EU Commission Chief Warns Against Championing Brexit, Populist Movements in Europe

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has criticized those, including U.S. President Donald Trump, who praise Britain’s secession from the European Union (EU), and champion similar movements in other member nations. Leaders of the European People’s Party met on Malta Thursday, a day after Britain triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, officially starting the process known as Brexit. Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Huge Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea. Every vessel has an identification number administered by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization or IMO. But crews are able to change the digital identity of their ship, making it possible to conceal previous journeys.

The Israeli firm Windward has developed software to track the changes. Its CEO, Ami Daniel, showed VOA several examples of suspicious shipping activity, including one vessel that changed its entire identity in the middle of a voyage from a Chinese port to North Korea.

“It’s intentionally changing all of identification numbers. Also its name, and its size, and its flag and its owner. Everything that’s recognizable in its digital footprint. This is obviously someone who is trying to circumvent sanctions [on North Korea],” says Daniel.

Transfers at sea

In a joint investigation with the Times of London newspaper, Windward showed that in January and February more than 1,000 cargo transfers took place at sea. Security experts fear traffickers are transporting drugs, weapons, and even people.

Suspicious activity can be highlighted by comparing a vessel’s journey with all its previous voyages. In mid-January a Cyprus-flagged ship designed to carry fish deviated from its usual route between West Africa and northern Europe to visit Ukraine, deactivating its tracking system on several occasions.

“It’s leaving Ukraine, transiting all through the Bosphorus Straits into Europe, then drifting off Malta,” explains Daniel, as the Windward system plots the route of the reefer [refrigerated] vessel on the screen. “On the way it turns off transmission a few times … then it comes into this place east of Gibraltar. This area is known for ship-to-ship transfers and smuggling, because of the proximity to North Africa.”

Under global regulations all vessels must report their last port of call when arriving in a new port.

“But as you can understand, when it does ship-to-ship transfers here, it doesn’t actually call into any port, right, because it’s the middle of the ocean. So it’s finding a way to bypass what it already has to report to the authorities,” Daniel said.

Finally the vessel sails to a remote Scottish island called Islay, but again it anchors around 400 meters off a tiny deserted bay. The specific purpose of this voyage hasn’t yet been identified.

Lack of political will

Daniel shows another example of a vessel leaving the Libyan port of Tobruk before drifting just off the Greek island of Crete, raising suspicions that it is involved in people smuggling.

But he says using information like this to investigate suspicious shipping activities requires political will as well as technological advances.

“Regulation, coordination, legislation. And then proof in the court of law. And not all of this necessarily exists. The high seas, which means 200 nautical miles onwards by definition, are not regulated right now. The U.N. is still working on it.”

Meanwhile the scale of smuggling around the United States’ coastline was underlined this month, as the Coast Guard intercepted 660 kilos of cocaine off the coast of Florida, with a street value of an estimated $420 million.

 

 

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Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern that the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected. New technology enables authorities to follow the routes of suspect vessels, but security experts say taking on the smugglers will require greater coordination. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Europe and US Face a Challenge in Balkans from Moscow

While much attention is on Russia’s policy toward the Baltic states, some experts say Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans poses more of a danger to Western interests in that region. They say Moscow’s aim is to counter Western interests by preventing Balkan states from being integrated into the Euro-Atlantic institutions. VOA’s Jane Bojadzievski has more.

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Face of Anti-Kremlin Protests Is Son of Putin Ally

Russian high school student Roman Shingarkin had some explaining to do when he got home after becoming one of the faces of anti-Kremlin protests at the weekend. His father is a former member of parliament who supports President Vladimir Putin.

At the height of a protest in Moscow on Sunday against what organizers said was official corruption, 17-year-old Shingarkin and another young man climbed onto the top of a lamp-post in the city’s Pushkin Square.

Hundreds of protesters in the square cheered and whistled as a police officer, dressed in riot gear, shinned up the lamp-post and remonstrated with the two to come down. They refused, and the police officer retreated, to jubilation from the protesters down below.

As images of the protests, the biggest in Russia for several years, ricocheted around social media, Shingarkin’s sit-in on top of the lamp-post was adopted by Kremlin opponents as a David-and-Goliath style symbol of defiance.

Shingarkin was eventually detained when, after the protest in Pushkin Square had dispersed, police persuaded him to climb down. He was taken to a police station but as a minor, he could not be charged. From the police station, he had to ring his father to ask to be picked up.

His father, Maxim Shingarkin, was from 2011 until 2016 a lawmaker in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. He was a member of the LDPR party, a nationalist group that on nearly all major issues backs Putin.

Putin last year gave the party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a medal for services to Russia. With Putin standing next to him, Zhirinovsky proclaimed: “God protect the tsar.”

Shingarkin had not told his father he would be going to the protest, but the former lawmaker quickly guessed what had happened.

“When I rang my dad from the police station, he immediately understood why I was there,” Shingarkin, wearing the same blue and black coat he had on during the protest, said in an interview with Reuters TV.

“I went there [to the rally] out of interest to see how strong the opposition is, how many people would take to the streets, and at the same time to get a response from authorities to a clear fact of corruption.”

He decided to climb up the lamp-post because he “could see nothing from the ground.”

Contacted by telephone on Wednesday, Shingarkin senior said he was sympathetic with his son’s motives for attending the protest.

“He has a social position, against corruption, I support it completely,” Maxim Shingarkin said.

But he emphasised that his son’s actions did not mean that he or the family were opponents of Putin.

The Russian leader, Shingarkin senior said, is popular among voters and there is no one to replace him, but he is let down by the officials around him.

Roman Shingarkin said for now he would not attend any more protests unless they were approved by the authorities.

He said he might venture to a non-approved demonstration once he turns 18, because if he gets into trouble then, the police will charge him and not involve his parents.

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Counterterror Efforts High on Agenda in Tillerson’s Meetings with Turkey, NATO

The United States is examining its next steps in the campaign to defeat Islamic State militants and stabilize the refugee crisis with regional allies, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarks on trips to Turkey and NATO headquarters this week. The top U.S. diplomat will press NATO allies to demonstrate a clear path to increase defense spending, in his first meeting with counterparts from this security bloc.

U.S.-led forces are increasing their campaign to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State militants. Stabilizing areas where militants have fled and allowing refugees to return home is high on the agenda for the U.S. and its anti-Islamic State coalition partners.

In Turkey, Tillerson will try to build on progress from last week’s meeting of coalition partners in Washington.

“While a more defined course of action in Syria is still coming together, I can say the United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaida, and will work to establish interim zones of stability through cease-fires to allow refugees to go home,” he said, using a common acronym for Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL and Daesh.

But it could be a tall order, according to Middle East expert Daniel Serwer.

“The Turks would like to have safe zones; they have been proposing them for years,” he said. “But they are, in fact, extraordinarily difficult to create, and to defend, and to maintain.”

NATO

Days before Tillerson’s first meeting with NATO foreign ministers, Tillerson met with his counterparts from the Baltic states. They expressed confidence in Washington’s support for NATO.

“We’re passing what we consider very important messages of the need to develop transatlantic security and economic links, so it was, overall, a very good introductory meeting,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, NATO agreed to send troops to Lithuania and to Estonia, Latvia and Poland, in a move to deter potential Russian aggression.

“I wouldn’t say the military presence is insignificant,” Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Misker told VOA’s Russian Service. “These are very well-trained, well-equipped forces. But when you look at the numbers, the presence is slightly modest compared to what Russia has in place on the other side of the border. So it shouldn’t be viewed as escalatory in any way … but I think it’s sufficient to make Russia change its calculus. It makes clear to Russia that they should not launch a provocation and think that they can do it with impunity.”

Tillerson is going to the NATO talks before he goes to Moscow, a move that ends the controversy over his earlier decision to skip the event.

“[NATO allies] want the commitment by Tillerson to maintain sanctions [on Russia for its actions] on Ukraine; they want a commitment from Tillerson that his president isn’t going to sell out the alliance to the Russians,” Serwer said.

Tillerson will make it clear that it is no longer sustainable for the United States to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense spending. He also will consult with allies about their shared commitment to improve security in Ukraine and the need for NATO to push Russia to end aggression against its neighbors.

NATO member states have until 2024 to meet a shared pledge to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

Estonia is the only Baltic nation to spend 2 percent of the GDP for defense purposes. Lithuania and Latvia have pledged to reach that level by 2018.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian and Ukrainian services.

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Serbia: Putin Agrees to Large Weapons Delivery to Balkans

Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to sign off on a delivery of fighter jets, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia, the Balkan country’s defense minister said Tuesday, in what could worsen tensions with neighboring states and trigger an arms race in the war-weary region.

Defense Minister Zoran Djordjevic said that Putin agreed to approve the delivery during a visit by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to Moscow on Monday. He said six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 armored vehicles will be delivered soon.

“The president of the Russian Federation said he will sign that decree, and when it’s signed, we will act accordingly,” Djordjevic said. “We are waiting for the process to be finalized in Russia and see how (the equipment) will be delivered to Serbia.”

The jets would have to fly over NATO-member countries before reaching Serbia. Or, they would have to be taken apart and flown in transport planes, if the neighboring countries approve.

Djordjevic said that the jets, tanks and fighting vehicles — donated from Russian arms reserves for free — will be “fully modernized and refurbished” in Serbia by Russian technicians for an undisclosed sum. It is estimated that the overhaul of the MiGs alone would cost Serbia some 200 million euros ($216 million.)

Djordjevic said earlier that Serbia is also interested in buying a Russian air defense system as well as opening a repair center for Russian MIL helicopters which, analysts believe, would be tantamount to opening a Russian military base on its territory.

Serbia formally has been on the path to join the European Union, but under political and propaganda pressure from Moscow has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of keeping the countries in the Balkan region out of NATO and other Western integrations.

EU officials have voiced their alarm over increasing Russian influence in the western Balkans, which has seen a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Serbia’s archrival and NATO-member Croatia is shopping for a new fighter to replace the nation’s aging MiG-21s.

 

The two leading contenders for the planned contract reportedly include American Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen.

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Scotland to Seek New Independence Referendum

Scotland’s Parliament voted Tuesday to seek a new referendum on independence from Britain, clearing the way for the country’s first minister, its top lawmaker, to ask the British government to approve such a vote.

The legislature in Edinburgh voted 69-59 to seek Britain’s parliamentary endorsement, which is required, for a referendum that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold within two years — before Britain has completed its departure from the 28-nation European Union.

British voters narrowly approved a departure from the EU last year, and London will begin the formal process leading to Britain’s exit from the union on Wednesday.

Despite the overall vote last year in favor of leaving the EU — based on ballots cast in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — nearly two-thirds of Scottish voters elected to remain in the bloc. Since then, Sturgeon has insisted that independence is the only way for Scotland to maintain its formal EU relationship.

Scottish voters chose not to declare independence from London in a referendum three years ago, but that was months before discussions began about Britain’s possible departure from the Brussels-based EU.  

‘Democratically indefensible’

Sturgeon has argued that last year’s Brexit vote necessitates a new independence referendum. On Tuesday, she said “it would be democratically indefensible and utterly unsustainable” for London to block a new Scottish vote.

Sturgeon first predicted a push for a new independence referendum last year, hours after British voters elected to leave the EU. She said it would be “unacceptable” for Scotland to be forced to leave the EU along with the rest of Britain, in light of Scots’ strong support for remaining in the bloc.

For her part, British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will not support a new Scottish vote until Britain has formally departed the EU — a process of negotiations that experts say could take take several years.

“Now is not the time,” May said of a new Scottish referendum, adding that Britons “should be working together, not pulling apart,” as the Brexit unfolds.

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British Royal Mint Says New Pound Coin Will Be Tough to Fake

Britain has launched a new pound coin that authorities say will be difficult to counterfeit.

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Cheney Blasts Russia’s Alleged Interference in US Election

Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has criticized Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, calling it a hostile act.

 

Cheney said Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a serious attempt to interfere in the 2016 election and other democratic processes in America.

 

In a speech at a speaker’s conference in New Delhi, Cheney said, “In some quarters, that would be considered an act of war.”

 

Cheney’s accusation comes at a time when both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees are investigating possible Russian interference in the election that brought President Donald Trump to power.

 

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Paris Clashes Over Police Killing of Chinese Man; 3 Injured

Violent clashes in Paris between baton-wielding police and protesters outraged at the police killing of a Chinese man in his home injured three police officers and led to the arrest of 35 protesters, authorities said Tuesday.

The tensions have prompted China’s Foreign Ministry to express its concern to French authorities over the killing of the man, who it says was shot by a plainclothes officer.

 

Demonstrators from the Asian community gathered Monday night outside the multicultural 19th district’s police station in Paris’ northeast, said Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, of the Paris Prosecutor’s Office.

 

They were angry at rumors the man was shot in his home in front of his children while cutting up fish and had not hurt anyone. Police say an officer fired in self-defense during a raid because the victim wounded an officer with a “bladed weapon.”

 

With chants of “murderers” and candles that spelled “opposition to violence” lining the road Monday night, scores of demonstrators broke down barricades, threw projectiles and set fire to cars during the brutal clashes with police that lasted several hours.

 

Authorities said 26 demonstrators were held for participating in a group planning violence, six for throwing projectiles, and three others for violence against police that saw a police car damaged by arson.

 

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said that, according to witnesses, one man of Chinese origin was injured in the clashes.

 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China had summoned a representative of the French embassy in Beijing Tuesday and urged French officials to “get to the bottom of the incident as soon as possible.”

 

Hua said Chinese authorities “hope that Chinese nationals in France can express their wishes and demands in a reasonable way.”

 

France is home to Europe’s largest population of ethnic Chinese, a community that routinely accuses police of not doing enough to protect them against racism.

 

“Chinese are victims of racist attitudes in France — especially from other ethnic groups like Arabs. They are targets for crime because they often carry cash and many don’t have residence permits, so can be threatened easily. They’re angry with police for not protecting them enough,” said Pierre Picquart, Chinese expert at the University of Paris VIII.

 

“Chinese people do not like to protest or express themselves publicly, so when we see them like this it means they are very, very angry. They’ve had enough of discrimination,” he added.

 

He estimated that there are 2 million people living in France of Chinese origin.

 

Last September, 15,000 people rallied in the French capital to urge an end to violence against the Asian community after the beating to death of Chinese tailor Chaolin Zhangh called new attention to ethnic tensions in Paris suburbs. The victim’s lawyer said the August 2016 attack was ethnically motivated, and the area’s Chinese immigrant community says it is routinely targeted by armed robbers and violence.

 

The recent killing and clashes also come just days after thousands marched in Paris in a show of anger over the alleged rape in February of a young black man by police. The alleged incident in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois turned the 22-year-old, identified only as Theo, into a symbol for minorities standing up to police violence.

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3 Hurt in Paris Clashes Over Police Killing of Chinese Man

Violent clashes in Paris between police and protesters angry at the police killing of a Chinese man in his home have left three police officers injured and 35 protesters arrested, authorities said Tuesday.

 

Demonstrators, who were from the Asian community, had gathered in the multicultural 19th district on the French capital’s northeastern edge, police official Agnes Thibault Lecuivre said.

 

They were paying homage to a Chinese man killed Sunday by a police officer, outraged by reports that he was shot in his home in front of his children while he was cutting up fish. Police say the officer fired in self-defense during a raid because the victim, whom Chinese media say is Chinese, wounded an officer with a bladed weapon.

 

With candles spelling “violence” lining the road Monday evening, scores of protesters broke down barricades, threw projectiles and set fire to a car during the clashes with police that lasted several hours.

 

The latest violence comes just days after several thousand people marched in Paris against police violence, in a show of anger sparked by the alleged rape in February of a young black man with a police baton, and other police abuse. Anarchists faced off with riot police at the end of that march, and tear gas was fired. But clashes remained limited in scope and violence.

 

The alleged police rape of Theo in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois turned the 22-year-old into a symbol for minorities standing up to police violence. His last name hasn’t been publicly released.

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