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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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Egypt, Sudan Relations at a new Low Over Erdogan’s Visit

Egypt’s pro-government media on Thursday vilified neighboring Sudan over its expanding ties with Turkey and Qatar, saying the three are conspiring against Egypt.

While the government has publicly remained silent, Egyptian media seized on a visit to Sudan earlier this week by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a meeting in Khartoum between the chiefs of staff of Sudan, Turkey and Qatar, and renewed efforts by Khartoum to revive a longtime border dispute with Egypt.

Most views expressed in Egypt’s media reflect the thinking of the government or at least one of its key institutions. The criticism of Sudan and its longtime ruler Omar Bashir included personal insults and questioning the country’s statehood.

Tensions between Egypt and Sudan, which are bound by the Nile River and historic ties, often play out in the media, with the two governments keeping their distance.

The latest row could deepen a rift between Egypt and Sudan over a massive dam being built by Ethiopia that Cairo views as a threat to its share of the Nile, which provides nearly all of Egypt’s water. Negotiations over the dam are at an impasse, with Sudan appearing to tilt toward Ethiopia in the dispute.

The spat could also add to regional tensions. Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in its blockade of Qatar earlier this year, and has long been at odds with both Turkey and Qatar over their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional Islamist movement that is now outlawed in Egypt.

“Sudanese President Omar Bashir is playing with fire in exchange for dollars,” wrote columnist Emad Adeeb in the Cairo daily Al-Watan, alluding to what he said was Bashir’s attempt to gain from regional rivalries.

“Sudan is violating the rules of history and geography and is conspiring against Egypt under the shadow of Turkish madness, Iranian conspiracy, an Ethiopian scheme to starve Egypt of water and Qatar’s financing of efforts to undermine Egypt,” wrote Adeeb, whose column was headlined: “Omar Bashir’s political suicide.”

Of particular concern to Egypt, according to commentaries and news reports, is Sudan’s burgeoning military ties with Turkey, including a joint naval facility on the Red Sea to repair civilian and military vessels that was announced by Bashir and the Turkish leader this week in Khartoum.

Sudan, which is in the grips of an economic crisis, complained this month to the United Nations that a maritime demarcation agreement reached in 2016 by Egypt and Saudi Arabia infringed on what it claimed to be Sudanese waters off an Egyptian-held border region it claims as its own. Egypt denies the Sudanese claim.

Egyptian media, meanwhile, insist that Bashir has ceded to Turkey sovereignty over Suakin, a small but strategic island off Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Erdogan has denied his country is constructing a naval base there, saying Turkey only plans to restore Ottoman-era ruins in the area.

Emad Hussein, editor of Cairo’s Al-Shorouk daily, wrote Thursday that Erdogan’s visit to Sudan, the first by a Turkish head of state, “cannot be viewed … except as harassment of Egypt and an attempt to annoy it by any means possible.”

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US to Resume Full Visa Services in Turkey

The United States announced Thursday that full visa services for Turkish citizens wishing to travel to the U.S. will resume and said it received assurances Ankara would inform Washington before moving to detain or arrest any embassy employees.


Turkey welcomed the decision on visas, but said that it had not provided the U.S. any such assurances.

The U.S. suspended all non-immigrant visa services in Turkey earlier this year, in response to the arrest of Metin Topuz, a consulate employee in Istanbul, on terrorism charges. Turkey shut down visa services in the U.S. in retaliation.

In a statement released Thursday, the State Department said that since October, Turkey had adhered to promises that no local employees of the embassy were being investigated, that no employees would be detained for “performing their official duties”, and that the government of Turkey would consult with the U.S. before detaining or arresting local staff in the future.

“Based on adherence to these assurances, the Department of State is confident that the security posture has improved sufficiently to allow for the full resumption of visa services in Turkey,” the statement read.

Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. Serdar Kilic said his country plans to do the same for U.S. citizens seeking visas to Turkey.  The Turkish statement, however, denied that Ankara gave any assurances to the U.S. regarding potential detentions and arrests of embassy employees.

“In terms of assurances mentioned in U.S. statement, we would like to reiterate that there is rule of law in Turkey and our government did not give any assurances related to ongoing cases, and no local mission employee is under legal investigation regarding to their official duties,” his statement read. “Even though we have drawn attention to the matter, we do not approve United States informing Turkish and American public falsely by alleging that Turkey have given them assurances”

The two nations resumed limited visa services in early November, around the time of a visit to Washington by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, but the U.S. Embassy in Ankara announced last week that the earliest appointments for applications are in January 2019, more than a year from now.

Nike Ching contributed to this report from the State Department, and VOA Turkish.


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Moscow Holds Christmas Festival

Moscow is having a “Journey to Christmas” festival from December 22 to January 14 with decorations, including over 1,000 New Year’s trees, and holiday festivities throughout the Russian capital.  VOA Moscow attended the opening of the festival in central Moscow and spoke to locals about their holiday hopes and wishes for 2018.

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Russia: Shipments of S-400 Missiles to Turkey Likely to Begin in 2020

Russia is planning to begin shipments of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey in March 2020, a senior official says of a deal that has raised eyebrows because Turkey is a NATO member.

Sergei Chemezov, head of the Russian state conglomerate Rostec, told the newspaper Kommersant in an interview published on Wednesday that the $2.5 billion deal will consist of four batteries of S-400 missiles.

“They are paying 45 percent of the total contract amount as an advance. Fifty-five percent is Russian credit,” Chemezov told Kommersant.

Turkey’s move to acquire the S-400s has been regarded in some Western capitals as a snub to the NATO alliance amid tensions with Russia over its role in the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

The S-400 deal, first announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in September, has also caused concern because the Russian-made weapons cannot be integrated into the alliance’s defenses.

Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said Wednesday that the deal for the missiles had been finalized.

Russia and Turkey support opposing sides in the Syrian war, but Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin patched up their relationship after it was badly damaged when Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015.

The missiles have a maximum range of 400 kilometers and are capable of reaching targets at a maximum altitude of 30 kilometers.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Moscow also expected to sign a deal with India soon on the delivery of S-400s.

Russian officials have also said that Russia and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia are close to signing a deal on supplying the S-400 systems to Riyadh.

This article contains some material from Kommersant, Reuters, dpa, TASS and Yenisafak.

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1 Killed, 12 Injured in Iceland Tour Bus Crash

A bus carrying Chinese tourists has skidded off the road in Iceland, killing one and injuring 12 others.

Iceland police said the crash occurred after the bus rear-ended a car near the Eldhraun lava field, about 250 kilometers east of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. The driver and a passenger in the car were not hurt.

Many of the injured were transported to a Reykjavik hospital by helicopters and a relief station was set up for the other passengers in nearby Kirkjubaejarklaustur village.

The owner of the tour company, Fjalar Ulfarsson, said the group was on the fourth day of a weeklong visit to Iceland when the accident happened.

“The road there is narrow and had some icing, from what I gather,” Ulfarsson told The Associated Press.

Iceland is a popular tourist destination that attracted a record number of 1.8 million visitors in 2016.

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Airbus Reportedly Ready to Ax A380 If It Fails to Win Emirates Deal 

Airbus is drawing up contingency plans to phase out production of the world’s largest jetliner, the A380 superjumbo, if it fails to win a key order from Dubai’s Emirates, three people familiar with the matter said.

The moment of truth for the slow-selling airliner looms after just 10 years in service and leaves one of Europe’s most visible international symbols hanging by a thread, despite a major airline investment in new cabins unveiled this month.

“If there is no Emirates deal, Airbus will start the process of ending A380 production,” a person briefed on the plans said.

A supplier added such a move was logical due to weak demand. Airbus and Emirates declined to comment. Airbus also declined to say how many people work on the project.

Gradual shutdown?

Any shutdown is expected to be gradual, allowing Airbus to produce orders it has in hand, mainly from Emirates. It has enough orders to last until early next decade at current production rates, according to a Reuters analysis.

The A380 was developed at a cost of 11 billion euros to carry some 500 people and challenge the reign of the Boeing 747. But demand for these four-engined goliaths has fallen as airlines choose smaller twin-engined models, which are easier to fill and cheaper to maintain.

Emirates, however, has been a strong believer in the A380 and is easily the largest customer with total orders of 142 aircraft, of which it has taken just over 100.

Talks between Airbus and Emirates over a new order for 36 superjumbos worth $16 billion broke down at the Dubai Airshow last month. Negotiations are said to have resumed, but there are no visible signs that a deal is imminent.

British Airways interested

Although airlines such as British Airways have expressed interest in the A380, Airbus is reluctant to keep factories open without the certainty that a bulk Emirates order would provide.

Emirates, for its part, wants a guarantee that Airbus will keep production going for a decade to protect its investment.

A decision to cancel would mark a rupture between Airbus and one of its largest customers and tie Emirates’ future growth to recent Boeing orders.

European sources say that reflects growing American influence in the Gulf under President Donald Trump, but U.S. and UAE industry sources deny politics are involved. There are also potential hurdles to a deal over engine choices and after-sales support.

Safety net

Yet if talks succeed, European sources say there is a glimmer of hope for the double-deck jet, which Airbus says will become more popular with airlines due to congestion.

Singapore Airlines, which first introduced the A380 to passengers in 2007, showcased an $850 million cabin re-design this month and expressed confidence in the model’s future.

Airbus hopes to use an Emirates order to stabilize output and establish a safety net from which to attract A380 sales to other carriers, but has ruled out trying to do this the other way round, industry sources said.

As of the end of November, Airbus had won orders for 317 A380s and delivered 221, leaving 96 unfilled orders. But based on airlines’ intentions or finances, 47 of those are unlikely to be delivered, according to industry sources, which halves the number of jets in play.

30 orders needed

Airbus needs to sell at least another 30 to keep lines open for 10 years and possibly more to justify the price concessions likely to be demanded by any new buyers.

To bridge the gap, Airbus plans to cut output to six a year beyond 2019, from 12 in 2018 and 8 in 2019, even if it means producing at a loss, Reuters recently reported.

Chief Operating Officer Fabrice Bregier confirmed this month Airbus was looking at cutting output to 6-7 a year.

If Airbus does decide to wind down production, some believe Emirates will ask Airbus to deliver the remaining 41 it has on order and then keep most A380s in service as long as possible. Even so, some A380s are likely to be heading for scrap.

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Europe Rides Crises, Regains Confidence In 2017, But Big Challenges Ahead

After lurching from one crisis to the next over the past 10 years, the European Union has survived a series of seemingly existential threats – and its leaders claim the bloc is ascendant.

Economic growth in the Eurozone is forecast to be higher than in the United States and Britain, while the migrant influx appears to be easing. But analysts warn that the underlying problems haven’t been solved – and the EU can’t afford to get complacent.

From the 2008 euro debt crisis that nearly bankrupted several European states, to the chaotic arrival of millions of migrants fleeing war and poverty, plus the 2016 Britain’s vote the leave the EU, the European Union has survived a decade of crises.

But in 2017, its leaders claimed Europe is back in business. In his September State of the Union speech, the EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker captured the mood.

“The wind is back in Europe’s sails. We have now a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever,” Juncker said.

As Emmanuel Macron stepped out to give a victory speech in front of Paris’ Louvre gallery in May, he was seen by many as Europe’s savior. Macron won the presidency on an explicitly pro-European ticket, defeating the anti-EU National Front under Marine Le Pen.

Supporters credit Macron with halting the seemingly unstoppable right-wing, populist surge in Europe. But analyst Leopold Traugott of policy group Open Europe says those forces cannot be written off.

“Yes, Macron was elected a pro-European candidate, but in the end mostly because for many voters, he was the lesser evil compared to Marine Le Pen in the second round.”

President Macron even voiced hope in a September speech on Europe’s future that Britain might be lured back into a reformed EU.

Macron said that “In a union refocused on its unwavering values and an efficient market, in a few years, if it wants, the United Kingdom could find its place.”

But Europe should not get complacent, argued analyst Traugott.

“On the one hand the migration crisis is continuing, people are still coming in, and there is no system in place yet that can solve the issue in a sustainable manner, because member states are simply unwilling to agree to it. And on the Eurozone, it currently doesn’t have the necessary stable framework that is needed to keep the union working,” Traugott said. 

Europe will enter 2018 in a far more confident mood than a year ago – with the Eurozone growing, migrant numbers falling and pro-EU leaders in charge.

But from Germany’s struggles to form a new government, to the threat of a so-called hard Brexit, and Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain – there is no shortage of potential challenges ahead.

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Homelessness to Digital IDs: Five Property Rights Hotspots in 2018

The global fight over land and resources is getting increasingly bloody and the race for control of valuable assets is expanding from forests and indigenous territories to the seas, space and databanks.

Here are five hotspots for property rights in 2018:

1. Rising violence: From Peru to the Philippines, land rights defenders are under increasing threat of harassment and attack from governments and corporations.

At least 208 people have been killed so far this year defending their homes, lands and forests from mining, dams and agricultural projects, advocacy group Frontline Defenders says.

The tally has exceeded that of 2016, which was already the deadliest year on record, and “it is likely that we will see numbers continue to rise”, a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

2. Demand for affordable housing: Governments are under increasing pressure to recognize the right to housing, as Smart Cities projects and rapid gentrification push more people on to the streets, from Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro.

India has committed to providing Housing for All by 2022, while Canada’s recognition of housing as a fundamental right could help eliminate homelessness in the country.

“We need our governments to respond to this crisis and recognize that homelessness is a matter of life and death and dignity,” said Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing.

3. Takeover of public lands: From the shrinking of wilderness national monuments in Utah to the felling of rainforests for palm plantations in Indonesia, public lands risk being rescinded or resized by governments in favor of business interests.

Governments are also likely to be hit by more lawsuits from indigenous communities fighting to protect their lands, as well as the environment.

4. Fight over space and sea: A race to explore and extract resources from the moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies is underway, with China, Luxembourg, the United States and others vying for materials ranging from ice to precious metals.

The latest space race targets a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Expect more debate over the 50-year-old U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which declares “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”

On Earth, the fight over the seas is intensifying, particularly in the Arctic. Melting ice caps have triggered a fierce contest between energy companies in the United States, Russia, Canada, and Norway over drilling rights.

5. Debate over data: As more countries move towards digital citizen IDs, there are growing concerns about privacy and safety of the data, the ethics of biometrics, and the misuse of data for profiling or increased surveillance.

Campaigners are pushing for “informational privacy” to be part of the right to privacy, and for governments to treat the right to data as an inalienable right, like the right to dignity.

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Romanian Ruling Lawmakers Propose Looser Anti-graft Rules

Romania’s ruling Social Democrats have filed a slew of new changes to the criminal code that would decriminalize several graft offenses, including some abuse of office crimes, their second attempt this year to weaken a crackdown on corruption.

Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the European Union’s most corrupt states and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring, although it has praised magistrates for their efforts to root out high-level graft.

A draft bill released on Tuesday showed a group of Social Democrat lawmakers are proposing that abuse of office offenses that cause financial damage of less than 200,000 euros ($237,100) should no longer be punishable.

Other changes include serving prison sentences of less than three years at home, lower sentences for bribe taking and other graft crimes, as well as decriminalizing taking a bribe for someone other than the accused. Another proposal would make using one’s position to obtain sexual favours no longer a crime.

Changes could end trial

If approved, the changes would put an end to an ongoing trial of Social Democrat Party leader and lower house speaker Liviu Dragnea, who is accused of abuse of office.

Dozens of lawmakers and mayors across all parties stand to benefit from the changes. Romania’s anti-corruption prosecution unit has sent 72 members of parliament to trial since 2006.

A similar attempt to decriminalize some abuse of office crimes triggered the country’s largest street protests in decades at the start of 2017. The ruling coalition backed down at the time but has revived the proposals.

Earlier this month, the ruling coalition has used its overwhelming parliament majority to approve a judicial overhaul that puts magistrates under political control.

They have also filed a different set of proposals to change the criminal code that could derail law and order.

Bills, proposals criticized

Thousands of magistrates, centrist President Klaus Iohannis, the European Commission, the U.S. State Department and seven EU states have all criticized both the approved bills and the criminal code proposals.

The Social Democrats and their junior coalition partner ALDE have denied the changes would affect the independence of the judiciary and have stressed that parliament has the right to legislate however it sees fit.

The proposed changes place Romania alongside its eastern European peers Hungary and Poland, where populist leaders are also trying to control the judiciary, in defying EU concerns over the rule of law.

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Children in Eastern Ukraine Face Death, Injury from Landmines

The U.N. children’s fund warns that 220,000 children in the area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed rebels are at risk of being killed or maimed by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.

Eastern Ukraine is one of the most mine-contaminated places on earth. Well into its fourth year of war, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are riddled with deadly explosives that are taking a heavy toll on the lives and well-being of its children.

The U.N. children’s fund estimates landmines and other explosive weapons kill or maim one child a week along eastern Ukraine’s contact line. This is a 500-kilometer strip of land that divides government and rebel-controlled areas where fighting is most intense.

UNICEF warns children, especially very young children, are at great risk of death and injury from these lethal weapons. The agency says most casualties occur when children pick up these explosive devices, which look like toys.

During mine awareness demonstrations, educators teach children how to protect themselves from landmines, unexploded ordnance and other deadly remnants of war.

Since 2015, UNICEF and partners have reached more than half a million children in eastern Ukraine with this message through entertaining theatrical skits and interactive shows.

While these weapons pose an ever-present danger to children, UNICEF says they also can damage crucial infrastructure, such as water, electricity and gas facilities.

In one incident earlier this month, UNICEF says, unexploded ordnance was found at the Donetsk Filter Station, a facility that provides water to nearly 350,000 people in the region.



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Putin Spokesman: Calls for Election Boycott May Be Illegal

A Kremlin spokesman suggested Tuesday that a call by Russian opposition leader Alexi Navalny to boycott next year’s presidential election may be illegal.

Navalny urged supporters to boycott the March 18 vote after election officials on Monday barred him from running.

Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) voted to ban the anti-corruption blogger from running because of his conviction on criminal charges. Navalny and his followers say those charges were politically motivated.

Following the CEC decision, Navalny released a video declaring a “voter’s strike,” because — according to Navalny — the March contest would not really be an election.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Tuesday that efforts by Navalny and his supporters to organize the boycott “ought to be carefully studied to see if they are breaking the law.”

Putin announced earlier this month that he will run for reelection, and it is widely assumed he will win a fourth term as Russian head of state.

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Kremlin: Russia Ready to Mediate North Korea-US Talks, if Both Sides Willing

The Kremlin said on Tuesday that Russia stands ready to act as a mediator between North Korea and the United States in talks aimed at reducing tensions, if both parties are willing for Moscow to take on this role.

“Russia’s readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a phone call with reporters.

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4 Killed in Moscow When Bus Crashes into Underground Passage

Russian authorities say a bus careened off a road and onto steps leading into an underground passageway in Moscow, killing at least four people and leaving 13 others injured.


Moscow police said passengers and pedestrians were among those killed in Monday’s crash. Police immediately ruled out a possibility of it being an attack, saying that they suspect a mechanical fault or that the driver lost control of the vehicle. Police were questioning the driver.


Photos taken at the scene show the bus on the steps leading into the underground passageway.


Russian news agencies reporting from the scene quoted Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin as saying that he has ordered all city buses to be checked in the aftermath of the crash.


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Navalny Calls for Presidential Election Boycott After Being Barred as Candidate

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny is calling for a boycott of the country’s next presidential ballot after election officials barred him from running.

Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) voted Monday to bar Navalny from running in the March 2018 presidential election because of his conviction on criminal charges that the anti-corruption blogger and his followers say were politically motivated.

The commission’s decision came a day after Navalny declared he had collected the required number of endorsements nationwide to become a presidential candidate.

Following Monday’s CEC decision, Navalny released a video calling on his supporters to boycott the presidential vote.

“We understood that this [the CEC decision] was possible, and we have a clear and precise plan… We are declaring a ‘voters’ strike’, in as much as the procedure in which we are being urged to participate is not an election,” he said.

Navalny said his team would now campaign against participating in the presidential election, saying to cast a ballot would be “to vote for deception and corruption.”

President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this month that he will run in the March 18 election, and it is widely assumed he will win a fourth term as Russian head of state

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Christmas Celebrations Around the World

Pope Francis calls for “peace for Jerusalem” and “mutual trust” on the Korean peninsula as he focused on the suffering of children in conflicts across the world, in his traditional Christmas Day address “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”) from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Spain’s King Felipe Directs Xmas Message to Catalan Separatists

Spain’s King Felipe directed his Christmas message Sunday to the separatist-minded region of Catalonia and what he says is the need to avoid confrontation.

The king urged regional leaders to help “Catalonia’s society, diverse and plural as it is, to recover its serenity, stability, and mutual respect in such a way as to ensure that ideas don’t divide or separate families and friends.”

Looking back on a “difficult” year for Spain, he reminded Catalan leaders and the newly-elected parliament to “face the problems that affect all Catalans, respecting their diversity and thinking responsibly in the common good.”

In an October speech, the king condemned what he called the “unacceptable disloyalty” of Catalan separatists.

Pro-independence lawmakers dominate the Catalan parliament after Thursday’s election.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy disbanded the previous parliament after Catalonia illegally held an independence referendum, leading to violence and nationwide chaos.

Rajoy was hoping Catalan voters would elect a new parliament that favors remaining united with Spain instead of looking to secede.

Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont fled to exile in Belgium after the October referendum. He has offered to hold talks with Rajoy, but will not return to Spain where he faces arrest.

Rajoy has so far refused to meet with Puigdemont, saying he wants to wait until the Catalan parliament elects its next regional president.

Catalonia, in northeast Spain, and its capital Barcelona are major tourist magnets. It has his own language and distinct culture. But the separatist crisis has hurt tourism and the regional economy.

Catalan separatists say the region is a powerful economic engine that drives Spain and have demanded more autonomy.

Those who want to stay united with Spain are afraid the region will sink into an economic abyss without the central government, its ties to the European Union, and its numerous existing bilateral relations.

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