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France Invites US to Dec. 13 Summit on Boosting Fight Against W.African Militants

French President Emmanuel Macron fears Islamist militants have scored military and symbolic victories in West Africa while a regional military force has struggled to get off the ground, a French presidential source said on Thursday.

To help get the new G5 Sahel force operating effectively, he said, France has invited the United States to a summit with the five participating countries as well as the African Union and European Union in Paris next month.

Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers, French troops and U.S. military trainers and drone operators have failed so far to stem a growing wave of jihadist violence, leading world powers to pin their hopes on the new G5 Sahel force.

The G5 Sahel initiative – grouping Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – faces an immense security challenge in a largely desert and weakly governed region and already faces questions over its financing and provision of equipment.

“Emmanuel Macron believes that it’s not going quickly enough and that the terrorists have registered military and symbolic victories, especially in Niger, and (that) it’s urgent to reverse this trend,” the French official said in Ghana where Macron was winding up a three-day Africa trip.

“The (objective) will be to accelerate the calendar for the support of the force, and the operational calendar.”

The jihadist threat hit home again last month with an attack in Niger in which eight U.S. and Nigerien troops were killed, prompting American officials to forecast that U.S. involvement in the Sahel region would deepen.

As well as the leaders of the G5 nations – all former French colonies – and the EU and African Union, the French presidential official said the United States had also been invited to the Dec. 13 summit.

The G5 force is to eventually comprise 5,000 men from seven battalions and police the region in collaboration with 4,000 French troops deployed there since Paris intervened in 2013 to beat back an insurgency in northern Mali.

It will also have to coordinate with MINUSMA, Mali’s U.N. peacekeeping mission. MINUSMA has been frequently attacked in the north where Islamists have regained ground since 2013.

A donor conference will be held in Brussels on Dec. 14 to raise funds for the Sahel force. Paris has also asked Saudi Arabia to help finance the force and representatives of the kingdom could also be in Paris on Dec. 13, the official said.

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Denmark Detains Russian Man at Moscow’s Request

Denmark has detained a 43-year-old Russian national at Moscow’s request pending an international extradition, Danish prosecutors said Thursday.

Henriette V. Norring from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said Russia now has to make a formal extradition request.

She says Denmark will consider the request “thoroughly,” adding any extradition “will only be possible if all conditions of Danish extradition legislation are met.”

She declined to name the man but his lawyer said it was Alexander Panesh, a resident of France. Panesh was detained Nov. 21 and can be held in custody until Dec. 19.

The lawyer, Kim Bagge, told The Associated Press that her client was wanted for bribery and making false statements, among other allegations.

Bagge said Panesh claims he fled Russia because of ties to the political opposition – a claim that could not be independently verified.

In July 2016, Moscow request an Interpol Red Notice be issued for her client, Bagge said, adding that he was arrested at Copenhagen airport during a transit for Lithuania where he had gotten permission from Lithuanian police to pick up papers to be used in his French asylum request.

“It is my client’s understanding that this is clearly politically motivated,” Bagge told the AP. Denmark “cannot extradite a person fleeing from personal persecution. All Denmark does is delay an asylum process in France.”

“It is beyond understanding why a man who has lived openly in France for a year and where his asylum application is being processed is now arrested in Denmark,” he said. “His name must have popped up as sought-after on computers at the airport.”

In 2002, Denmark refused to extradite London-based Akhmed Zakayev, a top aide to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was arrested in Copenhagen at Russia’s request. Danish officials released him after rejecting Moscow’s request to extradite him because of insufficient evidence.

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Moscow Mulls Next Move in Escalating Media Spat With US

The Kremlin voiced dismay Thursday over the withdrawal of a Russian state-funded TV station’s credentials in the U.S. and warned of a quick retaliation.

 

A committee that governs Capitol Hill access for broadcast journalists on Wednesday withdrew credentials for Kremlin-funded RT after the company complied earlier this month with a U.S. demand that it register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denounced the move as a violation of media freedom and “extremely hostile act,” adding that “we are deeply disappointed.”

 

 “Such hostile and undemocratic decisions can’t be left without an answer,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “You don’t have to be a soothsayer to forecast an emotional response from our lawmakers regarding the U.S. media.”

 

Senior Russian lawmakers warned that representatives of the U.S. media can lose access to parliament and government agencies as a quid pro quo. Foreign correspondents in Russia can currently access the Russian parliament and some government agencies with their press credentials issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

 

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, said the U.S. move was a “challenge to the universal values of freedom of speech.”

“This is an attack on the foundation of democracy, and we aren’t going to tolerate it,” he said. “We are considering options for a symmetrical, quid pro quo response to the hostile U.S. actions. They will come soon.”   

 

The U.S. move and the Russian threats of retaliation follow the endorsement of a new Russian bill that allowed the government to designate international media outlets as foreign agents in response to the U.S. demand made to the RT TV channel.

 

The bill, quickly passed by the Russian parliament and signed into law by Putin over the weekend, says that any government- or private-funded foreign news outlets could be declared foreign agents, leaving it to the Justice Ministry to single them out.

 

The ministry already has notified the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, along with its regional outlets, that they could be designated as foreign agents under the new law.

 

U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged that RT served as a tool for the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia has denied any interference.

 

Russia’s hopes for better relations with the U.S. under President Donald Trump have been shattered amid the Congressional and FBI investigations into alleged ties between Trump campaign in Russia.

 

Speaking in a TV interview broadcast Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the Russia-U.S. relations are in a “horrible” shape, the lowest point since the Cold War times.

 

 “Some American politicians are trying to solve their problems and put a pressure on their president by playing the `Russian card,'” Medvedev said.

 

He drew a parallel with a hunt for purported communist infiltrators in the 1950s led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy that often involved unfounded accusations and sowed fear, adding that “even then it wasn’t about settling scores with their own president.”

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Russian Network RT Loses US Capitol Hill Credentials

Broadcast reporters for Russian state-funded TV channel RT will no longer be able to report daily from the U.S. Capitol.

A committee that governs Capitol Hill access for broadcast journalists has withdrawn credentials for RT after the company complied earlier this month with a U.S. demand that it register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The law applies to people or companies disseminating information in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments, political parties and other “foreign principals.”

The action also comes just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation allowing Russia to register international media outlets as foreign agents, an act seen as the Kremlin’s retaliation for the Trump administration decision on RT. The new rules require disclosures to the Russian government and are seen as stigmatizing the news outlets as promoters of American propaganda.

 

In Washington, C-SPAN’s Craig Caplan informed RT that its credentials were being withdrawn after a unanimous vote of the executive committee of the Congressional Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries.

Caplan, the chairman of that committee, wrote that gallery rules “state clearly that news credentials may not be issued to any applicant employed by ‘any foreign government or representative thereof.’ ” He said the FARA registration made the network ineligible to hold news credentials, and their withdrawal is effective immediately.

Many news outlets with ties to foreign governments are required to similarly register. English-language newspaper China Daily is registered due to its affiliation with the Chinese government, for example. But the pressure on RT has angered Russian officials, who have said they will retaliate with restrictions on U.S. news outlets.

The letter was sent to Mikhail Solodovnikov of RT’s U.S.-based production company, T & R Productions. RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged RT served as a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin as part of a multi-pronged effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia denies interfering.

 

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US, Britain, France Accused of Snubbing Anti-nuclear Nobel Prize

The anti-nuclear group which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize accused the United States, Britain and France on Wednesday of snubbing its disarmament work by

planning to send only second-rank diplomats to the award ceremony next month.

“It’s some kind of protest against the Nobel Peace Prize,” Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), told Reuters of a plan by the three nations to send only deputy chiefs of mission.

“They like their nuclear weapons very much and don’t like it when we try to ban them,” she said, accusing the three of wrongly opposing ICAN’s work “when North Korea and the United States are exchanging threats to use nuclear weapons”.

The annual December 10 Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo, attended by King Harald and Queen Sonja, is the highlight of the diplomatic calendar in Norway. The prize comprises a diploma, a gold medal and a check for $1.1 million.

Olav Njoelstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, confirmed the three nations would send only deputies. He said the awards committee always preferred to see chiefs of mission.

“That being said, we are neither surprised nor offended by the fact that sometime foreign governments prefer to stay away from the ceremony in protest or, as in this case, because they prefer to be represented by their deputy chiefs of mission,” he told Reuters.

“The Nobel Peace Prize is, after all, a political prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee takes notice of the joint decision of the British, French and U.S. embassies,” he said.

The British embassy confirmed it was sending a deputy ambassador and said in a statement “the U.K. is committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. We share this goal with our partners across the international community including U.S. and France.”

The U.S. and French embassies were not immediately available for comment. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump nominated Kenneth Braithwaite to the post of ambassador in Oslo, currently held by an acting ambassador.

ICAN, a coalition of grassroots non-government organizations in more than 100 nations, campaigned successfully for a U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by 122 nations in July this year.

But the agreement is not signed by – and would not apply to – any of the states that already have nuclear arms, which include the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, as well as India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Israel neither confirms nor denies the widespread assumption that it controls the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.

It was not clear whether other nuclear powers would send Oslo ambassadors to the Nobel ceremony.

The absence of ambassadors from the United States, Britain and France “is disappointing but at the same time we are focused on getting a majority of states in the world to join this treaty,” Fihn said.

She said the three nuclear states were exerting pressure on other nations “not to engage in this treaty.”

 

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US Trial Threatens Funding for Turkey’s Dollar-dependent Banks

Turkey’s deteriorating finances are hurting the country’s banks whose reliance on dollar funding makes them vulnerable to the worst-case scenario: a sudden halt or reversal of foreign investment flows.

International investors are growing nervous about Turkey for a variety of reasons. But U.S. legal action against a number of Turkish individuals over alleged Iran sanctions busting – and the risk that some of the country’s banks might be sucked into the case – lies at the heart of the latest concerns.

Since Turkey’s financial crisis in 2000, its banks have earned a reputation as being among the best-run in emerging markets, holding capital reserves far above those required by global rules.

They are still borrowing funds on international markets for lending on to domestic clients, and executives say they do not expect any significant future difficulties.

Nevertheless, borrowing costs are rising for the banks, which have accumulated dollar debt piles equal to a third of Turkey’s total foreign debt. Bank shares are down 20 percent since mid-August, outstripping a 5 percent fall on the broader Istanbul index in this period.

The lira has fallen more than 10 percent against the dollar and euro in the past three months alone, clocking losses of over 50 percent since the end of 2012 .

Several factors are at work, including fears that Turkey’s credit rating might be downgraded, government resistance to higher interest rates despite double-digit inflation, and tensions between Ankara and NATO ally Washington.

Now a Turkish-Iranian gold trader on trial in New York has pleaded guilty to conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran and will testify against a Turkish bank official charged with arranging illegal transactions involving American lenders.

Any possibility that Turkish banks themselves might become involved, landing the kind of huge fines slapped on others for sanctions-busting, would have severe consequences for the lenders and the wider economy.

“If [fines] do materialize, I would assume that all lending would stop until it becomes clear if institutions around the world can lend to Turkish banks or not,” said Alaa Bushehri, an emerging debt portfolio manager at BNP Paribas Asset Management.

Turkey’s bank regulator and government officials have denied reports in Haberturk newspaper that six unnamed Turkish banks could face fines worth billions of dollars.

But Turkish banks’ dollar bonds generally reflect investors’ nervousness, Bushehri said. On average, yields are 100 basis points above sovereign debt, whereas most big Turkish non-bank firms have lower funding costs than the government, she noted.

Turkish banks also trade with higher yields than similarly-or worse-rated banks in Russia, an emerging market peer which is directly subject to Western sanctions.

Adverse implications

U.S. prosecutors have charged nine people in the case, including the deputy general manager of Turkey’s Halkbank, who is also on trial in New York. He denies all charges.

A former Turkish economy minister is among the defendants, although he is not currently on trial and likewise denies all charges. Ankara says the case is politically motivated, while Halkbank has said all of its transactions have fully complied with national and international regulations.

“If the trial were to end with fines on Turkish lenders, economic implications for Turkey could be highly adverse,” TD Securities said in a note to clients.

Inflation hit a 9-year high of 11.9 percent in October, while Turkish bond yields have reached record levels above 13 percent. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said on Wednesday an insufficient response by the central bank would be an immediate concern for Turkey’s sovereign debt rating.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek has promised the government will do whatever is necessary if its banks are hit by the U.S. trial but Mehmet Emin Ozcan, CEO of state-owned Vakifbank, expects no negative impact.

“We didn’t face any problem with borrowing from international markets and I don’t think we’ll have a problem in the future,” he said this week.

Still, investors’ fears persist. While international sanctions on Iran were eased last year, U.S. measures remain and penalties for any infringements can be devastating – as a $9 billion fine on French bank BNP Paribas last year attests.

The potential damage of any fines on Turkish bank reserves has exaggerated the lira’s weakness, compounding the problems of the banks which have about $172 billion in external debt, according to Fitch ratings agency. Of this, $96 billion is due within the next year, the data showed at the end of September.

Health and growth

The issue is central to Turkey’s economic health and growth.

As in other countries with low domestic savings, it relies on foreign borrowing, with banks acting as the conduit for a major part of the flows. Any stop in the financing could wreak havoc.

Turkish banks have average capital ratios that are double the 8 percent minimum stipulated by Basel 3 global banking rules. Also, the lira’s depreciation should not compromise their ability to repay dollar debt as the regulator does not permit lenders to hold open, or unhedged, hard currency liabilities.

Fitch reckons banks can, if needed, access up to $90 billion over 12 months by tapping reserves they hold at the central bank and by unwinding currency derivatives positions. But a prolonged funding crunch will be a different story.

That would risk “pressures on foreign currency reserves, the exchange rate, interest rates and economic growth”, Fitch warns.

That’s because the lenders’ capital buffers held with the central bank – totaling just over $60 billion – are a major part of authorities’ $117 billion reserve war chest, and any depletion of this would leave the lira dangerously exposed.

“Usable” reserves – excluding gold and bank reserves – are around $35 billion, analysts estimate. That means the central bank will have no option but to raise interest rates sharply to counter any lira selloff, with damaging consequences for economic growth.

So far, the banks have avoided refinancing stress; Turkish lending is lucrative for European banks which may be unwilling to risk those long-standing ties.

Indeed, external debt rose around $9 billion in the first half of 2017, Fitch data showed, while Garanti Bank last week announced a $1.35 billion syndicated loan, with 38 banks participating.

But costs are rising – Garanti paid 1.25 percent above LIBOR on a one-year loan, while in 2016 and 2015 it paid 1.10 percent and 0.75 percent above LIBOR respectively.

Huseyin Aydin, chairman of the Banks Association of Turkey, told Reuters he had not observed any low appetite for taking Turkish risk. However, he added: “Foreign borrowing interest rates increased around 50-60 basis points in a tough year like 2017. It is possible that a limited increase will continue in

rates in 2018.”

Paul McNamara, investment director at GAM, has been among those who have warned for some time of trouble. He said he has sold all his Turkish debt because of the banks’ vulnerability.

“Local banks have borrowed an immense amount – north of $100 billion – abroad and lent that money on locally,” he said. “Any stress on Turkish bank syndications and this goes bad very fast.”

 

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Syrian Government Expected to Join Geneva Peace Talks

Syrian government negotiators are expected Wednesday in Geneva to join U.N.-led peace talks aimed at ending nearly seven years of fighting.

The talks began Tuesday with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura meeting with the opposition delegation. He said afterward the two sides would have a chance for direct negotiations in Geneva.

“We are going to offer it. We will see if this takes place. But we will be offering that,” he said.

Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said the delayed arrival for the government delegation was due to the opposition’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of any political transition.

That issue has lingered as a sticking point in years of U.N. attempts to get the government and rebels to agree on a roadmap for Syria’s future.

De Mistura said ahead of the talks he believes it is possible for the two sides to narrow their differences as they negotiate under a framework approved by the U.N. Security Council that calls for a new constitution and elections. But he reiterated his mediation team will not accept either side entering the talks with preconditions.

“This crisis, one of the worst in the history of the United Nations, now has the potential to move towards a genuine political process,” the envoy said. “We see the emergence of international consensus, and we must begin to stitch the process into concrete results, enabling Syrians to determine their own future freely.”

University of New South Wales senior lecturer Anthony Billingsley says with the gains the Syrian military has made with the backing of Russia and Iran, rebel hopes of toppling Assad are not realistic at this point.

“Everybody apart from some of the opposition groups, and perhaps the U.S., has accepted that Assad need not necessarily go. So there’s a fundamental problem there if the Geneva talks are going to make any progress,” Billingsley told VOA.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, agreed Tuesday to a cease-fire in rebel-held rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta, according to de Mistura.

Eastern Ghouta, located east of Damascus, is among the last remaining opposition strongholds in Syria and one of four “de-escalation zones” that were established to reduce violence.

The fighting in Syria began in 2011 with peaceful protests against Assad and a government crackdown, eventually leading to a multi-party conflict that has left more than 400,000 people dead and 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

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Pope Preaches Forgiveness in First Public Mass in Myanmar

Pope Francis urged Myanmar’s long-suffering people to resist the temptation to exact revenge for the hurt they have endured, preaching a message of forgiveness Wednesday to a huge crowd in his first public Mass in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Local authorities estimated some 150,000 people turned out at Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground park for the Mass, but the crowd seemed far larger. Catholics had to apply to attend through their local churches to enter the park venue, and many dressed in matching outfits or with hats bearing the pope’s image.

Francis has said his aim in coming to Myanmar is to minister to its Catholic community, which numbers around 660,000 people, or just over 1 percent of the population of about 52 million.

​His trip has been overshadowed, though, by Myanmar’s military operations targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. The crackdown, which has been described by the U.N. as a campaign of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” has drawn international condemnation.

In his first public comments on Tuesday, Francis told Suu Kyi and other government authorities that Myanmar’s future lay in respecting the rights of all its people – “none excluded” – but he refrained from mentioning the Rohingya by name. The violence, including the looting and burning of Rohingya villages, has resulted in more than 620,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.

In his homily Wednesday, Francis referred to the suffering that Myanmar’s ethnic and religious groups have endured, a reference to the decades of conflicts between Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and the military that continue today in parts of the country. Myanmar recently emerged from nearly half a century of military dictatorship, but minorities including the Kachins are still subject to discrimination and other forms of violence.

“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” Francis told the crowd in Italian that was translated into Burmese. Although he said the temptation is to respond with revenge, he urged a response of “forgiveness and compassion.”

“The way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he said, speaking from an altar erected on a traditional Buddhist-style stage.

Before Mass, Francis looped around the park in his open-sided popemobile, waving to the flag-waving crowds that continued to pour in as the service began. Local government officials and senior members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party were on hand, as were members of Myanmar’s mostly Christian Kachin minority, many of whom traveled two days by train from Kachin state to see the first pope ever to visit Myanmar.

Despite the high humidity, the scene at the park was joyous.

“I can’t express how happy I am,” said Henery Thaw Zin, a 57-year-old ethnic Karen from Hinthada, a four-hour drive from Yangon. “I can’t imagine, or can’t expect to get a chance like this again, not just in this life, but in my next life as well.”

The country’s first-ever cardinal, Charles Bo, told Francis that his visit had changed Catholics in Myanmar forever.

“A miracle has been enacted today,” Bo said at the end of Mass.”Thank you. And this little flock prays for you.”

Later Wednesday, Francis is to meet with Myanmar’s Buddhist leadership and then speak to the country’s Catholic bishops. He celebrates a Mass for young people Thursday and then heads to Bangladesh for the second leg of his weeklong South Asia tour.

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Report Urges Permanent US Military Presence in Balkans

The Washington-based Atlantic Council is calling for a permanent American military presence in the Balkans to stabilize southeastern Europe amid increased Russian efforts to exert political influence across the region.

In a report published Tuesday, the nonprofit international affairs group said that announcing the arrival of U.S. troops, ideally at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, “would demonstrate an enduring U.S. commitment to security in the region and anchor the United States’ long-term ability to influence developments.”

“When it comes to security, it should be clearly stated that U.S. influence and power will be a long-term, stabilizing force in the region,” Damon Wilson, Atlantic Council executive vice president and one of the report’s authors, told VOA’s Serbian service.

“And it has nothing to do with the forces in Kosovo,” he said. “Our presence in northeast Europe has served as a stabilizing force for our allies, so the military structures and the constant presence in southeastern Europe should … provide a real sense of security for political leaders to make difficult decisions and to undertake necessary risks.”

The Atlantic Council, which functions independently of the U.S. government, will host Balkan officials for a November 29 conference to discuss policy proposals aimed keeping the region “firmly embedded within the trans-Atlantic community.”

Some proposals unveiled in the new report align with prior calls by U.S. policy hawks, such as Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, who in April called for a substantially strengthened U.S. commitment to the region.

In an op-ed titled “The Balkans are heating up again — and Washington is nowhere to be seen,” McCain called an October 2016 Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro, which the Kremlin has vigorously denied involvement in, the most dramatic example of a broader campaign to destabilize Western-leaning democracies in the region.

In June, a Montenegrin court confirmed prosecution indictments against 14 people, including two Russians, for masterminding the coup attempt, which was aimed at preventing Montenegro from joining NATO. The other 12 suspects, mostly Serbs, allegedly planned to take over parliament in the capital, Podgorica, and kill then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

Also citing political instability in Bosnia and Macedonia, insufficient youth employment and widespread corruption, McCain described the broader Balkans region as ripe for exploitation by terror organizations seeking a foothold on European soil.

“Some age-old, some new tensions in the region require our attention, and my concern is that as our attention has been diverted to Ukraine, the Middle East, to China … it’s very clear the Russians are trying to extend their malign influence in the [Balkans] region,” McCain told VOA in April. “The attempt at a coup in Montenegro is a graphic example of that.”

According to Wilson, Atlantic Council experts are advocating a more proactive U.S. role on the ground in order to “be ahead of the events, to determine our interests and to promote the U.S. strategy,” instead of reacting to Russian activity in the region.

Improved US-Serbian ties

Tuesday’s report also called for improved economic prospects for the region’s predominantly Muslim youth — specifically via large-scale infrastructure projects designed to interlink Balkan nations and improve access to the European mainland — and a historic U.S.-Serbian rapprochement.

“Belgrade can and should be a close partner and ally in the region, but it can only become one if it begins to meaningfully distance itself from Russia,” the Atlantic Council report said. “This is not a trivial pivot for Serbian leadership, but neither should it be something on which the United States or the EU should compromise.”

Last month, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin criticized remarks by Hoyt Brian Yee, the top U.S. diplomat in the region, who had called on Belgrade to choose between aligning itself with either Washington and Brussels or Moscow.

The “statement was not made by a friend or a person respecting Serbia, respecting our right to decide independently,” Vulin said.

Yee later expressed appreciation for the historical, cultural and religious links between Belgrade and Moscow, but said Serbia’s leadership needed to “make very clear what its policies are.”

“There is a great chance for Serbia, under [President Aleksandar] Vucic’s leadership, and the United States under this administration, to try to bring about a historic reconciliation between the two countries that recognizes that there are many more areas in which we can cooperate,” Wilson told VOA. “And, as is evident in surveys and other sources, the electorate in Serbia understands that the future is in Europe.”

In June, the State Department expressed concern about a disaster relief center Russia is operating in Serbia, which some Western groups and military analysts see as a subtly disguised military base set up by the Kremlin to spy on U.S. interests in the Balkans.

The upcoming Balkans conference will be followed by meetings between high-level Balkan and U.S. officials in the State Department and White House.

Milena Djurdjic of VOA’s Serbian service contributed to this report.

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UN Envoy: ‘Moment of Truth’ For Syria as Peace Talks Set to Resume

U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said despite some concerns about recent violence, he believes “a moment of truth has arrived” as he prepared to launch a new round of peace talks aimed at ending nearly seven years of fighting.

The U.N.-led talks in Geneva due to begin Tuesday are the eighth round since 2012. Many of the prior attempts quickly fell apart amid major disagreements between the Syrian government and rebel delegations, including about whether President Bashar al-Assad should remain in office.

The two sides appear to be in the same position after opposition delegation chief Nasr Hariri told reporters Monday that their goal is for Assad to not be in power when a political transition begins.

U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said Tuesday the Syrian government delegation had not yet arrived in Geneva but was planning to travel there on Wednesday. De Mistura planned to go ahead Tuesday with meetings with opposition figures. Prior rounds of peace talks have proceeded under similar circumstances with one party arriving a day or two late.

De Mistura said he believes it is possible for the two sides to narrow their differences as they negotiate under a framework approved by the U.N. Security Council that calls for a new constitution and elections. But he reiterated that his mediation team will not accept either side entering the talks with preconditions.

“This crisis, one of the worst in the history of the United Nations, now has the potential to move towards a genuine political process,” the envoy said. “We see the emergence of international consensus, and we must begin to stitch the process into concrete results, enabling Syrians to determine their own future freely.”

University of New South Wales senior lecturer Anthony Billingsley says with the gains the Syrian military has made with the backing of Russia and Iran, rebel hopes of toppling Assad are not realistic at this point.

“Everybody apart from some of the opposition groups, and perhaps the U.S., has accepted that Assad need not necessarily go. So there’s a fundamental problem there if the Geneva talks are going to make any progress,” Billingsley told VOA.

The fighting in Syria began in 2011 with peaceful protests against Assad and a government crackdown, eventually leading to a multi-party conflict that has left more than 400,000 people dead and 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

Victor Beattie in Washington DC contributed to this report.

 

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Syria, Russia Step Up Airstrikes Ahead of Renewed Peace Talks in Geneva

Talks between the Syrian government and opposition forces aimed at bringing an end to the six-year war resume Tuesday in Geneva.

Nearly half a million people have been killed since the President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on an uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring. Several regional and global powers have intervened in the conflict – and it is they who will likely drive the terms of any peace deal.

Despite the talks, bombs continue to fall. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 50 civilians were killed by Russian airstrikes Sunday on Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria.

Moscow confirmed its bombers carried out an attack – but said only militants were killed.

WATCH: Airstrikes ahead of peace talks

Since entering the war in 2015, Russia has reversed the major territorial losses suffered by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House, said, “So while Russia is now playing peacemaker, it is its military intervention that has really started to create what seems to be an emerging victory for Bashar al Assad.”

He was aided by a fractured opposition. But for the first time at the Geneva talks, the different factions will be represented by a single unified delegation. They’re demanding that Assad plays no part in Syria’s future.

“Everything on the negotiating table is up for discussion,” Opposition Chief Negotiator Nasr Al Hariri said.

Western powers accuse Assad’s government of gross human rights violations, including the bombing of civilians and widespread torture and killings. But their demands for him to be removed from power have waned.

While Russia and Iran have backed Assad, Western powers – including the United States – have supported moderate opposition groups battling Islamic State. Kurdish forces control swathes of the north– angering Turkey, which has sent troops into Syria. On all sides, war weariness has set in, said Kinninmont.

“The conflict in Syria has been started by local causes, but fueled partly by international intervention. So there’s a chance to de-escalate partly because the international powers don’t really want to be fueling this war anymore. However, the goals of the uprising in the first place – to fight dictatorship, to have a more dignified way of life in Syria – none of those have been met,” Kinninmont said.

As with the conflict, rival powers are seeking to influence the peace. Russia launched a round of talks last week separate from the Geneva process, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Syrian opposition groups are divided on whether to engage.

Meanwhile the White House said both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Putin stressed the importance of the Geneva talks in a phone call last week.

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Pope Francis Meeting With Aung San Suu Kyi

Pope Francis is meeting Tuesday with Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a day after the country’s military chief said he told the pontiff that there is “no religious discrimination” in Myanmar.

The United Nations and the United States have accused Myanmar’s military of “ethnic cleansing” in violence against Rohingya Muslims, and Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has faced criticism for her response to the crisis.

“We can’t say whether it has happened or not,” she said last week when asked about rights abuses. “As a responsibility of the government, we have to make sure that it won’t happen.”

Pope Francis met with the military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on Monday as he began his trip to the southeast Asian country to discuss the violence in Rakhine state that has caused over 620,000 Rohingya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.

“Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all,” Min Aung Hlaing said in a Facebook post by his office. “Likewise our military too… (it) performs for the peace and stability of the country.”

After the 15 minute meeting, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the two “discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition” before exchanging gifts.

Thousands of Myanmar’s nearly 700,000 Catholics traveled to greet the Pope as he landed in Yangon, and more than 150,000 have registered to attend a Mass he will hold on Wednesday, according to Catholic Myanmar Church spokesman Mariano Soe Naing.

​Myanmar’s Catholic Church has publicly urged Francis to avoid using the term “Rohingya,” which is shunned by many locally because the ethnic group is not a recognized minority in the country.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has called the Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country his “brothers and sisters,” speaking out against violence in the troubled Rakhine state.

Burke didn’t say if Francis used the term in his meeting with the general.

The pontiff’s schedule does not include a visit to a refugee camp, but he is expected to meet with a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

In recent weeks, Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled violence in Rakhine state, according to officials from both countries.

But the U.N. refugee agency spokesperson said conditions there are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.

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UN Envoy: No Signs Damascus Will Participate in Latest Geneva Talks

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has not confirmed its participation in peace talks with the Syrian opposition scheduled for this week in Geneva, the U.N. special envoy for Syria said Monday.

Staffan de Mistura told the U.N. Security Council the Assad government said it would not be sending representatives to Geneva on Monday. But de Mistura held out hope saying, “We know and indeed expect that the government will be on its way shortly, particularly in light of President Assad’s commitment to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin when they met in Sochi.”

Putin hosted Assad last week for a meeting, during which Syria’s president said he was “ready for dialogue with all those who want to come up with a political settlement”.

Russia has bolstered Assad’s rule with airstrikes since late 2015 against groups trying to overthrow his regime, with Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters also supporting Damascus.

Tuesday’s talks in Geneva will be the eighth on a political settlement in Syria after previous meetings achieved little progress to stop the war that has left at least 400,000 people dead and 13 million Syrians in need of humanitarian aid.

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Macron Heads to Africa in Apparent Push to Reboot France’s Clout in Region

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Burkina Faso late Monday – the first stop of a three-day Africa tour aimed to reinvigorate what observers see as France’s fading influence on the continent. Lisa Bryant has more on Macron’s trip that also takes him to Ivory Coast for an EU-Africa summit and to English-speaking Ghana.

Security, jobs, the environment and migration are among key themes of President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to the three West African countries – with an overall focus on youth.

On Tuesday morning, he’s expected to outline his Africa policy in a much- anticipated speech before 800 students at the University of Ouagadougou. Africa’s youth will also be a key theme at the EU-Africa summit in Ivory Coast on Wednesday — the next stop on Macron’s itinerary.

And again, when he makes the first trip by a French president to Ghana, and meets with youngsters in Accra, accompanied by former Ghanaian football player, Abedi Pele.

Security is another top priority.  France has more than 7,000 troops deployed across Africa — including those hunting down Islamist militants in the Sahel, in cooperation with the new regional African counterterrorism force that Macron helped to launch.

The French president is also pushing development to address insecurity — and the floods of migrants still heading to Europe.

“One of the things that Macron has announced is that he wants official French development aid, the figures, to go up again…,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, who heads the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Lafont Rapnouil added that “in connection precisely with the fact that he knows that even if military operations are successful in the Sahel – whether it’s the French or Sahelian operations— even if we’re successful in Central Africa or with Boko Haram, the military success will not be enough to solve the crisis and stabilize the situation.”

Macron drew criticism during his first trip to Mali in May, when he bypassed the capital, and again during a July speech during the G-20 summit when he said, in his words, that “civilizational” problems and women having too many children were hampering African development.

 

The young president is also trying to break from the past. He has created an ‘Africa Presidential Council’ made up of entrepreneurs with myriad backgrounds and often dual nationalities. His keynote speech in Burkina Faso is set to contrasts with France’s last two presidents, who delivered theirs in Senegal. And at 39, he was not even born when former French colonies received their independence.

 

Whether he can reboot France’s image in Africa is uncertain. This week’s trip will be a first test.

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Britain’s Prince Harry, US Actress Meghan Markle Officially Engaged

Britain’s Prince Harry is officially engaged to American actress Meghan Markle.

Harry’s father, Prince Charles, made the announcement in a statement Monday.

“His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince Harry to Ms. Meghan Markle.”

The statement said the wedding will take place in Spring 2018 and “Further details about the wedding day will be announced in due course.”

The couple became engaged in London earlier this month, according to the statement.

Harry “informed The Queen and other close members of his family,” the announcement said, and “. . . also sought and received the blessing of Ms. Markle’s parents.”

An official announcement had been expected after Markle said in a recent interview in Vanity Fair about her relationship with Harry:  “We’re a couple. We’re in love.”

Markle’s parents also released a statement, saying “We are incredibly happy for Meghan and Harry. Our daughter has always been a kind and loving person. To see her union with Harry, who shares the same qualities, is a source of great joy for us as parents.”

Markle’s parents, Thomas Markle and Doris Ragland, are divorced.

Markle is best-known for her work in the television drama Suits.

She is a Global Ambassador for World Vision Canada, which campaigns for better education, food and healthcare for children around the world. As well as her humanitarian work, she is known for campaigning for gender equality.

She was married briefly in 2011 to film producer Trevor Engelson, but they split two years later.

The prince and the actress made their first public appearance in September at the Invictus Games in Toronto, a sports event for wounded veterans.

Last year, Harry, who is fifth in line to the throne, issued a statement decrying the media coverage of his girlfriend, condemning the “outright racism and sexism of social media trolls and web article comments,” as well as the racial stereotypes used in some newspapers.

Markle is bi-racial. Her father is white. Her mother is black.

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Thousands in Romania Protest Changes to Tax, Justice Laws

Thousands have protested in Romania’s capital and other major cities Sunday against planned changes to the justice system they say will allow high-level corruption to go unpunished and a tax overhaul that could lead to lower wages.

 

Protesters briefly scuffled with mounted police in Bucharest, and they blew whistles and called the ruling Social Democratic Party “the red plague,” in reference to its Communist Party roots and one of the party’s colors.

 

Thousands took to the streets in the cities of Cluj, Timisoara, Iasi, Brasov, Sibiu and Constanta to vent their anger at the left-wing government. In Bucharest, thousands marched to Romania’s Parliament.

 

Sunday’s protest was the biggest since massive anti-corruption protests at the beginning of the year, the largest since the fall of communism in Romania. Media reported tens of thousands took to the streets around the country, but no official figures were available.

 

Demonstrations earlier this year erupted after the government moved to decriminalize official misconduct. The government eventually scrapped the ordinance, after more than two weeks of daily demonstrations.

 

Prosecutors recently froze party leader Liviu Dragnea’s assets amid a probe into the misuse of 21 million euros (about $25 million) in European Union funds.

 

The European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, says the money was fraudulently paid to officials and others from the European Regional Development Fund for road construction in Romania. It asked Romania to recover the funds.

 

Dragnea denies wrongdoing and has appealed the ruling to freeze his assets. He is unable to be prime minister because of a 2016 conviction for vote-rigging.

 

Vasile Grigore, a 42-year-old doctor, said “we don’t want our country to be run by people who are being prosecuted, incompetent and uneducated.”

 

It was the latest protest this year over government plans to revamp the justice system. One proposal is to legally prevent Romania’s president from blocking the appointment of key judges. President Klaus Iohannis says he will use constitutional means to oppose the plan.

 

Demonstrators also oppose a law that will shift social security taxes to the employee. The government says it will boost revenues.

 

Anca Preoteasa, 28, who works in sales, accused the government of wanting “to take over the justice system so they can resolve their legal problems, but we won’t accept this.”

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Merkel’s CDU Agrees to Pursue Grand Coalition in Germany

Leaders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party agreed on Sunday to pursue a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats (SPD) to break the political deadlock in Europe’s biggest economy.

Merkel, whose fourth term was plunged into doubt a week ago when three-way coalition talks with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens collapsed, was handed a political lifeline by the SPD on Friday.

Under intense pressure to preserve stability and avoid new elections, the SPD reversed its position and agreed to talk to Merkel, raising the prospect of a new grand coalition, which has ruled for the past four years, or a minority government.

“We have the firm intention of having an effective government,” Daniel Guenther, conservative premier of the state of Schleswig Holstein, told reporters after a four-hour meeting of leading members of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

“We firmly believe that this is not a minority government but that it is an alliance with a parliamentary majority. That is a grand coalition,” he said.

The meeting came after the conservative state premier of Bavaria threw his weight behind a new right-left tie-up.

‘Best option’

“An alliance of the conservatives and SPD is the best option for Germany – better anyway than a coalition with the Free Democrats and Greens, new elections or a minority government,” Horst Seehofer, head of the Bavarian CSU, told Bild am Sonntag.

An Emnid poll also showed on Sunday that 52 percent of Germans backed a grand coalition.

Several European leaders have emphasized the importance of getting a stable German government in place quickly so the bloc can discuss its future, including proposals by French President Emmanuel Macron on euro zone reforms and Brexit.

Merkel, who made clear on Saturday she would pursue a grand coalition, says that an acting government under her leadership can do business until a new coalition is formed.

The youth wing of Merkel’s conservatives raised pressure on the parties to get a deal done by Christmas, saying if there was no deal, the conservatives should opt for a minority government.

In an indication, however, that the process will take time, the CDU agreed on Sunday evening to delay a conference in mid-December that had been due to vote on the three-way coalition.

The SPD premier of the state of Lower Saxony said he feared there was no way a decision would be reached this year. “It is a long path for the SPD,” said Stephan Weil on ARD television.

Merkel is against going down the route of a minority government because of its inherent instability, but pundits have said one possibility is for the conservatives and Greens to form a minority government with informal SPD support. The Greens have said they are open to a minority government.

Policy spats

Even before any talks get under way, the two blocs have started to spar over policy priorities.

Merkel, whose conservatives won most parliamentary seats in a September 24 vote but bled support to the far right, has said she wants to maintain sound finances in Germany, cut some taxes and invest in digital infrastructure.

She has to keep Bavaria’s CSU on board by sticking to a tougher migrant policy that may also help win back conservatives who switched to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The SPD needs a platform for its policies after its poorest election showing since 1933. Leading SPD figures have outlined conditions including investment in education and homes, changes in health insurance and no cap on asylum seekers.

Most experts believe the SPD has the stronger hand and several prominent economists said they expected the SPD to wield significant influence in a new grand coalition.

“If there is a grand coalition or even if there is toleration (of a minority government) I would expect more emphasis on the SPD’s program,” Clemens Fuest, president of the Ifo institute, told business newspaper Handelsblatt.

That would mean higher state spending and smaller tax cuts than would have been agreed with other potential partners.

The SPD is divided, with some members arguing that a grand coalition has had its day.

The SPD premier of the state of Rhineland Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, said she preferred the idea of the SPD “tolerating” a minority government over a grand coalition, making clear that the party would not agree to a deal at any price.

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Pope Francis Hopes to Bring Spotlight to Myanmar Refugee Crisis

Pope Francis is to arrive Monday in Myanmar in an effort to draw global attention to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church is to visit Bangladesh on Thursday.

The pontiff’s schedule does not include a visit to a refugee camp, but he is expected to meet with a small group of Rohingya in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

“I am coming to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace,” Pope Francis told Vatican Radio, “My visit is meant to confirm the Catholic community of Myanmar in its worship of God and its witness to the gospel.”

In recent weeks, Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, according to officials from both countries.

Despite the deal, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario told the French news agency AFP, the situation remains “explosive and tough to resolve.”

“I am hopeful the Rohingya can be returned to Myanmar,” D’Rozario, the Archbishop of Dhaka, told AFP.

Reports said the deal was signed following talks in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali. The French news agency AFP quoted Ali as saying, “This is a primary step. [They] will take back [Rohingya]. Now we have to start working.”

The U.N. refugee agency spokesperson said conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.

“Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Friday.

D’Rozario, who was made cardinal by Francis in 2016, is still looking forward to the pontiff’s visit. There are about 360,000 Catholics in Bangladesh.

“The cries of the Rohingya are the cries of humanity,” D’Rozario said. “These cries ought to be heard and addressed. The main thing is to tell the people ‘We are on your side,” he said.

The cardinal spent two days visiting a refugee camp, speaking with families forced to leave their homes in Rakhine state.

“The international response for relief has been satisfactory, but how long will it last for? Generosity will not continue to flow as it did in the initial phase of the crisis.”

D’Rozario added that Bangladesh, though overcrowded and impoverished, deserves praise for its efforts in helping those fleeing violence.

“There are a lot of tensions, social tensions. Land is not available. It’s a very densely populated country, physically they don’t have any space. I admire the local people [for their restraint], the population has more than doubled. There are environmental issues with all the trees cut to make shelters. There will be landslides when there is big rain,” he said.

About 600,000 people have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, which is now undergoing its own crisis as it seeks to accommodate the Rohingya.

“It is not possible for Bangladesh alone to tackle this. The future looks very bleak,” D’Rozario said.

 

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Sharansky: By Sun, I See That We Were Going to the West

Natan Sharansky described his release from the Soviet Union and how he believes it came about.

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German Far Right Relishes Its Power as Merkel Struggles

The far-right Alternative for Germany party sees Chancellor Angela Merkel’s struggle to form a new government as proof of its growing power to upend the country’s political order, a top party official told AFP.

Parliamentary group leader Alexander Gauland said in an interview that the current turmoil showed that the four-year-old AfD had succeeded in its primary goal in September’s general election.

“It’s all downhill for Merkel now, and that is partly our achievement,” Gauland said, sipping a glass of rose at a lakeside Italian restaurant in Potsdam.

“Her time is up — we want her to leave the political stage.”

The AfD campaigned on the slogan “Merkel must go,” railing against her decision to let in more than 1 million mainly Muslim asylum seekers since 2015.

Its election score was nearly 13 percent, snatching millions of votes from the mainstream parties and entering parliament for the first time with almost 100 seats in the Bundestag lower house.

Although Merkel won a fourth term, she has thus far been unable to cobble together a ruling majority — an unprecedented impasse in German postwar politics.

The crisis could trigger snap elections. Yet despite polls indicating that the gridlock could lift the AfD to an even stronger result, Gauland, 76, seemed reserved about heading back into electoral battle.

“It is not up to us to call new elections and we aren’t asking for them, but we are prepared for them,” he said.

“None of us is hoping for that with great enthusiasm, but we would probably make gains.”

Polls indicate that both Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the rival Social Democrats would shed support if voters were called back to the ballot box.

‘Voice to people’s fears’

With his trademark tweed jackets and reading glasses, Gauland cultivates the look of an English country gentleman and expresses pride over the support his anti-immigration message has received from pockets of the British right wing.

In May he sparked outrage by saying that while German fans love star footballer Jerome Boateng, who was born in Berlin to a German mother and Ghanaian father, “they don’t want to have a Boateng as a neighbor.”

With the German economy humming and unemployment at a record low, the AfD has zeroed in on identity as a rallying cry.

Gauland, a former CDU member, acknowledged that meant playing to deep anxieties and resentments, particularly in the former communist east, about a multicultural Germany.

“We have always said that we give a voice to people’s fears,” he said. “We don’t want the country to change to such an extent that it can’t be turned back.”

Apart from the current political volatility, Gauland sees the wind at the AFD’s back due to an announcement this month by one of Germany’s biggest employers, Siemens, that it was slashing nearly 7,000 jobs globally.

The industrial giant plans to close its sites in Goerlitz and Leipzig, both in the eastern state of Saxony, which the AfD won outright in September.

“That will probably help the AfD,” Gauland said of the layoffs.

“In any case it is not very smart public relations when you rake in record profits and then sack people at the same time.”

‘Brexit and Trump’

Gauland appeared relaxed about parties such as the pro-business Free Democrats trying to poach some of the AfD’s signature issues, including tougher border policies.

“There is the old fight about who is the original and who is the copy,” he said smiling. “If the FDP moves in our direction, I can’t condemn that as completely wrong.”

Gauland played down rivalries within the AfD, seen most spectacularly in the resignation of former co-leader Frauke Petry just days after the general election.

Looking ahead to a party congress this week in Hanover, Gauland said the AfD would focus on its platform rather than personnel.

“People don’t vote for the AfD because of specific people but out of protest at what is happening,” he said.

Gauland said he did not see the AfD as riding a global populist wave.

“Everyone always says, ‘Brexit and Trump, that will give you a big boost,’ but I don’t see it that way,” he said, pointing to the distinct national roots of each movement.

“I have always been skeptical of solidarity pacts with parties that are supposedly similar,”  including France’s National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party.

“An exception, though, is the FPOe,” Gauland added, citing “cultural” ties with the Austrian far-right party now in talks to join a ruling coalition.

Asked about a protest this week in which a group of activists secretly erected a replica of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial outside the home of AfD politician Bernd Hoecke, who has urged Germany to stop atoning for Nazi guilt, Gauland’s temper flared.

“It is absolutely outrageous and the fact that the press is not up in arms surprises and angers me a lot,” he said.

“But of course it will help [Hoecke] — that is absolutely clear.”

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Iran Warns It Would Increase Missile Range if Threatened by Europe

The deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned Europe that if it threatened Tehran, the Guards would increase the range of missiles to above 2,000 kilometers, the Fars news agency reported Saturday.

France has called for an “uncompromising” dialogue with Iran about its ballistic missile program and a possible negotiation over the issue separate from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran has repeatedly said its missile program is defensive and not negotiable.

“If we have kept the range of our missiles to 2,000 kilometers, it’s not due to lack of technology. … We are following a strategic doctrine,” Brigadier General Hossein Salami said, according to Fars.

“So far we have felt that Europe is not a threat, so we did not increase the range of our missiles. But if Europe wants to turn into a threat, we will increase the range of our missiles,” he added.

The United States accused Iran this month of supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels with a missile that was fired into Saudi Arabia in July and called for the United Nations to hold Tehran accountable for violating two U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Iran has denied supplying Houthis with missiles and weapons.

Range seen sufficient — for now

The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said last month that Iran’s 2,000-kilometer missile range could cover “most of American interests and forces” within the region, and Iran does not need to extend it.

Jafari said the ballistic missile range was based on the limits set by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the head of armed forces.

Iran has one of the Middle East’s largest missile programs, and some of its precision-guided missiles have the range to strike Israel.

The United States says Iran’s missile program is a breach of international law because the missiles could carry nuclear warheads in the future.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and says its nuclear program is for civilian uses only.

The United States has imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran, saying its missile tests violate a U.N. resolution that calls on Tehran not to undertake activities related to missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

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Trial of Turkish-Iranian Trader to Start Without Main Suspect

The politically fraught trial of a Turkish-Iranian businessman accused of running a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran gets underway next week but is widely expected to start without the main suspect: Reza Zarrab.

Zarrab is a 33-year-old multimillionaire of dual Iranian-Turkish citizenship with business interests in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and ties to the governments of Turkey and Iran.

He was arrested in Florida in March 2016 while on a family trip to Disney World and later moved to New York to face criminal charges of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions between 2010 and 2015 by laundering money through the U.S. financial system and bribing Turkish officials.

​US-Turkey relations

The impending trial has become a flashpoint in deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations.

Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan has personally lobbied the U.S. to release Zarrab, raising questions that Erdogan and other Turkish official are worried Zarrab could implicate them with bribery and corruption.

Meanwhile, the recent transfer of Zarrab from a federal detention center in New York to an undisclosed location has prompted speculation that he is cooperating with U.S. prosecutors, possibly on unrelated matters of interest to Turkey.

Zarrab is accused of using a network of front companies in Turkey and the UAE to disguise hundreds of millions of dollars of business transactions on behalf of the Iranian government and other Iranian entities.

One entity, Mahan Air, is charged with ferrying fighters to Syria. Among other things, Zarrab is accused of shipping gold to Iran in exchange for Iranian oil and natural gas in a scheme known as “gold for gas.”

To facilitate his scheme, Zarrab allegedly paid tens of millions of dollars to Turkish government officials and bank executives.

The sanctions, aimed at Iran’s access to U.S. financial institutions, were lifted after Iran struck a deal with the U.S. and other major world powers in 2015 to keep a peaceful nuclear program.

Eight other people, including Zarrab’s 39-year-old brother, Mohammad Zarrab, and a former minister of economy, Mehmet Zafer Caglayan, have been indicted on charges related to the scheme.

But only one other, Mehmet Atilla, a former deputy general manager of Halkbank, one of Turkey’s largest banks, has been arrested.

Their trial has been repeatedly postponed and is now scheduled to start Monday in New York with jury selection.

Allegations

In court filings, prosecutors have alleged that Zarrab has had a personal relationship with Erdogan and that Erdogan may have known of of Zarrab’s sanctions-busting scheme.

Erdogan is not accused of any wrongdoing, but he and other Turkish officials have slammed the case as a conspiracy against Turkey.

Erdogan has repeatedly pressed President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama to drop the case. In September, he said Trump told him that the “prosecution is out of his jurisdiction.”

Yet as Zarrab’s trial draws near, there are indications that Zarrab may be negotiating a deal with U.S. prosecutors.

For starters, his whereabouts remains a mystery.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website, Zarrab was “released” from the Metropolitan Correction Center, a federal detention center in New York, Nov. 8.

But the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, where Zarrab will be tried, says he remains in “federal custody.”

Nick Biase, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, confirmed Zarrab’s detention to VOA but declined to elaborate.

Indication he’s talking

Legal experts say Zarrab’s release from federal detention is an indication that he’s talking to prosecutors as part of a guilty plea deal.

“One cannot be sure, but the most likely explanation for the release of a detained defendant, in the absence of any formal release from detention, is that he is in the custody of the FBI,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor now a professor at Columbia University in New York. “This move rarely happens, but has occurred in extraordinary circumstances.”

Benjamin Brafman, Zarrab’s lead attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent weeks, Brafman and Zarrab’s other lawyers have not participated in key pretrial proceedings, such as providing questions for prospective jurors. That has fueled speculation that Zarrab may skip his own trial.

In an Oct. 30 court filing, Victor Rocco, an attorney for Atilla, Zarrab’s co-defendant, wrote that it appeared “likely that Mr. Atilla will be the only defendant appearing at trial.”

Eric Jaso, a former federal prosecutor now a partner at the Spiro Harrison law firm in Short Hills, New Jersey, said the absence of Zarrab’s lawyers from court proceedings could mean Zarrab is cooperating with the government.

Adding to the mystery, the federal judge overseeing the case dropped Zarrab’s name from the title of the case in an order issued Monday and replaced it with Atilla’s name.

The title change suggests Atilla will be the only defendant on trial Monday, Richman said.

“It is also consistent with Zarrab’s having already entered a guilty plea, although that is not necessarily the case,” Richman said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, whose office is prosecuting the case, gave no indication last week that his office has dropped the case against Zarrab.

“This case, our case, the prosecution that’s going on and we’ll start next week in the courthouse, was brought and will continue to be brought by career prosecutors, by career FBI agents and investigators,” Kim said at a press conference.

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Fire in Georgia Luxury Hotel Leaves 11 Dead

A fire at a luxury hotel in the Georgian Black Sea resort city of Batumi left 11 people dead and 21 others hurt, officials said Saturday. 

The fire erupted late Friday evening at the Leogrand Hotel and Casino where participants in the Miss Georgia 2017 beauty pageant were having dinner, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted the Georgian Interior Ministry as saying.  

All 20 participants escaped unhurt using a fire escape ladder, it said. At least 100 other guests and employees also escaped.  

Eleven people died and 21 were injured, the ministry reported. Those hurt included one Israeli and 12 Turkish nationals.

The cause of the fire was not immediately clear. 

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Pope’s Role as Champion of Refugees Faces Test in Myanmar

Pope Francis heads to Myanmar and Bangladesh with the international community excoriating Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing,” but his own church resisting the label and defending Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the only hope for democracy.

Francis will thus be walking a fraught diplomatic tightrope during the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 visit, which will include separate meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, the powerful head of Myanmar’s military as well as a small group of Rohingya once Francis arrives in neighboring Bangladesh.

Francis has defined his papacy by his frequent denunciations of injustices committed against refugees, and he would be expected to speak out strongly against the Rohingya plight. But he is also the guest of Myanmar’s government and must look out for the well-being of his own tiny flock, a minority of 659,000 Catholics in the majority Buddhist nation of 51 million.

‘Interesting diplomatically’

“Let’s just say it’s very interesting diplomatically,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke responded when asked if Francis’ 21st foreign trip would be his most difficult.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit commentator, was more direct: “I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,” Reese wrote recently on Religion News Service.

Reese argued that Francis’ legacy as an uncompromising champion of the oppressed will come up against the harsh reality of blowback for Myanmar’s minority Christians if he goes too far in defending the Rohingya against the military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine state.

“If he is prophetic, he puts Christians at risk,” Reese said. “If he is silent about the persecution of the Rohingya, he loses moral credibility.”

WATCH: Pope Francis Faces Diplomatic Challenges with Visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh

Term ‘Rohingya’ may be avoided

Francis isn’t known for his deference to protocol and he tends to call a spade a spade. But he has already been urged by the Catholic Church in Myanmar and his hand-picked cardinal, Charles Bo, to refrain from even using the term “Rohingya,” which is rejected by most in Myanmar.

“The pope clearly takes this advice seriously,” Burke said. “But we’ll see together.”

Francis has used the term “Rohingya” in the past, when he condemned the “persecution of our Rohingya brothers,” denounced their suffering and called for them to receive “full rights.”

Myanmar’s government and most of the Buddhist majority don’t recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, insisting they are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country. It has denied them citizenship, even though they have lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for generations.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Francis would likely call for a lasting solution for the Rakhine Muslims that takes into account “the importance for the people of having a nationality.” He declined in a Vatican Radio interview to use the term “Rohingya.”

Francis had originally intended his 2017 itinerary to involve a visit to India and Bangladesh. But preparations fell apart in India, and Myanmar was added in late, after Myanmar and the Holy See established diplomatic relations during a visit by Aung San Suu Kyi to Rome in May.

Since then, the situation on the ground has deteriorated badly, after Rohingya militants attacked security positions in poverty-wracked Rakhine in August. Myanmar security forces responded with a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages that the U.N., U.S. and human rights groups have labeled as textbook “ethnic cleansing.”

The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor of the AsiaNews news agency that closely covers the Catholic Church in Asia, said he expected Francis would use the visit to help shore up Aung San Suu Kyi, whose international stature has suffered as a result of the crisis even though she is limited constitutionally in what she can say or do against the military.

“The question of the Rohingya is a ‘casus belli’ to eliminate the government of Aung Sang Suu Kyi,” Cervellera said. “If we take away Aung San Suu Kyi, the military dictatorship returns, which means setting all the minorities on fire.”

Francis will host an interfaith peace meeting in the garden of the Dhaka archbishops’ residence, at which a small group of Rohingya are expected.

Other highlights of the trip include Francis’ meeting with Myanmar’s Buddhist monks and encounters with Catholic youth capping the visit in each country.

The youth encounters “demonstrate that it’s a young church with hope,” Burke said.

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London Subway Incident

London police found no casualties Friday after investigating reports of shots fired at a busy subway station. Police initially responded as if the incident were terror-related, but later said they “have not located any trace of any suspects, evidence of shots fired or casualties.”

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Pope Decries Fomenting Fear of Migrants for Political Gain

Pope Francis is decrying those whipping up fear of migrants for political gain, and is urging people to view global migration as a peace-building opportunity and not as a threat. 

The message was issued Friday by the Vatican, in preparation for the Catholic church’s annual World Peace Day, which it marks on Jan. 1.

Without citing any nation, Francis said many countries have seen “the spread of rhetoric decrying the risks posed to national security or the high cost of welcoming new arrivals” of migrants. 

He added that those who “for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia.”

Anti-migrant politics have been gaining influence in many places in Europe, including in the Vatican’s backyard in Italy.

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Texas Company Reports Selling Lethal Weapons to Ukraine

A U.S. company says it has been selling lethal weapons to Ukraine since last year, ahead of an expected decision by the Trump administration on whether to provide such weapons to Ukraine.

“We started delivering our product to Ukraine last year and we are continuing deliveries up until now,” said Richard Vandiver, Chief Operating Officer at the Texas company AirTronic, USA, in an interview with VOA’s Ukrainian service.

Vandiver said the sales have been limited to short-range defensive weapons, principally Precision Shoulder Fired Rocket launchers (PSRLs), which are a redesigned and updated version of the widely deployed Soviet RPG-7 anti-tank weapon. Ukraine is engaged in a struggle against Russian-trained and funded separatists in its eastern region and fears an armored assault.

“The ability to stop armored vehicles is essential for Ukraine to protect itself,” said General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 26.

Vandiver told VOA the PSRL should be considered a defensive weapon because of its limited range.

“Obviously, PSRL is a lethal system, but it’s a defensive lethal system,” Vandiver said. “The RPG-7 has the effective range of under a thousand meters.

“As long as the weapon system stays [in government-controlled territory], it’s not an offensive weapon, but if armor starts to cross the river than I would assume that the Ukrainian defense forces would employ our systems to stop the armor.”

The U.S. Congress has approved $350 million in security aid for Ukraine in its most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including $47 million for defensive lethal weapons. The act awaits final approval in the House of Representatives before going to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Trump is reported to be considering a recommendation received from his National Security Council this week to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine. The weapon considered most likely to be included is the shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile, which features a sophisticated self-guidance system and a range more than four times greater than the PSRL.

‘De facto embargo’

Any sales of lethal weaponry to Ukraine marks a reversal of a non-binding policy implemented under the administration of former president Barack Obama.

“In the formal sense, there is no embargo on Ukraine, but you could say that there is a de facto embargo,” said Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. “Formally speaking, [Obama] did not make a decision on sending weapons to Ukraine, so de facto that became an embargo.”

Any such U.S. military sales must be licensed by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, which says it is restricted under federal regulations from commenting on commercial sales export licensing activity.

However, the department issues a list of defense articles and services that have been authorized as direct commercial sales each year. The most recent list shows that more than $26.9 million in military sales to Ukraine were authorized in 2016, with more than $17.6 million of that having been shipped.

More than $5 million of the authorized sales comprised lethal weaponry, mainly comprising firearms and ammunition. The report does not show how much of that was actually shipped.

AirTronic, US coordination

Vandiver declined to discuss exact details of the AirTronic supply contract with Ukraine, but he emphasized that the activities are conducted in “very close coordination with the U.S. Embassy, with the U.S. State Department, with the U.S. Pentagon and with the Ukrainian government.”

“It took quite a bit for us to secure authorizations that we needed, because of the sensitivity of the issue under Minsk II,” Vandiver said, adding that the lethal system is not banned by the agreement. The Minsk II agreement — brokered by Germany and France in negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko in February of 2015 — was aimed at limiting the fighting in the East of Ukraine, but has had only limited success. 

“We are very familiar with the accords that were reached in Europe under the treaties … and we abide by those,” he said. He added that AirTronic obtained an export license for the sale, “following the same application process as any defense contractor would follow.”

The Ukrainian government hopes to expand its purchases of lethal weapons from the U.S. substantially, and attaches great hope to the possibility that the White House will approve financial assistance for those purchases.

The $47 million in possible lethal aid for Ukraine included in the NDAA would allow Kyiv to obtain more powerful defensive weapons, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Valery Chaly told VOA.

“We hope that the bill [NDAA], which has been already approved by Congress, will be signed by President Trump. This would allow to unlock about $50 million in lethal defense assistance for Ukraine. The decision is with the U.S. president and then we will be talking about more powerful weapons,” Chaly said.

During his visit to Ukraine in August this year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis rejected any suggestion that the provision of such weapons may be considered provocative by Russia. “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it is their own territory where the fighting is happening,” Mattis said.

Still, some analysts doubt that the Trump administration is willing to abandon the self-imposed restriction on lethal arms sales to Ukraine.

“I remain a pessimist on this,” said Carpenter, director of the Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania. However, he said, “I’ve long supported providing defensive arms to Ukraine. I think this is the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do and also the strategic thing to do for the United States, because it would deter further Russia aggression.”

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Pope Prays for ‘Seeds of Peace’ for South Sudan, DRC

Pope Francis on Thursday evening led a special prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica for peace in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Earlier this year, he said he was studying the possibility of going to South Sudan, which has been beset by famine and civil war. But he told the faithful during the service that that wasn’t possible.

Francis said that “with prayer we want to sow seeds of peace” in South Sudan and Congo. He called for courageous peace efforts through dialogue and negotiations.

Peace talks are aimed at finding a resolution to South Sudan’s civil war, which has lasted nearly four years.

In DRC, tensions over the continued tenure of President Joseph Kabila, whose official mandate ended in December 2016, have fueled deadly demonstrations. An election official recently said the presidential vote wouldn’t be held until late 2018.

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