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February 18, 2019

LONDON (AP) — Seven British lawmakers quit the main opposition Labor Party on Monday over its approach to issues including Brexit and anti-Semitism — the biggest shake-up in years for one of Britain’s major political parties.

The announcement ripped open a long-simmering rift between socialists and centrists in the party, which sees itself as the representative of Britain’s working class. It’s also the latest fallout from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which has split both of the country’s two main parties — Conservatives and Labor — into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

Many Labour lawmakers have been unhappy with the party’s direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grass-roots backing. They accuse Corbyn of mounting a weak opposition to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the EU, and of failing to stamp out a vein of anti-Semitism in the party.

The splitters — who have between nine and 27 years’ experience in Parliament and represent constituencies across England — make up a small fraction of Labor’s 256 lawmakers, or of the 650 total members of Parliament. But this is the biggest split in the Labor party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.

Luciana Berger, one of those who quit Monday, said Labor had become “institutionally anti-Semitic.” “I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation,” she said at a news conference alongside six colleagues.

Labor leaders have admitted that Berger, who is Jewish, has been bullied by some members of her local party in northwest England. Labor has been riven by allegations that the party has become hostile to Jews under Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians. Corbyn’s supporters accuse political opponents and right-wing media outlets of misrepresenting his views.

There have long been signs that British voters’ 2016 decision to leave the EU could spark a major overhaul of British politics. May’s Conservatives are in the throes of a civil war between the party’s pro-Brexit and pro-EU wings. Labor is also split.

Many Labor members oppose Brexit — which is due in less than six weeks, on March 29 — and want the party to fight to hold a new referendum that could keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc. But Corbyn, who spent decades criticizing the EU before becoming a lukewarm convert to the “remain” cause in the 2016 referendum, is reluctant to do anything that could be seen as defying voters’ decision to leave.

“I am furious that the leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit, which will cause great economic, social and political damage to our country,” said Mike Gapes, one of the departing lawmakers. The seven members of Parliament leaving Labor said they will continue to sit in the House of Commons as the newly formed Independent Group.

Corbyn said he was “disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labor policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”

The Labor lawmakers who quit in 1981 eventually became today’s Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that has failed to topple the dominance of the two bigger parties. The new group of seven stopped short of forming a new political party, but the seeds have been sown. The new group has a name, a website and a statement of principles, which argues for a mix of pro-businesses and social-welfare measures and a pro-Western foreign policy that is closer to the “New Labor” of former Prime Minister Tony Blair than to Corbyn’s old-school socialism.

Their statement said the Labor Party “now pursues policies that would weaken our national security; accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country; has failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit and to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach.”

The departing lawmakers said they would not be joining the Liberal Democrats, and urged members of other parties to help them create a new centrist force in British politics. “We do not think any of the major parties is fit for power,” said lawmaker Angela Smith. “People feel politically homeless and they are asking and begging for an alternative.”

Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, said history suggests the breakaway group will struggle to gain traction in British politics. “It’s very cold out there as an independent,” she said. “It’s all well and good leaving because you believe the party has moved away from you, but you can often achieve more from being inside the tent.”

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February 17, 2019

LONDON (AP) — The family of a British teenager who ran away to join the Islamic State group and now wants to return to the U.K. said Sunday she has given birth to a baby boy. The family’s lawyer said 19-year-old Shamima Begum and the baby are in good health. In a recent interview with The Times newspaper, Begum said she had previously lost two babies to illness and malnutrition.

Begum was one of a group of schoolgirls from London’s Bethnal Green neighborhood who went to Syria to marry IS fighters in 2015 at a time when the group’s online recruitment program lured many impressionable young people to its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Speaking to Britain’s Sky News from Syria, where she has been living in a refugee camp, Begum said she didn’t know what she was getting into when she left and wants to bring her baby back to Britain with her.

“I think a lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through,” she said in an interview broadcast Sunday. “I just was hoping that maybe for me, for the sake of me and my child, they let me come back, the young woman said. “Because I can’t live in this camp forever. It’s not really possible.”

“I don’t want to take care of my child in this camp because I’m afraid he might even die in this camp,” she said. Begum said she had been only a “housewife” during her time with IS militants. “I never did anything dangerous. I never made propaganda. I never encouraged people to come to Syria. So they’d only have proof I didn’t anything that is dangerous,” she said.

She added she had been “OK with” beheadings carried out by Islamic State adherents because she had heard it was allowed under Islamic law. News about Begum and her desire to go back to Britain have ignited a debate in the U.K. about how to deal with citizens who joined IS and want to leave Syria now that the extremist group is on the verge of collapse.

While it is unclear whether Begum committed any crimes, many have focused on her apparent lack of remorse. In the earlier interview with The Times, Begum said she did not regret her decision to join the extremists.

Her legal situation remains uncertain; she could face charges for supporting IS if she returns to Britain. Two days before the baby’s birth was announced, Begum’s relatives in Britain said they were “shocked” by her comments but thought she should be brought back and dealt with by the British justice system.

“The welfare of Shamima’s unborn baby is of paramount concern to our family, and we will do everything within our power to protect that baby, who is entirely blameless in these events,” the family had said.

The family said it is concerned about Begum’s mental health and characterizes her as having been groomed by Islamic State fighters.

February 17, 2019

LONDON (AP) — It’s said that history often repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Many Britons feel they are living through both at the same time as their country navigates its way out of the European Union.

The British government awarded a contract to ship in emergency supplies to a company with no ships. It pledged to replace citizens’ burgundy European passports with proudly British blue ones — and gave the contract to a Franco-Dutch company. It promised to forge trade deals with 73 countries by the end of March, but two years later has only a handful in place (including one with the Faroe Islands).

Pretty much everyone in the U.K. agrees that the Conservative government’s handling of Brexit has been disastrous. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing this divided nation can agree on. With Britain due to leave the EU in six weeks and still no deal in sight on the terms of its departure, both supporters and opponents of Brexit are in a state of high anxiety.

Pro-EU “remainers” lament the looming end of Britons’ right to live and work in 27 other European nations and fear the U.K. is about to crash out of the bloc without even a divorce deal to cushion the blow.

Brexiteers worry that their dream of leaving the EU will be dashed by bureaucratic shenanigans that will delay its departure or keep Britain bound to EU regulations forever. “I still think they’ll find a way to curtail it or extend it into infinity,” said “leave” supporter Lucy Harris. “I have a horrible feeling that they’re going to dress it up and label it as something we want, but it isn’t.”

It has been more than two and a half years since Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU. Then came many months of tense negotiations to settle on Brexit departure terms and the outline of future relations. At last, the EU and Prime Minister Theresa May’s government struck a deal — then saw it resoundingly rejected last month by Britain’s Parliament, which like the rest of the country has split into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

May is now seeking changes to the Brexit deal in hope of getting it through Parliament before March 29. EU leaders say they won’t renegotiate, and accuse Britain of failing to offer a way out of the impasse.

May insists she won’t ask the EU to delay Britain’s departure, and has refused to rule out a cliff-edge no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, Brexit has clogged the gears of Britain’s economic and political life. The economy has stalled, growing by only 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter as business investment registered a fourth straight quarterly decline.

Big political decisions have been postponed, as May’s minority Conservative government struggles to get bills through a squabbling and divided Parliament. Major legislation needed to prepare for Brexit has yet to be approved.

Britain still does not have a deal on future trade with the EU, and it’s unclear what tariffs or other barriers British firms that do business with Europe will face after March 29. That has left businesses and citizens in an agonizing limbo.

Rod McKenzie, director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, a truckers’ lobby group, feels “pure anger” at a government he says has failed to plan, leaving haulers uncertain whether they will be able to travel to EU countries after March 29.

McKenzie says truckers were told they will need Europe-issued permits to drive through EU countries if Britain leaves the bloc without a deal. Of more than 11,000 who applied, only 984 — less than 10 percent — have been granted the papers.

“It will put people out of business,” McKenzie said. “It’s been an absolutely disastrous process for our industry, which keeps Britain supplied with, essentially, everything.” He’s not alone in raising the specter of shortages; both the government and British businesses have been stockpiling key goods in case of a no-deal Brexit.

Still, some Brexit-backers, such as former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, relish the prospect of a clean break even if it brings short-term pain. “Perhaps it is time for a Brexit recipe book, like those comforting wartime rationing ones full of bright ideas for dull things,” Moore wrote in The Spectator, a conservative magazine. He added that he and his neighbors were willing to “set out in our little ships to Dunkirk or wherever and bring back luscious black-market lettuces and French beans, oranges and lemons.”

Brexit supporters often turn to nostalgic evocations of World War II and Britain’s “finest hour,” to the annoyance of pro-Europeans. The imagery reached a peak of absurdity during a recent BBC news report on Brexit, when the anchor announced that “Theresa May says she intends to go back to Brussels to renegotiate her Brexit deal,” as the screen cut to black-and-white footage of World War II British Spitfires going into battle.

The BBC quickly said the startling juxtaposition was a mistake: The footage was intended for an item about a new Battle of Britain museum. Skeptics saw it as evidence of the broadcaster’s bias, though they disagreed on whether the BBC was biased in favor of Brexit or against it.

Some pro-Europeans have hit back against Brexit with despairing humor. Four friends have started plastering billboards in London with 20-foot-by-10-foot (6-meter-by-3-meter) images of pro-Brexit politicians’ past tweets, to expose what the group sees as their hypocrisy.

Highlights included former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s vow that “if Brexit is a disaster, I will go and live abroad,” and ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pledge to “make a titanic success” of Brexit.

The friends dubbed the campaign “Led by Donkeys,” after the description of British soldiers in World War I as “lions led by donkeys.” The billboards are now going nationwide, after a crowdfunding campaign raised almost 150,000 pounds ($193,000).

“It was a cry of pain, genuine pain, at the chaos in this country and the lies that brought us here,” said a member of the group, a London charity worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because their initial guerrilla posters could be considered illegal.

A similar feeling of alienation reigns across the Brexit divide in the “leave” camp. After the referendum, Harris, a 28-year-old classically trained singer, founded a group called Leavers of London so Brexiteers could socialize without facing opprobrium from neighbors and colleagues who don’t share their views. It has grown into Leavers of Britain, with branches across the country.

Harris said members “feel like in their workplaces or their personal lives, they’re not accepted for their democratic vote. They’re seen as bad people.” “I’m really surprised I still have to do this,” she said. But she thinks Britain’s EU divide is as wide as it ever was.

“There can’t be reconciliation until Brexit is done,” she said. Whenever that is.

February 16, 2019

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarian nationalists have marched through Sofia, the country’s capital, to honor a World War II general known for his anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi activities. The annual Lukov March, staged by the far-right Bulgarian National Union, attracted hundreds of dark-clad supporters who walked through downtown Sofia holding torches and Bulgarian flags and chanting nationalist slogans.

It came despite strong condemnation by human rights groups, political parties and foreign embassies. The city mayor had banned the rally but organizers won a court order overturning the ban. A heavy police presence blocked any clashes between nationalists and their opponents.

Ahead of the march, the World Jewish Congress warned about the rise of far-right activities across Europe aimed at promoting anti-Semitism, hatred, xenophobia and Nazi glorification among young people.

“We urge governments across Europe to prioritize the introduction of administrative bans against such marches. This is not just a problem of the Jewish communities, but of European citizens and governments at large,” the organization’s CEO Robert Singer said.

In Sofia, the marchers praised Gen. Hristo Lukov, who had supported Germany during World War II and was killed by an anti-fascist resistance movement on Feb. 13, 1943. The general served as Bulgaria’s war minister from 1935 to 1938, and led the pro-Nazi Germany Union of Bulgarian Legions from 1932 until 1943.

Organizers deny that Lukov was an anti-Semitic fascist or that they are neo-fascists, but claim that the descendants of the murderers of Lukov are afraid of the event. Zvezdomir Andronov, leader of the Bulgarian National Union, says the group’s main objective is “the salvation of the Bulgarian people” from the social and economic crisis the country has been facing for many decades.

Nationalists from other European countries voiced anti-globalist and anti-EU slogans at the march and called on their peers from across the continent to join forces. “We want to get in contact with other nationalists in Europe, as we strongly believe that free, independent countries are very important. We want to regain the power from the globalists — the people who are running the EU, the people who are devastating Europe,” said Per Sjogren of Sweden’s Nordic Resistance Movement.

February 20, 2019

MARINE MOUNTAIN WARFARE TRAINING CENTER, Calif. (AP) — Hunkered down behind a wall of snow, two U.S. Marines melt slush to make drinking water after spending the night digging out a defensive position high in the Sierra Nevada. Their laminated targeting map is wedged into the ice just below the machine gun.

Nearly 8,000 feet up at a training center in the California mountains, the air is thin, the snow is chest high and the temperature is plunging. But other Marines just a few kilometers away are preparing to attack, and forces on both sides must be able to battle the enemy and the unforgiving environment.

The exercise is designed to train troops for the next war — one the U.S. believes will be against a more capable, high-tech enemy like Russia, North Korea or China. The weather conditions on the mountain mimic the kind of frigid fight that forces could face in one of those future hotspots.

“We haven’t had to deal with these things. We’ve been very focused on Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen, head of the Marines’ Training and Education Command. “What we really have to do is wake folks up, expose them to things that they haven’t had to think about for quite a while.”

After 17 years of war against Taliban and al-Qaida-linked insurgents, the military is shifting its focus to better prepare for great-power competition with Russia and China, and against unpredictable foes such as North Korea and Iran. U.S. forces must be able to survive and fight while countering drones, sophisticated jamming equipment and other electronic and cyber warfare that can track them, disrupt communications and kill them — technology they didn’t routinely face over the last decade.

“If you were to draw a line from here to the DMZ between North and South Korea, both of these sites are on the 38th parallel. And so the weather here accurately replicates the weather that we would encounter in North and South Korea,” said Col. Kevin Hutchison, the training center commander. “What you’re seeing here is Marines fighting Marines, so we are replicating a near-peer threat.”

As a snowstorm swirls around them, Mullen and Hutchison move through the woods, checking in with the young Marines designated as the adversary force of about 250 troops who must prevent more than 800 attackers from gaining control of nearby Wolf Creek Bridge. An Associated Press team was allowed to accompany them to the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center south of Lake Tahoe and watch the training.

Lance Cpl. Reese Nichols, from Pensacola, Florida, and Lance Cpl. Chase Soltis of Bozeman, Montana, dug their defensive position a day ago, and they’ve been watching all night for enemy movement, while using a small burner to melt snow to stay hydrated.

The hardest part, said Nichols, is “boiling water 24/7. And the cold. It’s cold.” The cold and wet conditions force the Marines to use snowshoes and cross-country skis to get around. They wrap white camouflage around their weapons, struggle to keep the ammunition dry and learn how to position their machine guns so they don’t sink into the powdery snow.

“It’s kind of overwhelming coming up here. Many of them have never been exposed to snow before,” said Staff Sgt. Rian Lusk, chief instructor for the mountain sniper course. “You’re constantly having to dig or move up the mountain range. So, it’s physically taxing, but more than anything, I think, it’s mentally taxing.”

The Marine Corps has changed its training in the mountain course and at Twentynine Palms Marine base 400 miles south. Instead of scripted exercises, trainers map out general objectives and let the Marines make their own battle decisions, replicating a more unpredictable combat situation.

Rather than fighting from forward operating bases that stretched across Iraq and Afghanistan, complete with security forces and chow halls, troops now have to be more independent, commanders say, providing their own protection and support. And they must prepare for a more formidable, high-tech enemy.

Mullen recalled speaking to a commander in Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “He said that within two minutes of keying his handset he had rockets coming in on his position,” said Mullen, who spent two days at Twentynine Palms, watching a battlefield exercise, before flying to the Bridgeport base in California’s Toiyabe National Forest.

The key in both places, said Mullen, is whether the Marines can stay undetected and adjust their battle plan quickly when faced with unexpected threats. Back on the mountain, Mullen and Hutchison have seized on that issue. The attacking force, members of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, California, spotted one of the adversary’s fighting positions and fired on it. The simulated attack didn’t hurt anyone, but the competition is real for the defending forces from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, out of Twentynine Palms.

“You took casualties today, and you didn’t respond to it,” Hutchison told the platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Brendan Dixon of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Why, pressed Mullen, didn’t Dixon move his Marines to a safer location?

In the face of questioning from senior leaders, Dixon held his ground, confident his forces were in the right place to defend the bridge. It turns out, he was right. Moving toward the bridge, the attacking forces became trapped on a ridgeline, exposed to the enemy and unable to move through a ravine filled with snow. Gunfire exploded across the ridge.

The final assessment by the trainers was that the attackers suffered 30-40 percent casualties, while Dixon’s troops lost about 10 percent. The attacking force, said Hutchison, made some decisions that would have resulted in Marine deaths in a real battle, but it’s better to learn now, than in combat.

“In the Far East, whether it’s in northern Europe, etc., we’re replicating that here. And what we’re finding is, it’s an extremely challenging problem,” said Hutchison. “And it’s a problem that, frankly, if we don’t train to, it’s going to cost a lot of Marine lives.”

February 17, 2019

YOLA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria’s presidential campaign has been largely free of the religious pressures that marked the 2015 vote when Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner, defeated a Christian president from the south who had grown unpopular over his failure to control Boko Haram.

Now, with the leading candidates both northern Muslims, the Christian vote in the upcoming election on Saturday may be decisive in sweeping the incumbent from power for the second time in as many elections in Africa’s most populous country.

Nigeria’s 190 million people are divided almost equally between Christians mainly in the south and Muslims, like Buhari and his opponent, Atiku Abubakar, who dominate in the north. Yet religious tensions remain even in an election that offers no clear sectarian choice, underscoring the pervasive influence of faith in Nigerian politics.

February 15, 2019

RUGA SETTLEMENT, Nigeria (AP) — It’s hard to find a campaign poster in this threadbare settlement on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, where thousands live in makeshift structures of tarpaulin and sticks of timber.

From his little grocery shop, 65-year-old Jafar Ali awaits the moment a presidential contender will visit Ruga. He isn’t hopeful. “Of all the funds that have been spent, not even one naira has come into my hands,” Ali said, referring to the Nigerian currency that is equal to about a quarter of one U.S. cent.

“We have been hearing that a lot of money is being shared,” he added, referring to the cash the top candidates hand out to draw crowds to their rallies and the no-interest loans the government has been distributing before the vote.

“All we ask God is to give us a leader who will remember us one day and come here,” Ali said. On the eve of Nigeria’s election on Saturday, the spectacle of campaign expenditure is at odds with the rampant poverty afflicting many. The lack of campaigning in this impoverished area contrasts with the election-time bustle of downtown Abuja, where the capital’s tree-lined streets are adorned with colorful posters of presidential candidates and where their followers are ferried in buses to boisterous events.

It also highlights the frustration many of Nigeria’s poor feel amid an election campaign said to be one of the country’s most expensive ever as incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari tries to shake off the challenge of his billionaire rival, Atiku Abubakar.

Although there are legal limits to how much a presidential candidate can spend — one billion naira, or about $2.7 million — the campaigns of Buhari and Abubakar are widely believed to have spent far in excess of that, often with the support of groups that donate huge amounts of cash as well as gifts.

In one notable case, a group in northeastern Adamawa state that’s loyal to Nuhu Ribadu, once revered as an anti-corruption activist until he threw his support behind the ruling party, donated 40 vehicles to the campaign to re-elect Buhari last month. That donation raised eyebrows because it is well over the donation limit of 1 million naira.

Buhari, who ruled briefly as a military dictator in the 1980s, was voted into power in 2015 with promises to fight corruption, boost the economy and end the deadly insurgency of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

Many Nigerians say he has failed on all three counts, citing an ineffective war on graft that appears to target opponents, persistent insecurity in the northern part of the country, and an anemic economy that is struggling to attract foreign investment.

In addition to his lackluster performance, the 76-year-old Buhari has spent months out of the country for medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment. Unemployment in Africa’s most populous nation of 190 million was over 23 percent in the third quarter of 2018, up from 8.2 percent when Buhari took office, official figures show. Nigeria was in a recession for five months until early 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund, after the price of crude oil plunged to less than $30 a barrel in 2016.

Although Nigeria remains Africa’s top oil producer, more than half of the country’s total revenue goes toward servicing the public debt, according to the Brookings Institution, which reported last year that Nigeria had overtaken India as the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty.

Whoever wins Saturday’s election will have to contend with a plethora of economic challenges that have left many Nigerians despairing, and often angry, with the government in Abuja. Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria’s per capita income was $1,968 in 2017, according to the World Bank. There is an unresolved labor dispute over the minimum wage, which currently stands at 18,000 naira (about $50) per month.

Abubakar, a successful businessman and former vice president who is contesting the presidency for the fourth time, has seized on the wave of popular discontent with a vow to “get Nigeria working again.”

For some Nigerians, the idea of their country as weak and uncertain is annoying. “We the masses are suffering in this country. What we are seeing is negative change,” said Emmanuel Chimezie, 29, who said he hasn’t found a job since graduating from college in 2015.

“Nigeria has a lot of potential, but how to harness it is a big problem in this country. We need a good leader who can diversify the economy, not depending on oil, oil, oil.” Inflation rates pushing up the prices of food staples such as rice should convince the government to invest heavily in agriculture, he added.

“Buhari has to go,” said Eze Onyekpere, who runs the Abuja-based Center for Social Justice. “If the masses don’t sack him, then they should stop complaining.” Campaign rallies, he added, have become “places for vulgar abuse” and rarely focus on bread-and-butter issues, mirroring how the candidates would govern.

Critics point out that the high cost of running campaigns fuels official corruption as elected officials bid to recover their costs once in office. “None of their manifestos speak directly to the needs of people,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based civic group Center for Democracy and Development. “Politics is not the same as service to the people. If it were service to the people, they would not invest so much. It would not look like a do-or-die thing.”

Similar concerns were raised last year in a report by the Chatham House think tank, which noted that Nigeria’s two main parties are indistinguishable and both “function as patronage-fueled coalitions of fractious elite networks” whose goal is to get power and the associated financial rewards.

Some locals agree. “In Nigeria, politics has become an investment,” said Wole Adeoye, an unemployed college graduate in the commercial capital, Lagos. “The losers lose all their money and the winners become rich overnight.”

Associated Press writer Sam Olukoya in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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