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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Turkey to open its largest military base in the world in Somalia

19 March 2017 Sunday

Turkey will open its largest military base in the world in Somalia in April. Soldiers from the Somalia National Army and soldiers from many African countries will be trained by the Turkish Army in the base that is being constructed in Mogadishu.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar are expected to attend the official opening.

Somalia's Defense Minister, General Abdulkadir Ali Dini, visited the military base yesterday with a military delegation.

Minister Dini, who visited the base near its completion, thanked the Turkish military and civilian authorities for preparing the base.

Somali President Mohammad Abdullah Muhammad 'Farmajo' tweeted from his official account and announced that the base would be opened very soon. "Turkey's largest military base in the world is almost complete. Soon the Somali Army will return strongly," President Farmajo said.

Cost of $50 million

The construction of the $50 million base began in March 2015. It will have the capacity to train 500 soldiers at the same time.

The facility is located close to Mogadishu's airport and three kilometers (1.8 miles) from Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital and the Port of Mogadishu.

The base will occupy 400 hectares and house three military schools, dormitories and depots.

Somalia and Turkey share multi-tiered cooperation. Turkey provides Somalia with military aid, education support, infrastructural development and skills training.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/186505/turkey-to-open-its-largest-military-base-in-the-world-in-somalia.

Kabul protest that left several dead enters second day

June 03, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A demonstration in downtown Kabul that left several people dead has entered a second day. More than a thousand people demonstrated Friday demanding more security in the capital following a powerful truck bomb attack in the city that killed 90 people and wounded more than 450.

Scores of protesters passed the night under two big tents on a road near the presidential palace and the blast site. All roads toward the palace and diplomatic areas are being blocked Saturday by police and there is limited movement of vehicles and people.

On Friday, demonstrators rushed toward police who fired warning shots and when they attempted to move closer to the palace, police sprayed them with hoses from a water tanker and later fired tear gas.

Afghans mourn a day after massive truck bombing kills 90

June 01, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans mourned the loss of family members, friends and colleagues on Thursday, a day after a massive truck bomb exploded in the capital leaving at least 90 people dead and more than 450 others wounded in one of the worst extremist attacks since the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014.

The city's acting mayor said the explosion damaged property as far as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the blast site and scores of people waited in hospitals to learn the status of family and friends wounded in Wednesday's attack.

The bomber drove into Kabul's heavily guarded diplomatic quarter during the morning rush, leaving behind chaos and destruction. Most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children, but the dead also included Afghan security guards.

There was no claim of responsibility. The explosives were hidden in a tanker truck used to clean out septic systems, according to Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the interior minister. The trucks are common in Kabul, a city of nearly four million people with no sewage system that mostly depends on septic tanks, and where open sewers are common.

The blast gouged a crater about 5 meters (15 feet) deep near Zanbaq Square in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, where foreign embassies are protected by their own security personnel as well as Afghan police and National Security Forces. The nearby German Embassy was heavily damaged.

Also in the area is Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, the Presidential Palace and its intelligence and security headquarters, guarded by soldiers trained by the U.S. and its coalition partners. The city's acting mayor said Thursday at a news conference that the bombing caused property damage as far as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the blast site. Abdullah Habibzai said the an initial estimate put the total damage from the bombing at 1 billion Afghanis ($1.5 million), but said that number could rise.

He said city workers had removed around 200 large trucks of garbage and debris by Thursday morning. "We have transported a large number or a large amount of broken glass and windows," he said. Meanwhile, some people were still missing and families were searching for news about loved ones in local hospitals.

Mohammad Sarwar stood crying behind the gate of an emergency hospital, looking for his nephew, Habibullah, who was missing. "This is the second day that we are searching for my nephew Habibiullah and have been to all Kabul hospitals, still couldn't find him," he said.

Afghanistan's war, the longest ever involving U.S. troops, has shown no sign of letting up and the introduction into the battle of an Islamic State group affiliate has made the country only more volatile.

Although they are small in number, militants from the Islamic State in Khorasan — an ancient name for parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia — have taken credit for several brazen assaults on the capital.

Truck bomb kills 90, wounds hundreds in Afghan capital

June 01, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide attacker struck the fortified heart of the Afghan capital with a massive truck bomb Wednesday, killing 90 people, wounding 400 and raising new fears about the government's ability to protect its citizens nearly 16 years into a war with insurgents.

The bomber drove into Kabul's heavily guarded diplomatic quarter during the morning rush hour, leaving behind a bloody scene of chaos and destruction in one of the worst attacks since the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014.

Most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children, said Ismail Kawasi, spokesman of the public health ministry. But the dead also included Afghan security guards at the facilities, including the U.S. Embassy, while 11 American contractors were wounded — none with life-threatening injuries, a U.S. State Department official said.

"I have been to many attacks, taken wounded people out of many blast sites, but I can say I have ever seen such a horrible attack as I saw this morning," ambulance driver Alef Ahmadzai told The Associated Press. "Everywhere was on fire and so many people were in critical condition."

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which came in the first week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban flatly denied any involvement in an email to news outlets and condemned all attacks against civilians.

The explosives were hidden in a tanker truck used to clean out septic systems, said Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the interior minister. The number of dead and wounded was provided by the Afghan government's media center, citing a statement from the Afghan Ulema Council, the country's top religious body that includes Muslim clerics, scholars and men of authority in religion and law.

The blast gouged a crater about 5 meters (15 feet) deep near Zanbaq Square in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, where foreign embassies are protected by a battery of their own security personnel as well as Afghan police and National Security Forces. The nearby German Embassy was heavily damaged.

Also in the area is Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, the Presidential Palace and its intelligence and security headquarters, guarded by soldiers trained by the U.S. and its coalition partners. "The terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people," said President Ashraf Ghani.

President Donald Trump spoke with Ghani after the attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned it as a "senseless and cowardly act." "The United States stands with the government and the people of Afghanistan and will continue to support their efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity for their country," Tillerson said in a statement.

Afghanistan's war, the longest ever involving U.S. troops, has shown no sign of letting up, and the introduction into the battle of an Islamic State affiliate has made the country only more volatile. Although they are small in number, militants from the Islamic State in Khorasan — an ancient name for parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia — have taken credit for several brazen assaults on the capital.

"Let's be clear: This is an intelligence failure, as has been the case with so many other attacks in Kabul and beyond. There was a clear failure to anticipate a major security threat in a highly secured area," said Michael Kugelman of the U.S.-based Wilson Center.

"The fact that these intelligence failures keep happening suggest that something isn't working at the top, and major and urgent changes are needed in security policy," he said by email. Still, there are questions about whether a U.S. pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan will curb the violence.

"The sad reality is that more foreign troops would not necessarily ensure these attacks happen less," Kugelman said. "But they could help by supplementing training programs meant to enhance Afghan intel collection capacities, which have long been a deficiency in Afghanistan."

There are currently 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with a U.S. promise of more to come. Afghan lawmaker and analyst Nasrullah Sadeqizada bemoaned the abysmal security, saying "the situation is deteriorating day by day."

In an interview, Sadeqizada criticized U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, saying they have done little to improve protection in the country. "If the situation continues to deteriorate, Afghans will lose all trust in the foreigners who are in Afghanistan as friends," he warned.

Gen. Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, former deputy interior minister, said more troops won't help, although he urged the global community to stay committed to Afghanistan. "I don't think that more U.S. or NATO soldiers can solve the security problems in Afghanistan," he said.

"When we had more than 100,000 foreign soldiers, they were not even able to secure Helmand province" in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban controls roughly 80 percent of the area, he said. In the past year, U.S. troops have largely focused on thwarting a surge in Taliban attacks.

The stricken neighborhood was considered Kabul's safest, with the embassies protected by dozens of 10-foot-high blast walls and government offices guarded by security forces. More than 50 cars were either destroyed or damaged.

"I've never seen such a powerful explosion in my life," said Mohammad Haroon, who owns a nearby sporting goods store. All the windows in his shop and others around him were shattered, he added. Shocked residents soaked in blood stumbled in the streets before being taken to hospitals. Passers-by helped them into private cars, while others went to the nearby Italian-run Emergency Hospital.

Besides the German Embassy, damage was reported at the embassies of China, Turkey, France, India and Japan, according to officials from those countries. Other nearby embassies include those of the U.S., Britain, Pakistan and Iran, as well as the NATO mission.

Nine Afghan guards at the U.S. Embassy were killed and 11 American contractors were wounded, with one Afghan guard missing, according to a U.S. State Department official, who was not authorized to talk publicly on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity. None of the wounded Americans appeared to have life-threatening injuries, the official said.

The BBC said one of its drivers was killed and four of its journalists were wounded. Afghanistan's private TOLO Television also reported a staffer killed; Germany said an Afghan security guard outside its embassy was among the dead.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that along with an Afghan guard who was killed, a German diplomat was slightly wounded and an Afghan staffer had severe injuries. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack, saying that "terrorism has no borders."

It "targets all of us — whether in Manchester or Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, St. Petersburg or today in Kabul," she said in the southern German city of Nuremberg. "Today we're united in shock and sadness across all borders," she added.

She vowed: "We will lead the fight against terrorism, and we will win it." Germany has had troops in Afghanistan for 15 years, primarily in the north in and around Mazar-e-Sharif. It is one of the biggest contributors to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, with about 980 soldiers supporting and training Afghan forces.

Neighboring Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the bomb damaged residences of some of its diplomats and staff and caused some minor injuries.

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez reported this story in Kabul and AP writer Kathy Gannon reported from Islamabad. AP writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Matthew Lee in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

Syria refugees still stranded between Morocco and Algeria


ALGIERS - Dozens of Syrian refugees remained stranded in no-man's land between Morocco and Algeria on Tuesday, non-governmental groups said, despite an Algerian offer to help.

Algiers said last week it would take in the refugees after the United Nations urged both sides to help the Syrians, who include a pregnant woman and have been stranded in the desert area since April 17.

"The Syrian refugee families are still blocked on the border between Algeria and Morocco. Authorities on both sides are passing each other the buck," said Noureddine Benissad of the Algerian League of Human Rights.

Saida Benhabiles, the head of the Algerian Red Crescent, said a joint team from her organisation and the UN refugee agency have been waiting on the Algerian border since late Monday.

"There's no obstacle on the Algerian side," she said. "But the problem is they're in Moroccan territory and we can't go to get them."

In a statement, non-governmental groups including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights and the Algerian League of Human Rights urged "authorities in both countries to find an immediate solution".

The zone between the two countries has been closed since 1994. The North African rivals have very difficult relations, especially over the question of Western Sahara.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83429.

Short of allies, Syria's rebels are down but not out

June 01, 2017

GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — They are veterans of Syria's rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they're doing little fighting with his military. They're struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria's civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad's allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival. "We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other," said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida's affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone. Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come.


Nothing blurs Muharram's vision and determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved Aleppo. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.

The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes. Uprooted, they needed new allies. "We had reached a dead end," said the 39-year-old Muharram. So he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, which was once backed by the U.S., joined al-Qaida's alliance.

The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions. Turning to Turkey or US would mean becoming "a mercenary fighting whomever the sponsor wants, whatever the dollar dictates." He would have had to take part in Russian-backed negotiations, "giving up the revolution's principles ... and accepting Assad for a longer period," he said.

Muharram said he has his personal differences with al-Qaida. He pointed out that he doesn't always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown on.

But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it. The alliance has financial clout and can provide services in its territory. It has the resources of Idlib's and neighboring rural parts of Aleppo province to sustain the fight without relying on outsiders — farmland, water wells, supplies of fuel and weapons. Its fighters are mainly locals and well-disciplined, and the few foreign fighters including Afghans and Chinese don't interfere in residents' affairs, unlike the foreign jihadis of IS.

Both Turkey and the Kurds so far avoid a fight with al-Qaida-linked militants. But if Turkey is tempted to move against the alliance, Muharram said, it has pressure cards, including a border crossing with Turkey and territory near a Kurdish enclave, a potential thorn in Ankara's side.

The fight to remove Assad is far from over, he said. "The revolution will end with a ballot box. There is no legitimacy for a new Syria without elections."


He defended his hometown of Daraya outside Damascus for years under a bloody, destructive siege by Assad's troops. But finally resistance collapsed, and last summer he and his fellow fighters were forcibly displaced north to Idlib.

It was a humiliating and disorienting move for Capt. Saeed al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella. Idlib was strange territory, and dangerous — not because of Assad's forces or airstrikes, but because of Idlib's overlords, the al-Qaida-linked group.

The militants immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters. "This was to pressure us to join them, and if we do, they will protect us," al-Nokrashi said, speaking at his home in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and holding his 6-year-old son, born during the Daraya fighting.

The fighters were eventually freed. But the incident highlighted the more complicated world they were in. "We were insulated in Daraya," he said. "Our confrontation was only with the regime. Now the choices are many."

The threats are, too. The Islamic State group is a concern, as are the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he said are trying to "create a separate state in the north." Then there are pro-Assad Iran and Shiite militias.

"Syria can't be one unified state except by expelling all those parties," al-Nokrashi said. His fighters are languishing in Idlib. They struggle to make ends meet and are focused on their families, reunited after long separations during the siege. Some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area's cuisine to Idlib.

A few of his fighters joined al-Qaida-linked group. The others have to deal with its pervasive security agencies that monitor all factions closely — "just like the regime's security agencies," said al-Nokrashi, a former Syrian army officer.

Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy. He attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana, where rebel commanders were received with much fanfare and sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.

But he may have found his refuge. In recent weeks, the U.S., Turkey and Western and Gulf countries backed a new attempt at a coalition against Assad known as the Northern Front Operation Room. So far, 17 factions have joined, al-Nokrashi said.

The alliance has yet to fight a battle, but he's hopeful. "I feel there are lessons learned ... from previous mistakes."


He drives around Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind, fearing attack even here.

Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13, has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida's affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush by the group's fighters was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.

Al-Saoud's claim to fame has been his relentless fight against the radical group, which has tried to gain a foothold in his hometown, Maaret Numan, in Idlib. His anti-extremist stance got him arrested by IS in 2013, until protests forced the militants to release him — a sign of his support base in the area.

Al-Saoud, a defector from Assad's military, has received Western aid from the start. He feels let down that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Kurdish militias. "We can't be temporary allies for a certain stage and then they drop or back me as they please," al-Saoud said.

What particularly miffed him, he said, is when U.S. troops deployed to create a buffer between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria. "Aren't we worthy of defending?" he said. He fears U.S. support will only deepen the Kurds' determination for self-rule, leading to the division of Syria, in the process boosting support among Sunni Arabs for al-Qaida.

During a recent AP visit to his home in Turkey, al-Saoud was constantly on the phone with his commanders back home, who in his absence are trying to understand shifting alliances and battlegrounds. In one call, he reassured a commander bewildered by the Americans working with the Kurds. Another complained how hard it is to negotiate with Islamist factions, which are also trying out alliances to counter the power of al-Qaida.

Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical. It is led by Islamist factions, minimizing the role of more secular groups like his. He fears the coalition will cost him his direct contact with the Americans and his independence, pull him from the fight against al-Qaida and diminish his prestige — his "charisma," as he puts it.

Moreover, he sees it as imposed by outside powers that can't agree among themselves, dooming it to fail. "Unify your vision, then pick a leader for a unified (rebel) front," he said. "My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism," he said. "We will remain the popular face of this fight."

Russia-backed Syrian safe zones plan goes into effect

May 06, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — A deal hammered out by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up "de-escalation zones" in mostly opposition-held parts of Syria went into effect in the early hours of Saturday. The plan is the latest international attempt to reduce violence in the war-ravaged country, and is the first to envisage armed foreign monitors on the ground in Syria. The United States is not party to the agreement and the Syrian rivals have not signed on to the deal. The armed opposition, instead, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it lacks legitimacy.

The plan, details of which will still be worked out over the next several weeks, went into effect at midnight Friday. There were limited reports of bombing in northern Homs and Hama, two areas expected to be part of the "de-escalation zones," activists said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

It is not clear how the cease-fire or "de-escalation zones" will be enforced in areas still to be determined in maps to emerge a month from now. Russian officials said it will be at least another month until the details are worked out and the safe areas established.

In the tangled mess that constitutes Syria's battlefields, there is much that can go wrong with the plan, agreed on in talks Thursday in Kazakhstan. There is no clear mechanism to resolve conflict and violations— like most other previous deals struck by backers of the warring sides.

A potential complication to implementing the plan is the crowded airspace over Syria. The deal calls for all aircraft to be banned from flying over the safe zones. Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operate in different, sometimes same areas in Syria. It is not yet clear how the new plan would affect flightpaths of U.S.-led coalition warplanes battling Islamic State militants and other radical groups — and whether the American air force would abide by a diminished air space.

Russia and Iran — two of the plan's three sponsors — are key allies of President Bashar Assad's government and both are viewed as foreign occupation forces by his opponents. Rebels fighting to topple Assad are enraged by Iran's role in the deal and blame the Shiite power for fueling the sectarian nature of Syria's conflict, now in its seventh year.

Turkey, the third sponsor, is a major backer of opposition factions and has also sent troops into northern Syria, drawing the ire of Assad and his government. Yet troops from the three countries are now expected to secure four safe zones. An official with Russia's military general staff said other countries may eventually have a role in enforcing the de-escalation areas.

Russian Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi told reporters on Friday personnel and formations from Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate checkpoints and observation posts. He said "security belts" will be created along the borders of the "de-escalation zones" to prevent incidents and fighting between opposing sides. The checkpoints and observation posts will ensure free movement of unarmed civilians and humanitarian aid and will facilitate economic activities, he said.

Rebels have expressed concerns the deal is a prelude to a de facto partitioning of Syria into spheres of influence. Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for the Syrian military factions at the Kazakhstan talks, told The Associated Press it was "incomprehensible" for Iran to act as a guarantor of the deal. A cease-fire is unsustainable in the presence of the Iranian-backed militias in Syria, he said.

"We can't imagine Iran playing a role of peace," Abo Zayd said. The U.S. sent a senior White House official to the Kazakh capital of Astana, where representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran signed the deal, but had no role in the deal.

The idea of armed monitors is a new element — observers deployed in the early years of the Syrian conflict, including U.N. and Arab League observers, were unarmed. But it's difficult to imagine how many boots on the ground would be needed to monitor the yet to be mapped areas or how and where exactly Russian, Iranian and Turkish troops would patrol.

"If that happens, we would be looking at a more serious effort than anything in the past," Aron Lund, a Syria expert wrote in an article Friday. Lund said that from the outside, the agreement "does not look like it has great chances of success" and seems to "lack a clear mechanism to resolve conflicting claims and interpretations."

Late Friday, a Syrian opposition coalition, the High Negotiations Committee, denounced the deal in a strongly worded statement. The Western, Saudi-backed HNC said the deal lacks legitimacy and seeks to divide the country.

The HNC also said the deal was an attempt to give Syrian government troops military victories they could not achieve on the battleground by neutralizing rebel-held areas. It called on the U.S. and other Arab allied countries, to prevent the implementation of the deal.

A rebel commander in northern Hama said nearly an hour after the deal went into effect, battles raged with government forces. The area, south of Latamneh, is expected to be part of the deal. Jamil al-Saleh, the commander, said government shelling was intense amid an attempt to advance in the area, scene to fierce battles for weeks. "What deal?" he scoffed.

A previous cease-fire agreement signed in Astana on Dec. 30 helped reduce overall violence in Syria for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a cease-fire in Syria have all ended in failure.

The "de-escalation zones" will be closed to military aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition, the Russian official who signed the agreement, Alexander Lavrentye, said Friday. Under the plan, Assad's air force — and presumably Russian, too — would also halt flights over those areas.

In rebel-held Idlib, a protest was held Friday against the plan, denounced as a plot to "divide Syria." "Any person or state who enters this land to divide it is the enemy of the Syrian people" activist Abed al-Basset Sarout told the crowd.

Some refugees were skeptical. Ahmad Rabah, a Syrian refugee from Homs now in Lebanon, said he did not trust Assad's forces and going back to so-called safe zones would be tantamount to living in a "big prison."

The Pentagon said the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against IS. "The coalition will continue to target ISIS wherever they operate to ensure they have no sanctuary," said Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Sunni militant group.

Rudskoi also suggested that Syrian government forces, freed up as a result of the safe areas, could be rerouted to fight against IS in the central and eastern part of Syria. Another question left unanswered is how the deal would affect U.S. airstrikes targeting al-Qaida's positions in Syria.

U.S. warplanes have frequently struck the al-Qaida affiliate in the northern Idlib province, where the militant group dominates. But under Thursday's deal, the entire province is designated to be one of the four "de-escalation zones."

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that if implemented the deal will allow for the separation of the opposition from IS fighters and those of the al-Qaida affiliate. He did not elaborate.

Syria's government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it would continue fighting "terrorism" wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

Berry reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Robert Burs in Washington contributed to this report.

Marking Ramadan, Palestinians launch 'Date and Water' campaign to break fast on the road

May 29, 2017

A group of Palestinian volunteers have launched their annual campaign to offer dates and water to drivers and their passengers across the occupied West Bank throughout the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Dubbed “Dates and Water”, the campaign has been launched for the third year and caters for travelers who are on the road at Iftar time, sunset.

Mahmoud Abdulmoneim, one of the volunteers responsible for the campaign, told Quds Press that the idea behind the campaign was initiated by a group of youths in the town of Sebastia, near occupied Nablus.

The youths wanted to encourage volunteering in the West Bank, Abdulmoneim said, adding that the location was chosen because it is a central area through which hundreds of Palestinians pass.

The process of distributing dates and water starts shortly before the call for Maghreb prayers, which comes at sunset, Abdulmoneim added.

Around 15 volunteers participate in the campaign, aiming to offer dates and water to around 300 travelers.

A number of local Palestinian companies and donors provide the dates to the volunteers for free.

The campaign was well-received, with some drivers coming out of their cars to help the volunteers distribute their Iftar packs, Quds Press cited Abdulmoneim saying.

The campaign inspired youth to come up with more initiatives, such as volunteering to clean and decorate Sebastia to mark the month of Ramadan.

Abdulmoneim called for utilizing the month of Ramadan to maximize volunteering activities among Palestinians and reinforce the sentiments of support and solidarity in light of the difficult living conditions that Palestinians endure under occupation.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170529-marking-ramadan-palestinian-volunteers-launch-campaign-to-enable-travellers-to-break-their-fast-on-the-road/.

Hamas says Ismail Haniyeh chosen as Islamic group's leader

May 06, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Hamas Islamic militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip announced Saturday it had chosen its former Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh as the group's new political chief.

Haniyeh succeeds Hamas' longtime exiled leader Khaled Mashaal, and the move comes shortly after Gaza's rulers unveiled a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group's international isolation.

Hamas is trying to rebrand itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt. It has also dropped explicit language calling for Israel's destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually "liberating" all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the group hoped Haniyeh's election "would see opening to the region." Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, after securing an overwhelming victory in legislative elections the previous year and ending 40 years of political domination by its rival Fatah party. Hamas captured the coastal strip by violently overthrowing forces loyal to the Fatah movement, led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, along with Egypt, has been enforcing a crippling border blockade against them since then. Though it has softened some of its rhetoric, Hamas' new platform clung to the hard-line positions that led to its isolation. The group reaffirmed it will not recognize Israel, renounce violence or recognize previous interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals — the West's long-standing conditions for dealing with Hamas.

In its founding charter, Hamas called for setting up an Islamic state in historic Palestine, or the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which also includes Israel. It also included anti-Jewish references.

Over the years, Hamas has carried out shootings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel. Since 2008, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have fought three cross-border wars. Abbas has been an outspoken opponent of violence, saying it undercuts Palestinian interests. Repeated reconciliation efforts between the Palestinian factions have failed. Hamas has sharply criticized Abbas' political program, which rests on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Haniyeh's selection marks the final phase of the secretive Hamas elections. In February, the group chose militant commander Yehiya Sinwar, one of its most hard-line figures, as its new Gaza chief in charge of the group's core power base.

Haniyeh, 54, was born in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza. He was the private secretary of Hamas' founder and spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. In 2006, after Hamas won the legislative elections, Haniyeh was chosen by the movement to form its first government. He resigned as prime minister after Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government in 2014 — a government has never taken hold.

For the past four years he has served as Mashaal's deputy. Haniyeh's first task will be to cope with escalating tensions between Hamas and Fatah. In recent weeks, Abbas has threatened to exert financial pressure, including cutting wage payments and aid to Gaza, as a way of forcing Hamas to cede ground.

Gaza resident Rani Abu Samra said he hoped Haniyeh's election could bridge gaps with Fatah and mark "a new beginning for a real reconciliation on the internal Palestinian level." In Gaza, where Haniyeh still resides in his home in a refugee camp, some residents saw his election as a sign that could draw attention to the territory's woes.

"If someone is from outside Gaza, he won't talk about Gaza's ordeals and worries properly," said Ahmed Okasha, a Gaza vendor. Since quitting his longtime base in Damascus in 2012, Mashaal has mostly lived in lavish suites in the capital of the oil rich gulf state of Qatar.

For Palestinians in Lebanon, 69 years of despair

May 14, 2017

SIDON, Lebanon (AP) — Ahmad Dawoud recalls the day 10 years ago when a Lebanese soldier asked to search his taxi. Then 17, the Palestinian didn't wait for the soldier to find the weapons hidden in the trunk.

He jumped from the car and fled into the nearby Palestinian refugee camp, where the Lebanese army has no authority. But it was not long afterward that Dawoud, who once admired the radical groups that have sprouted in the camps in Lebanon, decided he was tired of running. That same year, in 2007, he surrendered to authorities and spent 14 hard months in jail.

Although he was released without a conviction, he couldn't erase the biggest strike against him: As a Palestinian in Lebanon, he is a stateless, second-class resident in the only country where he's ever lived.

On Monday, Palestinians mark 69 years since hundreds of thousands of them were forced from their homes during the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. Many settled in the neighboring West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

As refugees, various U.N. charters entitle them and their descendants to the right to work and a dignified living until they can return to their homes or such settlement is reached. But Palestinians in Lebanon suffer discrimination in nearly every aspect of daily life, feeding a desperation that is tearing their community apart.

Many live in settlements officially recognized as refugee camps but better described as concrete ghettos ringed by checkpoints and, in some cases, blast walls and barbed wire. The U.N. runs schools and subsidizes health care inside.

In Lebanon, there are 450,000 refugees registered in 12 camps, where Lebanese authorities have no jurisdiction inside. "Our lot is less than zero," Dawoud said in a recent interview outside Ein el-Hilweh, the crowded camp in Sidon that is one of the most volatile.

On peaceful days, children play in the damp alleys and merchants park their carts of produce along the camp's main streets. But the place feels hopelessly divided along factional and militant lines, and it frequently breaks down into fighting between Palestinian security forces and militants or gangs that capitalize on the general despair.

Last month, 10 people were killed in a flare-up that drove out thousands of the camp's estimated population of 75,000. Palestinians are prohibited from working in most professions, from medicine to transportation. Because of restrictions on ownership, what little property they have is bought under Lebanese names, leaving them vulnerable to embezzlement and expropriation.

They pay into Lebanon's social security fund but receive no benefits. Medical costs are crippling. And they have little hope for remediation from the Lebanese courts. Doctors are prohibited from working in the Lebanese market, so they find work only in the camps or agree to work for Lebanese clinics off the books, and sign prescriptions under Lebanese doctors' names. That leaves them open to employer abuse, a condition normally associated with low-skill work.

"If a young boy gets in trouble because he is Palestinian, the prosecutor writes in his note to the judge, 'He is Palestinian,' meaning: 'Do what you wish to him. Be cruel to him. Forget about his rights,'" said Sheikh Mohammad Muwad, a Palestinian imam in Sidon.

The crush of war refugees from Syria has made it even harder for Palestinians here to find work. Nearly six in 10 under age 25 are unemployed, according to the U.N.'s Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, and two-thirds of all Palestinians here live below the poverty line.

UNRWA country director Claudio Cordone said they feel trapped in political limbo and see an "almost total lack of meaningful political prospects of a solution" to their original displacement from Palestine.

Lebanese politicians say that assimilating Palestinians into society would undermine their right to return. But Palestinians say they are not asking for assimilation or nationality, just civil rights.

"They starve us, so we go back to Palestine. They deprive us, so that we go back to Palestine. Well, go ahead, send us back to Palestine! Let us go to the border, and we will march back into Palestine, no matter how many martyrs we must give," Muwad said.

For those in the camps, the line between hustling and criminality is often blurred. Unemployed and feeling abandoned by the authorities, many turn to gangs for work. Adding to this is a widely shared disaffection with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which many Palestinians now see as having sold out their rights with the failed Oslo Accords of 1994.

This has helped fuel the rise of radical Islam — a shift in the occupied Palestinian territories that is reflected by Hamas' rising popularity, and one outside the territories in the meteoric trajectory of militant groups such as Fatah al-Islam in the volatile and deprived Nahr al-Bared camp.

Growing up in Nahr al-Bared, a camp much like Ein el-Hilweh, Dawoud felt a strong affiliation for Fatah al-Islam, his gateway to radical extremism. "They were the only ones who seemed honest," he said. "Of course, later I figured out they were just like everyone else, too."

In 2007, the Lebanese army razed most of Nahr al-Bared to crush Fatah al-Islam. By that time, Dawoud already was in Ein el-Hilweh, and his arrest was the beginning of a slow falling out with the gangs that once sheltered him and treated him like a brother. After his stint in prison, they began to feel they couldn't trust him, and he was chased out of Ein el-Hilweh in 2013. Now, he can only enter the parts of the settlement firmly under PLO control.

With no job, no prospects and little wealth, Dawoud now runs errands for others in his white 1980s-era BMW — all done under the table, of course. Palestinians cannot apply for the red license plates that identify taxis and other commercial vehicles.

"I don't even think about marrying and getting into those situations," he said, waving off starting a family at age 27. His ambition now is to apply for a visa to leave Lebanon. But first he needs a travel document, and for that he needs to be on good terms with the Lebanese authorities.

Not all Palestinians live in camps, but even the most privileged among them endure discrimination. At a panel on Palestinian labor rights at the American University of Beirut, Muhammad Hussein asked a Lebanese Labor Ministry official why he was denied work even in sectors that are formally open to Palestinian employment.

The 22-year-old graduate showed the official an email he received from a marketing firm in Dubai refusing his job application on the grounds that the Lebanese office had to give priority to Lebanese workers.

"The problem isn't finding vacancies," Hussein said. "It's getting the job."

Jordan plunges into economic crisis following Qatar blockade

June 14, 2017

Jordan’s economy has incurred losses worth $2 million since a closure of the Saudi land borders last week against the Jordanian exports heading to Qatar as a result of the Gulf diplomatic rift.

On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and began an economic blockade against the Gulf state. Jordan later joined the move by announcing a reduction in diplomatic representation with Qatar.

According to sources at Jordan’s Exporters and Producers Association for Fruits and Vegetables, Jordanian traders who have previously signed exporting contracts with Qatar, started exporting their products by air.

Jordanian shipments’ volume to the Gulf state has also dropped to 90 tons per day, down from 600 tons per day before the blockade.

According to Al Jazeera, Saudi Arabia has prevented the entry of 85 Jordanian trucks loaded with vegetables and fruits, and over 10 trucks which were loaded with livestock heading to Qatar, following the rift.

Qatar has begun pursuing alternative routes and agreeing on new deals with other countries to counter the blockade imposed by most of its neighboring Arab states. Turkey was ready to help resolve the dispute, according to the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, while Iranian officials have offered to send food to Qatar by sea.

Moreover the Danish company, A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, which owns the world’s biggest container line, has worked to bypass the transport ban imposed on Qatar by using alternative routes. Last Friday, it announced that it would begin container shipments to Qatar via Oman, avoiding trade restrictions imposed on the Gulf state by Arab countries.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170614-jordan-plunges-into-economic-crisis-following-qatar-blockade/.

Protests continue in Tataouine, Tunisia

May 30, 2017

The wave of protests in the Tunisian province of Tataouine to demand development and jobs is still ongoing.

The El Kamour sit-in is continuing in the desert of Tataouine for the second month in a row. In addition, a week ago, a group of El Kamour protesters headed to the province’s headquarters for a sit-in, while waiting for the resumption of talks with the government.

Movement through the Dhehbia-Wazzin border crossing has been blocked for a week due to a decision by Libyan border guards to ban Libyans from crossing in light of the tense situation in the region.

Last week, Imed Hammami, the minister of employment and vocational training, who is in charge of the issue of development in the province of Tataouine, called for holding negotiations at his ministry to end the protests. The session was however postponed after the region’s governor resigned last Wednesday.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170530-protests-continue-in-tataouine-tunisia/.

Morocco fossil discovery obliterates two decades of scientific consensus


BERLIN - Early Homo sapiens roamed Africa 300,000 years ago, sporting modern-looking faces that would not stand out in a crowd today, according to research published Wednesday that pushes back our origins by a hundred millennia.

A groundbreaking fossil discovery in Morocco obliterates two decades of scientific consensus that our forefathers emerged in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, according to two studies published in the science journal Nature.

The findings may also re-organize the human evolutionary tree and eliminate certain extinct Homo relatives as potential human ancestors.

Two teams of researchers reported on skull and bone fragments from five ancient humans, along with the stone tools they used to hunt and butcher animals, from a prehistoric encampment at Jebel Irhoud, not far from modern-day Marrakesh.

"This material represents the very root of our species, the oldest homo sapiens ever found in Africa or elsewhere," said palaeoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

"Regarding Homo sapiens, what we say is that the dispersal of the species predates 300,000" years ago.

Previously, the oldest dated Homo sapiens remains, at 195,000 years, were from Ethiopia. This led to the contention that East Africa was the evolutionary "Garden of Eden" where our species arose before spreading through Africa and beyond.

- If they wore a hat... -

The new results suggest the so-called cradle of humankind was continent-wide, the teams said.

The same types of "Middle Stone Age" tools found with the Moroccan group, and dated to roughly the same period, have been found in several spots around Africa, but were previously thought to have been made by a different Homo predecessor.

Now it seems likely that they were produced by our own species, living in separate groups spread throughout the continent.

"Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa," said Hublin.

With few fossil remains to work with, the evolutionary history of modern humans is full of holes and relies heavily on conjecture.

It is believed that our lineage diverged from Neanderthals and Denisovans more than half-a-million years ago, but evidence for what happened since is hard to come by.

The new data suggests that an archaic version of our own species shared the planet with related groups such as Neanderthals, Denisovans, the more ape-like Homo naledi and the pint-sized Homo floresiensis or Flores "hobbit".

Remarkably, the small, flat face and jaw shape of those ancient Homo sapiens closely resembled today's humans, the team said.

Brain size was similar too, though arranged in a flatter, more elongated skull.

"If they would have a hat, probably (they) would be indistinguishable from other people," Hublin told journalists ahead of the study release. "It's the face of people you could cross in the street today."

More likely to give them away would have been a strong, stocky, muscular body.

- 'A more complex picture' -

Human remains, including a skull, were first discovered at the Jebel Irhoud site by miners in the 1960s.

The fossils were initially dated to about 40,000 ago, and later to about 160,000 years.

For the new study, the teams relied on these old fragments but also newer ones dug up since 2004.

Dating was done by thermoluminescence, a pinpoint-accurate technology which measures the accumulated exposure of stone minerals to radiation generated by heat from the Sun, a volcano, or a human cooking fire.

They used the technique on burnt flint stone flakes discovered with the skull, tooth and long bone remains belonging to three adults, a teenager and a child of about eight.

The researchers said their work revealed a "rather more complex picture" of the physical evolution of our species, with different parts of the anatomy changing at different rates.

While the face shape was determined almost from the start, today's high, rounded skull took millennia to evolve.

"The story of our species in the last 300,000 years is mostly the evolution of our brain," Hublin said.

This fits with genetic analysis showing a series of mutations in the modern human lineage, compared to Neanderthals and Denisovans, in genes involved in brain development.

"Maybe what we see in terms of gradual change in the brain case... might be the effect of the accretion of these mutations," said Hublin.

- What distinguishes us? -

What set our species apart, even from this early phase?

Compared to Neanderthals, early Homo sapiens had a larger cerebellum -- the part of the brain that governs body movement.

"So it looks like we, our lineage, is the lineage where we started to grow a bigger and bigger cerebellum already at this stage," said Hublin.

"It's one of the features distinguishing us along all these hominins."

Experts not involved in the research praised the findings.

The Jebel Irhoud fossils "now represent the best-dated evidence of an early 'pre-modern' phase of H. sapiens evolution," said Chris Stringer and Julia Galway-Witham from the Natural History Museum in London.

"This is a major extension of the evolutionary record of our species," added Lawrence Barham, an archaeology professor at the University of Liverpool.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83441.

Morocco refuses to attend African summit due to Israel's presence

June 2, 2017

The Moroccan Foreign Ministry yesterday stated that King Mohammed VI has cancelled his attendance of the 51st Summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) because Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also been invited.

In a statement the ministry said King Mohammed VI had planned to visit the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on 3-4 June to attend the 51st ECOWAS Summit, which was expected to examine Morocco’s request to join the regional group as a full member.

The statement added that, “During this Royal visit, a meeting with the President of Liberia, talks with ECOWAS Heads of State and a speech at the Summit were all scheduled.”

However, over the last few days, major ECOWAS member states have decided to reduce their level of representation at the summit, to the bare minimum, due to their disagreement with the invitation handed to the Israeli prime minister. The statement also noted that other member states also expressed their astonishment at this invitation.

The Foreign Ministry’s statement also mentioned that King Mohammed VI “does not want his first appearance at the ECOWAS summit to take place in a context of tension and controversy, and wants to avoid any confusion.”

During the summit, members of ECOWAS will decide on the admittance of Morocco as a full-fledged member of the regional bloc.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170602-morocco-refuses-to-attend-african-summit-due-to-israels-presence/.

Remembering the massacre of 45,000 Algerians

May 8, 2017

What: French massacre of Algerians

When: 8 May 1945

Where: Setif, Guelma and surrounding areas

What Happened?

As Europe celebrated the beginning of the end of World War II with Germany surrendering on 8 May 1945, thousands of Algerian men, women and children were mobilized by the French in Algeria to mark the victory of the Allied forces over the Nazis.

Anti-French sentiment and the anti-colonial movement had been building across Algeria for months, leading to protests prior to 8 May. Some 4,000 protesters took to the streets of Setif, a town in northern Algeria, to press new demands for independence on the colonial government and greater rights.

Many organizations joined the protest where they held up placards including “End to occupation” and “We want equality”. When a 14-year-old member of the Muslim Scouts, Saal Bouzid, held an Algerian flag, the French on orders from General Duval, opened fire on the unarmed protesters killing Bouzid and thousands of others.

Panic ensued and clashes between the Algerians and French quickly led to violence with the French using all attempts to control the population. The colonial forces launched an air and ground offensive against several eastern cities, particularly in Setif and Guelma.

The head of the temporary government of France at the time, General De Gaulle, ordered for farmers and villagers from surrounding areas to be killed in what quickly became lynching operations and summary executions.

Thousands of bodies accumulated so quickly that burying them was impossible so they were often dumped in wells or surrounding ravines.

The violence would continue until 22 May when the tribes surrendered. By then, 45,000 Algerian men, women and children in and around the region of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata had been killed along with 102 French casualties.

What Happened next?

The massacre by the French provoked the anti-colonial movement and nine years later Algeria began its War of Independence in November 1954 – a fight which would claim the lives of 1.5 million Algerians until independence was declared in 1962.

The 8 May is an official day of mourning in Algeria which contrasts heavily with the celebratory anniversary around Europe. On February 2005, Hubert Colin de Verdière, France’s ambassador to Algeria, formally apologized for the massacre, calling it an “inexcusable tragedy”. President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika has called the Setif massacre the beginning of a “genocide” perpetrated during the Algerian War by French occupation forces. France has denounced this description.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170508-remembering-the-massacre-of-45000-algerians/.

Brazil's Temer gets big victory in electoral court ruling

June 10, 2017

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's top electoral court gave embattled President Michel Temer a big victory late Friday, voting to reject allegations of campaign finance violations that could have removed him from office.

After four days of deliberations, judges voted 4-3 in a case that many viewed as a measure of whether Temer could remain in office amid a ballooning corruption scandal and single-digit popularity. Last month, a recording emerged that apparently captured Temer endorsing hush money to ex-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a former Temer ally serving 15 years in prison for corruption and money laundering. Soon after that, details of another bombshell came out: that Temer was being investigated for allegedly receiving bribes.

Temer has denied wrongdoing and vowed to stay in office. "The facts are very serious, unbearable," said Judge Luiz Fux, who voted to remove Temer, adding the campaign finance case was about "very serious crimes."

Judge Gilmar Mendes, who has called Temer "a friend of many years," cast the decisive vote to keep Temer in office. Mendes, also a justice on the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country's highest court, argued that electoral laws needed reform, suggesting that politicians should not pay the price for a broken system.

"The system needs stability. It is very easy to talk about morality, fighting against corruption. I want that too," said Mendes, who in the past has come to the aid of other politicians facing legal trouble. "A president can't just be replaced at any time, even if the desire is there."

The campaign finance case was filed shortly after the 2014 presidential election by one of the losing parties. It alleged that the ticket of President Dilma Rousseff and running mate Temer, then the vice presidential candidate, gained an unfair advantage through illegal campaign contributions. Temer took over the presidency last year after Rousseff was impeached and removed for illegally managing the federal budget.

The campaign finance allegations were bolstered in recent months by stunning testimony from plea bargains signed by current and former executives at the construction giant Odebrecht, a company at the center of a colossal investigation into billions of dollars in inflated contracts and kickbacks to politicians. The executives provided shocking details of tens of millions of dollars in bribes and illegal campaign contributions, including to the Rousseff-Temer ticket.

In their deliberations, the judges argued about whether those plea bargains should be considered in their decision. They also clashed over the strength of the original evidence and whether punishments should be doled out when illegal campaign finance was widespread.

A guilty verdict would have annulled the 2014 victory, thus stripping Temer of the rest of his mandate. It could also have stripped both Rousseff and Temer of political rights for eight years. While Temer had vowed to appeal a conviction, it would have weakened his hand in a climate of several corruption scandals and a public furious about it.

"Temer will stay in office and probably face many demonstrations in the streets," said Alexandre Barros, a political risk consultant with the Brasilia-based firm Early Warning. "I don't think anybody is in the mood to decide something unexpected at this point."

The political turmoil in Brazil — that began with the push last year to remove Rousseff from power for violating budget laws — has reached a fever pitch. There are near weekly protests calling for Temer's ouster, frequent shouting matches in Congress, and a simmering debate in the media over whether Temer will manage to finish out his term.

That atmosphere was reflected in the courtroom, where there were several tense moments. Among the most dramatic came during the opening of the afternoon session Friday, when a prosecutor requested the disqualification of one of the judges who had once been a lawyer for Rousseff and one justice decried articles in the press that linked him to a corruption investigation. As the tension in the chamber rose, the court's president called a brief break.

While Temer has survived another day, the future will be difficult. His already very low popularity has plunged further amid the corruption allegations. A Temer ally and former congressman, captured on video by federal police carrying a suitcase full of bribe money, was recently jailed — and any testimony he provides could further implicate Temer.

The main parties in Temer's coalition have stuck with him so far, but several reports have reflected worry that being associated with his could be detrimental to re-election campaigns next year. Ironically, Temer's strongest argument to stay in power is that he can deliver major reforms to labor laws and the country's pension system. While deeply unpopular among Brazilians, many economists have argued they are necessary to help pull Latin America's largest nation from recession and many members of Congress want them passed, if anything to be able to point at something besides widespread corruption.

"Temer will argue, 'I'm the guy who is going to give the country the bitter remedy that will cure it," said Carlos Manhanelli, political marketing specialist and chairman of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants.

Associated Press reporter Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.

State of emergency declared on quake-hit Greek island Lesbos

June 13, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Authorities in Greece have declared a state of emergency on the island of Lesbos after an earthquake left one woman dead and more than 800 people displaced. The 6.2 magnitude undersea quake on Monday occurred south of Lesbos but was felt as far as Istanbul, Turkey.

Officials from the island's regional government on Tuesday said homes in 12 villages in southern Lesbos had been seriously damaged or destroyed. The mostly elderly residents affected were being housed with relatives, in hotels or at an army-run shelter.

The earthquake marked the second crisis to hit the island in the last two years, after hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, including many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, crossed to Lesbos on boats from Turkey as they headed to Europe.

UK's Theresa May holds talks to seal government alliance

June 13, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May will meet with a Northern Ireland-based party Tuesday to see if they can create an alliance to push through the Conservative Party's agenda after a disastrous snap election left her short of a majority in Parliament.

May desperately needs the Democratic Unionist Party's 10 seats to pass legislation. The Conservatives are considering an arrangement in which the Northern Ireland party backs May on the budget and her confidence motions.

The talks with the DUP follow her apology to Conservative rank-and-file lawmakers in a meeting Monday which signaled she would be more open to consultation, particularly with business leaders demanding answers about the details on Britain's departure from the European Union.

"I'm the person who got us into this mess and I'm the one who will get us out of it," she said at the closed-door session. May is under pressure to take on a more cross-party approach to Brexit talks. The Evening Standard, edited by ex-Treasury chief George Osborne, reported that Cabinet ministers have initiated talks with opposition Labour lawmakers to come up with a "softer," less hard-line divorce from the EU.

Pressed on the reports, Environment Secretary Michael Gove declined to deny it. He told Sky News that the reality of the election results meant that May and her government would need to reach out past party lines.

"The parliamentary arithmetic is such that we are going to have to work with everyone," he said. The leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, is likely to demand a high price for her support. She will almost certainly ask for greater investment in Northern Ireland as part of the deal, as well as guarantees on support for pension plans and for winter fuel allowances for older people.

Though Foster supported Brexit, she also might demand that May pursue a cushioned exit from the EU, given her party's wish that a soft border remain between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member.

Even the idea of an alliance is complicated, however. Some involved in the Irish peace process are alarmed because the 1998 Good Friday peace accords call for the British government to be neutral in the politics of Northern Ireland.

Foster's rivals in Northern Ireland, such Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, have objected, describing any partnership between the Conservatives and the DUP as "a coalition of chaos." "Any deal which undercuts in any way the process here or the Good Friday Agreement is one which has to be opposed," he said.

The stakes for May are high as lawmakers return for their first day of business on Tuesday. Without a so-called "confidence and supply" deal with the DUP, her party risks losing the vote next week on the Queen's Speech, which lays out the agenda for the government.

Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn is pushing for this outcome, and has repeatedly said he was ready to try to form a government.

Panama switches diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China

June 13, 2017

BEIJING (AP) — Panama switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China on Tuesday, dealing a major success to Beijing in its drive to isolate the self-governing island it claims as its own territory.

Taiwan warned that the move would further alienate the island of 23 million from the 1.37 billion Chinese living across the Taiwan Strait. In Panama, President Juan Carlos Varela announced the change, which entails breaking off formal relations with Taiwan, saying in a televised address that it represents the "correct path for our country."

A joint statement released on Monday evening in Panama said Panama and China were recognizing each other and establishing ambassadorial-level relations the same day. "The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that there is but one China in the world, that the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory," the statement read.

In Taiwan, officials including President Tsai Ing-wen denounced the move as a betrayal and vowed to maintain the island's sovereignty and international presence. "Oppression and threats are not going to help in cross-strait relations. It will on the contrary increase the discrepancy between the people" of Taiwan and China, Tsai said at a news conference.

"We will not compromise and yield under threat," the president said. Panama had been among the largest economies to have maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The island now has just 20 formal diplomatic partners, 11 of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The island is also excluded from the United Nations and many other multinational bodies at China's insistence.

At the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo signed a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations, followed by a champagne toast.

Wang said he was sure relations between the two countries would have a "bright future." Saint Malo said she hoped the new relationship would lead to trade, investment and tourism opportunities, in particular "exporting more goods from Panama to China."

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949 and Beijing has vowed to take control of the island by force if necessary. While the sides had maintained an undeclared diplomatic truce for much of the past decade, relations have deteriorated under Tsai, who took over Taiwan's presidency more than a year ago but has declined to endorse China's view that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.

The past year has seen China ratcheting up the diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, barring its representatives from attending the World Health Organization's annual conference and other international gatherings.

Beijing cut off contacts with Taiwanese government bodies a year ago, and in recent months has also sailed an aircraft carrier strike force aground the island in a display of its growing military power.

Panama may be the first of several Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch to China as Beijing steps up pressure on Tsai to recognize its "one China" principle, said Tang Yonghong, director of the Taiwan Economic Research Center at Xiamen University in southeastern China.

"Many Latin American countries want to have stronger ties with China for their national interests," Tang said. Although China refused to form such ties during the previous administration of China-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, it no longer has any such qualms, Tang said.

"Now this trend could continue for a while," Tang said. Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that in breaking ties, President Varela had ignored the friendship between their countries and the efforts that Taiwan had made to help Panama's overall development. Panama had "submitted to the Beijing authorities for economic benefits" and "lied" to the government of Taiwan, the statement said.

Taiwan will immediately cut ties, cease all bilateral cooperation projects and pull its diplomatic staff and technical advisers out of the country, the ministry said, adding that it will not "engage in competition for money diplomacy with the Beijing authorities."

"We express our strong protest and condemnation over the Beijing authorities luring Panama into breaking ties with us, oppressing our diplomatic space to maneuver and harming the feelings of the Taiwanese people," the statement said.

Beijing and Taipei have long competed with each other to win diplomatic recognition, at times enticing small or poor countries to switch with the promise of millions of dollars for public works projects.

Varela had suggested the possibility of switching diplomatic recognition during his presidential campaign in 2014, for historic, economic and strategic reasons. "Both nations are betting on a more interconnected world," Varela said in a possible allusion to Chinese economic involvement in the Panama Canal. He mentioned that it was a massive Chinese vessel that was the first to pass through the canal's expanded locks when they opened in June 2016.

China is the second-biggest client of the Panama Canal and the leading provider of merchandise to a free-commerce zone in the Panamanian city of Colon, on the country's Caribbean coast. The loss of Panama is intended to show Tsai that continued defiance of Beijing will harm Taiwan's overall interests, said Zhang Baohui, director of Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

"Panama was one of the more significant countries that still maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan," Zhang said. "By taking away Panama, it once again teaches Tsai's government the lesson that if she doesn't accept the 'one China' principle ... there will be consequences.

Zamorano reported from Panama City. Associated Press journalists Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, and Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.

Kenya: At least 10 missing after Nairobi building collapses

June 13, 2017

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — An eight-story building has collapsed in a low-income area of Nairobi and 10 people are missing, witnesses and officials in Kenya said Tuesday. The collapse occurred late Monday night, Nairobi Police Chief Japheth Koome said.

Police fired tear gas after residents angered by the slow deployment of government rescuers hurled stones slowing search and rescue efforts, said a resident, Hailey Akinyi. Akinyi, who lives in an adjacent building, witnessed the collapse and said three people had been rescued from the debris. The collapsed building and the building she lives in had been marked with an "X," meaning they had been condemned by the National Construction Authority, she said.

Most of Nairobi's 4 million people live in low-income areas or slums. Housing is in high demand and unscrupulous developers often bypass regulations. Building collapses have become common. After eight buildings collapsed and killed 15 people in Kenya in 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an audit of all the country's buildings to see if they are up to code. The National Construction Authority found that 58 percent of buildings in Nairobi are unfit for habitation.

Last year a building collapse in another low income area killed 37 people and injured 70. The rescue mission took days during which a six-month-old baby and a pregnant woman were among those pulled safely out of the rubble. After that collapse the government ordered all condemned building demolished and residents evacuated but the operation was never completed after media attention waned.

Last month eight people died when a wall collapsed on them in the coastal city of Mombasa following heavy rains.

Philippines says it learned of city siege plans in advance

June 14, 2017

MARAWI, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government learned days in advance of a plan by militants aligned with the Islamic State group to lay siege to a southern city and staged an army raid on a militant hideout that prevented a bigger and deadlier attack, officials said Tuesday.

Solicitor General Jose Calida said in a report that the government received intelligence information at least five days before the militants prematurely launched their bloody assault on Marawi city on May 23 after government forces raided the hideout of militant leaders led by Isnilon Hapilon.

Army troops failed to capture Hapilon in the raid, which sparked a gunbattle in a Marawi village, but military officials said the assault forced the gunmen to prematurely start their attack aimed at occupying the Islamic city of more than 200,000 people. The rebel plan was to launch the attack on May 26 or 27, the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the country's south.

"Specifically, on 18 May 2017, intelligence reports revealed that the ISIS-inspired local rebel groups were planning to occupy Marawi city, and to raise the ISIS flag at the provincial capitol," Calida said in a report to the Supreme Court, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

"The said attack would have served as the precursor for other rebel groups to stage their own uprisings across Mindanao in a bid to simultaneously establish a wilayah in the region," Calida said, referring to the southern Philippine region and the Islamic State province the militants aimed to create there.

Calida defended President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to declare martial law in the entire southern Mindanao region to deal with the Marawi crisis. Opponents have questioned the grounds cited by Duterte for the martial law declaration and asked the Supreme Court to invalidate his action.

Asked why the government failed to stop the Marawi siege despite its advance knowledge of the plot, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the intelligence information was still being vetted, but the military nevertheless planned a raid on the hideout of Hapilon and other militants behind the plot.

"From our point of view, we were able to stop something that could have been much, much bigger," Abella told a news conference. Abella was also asked why top security officials led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. joined Duterte in a trip to Russia around the time the government received information about the planned Marawi attack. "They were all on top of the situation. They were actually monitoring everything," Abella said.

When the military managed to verify some of the details of the plot, it staged the raid on Hapilon's hideout, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said. He acknowledged, however, that the military was unaware of the number of armed fighters the plotters could muster.

In his report, Calida said "about 500 rebels marched along the main streets of Marawi and swiftly occupied strategic positions throughout the city" on May 23, adding that the gunmen had "strong combat capability, and seemingly limitless firepower and other resources."

Army Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, a regional military commander, said 150 to 200 gunmen have been isolated in four of Marawi's 96 villages, and dozens of militant snipers have been killed, setting back the militants' lethal firepower three weeks after the bloody siege began.

With the remaining gunmen contained in just a few villages, Padilla said "the worst is over" in Marawi, but added that it was difficult to say when the government could regain full control of the devastated city.

Perched on buildings, some connected by tunnels that gave them mobility, the snipers have made it difficult for troops to wrest back areas under the rebels' control. The gunmen have also used civilian hostages as human shields, Galvez said.

Philippine officials say 191 militants, 58 soldiers and policemen and 26 civilians have been killed in the three weeks of clashes.