fighting in the east

February 02, 2017

AVDIIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Two Ukrainian troops have been killed in the country's industrial east as both government forces and rebels reported shelling on their positions overnight, Ukraine's government said early Thursday.

Ten other troops were wounded as fighting in Ukraine's industrial heartland entered its fifth day, the Ukrainian government's press office for the military operation in the east said. In rebel stronghold Donetsk, self-proclaimed authorities said two civilians were injured Wednesday evening when projectiles hit their houses in Donetsk's north.

Associated Press reporters on both sides of the conflict, which has been raging since 2014, heard salvos of Grad multiple grenade launchers during the night. Both Russia-backed separatist rebels and the Ukrainian government in 2015 committed to cease fire and withdraw heavy weaponry including Grads.

At least 10 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since Monday and dozens wounded including civilians on both sides of the front line. Shelling over the weekend damaged water, heating and power supply to government-controlled factory town of Avdiivka, the epicenter of fighting, amid a strong cold snap.

By Thursday, the water supply and heating in the town, which is just miles away from Donetsk, has been partly restored. Avdiivka, however, remains without electricity as workers can't access the areas where the power lines were cut because of sustained fighting.

Heavy fighting continues in eastern Ukraine

February 01, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine reports that at least one soldier has been killed and more injured in the country's east as heavy fighting between government troops and Russia-backed rebels continues. Heavy shelling was heard in the center of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk Wednesday morning. The flare-up in fighting in eastern Ukraine, which began over the weekend, killed eight people late on Monday and early Tuesday including civilians, and injuring dozens. The Ukrainian government's press office for the operation in the east said the latest death occurred late Tuesday.

Fighting is concentrated around the suburb of Avdiivka on the northern outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk where residents have been without electricity for days.

Swiss parliament's upper house rejects bill to ban burqas

March 09, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland's upper house of parliament has rejected an initiative championed by a right-wing populist party to ban burqas and niqabs, the face- and body-covering garments worn by some Muslim women, which have become emblematic of cultural tensions in parts of Europe.

The Council of State voted 26-9 with four abstentions Thursday against the measure that passed the Swiss lower house in September by a single vote. The Italian-speaking Ticino region in southern Switzerland enacted a ban on burqas last year.

The issue strikes at the heart of Europe's struggle to integrate Muslims, and comes amid fears about radical Islam in some corners. Burqas are body-covering garments with screens for the eyes, while niqabs have open slits for the eyes. France and Belgium have enacted similar bans.

Proponents say such face-covering should not be allowed for security reasons, and insist wearing the burqa harms women's rights. Opponents say the measure is a not-so-veiled attack on Islam, insist that existing laws already do the job, and note that burqas are rarely seen in Switzerland. They have also argued that national legislators should try to stay out of the clothing closet.

The measure, led by Swiss People's Party lawmaker Walter Wobmann, would change the Constitution to ban face-covering clothing in public. A campaign poster features silhouettes of a niqab-wearing woman and a masked man poised to throw a firebomb.

Anian Liebrand, a former youth leader in the people's party, said that a movement called "Yes to a ban on face-covering" has collected over two-thirds of the 100,000 petition signatures needed by September for the issue to be put up for a referendum in coming years.

"We are convinced that the people are going to vote 'yes' to this initiative," he said. "We have done a lot of surveys as we have gathered signatures, and we are optimistic." Andrea Caroni, a libertarian lawmaker with the Free Democratic Party who opposes the measure, praised Thursday's "very clear decision," but said a "real battle" looms once voters get their say.

"I don't want to have clothing regulation in my Constitution," Caroni said. He insisted the issue is "not relevant at all" in Switzerland, where about five percent of Switzerland's population of about 8.2 million people are Muslim.

"There have been no proven sightings of a real Afghan burqa — not a single one ... which makes the debate slightly absurd," he said. As for the niqab, he added: "I think I've seen one in my whole life in Switzerland."

Swiss ease citizenship for foreigners, reject tax reform

February 12, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Swiss voters decided Sunday that they want to make it easier for "third-generation foreigners" to get Swiss citizenship. They rejected a complex tax reform initiative aimed at getting Switzerland in line with international standards.

The "simplified naturalization of third-generation immigrants" measure passed in a national referendum with 60.4 percent of the votes, Swiss broadcaster SRF reported. It simplifies applications for anyone under 25 whose parents and grandparents have lived in Switzerland for years.

The measure gives young people who qualify the same fast-track, simplified access to Swiss citizenship that foreign spouses of Swiss nationals often enjoy. SRF reported that 59.1 percent of voters rejected the tax reform referendum, which would have scrapped a two-track tax system that offers lower rates to foreign firms to lure investment.

Experts say the tax initiative's failure means that overall rates are likely to be set higher — which would be a disincentive to companies that bring in jobs and ultimately tax revenues. Many domestic companies, meanwhile, could see their tax rates go down.

Critics including regional government leaders and much of the political left had said the initiative would deplete tax coffers for an uncertain payoff. Proponents had countered that the reforms were needed to keep competitive a country that has few exportable natural resources and relies heavily on globalized industries such as finance and pharmaceuticals.

The citizenship initiative affects just under 25,000 people, but the long-term implications are far-reaching. Roughly one-fourth of Switzerland's total population of 8.2 million is foreign-born, one of the highest such percentages in Europe.

Switzerland, which is not in the 28-nation European Union but is all but surrounded by bloc members, has been taking in foreigners for centuries. As in some other parts of Europe, being born in Switzerland doesn't automatically confer Swiss citizenship.

The "third-generation foreigners" initiative strikes at a Europe-wide dilemma about how best to integrate newcomers, but generally involves people from elsewhere in Europe or Turkey whose families have been in the Alpine nation for decades — not migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East who have poured into Europe in the last several years, sparking a backlash among many on the political far-right.

Sunday's referendum was the latest installment of Switzerland's direct democracy that gives voters a frequent say on political decisions. A third issue on the national ballot involving infrastructure spending passed with 61.9 percent of the votes.

Voters in the eastern Graubuenden canton, or region, also decided against a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Four years ago, the region rejected a similar referendum about the 2022 Winter Games, which were eventually awarded to Beijing.

Swiss voters consider streamlined citizenship for under-25s

February 12, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — Swiss voters are considering two issues that will affect immigrants and foreign companies in Switzerland, deciding whether to make it easier for "third-generation foreigners" to get Swiss citizenship and whether to lock in competitive low tax rates for businesses.

The "simplified naturalization of third-generation immigrants" measure is expected to pass in Sunday's referendum. It would simplify applications for anyone under 25 whose parents and grandparents have lived in Switzerland for years.

Polls have suggested a tight race over the complex tax reform initiative, which aims to get Switzerland in line with international standards by scrapping a two-track tax system that offers lower rates to foreign firms to lure investment.

Sunday's referendum is the latest installment of Switzerland's direct democracy that gives voters a frequent say on political decisions. A third issue on the national ballot involves infrastructure spending.

Voters in the eastern Graubuenden canton, or region, are also deciding whether to bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Four years ago, the region rejected a similar referendum about the 2022 Winter Games, which were eventually awarded to Beijing.

Those hoping to benefit from a new, easier way to Swiss citizenship include high school student Selena Mercado. The 17-year-old was born in Switzerland, has gone to school in Switzerland, considers herself Swiss and dreams of a political career in the country one day.

But her passport is from Chile, a country that she's never set foot in but was home to her grandparents before they moved to this small Alpine nation decades ago. Being born in Switzerland doesn't mean automatically mean becoming Swiss, a situation echoed in a few other European nations.

Swiss voters are considering giving "third-generation foreigners" like Mercado the same fast-track, simplified access to Swiss citizenship that foreign spouses of Swiss nationals often enjoy. "I want to give back to Switzerland,'" said Mercado, who lives in Vallorbe on the French border.

Swiss air force upgrading surveillance radars

Paris (UPI)
Jan 19, 2017

Master air defense radars of the Swiss air force are to be modernized by Thales to extend their operational capabilities until the year 2030.

The work is part of the Swiss government's FLORAKO radar modernization program. It was commissioned by Armasuisse, the Swiss armaments procurement agency, and is worth more than $79 million.

"We are proud that Amasuisse has decided to renew its trust in Thales and award us with the sustainability contract for the Swiss Air Force radars until 2030," said Thomas Got, Thales vice president in charge of military air operations and weapon systems. "We are fully committed to this partnership and are keen to meet the requirements and expectations of the Swiss armed forces."

Thales said the upgrade work on fixed long-range surveillance radars will be carried out at the company facility in Limours, near Paris, in cooperation with RUAG defense, who will act as a Thales subcontractor.

Modernization of the radars will take about five years.

Thales said the project will involve development of a new radar signal and upgrading the radar's data processing and antenna system.

The Swiss air force has had an air defense command-and-control system by Thales and its partners since 2004.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Swiss_air_force_upgrading_surveillance_radars_999.html.

Slovenia's tourism booms thanks in part to Melania Trump

January 31, 2017

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — The tiny European nation of Slovenia is undergoing a tourism boom partly because it is the native country of U.S. first lady Melania Trump. The national Statistics Bureau said Tuesday that the number of overnight stays in Slovenia by American tourists has jumped by 10 percent in 2016 when compared to 2015.

Nearly 4 million foreign tourists visited the country of 2 million in 2016, up by about 10 percent. Slovenian tourist agencies have been organizing special tours "on the footsteps of Melania Trump" showing the places where she lived, studied and worked before she left in her 20s to pursue a modeling career.

A website promoting the Alpine nation of stunning natural beauty says: "Welcome to the homeland of the new First Lady of the United States of America!"

Melania Trump's hometown in Slovenia marks inauguration

January 20, 2017

SEVNICA, Slovenia (AP) — The inauguration of Donald Trump is a big thing for a small town in Slovenia where the new U.S. first lady traces her roots. Residents of Sevnica watched live coverage from Washington at the town's cafes or at their homes, dazzled by Melania Trump's appearance in a sky blue cashmere jacket and mock turtleneck combination by Ralph Lauren.

Starting Friday, the town of 5,000 people launched three days of events to mark the inauguration and welcome all guests wishing to see where Melania Trump grew up. Mayor Srecko Ocvirk says Sevnica has organized free guided tours, a display of locally produced goods in the 12th century castle above the old town and a festival of grape vine pruning. The products include locally-made sausages and wine and a line of women's slippers from Sevnica's Kopitarna shoe factory.

"We want to mark it with nice, appropriate products," Ocvirk told The Associated Press. On a website promoting Slovenia — an Alpine nation of stunning natural beauty that has 2 million people — the headline reads: "Welcome to the homeland of the new First Lady of the United States of America!"

Melania Trump has hired a law firm in Slovenia to protect her name and image from being used on numerous products that recently have sprung up there. Born Melanija Knavs in nearby Novo Mesto in 1970, the new U.S. first lady grew up in Sevnica while Slovenia was part of the Communist-ruled former Yugoslavia.

She left in her 20s to pursue a modeling career. The last time she is believed to have visited Slovenia was in July 2002, when she introduced Donald Trump to her parents at the lakeside Grand Hotel Toplice in the resort town of Bled.

Sevnica residents have invited the U.S. presidential couple to visit.

Populist party says Serbia PM to run for president

February 14, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic will run for the presidency in the election in April, his ruling populist party said on Tuesday. Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said after a Serbian Progressive Party meeting that Vucic was unanimously approved as its candidate.

Vucic said in an interview on Serbian state television that he has accepted the candidacy in order to "maintain continuity and stability." "This is of great importance for the future of Serbia," he said.

The decision means that current pro-Russian president, fellow Serbian Progressive Tomislav Nikolic, will end his term, unless he decides to run for re-election independently. Vucic said that "it would be good if we could continue to work together."

Although Serbia's presidency is largely ceremonial, the outcome of the election could determine whether the country continues on its EU membership path or will move toward its traditional Slavic ally Russia.

Vucic is a former ultranationalist turned pro-EU reformer. The formal announcement of the date for the two-round vote is expected early next month, but numerous candidates have announced they are running.

They include ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, a staunch pro-Russian who was acquitted of war crimes by a United Nations court, and former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic. Jeremic was president of the U.N. General Assembly in 2012-13 and a candidate to replace Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon in 2015.

Scotland seeks new independence referendum amid Brexit spat

March 13, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Scotland's leader delivered a shock twist to Britain's EU exit drama on Monday, announcing that she will seek authority to hold a new independence referendum in the next two years because Britain is dragging Scotland out of the EU against its will.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would move quickly to give voters a new chance to leave the United Kingdom because Scotland was being forced into a "hard Brexit" that it didn't support. Britons decided in a June 23 referendum to leave the EU, but Scots voted by 62 to 38 percent to remain.

Scotland must not be "taken down a path that we do not want to go down without a choice," Sturgeon said. The move drew a quick rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May, who said a second referendum would be hugely disruptive and was not justified because evidence shows most Scottish voters oppose a new independence vote.

May accused Sturgeon's Scottish National Party of political "tunnel vision" and called the referendum "deeply regrettable." "It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division," she said. Sturgeon spoke in Edinburgh as Britain's Parliament was on the verge of approving a Brexit bill that will allow the U.K. to start the formal withdrawal from the EU within days. May plans to trigger the two-year exit process by the end of March.

Sturgeon said she would ask the Scottish Parliament next week to start the process of calling a referendum, to be held between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019. She said by then, details of Britain's post-Brexit deal with the EU would be clear and Scottish voters would be able to make "an informed choice."

The British government must agree before a legally binding referendum can be held. It didn't say Monday whether it would do so, but said an independence ballot "would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time."

In a 2014 referendum, Scottish voters rejected independence by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. But Sturgeon said that the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU had brought about a "material change of circumstances."

Sturgeon said that she had sought compromise with May's government, but had been met with a "brick wall of intransigence." Sturgeon has been seeking a deal that would allow Scotland to stay in the European single market and customs union. But she said she has become convinced May is pursuing a "hard Brexit" that would leave Britain outside those arrangements, which many U.K. businesses see as crucial.

"I am not turning my back on further discussions should the U.K. government change its mind," she said. Sturgeon is taking a big gamble. Although the prospect of Brexit has likely boosted support for independence, polls do not indicate it has majority backing. And there is no guarantee the EU would allow an independent Scotland to remain a member.

Former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has set out the legal view that if one part of an EU country becomes an independent state, it would have to apply for its own EU membership. On Monday, commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said "the Barrosso doctrine ... would apply, obviously" to Scotland.

Apart from Sturgeon's SNP, Britain's main political parties oppose independence. "The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was billed as a once-in-a-generation event," Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. "The result was decisive and there is no appetite for another referendum."

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said Scotland could find itself with "the worst of all worlds" — outside both the U.K. and the EU. Asked whether she would resign if she lost the referendum, Sturgeon said she wasn't planning to lose.

"Sometimes you've got to do what you think it right in politics," she said. "And I think it's right for Scotland to have a choice."

Romania's huge protests cause rifts among families, friends

February 23, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Video editor Mihnea Lupan lives just around the corner from his mother, but their views on the massive anti-corruption protests shaking Romania are miles apart. Since late January, when tens of thousands first took to the streets to protest a government degree that decriminalized some official misconduct, Lupan and his mother, Valentina, have been at loggerheads. Fights over politics dominate their visits instead of home-cooked meals and pleasantries.

"Don't speak to me like I'm an idiot! You are what you are today, thanks to me," Valentina Lupan, a retired architect, shouted at her 35-year-old son during an emotionally charged two-way that started within minutes of his entering the apartment where his parents and aunt live.

The demonstrations, the largest in Romania since a 1989 revolution led to the execution of the communist leader, have been a nightly occurrence for three consecutive weeks now. During that time, they have exposed a sharp generational divide between citizens who grew up, built careers and started families under communism and those who came of age a decade after the country moved to a free market economy and a multiparty system.

Most of the protesters are on the younger side. Through travel, jobs at foreign companies and the internet, they feel closer to the West than their parents. They speak languages besides Romanian, and some have worked in countries with higher wages and less pervasive corruption.

When the center-left government issued an emergency ordinance on Jan. 31 to decriminalize abuse in office if it involved less than $48.500, it struck a nerve. Taking a break from editing a program about fishing, Lupan, a slim, bearded man, said the young must show Romania's politicians "we want change. We want to reach Western standards."

Premier Sorin Grindeanu eventually withdrew the decree, although the government still plans to introduce the measure as a law in Parliament, where Grindeanu's party has a majority. The center-left government also is popular with older voters. It has promised to raise state pensions, a move that would bring Valentina Lupan an extra 200 lei ($47) a month, a 20 percent increase.

Valentina, 65, is skeptical about the motives of the anti-government protesters, including her son. She thinks they were lured by financial incentives or told to demonstrate by the multinational companies they work for, echoing the news channels she watches.

As a young architect, she crafted wooden and metal doors for the giant palace of President Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist leader executed in 1989, and insists she has never paid a bribe to secure a contract. She says byzantine legislation, not outright deceit, is to blame for official corruption.

"Why weren't they out in the streets to protest against illegal logging on a large scale?," she asks her son during the heated exchange that had her worrying about her blood pressure. "So they didn't protest against (that) or the stray dogs' issue?"

In the quiet of his apartment, Lupan attributed his mother's frustrations to a loss of earnings in recent years. "Everything was laid out for them ... in communism and immediately after," he said, adding that the news channels she watches have "indoctrinated" his mother.

Despite their differences, Lupan remains convinced that Romania needs to make steady progress toward reform so "my future children will have a chance not to be .... a generation of sacrifice."

Romania: 13th day of govt protests draw tens of thousands

February 12, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Protesters numbering in the tens of thousands gathered again Sunday outside the Romanian government's offices to demand the resignation of the East European country's leadership.

The enormous crowds assembled in Victory Square marked the 13th consecutive day of anti-government demonstrations in Bucharest, the capital. They later formed a huge human Romanian flag. The protests demanding a new government and a new style of governance started last month when the center-left government passed an emergency ordinance that would have watered down laws that punish official corruption.

"I've been coming here to show them they can't just govern the way they like. They can't trick us or buy us off with a few lei," demonstrator Bogdan Bogatoniu said, referring to the Romanian currency.

Thousands also protested in the cities of Cluj, Sibiu, Iasi, and Timisoara. "Romanians have woken up, they can't be fooled anymore," said Bogatoniu, a 33-year old IT expert who came to the square with his wife and 2-month-old son.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 government supporters gathered outside the presidential palace. For the eight consecutive day, they called for the resignation of President Klaus Iohannis, who condemned the emergency decree and has vocally supported the anti-government protests.

Premier Sorin Grindeanu withdrew the disputed ordinance a week ago following days of demonstrations, the biggest street protests since communism ended in 1989. The justice minister resigned last week over widespread public anger.

The withdrawn decree was one of a series of government initiatives that would have also eased penalties for the ruling Social Democrats' leader, Liviu Dragnea. A vote-rigging conviction has blocked Dragnea from becoming prime minister.

Romania protests endure as president says country in crisis

February 07, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's president told lawmakers Tuesday that the country is in a "fully-fledged" political crisis, after hundreds of thousands demonstrated against a government measure that would weaken the country's anti-corruption drive.

In an address to Parliament, President Klaus Iohannis, a critic of the two-month-old government, said the majority of Romanians now believed the country was going in the wrong direction. "Romania needs a government that is transparent, which governs predictably by the light of day, not sneakily at night," the president said, referring to the late hour the government passed an emergency ordinance last week aimed at decriminalizing some forms of official corruption.

The move — which bypassed Parliament and was not signed off by Iohannis, who has limited powers — ignited the biggest protests seen since communism ended in the country in 1989. As a result, the government will now seek to introduce the plan in Parliament.

Thousands gathered for the eighth consecutive evening in Victory Square outside the government offices, shouting "Social Democratic Party, the red plague!" and "Resign!" In smaller numbers, about 2,000 protesters gathered outside the presidential palace yelling "Get out, you traitor!"

Iohannis, who was elected in 2014 by direct vote, was chairman of the opposition Liberal Party. He quit the party that year to stand as president. He has been critical of the government headed by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, which came into being after the December parliamentary elections.

The government "has been saying publicly I can't stomach the result of the vote ... that I'd overturn a legitimate government," Iohannis said. "That's false. You won, now govern and legislate, but not at any price."

Some lawmakers booed and shouted "shame on you!" at Iohannis and walked out. Other lawmakers cheered. Despite the crisis, Iohannis said Romania didn't need early elections, a view the government shares.

Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the governing Social Democratic Party, and Senate speaker Calin Popescu Tariceanu refused to greet the president when he arrived at Parliament. In his speech, Iohannis pressed ahead with an earlier initiative to hold a referendum on another government initiative to pardon prisoners. Critics say the proposal will help government allies convicted of corruption.

Dragnea, the main power broker behind the government, expressed disappointment Iohannis did not deliver a "speech of unity," and said "he should leave the government alone, to govern."

Romanian government seeks loophole on corruption

February 07, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's government is on a high-risk mission: devise a legal and politically acceptable way to remove penalties for some types of official corruption. First, the government tried to effect the change by imposing an emergency decree without public debate. The move backfired badly, sparking massive demonstrations in the capital of Bucharest and other major cities that caused the government to reverse course.

The standing of the left-leaning government that assumed power two months ago has fallen so quickly that leaders found it necessary Monday to assert they would not resign even as the protests continued. The prime minister says a new proposal will be put before Parliament instead.

Is there a legal and political path for the government to accomplish its goal of easing corruption rules for public officials? Experts say Parliament can indeed pass such a law — and it could take effect if the president signs it — but the political task of winning support is trickier.

Laura Stefan, a Romanian anti-corruption specialist with the Expert Forum public policy think tank in Bucharest, said the government made a strategic blunder with the emergency decree. It would have tolerated abuse of power by officials — ranging from a mayor in a small village to a top government minister — if the amount of graft involved totaled less than about $48,500.

"It's simply un-defendable," Stefan said. "How can you explain to the people of this country, who maybe don't make $50,000 in their lifetime, that it is okay for public officials to misuse their office in order to obtain less than $50,000 from the state budget."

Public officials have not offered a specific explanation for why the law is needed, although one minister said it would bring the country in line with other European nations. The decree also would have applied retroactively to officials already convicted of corruption offenses involving less than $48,500.

The threshold figure would not have applied to case in which money was stolen, which would still be prosecuted as theft, but could apply to mismanagement of public funds, kickbacks on purchases or contracts, or other types of official misconduct. It would apply to officials who have hidden interests in companies that they set up and then make purchases from while in office.

One possible beneficiary would be Social Democratic Party leader Social Democratic Party leader Liviu Dragnea, whose path to becoming prime minister has been effectively blocked by corruption charges. His party enjoys broad support in Parliament, giving backers hope the redrafted measure will pass despite vocal opposition in the streets.

The provocative proposal could be difficult to enact even if it passes in Parliament, however, because it would still require the approval of President Klaus Iohannis, who has expressed opposition to the measure in its current form.

Transparency International, which lobbies for greater openness in government, has opposed both the way in which the emergency measure was imposed without public scrutiny and the proposal now set to be debated in Parliament.

Adam Foldes, one of the group's international lawyers at its Berlin headquarters, said the proposal does not meet international conventions set out by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that call for corruption penalties to be "proportionate, effective, and a deterrent."

"It doesn't look good from an international perspective or a domestic legal perspective," Foldes said, adding that the original proposal cost the relatively new government a substantial amount of public support and should have been put before elected representatives all along.

Many protesters say they plan to continue nightly demonstrations until the government steps down even though the emergency ordinance was withdrawn on Sunday. Lawyer Nicholas Hammond, who practices in Romania, said the procedure for approving emergency decrees was put in place after the country's 1989 anti-communist revolution to deal with critical situations that developed when Parliament was not in session.

However, it soon was abused by officials seeking to act without input from legislators, he said. "They realized they could do it even when Parliament was in session," Hammond said. "This wasn't even on the agenda and it was done at 10 at night."

There were signs Monday that the government, facing nightly protests, is wavering in its commitment to press for quick adoption of the proposal in Parliament. Justice Minister Florin Iordache said in a statement Monday that he is "not preoccupied" with drawing up a draft law and will await clarification from the Constitutional Court.

Romania govt vows to repeal law that goes easy on corruption

February 04, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — After mass protests that have rocked the country for days, Romania's government announced Saturday that it will repeal a highly controversial emergency decree that decriminalizes official misconduct.

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said the government would hold an emergency meeting Sunday to withdraw the decree, which has sparked the biggest protests in Romania since the end of communism in 1989. "I don't want to divide Romania ... Romania in this moment seems broken in two," Grindeanu told reporters.

Protesters were angry that the measure would water down the country's fight against corrupt officials. Tens of thousands took to the streets for the fifth consecutive day Saturday, marching through Bucharest and forming a human chain around the Palace of the Parliament built by late Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

There were also large-scale protests Saturday evening in the cities of Cluj, Timisoara, Sibiu, Constanta and Brasov and more planned for Sunday. The Social Democrat-led coalition government has come under huge pressure at home and abroad to repeal the emergency decree it passed Wednesday without Parliament input, which critics say will drastically weaken an anti-corruption fight widely praised by Romania's Western allies.

Grindeanu said the proposal would be sent to Parliament for debate, a move that is not likely to appease all protesters. One protester, Florin Dutu of Bucharest, said he wasn't totally satisfied with the development but said it was important government understood the determination of the people.

"Romania is a strong democracy. People are on the streets and you cannot avoid doing the right thing," he said. Presidential spokeswoman Madalina Dobrovolschi called the development "a step toward normality."

The Constitutional Court was expected to rule next week on whether the measure violates the constitution. The ordinance decriminalizes official misconduct if the funds involved are less than 200,000 lei ($47,800), which critics said would just encourage officials to steal on the job up to that point. Grindeanu said he would consult with other parties about scrapping the monetary threshold.

Liviu Dragnea, head of Social Democrats, is one of those who would have benefited from the new decree. He is banned by law from serving as prime minister because he was handed a two-year prison sentence in April 2016 for vote-rigging.

Adults came to the protest Saturday in Bucharest with their children or dogs, stressing the peaceful nature of the rally to fight corruption. Cristian Busuioc came with his 11-year-old son. "I want to explain to him ... what democracy means, and the way the ones who govern must create laws for the people and not against them or in their own interest," he said.

Romania's president seeks to annul graft law amid protests

February 02, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's president said Thursday he would ask judges to declare unconstitutional a government decree that dilutes what qualifies as corruption, after hundreds of thousands protested against the measure.

President Klaus Iohannis said Thursday that he would take the emergency decree to the Constitutional Court, which is the last legal resort to stop the law. The government passed an emergency ordinance early Wednesday to decriminalize cases of official misconduct if the funds involved are less than 200,000 lei ($47,800).

Huge protests erupted in the capital and spread to cities around Romania in the past two evenings. Interior Minister Carmen Dan said 200,000 took to the streets in Bucharest and in dozens other towns across the country late Wednesday, in one of the biggest protests since communism ended in the country in 1989.

Eight people were injured and four of those, two riot police and and two demonstrators, were hospitalized with minor injuries during clashes Wednesday. Twenty people were detained after some protesters threw firecrackers, stones and smoke bombs.

Iohannis criticized the interior ministry, which is in charge of police, for failing to contain "instigators." He asked Dan to send him a report about the way the protest was policed. Demonstrators say the measure will help government allies and other officials facing corruption charges and will encourage public officials to steal on the job.

About one-third of corruption prosecutions focus on abuse in office charges.

Thousands protest plan to pardon prisoners in Romania

January 29, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Some 10,000 people marched through Romania's capital and other cities on Sunday to protest a government proposal to pardon thousands of prisoners, a move critics said would set back anti-corruption efforts.

Protesters massed in Bucharest's University Square called the ruling Social Democratic Party "the red plague." They later marched to Victory Square, where the government has its main offices. Premier Sorin Grindeanu has requested an emergency ordinance allowing the government to pardon prisoners to ease prison overcrowding. On Sunday, he said the protests had been "politicized" and criticized President Klaus Iohannis, who took part in a similar protest a week ago.

Critics say the proposal would benefit party allies convicted of corruption. Romania's top prosecutor has criticized the plan. It would primarily affect people serving sentences of less than five years, except those convicted of sexual or violent crimes.

Prisoners over age 60, pregnant women and inmates with young children would see their sentences halved regardless of the charges on which they were convicted. According to a draft of the proposal, the government also intends to decriminalize official misconduct that involves financial damage valued at less than 200,000 lei ($47,800.)

The government says its proposal would lead to the release of 2,500 prisoners. Prison authorities estimate 3,700 would be freed. Along with Bucharest, protests were held in the Cluj, Timisoara and more than a dozen cities around Romania.

Tusk gets 2nd term for top EU job despite Polish objections

March 09, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders confirmed Donald Tusk for a second term as council president Thursday, overcoming weeks of strong opposition from his native Poland. As a retort, Poland was holding up the EU summit by not approving some texts, raising unease at a time when the EU is looking for unity as the crisis-prone bloc is faced with the painful departure of Britain.

"I will do my best to make EU better," Tusk said in a tweet. Two diplomats said that in the wake of the approval of Tusk, Poland turned to obstruction on the first evening of the two-day summit, with the agenda dragging over an hour late.

Poland had argued that the decision should be delayed because of its displeasure with Tusk, a bitter political rival. But Warsaw's government was totally isolated at the vote, a meeting participant said. The participant did not want to be identified because the summit was conducted privately.

It left Poland's ruling Law and Justice party bitter. Party spokeswoman Beata Mazurek said that "this will influence the way that the union will function in the future. It will no longer be a union of unity."

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said it was unheard of to confirm a president without the consent of his home nation and hinted that the most important east European nation in the EU could run an opposition course in a bloc where much is decided by common consent.

"Nothing without us, without our consent," she said upon arrival for the summit. "This is a matter of principles." That stance had no effect on the outcome of the president's election. Other leaders won out, insisting there was no reason for a delay.

"I don't see how one country could oppose this solution when all the others are in favor," said French President Francois Hollande, echoing comment from many of the bloc's 28 leaders. The job is one of the bloc's most prestigious. It involves chairing summits, coordinating the work of the member countries and making sure the 28 nations speak as much as possible with one voice on the international stage.

The EU is facing a plethora of challenges, not least the imminent divorce proceedings as Britain leaves the bloc, and does not want to be caught in an institutional quagmire over the position of a leader.

Poland's nationalist government had proposed little-known Polish EU lawmaker Jacek Saryusz-Wolski to replace Tusk, whose current term ends May 31. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said it was unheard of to confirm a president without the consent of his home nation.

"Nothing without us, without our consent," she said upon arrival for the summit. "This is a matter of principles." Tusk is a former prime minister who has a long and bitter rivalry with the leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The government argues that Tusk supports the domestic opposition in Poland and has failed to protect the country's interests in the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Tusk public support in a pre-summit speech to lawmakers in Berlin. "I see his re-election as a sign of stability for the entire European Union and I look forward to continuing working with him," Merkel said.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who chaired the election, acknowledged that several member nations are unhappy that all major EU posts are held by members of the center-right European People's Party. But he said "they don't want to sacrifice President Tusk because of that, because they think he has done a good job."

Apart from Tusk, EPP politicians Jean-Claude Juncker and Antonio Tajani head the EU's executive Commission and the European Parliament, respectively. Muscat said a more equitable spreading of posts would need to be addressed some time over the coming months.

Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.

Polls open in Dutch election that is barometer of populism

March 15, 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch voters cast ballots Wednesday at polling booths across the nation in parliamentary elections that are being closely watched as a possible indicator of the strength of far-right populism ahead of national votes in France and Germany later this year.

Two-term Prime Minister Mark Rutte's right-wing VVD party was leading in polls ahead of the Dutch vote, with the anti-Islam Party for Freedom of firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders a close second. Rutte has framed the election as a choice between continuity and chaos, portraying himself as a safe custodian of the nation's economic recovery, while casting Wilders as a far-right radical who would not be prepared to take tough decisions.

The chance of Wilders becoming leader in this country where the proportional representation voting system all but guarantees coalition governments is small — all mainstream parties, including Rutte's VVD, have ruled out working with Wilders.

Wilders' one-page election manifesto includes pledges to close borders to immigrants from Muslim nations, shuttering mosques and banning the Quran, as well as taking the Netherlands out of the European Union.

The final days of campaigning were overshadowed by a diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments over the refusal of the Netherlands to let two Turkish government ministers address rallies about a constitutional reform referendum next month that could give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers. It showed Rutte as refusing to bow to pressure from outside, a stance which has widespread backing in the nation.

"It is my task to keep the nation safe and stable and deal with these kind of people," said Rutte. The 12.9 million Dutch voters can cast their ballots until 9 p.m. (2000 GMT). They have plenty to choose from; there are 28 parties fielding candidates in the splintered political landscape.

The election in the Netherlands comes ahead of polls in France and Germany later this year, when right-wing nationalists will also be key players. During a final televised debate Tuesday night among leaders from the parties vying for seats and control of the government, Wilders piled on the anti-Islam invective while Rutte played up his leadership experience.

Rutte has driven through unpopular austerity measures over the last four years, but the Dutch economic recovery has gathered pace and unemployment has fallen fast. So the prime minister is urging voters to stick with him.

Wilders, meanwhile, is tapping into discontent among voters who say they are not benefiting from economic recovery. With such a knife-edge vote expected, only one thing appeared certain: Talks to form the next ruling coalition will take a while.

"The longest coalition formation was seven months," said Amsterdam Free University political analyst Andre Krouwel. "It wouldn't surprise me if this results leads to a very complicated and long formation process."

The Second Moon Race

by Simon Mansfield
Gerroa, Australia (SPX)
Mar 13, 2017

The US and China are in an undeclared race back to the Moon.

At first glance it's easy to dismiss China's efforts as being little more than what the US and Russia achieved decades ago. And while the pace of China's manned launches has been slow with over a year in many cases between launches; looks can be deceptive and China has achieved each critical step towards building a permanent space station within the next few years. Meanwhile, its overall space program builds out each critical element to support regular manned space operations.

At the same time, the US continues to pursue its own mix of military, science and civil space operations. Compared to every other national space program the US leads by such a distance it's hard to imagine its achievements being eclipsed anytime soon.

Among the so called space community there are several groupings. Some are traditional in outlook and view the space program in purely military and or scientific terms. And while there is obviously a healthy commercial space industry - the focus here has been entirely on Earth orbit platforms such as communications and earth observation satellites.

As is well known, another group has emerged over the past 20 years and is often described as New Space. With an initial focus on space tourism, this has expanded to asteroid mining and the colonization of Mars.

Having closely followed these developments the one clear conclusion is how little has actually occurred with these dreams. Despite the regular round of space conferences and the like, the same dreams are repeated over and over. And the years keep on passing by with little to show for their efforts.

Despite a flurry of space tourist flights to the ISS, no private paying passenger has ridden a Soyuz to the ISS since 2009. Virgin Galactic remains Earth bound, while nearly every other company selling space tourist dreams has folded. The only near term contender is WorldView, which plans to launch balloons to the upper stratosphere that will enable long duration flights to an altitude where the illusion of being in space is about as real as you can get without actually flying a 100km ballistic mission profile.

SpaceX is often portrayed as the great game changer. And, like Blue Origin, both companies have embraced new computer based design methodologies that have significantly sped up rocket engine development while also reducing costs. But Blue Origin has yet to launch a single payload into space, and SpaceX is wholly dependent on traditional customers such as NASA and the large commercial satellite communication operators.

SpaceX's recent announcement of a cis-lunar mission faces no significant obstacles and may achieve its goal of launching two paying customers by 2018 - but there is no shortage of industry observers who seriously doubt that this timeframe is realistic and expect the launch date to slip to 2019/2020 and even longer.

For now, the real action will remain with the government space programs of the US, Russia, the EU, China and India.

Given NASA's recent history of attempting to develop a new heavy lift launcher only to abandon yet another program after spending billions, it's been easy to dismiss the Space Launch System as just another make work program for Alabama.

Frequently derided as the Senate Launch System, in honor of its government backers in the US Senate, there is far more to this than many realize.

That the SLS is so strongly backed by the US Senate, should point to what the real objective of the SLS program actually is.

The stated reason has been to travel and land on a passing asteroid and achieve a significant "space first" that would obviously play well for national prestige. And while this may be one of its mission objectives, the obvious similarities to the Saturn 5 launcher should make it clear why the Senate has so readily backed the SLS program. Namely as a ready-to-go launcher for an Apollo Redux should China show any intention or, more importantly, near-term capability of sending humans back to the Moon.

Despite the dreams and aspirations of so many across New Space national prestige is what drives the civil space programs today as much as it has done for the past 60+ years.

China would be delighted to be the second nation to make it to the moon in what would be an entirely new achievement that would signal to the world that China was the new Superpower to respect and aspire to.

The US Senate has, in my opinion, long understood the realpolitik of this and for this reason demanded that NASA develop the SLS program as an undeclared back up plan that could be readily sped up when China begins to make its play for a manned mission to the lunar surface.

Within the framework of global superpower politics - the US cannot allow China to land humans on the Moon before the US returns.

For China to be landing people on the Moon while the US can't even launch its own astronauts to the ISS, would be a global projection of power that would be immensely damaging to US prestige and power.

It would appear that this intersection of superpower politics has been communicated to President Trump and the undeclared race back to the Moon is fast becoming a reality.

Elon Musk has sought to deal SpaceX into the game with the CIS-Lunar mission. China has now responded with a flurry of well placed stories in its domestic media about its own manned Lunar program. And all of sudden everyone is talking about sending humans back to the moon.

In response, the Mars or Bust crowd has begun complaining that this is all a distraction that will make the "Journey to Mars" an even more distant prospect than what it is now. And that only private enterprise can make us a space faring species.

The reality though is that the space tourism industry has achieved next to nothing of what it has promised over the past 15 years. The asteroid miners are just paper projects that fill in slots for the conference circuit and are decades away from recovering any minerals from an asteroid for commercial purposes.

Comparisons to the age of discovery of the 16th and 17th centuries are usually best taken with a grain of salt given the sailing ships of those times had a functioning biosphere readily at hand and actual gravity to support them, along with complete radiation protection and an endless supply of cheap labor and food.

However, there is one aspect that can be reasonably compared - and that is time. It took decades and in some cases centuries for the full potential of the new world to be exploited in any significant way. Moreover, spaceflight and terrestrial flight are not the same. They are separated by many orders of magnitude in cost and energy. It is therefore entirely unsurprising that we are only where we are now with space exploration and development. Logically, this will change over the coming decades, but it will take far longer than most are prepared to accept.

In the meantime, the Second Moon Race has begun, and will be readily embraced by NASA and its private industry contractors, be they legacy or new space.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/The_Second_Moon_Race_999.html.