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British Top Diplomat Meets Jailed UK-Iranian’s Family

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British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tuesday that he met with the family of jailed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during his visit to Iran.

“No child should have to go this long without their mother,” Hunt wrote on Twitter alongside photos of him with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s four-year-old daughter Gabriella.

He also met her mother and brother during his brief visit to Tehran on Monday, and pressed for her release during his meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“British-Iranian dual nationals wrongly imprisoned must be freed,” Hunt tweeted later on Monday.

“I’ve pressed hard on this today – innocent people should not be turned into diplomatic pawns.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation – the media organization’s philanthropic arm – was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016.

She is serving a five-year jail sentence for sedition – and has denied all charges filed against her.


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Italian Officials: Migrant Rescuers Mishandled Medical Waste

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Italian prosecutors have ordered the seizure of a migrant rescue ship and accused the aid group Doctors Without Borders of illegally disposing of 24 metric tons (26.5 tons) of medical and contaminated waste accumulated during nearly 50 rescues.

Prosecutors in Catania, Sicily said Tuesday that 24 people were under investigation, including the aid group’s Italy personnel and the crew of the Aquarius. Prosecutors accused them of working with a Sicily-based shipping company to mix medical and “contaminated” waste, like migrants’ clothing, with other garbage to save money.

Prosecutors ordered the sequester of the Aquarius, which is currently moored in Marseille, France, as well as the seizure of 460,000 euros ($526,000), which prosecutors said was the amount saved by the group by not properly disposing of the material.

Doctors Without Borders called the accusation “disproportionate” and another attempt to criminalize migrant rescues. The group, known by its French acronym MSF, said its waste disposal followed all approved “standard procedures.”

At the same time, however, MSF allowed that there may have been lapses, especially among port authorities with whom MSF worked, acknowledging prosecutor video showing latex gloves and what appeared to be a syringe mixed in with regular garbage.

“We are ready to clarify the facts and respond about the procedures we followed, but we strongly reaffirm the legitimacy and the legality of our humanitarian activities,” said MSF Italia’s director general, Gabriele Eminente.

At a news conference, MSF officials expressed shock at the prosecutors’ claim that migrants’ clothing alone could spread infectious disease, saying it showed ignorance about public health and was more an attempt to tarnish MSF’s reputation.

The Aquarius, a 77-meter (252.62-foot) -long former fishery protection vessel, is perhaps best known for having become a pawn in the European battle over migration in June after Italy’s new populist government refused to let it dock in an Italian port.

After a weeklong standoff at sea that returned the migration debate to the world stage, Spain agreed to let the Aquarius dock with its 630 migrants who, along with tens of thousands of other migrants before them, had set off from Libya aboard smugglers boats.

The same Sicily prosecutors’ office behind the new investigation made headlines in 2017 when it publicly accused rescue groups of aiding illegal migration by being in contact with Libyan-based human traffickers as they plucked migrants from the sea off Libya’s coast. To date, the investigation hasn’t produced any indictments.

In the new probe, dubbed “Operation Borderless,” prosecutors alleged that between Jan. 1, 2017, and May 2018, MSF and the Sicily-based Mediterranean Shipping Agency knowingly avoided the “rigid treatment” required for “dangerous waste,” including food containers and medical equipment used on board the ship to treat sick migrants.

Prosecutors produced documentation filled out by the suspects that certified that no medical waste or contagious or infections substances were being thrown away. Prosecutors also provided wiretaps of communications between MSF personnel and the shipping agency about how to classify the material.

A statement from prosecutors noted cases of scabies, HIV, tuberculosis and meningitis among newly arrived migrants and said their “contaminated clothing” risked spreading infection.

They accused the suspects of “organized activity trafficking in illegal waste.”

Another aid group that works with MSF aboard the Aquarius, SOS Mediterranee, denounced the ship’s sequester as a “politically driven attack” and urged French authorities to “show restraint” as they weigh the seizure order from Italian prosecutors.

Italy’s hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who drove the June crackdown on the Aquarius and other aid groups, praised the Catania prosecutors for the new investigation, which also involved another rescue ship the Vos Prudence.

“I did the right thing by blocking the NGO ships, for not only stopping the traffic of clandestine migrants but also, apparently, the traffic in toxic waste,” he tweeted with the hashtag (hash)portsclosed.

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Kremlin: Opposition to Russian Candidate to Head Interpol is Election Meddling

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The Kremlin says opposition to a Russian candidate to lead the global police group Interpol amounts to election interference.

The election for a new leader is set for Wednesday at the end of Interpol’s annual conference in Dubai.

Four U.S. senators issued an open letter Monday urging President Donald Trump to oppose the candidacy of Russia’s Alexander Prokopchuk, the current Interpol vice president.

The senators said Prokopchuk had been “personally involved” in what it said was Russia’s routine “abuses of Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists.”

“This is probably a certain kind of interference in the electoral process of an international organization,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in response to criticism of Prokopchuk.

Interpol member countries will vote to replace Meng Hongwei, who disappeared in his native China in September. China later told Interpol that Meng had quit after being charged with accepting bribes.

Also vying for the presidency of Interpol is South Korea’s Kim Jong-Yang, who is serving as acting president.

Prokopchuk, considered the leading candidate, has also been criticized by others including Bill Browder, a U.S.-born British fund manager and Kremlin foe who has been the subject of several arrest notices issued by Interpol at Russia’s request.

Browder said it would be “outrageous” if Prokopchuk wins the election, which he maintains is an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to “expand his criminal tentacles to every corner of the globe.”  



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Migration at Top of Agenda of Spanish PM’s 1st Morocco Visit

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez urged greater cooperation on migration while making his first visit Monday to Morocco, a jumping-off point for a growing number of migrants trying to reach Spain and get a foothold in Europe.

Spain is one of the North African kingdom’s strongest European allies, and enhanced collaboration on all levels was a focus of Sanchez’s visit. It was among the topics discussed at a lunch hosted by Moroccan King Mohammed VI, the official MAP news agency said.

Controlling migration from Morocco to Spain was the focus of Sanchez’s talks with Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani.

“Migration is a shared responsibility, and we need to strengthen our cooperation,” Sanchez said at their joint news conference.

El Othmani said Morocco “is doing everything in its power” to fight illegal immigration, but insisted the complex issue “cannot be solved solely by the security approach.”

“Despite the importance of security, we must focus on the development of countries of departure in Africa,” Othmani said.

Many migrants in Morocco who embark for Spain are sub-Saharan Africans.

Moroccan authorities say the kingdom prevented 65,000 migrants from crossing to Spain in 2017. However, Morocco says it cannot be the region’s immigration police.

Morocco’s place as a point of passage has grown with Italy’s refusal to take in migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. The Libyan coast guard, with help from the Italian government, increasingly has intercepted flimsy boats launched by migrant smugglers.

Migrants head to northern Morocco with the aim of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain or climbing over high fences to reach the Spanish enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla.

Nearly 47,500 migrants arrived in Spain by sea since the start of the year, while 564 died or went missing while attempting the voyage, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Morocco, along with Tunisia and Algeria, has refused to serve as an immigration reception and processing center, an idea proposed by the European Union. Morocco instead wants more EU funding to help manage migration across its borders.

Morocco is scheduled to host an international U.N.-sponsored conference on migration on December 10-11.

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British PM Future on Brink as Party Rivals Plot Leadership Coup over EU-Brexit Deal

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Britain is facing weeks of high-stakes political drama, as Prime Minister Theresa May attempts to get parliamentary backing for the divorce deal agreed to last week with the European Union. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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French Universities to Offer More Courses in English to Attract Foreign Students

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France wants to boost the number of foreign students at its universities by more than half over the next decade and will offer more courses taught in English to attract them.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, announcing the plan on Monday, said increasing the number of foreigners studying in the country would help build French influence overseas.

Home to centuries-old universities such as the Sorbonne in Paris and some leading business schools, France is the world’s top non-English speaking student destination, but it ranks behind the United States, Britain and Australia.

The number of foreign students at French universities fell by 8.5 percent between 2011 and 2016 and the country has seen increased competition from Germany, Russia, Canada and China, the prime minister’s office said.

“Many countries are already building global attractivity strategies, linking studies, the job market, tourism, which explains the influence of Asia or monarchies in the Gulf,” Philippe said in a speech unveiling the strategy. “In this field just as in other economic ones, the world’s balance of power is shifting. That’s why we need to welcome more foreign students.”

Under the plan, France will simplify student visa regulations but will also increase tuition fees for students outside the European Economic Area in order to be able to provide better facilities. However, fees will still be much lower than in Britain and other neighboring countries.

From March 2019, foreign graduates with a French master’s degree will be able to get a residence visa to look for work or set up a business in France.

“We are constantly compared, audited, judged among 10 other possible destinations. In an age of social media, no one can rest on its reputation only,” Philippe said.

French officials said current fees of around 170 euros ($195) a year for a bachelor’s degree in France or 243 euros for a masters’ — the same as those paid by French students — was interpreted by students in countries like China as a sign of low quality.

From September 2019, non-European students will be charged 2,770 euros annually to study for a bachelor’s degree and 3,770 euros a year for masters and PhDs.

“That means France will still subsidize two thirds of the cost of their studies,” Philippe said. “And the fees will remain well below the 8,000 euros to 13,000 euros charged by the Dutch or the tens of thousands of pounds paid in Britain,” he said.

Some of the extra revenue will be used to boost the number of scholarships offered by the foreign ministry.

The number of courses taught in English, which have already been increased fivefold since 2004 to 1,328, will be boosted further, Philippe said.

More French classes will also be on offer for foreign students and student visa applications will be made available online.

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UK Foreign Secretary to Make First Visit to Iran

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British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will visit Iran for the first time on Monday for talks with the Iranian government on issues including the future of the 2015 nuclear deal, his office said in a statement.

In May, U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, negotiated with five other world powers during Democratic president Barack Obama’s administration, and earlier this month the United States restored sanctions targeting Iran’s oil, banking and transportation sectors.

Hunt’s office said he would meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and would stress that the UK is committed to the nuclear deal as long as Iran sticks to its terms. He will also discuss European efforts to maintain nuclear-related sanctions relief.

“The Iran nuclear deal remains a vital component of stability in the Middle East by eliminating the threat of a nuclearized Iran. It needs 100 percent compliance though to survive,” Hunt said in a statement ahead of the visit.

“We will stick to our side of the bargain as long as Iran does. But we also need to see an end to destabilizing activity by Iran in the rest of the region if we are going to tackle the root causes of the challenges the region faces.”

Hunt will also discuss Iran’s role in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, his office said, and press Iran on its human rights record, calling for the immediate release of detained British-Iranian dual nationals where there are humanitarian grounds to do so.

“I arrive in Iran with a clear message for the country’s leaders: putting innocent people in prison cannot and must not be used as a tool of diplomatic leverage,” he said.


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Painting Found in Romania Studied As Possibly Stolen Picasso

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Romanian prosecutors are investigating whether a painting by Pablo Picasso that was snatched from a museum in the Netherlands six years ago has turned up in Romania.

Four Romanians were convicted of stealing Picasso’s “Tete d’Arlequin” and six other valuable paintings from the Kunsthal gallery in Rotterdam.

One of them, Olga Dogaru, told investigators she burned the paintings in her stove to protect her son, the alleged leader of the 2012 heist. She later retracted the statement.

Romania’s Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism said Sunday it was examining the circumstances of a painting a fiction writer said she found under a tree after receiving an anonymous tip.

The work, purported to be the stolen Picasso, was given to the Dutch embassy in Romania on Saturday.

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Finnish President Says He Briefed Trump on Forest Monitoring

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Finland’s president says that he briefed U.S. President Donald Trump amid the California wildfires on how the Nordic country effectively monitors its substantial forest resources with a well-working surveillance system.

President Sauli Niinisto said in an interview published Sunday in the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper that he told Trump during their brief meeting in Paris on Nov. 11 that “Finland is a country covered by forests but we also have a good surveillance system and network” in case of wildfires.

Trump said Saturday in northern California that wildfires weren’t a problem in Finland because the Finns “spend a lot of time on raking” leaves and “cleaning and doing things.”

Niinisto said he told Trump “we take care of our forests,” but said that he can’t recall anything being mentioned on raking.

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Pope Francis; ‘The Cry of The Poor Daily Becomes Stronger’

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“Injustice is the perverse root of poverty,” Pope Francis said Sunday at a Mass marking the Roman Catholic Church’s Day of the Poor.

Francis invited thousands of poor people to Saint Peter’s Basilica for the Mass and he is scheduled to have lunch with them later.

“The cry of the poor daily becomes stronger, but heard less, drowned out by the din of the rich few, who grow ever fewer and more rich,” Francis said.

He also made a reference to migrants when he called on people to pay attention to “all those forced to flee their homes and native land for an uncertain future.”

The leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said, “Let us ask for the grace to hear the cry of all those tossed by the waves of life.”

Sunday is the second observance of the Day of the Poor, an event that Francis initiated last year.

In addition to lunching with the poor after Mass, Francis has gathered a team of doctors who will provide free medical care to the poor.

The French news agency, AFP, reports doctors treated 600 people last year at the first World Day of the Poor.

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British-based Startup ARC Debuts First Motorcycle for $117,000

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British-based startup ARC unveiled its first motorcycle model in Milan this week, one being described as fast, advanced and expensive. The so-called Vector costs more than $100,000, but ARC says it’s for good reason. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.

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German Minister Seeks Tax Cuts as Economy Contracts

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Germany needs a package of tax cuts and other measures to shore up economic growth in the long term, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said in an interview published Sunday, days after the country posted its first economic contraction since 2015.

Altmaier, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing conservatives, said he was focused on cutting high German corporate taxes following tax cuts in the United States, Britain and soon France.

“The corporate tax in Germany is now higher than in other industrial countries,” Altmaier told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “That is a disadvantage and puts jobs at risk. That is why a medium-term cut is necessary.”

He proposed using half of the increase in tax revenues to fund the tax cuts and said it was imperative to ensure that contributions for social benefits did not grow beyond 40 percent of a person’s gross salary.

Economy contracted

Gross domestic product (GDP) in Europe’s biggest economy fell 0.2 percent in the third quarter from the previous three months, according to data released Wednesday by the Federal Statistics Office.

At the time, Altmaier said the contraction was not “a catastrophe,” and his ministry called the slowdown a temporary phenomenon that occurred as car companies struggled to adjust to new pollution standards known as WLTP.

Welt am Sonntag said Altmaier, a close Merkel ally, hoped to parlay concern over the downturn in the third quarter to gain support for tax cuts from Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and his left-leaning Social Democratic party (SPD).

“We need clarity about relief for workers and industry, including the stepwise reduction of the solidarity tax for everyone, less bureaucracy and more innovation,” Altmaier said.

Missed opportunities

Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo economic institute, said the German coalition government had missed opportunities in recent years to strengthen economic growth.

“It’s important to create new spots in kindergartens, but policymakers should not call those investments at a time when it is not making needed infrastructure investments in rail routes or power lines,” Fuest told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

He also faulted the coalition government for its piecemeal approach to digitalization, and called for efforts to strengthen the longer-term competitiveness of the German auto industry, instead of focusing solely on environmental protections.

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Arab Media Report IS Fighters, Family Members Killed in US Coalition Airstrikes in Syria

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The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes killed more than 40 people in the village of Abu Husn in the region of Deir el-Zor, near the Iraqi border.

Arab media announced the deaths of several dozen people, most of whom appeared to have been Islamic State group fighters, during bitter fighting in the Deir el-Zor region of eastern Syria, not far from the Iraqi border.

Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that about three dozen Islamic State fighters were killed in the airstrikes on the village of Abu Husn. A number of civilians and family members of the IS fighters also were killed.

Abdel Rahman insisted that “it was the highest death toll in coalition airstrikes since (U.S.-aligned Kurdish fighters) launched their attack against this (particular northeastern Syrian) Islamic State pocket in September.

U.S. Coalition spokesman Sean Ryan told the French news agency earlier this week “the avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority when conducting strikes against legitimate military targets with precision munitions.”

Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, tells VOA that bad weather conditions in recent days have allowed IS fighters to gain ground against the U.S.-led alliance of Kurdish SDF fighters, alongside U.S. and French forces, prompting strong efforts to push them back.

He says that the final pockets of Islamic State fighters have taken advantage of poor weather conditions (and cloud cover) to capture positions and equipment belonging to the U.S. coalition, prompting fierce fighting in an effort to recapture lost ground.

Abou Diab says the Islamic State pocket in the region of Deir el-Zour is one of several he says are supported by different countries involved in the Syria conflict. He argues that a separate Islamic State faction, supported by the Syrian government, has been involved in attacking Druze civilians and holding them hostage in the southern region of Sweida.