New Year Celebrations around the World

New Zealand, Australia, and surrounding Pacific Islands were among the first places to ring in 2018 with fireworks displays, parties, and other festivities. Nearly 1.5 million people gathered to watch a rainbow fireworks display above Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge and opera house.

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Fugitive Catalonian Leader Seeks Talks With Spain

Catalonia’s fugitive former president has called for Spanish authorities to open negotiations regarding the restitution of what he calls his “legitimate government.”

Carles Puigdemont said via social media channels from Brussels on Saturday that Spain should “recognize the election results of Dec. 21 and start negotiating politically with the legitimate government of Catalonia.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy deposed Puigdemont and his Cabinet after Catalonia’s regional parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence from the rest of the country in October.

But pro-secession parties, including one led by Puigdemont, won the most seats in elections last week.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid a judicial investigation into suspicions of rebellion by him and his government. He did not say Saturday if he plans to return to Spain, where an arrest warrants awaits him.

Rajoy said Friday that he plans to convene Catalonia’s newly elected parliament Jan. 17.

In-house rules of Catalonia’s parliament require that a candidate to form a government be present.

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Polish Climbers Attempt Record Winter Ascent of K2

A group of Polish mountaineers set off for northern Pakistan on Sunday to attempt to be the first to scale K2, the world’s second highest peak, in wintertime.

K2, in the Karakorum mountains along the border between China and Pakistan, is notorious for high winds, steep and icy slopes — and high fatality rates for climbers. In winter months, scant snowfall means the summit approach can turn into bare ice.

More than 70 people have died climbing the peak, many of them at the Bottleneck, where a wrong step can send a climber hurtling off the South Face, where bodies are unlikely to be recovered.

Team member Adam Bielecki, 34, told Reuters that the chance to make history is a “strong motivation” for the Polish group.

Polish climbers have written a “beautiful chapter” of exploring peaks of more than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), and scaling K2 in winter would “the last chapter of this book.”

The Polish team includes 13 mountaineers led by Krzysztof Wielicki, 67, who in 2003 headed a winter expedition of K2 that was unable to clear the 8,000 meter threshold.

K2, slightly shorter than Mount Everest, is 8,611 meters (28,251 feet) high.

Wielicki told Reuters that his team would begin their ascent on Jan. 8 or 9 and, if successful, expect to return to base camp by mid-March.

Pakistan is a hot destination for climbers. It rivals Nepal for the number of peaks higher 7,000 meters (22,966 feet) and it has five of the world’s 14 summits higher than 8,000 meters.

Bielecki said the group expects to be away from home for around three months.

“If you ask me what’s the hardest part of the expedition or what I fear the most, it’s actually the separation from my family,” he said.

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Turkey Rages After Coup ‘Plotter’ Is Granted Asylum in Greece

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on Saturday slammed a decision in Greece to grant asylum to a Turkish helicopter co-pilot, who fled the country after last year’s failed coup, as “politically motivated” and warned of a negative impact on bilateral relations.

The co-pilot — who flew seven other Turkish military officers to Greece — was granted asylum after Greek authorities ruled that his human rights would be at risk, despite repeated requests for his extradition by Ankara.

The decision “again reveals that Greece is a country that protects and embraces plotters,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the ruling was “politically motivated.”

“Greece has not shown the support and cooperation we expect from an ally in the fight against terrorism,” the statement added.

The ruling is an embarrassment to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who asked for the officers to be extradited during a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in December, as part of the first official visit to Athens by a Turkish president in 65 years.

Late Saturday evening, Tsipras tried to contain any fallout from the asylum ruling by calling for the decision to be annulled.

“The Greek government filed on Saturday a request for annulment of the asylum decision taken the day before by the asylum authority,” the office of the Greek prime minister said.

Co-pilot’s denial

The co-pilot, who landed in the Greek city of Alexandroupoli hours after the putsch was defeated on July 15, 2016, had denied being part of the coup attempt.

Despite Turkey’s assertions, the asylum judges said there was no evidence to suggest the co-pilot had participated in a plot to unseat Erdogan.

According a judicial source, the ruling took into account reports from human rights groups and the Council of Europe that warned Turkey has regularly committed human rights abuses against coup suspects.

A ruling on the seven other military officers is expected to be made in the coming weeks.

In January, the Greek Supreme Court blocked the extradition of the officers, saying that they would not have a fair trial in Turkey.

More than 140,000 people, including judges, lawyers, journalists and academics, have been sacked or suspended in Turkey since the failed coup, while 55,000 people have been arrested over suspected links to U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey claims Gulen ordered the attempted coup, something he denies.

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World Cities on Alert Ahead of New Year’s Eve Festivities

Hundreds of thousands of law enforcement, military and security officials will be deployed in cities around the world to keep New Year’s Eve revelers safe as they gather to welcome 2018.

In the United States, New York City officials announced they would use two-step screening, snipers, street closures and specially trained dogs to secure Times Square, where an estimated 2 million people will gather to watch the annual ball drop at midnight.

In Las Vegas, 300 National Guard troops will join more than 1,500 police officers to keep safe the city’s famed Strip, home to a number of casinos, resorts and hotels. The security precautions to protect the expected crowd of more than 300,000 will include snipers positioned on rooftops and double the number of emergency response teams from previous years.

In South America, Rio de Janeiro police plan a security force of 12,000, nearly 20 percent more officers than last year, for New Year’s events. Military police say they are suspending vacations for security personnel to ensure there are enough police officers on duty.

​Patrols in London

In London, a record number of armed officers and canine units will patrol celebrations and the city’s Underground subway system, although Metropolitan Police said they had received no specific threat. Steel and concrete barricades will ring main events that will be attended by an estimated 500,000 people, police said.

In Germany, all major cities, including Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Cologne, announced there would be enhanced police presence at all celebrations. They declined to reveal details.

In Africa, after at least nine people were killed Friday outside a church in suburban Cairo by a gunman on a motorcycle, Egyptian authorities have beefed up security for New Year’s Eve and Orthodox Christmas.

In an attempt to prevent further terrorist attacks, the Interior Ministry has raised the security alert to the maximum level throughout the country. The ministry has ordered heightened security near vital institutions such as churches and embassies.

More security patrols will be deployed to streets, squares and other areas where celebrations will be held.

In Istanbul, police have arrested 120 people with suspected links to Islamic State militants ahead of the New Year’s celebrations. The city also plans to more than double the number of police officers on the streets to prevent a repeat of last year, when a man armed with an assault rifle killed 39 Turks and foreigners at a nightclub. Police have also canceled some public celebrations in key districts of Turkey’s largest city.

​Preparations in India

In India, more than 30,000 security personnel will guard the popular gathering sites across Mumbai. In the southern tech hub of Bengaluru, officials plan to deploy more than 15,000 officers, as well as use drones, security cameras and canine units. A 500-member, all-female police squad will also be deployed to ensure there is no repeat of last year, when several women were harassed and molested in the streets by male revelers.

In Australia, one of the first places to ring in the new year, security officials are guarding against any kind of terror attack on New Year’s Eve. Officials said police officers would be out in force on the ground, in the air and on the sea as part of the largest security operation in the country.

More than 1 million people are expected to gather in the center of Sydney and at least half that number in Melbourne to watch fireworks displays. Police said Melbourne’s city center would be on lockdown and remain closed until 6 a.m. New Year’s Day to protect the crowd.

Police in Melbourne last month arrested a man for allegedly planning to shoot revelers on New Year’s Eve.

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Media Group: 81 Reporters Died, Threats Soared in 2017

At least 81 reporters were killed doing their jobs this year, while violence and harassment against media staff has skyrocketed, the world’s biggest journalists’ organization says.

 

In its annual “Kill Report,” seen by The Associated Press, the International Federation of Journalists said the reporters lost their lives in targeted killings, car bomb attacks and crossfire incidents around the world.

 

More than 250 journalists were in prison in 2017.

 

The number of deaths as of December 29 was the lowest in a decade, down from 93 in 2016. The largest number were killed in Mexico, but many also died in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

 

The IFJ suspected but could not officially confirm that at least one other journalist was killed Thursday in an attack by an Islamic State suicide bomber on a Shiite cultural center in Kabul, in which at least 41 people died.

 

IFJ President Philippe Leruth said that while the drop in deaths “represents a downward trend, the levels of violence in journalism remain unacceptably high.”

He said the IFJ finds it “most disturbing that this decrease cannot be linked to any measure by governments to tackle the impunity for these crimes.”

 

Eight women journalists were killed, two in European democracies – Kim Wall in Denmark, who died on the submarine of an inventor she was writing about, and Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was blown up by a bomb placed in her car.

 

Beyond the deaths, the IFJ warned that “unprecedented numbers of journalists were jailed, forced to flee, that self-censorship was widespread and that impunity for the killings, harassment, attacks and threats against independent journalism was running at epidemic levels.”

 

Turkey, where official pressure on the media has been ramped up since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, is becoming notorious for putting reporters behind bars. Some 160 journalists are jailed in Turkey –  two-thirds of the global total – the report said.

The organization also expressed concern about India, the world’s largest democracy, where it said that attacks on journalists are being motivated by violent populism.

 

Countries with the highest numbers of media killings:

 

Mexico: 13

 

Afghanistan: 11

 

Iraq: 11

 

Syria: 10

 

India: 6

 

Philippines: 4

 

Pakistan: 4

 

Nigeria: 3

 

Somalia: 3

 

Honduras: 3

 

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U.S. Urging Kosovo Leaders Not to Abolish War Crimes Court

The U.S. is urging Kosovo leaders to leave unchanged a war crimes court established to hear serious cases arising from the country’s war for independence.

“The United States is deeply concerned by recent attempts of Kosovo lawmakers to abrogate the law on the Specialist Chambers,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Friday. “We call on political leaders in the Republic of Kosovo to maintain their commitment to the work of the Chambers and to leave the authorities and jurisdiction of the court unchanged.”

The U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on December 21 that “the pursuit of justice in the Balkans is not over,” and the U.S. “remains committed to supporting justice for the victims,” the statement said.

The Kosovo political leaders enacted the law and constitutional amendment in 2015 to establish the Specialist Chambers, a court that would hear cases of alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious crimes committed during the 1998-2000 conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Last week, however, lawmakers from the governing coalition, who hold a majority, pressed for a vote to abolish the court, but they failed twice because of opposition from other parties.

The U.S. and other Western countries swiftly condemned the move, warning that if successful, it would hamper efforts for Euro-Atlantic integration.

The U.S. has been a key ally and financial backer of Kosovo since it broke away from Serbia and declared independence in 2008.

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Militants Say IS-linked Group Carried Out Russian Market Attack

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a bomb attack earlier this week in a Russian supermarket in St. Petersburg. 

The militants said the explosion was carried out by an Islamic State-linked group, according to a statement made Friday by its Amaq news agency. 

The group did not provide any evidence for its claim. 

At least 13 people were injured when a homemade bomb detonated in a branch of the Perekrestok supermarket chain on Wednesday. 

Health officials said none of the victims suffered life-threatening injuries.

Russian investigators initially said they were treating the case as an act of attempted murder.

However, on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the explosion was an act of terrorism. He made the assertion at the Kremlin during an awards ceremony for Russian servicemen who had served in Syria.

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Russia Reports Virulent H5N2 Bird Flu at 660,000-bird Farm

Russia has reported an outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 bird flu on a farm in the central region of Kostromskaya Oblast that led to the deaths of more than 660,000 birds, the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said Friday.

The virus killed more than 44,000 birds in an outbreak first detected on December 17, the OIE said, citing a report from the Russian Ministry of Agriculture.

The rest of the 663,500 birds on the farm were slaughtered, it said in the report. It did not specify the type of birds that were infected.

It is the first outbreak of the H5N2 strain in Russia this year, but the country has been facing regular outbreaks of H5N8 since early December last year, with the last one reported to the OIE detected late November.

Bird flu has led to the deaths or culling of more than 2.6 million birds on farms between December last year and November this year, a report posted on the OIE website showed.

Neither the H5N2 or H5N8 strains has been found in humans.

The virulence of highly pathogenic bird flu viruses has prompted countries to bar poultry imports from infected countries in earlier outbreaks.

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Unknown Assailants Brutally Beat Russian Environmentalist

Members of a Russian environmental group say masked men attacked their leader in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar late Thursday.

Andrei Rudomakha, head of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, was hospitalized with multiple injuries including a fractured skull and broken nose.

Rudomakha and several other activists were returning from a trip to Russia’s Black Sea region, where they had documented the illegal construction of a luxury mansion.

Local authorities said they are investigating the incident.

For more than 20 years, Environmental Watch has exposed illegal landfills, the destruction of landscapes and the contamination of waterways in Russia’s south –  the Krasnodar, Stavropol, Rostov, Adygea, Karachayevo-Cherkesia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Some of the group’s investigations have exposed land grabs by Russian local officials.

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Facebook: Kadyrov’s Accounts Blocked Because of US Sanctions

Facebook says it blocked the social-media accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov because the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader had become subject to financial and travel sanctions imposed by the U.S. government.

The company said in a statement Thursday it had the “legal obligation” to disable Kadyrov’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which it also owns, after the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on December 20 hit the Chechen leader with sanctions.

“We became aware and have now confirmed that the accounts appear to be maintained by or on behalf of parties who appear on the U.S. Specially Designated Nationals List and, thus, subject to U.S. trade sanctions,” the statement said.

“For this reason, Facebook has a legal obligation to disable these accounts,” it added.

It was not immediately clear if the social-media network was in the process of disabling accounts of others on the sanction lists.

Facebook declined requests from RFE/RL for further information.

The Treasury’s announcement of the sanctions against Kadyrov are part of ongoing U.S. efforts to punish alleged human rights abusers in connection with the Magnitsky Act. In the announcement, the Treasury Department accused the former rebel fighter who later joined forces with Moscow of “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” torture, and “extrajudicial killings.”

Kadyrov, who has denied the allegations, is one of the most prominent Russian officials to be added to the sanctions list under the Magnitsky Act. 

The law enraged Russian officials, who retaliated in 2013 with a sweeping ban on U.S. citizens adopting Russian children.

Reaction by Kadyrov

Kadyrov reacted with anger to Facebook’s move, accusing the U.S.-headquartered social-media network of bowing to pressure from Washington by blocking his pages, a move he said he discovered on December 23.

He said he received no response from Instagram after sending a request for service support because his Russian-language accounts stopped working. His English-language Instagram account was unaffected at first, but later it was also unavailable. 

Russia’s telecommunications supervisory authority, Roskomnadzor, demanded an explanation from Facebook and Instagram for the disabling of Kadyrov’s accounts.

“On December 26, Roskomnadzor sent a request to Facebook management, asking to clarify reasons for blocking Ramzan Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts,” Roskomnadzor’s press service said in a statement. 

Kadyrov had more than 3 million followers on his Russian-language Instagram account and more than 750,000 on Facebook.

One of his last Instagram postings before the page went down was a video recording in which he responded to the fresh U.S. sanctions by saying he had no current reason to travel to the United States.

“I can be proud that I’m out of favor with the special services of the USA,” he wrote. “In fact, the USA cannot forgive me for dedicating my whole life to the fight against foreign terrorists among which there are bastards of America’s special services.”

Alleged abuses

Human rights groups say Kadyrov has used threats and abuses to maintain control over Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars and years of insurgent violence stemming from the conflicts since Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed him to head the region in 2007.

The U.S. sanctions law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested after blowing the whistle on what he said was the theft of $230 million from Russian state coffers through tax fraud.

He died in jail in December 2009, reportedly after physical abuse and denial of medical care. A Council of Europe investigation concluded the conditions leading up to his death amounted to torture.

 

Facebook and other social-media networks have come under pressure from U.S. lawmakers over what they have called a failure to prevent alleged abuses of their networks by Russian operatives during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

U.S. lawmakers in November released a batch of Facebook ads they said were purchased by the company in a surreptitious effort to stir up emotions on sensitive social issues like gun control, race relations, immigration and religion.

Facebook responded saying it is creating a portal enabling users to learn whether they liked or followed pages or accounts linked to a shadowy Russian company that U.S. officials accuse of trying to influence the election with the socially divisive posts.

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DOJ Charges 2 Romanians With Hacking of DC Police Surveillance Cameras

The Justice Department on Thursday unsealed details of its case against two Romanians who allegedly hacked computers tied to Washington, D.C., police surveillance cameras.

Police in Bucharest arrested Mihai Alexandru Isvanca and Eveline Cismaru on December 15. U.S. attorneys have charged them with conspiracy to commit computer and wire fraud.

They allegedly hacked into more than 120 computers tied to Washington police surveillance cameras last January. It was part of an alleged scheme to infect personal computers with ransomware.

Ransomware restricts users from accessing their own computers and demands a payment to the ramsomware operator to unlock it.

The Justice Department said the investigation was of the highest priority because the alleged hacking of the surveillance camera computers came just weeks before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.

However, it says there is no evidence anyone’s personal security was threatened or harmed.

If tried in the U.S. and convicted, the Romanian defendants could face up to 20 years in prison.

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