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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