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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Turkish assembly passes polemic bill to boost Erdogan powers

January 21, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's parliament on Saturday approved a contentious constitutional reform package, paving the way for a referendum on a presidential system that would greatly expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office.

The decision marks a victory for Erdogan, a polarizing but overall popular figure, who critics view as increasingly autocratic. In an all-night session that ended early Saturday, lawmakers voted in favor of a set of amendments presented by the ruling party, founded by Erdogan. The reform bill cleared the minimum threshold necessary to put the measures to a national referendum for final approval.

The vote took place with 488 lawmakers in the 550-seat assembly in attendance. A total of 339 parliamentarians voted yes, 142 no, five cast empty ballots and two were ruled out as invalid. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim celebrated the result saying the decision was now in the hands of the Turkish people who would make the right choice.

"Don't you ever doubt that the people will most certainly make the best decision regarding the constitutional reforms," he told lawmakers. "Our people will head to the polls, will vote with their hearts and minds and make the best choice for Turkey."

A public vote on the issue is expected as early as March 26, and no later than mid-April, according to officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. In addition to changing the system of government, the reform bill would allow the president to keep ties with his party and restructure the nation's highest judicial body.

It increases the number of seats in the assembly to 600, lowers the minimum age of lawmakers to 18 and foresees simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections every five years. Ruling party officials argue a strong presidency is needed for a strong Turkey capable of surmounting a broad array of internal and external security threats.

Opposition lawmakers see the changes as a bid to cement the powers of Erdogan, who has established a de-facto presidential system since coming into the office in 2014. Some complained that restrictions on the press and intense pressure to toe the line had left no space for them to air their views.

Lawmaker Bulent Tezcan warned parliament was "creating a one-man regime that will take (Turkey) wherever his appetite desires." Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition Republican People's Party, regretted the assembly's decision to "hand over its own authority" and "betray" its history. He vowed to lead a "struggle for democracy" to have the reforms rejected in the referendum

Saturday's decision concludes almost two weeks of heated debates in the assembly, where lawmakers traded barbs and came to blows on more than one occasion. In one dramatic scene, a lawmaker handcuffed herself to the rostrum in a bid to stop deliberations.

With the almost full backing of the ruling party and newly allied nationalist party, the bill passed. The result is a win for Erdogan, a founder of the Islamist-leaning AKP and the country's first directly elected president. He served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014.

Analysts predict the reforms would pass a national referendum as much of the public buys into the argument that a strong president would equal a stronger Turkey. Turkey expert Jonathan Friedman of Stroz Friedberg, a global risk consultancy, says the debate "comes down to whether or not you support Erdogan."

He warns that the proposed changes would make permanent powers that the presidency has gained through a state of emergency introduced last year. "These added powers do not appear to have improved Turkey's security and stability," he told AP.

The parliamentary vote comes six months after a violent attempt to unseat the Turkish president. The polarizing leader survived the July 15 coup attempt thanks to thousands of supporters who took to the streets to confront tanks and round up rogue soldiers.

Those dramatic events and more than a decade of success at the ballot box are a testament to the popularity enjoyed by Erdogan and the party he founded. But the failed coup attempt set the stage for a state of emergency and a sweeping purge of state institutions that has alarmed rights groups and Western governments.

Critics see Erdogan as an Islamist-leaning populist, authoritarian leader who has ruthlessly purged opponents from every institution and threatens Turkey's secular traditions. Rights groups have sounded the alarm over what they see as a widening, accelerating crackdown on dissent that has crippled the media and decimated the pro-Kurdish party.

In the wake of the coup, more than 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed for their alleged ties to Fethullah Gulan, a U.S.-based cleric Ankara blames for the revolt. Turkish authorities say they are tackling an array of terrorists — from Gulen's movement to backers of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party and the Islamic State group.

The country is a member of the NATO alliance and a partner in the U.S. led-coalition against IS. Its armed forces are active in neighboring Syria and Iraq. In the past year, Turkey suffered dozens of bloody attacks in violence linked to IS and Kurdish militants who have waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Soguel reported from Basel, Switzerland. Cinar Kiper in Istanbul also contributed.

Istanbul gunman captured after more than 2 weeks on run

January 17, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish police captured the gunman who carried out the deadly New Year's nightclub attack in Istanbul, with officials saying Tuesday that he's an Uzbekistan national who trained in Afghanistan and confessed to the massacre.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters in Ankara that the man was being questioned by police and expressed hope that the interrogation would unveil the "forces" behind the attack, which killed 39 people and has already been claimed by the Islamic State group.

"The vile terrorist who attacked the place of entertainment on New Year's eve and led to the loss of so many lives has been captured," Yildirim said. He added: "What is important is for the suspect to be captured and for the forces behind it to be revealed."

The premier wouldn't provide further details on the arrest or the investigation, saying authorities would provide specifics "in time." Moments later in separate remarks, Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin said that the suspect is an Uzbekistan national who trained in Afghanistan. He is believed to have entered Turkey in January 2016. Sahin identified him as Abdulkadir Masharipov, saying he was born in 1983 without giving an exact birthday. Turkish media are reporting the suspect's first name as Abdulgadir.

Sahin said that the man, captured late Monday, confessed to carrying out the massacre and that his fingerprints matched those of the attacker. The suspect, according to Sahin, was a well-educated terrorist who speaks four languages and had clearly carried out the attack in the name of IS.

The police operation to apprehend him drew on the review of 7,200 hours of security camera footage and involved around 2,000 police officers, including special units, the governor said. Authorities seized nearly $200,000 during the suspect's arrest.

The statements come hours after police began questioning the suspect after he was caught in a police operation at a luxury residential complex in Istanbul. The state-run Anadolu Agency said that a man from Kyrgyzstan and three women — from Somalia, Senegal and Egypt — were also detained in the raid, while the gunman's 4-year-old son was taken into protective custody.

Hurriyet newspaper earlier reported that the alleged gunman's wife and 1-year old daughter were caught in a police operation on Jan. 12. IS group has claimed responsibility for the nightclub massacre, saying the attack in the first hours of Jan. 1 was in reprisal for Turkish military operations in northern Syria. The man identified as the suspect had been on the run since the attack.

Anadolu said police have also carried out raids on members of a suspected Uzbek IS cell in five Istanbul neighborhoods, and detained several people. Photographs from raids, widely published in the Turkish media, showed a bruised, black-haired man in a gray, bloodied shirt being held by his neck. NTV television said the gunman had resisted arrest.

Hundreds of people were gathered at the swanky Reina nightclub to celebrate the end of a tumultuous 2016 only to become the first victims of 2017. The gunman shot a police officer and a civilian outside the club, before storming the premises.

Most of the dead in the attack on the upscale club were foreign nationals, mainly from the Middle East.

Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, and Dominique Soguel in Basel, Switzerland, contributed to this report.

Turkey moves to support currency after it hits record low

January 10, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey's central bank has moved to support the currency after it hit another record low amid investor concerns that the country might concentrate political power under its president. The central bank effectively freed up $1.5 billion in foreign cash liquidity for the banks by allowing them to reduce the amount of foreign currency they have to hold in reserve.

Concerns over Turkey's financial system have grown in recent weeks as investors worry about the country's political future. The government has cracked down on dissenters since a coup attempt this summer and is debating whether to further concentrate power.

Parliament started to deliberate Monday on constitutional amendments that would concentrate power President in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hands. Critics say it would turn the country into a de facto "dictatorship."

The currency, the lira, is down almost 7 percent on the day at 3.71 per dollar, having touched a record low of 3.78 earlier in the day. Because Turkey relies on a lot of foreign investment in its economy, the currency's drop can make it harder to pay back foreign debt. The central bank could support the currency by raising interest rates, but that would also hurt the economy by making borrowing costs higher for businesses and consumers.

So Tuesday's move is a way to ease pressure in the financial system and currency markets, though economists are skeptical they will be enough. "With policymakers clearly spooked by the decline in the lira and today's moves likely to have only a short-term impact, outright hikes in official interest rates look increasingly likely," said William Jackson, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics in London.

Turkey's parliament to debate greater powers for Erdogan

January 09, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's parliament is kicking off a debate Monday on a set of draft constitutional amendments that would hand Recep Tayyip Erdogan's largely ceremonial presidency sweeping executive powers, and the possibility of serving two more five-year terms.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 14 years, has long been pushing for greater political powers to the presidency, arguing that a strong leadership will help Turkey grow. The main opposition party fears that if approved, the reforms will concentrate too much power in Erdogan's hands, turn the country into a system akin to a dictatorship and move Turkey away from democracy and its anchor in the West.

"They are trying to turn the democratic parliamentary regime into a totalitarian regime," said main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Debate on the proposals is expected to last two weeks. The reforms must clear two rounds of balloting in the general assembly, gaining at least 330 of the 550 votes. If passed, the government will submit the package to a referendum for a final approval — possibly in the spring.

The ruling party, founded by Erdogan, is 14 votes short of the required 330 but has secured the backing of the country's nationalist party. The changes would make the president the head of the executive, allow him to appoint the government, retain ties with his party, propose budgets and declare states of emergency. They would also allow Erdogan to serve a further two terms, ending in 2029.

Other proposed amendments would increase the number of seats in the 550-member parliament to 600, reduce the minimum age of legislators from 25 to 18 and set parliamentary and presidential elections on the same day.

The debate comes at a difficult time for the country which has been rocked by a wave of bombings, renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast, a military offensive in Syria and a failed coup attempt.

The botched July 15 coup set the stage for a sweeping purge of state institutions that has alarmed rights groups and Western governments. The government says the strong presidential system will reduce instability.

"They ask, why are you keeping yourselves occupied with constitutional amendments (when) there is terrorism?" Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last week. "Look, it's today that we have the greatest need for a constitutional reform."

Critics say the changes would allow Erdogan to rule with limited checks and balances. Erdogan is already accused overstepping the limits of presidential powers as set by the constitution, ruling behind the scenes and ignoring laws that require him to be neutral.

Erdogan argues that the fact that he was elected by the people directly — and not through parliament as previous presidents were — gives him greater authority. The draft amendments were approved following 10 days of tense debate that at times resulted in altercations between the ruling party and main opposition party members on the committee. Debate in the general assembly is expected to be equally tense.

Al-Jazeera survey names Erdogan 'Person of the Year'

08 January 2017 Sunday

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was named 2016's "Person of the Year" in a survey by Al Jazeera’s Arabic service on Saturday.

According to Al Jazeera’s Arabic service website, around 130,000 people voted in the survey carried out on the Doha-based network’s Facebook page.

Erdogan came out as 2016's "Person of the Year" by bagging 40 percent of the votes.

Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian child who was photographed in August 2016 with his face covered in dust and blood after an attack by regime forces, came in second with 34 percent votes.

Slain Tunisian aviation engineer Mohamed Zouari, who was reportedly behind the drone program of Palestinian group Hamas, came in third with 17 percent votes.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/182817/al-jazeera-survey-names-erdogan-person-of-the-year.

Turkey to naturalize some Syrian, Iraqi refugees


ISTANBUL - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday announced that some of the millions of Syrian and Iraqis who have fled to Turkey would be given Turkish nationality.

"Our interior ministry is carrying out work, and under this work, some of them will be granted our nationality after all the necessary checks" have been carried out, Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.

"There are highly qualified people among them, there are engineers, lawyers, doctors. Let's make use" of that talent, he argued.

"Instead of letting them work illegally here and there, let's give them the chance to work as citizens, like the children of this nation," he said.

Erdogan said the interior ministry "is ready to implement the measure at any time." But he gave no further details, notably about how many would gain Turkish nationality.

According to Turkish government figures, the country is hosting more than three million Syrians and Iraqis who have fled war.

Erdogan outlined a naturalization plan last summer but the idea met with angry protests and xenophobic comments on social media.

The country's political opposition saw the plan as a scheme to widen Erdogan's electoral basis at a time when he is pushing for constitutional reform that will strengthen his powers.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80716.

A look at some of the 39 people killed in Istanbul attack

January 03, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — At least 39 people were killed and nearly 70 injured in the mass shooting that took place in front of and inside a popular Istanbul nightclub in the first hours of New Year's Day. The victims included citizens of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, France, Tunisia, India, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Canada, Israel, Syria, Belgium, Germany and Russia.

Among them was a police officer and a security guard employed to keep revelers safe, a tour guide escorting visitors during a night on the town and young adults who had traveled to Turkey for the holidays.

A look at what is known so far about the victims and their nationalities.

Alaa Al-Muhandia has been identified as the Canadian woman killed, the Canadian government confirmed. She was a 29-year-old mother of two from Milton, Ontario.

Mehmet Kerim Akyil, 23, had traveled from Belgium to Istanbul for a New Year's vacation. His father, Ali Akyil, told state-run Anadolu news agency that they were a Turkish family who loved their country.

Bulent Sirvan Osman, 38, a married father of two from Erbil, Iraq, was in Istanbul for business, according to Anadolu.

Abdullah Ahmed Abbolos, a 32-year-old Palestinian living in Saudi Arabia, had come to Istanbul to celebrate the new year, Anadolu reported.

Abis Rizvi from Mumbai was one of two Indian victims of the attack. The 49-year-old builder wrote, produced and directed a Bollywood movie "Roar: The Tigers of Sunderbans," in 2014 aimed at spreading awareness about tigers.

The other Indian victim was named as Khushi Shah, a fashion designer from Vadodara, a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Hatice Karcilar, a 29-year-old private security guard, was among the Turkish victims of the attack, state-run Anadolu news agency reported. She is survived by her husband and a 3-year-old daughter, it said.

Turkish police officer Burak Yildiz was shot and killed outside the Reina nightclub, Anadolu reported. The 22-year-old from the southern city of Mersin had been on the force for 1½ years.

Ayhan Arik, a 47-year-old Turkish travel agent and a father of two, was shot in the head outside the club, reported the private Dogan news agency.

The Lebanese Foreign Ministry identified three of its citizens among the dead as Elias Wardini, Rita Shami and Haikal Musalam. The wounded included Bushra El Douaihy, the daughter of parliament member Estephan El Douaihy, it said.

Leanne Nasser, an 18-year-old Arab-Israeli from the town of Tira, was celebrating with friends when the gunman broke in and opened fire. Ruaa Mansour, also 18, was moderately wounded in the attack. Two other friends were unharmed.

The U.S. State Department confirmed that a 35-year-old Delaware businessman originally from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, wounded in the attack.

William Jacob Raak told the Dogan news agency that he was in the club with nine people, seven of whom were shot. Raak suffered a leg wound.

France's foreign minister says one French citizen was killed and three others wounded in the shooting.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in a statement that a woman with both French and Tunisian citizenship died in the attack early Sunday. The woman's Tunisian husband also died, he said.

Dubai-based broadcaster Al Arabiya reported that seven people from Saudi Arabia were killed and 10 were wounded in the attack.

Two people from Bavaria are among the dead, according to Germany's Foreign Ministry.

Spokesman Martin Schaefer declined to name them, but said it appeared one was a German-Turkish dual citizen and the other was believed to have had only Turkish nationality. Three German citizens were wounded in the attack, he said.

Jordan's Foreign Ministry said two of its citizens were killed and six were wounded in the attack.

Kuwait's Consul-General Mohammad Fahad al-Mohammad said one Kuwaiti was killed and five others were wounded in the shooting.

A look at the major attacks in Turkey over the past year

January 01, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A deadly New Year's assault on an Istanbul nightclub follows a long string of attacks in Turkey over the past year. A look at the most significant attacks:

— Jan. 12, 2016, Istanbul: Suicide bomber kills 12 German tourists in historic district. Authorities say attacker was linked the Islamic State group.

— Feb. 17, Ankara: A suicide car bomb apparently targeting military personnel kills 29 people in an attack claimed by TAK, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

— March 13, Ankara: Kurdish woman blows herself up in a car at a busy transport hub, killing 37 people in an attack claimed by TAK, also known as the Kurdish Freedom Falcons.

— March 19, Istanbul: Turkish suicide bomber kills five people in the city's main pedestrian shopping street, Istiklal. Turkish officials say bomber was linked to IS.

— March 31, Diyarbakir: Car bomb kills seven police officers and wounds 27 people, including 13 police.

— April 12, Gaziantep: Syrian journalist dies from gunshot wounds from attack claimed by IS.

— April 27, Bursa: Female suicide bomber wounds 13 in a historic district of Turkey's fourth largest city.

— May 1, Gaziantep: Car bomb at the entrance of a police station kills two officers, 22 other people wounded.

— May 10, Diyarbakir: Car bomb strikes police vehicle carrying officers escorting seven detained Kurdish militants, killing three people and wounding 45 others.

— May 12, Istanbul: Car bomb targeting a military garrison explodes during rush hour, wounding eight people.

— June 7, Istanbul: Car bomb hits a riot police bus during the morning rush hour, killing 11 people and wounding 36. A Kurdish militant group claims responsibility.

— June 8, Midyat: Kurdish suicide car bomber kills five people and wounds 51, including 23 civilians, outside a police headquarters near Turkey-Syria border.

— June 17, Istanbul: Car bomb explodes as a police vehicle passes by, killing 11 people.

— June 28, Istanbul's Ataturk Airport: Three suicide bombers armed with assault rifles storm airport, killing 44 people and wounding nearly 150.

— July 15: About 270 people die in military coup attempt.

— Aug. 17, Van: Car bombing at a police station kills a police officer and two civilians; 53 civilians and 20 police officers wounded.

— Aug. 18, Elazig: Car bomb at police headquarters kills at least five people and wounds more than 140.

— Aug. 20, Gaziantep: Suicide bomber — possibly as young as 12 — kills at least 51 people at an outdoor Kurdish wedding party. IS suspected of directing attack.

— Aug. 26, Cizre: Kurdish suicide bomber rams an explosives-laden truck into a police checkpoint, killing at least 11 officers and wounding 78 other people.

— Sept, 12. Van: Car bomb wounds 50 people outside ruling party's municipal headquarters.

— Oct. 6, Istanbul: Motorcycle bomb explodes near a police station, wounding at least 10 people.

— Oct. 8, Ankara: Two suicide bombers blow themselves up after refusing to surrender to police. No one else was hurt.

— Oct. 9, Hakkari province: Kurdish militants detonate car bomb outside a military checkpoint in the southeast, killing 10 soldiers and eight civilians.

— Oct. 10, Dicle: A top local official of the ruling Justice and Development Party is killed when attackers open fire at a gas station he owned.

— Nov. 4, Diyarbakir: Car bomb near a riot-police bus kills at least 11 people, including two police officers. A Kurdish militant group and IS both claim responsibility.

— Nov. 24, Adana: Car bomb targeting a government building kills at least two people and wounds 33 others.

— Dec. 10, Istanbul: A double bomb attack outside soccer stadium kills 44 people and wounds 149.

— Dec. 17, Kayseri province: Suicide car bomber targeting a public bus transporting off-duty soldiers kills 13 troops and wounds 56 other people.

— Dec. 19, Ankara: A Turkish riot policeman assassinates Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov at a photo exhibition.

— Jan. 1, 2017, Istanbul. An assailant opens fire at a crowded nightclub during New Year's celebrations. Istanbul's governor says the attack killed at least 35 people and wounded 40 others.

New Year's attack on packed Istanbul club leaves 39 dead

January 01, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — An assailant believed to have been dressed in a Santa Claus costume opened fire at a crowded nightclub in Istanbul during New Year's celebrations, killing at least 39 people and wounding close to 70 others in what the province's governor described as a terror attack.

Gov. Vasip Sahin said the attacker, armed with a long-barreled weapon, killed a policeman and a civilian outside the club at around 1:45 a.m. Sunday before entering and firing on people partying inside. He did not say who may have carried out the attack.

"Unfortunately (he) rained bullets in a very cruel and merciless way on innocent people who were there to celebrate New Year's and have fun," Sahin told reporters. Private NTV news channel said the assailant entered the Reina nightclub, in Istanbul's Ortakoy district, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the man was still on the run, adding: "efforts to find the terrorist are continuing." "Our security forces have started the necessary operations. God willing he will be caught in a short period of time," the minister said.

At least 16 of the dead were foreign nationals, Soylu said, without providing information on their nationalities. Five of the victims were identified as Turkish nationals while authorities were still trying to identify 18 of the victims. At least 69 people were being treated in hospitals, four in serious condition, Soylu said.

Some customers jumped into the waters of the Bosporus to escape the attack, the report said. Sinem Uyanik was inside the club with her husband who was wounded in the attack. "Before I could understand what was happening, my husband fell on top me," she said outside Istanbul's Sisli Etfal Hospital. "I had to lift several bodies from top of me before I could get out. It was frightening." Her husband was not in serious condition despite sustaining three wounds.

Police with riot gear and machine guns backed up by armored vehicles blocked the area close to the Reina nightclub, one of the most popular night spots in Istanbul. Several ambulances flashing blue lights arrived on the scene, some taking wounded to hospitals.

The White House condemned what it called a "horrific terrorist attack" and offered U.S. help to Turkey. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said President Barack Obama was briefed on the attack by his national security team and asked to be updated as the situation developed. Obama is vacationing in Hawaii this week with his family.

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the attack on "innocent revelers" celebrating New Year's shows the attackers' savagery. "Our thoughts are with victims and their loved ones. We continue to work to prevent these tragedies," European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini tweeted.

An estimated 600 people were celebrating inside the club that is also frequented by famous locals, including singers, actors and sports stars. Several shocked revelers were seen fleeing the scene after the attack and the music fell silent.

The country has been rocked by a series of deadly attacks in 2016 carried out by the Islamic State group or Kurdish militants, killing more than 180 people. On Dec. 10, a double bomb attack outside soccer stadium — located near the Reina nightclub — killed 44 people and wounded 149 others. The attack was claimed by Turkey-based Kurdish militant group, the Kurdish Freedom Falcons. Nine days later, an off-duty Turkish riot policeman assassinated Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov at a photo exhibition in the capital, Ankara. The government has suggested that a movement led U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the killing — an accusation the cleric has denied.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag vowed that Turkey would press ahead with its fight against violent groups. "Turkey will continue its determined and effective combat to root out terror," Bozdag said on Twitter.

Security measures had been heightened in major Turkish cities, with police barring traffic leading up to key squares in Istanbul and the capital Ankara. In Istanbul, 17,000 police officers were put on duty, some camouflaged as Santa Claus and others as street vendors, Turkey's Anadolu news agency reported.

Dusan Stojanovic and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed.

Turkish committee clears draft expanding Erdogan's powers

December 30, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish parliamentary commission on Friday cleared a set of draft constitutional amendments that would greatly expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The constitutional commission approved the reforms at the end of a 17-hour session that lasted into the early hours of Friday, opening the way for deliberations and a vote in the full assembly in January, with a possible referendum in the spring.

The proposals would turn the largely ceremonial presidency into one where the president enjoys full executive powers. Erdogan, who was prime minister before becoming president in 2014, has long advocated a presidential system, arguing it would give the head of state flexibility to make Turkey one of the top 10 powers in the world by 2023, when the Turkish Republic marks its centenary.

Critics fear the proposals would allow Erdogan, who is increasingly accused of authoritarian behavior, to rule with limited checks and balances. The draft amendments were approved following 10 days of tense debate that at times resulted in altercations between the ruling party and main opposition party members on the committee. The 21 articles that were initially submitted to the committee were reduced to 18, over some objections by ruling-party legislators.

"This is the greatest democratic move in the history of the (Turkish) republic," said Resat Petek, a legislator from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, following the committee's vote. The main opposition party, the Republican Peoples' Party, CHP, said the draft amendments amount to a "regime change."

"It is a constitution that will destroy the century-old gains of the democratic republic," said CHP legislator Bulent Tezcan. "It is a constitution that will create a tyrannical state." The amendments were proposed by the AKP with the newly won support of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. The nationalist party was expected to back the amendments in the general assembly as well.

Erdogan enjoys popularity and has rallied support following a failed military coup blamed on a movement led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. The changes would allow the president to appoint the government, retain ties with his party, propose budgets and declare states of emergency. They would also allow Erdogan to serve a further two terms, ending in 2029.

Other proposed amendments would increase the number of seats in the 550-member parliament to 600, reduce the minimum age of legislators from 25 to 18 and set parliamentary and presidential elections on the same day.

The changes come at a tumultuous time for Turkey, which has been rocked by a wave of bombings, renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast, and the failed coup attempt. The botched July 15 coup set the stage for a sweeping purge of state institutions that has alarmed rights groups and Western governments.

On Friday, the government closed down 94 associations with alleged links to terror organizations, using powers from a state of emergency that was declared after the coup. The Interior Ministry said 42 of the associations were connected to Gulen's movement, 26 were linked to the Kurdish rebels, four were connected to the Islamic State group while 21 were tied to various far-left groups.

The closures raise the number of associations disbanded since the coup to more than 1,400.

Venezuela protesters target Maduro, vow to keep up pressure

April 11, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of protesters demanding new elections faced off with security forces who launched tear gas and stood shoulder-to-shoulder blocking roadways in the Venezuelan capital Monday.

Demonstrators covered their faces to protect against the plumes of tear gas that wafted through the streets of Caracas. A few threw rocks as they tried to make their way downtown waving Venezuelan flags and carrying signs decrying President Nicolas Maduro.

"We need to get out on the street and fight, to tell these people we don't want them," said Maria Guedez, a 67-year-old homemaker carrying a sign that read, "No more dictatorship." Now in their second week, the protests initially erupted April 1 after the Supreme Court stripped congress of its last vestiges of power, a decision it later reversed. Demonstrators and opposition leaders are angered at what they see as a government that no longer respects democratic institutions and is sliding toward authoritarianism.

Authorities squashed an opposition campaign to hold a recall referendum on Maduro last year, and a date has yet to be set for gubernatorial elections that were supposed to take place in 2016. Maduro accuses the opposition of fomenting unrest and conspiring with international actors to destabilize the country. He was in Cuba on Monday for a gathering of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.

On Sunday the president called on the opposition to return to stymied efforts at dialogue and said he was eager for regional elections to take place. But opposition leaders renewed calls to take to the streets, saying Maduro's words have no credibility until a full election timeline has been formally established.

"That's the only way there will be peace in Venezuela," said Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly. Socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello said on Twitter opposition members who "use violence and terrorism to impose (themselves) on the majority who want peace" should face the consequences of the law.

"Enough with impunity," he wrote. Monday's protest took place at the start of Easter Week, when many Venezuelans typically spend quiet time at home with family or go on vacation. Opposition party leaders urged people to put any beach plans on hold and instead get some sun while out putting pressure on the government.

Authorities shut down several metro stations citing security reasons, but thousands nonetheless walked to the march. In some previous demonstrations, government groups have roughed up several opposition leaders and fired rubber bullets and a previously unseen reddish gas at crowds. One day a small group of young protesters unsuccessfully tried to set fire to a Supreme Court office, and another group snatched a camera from journalists working for pro-government state broadcaster VTV.

A dozen people were injured in the protest Monday, and opposition leaders shared a video they said showed an infant being whisked away after being overcome by tear gas. Opposition members also distributed a picture of an expired tear gas canister they said was found detonated at a previous demonstration.

Expired tear gas chemicals and solvents inside a cartridge could potentially react with each other or oxygen in the area and degrade, forming highly toxic gases, said Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine. A degraded pyrotechnic charge propelling the cartridge could also lead to uncontrolled explosions, he said.

Overall, the unrest has left one person dead and more than 100 detained. Eighteen people were detained Monday, and Venezuela's Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said officers would continue to be deployed around the country.

"The Bolivarian government stands by its commitment to guarantee the tranquility and social wellbeing of our people," he said in announcing the detentions. International leaders and the Organization for American States have been ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela to hold general elections, a call Maduro and his allies have condemned as an unjust attempt to intervene in the Andean nation's domestic affairs.

On Friday, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles was barred from running for public office for 15 years amid an intense campaign waged by the government tying him to the protest movement that has grown into the most contentious since a wave of unrest in 2014.

"We urge demonstrators to express themselves non-violently and call on government security forces to protect peaceful protest, not prevent it," a U.S. State Department spokesman said Monday. Popular singer Miguel Ignacio Mendoza, known as Nacho, was among those affected by tear gas in Caracas Monday.

"The repression is not an invention of the media," he said, his eyes irritated by the gas. "I'm here to prove it"

Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Venezuelans pour into Caracas streets in anti-Maduro protest

April 09, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's government fired tear gas and rubber bullets at some of the thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who poured into the streets of Caracas Saturday amid a weeklong protest movement that shows little sign of losing steam.

The demonstrations in the capital and several other cities came a day after Maduro's government barred top opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years. The ban capped a tumultuous 10 day-crackdown that saw pro-government groups rough up several opposition leaders and another seek refuge in a foreign embassy to escape arrest.

The protests were triggered by the Supreme Court's decision to gut the opposition-controlled legislature of its last vestiges of power, a move that was later reversed amid widespread international condemnation and even dissent within Maduro's normally disciplined socialist leadership.

"Nobody can disqualify the Venezuelan people," an emotional Capriles said from a stage Saturday as he called on protesters to march to the ombudsman's office downtown. As the sea of protesters approached the headquarters of state-run PDVSA oil company, they were met by rubber bullets and a curtain of eye-scorching tear gas, some of it a never-before-seen red color. Mayhem ensued, with riot police racing down windy streets, dodging objects thrown from tall apartment buildings as they deployed to squash the unrest.

Later, a small group of youths unsuccessfully tried to set fire to a Supreme Court office building. The violence was condemned by the opposition leadership, who nonetheless blame Maduro's obstinacy for fueling the unrest.

They called for another protest Monday. But with Caracas shutting down for the Easter holiday — which Maduro extended by decree for three extra days — they appeared to be saving their strength for a major demonstration called for April 19.

At least 17 people were treated for injuries, according to Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor where the demonstration took place. Around most of Caracas, checkpoints were set up to search cars and frisk bus passengers even miles away from the clashes. As night fell, many streets still reeked of tear gas and a small group of youth burned trash and tore down street signs at busy intersections in eastern Caracas.

As the most dominant figure in the opposition over the past decade, Capriles has been at the forefront of the protests, the most combative since a wave of anti-government unrest in 2014 in which dozens of people were killed, many at the hands of security forces.

The almost-daily churn of events in what the opposition calls an "ongoing coup" by the government has energized and united the normally fractious opposition. While opposition leaders have insisted on peaceful protest, frustration built up over 17 years of polarizing socialist rule in Venezuela is running high on both sides.

As Saturday's march began, protesters snatched a camera from crew members working for pro-government state broadcaster VTV, chasing them away from the crowd with kicks and insults. Police, meanwhile, made social media posts of mugshots of protesters taken undercover and asked for information on the unidentified "generators of violence."

Leaders in the ruling socialist party have accused the opposition of trying to provoke a bloodbath and its own coup. The protesters on Saturday included 26-year-old Victoria Paez, who sported a baseball cap bearing the slogan "There's a Way!" from Capriles' 2012 presidential run against the late Hugo Chavez.

"Every day, the government gives us more reasons to leave our homes and protest," said Paez, who earns less than $20 a month as a chemical engineer. She said she's thinking about joining a sister and scores of college friends who have left the South American country seeking a better future.

While she said she was hopeful the world is beginning to see there are injustices in Venezuela, her father, Carlos Paez, was more pessimistic. "Unfortunately, if there has to be bloodshed for the government to change, it won't be the first time in history," he said.

The protest movement's immediate goal apparently is to force Maduro to call elections. Authorities last year cancelled an opposition campaign to hold a recall referendum on Maduro and no date has yet been set for gubernatorial elections that were supposed to take place last year.

The government earlier jailed another major opposition figure, hardliner Leopoldo Lopez. With both seemingly out of the running, the government may be trying to manipulate the electoral playing field to leave the opposition with less viable options should the government bow to pressure and call elections before they're scheduled in 2018, analysts said.

"However, it is a risky strategy that will probably backfire," Eurasia Group said in a report Friday. "The opposition is clearly fired up and this will further their cause."

7 years later, Poland still wrestles with plane crash trauma

April 09, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It's been seven years since Poland lost its president in a plane crash in Russia. His twin brother, who effectively runs the Polish government today, remains in mourning, only wearing black suits and black ties in public — and determined to punish those he blames for the crash.

The identical and inseparable Kaczynski twins Lech and Jaroslaw were in the Polish public eye for half a century — childhood actors, then advisers to President Lech Walesa, then rising to become president and prime minister simultaneously.

Tragedy struck when President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash on April 10, 2010, along with his wife and 94 others, many of them top members of Poland's political and military elite. They were flying to an airport near Smolensk, Russia, to pay tribute to some 22,000 Polish officers killed in the Katyn massacres by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

Poland will mark the anniversary of the crash Monday with state observances. Seven years later, Jaroslaw Kaczynski still thinks many questions surrounding the crash need to be answered, not the least by Russia, which has refused to return the wreckage and the plane's flight recorders, and Donald Tusk, the then-Polish prime minister who is now one of the European Union's top officials.

Kaczynski has used his position as leader of the ruling Law and Justice party to direct state bodies to try to debunk official findings that the crash was an accident. Early on, Polish investigators concluded the crash was an accident resulting from several factors, including pilot error and heavy fog.

His supporters, often Catholic and generally older, see Kaczynski as a brave defender pursuing the truth. Opponents see him as a dangerous promoter of conspiracy theories for which no evidence has ever surfaced.

The continuing quest is also deepening Poland's isolation in Europe, evident last month when the government's objections to the re-election of Tusk as president of the European Council failed. Kaczynski accuses Tusk and his allies of not doing enough to clarify all facts surrounding the crash and of failing to ensure proper security for the flight of a president who was in an opposing political camp. Some of his accusations have been strong, of Tusk somehow colluding to make the accident happen.

Tusk has denounced the accusations as absurd, saying at first they could be attributed to Kaczynski's deep grief, but later calling them a "nasty" and "cynical" ploy for power by a party without any other political ideas.

Even in 2014, when Tusk was still prime minister and Kaczynski led the opposition, he said, "What Jaroslaw Kaczynski is doing with the catastrophe is already a problem for the whole state." Along with his brother and sister-in-law, a large swath of the ruling elite perished in the crash, including the head of the central bank and the army's chief of staff. That a patriotic president was on a mission to honor an atrocity inflicted by Moscow only deepened a sense of continued Polish suffering due to Russia — a country that Jaroslaw Kaczynski has called "cursed earth."

"I lost a twin brother," Kaczynski, now 67, said months after the disaster. "You need to have one to understand what kind of loss that is." While his loss elicited widespread sympathy, Kaczynski's opponents have grown extremely critical of what they, like Tusk, see as is a cynical use of the tragedy for political gain.

Anti-government protests will take place on the sidelines of Monday's state ceremonies. Opponents say they will also protest the country's overall political direction, which they decry as anti-democratic.

The Polish government, now 17 months in power, has come under international censure for steps that have eroded the system of checks and balance on the government. While Kaczynski holds no government post, he is widely considered the real power behind both the prime minster and president, whom he both chose.

The main anti-government protest, which is being organized by civic rights group Obywatele RP, will rally in defense of constitutional freedoms and against "an emerging Catholic-nationalism in Poland, which we see as very close to fascism," said Pawel Kasprzak, one of the organizers.

Since the Law and Justice party took power, a new investigation into the plane crash has been launched, which cost 3.6 million zlotys alone in 2016 ($900,000), leaving an opposition party to ask state auditors to review whether the expense is justified.

But government officials say the concerns are real and they must press on. "The longer you hide the wreckage, the longer you hide the black boxes, the more you make Poles aware that you are complicit in this catastrophe," Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said Thursday.

Last week prosecutors said a new analysis of the evidence has found that two Russian air traffic controllers were guilty of "deliberately causing an air traffic catastrophe," helped by a third official in the tower at the time. The allegations were rejected by Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman.

In the past, Law and Justice officials have suggested the Russians created fake fog or placed an explosive device on board. They also are horrified by the sloppy way the Russians carried out the autopsies, with body parts mixed up in the wrong graves, and have ordered exhumations of most of the victims, also in search of new evidence. Authorities recently revealed they discovered three hands in one grave.

Bereft of the person who was closest to him, Jaroslaw Kaczynski now visits the presidential palace in Warsaw on the 10th of each month to honor the Smolensk victims. "The truth about Smolensk is close," Kaczynski told flag-waving supporter last month, the 83rd time he marked the day.

Polish PM vows aid to survivors of apartment collapse

April 09, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's prime minister and local authorities vowed Sunday to provide financial help and other aid to survivors of an apartment building collapse that left six people dead. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo came to the site of Saturday's collapse in the southwestern town of Swiebodzice (Shvyeh-'boh-tchi-tseh) and promised state aid to the survivors, including special pensions to orphaned children.

Some children were orphaned in the collapse and five families were left homeless, Swiebodzice Mayor Bogdan Kozuchowicz said Sunday. Four people were injured. The people who died were two school-age children, three men and one woman. Doctors said a 13-year-old boy, is hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.

A team of construction experts is trying to determine what caused the recently renovated pre-World War II-era building to collapse. Prosecutors have opened an investigation. Firefighters at the site initially said a gas explosion might have triggered the collapse.

Hungary's president signs bill aimed at Soros-founded school

April 10, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's president on Monday signed amendments to the country's higher education law that could force a Budapest university founded by billionaire American philanthropist George Soros to close or move.

Central European University said it "strongly disagreed" with President Janos Ader's decision and vowed to challenge what it called a "premeditated political attack on a free institution." Ader said in a statement that the bill setting new conditions for foreign universities in Hungary was in line with the Constitution and international treaties and did not infringe upon academic freedoms.

Had he had concerns with the bill, Ader could have asked the Constitutional Court to review the amendments or sent it back to parliament for reconsideration. Nonetheless, Ader acknowledged that the fast-tracked approval of the law and some of the new conditions "provoked antipathy in many people."

By 10 p.m. (2000 GMT), several hundred people had gathered outside the president's offices in Buda Castle to protest his action. "As I have said before, we are willing to sit down with the Hungarian government to find a solution to enable CEU to stay in Budapest and operate as we have done for 25 years," CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff said. "However, academic freedom is not negotiable. It is a principle that must form the basis of any future agreement."

About 70,000 people rallied in support of CEU on Sunday, calling on Ader to refrain from signing the legislation approved last Tuesday. It was the third rally in eight days in support of the university, which enrolls over 1,400 students from 108 countries.

Ader called on the government to "immediately" begin talks with affected institutions about the implementation of the new rules. One new stipulation demands bilateral agreements with the home countries of universities from outside the European Union within six months, while another would require schools to establish campuses in their home countries by the end of the year.

For CEU, Hungary is demanding bilateral agreements with the United States and the state of New York, where the school is accredited, but does not have a campus. The bill was approved by lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party and their Christian Democrat allies last week.

"The situation is that in Hungary we are not closing a single university," Orban said Monday in parliament. "In Hungary, we usually establish and open universities. You can trust in this in the future, too."

Orban earlier said CEU was "cheating" and enjoyed an unfair advantage over other local schools because its students can earn both U.S. and Hungarian diplomas. CEU has vowed to remain in Budapest despite invitations to possibly relocate from cities in Lithuania and Poland.

Orban considers the Hungarian-born Soros an ideological foe whose "open society" ideals contrast with Orban's plan to make Hungary an "illiberal state." Orban has accused the billionaire of trying to influence Hungarian politics through his support of non-governmental groups like Transparency International and of working against Hungary's interests by supporting refugees and migrants.

Opposition parties were quick to criticize Ader, a Fidesz politician who was re-elected by lawmakers to a five-year term in March. "Ader today proved that he is not suited to be the president of the republic because he is incapable of recognizing the nation's interests and cannot express the unity of the nation," the Socialist Party said.

The green Politics Can Be Different asked other opposition parties to support its plan to appeal the law to the Constitutional Court. Fifty of the 68 opposition deputies would need to back the motion.

Momentum Movement, a new opposition party whose campaign recently led Budapest to abandon its bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, said Ader was "hiding behind laws" and more interested in keeping his job than challenging the legislation.

Belgium withdraws its jets from the US-led coalition against IS

by Loaa Adel
Apr 9, 2017

Baghdad (IraqiNews.com) Belgium has withdrawn its fighter jets, which are participating in the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq, after being accused of massacring civilians in western Mosul.

Belgian Ministry of Defense revealed that it issued a final decree to withdraw its jets from the international coalition against the Islamic State terrorist group.

Belgian Minister of Defense Steven Vandeput declared that that the withdrawal came after accusing Belgian air force of bombing al-Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood, in western Mosul, killing hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, while indicated that his country ordered a probe into the incident.

Meanwhile, the government of Belgium, on Saturday, suspended air force operations above Syria in response to the U.S. cruise missile attack Friday morning that led Russia to end its U.S. – Russian security coordination. The U.S.-led coalition continues operations, but for the time being without Belgian participation above Syria, according to NSNBC News.

Vandeput also hinted at the fact that the Belgian government doesn’t believes the risk of a direct confrontation between Russian and NATO air forces in Syria is too high when he said “The international coalition looks day by day how the situation evolves. … If the coalition says it’s safe enough and asks us to continue the missions, we will do that.”

Source: Iraqi News.
Link: http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/belgium-withdraws-jets-coalition-isis/.

US threatens more pressure on Syria after missile strikes

April 08, 2017

PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The United States is vowing to keep up the pressure on Syria after the intense nighttime wave of missile strikes from U.S. ships, despite the prospect of escalating Russian ill will that could further inflame one of the world's most vexing conflicts.

Standing firm, the Trump administration on Friday signaled new sanctions would soon follow the missile attack, and the Pentagon was even probing whether Russia itself was involved in the chemical weapons assault that compelled President Donald Trump to action. The attack against a Syrian air base was the first U.S. assault against the government of President Bashar Assad.

Much of the international community rallied behind Trump's decision to fire the cruise missiles in reaction to this week's chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of men, women and children in Syria. But a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the strikes dealt "a significant blow" to relations between Moscow and Washington.

At the United Nations, Russia's deputy ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, strongly criticized what he called the U.S. "flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression" whose "consequences for regional and international security could be extremely serious." He called the Assad government a main force against terrorism and said it deserved the presumption of innocence in the chemical weapons attack.

U.S. officials blame Moscow for propping up Assad. "The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria," Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said during an emergency Security Council session. "The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar Assad."

Haley said the U.S. was prepared to take further action in Syria but hoped it wouldn't be necessary. The official Saudi Press Agency reported that King Salman complimented Trump in a telephone conversation for his "courageous decision."

Saudi Arabia, one of the most vehement opponents of Assad, said the missile barrage was the right response to "the crimes of this regime to its people in light of the failure of the international community to stop it."

In Florida with the president, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said additional economic sanctions on Syria were being prepared. Thursday night's strikes — some 60 cruise missiles fired from two ships in the Mediterranean — were the culmination of a rapid, three-day transformation for Trump, who has long opposed deeper U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. Advisers said he was outraged by heartbreaking images of young children who were among the dozens killed in the chemical attack.

The decision undercut another campaign promise for Trump: his pledge to try to warm relations with Moscow. After months of allegations of ties between his election campaign and the Kremlin — the subject of current congressional and FBI investigations — Trump has found himself clashing with Putin.

On Friday, senior U.S. military officials were looking more closely at possible Russian involvement in the poison attack. Officials said a drone belonging to either Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site after the assault earlier this week. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. Shortly afterward, officials say the hospital was targeted.

The officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive matter, said they believe the hospital attack may have been an effort to cover up evidence of the earlier assault. White House officials caution that Trump is not preparing to plunge the U.S. deeper into Syria. Spokesman Sean Spicer said the missile attack sent a clear message to Assad, but he avoided explicitly calling for the Syrian to leave office.

The impact of the strikes was also unclear. Despite intense international pressure, Assad has clung to power since a civil war broke out in his country six years ago, helped by financial and military support from both Russia and Iran. Russian military personnel and aircraft are embedded with Syria's, and Iranian troops and paramilitary forces are also on the ground helping Assad fight the array of opposition groups hoping to topple him.

Trump spent Friday in Florida, in private meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. U.S. officials noted that the timing of the strike had the possible added benefit of signaling to China that Trump is willing to make good on his threat to act alone to stop North Korea's nuclear pursuits if Beijing doesn't exert more pressure on Pyongyang.

The missile strikes hit the government-controlled Shayrat air base in central Syria, where U.S. officials say the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off. Trump's decision to strike Syria won widespread praise from other nations. Not everyone was cheering in Washington, where the president's decision to act without congressional authority angered a mix of libertarian Republicans, Democrats and the far right.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Vivian Salama in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.

Canada commemorates the centenary of the Vimy WWI battle

April 09, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is among the dignitaries commemorating the centenary of the World War I battle of Vimy, in northern France. About 20,000 people, including many Canadians, are expected to attend the ceremony Sunday, including French President Francois Hollande and British royals Princes Charles, William and Harry.

On April 9, 1917, the Canadians succeeded in taking the German's strategic post on Vimy Ridge — where past British and French attempts had failed. The move cost 3,600 dead and over 7,000 injured in three days.

The battle has become an important part of Canada's national identity, symbolizing the shift from a former British colony to a nation on its own. The Vimy memorial also pays tribute to the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France and have no known graves.

Pyongyang luxury hotel gets more modern, less Soviet, style

April 11, 2017

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's most famous luxury hotel has reopened after renovations that modernized its 1980s, vaguely Soviet, style. The Koryo is one of Pyongyang's best-known and most visible landmarks, with its twin towers in the center of the capital. It was closed for several months while the first three floors were remodeled. The guest rooms weren't changed.

People entering the hotel are now greeted by a brighter and more up-to-date look that — possibly to the disappointment of many exotica-seeking foreigners — is a sharp contrast with the opulent and vaguely Soviet style of its prior lobby.

The Koryo was built in 1985 under the instructions of North Korea's "eternal president," the late national founder Kim Il Sung, who wanted it to be a symbol of the country's strength and modernity. It is a popular spot for socializing among local elites, foreign businessmen, diplomats and others who are able to afford its relatively high prices — a cappuccino in its lobby coffee shop goes for about $7. The cheapest rooms are $100 to $120 a night.

The hotel, located near Pyongyang's main train station, also features an indoor pool and sauna, several places to eat, including a revolving restaurant atop one of its towers, a bookstore and other amenities one could only dream of in a provincial North Korean hotel.

In 2015 a major fire charred its upper floors, though the extent of damage and other information about the blaze has never been disclosed. At 43 stories, the Koryo has long been eclipsed in height by other hotels.

One of them is the 47-story Yanggakdo, and, tallest of all, the 105-story, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong. The Yanggakdo is more popular with budget or first-time visitors and is considered a notch or two lower than the Koryo, while the Ryugyong has been under construction for decades and has never been open for guests.

Purged from Turkish army, NATO officers get asylum in Norway

April 08, 2017

STAVANGER, Norway (AP) — Norway and Turkey — NATO's northern and southern frontiers in Europe — have been pillars of the Western military alliance for more than 60 years. But the diplomatic temperature between the two has fallen steadily since Turkey recalled dozens of military officers as suspects in an aborted coup — and Norway became the first nation to grant some of them asylum.

The government in Oslo agreed last month to protect four Turkish officers who had been assigned to NATO and, like colleagues in Germany and Brussels, fear they could be imprisoned as terrorists if they go back to their country. Turkey's Foreign Ministry summoned the Norwegian ambassador for an explanation while the officers remain in Stavanger, a city on Norway's west coast that lies 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) from Ankara.

"We see that this is a difficult decision for Norway because of the alliance, and it can cause big problems for NATO, so we appreciate that they have put human rights over political decisions," one of the officers given asylum said. "Norway still says you are innocent until proven guilty ... in Turkey, you have to prove your innocence."

The men trying to forge new lives in Stavanger are among a cadre of commissioned Turkish officers who were working at NATO facilities around Europe during Turkey's July 15 thwarted coup. The Turkish government suspects of playing a role in the failed coup, and the men have asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against their families in Turkey.

"Some of my colleagues in other NATO headquarters did return to Turkey. They were detained at the airport in front of their families, their children. It would be very difficult to go back to Turkey now," one senior officer said. "We have small kids, and we have to save their lives."

The former officers bristle at being branded "traitors." Each man was on leave when the plot unfolded and claims he has a firm alibi. With their bank accounts frozen, their successful military careers suddenly cut short and hopes for fair trials in Turkey shattered, they say they had no choice but to seek asylum in Norway, where they filed for protection between August 13 and October 19.

One of the men was fired by telephone. Another received a call ordering him to leave Norway within three days. Two watched in horror as their names appeared on "blacklists" of soldiers commanded back to Turkey.

"When I saw the list and my name in the list, I tried to understand the reason ... but there was nothing about this on the paper. There were just one or two or three sentences calling us back," one said. "It was a terrible period. I knew I would lose my rights, my past, my family, everything."

The men say they have seen social media videos of other Turkish officers being tortured in jail and have desperately tried to reach military friends back home. They say some have disappeared, while others were forced into giving confessions.

"After the coup, 160 generals and 7,000 military officers have been arrested," one of the officers said bitterly. "If these persons were involved in this coup, the result must have been different." The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleges that the coup was carried out by followers of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denies orchestrating a takeover. More than 150,000 people have been taken into custody, fired or forced to retire from Turkey's armed forces, judiciary, education system and other public institutions since the coup attempt.

Even Gulenists who did not take part in the coup attempt are considered a serious security threat now and are being purged from Turkey's military. The four former officers in Norway deny being Gulen supporters and think the government is using the coup as an excuse to crush its critics.

"We are hearing that people's wives are accused of being plotters and traitors. If one of your relatives has money in a certain bank, or you were using certain social media on the day of the coup, you are accused of being involved," one said.

Turkey responded angrily to Norway granting the officers asylum, protesting that a NATO ally offered the men "support to abuse the country's political, social and economic opportunities" instead of ensuring their return to Turkey.

The men's lawyer, Kjell Brygfjeld, thinks the four cases were fast-tracked through the sometimes clogged Norwegian asylum system. One of the former officers said his asylum petition was approved without his needing to provide documents proving he was in danger.

"Norway can see what is going on," he said. As political refugees, they face the possibility of never returning to Turkey and uncertain futures in NATO's northern outpost. Dressed in the casual cold-weather wear of Norwegian civilians during an early spring evening on the Stavanger fjord, the four officers joked that they've already embraced a Nordic lifestyle.

And even though the winter nights seem long in Norway, they know that their situations could have been much darker. "It's impossible for me to disconnect from Turkey," one of the officers said. "All of my friends — most of the friends are now in jail. And their families suffer because of this. And there is just one voice in Turkey, so no one hears their screams."

David Keyton contributed to this report in Stavanger.

Basque group ETA gives authorities list of weapons caches

April 08, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The armed Basque separatist group ETA has formally given the French authorities a list of location of its weapons, ammunition and explosives. The International Verification Commission, in charge of verifying the process, said in a statement Saturday that "this information was immediately conveyed to the relevant French authorities, who will now secure and collect ETA's arsenal".

The commission says it "believes that this step constitutes the disarmament of ETA". Inactive for more than five years, ETA had said it would hand over its arms, a historic step following a 43-year violent campaign that claimed 829 lives, mostly in Spain.

Disarmament is the second-to-last step demanded by France and Spain, which want ETA to formally disband. The organization hasn't said whether it would do that.