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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

France's Macron to reshuffle government after parliament win

June 19, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is poised to rearrange his Cabinet after his new centrist party swept parliamentary elections. Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said Monday on RTL radio that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would resign "in the coming hours" and a new government would be named in the coming days. It's a largely symbolic move required after legislative elections.

Since Macron's Republic on the Move! Party won an absolute majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, Castaner said the government reshuffle would be "technical and not far-reaching." He refused to say whether ministers who have come under corruption suspicions would keep their jobs.

Many victorious parliament members have never held office before. They started arriving Monday at the National Assembly to learn their way around before the first parliament session next week.

EU leaders to weigh terrorism, defense ties, migration

June 22, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders are gathering Thursday to weigh measures to tackle terrorism, closer defense ties and migration, convinced that anti-EU sentiment and support for populist parties are waning.

Ahead of the two-day meeting in Brussels, summit chairman Donald Tusk trumpeted the resurgence of the EU, even as Britain launched talks this week on leaving. Tusk told the leaders in an invitation letter that after a series of election defeats for anti-migrant parties, notably in France, the EU is "slowly turning the corner."

"We are witnessing the return of the EU rather as a solution, not a problem," he wrote. French President Emmanuel Macron, attending his first summit, warned countries against defying Europe's principles and values, as some eastern European states challenge the bloc's refugee-sharing scheme, which was adopted with a legally binding majority vote.

"Europe is not a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It gets weaker when it allows its principles to be rejected. European countries that don't respect the rules have to draw all the political consequences," Macron said in an interview with eight European newspapers ahead of the summit.

Prior to these meetings, government leaders and heads of state usually meet in their political groupings to prepare. Macron is breaking with tradition and plans to hold talks with the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, most of whom have challenged the refugee plan.

On migration, the leaders will acknowledge the need to boost support and training for the coast guard in Libya — the main jumping-off point for people from Africa seeking better lives in Europe. "Further efforts shall also be made to achieve real progress in return policy," so that unauthorized migrants can be sent home in greater number and more efficiently, according to a draft of their final summit statement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is also due to praise the good atmosphere at Monday's Brexit talks, and explain how to protect the rights of citizens hit by Britain's departure. Britain is set to become the first country to leave the EU by late March 2019, but Tusk held out hopes Thursday that it might not come to pass.

Ahead of private talks with May Thursday, Tusk said he had been asked by British friends if he could see a way of Britain still staying in. "I told them that in fact the EU was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve," Tusk said.

"So who knows? You may say I am a dreamer but I'm not the only one," he added, quoting John Lennon's popular hit "Imagine." Relations with Russia are also on the summit menu. The leaders are not expected to raise any objections to prolong a number of sanctions against Moscow for destabilizing Ukraine.

N Ireland party signs deals to support UK Conservative gov't

June 26, 2017

LONDON (AP) — The leader of a Northern Ireland-based party struck a 1.5 billion pound ($1.9 billion) deal with British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives on Monday to support her minority government in a crucial vote on her legislative package later this week.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster said the funding would "address the unique circumstances" of Northern Ireland. As part of the deal, funds will be provided to boost Northern Ireland's economy and offer investment in new infrastructure, health and education.

May said that the two parties "share many values." "We also share the desire to ensure a strong government, able to put through its program and provide for issues like the Brexit negotiations, but also national security issues," May said. "So the agreement we have come to is a very, very good one."

But the figure is certain to raise questions at a time of funding pressure to support police and security services following several extremist attacks as well as a national housing crisis following a devastating fire in a London high-rise that killed at least 79 people. The other parts of the United Kingdom are also certain to object to special consideration for Northern Ireland.

Foster's party had demanded tangible benefits for Northern Ireland in terms of jobs and investment in order to offer its support for May, who lost her majority in the House of Commons in a snap election earlier this month. The prime minister needs the DUP's 10 lawmakers to back her legislative program in order to stay in power.

As part of the deal, money will be earmarked to address a bottleneck between three busy roads in Northern Ireland, and to open up "new opportunities for growth and connectivity" in digital infrastructure.

In an annex outlining the deal, the government said it "recognizes that Northern Ireland has unique circumstances within the United Kingdom, not least as a consequence of responding to challenges of the past," and would therefore allocate 50 million pounds a year for two years "to address immediate pressures in health and education."

But critics, including members of May's Conservatives, have objected to any kind of alliance with the DUP because of some of its views, including opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Northern Ireland's other political parties have also objected to any kind of alliance with the DUP, as it jeopardizes the government's pledge to be a neutral arbiter as part of the Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian strife.

UK police: Mosque attack suspect held on terror charges

June 20, 2017

LONDON (AP) — The family of the suspect arrested in a van attack on a London mosque says they are "massively shocked" and that "their hearts go out to the injured." British media identified the suspect as Darren Osborne from the Welsh city of Cardiff. He was arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism including murder and attempted murder.

Relatives and acquaintances have described him as "complex" or "troubled" in comments to the British media. Witnesses said Osborne claimed he wanted to "kill all Muslims" after he drove into a crowd leaving a mosque early Monday morning. One man who was receiving first aid at the time of the attack died; it's unclear if his death was a result of the attack or from a previous condition.

Nine people were hospitalized after the attack and one person has since been discharged. Two others were treated for minor injuries at the scene. In a statement on behalf of the family, Osborne's nephew Ellis Osborne said they were devastated for the families of the victims but said that his uncle was not a racist.

Darren Osborne's sister Nicola said her brother had been "troubled for a long time." His mother, Christine, described him as a "complex" person. "I'm not going to defend him, but he's my son and it's a terrible, terrible shock," she told ITV.

"It's not just robbing a bank, it's an atrocity. And at this moment in time, I can't cope with it, I can't. I don't want to say anything more." Police were searching an address where Osborne was said to be living before the attack. British media reported that there was no evidence Osborne belonged to any far-right organization and said he was not known to the security services.

One of Osborne's neighbors in Cardiff, Khadijh Sherazi, told the Guardian newspaper she had never had any problems with Osborne or his family until this weekend. Sherazi said her son, Nadeem, 12, said Osborne came up to him while he was on his bike and called him an "inbred."

"At this stage in the investigation, it is believed that the suspect acted alone but we are of course investigating all the circumstances leading up to the attack," the Metropolitan police said in a statement. "All the victims were from the Muslim community and we will be deploying extra police patrols to reassure the public, especially those observing Ramadan."

As Brexit talks begin, Europe sees economic upswing over UK

June 20, 2017

LONDON (AP) — When Britain voted to leave the European Union a year ago, proponents argued Britain's economy was being held back by the slow-growing, dysfunctional bloc. A year on, and with the Brexit divorce talks finally starting, the situation is radically different.

Britain's economy is growing more slowly than Greece's, its households are getting poorer as inflation rises and the government is struggling to stay in power. The remaining 27 members of the EU, meanwhile, appear to have pushed into a higher gear and found renewed vigor from the election of pro-EU governments like that of France.

"The tables have turned somewhat," said James Nixon, chief European economist at Oxford Economics. "The European economy is now enjoying a solid upswing and sentiment, especially towards the EU, is improving."

The situation could embolden the EU negotiators in the Brexit talks and weaken the British side, though it is still far from certain how the talks, which are due to last two years, will play out. For Britain, it's a role reversal, having been buoyed by strong growth in recent times — even after the momentous vote on June 23, 2016 to leave the EU.

Rather than fall into recession in the wake of the Brexit vote, as many economists had predicted, Britain last year was one of the fastest-growing economy among the Group of Seven industrial nations. That was largely due to the sharp fall in the value of the pound in the wake of the Brexit vote, which made British exports cheaper in international markets.

The EU, and the 19-country eurozone in particular, was still reeling from a debt crisis that raised questions over the future of its euro currency and was struggling to cope with a flow of refugees seeking sanctuary from the war in Syria. The Brexit vote had raised questions about the future of the EU and its detractors, including many political parties, were looking to deliver it blows in key elections in France and elsewhere.

For Britain, things have clearly gotten worse this year. Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May failed spectacularly to achieve a majority for her Conservative Party in the general election she called for earlier this month, undermining confidence in her ability to remain in the top job. And the economy started showing clear signs of worsening.

A 15 percent drop in the pound against the dollar has pushed up inflation as it makes imports more expensive, causing living standards to fall as wage increases fail to keep up pace. The consequence of that is households are spending less — retail sales are growing at their slowest rate in four years.

Uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Brexit talks — such as the possibility that Britain crashes out of the EU with no deal — is also likely to make consumers cautious. As will the prospect of higher interest rates from the Bank of England. Last week's policy meeting showed that three of eight rate-setters surprisingly backed the first increase in nearly a decade.

The pound's fall has helped exporters by making their goods cheaper around the world. But the impact of the depreciation doesn't last long and credit ratings agency DBRS says that whatever the shape of the Brexit deal, uncertainty "is likely to adversely impact the economy and the fiscal accounts."

The upshot is that Britain is now at the bottom of the G-7 growth table. Even Greece, which is just coming out of an economic depression and is operating under an international bailout, is doing better, with quarterly growth of 0.4 percent, double Britain's.

Philip Hammond, reappointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer by May after the election, is increasingly arguing for the need for business to be front and center in the Brexit discussions, over and above any other consideration, such as reclaiming sovereignty or clamping down on immigration.

"When the British people voted last June, they did not vote to become poorer, or less secure," Hammond said Tuesday. "They did vote to leave the EU. And we will leave the EU. But it must be done in a way that works for Britain. In a way that prioritizes British jobs, and underpins Britain's prosperity."

While the situation in Britain has clearly worsened, it has gotten brighter in the rest of the EU. Populist, Euroskeptic politicians in Austria, the Netherlands and France failed to make the headway they may have anticipated in recent elections, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely expected to win again in elections this autumn. Meanwhile, the region's debt crisis doesn't look like it's going to flare up again anytime soon as Greece got the money it needed to meet a big summer repayment hump.

"The second half of the year now looks far less threatening," said Simon Derrick, chief markets strategist at BNY Mellon. Perhaps the most important development for the economy has been the election of Macron as France's new president, and his party's big success in legislative elections on Sunday.

Macron was elected on a mandate to deeply reform France's economy, such as making it easier to hire and fire workers. The French economy is performing better than at any time in years, which could make it more palatable for people to accept the changes.

All the signs are that the French economy, for years a laggard in Europe, has pushed into a higher gear. The same can be said for the wider eurozone economy, which grew by 0.6 percent in the first three months of the year.

Investors are getting more confident about its prospects, with some funds, including Blackrock and Morgan Stanley, recommending clients to go "overweight" on European stocks. It's still unclear how this divergence in performance between the two sides of the Brexit negotiating table will play out. The worry for Britain is that the EU will be able to tough it out a bit more than it could have done a year ago.

Diverse London neighborhood unites in fire aftermath

June 16, 2017

LONDON (AP) — It's been called a "tale of two cities": London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with its billionaires' homes, neat rows of embassies and a royal palace, is known around the world as the wealthiest place in Britain. Yet it's also home to some of the capital's poorest, most ethnically diverse neighborhoods — including the one where an apartment block went up in flames this week, leaving at least 17 dead and whole families missing.

The shock of that tragedy, the worst of its kind London has seen in decades, has mobilized residents to set aside the extreme inequalities of the borough and come together in an outpouring of grief and support.

Churches and mosques near Grenfell Tower were inundated with donations for victims of the fire, many piled so high with boxes they had to turn away a steady stream of residents who kept appearing with food, clothing and other supplies. Strangers stopped each other in the street to catch up on which items needed to go where, offering their bikes for transporting donations.

"We've all got compassion. We've all got children who went to school with the kids who lived in that building," said Kirsteen Malcolm, who has lived in north Kensington for 20 years. Malcolm was helping at a makeshift collection station under an overpass, where affluently dressed Britons and headscarf-covered Arab women alike jumped in as volunteers, forming a spontaneous human chain to load cases of bottled water into a van. Other volunteers sorted through mountains of donation boxes and bags. A local restaurant closed for business Thursday, instead setting up a stall at the station to serve free meals to all.

"The community is just rallying. People have just shown up to help," said Sinead O'Hare, a volunteer working at another donation point. "When I arrived last night it was so busy, but a stranger put me up in her house. It's amazing."

Those trapped and unaccounted for in Grenfell Tower, a 24-story government-owned block, included many migrant families from the Middle East and northern Africa. A wall of prayers and condolences outside a local community church reflects the diverse backgrounds of local residents, with hundreds of messages left in English and Arabic. "Allah, make it easy for everyone," one read.

Suhad Adam, who works with a local charity helping Somali communities, said she felt the atmosphere of solidarity defied the impression that London was tense from community divisions in the wake of the recent extremist attacks on the city.

"It's the first time I've seen London come together like this, Muslims, Jews, Christians," she said. "The message now is a strong one. We are together." While Kensington commands the most expensive property prices in the country, its northern tip, where the blaze took place, includes neighborhoods ranking among the 10 percent most deprived in England, according to official data.

Just blocks away, toward the south of the borough, are the glamorous houses and restaurants of Notting Hill, an area favored by investment bankers and wealthy expatriates, and mega-mansions owned by the likes of Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich. Kensington Palace, the home of Prince Harry, Prince William and his wife Kate, is also close by.

The tower blaze has brought out long-simmering anger about that stark divide. When approached by reporters, a local resident railed about gentrification projects that knocked down low-income housing in the area, saying no one in government had paid attention to their plight. Another man at the scene said that only better-off people "with a cut-glass accent" have any hope of being taken seriously by officials.

"The people who died and lost their homes, this happened to them because they are poor," rap musician Akala told Channel 4 television. "Repeated requests were ignored. There is no way that rich people live in a building without adequate fire safety."

Still, the overall feeling at the scene was one of a community united — for now — in its determination to help in whatever way it could. Volunteer Joy Ebere, who was handing out free pastries, cakes and fruit, said: "The food is for everyone. They have shown their love.

"We've seen many tears — my colleague here was just crying," she added. "But at the same time we are trying to use good to overcome the pain."

Back to Switzerland for Cyprus peace deal talks

June 26, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — It's back to Switzerland for Cyprus peace talks. This time the rival leaders of the ethnically-divided island will be meeting at the secluded Swiss resort of Crans-Montana. Previous summits were held in Mont Pelerin and Geneva.

The talks kick off Wednesday and are due to last at least a week. They will likely determine whether a deal to reunify Cyprus, which is divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south, is possible or not.

The key issue is how security will be overseen if and when Cyprus is reunified as a federation. Other issues still to be resolved include how much territory the Greek and Turkish Cypriot federated states would be made up of and the process for allowing tens of thousands of displaced people to reclaim lost homes and property.

Here's a look at what will be at play at the peace summit:


The issue is one of the toughest in the complex negotiations that officials say have made significant headway in the last two years and has been left to be tackled last.

It revolves around the 35,000-plus troops that Turkey has kept in place since 1974 when it invaded Cyprus following a coup aimed at union with Greece. Turkey mounted the military action, invoking intervention rights that were granted under Cyprus' 1960 constitution to the island's "guarantors": Turkey, Greece and ex-colonial ruler Britain.

Cyprus' Greek Cypriot president, Nicos Anastasiades, and the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci, both tackled the security conundrum in Geneva during January talks. The foreign ministers of the "guarantor" nations also took part.

But that meeting dissolved relatively quickly amid recriminations that neither side was unwilling to put its cards on the table and get down to hard bargaining.


The Greek Cypriot side wants military intervention rights expunged and Turkish troops gone to eliminate what is sees as an existential threat and Ankara's instrument of control over the island. Its argument is that no European Union member country would ever need third-country security guarantees.

Anastasiades has proposed an international police force to oversee post-reunification security with the U.N. Security Council using its clout to back it up.

The minority Turkish Cypriots see Turkey's troops as their sole assurance of protection in case a peace deal unravels and want them to stay.

Akinci has said a rethink over the need for troops could happen around 15 years after reunification. Turkish Cypriot and Turkish officials insist a Greek Cypriot call for a full troop withdrawal is a non-starter.

An alternative proposal that's been floated unofficially would see small contingents of Greek and Turkish troops deployed on the island after a deal, while intervention rights would be amended to remove any clause for unilateral action.


Any compromise on security must pass muster with Greek and Turkish Cypriots who will vote on any peace accord in separate referendums before it would be implemented.

U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide told The Associated Press in April that the world body has helped put together a compromise formula to overcome the security hurdle. He said the formula was the result of consultation with the Cypriot leaders, the European Union and the "guarantors."

The Greek Cypriot side has insisted on prioritizing a security deal before other issues are tackled. Turkish Cypriots said all issues must be discussed concurrently as part of an overarching bartering process.

To accommodate both sides, negotiations at Crans-Montana will be split into two rooms — security in one, and everything else in the other.


The aim at Crans-Montana is for the two sides to achieve a breakthrough on an agreed peace accord framework. More work will be needed over the weeks and months ahead to fill in the gaps and prepare the ground for putting the completed deal to a vote.

Although it's said the talks will be open-ended, officials say it'll likely last a week to 10 days. And timing is essential.

The Cyprus government is set to start promising exploratory oil and gas drilling off the island's southern shore in mid-July amid strong opposition from Turkey, and the Turkish Cypriots who warn of a potential "crisis" if drilling proceeds.

Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots say a "unilateral" Greek Cypriot search for gas flouts their rights to the island's offshore mineral wealth. The Cypriot government insists drilling is it's sovereign right and that any hydrocarbon proceeds will be shared after a peace deal is sealed, signed and delivered.

Cyprus uses high-tech tools to speed search for its missing

June 23, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — With glue gun in hand, Turkish Cypriot anthropologist Sinem Hossoz meticulously pieces together tiny fragments — the pulverized skull of a child, one of the youngest victims of conflict on ethnically divided Cyprus.

Paul-Henri Arni, the U.N.-appointed member to the Committee on Missing Persons, says such things must be done. "It's for the dignity of the dead," he says, but also to spare relatives the shock of seeing a smashed skull when the remains are returned to them.

"The skull in all cultures, including here, is the center of the human person, it's the soul," Arni said at the CMP laboratory on the grounds of the disused Nicosia airport straddling a U.N. controlled buffer zone where skeletal remains are assembled for identification.

With international donations, the CMP has worked diligently for 11 years to help heal a gaping wound from this east Mediterranean island's tortured past and foster its future reconciliation. It has unearthed and identified more than a third of the 2,001 Greek and Turkish Cypriots who vanished during fighting between the two sides in the 1960s and during the summer of 1974. That's when a coup aiming at union with Greece triggered a Turkish invasion that split the island into a breakaway, Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized south.

Time is working against the committee. Potential eyewitnesses who could help pinpoint graves are dying out, while unceasing construction sometimes makes such burial sites forever inaccessible. To expedite its work, Arni says the CMP is now sifting through archival information it has for the first time gained access to from the U.N., the International Committee of the Red Cross and some six countries that had dispatched peacekeeping troops to Cyprus at the time of the fighting.

It's also investing in new technologies like the Geographic Information System, or GIS, that links all information gathered from archives, investigators and eyewitnesses to give a more exact estimate of possible burial sites.

Gulden Plumer Kucuk, the CMP's Turkish Cypriot member, says she expects the new approach will begin to produce results within a year. She estimates the archival search will boost the inflow of information by up to 20 percent.

"The important thing is that we do everything in our capacity ... so when we turn our faces to the families, we should be able to say that we did everything for them," she said. The decades-long agony of the relatives of the disappeared is what drives Romanos Liritsas, a Greek Cypriot researcher with the committee.

It's "the humanitarian aspect that edges us to speed up, because the relatives have been waiting much too long to find their beloved ones," says Liritsas, standing in a field in the northern, Turkish Cypriot half of the island where colleagues, acting on an tip, are searching for a missing soldier's remains.

Greek Cypriot Eleni Kyriakou lived long enough to bury her son. The 88-year-old sat in a wheelchair at the head of the grave into which the small, wooden flag-draped coffin carrying the remains of her son Epiphanios was lowered — a burial with full military honors at Makedonitissa military cemetery.

The remains of Epiphanios, a 20-year-old second-lieutenant, were found along with those of five other comrades in a makeshift grave after vanishing on Aug. 15, 1974, during a retreat from of advancing Turkish troops.

A Turkish Cypriot man who recently recalled seeing the soldiers' unburied bodies in a gully shortly after fighting ceased, said Sevgul Uludag, a Turkish Cypriot journalist who for years has been gathering information on the whereabouts of the missing. The Turkish Cypriot man was 7 years old at the time, riding atop a donkey led by his grandfather, who had buried the soldiers.

Epiphanios' older brother Kyriakos said the back of his brother's skull bore a small hole. "After 43 years, you can imagine the emotional pressure," said Kyriakou. "When I saw the bones of my brother, I felt relief from this pressure."

The CMP still encounters a strong unwillingness from some witnesses or even perpetrators to talk, despite promised immunity from prosecution. "We're 100 percent sure that there are people that are still alive who are keeping information," says Kucuk's Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nestoras Nestoros. "We want them to understand that it is very, very useful for us and for the families that are still waiting and still looking for their loved ones."

A public appeal for information has been made by the island's Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, who will meet in late June in Geneva for a summit in continuing pursuit of a breakthrough deal reunifying the island. A similar appeal has been made by the island's Christian and Muslim leaders.

Not all remains of the missing will be found, says Kucuk. In some instances, only partial skeletal remains will be returned to families. Some of the dead were left exposed on hilltops or buried in riverbeds, so their bones were scattered. Others may be buried under apartment buildings where the remains are inaccessible, although the CMP did dig up a private pool to get to the remains of two missing persons. In other instances, remains could have been dug up and reburied elsewhere, reinforcing the silence of perpetrators.

Nestoros says even a single bone from a missing person can offer some consolation to families. "It shows that this person has died," he says. "This is an answer for the relatives." Turkish Cypriot Raif Toluk is hopeful his family will soon find answers about his missing father. Working at the state telecommunications authority CyTA, Mehmet Raif vanished on Dec. 22, 1963. Toluk says his brothers were told their father was shot as he rode his bicycle home.

For 40 years, the family had heard nothing. Now Uludag's investigative work has indicated that Mehmet Raif may be among a number of Turkish Cypriots buried in a mass grave. Toluk says an excavation at the site late last year unearthed the remains of seven people and that DNA results are pending.

"My mother died waiting, 'He will come, he will come,'" says Toluk. "When you say 'This is your father' and we bury, I think we will relax. At least we will know that he's there."

Norway to Brazil: Curb deforestation or we stop the money

June 23, 2017

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Norway's prime minister warned Brazil's president on Friday to curb deforestation in the Amazon or Norway will reduce its financial contribution to the project this year. The announcement comes as the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests are being cut down at the fastest rate in nearly a decade, according to official Brazilian figures.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said Norway's more than $1 billion contribution to the so-called Amazon fund is "based on results," Norway's NTB news agency said. Since 2001, Norway has donated billions to encourage the conservation of forests.

"If preliminary figures about deforestation in 2016 are confirmed, it will lead to a reduced payout in 2017," Solberg said after meeting with Brazilian President Michel Temer in Oslo. Temer praised Norway's contribution to the fund but declined to take questions from media after he and Solberg had made their statements.

"This contribution has enabled us to make a more effective impact to avoiding deforestation," Temer said, according to NTB. Temer said Monday he had vetoed legislation to reduce the size of protected environmental reserves. However, the apparent victory for environmental groups most likely will be short-lived, as Brazilian Environment Minister Jose Sarney Filho is working on similar legislation.

The legislation passed by Brazil's Congress last month would have converted around 1.4 million acres (566,000 hectares) of protected land into areas open to logging, mining and agricultural use. However, last week, Filho announced plans to create a new expedited bill that would convert 1.1 million acres of protected land to other uses.

Last year, deforestation in the Amazon jumped 29 percent over the previous year, according to the Brazilian government's satellite monitoring. That was the highest rate since 2008. Before his meeting with Solberg, Temer was met by protesters holding posters reading "Stop rainforest destruction" and "Respect indigenous peoples' rights" as he arrived at the prime minister's office in Oslo.

Trump to speak to Poles at site that honors nation's heroism

June 22, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump has chosen to deliver a speech during his upcoming visit to Poland at the site of a memorial to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Germans, a Polish official says.

Krzysztof Szczerski, an aide to Polish President Andrzej Duda, said late Wednesday that it is an honor for Poles that Trump will give a major speech at Krasinski Square, "a site which symbolizes Polish heroism."

The speech will come during a brief visit that Trump will make to Warsaw on July 6 before he attends a summit of Group of 20 leaders in Hamburg, Germany. In Warsaw, Trump will also attend a summit devoted to the Three Seas Initiative, a relatively new effort to expand and modernize energy and infrastructure links in a region of Central Europe from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black seas in the south.

The Warsaw Uprising, the largest act of resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, saw insurgents and civilians fight the German occupiers for more than two months. The revolt was brutally crushed and resulted in the death of more than 200,000 Poles and the destruction of Warsaw.

Today, it stands for Poles as one of the most heroic episodes in their history, an act of courage against a brutal occupier. The presence of a U.S. president on that spot will be a welcome gesture to many Poles, including Polish-Americans in the United States, a constituency that tends to be conservative and that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

It is also clearly a diplomatic success for Poland's conservative government, which has made it a key policy aim to increase knowledge abroad of positive episodes in Poland's past, part of an effort to improve the country's image internationally.

New report blames South Sudan military for civilian deaths

June 21, 2017

ABUROC, South Sudan (AP) — Albin Koolekheh watched his 4-year-old son die in his arms. He and his family were among tens of thousands of people who escaped a wave of fighting in South Sudan's civil war, only to find themselves living in a filthy camp near the border with Sudan.

A new report by Amnesty International says South Sudanese forces burned, shelled and ransacked homes between January and May, killing civilians and forcing thousands like Koolekheh from the Shilluk ethnic minority to flee.

"Even considering South Sudan's history of ethnic hostility," the mass displacement was shocking, the report says. As South Sudan faces its fourth year of civil war, the fighting shows no signs of ending. Both government and opposition forces have been accused of war crimes including mass rape and targeted killings, while the United Nations warns of ethnic violence. While the focus has been on ethnic tensions between the Dinka of President Salva Kiir and the Nuer of rebel leader Riek Machar, the new report highlights the threat to others caught in the crossfire.

When government troops attacked his hometown of Wau Shilluk in January, Koolekheh grabbed his wife and three children and left. After a day of walking through the bush, his youngest son fell sick. With no food or water, the boy died on the side of the road.

"Bullets, guns, screaming, it was everywhere," the weary 32-year-old father told The Associated Press this week. "This violence is known to the world. But what is everyone doing about it?" Now Koolekheh crouches on the dirt floor in the back room of a small shop, scrubbing metal bowls with a rag, his eyes fixed on the floor.

He and his family are sheltering in Aburoc, an ad hoc displaced person's camp. At the peak of the fighting, 25,000 people were living in this bleak shantytown. Now roughly 10,000 remain, the rest gone to Sudan or nearby villages.

Makeshift houses with plastic roofs are scattered across muddy fields. Food is scarce and disease is rife. A cholera outbreak threatened the population in May. Yet many have no choice but to call this town home. This is their third or fourth attempt at finding refuge in less than six months after being uprooted over and over by violence.

Satellite imagery collected by Amnesty International shows the destruction of homes and other civilian buildings, including a temple, in the central areas of Wau Shilluk. The group's report says government troops often deliberately killed civilians, shooting them in the back when they tried to flee.

"These accounts are unfounded," said a South Sudan military spokesman, Col. Santo Domic Chol. He said it isn't within the military's mandate to kill civilians and chase them from their homes. Yet stories abound of families fleeing for their lives.

When government forces attacked the nearby opposition-held town of Kodok three months ago, Victoria Adhong said she fled and will never go back. Although Aburoc is currently peaceful, Adhong, the acting governor of Fashoda state, said it's hard to feel safe when the "enemy's next door."

Another of the displaced, Elizabeth Adwok, said she fled Kodok with her seven children amid gunfire. They arrived in Aburoc in April and have struggled to find food, with little in the market and prices high.

"We're not here because we like it," Adwok said. "But we have nothing." The International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the few organizations with a presence in Aburoc, warned that with the onset of the rainy season things will only get worse.

"Access to food, water and health care is extremely limited," said Matthieu Desselas, head of the office in Kodok. But for the thousands of civilians already so far from their homes, this town is their last hope.

"It's the only place left for me in South Sudan," Koolekheh said. "I'll stay here until there's peace."

Gunmen attack resort in Mali's capital, killing 2

June 19, 2017

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Jihadis attacked a hotel resort Sunday in Mali's capital, taking hostages at a spot popular with foreigners on the weekends. More than 30 people managed to escape though at least two people were killed, authorities said.

Moussa Ag Infahi, director of the national police, told The Associated Press that three of the assailants had been killed while a fourth escaped. Gunfire first rang out at the Campement Kangaba on the outskirts of Bamako in the late afternoon, according to a security guard who was working at the time.

Mahamadou Doumbia said a militant on a motorcycle entered the area around 3:40 p.m. and cried "Allah Akbar" before jumping off and running toward the pool area. "Then a car with three jihadis entered the resort and they started to fire their weapons," he said. "A French soldier who had come for the weekend but had his gun shot and wounded" a jihadi.

Mali's security minister later issued a statement confirming at least two deaths, one of which was a dual French-Gabonese citizen. As night fell, witnesses saw smoke rising from the Campement Kangaba, which features three swimming pools and is a popular escape from the Malian heat. It was not immediately clear what was burning, although extremists in other attacks have set cars ablaze.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place amid the final week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In predominantly Muslim Mali, people have been fasting from sunrise to sundown for three weeks.

Sunday's violence came about a week after the U.S. State Department warned of possible attacks on Western diplomatic missions and other locations in Bamako that Westerners frequent. A U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists said those at the resort when the attack began included people affiliated with the French military mission, as well as the U.N. and European Union missions in the country.

Religious extremism in Mali once was limited to northern areas, prompting the French military in 2013 to lead a military operation to oust jihadis from power in the major towns in the north. But the militants have continued targeting Malian forces and peacekeepers, making it the deadliest U.N. mission in the world.

There are no French troops based in Bamako, but about 2,000 French troops are based in northern Mali fighting Islamic extremists. French President Emmanuel Macron was informed about the attack and was following the events carefully, according to an official in his office.

In recent years, the extremists have become even more brazen, attacking sites frequented by Westerners. In March 2015, five people died when militants hit a popular restaurant in the capital. A devastating attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako later that year left 20 dead - six Malians and 14 foreigners.

That attack was jointly claimed by both the regional al-Qaida affiliate and a group known as Al Mourabitoun, which was founded by Moktar Belmoktar after he fell out with al-Qaida leaders. In a video released in March, jihadis said those two were joining together along with two Mali-based terror groups.

Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

Vietnamese dissident recounts forced deportation to France

June 26, 2017

PARIS (AP) — A Vietnamese dissident who says he was arrested at his home in southern Ho Chi Minh City and forcibly exiled to France said he is determined to continue his activity as a pro-democracy blogger.

Pham Minh Hoang, a 61-year-old math lecturer, recounted his arrest and deportation in a phone interview Sunday with The Associated Press a few hours after his arrival in France. He said three police officers burst into his house on Friday and grabbed his arms when he refused to follow them while wearing only shorts, an undershirt and slippers.

"Once outside, I was horrified to see that there were not three, but a hundred policemen in uniform and in plainclothes around my house and in the neighboring streets," said Hoang, who was a dual French-Vietnamese national before he was stripped of his Vietnamese citizenship last month.

After being detained in front of his wife, Hoang said he was driven to a detention center two hours away, where he spent 24 hours and was visited by the Consul General of France. He said Vietnamese authorities forced him on a plane to Paris on Saturday night.

Hoang's deportation came two weeks after he learned a presidential decree had revoked his Vietnamese citizenship. Human Rights Watch denounced Hoang's expulsion in a statement as a "blatantly illegal, rights violating act" that effectively forces the activist into "indefinite exile."

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. The French foreign ministry confirmed that its Consul General assisted Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City. As a French citizen, he can settle in the country and enjoy full freedom of speech, the ministry said.

The human rights activist and blogger was sentenced to three years in prison in 2011 for attempted subversion by posting articles on his blog criticizing the Communist government and for being a member of the California-based Vietnam Reform Party, or Viet Tan. The government considers Viet Tan a terrorist organization.

Hoang eventually served 17 months in prison and three years of house arrest. International human rights groups and some Western governments have criticized Vietnam for jailing people for peacefully expressing their views, but Hanoi says only law breakers are put behind bars.

"The vaguely worded decision was a thinly veiled move to silence Pham Minh Hoang for his peaceful advocacy," Viet Tan said in a statement about the stripping of Vietnamese citizenship from Hoang. Before being deported from his country, Hoang said he was questioned at length by two officials whom he thinks were members of the political police. When he refused to consent to his deportation, he said officials reminded him that his wife and daughter were still living in Vietnam. Two policemen slept in the room where he was held, he said.

France is not a country unknown to Hoang. He studied and lived here for 27 years between 1973 and 2000, working as a computer and civil engineer. It is where he started to write articles critical of his country's regime. He said he returned to Vietnam to teach and help the Vietnamese youth with the new technologies.

Today, he doesn't know who will take care of the disabled brother who lived with him in Ho Chi Minh City. He hopes he'll be able to stay in regular contact with his wife and his 13-year-old daughter. "I will continue to help my daughter do her homework, using internet video or other secure means," he said.

Hoang assumes he will have to remain in France for a long time and said he is determined to continue his political activism — "my raison d'être" — as an exile. "I still have a little hope, one day, to come back to live and die in Vietnam," he said.

UN: Number of global displaced up to 65.6 million last year

June 19, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — The number of people displaced from their homes across the world due to war and persecution climbed slightly to a record 65.6 million last year, with the escalating conflict in South Sudan largely accounting for the rise, the United Nations refugee agency said Monday.

The figure that includes refugees, asylum seekers and people uprooted inside their own countries was some 300,000 higher at the end of last year than at the end of 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. That was a smaller increase than in the four previous years, prompting the U.N. agency to warn against complacency.

"Although these figures represent small shifts compared to the previous year ... the relatively stable figures mask a very unstable situation," agency chief Filippo Grandi said ahead of the official release of the report Monday. "This is becoming a forgotten crisis."

Of the total, some 10.3 million people were newly displaced in 2016, around two-thirds fleeing within their own countries, according to an annual report by the group. The total refugee population — people who fled their home countries — was about 22.5 million people, and nearly half of those were children. In Germany, which vastly expanded its acceptance of people fleeing war from places like Syria, the number of refugees doubled to over 600,000 last year.

Syria's six-year civil war remained the largest single cause of displacement, with 12 million people — around two-thirds of the population — either uprooted within the country or fleeing abroad, the group said.

They were followed by some 7.7 million Colombians, 4.7 million Afghans, 4.2 million Iraqis and 3.3 million South Sudanese. Turkey, which has taken in the largest number of Syrians, to a total of 2.9 million at the end of 2015. It has since exceeded 3 million.

Syria is the only country in which a majority of the population is forcibly displaced. South Sudan, with a little over a quarter, has the next-biggest proportion — and fastest growing displaced population overall, the agency said. By the end of 2016, 3.3 million people from the world's newest country had fled their homes, more than half to neighboring countries.

"The international neglect that you see here is matched nowhere else in the world," Grandi told The Associated Press on Sunday while visiting South Sudan's largest internally displaced camp in the town of Bentiu. "Wherever you look there are dead ends."

Thousands of South Sudanese now live in U.N protected camps, including 80 percent of Bentiu's population. The figures are based on the agency's own data and on numbers reported by governments and non-governmental organizations.

Moulson reported from Berlin. Sam Mednick in Bentiu, South Sudan, contributed to this report.

Jewish group cancels meeting with Netanyahu in protest

June 26, 2017

JERUSALEM (AP) — A high-profile group of Jewish leaders cancelled a gala event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to protest his government's decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

The stunning move reflects an unprecedented gulf that has erupted between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over how Judaism can be practiced in Israel. Most American Jews belong to its more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel's ultra-Orthodox authorities that question their faith and practices.

The board of governors of The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, said it was calling off its dinner with Netanyahu and altering the agenda of its annual meetings to address the crisis.

The government decision has set off a cascade of criticism both in Israel and abroad, where Jewish leaders warned that it could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was just one of senior officials who condemned the move, saying it undermines Jewish unity and calling on the government to reverse course. "This gives a very strong message that you (the diaspora) are not important to us," he told Israel's Army Radio.

Dennis Ross, a former top U.S. peace negotiator and currently chair of The Jewish People Policy Institute, said he was afraid that American Jews would no longer see Israel as a home. "We're a small people. We are, in a sense, in one house and there shouldn't be any exclusion and there shouldn't be those who define for others whether or not they're Jewish," Ross told the radio. "It is dangerous if there are steps taken here that would alienate the vast majority of American Jews."

The dramatic about-face at Sunday's Cabinet meeting followed the initial approval of the plan in January 2016 to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall — the holiest site where Jews can pray. The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.

But the program was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu's coalition government raised objections to the decision they had initially endorsed. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men's and women's prayer sections and those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed.

Sunday's nixing of the planned $9 million plaza, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, sparked the immediate ire of liberal Jews.

Highlighting its sensitivity, the issue was not listed on the Cabinet's agenda and no official statement on the decision was made. Netanyahu himself notably refrained from addressing it in a speech to young diaspora Jews on a Birthright trip to Israel and has kept mum amid the outpouring of anger, even among some of his closest allies.

Elazar Stern, a modern Orthodox lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked the attorney general on Monday to review what he called a murky decision-making process. "Cancelling the Western Wall agreement causes a severe crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora and when such a decision is taken secretly, away from the eyes of the public and without ministers having a chance to prepare for it adequately, a large shadow is cast upon it," he wrote.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials. The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.

The liberal streams have made some progress in recent years, but have encountered a wall of ultra-Orthodox resistance when it comes to official state recognition and breaking the monopoly on religious practices.

"We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement," Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "But the Cabinet's decision last night — a cynical, even wicked decision — took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world."

Columnist Amihai Attali wrote the decision was even more outrageous, given how much Israel relies on the donations of the Jewish diaspora. "The Jews of the diaspora are our reserves," he wrote in Yediot.

Philippine troops declare 8-hour cease-fire in besieged city

June 25, 2017

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military on Sunday began observing an eight-hour halt in its air and ground offensive against Islamic militants in southern Marawi city to allow residents, most of them displaced by the monthlong fighting, to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the "humanitarian pause" in military assaults took effect at 6 a.m. Sunday in predominantly Muslim Marawi but will be lifted immediately if the militants open fire or threaten troops and civilians.

"If the enemy starts firing ... anyone can exercise their right to self-defense," Padilla said in a statement. It's the first planned respite in the massive offensive after a month of daily street battles and military airstrikes that have left at least 280 militants, 69 soldiers and police, and 26 civilians dead. The intense fighting has turned large swaths of the mosque-dotted city, a bastion of Islamic faith in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation, into a smoldering war zone.

About 500 gunmen aligned with the Islamic State group, including several foreigners, stormed the lakeside city of 200,000 people, occupied buildings, burned schools and hoisted IS-style black flags on May 23.

Faced by his worst crisis, President Rodrigo Duterte responded by declaring martial law in the south and ordering a massive offensive. Padilla said the cease-fire will be observed by the military "as a gesture of our strong commitment and respect to the Muslim world," particularly to Marawi's Muslim residents.

The fighting has forced more than 300,000 people to abandon their homes in Marawi and outlying towns and flee to evacuation centers, which rapidly became overcrowded, making it difficult for them to celebrate the Eid el-Fitr holiday.

Russia fires missiles from Mediterranean at IS in Syria

June 23, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on positions of the Islamic State group in Syria, the Defense Ministry said on Friday, Moscow's latest show of strength in the conflict wracking the Mideast country.

The ministry said in a statement that two frigates and a submarine launched six cruise missiles on IS installations in Syria's Hama province, destroying command centers and ammunition depots. It did not say when the missiles were launched.

Moscow has fired missiles from the Mediterranean at militants' positions in Syria before, including launches from a submarine and a frigate in May at the targets in the area of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Russia is one of the strongest backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and has been carrying airstrikes in the country since September 2015. Separately on Friday, a senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow is "nearly 100 percent" sure that the IS top leader was killed in a Russian airstrike last month.

The Defense Ministry first made the claim last week, saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death in the May 28 strike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa was still "being verified through various channels."

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Friday that Russia's intelligence about al-Baghdadi's death is "nearly 100 percent" certain.

"Russia would not want to be on the list of the countries that have said before that he was killed and then al-Baghdadi would resurrect," Ozerov added. The whereabouts of the shadowy al-Baghdadi, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, have not been known. His last public appearance was almost three years ago in the Iraqi city of Mosul, at the 12th century al-Nuri Mosque from where he declared a "caliphate" in the territory that IS had seized in Iraq and Syria in July 2014.

That mosque, along with its famous leaning minaret, was destroyed on Wednesday night, blown up by IS militants as their control of Mosul increasingly is slipping away. The mosque would have been a symbolic prize for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in the fight for Iraq's second-largest city.

Key moments in Russia's campaign, involvement in Syrian war

June 16, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's announcement that the Islamic State group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a Russian airstrike in Syria in late May — if confirmed — would be a huge military coup for Moscow as a key player in Syria's civil war and strengthen its hand in future peace talks.

It would also mark a climax in Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict, in which it has sided with President Bashar Assad's government, from the first days of the air campaign two years ago to boots on the ground in the city of Aleppo.

The airstrike would also highlight the capabilities of Russia's modernized military, which has tested new precision weapons in Syria. Here are some key moments in Russia's military campaign in Syria.


A series of major battlefield defeats suffered by Assad's army in 2015 prompted Moscow to intervene to protect its long-time ally. On August 26, 2015, Russia signed a deal with the Syrian government on deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad's Alawite religious minority.

In a matter of weeks, Russia's military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the "Syrian Express." On Sept. 30, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria — Russia's first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation's collapse.


The Russian intervention angered Turkey, which has pushed for Assad's ouster and backed Syrian opposition forces since the start of the conflict in 2011. On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the border with Syria. The pilot was killed by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters as he parachuted from the plane, and a Russian marine was also killed during an operation to rescue the second pilot. Turkey said the Russian plane violated its airspace but Moscow denied that.

Putin described the downing as a "stab in the back" and responded with an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sales of tour packages to Turkey and imports of Turkish fruit and vegetables. The Russian military also beefed up its air defenses in Syria with the long-range S-400 missiles to force Turkey to back off.


In April 2016, Assad's forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a major symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. Russia deployed field engineers to clear mines from the world-famous archaeological site and then celebrated the victory with a concert by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky orchestra, led by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

In December 2016, however, the Syrian army again lost Palmyra to IS. Assad's forces recaptured it in March, again under the Russian air cover and following fierce fighting. BOOTS ON THE GROUND Though most attention was focused on Russian airstrikes, Russia also became actively involved in ground operations. Senior Russian military officers were deployed alongside Syrian government troops to provide training, plan offensive operations and direct them in combat. Russia also dispatched special forces to conduct intelligence and coordinate air strikes. There were also some indications that Russian artillery units were deployed in key battlefield areas.

Russia's Defense Ministry never said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated that Russian military personnel in the Arab nation at the time likely exceeded 4,300.

Russia has lost 38 servicemen in Syria so far, according to official data.


The Syrian war provided an arena for Russia's military to test its latest weapons in combat — including state-of-the art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines. The long-range precision-strike cruise capability has given a major boost to the Russian military.

In another first, Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean last fall to launch the first carrier-borne combat missions in Russia's navy history, during the months-long battles between Syrian government forces and the rebels for Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial hub.

Other weapons for the first time tested in combat included the Su-34 and the Su-35 warplanes, and the Mi-28 and the Ka-52 helicopter gunships. President Vladimir Putin said in a national call-in show on Thursday that the Syrian campaign provided a "priceless" experience for the Russian military.


In December 2016 the Syrian army won full control of Aleppo, Assad's greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year. The fall of the city, which was divided into government- and rebel-controlled parts since 2012, demoralized the rebels, depriving them of the largest urban area under their control. Russian air support helped cut rebels' communications and supply lines.

Assad's victory followed ferocious battles, in which thousands died, and left the rebel enclave in ruins. Russia now has deployed hundreds of military police to patrol the city's former rebel-held eastern part.


Faced with massive damage from Russia's economic sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to mend ties, offering apologies for downing the Russian warplane in June 2016. Putin responded by strongly backing Erdogan during a failed military coup in Turkey.

Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings and frequent phone talks to narrow their differences on Syria. Turkey is also credited with playing a key role in negotiating the withdrawal of the opposition forces from Aleppo.

Also, earlier this year, Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered several rounds of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. Those meetings — though separate from the U.N. backed Syria peace talks in Geneva — brought together the Syrian government and its foes. In May, the three powers, which back opposing sides in the war, negotiated in Astana a deal on so-called "safe zones" in Syria, which was welcomed by the U.N. But the parties are still to finalize the boundaries of the zones and work out monitoring details in talks expected to be held in the coming weeks.

Berlin gives celebrity welcome to 2 giant pandas from China

June 24, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Two giant pandas — Meng Meng and Jiao Qing — received a celebrity welcome Saturday in Berlin from the German capital's mayor and the Chinese ambassador after they safely weathered a long flight from China.

Meng Meng and Jiao Qing flew the animal equivalent of first class, getting royal treatment on their 12-hour-flight from Chengdu in southwestern China. Their entourage included a Berlin veterinarian, two Chinese zookeepers and a bunch of journalists.

"They slept a bit, munched on their bamboo and nibbled on some cookies," veterinarian Andreas Ochs told reporters at Berlin's Schoenefeld airport shortly after the arrival. Medication for motion sickness was not needed.

"They did just fine," he said. The German capital is going nuts over the impossibly cute bears, who will be presented to the public at Berlin Zoo on July 6. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping are also expected to visit the new animal stars ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Germany in early July.

"It was my personal wish to come and welcome our new residents," Mayor Michael Mueller said. "We are delighted that Berlin has gained another fantastic attraction with these bears." Jiao Qing, which means "darling," is a 7-year-old male and weighs 108 kilograms (238 pounds). Female Meng Meng, which translates as "sweet dream," is three years old and weighs 77 kilograms (169 pounds).

The pandas were taken from the airport to the zoo with police protection so they didn't have to stop at any red lights. They also brought their own food on the plane — one metric ton of bamboo from China. Once they've chewed up all of that, the zoo will start importing special bamboo from the Netherlands.

The furry couple will move into a ritzy new nine-million-euro ($10 million) compound, furbished with Chinese-style pavilions, red lanterns, a climbing area and a mountain landscape. They will be the only pandas in the country, the German news agency dpa reported.

Expectations are high the two will have babies soon, even though Ochs warned that Meng Meng is not yet sexually mature. The arrival of the black-and-white bears was preceded by yearslong bilateral negotiations, since giant pandas are unique to China and sent abroad as diplomatic envoys.

"In China, pandas are regarded as a national treasure," Chinese ambassador Shi Mingde said. "Therefore the breeding and conservation of these animals is a top priority for us." The pandas will be on loan from China for 15 years — a deal for which the Asian country is charging 1 million euros ($1.1 million) each year, dpa reported.

Berlin's last panda, Bao Bao, was sent in 1980 as a gift from then-Chinese leader Hua Guofeng to West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Bao Bao died in 2012. Berlin's most famous zoo animal, the polar bear Knut, died of a sudden illness in 2011.

Friend of ousted S. Korean president gets 3 years in prison

June 23, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean court on Friday sentenced a longtime friend of ousted President Park Geun-hye to three years in prison for using her presidential ties to unlawfully get her daughter into a prestigious Seoul university.

The Seoul Central District Court said Choi Soon-sil "committed so many illegal activities" as she pressured Ewha Womans University to grant admission and then provide academic favors to her daughter despite Chung Yoo-ra's questionable qualifications.

Choi, Park's friend of 40 years, is being tried separately over more serious charges, including allegations that she colluded with Park to take tens of millions of dollars from the country's largest companies in bribes and through extortion.

Following months of massive protests by millions and impeachment by lawmakers in December, Park was formally removed from office and arrested over the corruption scandal in March. She was indicted in April on bribery and other charges.

Choi Kyung-hee, Ewha's former president, and Namkung Gon, the university's former head of admissions, also received shorter prison terms on Friday for providing Chung favorable treatment. Chung was extradited from Denmark last month and is currently being investigated by prosecutors who see her as a key figure in the suspected bribery connections between former President Park and corporate giant Samsung.

According to prosecutors, Park colluded with Choi Soon-sil to take about $26 million in bribes from Samsung and was promised tens of millions of dollars more from Samsung and other large companies. Prosecutors say the bribery included $7 million Samsung provided to a sports consulting firm controlled by Choi that financed Chung's equestrian training in Germany.

The allegations that Chung was sponsored by Samsung and received academic favors helped drive the popular anger that led to Park's ouster. Many students were among the millions who protested against Park for weeks, angry that Chung got a free pass into an elite school because of her wealth and connections, while others navigate the country's hyper-competitive school environment on their own.

10 bodies found, scores missing in massive China landslide

June 25, 2017

MAO COUNTY, China (AP) — Rescuers recovered 10 bodies and were still searching for 93 other people on Sunday, a day after a massive landslide buried a picturesque mountain village in southwestern China.

More than 2,500 rescuers with detection devices and dogs were looking for signs of life amid the rubble of huge boulders that rained down on Xinmo village in Sichuan province early Saturday. As of Sunday afternoon, only three people — a couple and their month-old baby — had been rescued from the disaster site.

Sitting on the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau in Aba prefecture's Mao County, Xinmo has in recent years become a tourism destination for its picturesque scenery of homes in lush meadows tucked between steep and rugged mountains. But after the landslide, the village was reduced to a vast area of rubble.

As heavy machines removed debris and men scoured the rubble for survivors on Sunday, relatives from nearby villages sobbed as they awaited news of their loved ones. "It was as if strong winds were blowing by, or a big truck rumbled by," Tang Hua, a 38-year-old woman from a nearby village, told The Associated Press. "The houses were shaking, as if there were an earthquake. We rushed out and saw massive smoke. With a thundering sound, the smoke suddenly lifted. We realized it was a landslide."

"As we ran for safety, we looked this way and saw the village flattened," she said. Tang has relatives in Xinmo, but she said little could be done at this point. "The whole village is done for," she said.

The landslide carried an estimated 18 million cubic meters (636 million cubic feet) of earth and rock — equivalent to more than 7,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools — when it slid down from steep mountains. Some of it fell from as high as 1.6 kilometers (1 mile).

It buried 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) of road and blocked a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) section of a river as it completely wiped away the village, which was once home to 46 families comprising more than 100 people.

The Sichuan provincial government said Sunday that 10 bodies had been found, lowering an earlier figure of 15 that had been reported by state media. It also lowered the number of missing to 93, saying 15 people on an initial list of the missing were accounted for.

There were 142 tourists in the village around the time the landslide hit, and all were alive, said Xu Zhiwen, executive deputy governor of Aba prefecture. Three members of a family from the village were rescued five hours after the landslide struck on Saturday. Qiao Dashuai, 26, told state broadcaster China Central Television that he and his wife awoke to cries from their 1-month-old son at around 5:30 a.m.

"Just after we changed the baby's diaper, we heard a big bang outside and the light went out," Qiao said. "We felt that something bad was happening and immediately rushed to the door, but the door was blocked by mud and rocks."

Qiao said his family was swept away by water as part of a mountain collapsed. He said they struggled against the water until they met medical workers who took them to a hospital. His parents and other relatives were among the missing.

A government-run news outlet said that Qiao and his wife were in stable condition on Sunday and that their infant was sent to an intensive care unit with pneumonia induced by mud inhalation. Experts on state media said the landslide was likely triggered by rain. The mountainous region has been prone to geological disasters. In May 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake killed nearly 90,000 people in Wenchuan County, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Mao County.

Scientist He Siming told the state-run Beijing News that the 2008 quake could have done structural damage to the mountains flanking Xinmo. He said the rain could have been the external cause of the landslide.

In 2014, a landslide in the same county killed 11 people when it struck a section of a highway.

Tang reported from Beijing.