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Archive for September, 2015

Pro-secession parties in Catalonia win landmark vote

September 28, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Pro-secession parties pushing for Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region to break away and form a new Mediterranean nation won a landmark vote Sunday by capturing a regional parliamentary majority, setting up a possible showdown over independence with the central government in Madrid.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, the “Together for Yes” group of secessionists from across a broad political spectrum had 62 seats in the 135-member regional parliament. Catalans are fiercely proud of their own distinct language and culture. Many who favor breaking away from Spain say their region, which represents nearly a fifth of Spain’s economic output, pays too much in taxes and receives less than its fair share of government investment. Independence sentiment grew during Spain’s near economic meltdown during the financial crisis.

If the secessionist alliance join forces with the radical pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party known as CUP, which won 10 seats, they will have more than the 68 seats needed to try to push forward their plan to make Catalonia independent from Spain by 2017.

CUP had insisted that it would only join an independence bid if secessionist parties won more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but analysts predicted it would drop the demand. The pro-independence parties got a majority in Parliament with only 48 percent of the vote because of a quirk in Spanish election law that gives extra weight to rural voters.

Catalonia’s pro-independence leader Artur Mas claimed victory as a jubilant crowd interrupted him with cheers and chants of “Independence!” in Catalan, which is spoken side by side with Spanish in the prosperous, industrialized region bordering France.

“As democrats we were prepared to accept the defeat. Now, we demand that they accept the victory for Catalonia and the victory of the ‘yes,'” Mas said. “We have a lot of work ahead, we won’t let you down, we know we have the democratic mandate. We have won and that gives us an enormous strength to push this project forward.”

Catalonia’s rural regions are more supportive of independence than urban areas like Barcelona, so the pro-independence parties benefited from the Spanish law giving more representation to rural areas. Critics, however, said the result showed secessionist forces failed to gain legitimacy for their effort and demanded Mas’ resignation.

“He said the majority of Catalans were with him. Today the majority of Catalans turned their back on him and the only thing he must do is resign,” said Ines Arrimadas, the leading regional parliamentary candidate for the anti-independence Citizens party.

CUP leader David Fernandez insisted in a television interview that his party will help the “Together for Yes” side and “will not be the one to fail independence.” But differences are already apparent because he has said he wants an immediate declaration of independence rather than the 18-month secession roadmap outlined by the “Yes” bloc.

CUP’s leading parliamentary candidate, Antonio Banos, said his party would not support Mas as president of the regional parliament but analysts predicted it would end up backing the “Yes” bloc and its plan for creating a new state likely to be opposed at every step by Madrid.

“CUP will be under huge pressure to support Mas and the process,” said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political risk consultancy. Secessionists have long pushed for an independence referendum, but Spain’s central government refused to allow it, saying such a vote would be unconstitutional. So the pro-independence parties pitched the vote for regional parliamentary seats as a de facto plebiscite.

The parliament, based in Barcelona, represents the northeastern region of 7.5 million people responsible for nearly a fifth of Spain’s economic output. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s ruling Popular Party government says it will use all legal means to prevent Catalonia from breaking away, an exit European leaders have warned would include ejection from the European Union despite claims by secession supporters that a way may be found for an independent Catalonia to stay.

Spain’s government has also said secession by Catalonia would disrupt fragile signs of economic recovery for the country struggling with unemployment of 22 percent. The ruling party’s candidate to lead Catalonia, Xavier Garcia Albiol, acknowledged that Sunday’s result was a blow.

“These are not the results that we expected or wanted,” he said. Catalans from both sides of the independence divide extol their Catalan language, spoken by most of the region’s residents and suppressed during Spain’s 1939-1975 dictatorship under Francisco Franco.

Jordi Perez, a 50-year-old civil servant said he voted for “Together for Yes” because he feels Spain has historically disparaged Catalan culture and the region’s language. “I have wanted independence ever since I was young,” Perez said after voting in Barcelona. “During three centuries they have robbed us of our culture. We have reached the moment that the Catalan people say ‘enough is enough.'”

While the pro-independence camp has organized pro-independence rallies with hundreds of thousands supporters in recent years, those who voted for anti-secession parties have kept a low profile. School teacher Sandra Guerrero, 30, said the election motivated her to cast a ballot for the first time — against independence with her vote for the Citizens party.

“I am proud to be Catalan, but also to be Spanish,” she said. “I had never voted before because I was disillusioned with politics. But this time I have because this is an important election.”

Clendenning reported from Madrid. Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.

High-profile trial of Ukrainian officer begins in Russia

September 22, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court on Tuesday began hearing the high-profile case against a Ukrainian officer who is charged in the deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine.

Nadezhda Savchenko denied the charges, telling the court “I am a soldier, not a murderer,” according to the Tass news agency. In Washington, the U.S. State Department urged Russia to drop what it described as a “baseless case” against Savchenko.

Russian investigators allege that Savchenko, who served in a volunteer battalion fighting alongside government troops against Russia-backed rebels, provided the coordinates for a mortar attack that killed the journalists in June 2014.

Savchenko, who lawyers say was captured by the rebels and smuggled across the border into Russia, also is charged with entering Russia illegally. Charges of attempted murder in relation to six Ukrainian citizens were also added to the case.

Prosecutors told the court on Tuesday that Savchenko intentionally targeted the journalists and other civilians, while the defense insisted the journalists were killed during an attack on separatist fighters, Russian news agencies reported.

“I didn’t see journalists,” Tass quoted Savchenko as saying. “I have never in my life shot at unarmed people. I am a soldier, not a murderer.” Savchenko, who spent 83 days on a hunger strike to protest her detention, has become a hero figure for Ukrainians fighting the separatists and has won a seat in Parliament. Ukrainian officials have campaigned for her release and have been backed by the U.S. and the European Union.

“The United States remains deeply disturbed by the Russian Federation’s decision to move forward with this baseless case,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Tuesday. He urged Russia to dismiss the charges immediately and return Savchenko to her Ukrainian home.

The trial was being held in the small southern Russian town of Donetsk, which has the same name as the Ukrainian city that is the main rebel stronghold. Reporters and photographers were barred from the courtroom and watched the proceedings by video link.

Serbia pride march calls for solidarity with migrants

September 20, 2015

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Hundreds of gay and human rights activists at Serbia’s gay pride event have called for solidarity with migrants passing through the Balkan country in search of a new life in Western Europe.

The pride march was held Sunday in the capital Belgrade under tight security with thousands of riot police in full gear deployed in the downtown area to protect the gathering. Police say several extremists have been detained. In 2010 extremist groups and soccer hooligans attacked a pride march in the conservative Balkan country, triggering clashes that left more than 100 people injured.

A banner held at the march Sunday read “Europe, Open Your Gates” to the migrants fleeing war and poverty in their home countries.

Snow kidding: Scots have 421 words for the white stuff

September 23, 2015

LONDON (AP) — The Inuit of the Arctic know a lot about snow, and their wide vocabulary for the white stuff is legendary.

But they may face a challenge in snow-describing ability — from Scotland. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have compiled 421 words relating to snow for a new Historical Thesaurus of Scots. They range from “snaw” — plain old snow — to “spitters,” small drops of wind-driven snow, and “flindrikin,” a slight snow shower.

The first sections of the thesaurus, covering weather and sports, are published online Wednesday. As befits a country renowned for its gray, damp, drizzly climate, Scots also contains multiple words for rain and mist.

“It’s a bit surprising that snow would give rain a run for its money,” said Susan Rennie, lecturer in English and Scots Language at Glasgow. “That’s a nice surprise.” Rennie said the wide range of weather-related terms shows how important it was for people in Scotland — for centuries a largely agricultural country — to distinguish “quite subtle gradations of weather.”

The Scots language — which is sometimes considered a dialect of English — has been recognized as “an integral part of Scotland’s distinctive culture and heritage” by Scotland’s nationalist government. It is classed as one of Scotland’s three main languages, alongside English and Gaelic.

The compilers of the thesaurus want readers to send in their own words to add to the list, and hope the book may encourage the return of some forgotten terms. “Some words are ripe for revival,” Rennie said.

What language would not be enriched by “snaw-ghaist” — an apparition seen in the snow — or “snaw-breaker”? “It sounds like it’s going to be a snow plow,” Rennie said. “But in fact it’s a word for a sheep that breaks a path through the snow for its fellow sheep to follow.”

Poles ambiguous over EU’s, Francis’ call on refugees

September 12, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands held opposing rallies Saturday in several Polish cities, with radical right-wingers marching against hosting asylum seekers and others in smaller numbers supporting helping those in need.

Some 10,000 nationalists and right-wingers marched in the rain through downtown Warsaw, waving national white-and-red flags and chanting “Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists!” and “Poland, free of Islam!”

Some lighted flares that spread smoke over the marchers, but there was no violence. Police in riot gear warily watched over the protest. “The refugees are threat to our culture, they will not assimilate with our society,” said marcher Miroslaw Kadziela, 24.

A few hundred others held a “Refugees, Welcome” rally with music at a different location in Warsaw. Similar pro-con rallies were held in Gdansk, Krakow, Poznan and Szczecin. Pope Francis has urged his followers to open their hearts and parishes to refugees, but predominantly Catholic Poles are struggling to heed that call amid widespread fears that Muslim arrivals will threaten their jobs and security.

The European Union wants Poland to accept 12,000 migrants. Warsaw has agreed to receive 2,000 within two years and says it has capacity for more provided they are refugees, not economic migrants. Days before the rallies, even Catholic Poles were voicing reservations.

“On the question of taking in immigrants, Pope Francis is wrong,” Jaroslaw Gowin, a prominent Catholic politician, said Friday. “In no case should we take in Muslims.” Even the spokesman for Caritas, the Catholic charity, voiced resistance to taking in refugees. Pawel Keska told The Associated Press that “it is impossible to follow Francis’ gesture in Poland now, because we have no Syrian refugees.”

Not all Poles are against helping refugees. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s, said he would be willing to host refugees under his own roof and would even cook for them — if his wife agrees.

A county near the Baltic Sea coast, Gniewino, became the first place in Poland in recent days to declare it can host and offer jobs to three Syrian families, while parishioners in the western city of Poznan have collected over 24,000 zlotys ($6,300) to help house refugees.

Hungary posts ads in Lebanon, Jordan media warning migrants

September 21, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — The Hungarian government posted ads in Lebanese and Jordanian papers on Monday, warning migrants not to enter Hungary illegally, saying it is a crime punishable by imprisonment.

The move comes as Europe is reeling under pressure from tens of thousands of refugees making the perilous trek to the continent to seek sanctuary there. In a terse statement published as a full-page announcement in several newspapers, including Lebanon’s leading An-Nahar and Jordan’s Al-Rai, the government of Hungary said that “the strongest possible action is taken” against people who attempt to enter Hungary illegally.

“Do not listen to the people smugglers. Hungary will not allow illegal immigrants to cross its territory,” it said in both English and Arabic. Lebanon, a country of around 4.5 million people, has over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan, with a population of 6.5 million, has about 630,000 — some of whom have already shown readiness to migrate to Europe because of dwindling aid and work opportunities.

Hungary, which closed its border with Serbia on Sept. 15, has erected another steel barrier at the Beremend border crossing with Croatia to try to slow the flow but the migrants keep coming. Many, fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, cross the Mediterranean in rickety smuggler boats and rush from one European border to the next to try to reach welcoming countries such as Germany and Sweden. The majority of those arriving on the shores of Europe are Syrians.

Hungary’s ads were not the first. Earlier this month, Denmark’s Ministry of Immigration, Integration and Housing posted advertisements in Lebanese newspapers aiming to deter migrants, saying that the Scandinavian nation has reduced social aid to migrants by 50 percent recently. Denmark also warned that migrants whose applications are rejected will be deported immediately.

Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed more than 250,000 people and generated more than 4 million refugees. Meanwhile in Lebanon, the education minister appealed to donors to remain committed to helping the country deal with the flux of refugees, including providing free schooling to hundreds of thousands of refugee children currently here.

Elias Bou Saab said his government would absorb more Syrian refugee children in schools this year, aiming to double those enrolled from last year to reach 200,000. But this, he warned, leaves roughly the same number — about 200,000 — still without schooling.

“There are a still a great number of students out of schools, and that is a danger, danger to Lebanon and to the region,” Bou Saab told reporters as he launched the Back to School campaign, for which the government raised $94 million in grants — $25 million short of the needed funds.

“When they lose hope that there is no job opportunity or chances to go to school or chances that give them hope in life, they start to look for legitimate and illegitimate ways to go from one place to another,” he added, referring to the exodus to Europe.

Tonya Chapuisat, the UNICEF representative in Lebanon, said the Lebanese government has the school capacity to absorb more children but needs long-term donor commitment to do so. “If there was funding, we would hope that would go up to 300,000” students, she told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, German vice chancellor urged the international community to increase aid to Mideast countries hosting millions of Syrian refugees, saying this is key to slowing migration to Europe. Sigmar Gabriel, who was to start a visit to Jordan on Monday, said wealthy Gulf states “aren’t paying” and suggested the United States could contribute more. Aid agencies requested $7.4 billion for the Syria crisis for 2015, but received only 38 percent.

Gabriel told German TV on Sunday that the situation in host countries is “dramatically bad.”

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Greece: Cabinet member quits on first day on job

September 24, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Hours after starting his new job, a junior minister in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing government resigned late Wednesday over messages posted on his Twitter account that were considered racist and anti-Semitic.

Dimitris Kammenos, a deputy minister for infrastructure, submitted his resignation hours after Tsipras’ new Cabinet was sworn in. The 49-year-old Kammenos is a member of parliament from the Independent Greeks, a small right-wing party that joined the new coalition government after a general election was held Sunday.

Kammenos said offending comments posted in 2014 and 2015 on his account — which has now been canceled — were being investigated at his request by the police’s cybercrime division. He added that several members of his staff had helped run the account.

The resignation was an embarrassing start for Tsipras, who won a surprisingly comfortable election victory but now faces a major challenge in implementing the harsh terms of a third international bailout.

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