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Archive for October, 2015

Migrant Balkan surge continues amid EU attempt to slow it

October 26, 2015

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — With freezing weather setting in, tens of thousands of migrants surging across Europe could face even more hurdles after European Union leaders pledged to stem their flow by introducing tighter border controls.

EU leaders committed at a weekend summit to helping the Balkans handle the flow of people making their way through the region en route to more prosperous countries. But with record numbers arriving from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the moves will likely make their journeys more difficult.

On Monday, thousands of people, including many women, children and elderly, waited in long lines at the Croatian and Slovenia borders as the flow of humanity continued unabated. “It is not difficult for me, but for people with families and children, it is so hard,” said a 19-year-old Afghan, Habibi Loh.

Humanitarian officials warned of plummeting winter temperatures. “In the short term, the situation is manageable,” said Antonija Zaniuk of the Slovenian Red Cross. “We have a lot of winter clothing, blankets. We are distributing cups of tea, food. But, in the long term, who knows.”

In a statement seeking to paper over deep divisions about how to handle the crisis, the EU and Balkan leaders meeting in Brussels committed to bolster the borders of Greece as it struggles to cope with the wave of refugees who cross over through Turkey. They also pledged to boost the capacities of reception centers in Greece and along the Balkans route to shelter 100,000 more people as winter looms and additional EU border watchdog agency officials are deployed to monitor the flow.

“This is a step in the right direction and now it is crucial to respect the commitments,” said Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, whose tiny Alpine nation has been overwhelmed since Hungary put up a fence on the border with Serbia and Croatia, diverting the flow to Slovenia.

Slovenia has hinted that it will build a fence on the border with Croatia if the migrant surge becomes too difficult to handle. “OK, place a fence, but if you are not ready to shoot at the people, it will not stop anyone,” Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said amid a spat between the two neighbors over how to handle the crisis.

Croatian police said that as of early Monday, more than 13,000 migrants had arrived from Serbia over the previous 24 hours, while Slovenian police reported nearly 10,000 arrivals from Croatia in the same period. Further west, in Austria, some 3,500 people had to sleep outside in the cold fall weather, while Germany said it had seen 15,000 arrivals over the weekend.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic warned that addressing the crisis will take time. “We will all be able to achieve some results in the coming weeks and months,” he said. “But, it is clear that this crisis cannot be solved in a few weeks or months, but will improve step by step.”

Sunday’s meeting was called in response to a string of chaotic actions taken by countries along the route. With no real ability to control Greece’s porous island border or stop people leaving Turkey for sanctuary or jobs in Europe, the EU wants to restore some order and apply the brakes on those passing through.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said resolving the crisis mostly depends on Turkey, where most of the refugees enter Europe, and on Germany, the desired destination of the vast majority of Syrians and others seeking protection in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday she remained confident Germany can integrate the large number of refugees who are arriving, and noted that many won’t stay forever. “There are very, very many, but there are 80 million of us,” the German leader said at a town hall meeting in Nuremberg. “We can and we will manage this integration.”

Merkel said most Syrians will get residency for three years but many likely will want to help rebuild Syria when the war ends. She said the Geneva Convention on refugees obliges Germany to protect people, “but we don’t have the task of keeping everyone here for life.”

Associated Press writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

8 men up for FIFA presidential race on deadline day to enter

October 26, 2015

GENEVA (AP) — Deadline day to enter the FIFA presidential election saw surprise entries and a potential eight-man lineup on Monday.

Among late tactical changes, two unexpected additions were Gianni Infantino — the right-hand man of suspended UEFA President Michel Platini, whose own entry will likely be barred — and Liberian soccer leader Musa Bility, whose campaign seemed hopelessly stalled in August.

The list of contenders to succeed Sepp Blatter leading the corruption-hit world soccer governing body grew longer than expected and will surely be cut before the Feb. 26 ballot. A further twist stopped the race reaching nine as a former FIFA secretary general, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, told The Associated Press he decided not to run despite getting the required nominations from five of the 209 member federations.

Just over one month ago, Platini was a strong front-runner in a small field with key backers in Asia and the Americas. That changed Sept. 25 when the former France great was implicated in a Swiss criminal investigation. Platini got a suspected “disloyal payment” of $2 million in backdated salary from FIFA funds got in 2011 with Blatter’s approval. Both are serving 90-day bans imposed by FIFA’s ethics committee pending a full investigation.

Platini’s bloc of support seemed sure to transfer to Asia’s soccer confederation president, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa. The Bahraini royal family member duly filed his nomination papers Monday and is likely the current favorite, yet his bid has exposed himself and his home country to exposure for their human rights record.

Sheikh Salman’s entry has already been criticized by rights groups who urged FIFA’s election committee to reject him as a candidate when it oversees integrity checks in the next two weeks. Questions have been raised over whether Sheikh Salman, as the Bahrain Football Association president in 2011, adequately protected national team players after some took part in pro-democracy protests. Some players say they were tortured while detained by government forces.

“Sheikh Salman played a key role in Bahrain’s retaliation against athlete-protesters,” the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain said in a joint statement. “Throughout the government crackdown, he allegedly examined photographs of the protesters, identifying Bahraini athletes for the security forces.”

Sheikh Salman did not make a statement Monday. He previously challenged critics to present proof of wrongdoing, which he denies, and suggested that such questions have to do with politics and not soccer.

Still, Infantino’s late entry offers the Europe-Asia alliance an extra option if both Platini and Sheikh Salman are ruled ineligible as candidates. UEFA agreed to its new strategy after an emergency executive committee meeting held via video conference.

“I am very proud of what we have achieved at UEFA and the way in which we conduct ourselves as an organization,” said Infantino, a Swiss lawyer who has been Platini’s top administrator for six years. He was already viewed as a potential FIFA secretary general or UEFA presidential candidate.

Africa got a second contender when after Bility re-emerged two months since his campaign seemed over when African soccer leaders refused to support him. “I don’t want to go into any race that I cannot win,” Bility told the AP, saying more than 25 of the 54 African voting federations offered to nominate him.

Bility joined the race one day after longtime African confederation president Issa Hayatou — the interim FIFA president, who has declined to publicly support Sexwale — met with Sheikh Salman in Cairo.

Other probable candidates vying for the FIFA job include Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne and David Nakhid, a former player from Trinidad and Tobago.

Prince Ali, a former FIFA vice president, cut ties with Platini after losing to Blatter in the election in May. That was held amid a crisis provoked by American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption which have forced Blatter to leave office early.

Sexwale, an Apartheid-era political prisoner, was appointed by Blatter to improve relations between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer bodies; Champagne, a former diplomat from France, was a senior FIFA official for 11 years under Blatter; Nakhid has career links to a Blatter aide.

They were not joined by Zen-Ruffinen, who said he gained five nominations but lacked significant backing within a crowded field. “Some of the candidates are very strong and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go,” Zen-Ruffinen said Monday. “I have hesitated until very late tonight.”

Later Monday, Champagne and Nakhid shared a platform at a sports conference dedicated to good governance, the two-yearly Play The Game event in Denmark. “I am sure there will be a lot of sleaze,” Champagne predicted at a session examining the FIFA race. “It has started, believe me.”

AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.

Egypt’s government resigns amid corruption probe

September 12, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s government resigned Saturday in the face of intense criticism from state-friendly media that reflects growing discontent but stops short of faulting President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the former general who led the overthrow of an Islamist president two years ago.

The office of the president said he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and his Cabinet but that the ministers would continue to serve until a new body is appointed. El-Sissi tasked Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail with forming a new Cabinet within a week.

Prior to handing in his resignation, Mehleb provided a report detailing the performance of the government, which two officials from the president’s office said el-Sissi found “unsatisfying.” The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters.

Egypt’s president is generally in charge of major affairs of state while the prime minister, whom he appoints, handles day-to-day running of the government. El-Sissi in recent months has had to perform tasks that normally should fall to Mehleb, such as arranging meetings with ministers and negotiating business deals with foreign investors, according to the two officials. Mehleb also failed to pressure his ministers into following through on memorandums of understanding that el-Sissi signed during a much-publicized economic summit in March, they said.

The country’s private media, while lavishing praise on el-Sissi, have slammed the government in recent weeks, accusing ministers of incompetence and of being out of touch with ordinary citizens suffering from years of turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

“El-Sissi and the armed forces are responsible for the accomplishments we see,” said Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent journalist and popular TV host, who called Mehleb and his Cabinet a “burden” on the president. “All of the ministers that failed were Mehleb’s choices,” Eissa told viewers earlier this week.

The government suffered a major blow when Agriculture Minister Salah el-Din Helal was detained Monday after tendering his resignation amid an investigation into allegations that he and others received over $1 million in bribes.

The Egyptian government has long been plagued by corruption allegations, particularly regarding land deals. El-Sissi routinely insists that he is rooting out corruption. Mehleb walked out of a press conference in Tunisia earlier this week after being asked about the allegations, a move widely ridiculed by the pro-Sissi private media.

“Didn’t you watch el-Sissi’s speeches?” television host Youssef el-Hosseiny said, before playing clips of the president’s past press conferences for comparison. The corruption allegations have fed into the perception that the government is detached from the people and engaged in the sort of cronyism that was widespread in the Mubarak era and was a central grievance of the protesters who overthrew him.

Last week, the higher education minister reportedly tried to exempt the children of judges, army and police officers from unpopular regulations that restrict where Egyptians can attend university. In May, the justice minister suggested the children of sanitation workers could never aspire to be judges.

Mehleb, a former construction magnate and prominent member of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party, angered many in July when he suggested the country’s youth consider driving auto-rickshaws, known as tok-toks, instead of counting on government employment.

El-Sissi has approved a new civil service law that many believe will dramatically reduce the country’s 6 million-strong public workforce. There have been few public expressions of discontent with the government. A draconian law restricting protests, and a wide-ranging crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as well as secular activists, have largely silenced dissent.

The dismissal of the Cabinet could further bolster support for el-Sissi ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, furthering the image he has cultivated of himself as a leader who is above the political fray.

Turkey: Assad should stay in Moscow to give Syrians ‘relief’

October 21, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister says he wishes that Syrian President Bashar Assad stayed in Moscow longer to give his people “relief” and start the political transition.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke Wednesday in response to journalists’ questions about Assad’s visit to Moscow a day earlier. It was the Syrian leader’s first known trip abroad since the war broke out in 2011.

Davutoglu said: “If only he could stay in Moscow longer, to give the people of Syria some relief; in fact he should stay there so the transition can begin.” Davutoglu also reiterated Turkey’s position that Assad should have no role in Syria’s future, insisting that efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis should focus “not on a transition with Assad, but on formulas for Assad’s departure.”

Turkey starts delivering water to Cyprus’ breakaway north

October 17, 2015

CAMLIBEL, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey’s president expressed hope Saturday that an undersea pipeline carrying fresh water from Turkey to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of ethnically split Cyprus could help reunify the island amid Greek Cypriot protests that the project is a Turkish ploy to cement its grip on the island.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials inaugurated the pipeline by symbolically turning open a large valve, starting the flow of water through the 107-kilometer (66.5-mile) pipeline at a ceremony at the Mediterranean town of Anamur in Turkey. At a second ceremony in Cyprus, Erdogan, who flew in by helicopter, and other Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials, symbolically pushed buttons to mark the water’s arrival at a nearby dam as confetti showered a cheering crowd.

The project is aimed to meet the north’s irrigation and drinking waters needs for the next half century, supplying around 2.6 billion cubic feet (75 million cubic meters) of water annually. Turkey has said the water could be shared with Greek Cypriots once the island is reunified. But Greek Cypriot officials have said the pipeline violates international law, serves to “integrate” the north and to “augment Turkey’s influence and control over Cyprus.”

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and only recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence while still maintaining 35,000 troops in the north.

With Turkey geared toward an election on Nov. 1, both ceremonies had the feel of an election campaign. Spectators at a balloon and flag-festooned water treatment plant in the north of the island broke out in a chant in support of Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister when the project was initiated.

“Our wish is for the whole of Cyprus to benefit from this water as a result of a fair and lasting solution,” Erdogan said. “Let’s hope that the waters of (Turkey) lead to an environment where unity takes root and lives forever.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a cheering, flag-waving crowd at Anamur that Turkey and north Cyprus “have been interlocked in such a way that they will never be separated.” The project comes at a time of renewed peace talks between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

Akinci said the water would turn the drought-prone island into a “green island.” “When the time comes and by increasing the volume, this water can be shared with the south too. Then it will become a true ‘water of peace,'” a reference to the name of the project.

Akinci also said Cyprus could serve as a conduit for east Mediterranean natural gas to Europe. Cyprus has one proven deposit off its southern coast that’s estimated to contain more than 4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The Cyprus government says any future gas revenues could be shared with Turkish Cypriots after a reunification accord is reached. Ilhame Yildiz, 57, was among several hundred spectators who arrived at a water treatment plant in the north of the island.

“This is good for Cyprus. The government on this side can take water and the government on the other side can take water too,” Yildiz said. Farhan Kul, a 76-year-old from Nicosia, said: “If they give water to south Cyprus, this will help bring peace.”

Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

 

Turkish jets shoot down drone at its border with Syria

October 17, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey shot down an unidentified drone that flew into its airspace Friday near the Syrian border, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country’s air campaign backing a Syrian government offensive has killed hundreds of militants.

A U.S. official said the downed drone was Russian, but Moscow staunchly rejected the claim. The incident underlined the potential dangers of clashes involving Russian, Syrian and U.S.-led coalition planes in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria. Russian and U.S. military officials have been working on a set of rules to prevent any problems.

The Turkish military said it issued three warnings before shooting down the aircraft with its fighter jets. It didn’t specify how it had relayed the warnings to the operators of the drone. The drone crashed 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) inside Turkish territory, said Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu. “We have not been able to establish who the drone belongs to, but we are able to work on it because it fell inside Turkish territory,” he added.

Earlier this month, Turkey had protested two incursions by Russian warplanes, which also drew strong condemnation from Turkey’s NATO allies. The U.S., Russia and the Syrian government all operate drones in the region.

The drone was definitely not American, and the U.S. believes it was Russian, said a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moscow strongly denied ownership of the drone. “I state with absolute responsibility that all our drones are either performing tasks or staying at the base,” said Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, speaking at a meeting with foreign military attaches in Moscow.

The Lebanon-based pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that no Syrian or Russian warplane or drone was shot down over Turkey. Seeking to soothe Turkey’s anger over violation of its airspace by Russian aircraft, Moscow sent a high-level military delegation to discuss preventing such incidents.

“They apologized a few times, said it happened by accident, and that they have taken measures so that it will not occur again,” Sinirlioglu said of Thursday’s talks in Ankara with the Russian delegation.

Since 2013, Turkey has shot down a Syrian military jet, a helicopter and a surveillance drone that strayed into Turkish airspace. The incidents occurred after Ankara changed its rules of engagement following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria.

Turkey, which patrols the border with F-16s, has also reported numerous incidents of harassment by Syrian fighter planes or Syria-based surface-to-air missile systems locking radar on the aircraft. Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive in central Syria a week later. They have so far met stiff resistance from rebels using U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have impeded swift breakthroughs, although they have taken a few villages from rebels in the past week.

On Friday, Syrian troops supported by Russian air power and fighters from Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group pressed an assault against rebels in central Syria and launched another offensive in the northern province of Aleppo to try to recapture territory, according to activists and the government. The multiple-front offensives appear aimed at stretching rebel lines and keeping the insurgents off-balance.

A Syrian military spokesman said in a televised statement that the army launched an operation in the Damascus rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Harasta. He added that troops now control of all hills that overlook Harasta and the nearby suburb of Douma, a stronghold of Islam Army rebel group.

The attack appears aimed at securing President Bashar Assad’s seat of power that has been shelled recently from rebel-held areas. The fighting is particularly intense in the central province of Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 60 people were killed in Russian airstrikes and fighting. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network that follows the war, put the death toll at 57.

The Russian military has rejected claims of civilian casualties, saying its planes haven’t targeted populated areas. At a meeting in Kazakhstan of leaders of former Soviet nations, Putin said his air force has achieved “impressive” results in Syria.

“Dozens of control facilities and ammunition depots, hundreds of terrorists and a large number of weapons have been destroyed,” he said. Putin said the Russian air campaign against the Islamic State group and other radicals in Syria will continue “for the period of the Syrian troops’ offensive operations against terrorists.” He would not elaborate.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are fighting alongside Islamic State militants, he said. “We can’t allow them to use the experience they have just gained in Syria back home,” he added.

Russian jets have flown 669 sorties since Sept. 30, including 394 this week, said Kartapolov, the Russian general. He emphasized the urgent need for a U.S.-Russian agreement on avoiding clashes, which is being negotiated.

“The sky over Syria is swarming with aircraft,” Kartapolov said. “Such intense and uncoordinated use of air power in Syria’s relatively small airspace may sooner or later lead to an incident.” In a bid to dispel claims by the U.S. and its allies that Moscow is focused on moderate rebels instead of its declared targets of Islamic State militants, Kartapolov said the Russian Defense Ministry would send a detailed map showing positions of the IS and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate targeted by the Russian aircraft.

“Our aircraft have been used on targets outside of populated areas,” he said. Kartapolov also criticized the U.S.-led coalition for striking a power plant near Aleppo, leaving the city without electricity and paralyzing its water supply and sewage system, something he said could only increase the flow of refugees.

In a separate interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kartapolov shrugged off the U.S. claim that four of 26 cruise missiles launched at targets in Syria by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea had crashed in Iran.

“The Pentagon may say whatever it wants,” he said. “All our missiles reached their targets.” Kartapolov said the Russian jets haven’t yet faced any surface-to-air missiles and warned that their use by rebels would signal a foreign involvement.

Following a similar statement by Putin, the general ruled out Russian military involvement in ground action in Syria. He said Russian air and land assets in Syria will be pulled together with its Soviet-era Tartus navy facility in one base.

Kartapolov wouldn’t offer any further details, and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on the issue. Russian warships in the Mediterranean helped provide cover for its air base in the coastal province of Latakia and could take part in attacks on targets in Syria, Kartapolov said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Turkey bans rally by activists mourning colleagues

October 13, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities on Tuesday banned a protest rally and march by trade union and civic society activists who lost friends and colleagues in Turkey’s bloodiest terror attack, but hundreds of people defiantly gathered for the protest.

The two suicide bombings on Saturday came amid political uncertainty in the country — just weeks before Turkey’s Nov. 1 election which is in effect a re-run of an inconclusive June election. The bombings raised fears that the NATO country, a candidate for European Union membership, may be heading toward a period of instability.

The blasts have further polarized Turkey as it grapples with more than 2 million refugees and tries to avoid being drawn into the chaos in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Dogan news agency video footage on Tuesday showed police pushing back a group of demonstrators trying to reach the rally to commemorate the 97 victims of the two blasts.

Plain-clothed police pushed at least two demonstrators to the ground and detained them. “Our brothers were killed! What are you doing?” a woman demonstrator was heard shouting. The Istanbul governor banned the protest citing “sensitivities at this time” and because the routes demonstrators planned to march along were heavily used by the public.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said the Islamic State group was the main focus of the investigation. Authorities said Saturday’s attacks bore similarities with a suicide bombing that killed 33 activists at a town near the border with Syria in July. No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s explosions that also wounded hundreds.

The bombers likely infiltrated Turkey from a neighboring country, according to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus. He said several arrests were made in connection to the attacks but did not elaborate.

As with previous terror probes, authorities imposed “partial secrecy” on the investigation which even restricts defense lawyers’ access to information. The government has also banned the publication of images of the aftermath of the attack.

In Ankara, some 200 students held a brief sit-in at Ankara University’s faculty of political science to commemorate the victims. The youngest was 9-year-old Veysel Atilgan, who died in an explosion outside Ankara’s main train station, along with his father. He was buried on Monday following an emotional ceremony at his school.

The city is on edge following the blasts and on Tuesday, police detonated a suspicious bag found near the station’s VIP lounge, hours after Davutoglu visited the site to lay carnations in respect to the victims. The bag, however, contained food.

 

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