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US, Israel to exit UNESCO over its alleged anti-Israel bias

October 13, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The United States announced Thursday it is pulling out of the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for “fundamental reform” in the agency.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit. While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the timing of the State Department’s statement was unexpected. The Paris-based agency’s executive board is in the midst of choosing a new chief — with Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari leading the heated election heading into Friday’s final vote.

Outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova expressed “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and tried to defend UNESCO’s reputation. The organization is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors, and to defend media freedom.

Bokova called the U.S.’s planned departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism. The U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now with “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism,” she said.

The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.

In a statement, the State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the U.S. will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited U.S. belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”

Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel also plans to withdraw from the agency, saying it had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.” Israel has been irked by resolutions that diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and have instead named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.

Praising Trump’s decision as “brave and moral,” Netanyahu said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal from the organization in concert with the Americans. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, also praised Washington’s move as heralding “a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”

“The United States stands by Israel and is a true leader for change at the U.N,” Danon said. “The alliance between our two countries is stronger than ever.” U.S. officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries. The officials were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the issue.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called UNESCO’s July designation of Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian territory the latest of many “foolish actions” that had made the agency “a chronic embarrassment.”

Haley also criticized UNESCO for “keeping Syrian dictator Bashar Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protesters” The United States has pulled out of UNESCO before. The Reagan administration did in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The U.S. rejoined in 2003.

The State Department informed Bokova it intends to stay engaged at UNESCO as a non-member “observer state” on “non-politicized” issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

“We will be carefully watching how the organization and the new director-general steers the agency,” Charge d’Affaires Chris Hegadorn, the ranking U.S. representative to UNESCO, told The Associated Press. “Ideally, it steers it in way that U.S. interests and UNESCO’s mandate will converge.”

UNESCO’s 58-member executive board plans to select Bokova’s successor from among three finalists remaining from the field of seven candidates under consideration at the beginning of the week. Along with al-Kawari, Qatar’s former culture minister, the finalists are Audrey Azoulay, a former culture minister in France, and former Egyptian government minister Moushira Khattab. The board’s pick then goes to the full UNESCO general assembly next month for final approval.

Lee reported from Washington. Edith M. Lederer in New York, Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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Four Palestinians on FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list

October 6, 2017

Some 29 individuals from around the world are wanted over their alleged involvement in terrorist activities that have led to the death of US citizens, America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has announced. The names are included in the FBI’s latest “most wanted” list.

Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday that the list includes four Palestinians, most notably the Secretary General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, Ramadan Shallah. The Washington DC-based bureau is offering a $5 million reward to anyone who hands over Shallah, who is said to be responsible for “a series of murder, bombing, extortion and money laundering activities.”

The FBI list also includes 37-year old Palestinian prisoner Ahlam Al-Tamimi, who was accused of carrying out the so-called Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2001, as well as the killing of a number of Israeli settlers and two US citizens. The Palestinian leader and co-founder of the Islamic Jihad movement, Abdel Aziz Odeh, 67, is another of the FBI’s “most wanted”.

Seventy-one year old Hussein Al-Amri, who was born in Jaffa, is wanted by the FBI for his alleged participation in the Pan American Airline bombing on 11 August 1982. The bureau has also placed a $5 million reward for any information on his whereabouts.

At the top of the list of “most wanted” individuals is Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda. The FBI reward for his capture stands at £25 million.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171006-four-palestinians-on-fbis-most-wanted-list/.

Philippines hails US as top ally, welcomes war games

Manila (AFP)

Oct 5, 2017

The Philippines’ military chief hailed the United States as his nation’s “number one ally” and announced a return of regular war games, following President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for warmer ties.

Duterte last week vowed to be “friendly” with the United States, signalling an end to relentless criticism that included a vow to end all joint military exercises and branding then US president Barack Obama a “son of a whore”.

Military chief General Eduardo Ano, returning from Hawaii where he met US Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris last week, said Thursday the allies had agreed to increase joint military exercises for 2018 after they were scaled down this year.

“The president said: ‘I want to be friendlier to the US’. So we have a closer relationship and more exercises,” Ano told reporters in Manila.

“He (Duterte) said to continue engagement with the United States. They are still our number one ally.”

Ano said the joint exercises next year would focus on counter-terrorism, disaster response and even territorial defense.

As he sought to loosen his nation’s alliance with the United States, Duterte also looked to build warmer relations with China and Russia.

During a visit to Beijing a year ago he announced his nation’s “separation” from the United States.

He later explained he was angry at Obama for criticizing his war on drugs, which has since seen thousands killed and led rights groups to warn Duterte may be orchestrating a crime against humanity.

Duterte said last week the dispute was “water under the bridge” as he thanked the United States for helping the Philippines fight Islamic militants who have occupied parts of the southern city of Marawi since May 23.

The US has provided intelligence, weapons and training to local forces trying to retake Marawi.

The fighting has claimed more than 900 lives and raised fears the Islamic State group is trying to establish a Southeast Asian base in the Philippines.

Ano said on Thursday the Philippines would still pursue closer defense ties with China.

Ano was speaking at a ceremony at which China turned over 3,000 assault rifles and ammunition worth 168 million pesos ($3.2 million) to the Philippine military for use in fighting terrorism.

“The US is not our enemy. China is not our enemy. Our utmost priority is the interest of the country,” Ano said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Philippines_hails_US_as_top_ally_welcomes_war_games_999.html.

US spacewalkers repair aging ISS robotic arm

Miami (AFP)

Oct 5, 2017

Two NASA astronauts wrapped up a successful spacewalk Thursday to repair the International Space Station’s aging robotic arm, the US space agency said.

The outing by Americans Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei ended at 3 pm (1900 GMT), marking a “very successful day,” a NASA spokesman said.

The spacewalk lasted six hours and 55 minutes, almost a half hour longer than planned because the pair managed to tack on a few extra jobs that had been planned for next week.

Their main work involved the latching end of the Canadian-made arm, known as Canadarm2.

They replaced one of two Latching End Effectors (LEE) which had lost the ability to grip effectively, said the US space agency.

The 57.7 foot-long (18 meter) arm was instrumental in assembling the space station and is used to reach out and grab approaching cargo ships.

The robotic arm has been a key piece of equipment at the orbiting outpost for more than 16 years, but began malfunctioning in August.

NASA wants to restore its full capability before the next US cargo ship arrives next month, carrying supplies for the six astronauts living in orbit.

Thursday’s spacewalk was the first of three scheduled spacewalks this month aimed at repairing and maintaining various pieces of equipment outside the ISS, and was the 203rd spacewalk in the history of the space station.

Vande Hei and Bresnik plan to step out on another spacewalk October 10, with the third set for October 18.

“The second and third spacewalks will be devoted to lubricating the newly installed end effector and replacing cameras on the left side of the station’s truss and the right side of the station’s US Destiny laboratory,” NASA said.

Source: Robo Daily.

Link: http://www.robodaily.com/reports/US_spacewalkers_repair_aging_ISS_robotic_arm_999.html.

Trump says Spain should stay united, opposes secession vote

September 26, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Spain should stay united, branding as “foolish” a looming secession vote by one of the country’s regional governments. “I think that Spain is a great country and it should remain united,” Trump said at a news conference following White House talks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. “We’re dealing with a great, great country and it should remain united.”

Trump said he’s been watching the situation unfold in the region of Catalonia, whose leaders have vowed to hold a referendum Sunday on independence from Spain. Spain’s central government says such a vote would be illegal.

“I can say only, speaking for myself, I would like to see Spain continue to be united,” Trump said when asked about the referendum, which is challenging Rajoy’s leadership. Rajoy called the situation “just crazy” and said a referendum cannot be held because no one in the Catalan government is organizing it. He said the issue is causing division and heightening tensions in Spain.

“I want this to be resolved as soon as possible and I want us to go into a new stage where the rule of law, dialogue and common sense will prevail,” Rajoy said. Trump didn’t answer directly when asked later what advice he offered Rajoy on the issue, but said he thinks the people of Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, would stay with Spain.

“I bet you if you had accurate numbers and accurate polling, you’d find that they love their country, they love Spain and they wouldn’t leave, so I’m just for a united Spain,” Trump said. “I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to, if you’re talking about staying with a truly great, beautiful and very historic country.”

Trump also offered prayers and support to those affected by deadly attacks last month that killed 16 people in Barcelona and a nearby town. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility. “I want to assure the people of Spain that America stands with you in confronting this evil that threatens all of humanity,” Trump said. “We will continue to deny the terrorists their funding, their territory, and any form of support for their wicked ideology.”

Trump had said earlier Tuesday that the U.S. and Spain are allies in the fight against terrorism, saying they share notes and intelligence. He also thanked Spain at the news conference for contributing to a coalition of nations working to defeat IS, including training more than 30,000 members of the Iraqi security forces.

Rajoy said he told Trump that Spain would increase its commitment by contributing a new financial package to help rebuild Iraq.

Greece backs extradition of Russian to US over bitcoin fraud

October 04, 2017

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — A Greek court ruled Wednesday to extradite Russian cybercrime suspect Alexander Vinnik to the United States, where he is wanted in connection with a $4 billion bitcoin fraud case.

The three-member panel of judges backed the U.S. extradition request for the 37-year-old, who was arrested while on vacation in northern Greece on July 25. Soon after the decision, Vinnik’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court on behalf of their client.

Russia is also seeking Vinnik’s extradition on separate fraud charges, but no date has yet been set for that hearing. While fighting his extradition to the U.S., Vinnik’s lawyers said he would not contest the Russian request.

“We have not seen the formal decision and we’ll wait for it to come out before making comment,” Vinnik’s lawyer Alexandros Lykourezos said. “We have taken immediate action and appealed the ruling and the case will be examined by the criminal division of the Supreme Court.”

U.S. authorities accuse Vinnik of running digital currency exchange BTC-e and of involvement in laundering money from criminal proceeds, charges he denies. Speaking during Wednesday’s hearing, Vinnik repeated that he had nothing to do with the digital platform he is accused of running to commit the bitcoin fraud. He said he was merely a technician and the platform was one of his clients.

“I have nothing to do with what I am accused of,” he told the judges. Vinnik said electronic equipment confiscated during his arrest was not related to his job, and that the laptop seized by police contained only cartoons for his children.

Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

UN ending 13-year military peacekeeping mission in Haiti

October 06, 2017

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti that has helped maintain order through 13 years of political turmoil and catastrophe is coming to an end as the last of the blue-helmeted soldiers from around the world leave despite concerns that the police and justice system are still not adequate to ensure security in the country.

The U.N. lowered its flag at its headquarters in Port-au-Prince during a ceremony Thursday that was attended by President Jovenel Moise, who thanked the organization for helping to provide stability. After a gradual winding down, there are now about 100 international soldiers in the country and they will leave within days. The mission will officially end on Oct. 15.

Immediately afterward, the U.N. will start a new mission made up of about 1,300 international civilian police officers, along with 350 civilians who will help the country reform a deeply troubled justice system. Various agencies and programs of the international body, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization, will also still be working in the country.

“It will be a much smaller peacekeeping mission,” said Sandra Honore, a diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago who has served since July 2013 as the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti known as MINUSTAH, its French acronym. “The United Nations is not leaving.”

MINUSTAH began operations in Haiti in 2004, when a violent rebellion swept the country and forced then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of power and into exile. Its goals included restoring security and rebuilding the shattered political institutions. In April, the Security Council deemed the country sufficiently stable and voted to wind down the international military presence, which then consisted of about 4,700 troops.

Many Haitians have viewed the multinational peacekeepers as an affront to national sovereignty. U.N. troops are believed to have inadvertently introduced the deadly cholera bacteria to the country and have also been accused of causing civilian casualties in fierce battles with gangs in Port-au-Prince and of sexually abusing minors.

But the mission, with additional help from the U.S. and other nations, is also credited with stabilizing the country, particularly after the January 2010 earthquake, and building up the national police force.

“The job may not be complete but they have essentially done much of what they were originally designed to do in terms of preventing any kind of armed takeover of the state, in terms of increasing the safety of civilians,” said Mark Schneider, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It takes work to maintain that and Haiti needs to maintain that.”

MINUSTAH, Schneider said, has been key in helping Haiti develop a credible civilian national police from “almost zero” to its current level of about 15,000 officers, which most experts believe is still too small for a country of nearly 11 million. The police force was intended to replace the army, which was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 because of its repeated role in a series of coups and that the Haitian government is now seeking to reconstitute over international objections.

“Haiti needs an atmosphere of peace so we can take responsibility for ourselves,” said Haitian Sen. Jacques Suaveur Jean. “We don’t need foreign soldiers.” The new U.N. mission will consist of seven police units that can respond to major incidents, in addition to officers deployed throughout the country to advise and assist their Haitian counterparts. Civilians will also be working with the government to improve the country’s justice system, which the State Department said in this year’s annual human rights report has serious flaws, including severe prison overcrowding, prolonged pretrial detention and an inefficient judiciary.

Honore, in an interview ahead of Thursday’s ceremony, cited the training and hiring of police officers as one of the U.N. successes. MINUSTAH had already been scaling back before the Security Council voted to end the mission. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed 96 U.N. personnel, including former head of mission Hedi Annabi, the number of troops reached more than 10,000. But when Honore arrived there were about 6,200 soldiers from around 20 countries, a figure that dropped again by nearly a third within two years.

The cholera outbreak, which started in October 2010 after peacekeepers from Nepal contaminated the country’s largest river with waste from their base, killed an estimated 9,500 people and irrevocably damaged the reputation of the organization in Haiti. Many critics felt the U.N. did not adequately respond to the outbreak, something the organization sought to later remedy.

“It was a fundamental error because it undermined the image not just of MINUSTAH, but of the international community,” Schneider said.

Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.

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