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June 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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