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Friday, June 30, 2017

Portugal awaits foreign help to fight deadly wildfires

June 19, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — More than 1,500 firefighters in Portugal are still battling to control major wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed 62 people. Reinforcements are due to arrive Monday, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy as part of a European Union cooperation program.

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after 62 people were killed in a wildfire Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, which is by far the deadliest on record. Just over 1,000 firefighters are still attending that blaze about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as well as strong winds and dry woodland after weeks with little rain are fueling the blazes.

Maduro says helicopter fired on Venezuela's Supreme Court

June 28, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro said a stolen police helicopter fired on Venezuela's Supreme Court Tuesday in what he called a thwarted "terrorist attack" aimed at ousting him from power.

The confusing exchange, which is bound to ratchet up tensions in a country already paralyzed by months of deadly anti-government protests, took place as Maduro was speaking live on state television. He later said the helicopter had fired on the court with grenades, one of which didn't go off, helping avoid any loss of life. The nation's air defense system was immediately activated.

Adding to the intrigue, pictures of a blue police helicopter carrying an anti-government banner appeared on social media around the same time as a video in which an alleged police pilot, identified as Oscar Perez, called for a rebellion against Maduro's "tyranny" as part of a coalition of members of the country's security forces. Authorities said they were still searching for the man.

"We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government," the man said while reading from a statement with four people dressed in military fatigues, ski masks and carrying what looked like assault rifles standing behind him.

Maduro sounded alternately calm and angry as he told the audience about what had happened in the airspace just beyond the presidential palace where they were gathered. "It could've caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured," he said.

Later, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement from the government accusing the helicopter of firing 15 shots against the Interior Ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people celebrating national journalist's day. It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and launched what he said were four Israeli-made grenades of "Colombian origin," two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.

The pro-government president of the high court said there were no injuries from the attack and that the area was still being surveyed for damages. Villegas said security forces were being deployed to apprehend Perez as well as recover the heisted German-built Bolkow helicopter. Photos of the pilot standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter were displayed on state TV to further bolster the government's case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the U.S. Embassy

Meanwhile many of Maduro's opponents took to social media to accuse the president of orchestrating an elaborate ruse to justify a crackdown against Venezuelans seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution. Venezuela has been roiled by anti-government protests the past three months that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured.

Maduro said one of the pilots involved in the alleged attack used to fly for his former Interior Minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who he accused of working for the CIA. Rodriguez Torres, who has been leading a campaign against by Maduro made up of leftist supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, immediately dismissed the accusation as baseless.

As the drama was unfolding outside the courtroom, inside magistrates were busy issuing a number of rulings further hemming in the opposition. One dismissed a challenge against Maduro's plans for a constitutional assembly by chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime loyalist who broke with the government over the issue. Another broadened the powers of the nation's Ombudsman, giving him the authority to carry out criminal investigations that until now had been the exclusive prerogative of Ortega's office.

The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued Tuesday when opposition lawmakers got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.

At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, which is about a 90 minute drive from Caracas. Maduro condemned the violence but with a stern warning to his opponents that's likely to only further inflame an already tense situation.

"We will never surrender. And what we couldn't accomplish through votes we will with weapons," he said. On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved National Assembly President Julio Borges as he's walking away from a heated discussion.

At nightfall, a few dozen people were still gathered inside the neoclassical building as pro-government supporters stood outside threatening violence.

Venezuelan protesters, security forces clash at air base

June 25, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Young protesters broke down a metal fence guarding an air base in Caracas on Saturday before being repelled by security forces firing tear gas in another day of anti-government protests in Venezuela's capital.

Demonstrators threw stones, and some protesters were injured. The clashes took place after a peaceful mass demonstration next to La Carlota base where a 22-year-old protester was killed this week when a national guardsman shot him in the chest at close range with rubber bullets.

Protesters also fought with security forces outside the base Friday, and activists burned some vehicles during the confrontation. President Nicolas Maduro said in an address to troops Saturday that he had managed to break up a U.S.-backed plot to oust him. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of trying to topple Venezuela's socialist administration.

Maduro praised Venezuela's military for standing by the government and he warned that attempts are underway to try to sow further dissent. More than 70 people have been killed and hundreds injured in almost three months of demonstrations.

Colombia: Bombing at mall kills 3, including French woman

June 18, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A bomb rocked one of the busiest shopping centers in Colombia's capital Saturday, killing three people, including a 23-year-old French woman, and injuring nine others. Witnesses told of being evacuated from movie theaters and stores after the blast in a second-floor women's restroom at the upscale Centro Andino in the heart of Bogota's tourist district. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene and the injured were taken to a hospital, where two later died.

Police said a bomb from an undetermined explosive had caused the destruction. Mayor Enrique Penalosa called it a "cowardly terrorist bombing," and attention immediately focused on the National Liberation Army, which is the last rebel movement still active in Colombia. The group, known as the ELN, carried out a spate of recent attacks in Bogota, but leaders denied involvement in the latest bombing.

Penalosa said the French victim, identified as Julie Huynh, had been in Colombia the past six months volunteering at a school in a poor neighborhood. He said she was preparing to return to France in the coming days in the company of her mother, who was with her in Bogota.

The ELN, which is engaged in long-running peace talks with the government, rejected accusations it was behind the attack. "We ask for seriousness from people making unfounded and reckless accusations," ELN negotiators at peace talks taking place in neighboring Ecuador said on Twitter. "This is the way people are trying to tear up the peace process."

The ELN in February claimed responsibility for a bombing near Bogota's bullring that killed one police officer and injured 20 other people. But the group said it doesn't target civilians. Penalosa urged residents of Bogota's wealthier districts to be on high alert but cautioned that there was no hint of other attacks being planned. Police said they were still trying to determine what the device that exploded was made of.

The government last year reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which was much bigger than the ELN. Some analysts attribute an uptick in violence in Colombian cities to the ELN's desire to wrest concessions from the government at the negotiating table.

Bogota has seen dramatic improvement in security over the past decade as the country's long-running conflict has wound down. But the capital remains vulnerable to attacks as residents have let down their guard

Still, the Andino shopping center would seem a difficult target. All vehicles entering the parking garage are screened by bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards are present throughout the mall. President Juan Manuel Santos was expected to visit the mall to personally oversee the investigation and in a message posted on Twitter he expressed his solidarity with the victims.

Serbia's first gay PM- designate honored by nomination

June 16, 2017

VRNJACKA BANJA, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's Prime Minister-designate Ana Brnabic says it is an honor to serve the country and thanked the president for trusting her. Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic nominated Brnabic as the conservative country's first openly gay prime minister, a move which infuriated nationalists.

Brnabic said Friday: "I'm proud and still too emotional from all of this." Her government needs formal approval by Serbia's parliament next week for her to become the first female head of government in Serbia.

Brnabic's nomination is considered part of Vucic's tactics to please the West amid strong pressure from Moscow to maintain influence in the region and keep Serbia away from Western integration. Pro-Russian opposition official Bosko Obradovic says U.S.-educated Brnabic is "a foreign agent" who was nominated to the position by the West.

Romania: president, political parties in talks over new PM

June 26, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's largest party has nominated a former economy minister to be the next prime minister. The nomination of 50-year-old Mihai Tudose was announced before President Klaus Iohannis and Liviu Dragnea, the powerful leader of Romania's biggest party, the leftist Social Democratic Party.

Normally, as party leader, Dragnea would be prime minister, but in 2016 he was convicted of vote-rigging, which disqualifies him from holding the post. The Social Democrats withdrew support for Premier Sorin Grindeanu saying he had underperformed. He refused to resign and the party and its allies ousted Grindeanu's government in a no-confidence vote last week.

Romania ruling party goes to Parliament to remove premier

June 18, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's ruling party plans to submit a vote of no-confidence against its own government Sunday after it withdrew its support for the prime minister. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has refused to quit, sparking a political crisis.

The center-left Social Democratic Party convened lawmakers to read out the motion against the government, a day earlier than scheduled, in its efforts to remove Grindeanu, accused of not implementing the party's program. Parliament will vote Wednesday on whether to dismiss the government.

Grindeanu, in office since January, denies that he has underperformed. He claims the powerful party chairman, Liviu Dragnea, who can't be prime minister because of a conviction in 2016 for vote rigging, wants to install a party loyalist as premier.

Ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta, an ally of the prime minister, called for talks with Dragnea to resolve the crisis and avoid a no-confidence vote, which he called "an atomic war between the Social Democrats and the Social Democrats."

Ponta said the party in-fighting would benefit President Klaus Iohannis, a political rival, who nominates a premier who is then approved by Parliament. The Social Democrats and their political allies need 233 votes out of a total of 465 seats to remove the government.

Migrant pressures grow; Italy presses EU nations to do more

June 29, 2017

ROME (AP) — Italy's leader pressed his European Union allies Thursday to take in more migrants, saying the relentless arrival of tens of thousands on Italy's shores is putting his country under enormous strain. He spoke after 10,000 migrants were pulled to safety from the Mediterranean Sea in the last few days alone and were heading to Italy.

With an election due in less than a year, political pressure is building on Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni's center-left government to push for relief from fellow EU nations. Flanked by EU national leaders and EU officials at a news conference in Berlin, Gentiloni said the growing number of arrivals "puts our welcome capability to a tough test."

Italy has already taken in hundreds of thousands of migrants in the last few years. Some estimates say 220,000 migrants could land in Italy by the end of 2017. In addition to those who arrive, over 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to the U.N.

"It's a country under pressure, and we ask the help of our European allies," Gentiloni said, when asked about reports that Italy is considering blocking its ports to non-Italian NGO ships that pluck to safety migrants from distressed dinghies and other unseaworthy boats off the Libyan coast.

While acknowledging that European nations take part in patrols to deter smuggling in the central Mediterranean, Gentiloni said the job of caring for the migrants "remains in one country only" — Italy.

On Sunday, Italy's anti-migrant Northern League Party teamed up with the center-right opposition forces led by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi and triumphed in several mayoral races. The Democrats, Italy's main government party, took an embarrassing drubbing.

Many Italian towns say they just can't handle hosting hundreds of migrants any more. Right-wing parties remind citizens that Italians themselves are suffering from high unemployment and a practically flat economy.

In one port alone Thursday, in Reggio Calabria, 1,066 migrants disembarked from the Save the Children rescue ship Vos Hestia. Among them were 241 unaccompanied minors. This ship's rescued migrants came from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Somalia and several sub-Saharan nations of Africa and included a four-day-old boy. Six migrants had chicken pox and some 250 showed signs of scabies, so officials set up pressurized showers.

From 2015 to 2016, the number of unaccompanied minors doubled to more than 25,000, according to the Interior Ministry. Populist leader Beppe Grillo, founder of the opposition 5-Star Movement, slammed as a "suicide pact" the accord that lets the European sea patrol off Libya bring all the migrants they rescue to Italy.

There's also concern that if Italy, a stalwart supporter of the EU, sours on Brussels because it feels abandoned on the migrant issue, the EU's very survival itself could be compromised. "Either the Union can shake itself up, or the fear is that it can collapse definitively," said Francesco Laforgia, a left-leaning lawmaker.

"The situation is no long sustainable," Nicola Latorre, head of the Senate's defense commission, told the Il Messaggero daily. "Obviously saving human lives remains a priority. But it's unthinkable that Italy does it all by itself."

That Italy is considering prohibiting some NGO ships from bringing migrants to southern Italian ports reflects growing frustration in the country toward others in the EU, said Elizabeth Collett, director of MPI Europe, an independent research institution studying migration in Europe.

"What they see is an insufficient willingness of other countries to step up and help out," Collett said. One rescue group, SOS Mediterranee, expressed understanding, saying Italy has been "at the front line of this humanitarian tragedy for too long."

Still, their statement said: "NGOs are not the cause, nor the solution, to this humanitarian crisis but a response to the failure of the European Union to find a common approach to the tragedy." Earlier Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted that other EU countries share the burden of caring for migrants. But previous plans hatched in Brussels to make other EU countries take in a fixed number of migrants from Italy and Greece have largely stalled.

Several central and eastern European EU members — including large countries like Hungary and Poland — have flat out refused to take in a quota of the asylum-seekers. French President Emmanuel Macron, in Berlin along with Gentiloni, insisted that France would do its part as far as those deserving asylum. But Macron noted that more than 80 percent of the people flowing into Italy from across the sea have been described as economic migrants.

"How to explain to our fellow citizens, to our middle classes, that suddenly there is no limit anymore?" the French leader asked.

AP reporter Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.

Center-right set to win top race in Italian mayoral runoffs

June 26, 2017

ROME (AP) — Exit polls early Monday indicated that center-right forces, including an anti-immigrant party, were headed to victory in several key mayoral runoffs, two weeks after a first round of voting saw most populist candidates eliminated in all big cities up for grabs.

An election alliance of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservatives, the anti-migrant Northern League party and a right-wing party with its power base in Rome, appeared to have triumphed in the most-watched race, Genoa, a working class port city in the Liguria region which had long been a stronghold for the political left.

In Sunday's runoffs, center-left alliances anchored by former Premier Matteo Renzi's Democrats had been hoping for support from voters who backed losing populist 5-Star Movement candidates in the June 11 first round. In that vote, the Movement, which bills itself as anti-establishment, failed to capture any main city, including Genoa, where 5-Star founder-comic Beppe Grillo lives.

National elections for Parliament and the premiership are due by spring 2018. In the past, local voting results didn't always correlate with national elections to choose a new Parliament in Rome as well as premier.

But conservative party leaders, buoyed by the makings of victory in Genoa and some other smaller cities Sunday, touted the runoff results as a possible formula for a winning team of parties when national elections are held.

"I think the center-right can tranquilly stay together on a national level too," Liguria Gov. Giovanni Toti told Sky TG24 TV. Toti is a leader in Forza Italia, the party founded by media mogul and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi. He noted that in Genoa on Sunday, the winning ticket grouped together local forces from center-right Forza Italia, the Northern League party, and a right-wing party with a Rome power base.

In the affluent northern city of Parma, incumbent mayor Federico Pizzarotti, a former 5-Star politician who became disenchanted with Movement after Grillo declined to back him in a probe in which the mayor was eventually cleared, appeared headed to re-election on a ticket grouping various civic forces.

Dutch government partially liable in 300 Srebrenica deaths

June 27, 2017

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A Dutch appeals court ruled Tuesday that the government was partially liable in the deaths of more than 300 Muslim men killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The ruling formally struck down a civil court's landmark 2014 judgment that said the state was liable in the deaths of the Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were turned over by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 and subsequently killed.

But the appeals panel largely upheld the earlier case's findings while significantly cutting the amount of damages relatives of the dead could receive by assessing the victims' chances of survival had they remained in the care of the Dutch troops.

The court estimated the chances of Muslim males' survival if they had stayed in the Dutch compound at around 30 percent. "The state is therefore liable for 30 percent of the losses suffered by the relatives," the court said in a statement. The 2014 judgment didn't include that qualification.

In a written reaction, the Dutch Defense Ministry said the government would carefully study the latest ruling. "The starting point is that the Bosnian Serbs were responsible," the statement said. Rights group Amnesty International welcomed the ruling as drawing a line in the sand for peacekeepers.

"More than two decades after the Srebrenica massacre, this decision establishes that peacekeepers can be held responsible for a failure to protect civilians and that their governments can and will be held to account for their conduct," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe Director.

The appeals judgment is the latest in a string of legal cases in the Netherlands concerning the country's role in the Srebrenica massacre and whether the country's soldiers could or should have done more to prevent the mass killings.

The ruling came the morning after a lawyer told a late-night television show that he was filing a claim for 206 veterans of the Dutch Srebrenica mission seeking compensation and recognition for the suffering they have endured since the fall of the enclave.

Lawyer Michael Ruperti told talk show host Eva Jinek he is claiming 22,000 euros ($25,000) per veteran, a symbolic amount of 1,000 euros per year since the fall of Srebrenica. Defense Ministry spokesman Klaas Meijer said the ministry already handles claims filed by veterans with "demonstrable" physical or psychological complaints as a result of their deployment.

"If people have demonstrable suffering they can come to our veterans department and file a claim," Meijer said. "It is important that we can handle the claims individually and carefully," he added. Hague Appeals Court presiding judge Gepke Dulek said the Muslim men in Srebrenica were killed after being removed by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers from their compound during a mass evacuation. Bosnian Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic had overrun the U.N.-declared safe haven in eastern Bosnia.

"By having the men leave the compound unreservedly, they were deprived of a chance of survival," presiding judge Gepke Dulek said. The men were among around 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Europe's worst massacre since World War II.

The ruling angered a group of female relatives of victims of the massacre who were in court for the ruling. Munira Subasic, who leads an organization called the Mothers of Srebrenica that brought the case, stood up and waved her finger at the judge after the ruling, saying "this is a huge injustice."

Lawyers for the victims can now begin discussions with government lawyers about compensation. Lawyer Marco Gerritsen, who represented the relatives, said he understood the relatives' anger. "But from a legal point of view it is not that bad. Of course we would have hoped for more and I think we had a good case," he said.

Gerritsen called the court's assessment of the men's survival chances "very arbitrary." He said he will study the judgment to see if it is possible to appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court. On July 13, 1995, Dutch peacekeepers bowed to pressure from Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic and forced thousands of Muslims out of their fenced-off compound, where they had sought refuge.

The Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then trucked the males away and began killing them in what would become the bloody climax to the 1992-95 Bosnian war, a slaughter that international courts have ruled was genocide. The war claimed 100,000 lives in all.

The Srebrenica bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves, which were later bulldozed and scattered among other burial sites in an attempt to hide the evidence. Mladic is on trial for genocide and other offenses at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague for his alleged role in the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes during the war.

Dutch royals return from Vatican with royal heirloom

June 22, 2017

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Dutch king and queen are returning home from a state visit to the Vatican with a royal heirloom: the baton purportedly carried by William of Orange during the 16th century Dutch War of Independence from Spanish rule.

The head of the Jesuit religious order, the Rev. Arturo Sosa Abascal, handed over the wooden baton Thursday at a ceremony in the Apostolic Library after King Willem-Alexander and his Argentine-born wife, Queen Maxima, met with Pope Francis.

According to the Dutch royal household, Spanish Catholic forces took possession of the baton after they quashed the Protestant revolt headed by William of Orange at the Battle of Mookerheide in 1574. The baton had been housed in a Jesuit convent in Spain. It's going on display at the Dutch military museum in Soesterberg.

Garbage crisis hits Greek capital over job freeze

June 26, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — With a heat wave expected later this week, Greece's government Monday urging striking garbage collectors to return to work after a 10-day protest has left huge piles of trash around Athens.

Striking workers scuffled with riot police in central Athens outside the stuttered entrance of a ministry building, where a union delegation was expected to present its demands. Temperatures are forecast to reach 42 degrees Celsius in Athens (107 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the week, prompting a public health agency to issue a warning over the continuing strike.

"The continued accumulation of garbage ... combined with high temperatures poses a risk to public health," the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention said. Despite the strike, municipal crews agreed to collect some garbage in busy tourist areas, outside hospitals and at intersections where tumbling piles of trash were slowing traffic.

Later Monday, the government is due to submit draft legislation to parliament to renew job contracts for thousands municipal garbage works. Striking unions are demanding that government fulfill commitments to provide permanent jobs for long-term contract workers — an action that could breach strict budget obligations set out under the Greece's international bailout agreements.

Greece has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union for its heavy reliance on open landfills and low rates of recycling, and has been fined on many occasions for failing to close illegal dump sites.

Germany denies permission for Erdogan rally on G-20 visit

June 29, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany will deny permission for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to address Turks at a rally when he visits for the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany's foreign minister said Thursday.

Turkey officially requested permission Wednesday for Erdogan to make the appearance while in Germany for the July 7-8 summit, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said during a trip to Russia. Gabriel said he had told his Turkish counterpart weeks ago that "we don't think this is a good idea."

"We are telling Turkey that we are convinced such an appearance in Germany is not possible," Gabriel said, according to news agency dpa. Earlier Thursday, Gabriel said that "Mr. Erdogan is an important guest at the G-20 and will be received with all honors by us there. But we believe everything that goes beyond that is inappropriate at this point in time."

He pointed to stretched police resources around the G-20 summit as well as Germany's current tensions with Turkey. Erdogan last addressed supporters in Germany in May 2015. Germany has a large ethnic Turkish minority.

Earlier this year, Erdogan accused Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, of "committing Nazi practices" after some local authorities blocked appearances by Turkish ministers hoping to campaign in Germany ahead of Turkey's referendum on expanding presidential powers.

Relations between the two countries have been frayed by a widening range of other issues, including Turkey's jailing of two German journalists.

German parliament remembers former Chancellor Helmut Kohl

June 22, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's parliament honored former Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a memorial on Thursday, remembering him as the architect of German reunification but also as someone who wasn't without flaws.

Norbert Lammert, the parliament speaker, said that because of Kohl "the peaceful unity of our country and a free and pacified Europe is today a reality." Kohl, who spearheaded German reunification in 1990 and was an architect of the euro, died Friday at age 87.

Remembering the party financing scandal that embroiled Kohl after he left office in 1998, Lammert said the former chancellor himself "acknowledged some mistakes." Lammert told Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others that "Kohl's path was sometimes painful, sometimes caused by himself and sometimes caused by others."

Kohl is being honored with an official European memorial event, a first for the European Union, at the European Parliament on July 1. A requiem mass will then be held at the cathedral in Speyer, in Kohl's home region, where the former leader also will be buried. Unusually, however, there won't be a state funeral in Germany beyond the official European event — apparently at Kohl's wish.

Lammert, a member of Kohl's party, remarked in his speech to parliament that the location and format in which Kohl is honored for his political work in Germany is "with all due respect, not just a family matter."

Kohl's death has highlighted rifts in the ex-chancellor's family. He had fallen out with his two sons and one of them, Walter Kohl, said he and two of the former leader's grandchildren were turned away from Kohl's home when he tried to visit Wednesday.

Stephan Holthoff-Pfoertner — a lawyer for Maike Kohl-Richter, Kohl's widow and second wife — accused the younger Kohl of ignoring earlier efforts to organize contact and deliberately setting up the scene by turning up unannounced. Walter Kohl denied that.

UK lawmakers face key vote on Conservative govt's agenda

June 29, 2017

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers were set to vote Thursday on whether to approve the Conservative government's plans for a Brexit-dominated parliamentary session, in a test of Prime Minister Theresa May's shaky minority administration.

The vote comes at the end of debate on last week's Queen's Speech, which set out the government's proposed legislation for the next two years. The slimmed-down agenda jettisoned several pledges made by the party before Britain's June 8 election, in which voters stripped May's Conservative party of its majority in Parliament. Several of the planned new laws relate to Britain's exit from the European Union, due in 2019.

The election left the Conservatives with 317 of the 650 seats in Parliament, several short of a majority. It also severely undermined the authority of May, who called the early vote in a misjudged attempt to increase her grip on power ahead of Brexit negotiations with the EU.

As May struggles to short up her support, the main opposition Labour Party is seeking to disrupt her plans by putting forward amendments that would reverse Conservative policies on Brexit and spending cuts.

But the government is likely to get its way Thursday thanks to Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 lawmakers have agreed to support the Conservatives on key votes. On Wednesday the government, with the help of the DUP, managed to defeat a Labour motion calling for a reversal of public spending cuts. The vote was 323 to 309 — the first of what is likely to be many close calls for May's administration in Parliament.

The DUP deal — secured with a promise of 1 billion pounds ($1.29 billion) in new spending for Northern Ireland — has dismayed some Conservatives on account of the smaller party's socially conservative policies on issues including abortion, which is all but outlawed in Northern Ireland.

One amendment up for a vote Thursday will test the unity of Conservative lawmakers. It calls on the government to pay for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England for abortions. Voting down the measure could be hard to stomach for some liberal Tory legislators.

Ride-hailing services transform Vietnam's transport culture

June 29, 2017

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Nguyen Kim Lan used to make a decent living shuttling customers around town on his Honda motorbike. But his clientele has dwindled as young and tech-savvy Vietnamese increasingly use ride-hailing apps like Uber and Grab to summon cheaper, safer motorbike taxis.

The expansion of the ride-hailing services across Southeast Asia is shaking up traditional motorcycle taxi services that are a key source of informal work for people like Lan. In some cases, the Xe Om, or motorbike taxi, drivers are venting their anger in attacks on the new competitors.

Lan is just frustrated. He says his income has fallen to just 20 percent to 30 percent of what it used to be. "Nowadays, my frequent customers have all booked Grab and Uber, so they don't come here anymore," said Lan, 62, as he waited for customers at an intersection in downtown Hanoi.

"Before, office workers would come here after work. Now they just sit in their offices and get picked up at the door," he said. As elsewhere in the region, motorbikes are Vietnam's main form of transportation, especially in the capital Hanoi and the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City. They can maneuver through crowded, narrow city streets more easily than cars and are less expensive to buy and run.

Having invaded the conventional taxi market, ride hailing apps like Uber and Malaysia-based Grab are now elbowing aside the Xe Om with their UberMoto and GrabBike services. Vietnam, a communist-ruled country of 93 million, has about 45 million motorbikes, the highest rate of motorcycle ownership per capita in Southeast Asia. Some 3.1 million new motorbikes were sold last year.

Practically everyone has mobile phones, and cheap Internet access has enabled most Vietnamese city dwellers to get online. Nguyen Tuan Anh, chairman of Grab Vietnam, said the number of GrabBike drivers has jumped from 100 when they first launched in late 2014 to more than 50,000, with hundreds joining every day.

The growth of passengers is "explosive," he said. Many Vietnamese now prefer to use ride hailing apps, viewing their services as safer and cheaper, Tuan Anh said. "GrabBike brings transparency and that's why customers love it. They know that they will not be cheated by the drivers."

But Tuan Anh said he knows of more than 100 cases where GrabBike drivers were attacked in the past year, often by Xe Om drivers worried about losing business. Bus stations, hospitals and schools are hotspots for conflict. In one case, a GrabBike driver was stabbed in the lung. In another, police fired warning shots to disperse crowds of Xe Om and GrabBike drivers who were battling near a bus station in Ho Chi Minh City.

Similar problems have been reported in Thailand and Indonesia. Tuan Anh said GrabBike tells its drivers to be cautious and to seek help from police. Many Vietnamese seem keen to use such services despite the potential for conflict.

Tran Thuc Anh, a 21-year-old video games designer, says she switched to using GrabBike to commute from bus stations to and from her office about six months ago. It costs her half as much as using Xe Om did, she says.

"I just need to be online to book a bike without going around to look for a traditional Xe Om, so it's very convenient," Thuc Anh said. Many GrabBike drivers originally worked as Xe Om, but not all are willing to sign up. Older motorbike taxi drivers say they don't know how to use online apps or lack the cash to buy smart phones. Others are put off by the cheaper fares GrabBike charges.

But Nguyen Quang Trung, a 30-year-old salesman who began moonlighting for GrabBike six months ago, said Xe Om drivers who try to overcharge their customers are finished. "Uber and Grab are safe and their fares are reasonable and customers see this," Trung said. "Only elder people or those who are in hurry use traditional Xe Om. Young people and people who are not short on time never use Xe Om."

5 found guilty in Russian opposition leader's murder trial

June 29, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — A jury has found five men guilty of involvement in the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov, a top opponent of President Vladimir Putin, was shot late at night in 2015 as he was walking across a bridge just outside the Kremlin.

Russian news agencies say a jury at a Moscow court on Thursday found the suspected triggerman, a former officer in the security forces of Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov, guilty of murdering Nemtsov. Four other men were found guilty of involvement in the killing.

The brazen assassination sent shockwaves through the Russian opposition. Nemtsov's allies have criticized the investigators for stopping short of studying a possible role of top Chechen officers and Kadyrov himself in the killing.

Tokyo election, populist leader could shift Japan politics

June 30, 2017

TOKYO (AP) — An election for Tokyo's metropolitan assembly on Sunday is attracting more attention than usual because it could shift the political landscape in Japan. A big win for a new political party created by populist Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike could strengthen her base and foreshadow an eventual run for prime minister.


A former TV newscaster-turned-politician, Koike served in key Cabinet and ruling party posts, including defense minister, before becoming the first female leader of Japan's capital in July 2016. Stylish and media savvy, she is a populist whose policies can sway depending on public opinion, experts say. Once called a migratory bird for her repeated party-hopping before settling with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2002, she launched a new party in May for Sunday's election: "Tomin (Tokyoites) First." She has put her nationalistic and hawkish stances on defense on the back burner.


A reformist image and challenge to the male-dominated Tokyo city government have won her an approval rating of around 60 percent. The assembly has long been dominated by the Tokyo branch of the LDP, and Koike has portrayed it as the anti-reform politics of the old boys. She has pushed administrative reforms, reviewed costly venues for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to reduce city spending, suspended a divisive relocation of the Tsukiji fish market over safety concerns and halved her salary. "It's a typical populist approach. She is challenging the establishment and stressing she is on the side of Tokyo residents," said University of Tokyo politics professor Yu Uchiyama.


Media polls show Koike's Tomin party slightly ahead of the LDP in the race for the 127-seat assembly. Some experts predict victory for most of the 50 Tomin candidates even though most are unknowns. Hakubun Shimomura, a senior LDP lawmaker in charge of the party's Tokyo branch, has said he expects a setback. The ruling party's popularity has been hit by scandals and gaffes at the national level, and for railroading a contentious anti-conspiracy law through parliament.

The result of the Tokyo assembly election usually sets the tone for the subsequent national election, experts say. Koike has struck an alliance with the Komei party that could allow them to gain a majority. It's politically interesting, because Komei is a longtime LDP partner at both the local and national levels. Koike, despite her row with the LDP's Tokyo branch, has maintained friendly ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, prompting speculation she may eventually return to national politics.


Koike ranked third in a Nikkei newspaper survey in March about who should be prime minister, trailing current leader Abe and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's son, Shinjiro. So far, Koike has brushed off speculation about a return to national politics, saying her focus is on Tokyo and its future.

The University of Tokyo's Uchiyama says Koike would have to broaden her party vision to something like "Japan First" to aim for parliament. Jeff Kingston, coordinator of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan Campus, says Koike has a high support rating but hasn't achieved much. "I would say her popularity is as high as it goes, and there are a lot more risks of the downside from here onward," he said. "It's too soon to declare her as the likely successor of Abe."

China flexes military muscle in Hong Kong during Xi's visit

June 30, 2017

HONG KONG (AP) — President Xi Jinping inspected troops based in Hong Kong on Friday as he asserts Chinese authority over the former British colony China took control of 20 years ago. Xi rode in an open-top jeep past rows of soldiers lined up on an airstrip on his visit to the People's Liberation Army garrison. He called out "Salute all the comrades" and "Salute to your dedication" as he rode by each of the 20 troop formations.

Armored personnel carriers, combat vehicles, helicopters and other pieces of military hardware were arrayed behind the troops. It was a rare display of the Chinese military's might in Hong Kong, where it normally maintains a low-key presence.

Xi, wearing a buttoned-up black jacket in the steamy heat, spent about 10 minutes reviewing the troops at the Shek Kong base in Hong Kong's suburban New Territories. It's part of a visit to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover, when Britain gave up control of the Asian financial hub to China on July 1, 1997.

Hong Kong was granted the freedom to run most of its affairs after it came under China's control under the "one country, two systems" principle. However, Beijing is in charge of the city's defense and foreign affairs and the troops based in the city are deployed from the mainland.

Xi's three-day visit to mark the anniversary includes presiding at the inauguration of the city's new leader, Carrie Lam, on Saturday. Security has been tight for his visit as authorities brace for protests.

Some 26 people, including young activist leader Joshua Wong, have been released on bail after being arrested for protesting on Wednesday. The department said Friday the activists have not been charged but are required to report back to police in September.

The activists, some of whom were detained more than 30 hours, had climbed onto a giant flower sculpture that was a gift from Beijing and is near the hotel complex where Xi is staying.

China's Xi visits Hong Kong under heavy security

June 29, 2017

HONG KONG (AP) — China's President Xi Jinping was greeted by supporters waving red Hong Kong and Chinese flags as he arrived Thursday to mark two decades since China took control in the former British colony.

Xi's Air China plane touched down Thursday at midday for the three-day visit. The trip culminates Saturday with Xi overseeing an inauguration ceremony for the Asian financial hub's new leader, Carrie Lam.

Hong Kong authorities were taking no chances with disruptions from protesters and deployed heavy security across the city. Police and barricades lined the streets around a downtown convention center and hotel complex where Xi was expected to spend most of his time.

Three pro-democracy activist groups said 26 of their members were arrested Wednesday evening on public nuisance charges for staging a sit-in at a giant flower sculpture near the complex. Those arrested included Joshua Wong, the young activist who helped lead 2014's "Umbrella Movement" protests, and Nathan Law, another student protest leader who was elected to the legislature last year.

NATO agrees to send more troop trainers to Afghanistan

June 29, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — Two years after winding down its military operation in Afghanistan, NATO has agreed to send more troops to help train and work alongside Afghan security forces. The move comes in response to a request from NATO commanders who say they need as many as 3,000 additional troops from the allies. That number does not include an expected contribution of roughly 4,000 American forces. They would be divided between the NATO training and advising the mission in Afghanistan, and America's counterterrorism operations against the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic State militants.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels on Thursday that 15 countries "have already pledged additional contributions." He expected more commitments to come.

Britain has said that it would contribute just under 100 troops in a noncombat role. "We're in it for the long haul. It's a democracy. It's asked for our help and it's important that Europe responds," British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters. "Transnational terror groups operate in Afghanistan, are a threat to us in Western Europe."

European nations and Canada have been waiting to hear what U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will offer or seek from them. U.S. leaders have so far refused to publicly discuss troop numbers before completing a broader, updated war strategy.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Afghanistan this week, meeting with commanders to gather details on what specific military capabilities they need to end what American officials say is a stalemate against the resurgent Taliban.

The expected deployment of more Americans is intended to bolster Afghan forces so they eventually can assume greater control of security. Stoltenberg said the NATO increase does not mean the alliance will once again engage in combat operations against the Taliban and extremist groups. NATO wants "to help the Afghans fight" and take "full responsibility" for safeguarding the country.

He did acknowledge "there are many problems, and many challenges and many difficulties, and still uncertainty and violence in Afghanistan." Mohammad Radmanish, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan's defense ministry, welcomed NATO's decision and said Afghan troops were in need of "expert" training, heavy artillery and a quality air force.

"We are on the front line in the fight against terrorism," Radmanish said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in Kabul, the Afghan capital. But Afghan lawmaker Mohammad Zekria Sawda was skeptical. He said the offer of an additional 3,000 NATO troops was a "show," and that NATO and the U.S. were unable to bring peace to Afghanistan when they had more than 120,000 soldiers deployed against Taliban insurgents.

"Every day we are feeling more worry," he said, "If they were really determined to bring peace they could do it," Sawda said. As the war drags on, Afghans have become increasingly disillusioned and even former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has questioned the international commitment to bringing peace.

Many Afghans, including Karzai, are convinced that the United States and NATO have the military ability to defeat the Taliban. But with the war raging 16 years after the Taliban were ousted, they accuse the West of seemingly wanting chaos over peace.