US Wary of Russian Role in Afghanistan as Moscow Holds Talks

As the United States and Russia clash on Syria, another war-torn nation could play out as a renewed theater for the U.S.-Russia rivalry: Afghanistan.

Thursday, U.S. forces dropped what was being called the largest non-nuclear bomb on a reported Islamic State militant complex in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

The U.S. strike came a day before Russia is to host multi-nation talks on prospects for Afghan security and national reconciliation, the third such round since December.

Eleven countries are set to take part in Friday’s discussions in Moscow, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. Former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited to attend for the first time.

The Afghan Taliban said Thursday that they would not take part.

“We cannot call these negotiations [in Moscow] as a dialogue for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA. “This meeting stems from political agendas of the countries who are organizing it. This has really nothing to do with us, nor do we support it.”

The spokesman reiterated insurgents’ traditional stance that U.S.-led foreign troops would have to leave Afghanistan before any conflict resolution talks could be initiated.

The United States was also invited to the Moscow talks, but Washington declined, saying it had not been informed of the agenda beforehand and was unclear about the meeting’s motives.

Undermining NATO

American military officials suspect Russia’s so-called Afghan peace diplomacy is aimed at undermining NATO and have accused Moscow of arming the Taliban.

“I think it is fair to assume they may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there,” U.S. Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel told members of the House Armed Services Committee in March. He said he thought Russia was “attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world.”

For its part, Moscow has denied that it is supporting the Afghan Taliban.

“These fabrications are designed, as we have repeatedly underlined, to justify the failure of the U.S. military and politicians in the Afghan campaign.There is no other explanation,” said Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special envoy to Afghanistan.

In a separate statement Thursday, the Taliban also denied receiving military aid from Russia, though the group defended “political understanding” with Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional countries.

Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said reports of Moscow supporting the Taliban were not new.

“The official Russian position on the Taliban is that they see it as a group that could help fight ISIS, but this is something that even some Taliban spokesmen have denied, since ISIS and the Taliban reached an understanding about a year ago,” Borshchevskaya said.

Putin’s motive

She said that if the allegations of Russian support for the Taliban were true, Russian President Vladimir Putin was most likely motivated by his desire to undermine the West.

“Certainly one motivation could be taking advantage of regional chaos, and to assert Russia’s influence at the expense of the U.S., taking advantage of a U.S. retreat from the Middle East and elsewhere and [to] undermine NATO and the U.S.” Borshchevskaya said, “This has been Putin’s pattern.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has made few public statements on Afghanistan, and his administration is still weighing whether to deploy more American troops to try to reverse the course of the war.

Thursday’s strike in Nangarhar marked a major step by the Trump administration in Afghanistan, in which there has been a U.S. military presence since 2001.

During a March 31 NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed U.S. support for the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan.

“NATO’s work in Afghanistan remains critical. The United States is committed to the Resolute Support Mission and to our support for Afghan forces,” Tillerson said.

Some 13,000 NATO troops, including 8,400 Americans, are part of the support mission, tasked with training Afghanistan’s 300,000-member national security and defense forces.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said he expected continuity in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan between the Obama and Trump administrations.

“The statement made by Tillerson at a recent NATO meeting could well have been uttered by an Obama official,” Kugelman said. “The focus on training, advising and assisting and the call for reconciliation mirror exactly the Obama administration’s priorities.”

More troops

But the South Asia analyst noted one important policy difference: U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.

“Obama was an anti-war president who was never comfortable keeping large numbers of troops in Afghanistan. Trump is unlikely to be as constrained,” Kugelman said.

“Look for Trump to send in several thousand more troops,” he said. “This is a request that the generals in Afghanistan have made for years, and Trump is more likely to defer to the U.S. military’s wishes on this than Obama was.”

As for Russian involvement in Afghanistan following the former Soviet Union’s occupation of the South Asian country from 1979 to 1989, Kugelman said that even if Russia were engaging the Taliban to undercut U.S. influence,  the two nations ultimately hope for the same outcome in Afghanistan.

“The ironic thing is that Washington and Moscow both want the same endgame in Afghanistan — an end to the war, preferably through a reconciliation process — but they simply can’t get on the same page about how to proceed,” Kugelman said.

Polish Leader Welcomes NATO Troops, Hails ‘Historic Moment’

Polish leaders welcomed a new multinational NATO battalion to Poland on Thursday, with the president calling it “a historic moment for my country.”

 

The near-permanent deployment of a NATO battalion under U.S. command marks the first time NATO troops have been placed so close to Russian territory, a step the Kremlin denounces as a threat to its own security.

 

But Polish President Andrzej Duda said the deployment, to Poles, stands as a symbol of liberation and inclusion in the Western democratic world.

 

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that generations of Poles have waited for this moment since the end of the Second World War,” Duda said in the northeastern town of Orzysz as he addressed the troops and the U.S. and British ambassadors.

 

The battalion of about 1,000 troops is led by the United States, but includes troops from Britain and Romania. Croatian troops are expected to join later.

 

Their base of operations, Orzysz, is 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian territory on the Baltic Sea separated from the Russian mainland.

 

While NATO has held exercises in the region in past years, the deployment marks the alliance’s first continuous troop presence in the area that was considered by defense experts as vulnerable.

 

Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said the NATO presence guarantees the security of NATO’s eastern flank.

 

The NATO deployment is separate from a U.S. battalion of 3,500 troops that arrived in Poland earlier this year and which is headquartered in southwestern Poland, near the German border.

 

Both missions are responses to calls for greater U.S. and NATO protection by a region fearful after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for a rebel insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

French Presidential Race Tightens Further, Markets Nervous

Polls showed France’s presidential election campaign tightening further on Wednesday as financial markets fretted about the rising popularity of a far-left candidate who wants to put France’s European Union membership to a vote.

Investors have long been anxious about election frontrunner Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, who has promised a referendum on whether to quit the EU and ditch the euro.

She has been joined on the list of investors’ concerns by far-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has surged in the polls after strong performances in two candidates’ debates.

The Communist-backed Melenchon also wants a referendum on EU membership after an attempt to renegotiate the EU treaties.

Fillon stable in poll

The latest Ifop-Fiducial poll on Wednesday showed Le Pen winning 23.5 percent in the April 23 first round, one point ahead of centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Both Le Pen and Macron’s support dipped by half a point from Tuesday while conservative Francois Fillon was stable on 19 percent and Melenchon unchanged on 18.5 percent.

The top two candidates go through to a run-off on May 7, where polls say Macron would easily beat Le Pen.

Traders cited the French election, as well as U.S. relations with Syria and North Korea, as reasons why investors switched to safe assets, such as gold or U.S. Treasuries, on Wednesday.

“Risk sentiment is not strong at the moment because of tensions in North Korea and also risk of a … rising Melenchon,” said Nomura currency strategist Yujiro Goto in London.

German foray

Concern about a Le Pen victory, which would put further pressure on the EU after Britain’s decision to leave the bloc, led to an unusual foray into French politics by Germany, France’s traditional partner at the heart of the EU.

“We need a pro-European France,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in Berlin.

“I hope Le Pen does not become French president,” he added.

Outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande is also concerned about Melenchon’s rising popularity, according to Le Monde newspaper, and this has fed speculation he could endorse Macron as the best hope to win rather than official Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, who is doing poorly in the polls.

Hollande won’t offer support yet 

In an interview with Le Point magazine published on Wednesday, Hollande kept silent about his choice, saying he would endorse a candidate before the second round of the election.

But he spoke highly of the decision by Macron, a former economy minister in his government, to launch a new party, saying “I think politics needs renewal” and he spoke out against demagoguery.

“There is a danger in simplifications and falsifications which make people look at the … speaker rather than the content of what he is saying,” he said.

Hollande, an unpopular president who did not seek a second term, said ruling parties should not hold primary elections in future, because it was impossible to be president and candidate at the same time.

‘The French Chavez’

The conservative Le Figaro newspaper called Melenchon “the French Chavez,” alleging in a front-page story that his plans were inspired by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Melenchon mocked his new notoriety in a blog on his website.

“They announce that my winning the election would bring nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and the landing of the Venezuelans,” he said.

Turkey’s Referendum: Millions of Voters With Myriad Views

There are only two options on the ballot – “yes” or “no” – but tens of millions of Turks will cast their votes in a referendum on Sunday with a myriad of motives.

The referendum could bring about the biggest change to Turkey’s system of governance since the founding of the modern republic almost a century ago, replacing its parliamentary system with an executive presidency.

The question on the ballot paper may be about the constitution, but looming large is the figure of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who could win sweeping powers and stay in office until 2029 if the changes are approved.

Polls show a close race, with a slight lead for “yes.” But the vote may yield surprises.

‘I want a democracy’

“I’m a patriot,” said Cengiz Topcu, 57, a fisherman in Rize on the Black Sea coast, Erdogan’s ancestral home town where his supporters are among the most fervent.

But Topcu is voting “no.”

“In the past, Erdogan was a good man but then he changed for the worse. I want a democracy: not the rule of one man,” he told Reuters in his boat.

The proposed changes, Erdogan and his supporters say, will make Turkey stronger at a time when the country faces security threats from both Islamist and Kurdish militants.

Violence has flared in the largely Kurdish southeast since the collapse of a cease-fire between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2015, and parts of the region have long been strongholds of opposition to Erdogan.

But Hikmet Gunduz, 52, a street vendor in the main regional city of Diyarbakir, hopes his “yes” vote will help bring peace.

“I like President Erdogan’s character. He is a bit angry and a bit authoritarian but his heart is full of love.”

Freedoms

Erdogan, arguably modern Turkey’s most popular but divisive politician, has long cast himself as the champion of ordinary, pious Turks exploited by a secular elite.

Although a majority Muslim country, Turkey is officially secular and the headscarf was long banned in the civil service and in universities until Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party overturned that restriction.

Aynur Sullu, a 49-year-old hotel owner in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir, a bastion of the secularist opposition, said she planned to vote “yes,” dismissing suggestions that Erdogan’s Islamist ideals were encroaching on people’s private lives.

“Anyone can drink raki or swim with a bikini freely,” she said, referring to the alcoholic drink favored by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular republic. “Also, now women with headscarves have freedom.”

Businesswoman Dilsat Gulsevim Arinc, however, said Erdogan was acting like a sultan and hoped her “no” vote would help teach him a “useful lesson”.

“He is too authoritarian,” said the 68-year-old cafe owner in Cesme, an Aegean resort town. “If things go on like this, I think Turkey will be finished in the next 10 years.”

Hungary Appears to Backtrack in Row Over US University; Protests Persist

Hungary denied Wednesday that a new education law was aimed at shutting down a university founded by U.S. financier George Soros, and suggested a possible compromise in a dispute that has drawn protests at home and criticism from Washington.

Central European University (CEU) found itself in the eye of a political storm after Hungary’s parliament passed the law last week setting tougher conditions for the awarding of licenses to foreign-based universities.

Critics said the new terms would hurt academic freedoms and were especially aimed at CEU, founded by the Hungarian-born Soros after the collapse of Communism and considered a bastion of independent scholarship in the region.

In an apparent change of tack, Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics said CEU could continue to operate if it delivered its teaching and issued its degrees through its existing Hungarian sister school.

“We never wanted to close down CEU,” Palkovics told news website HVG.hu. “The question is whether CEU insists on having a license in Hungary or having courses in Hungary honored with a CEU degree … [CEU’s own] license has little significance.”

Despite this, thousands of Hungarians protested in central Budapest against what they said was a crackdown on free thought and education.

They filled the capital’s Heroes’ Square and formed a heart shape and the word “CIVIL.” It was the fourth major street demonstration in the last two weeks as the government faces growing resistance a year before elections are due.

“They have pressed ahead since 2010 with new moves every day that hurt democracy in some way,” Robert Ferenczi, a 55 year-old protester from Budapest, told Reuters.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the government would not suspend the disputed law, but added: “We are going to have talks with everyone; if the Soros university is driven by good intentions, it will be able to solve the problem.”

CEU itself was taken by surprise at Palkovics’ comments, according to an emailed statement.

“The solution evoked by State Secretary Palkovics in the press does not appear to be legally and operationally coherent and certain,” it said. “CEU has not been approached directly by Secretary Palkovics with this information.”

“Exchanges in the press are no substitute for sustained direct contact on a confidential basis. We look to the Hungarian government to initiate negotiations with CEU so that we can resolve this and go back to work, with our academic freedom secured, without limits or duration.”

The dispute over the university has come to symbolize rival visions of Hungary’s future. Soros, whose ideal of an “open society” is squarely at odds with Orban’s “illiberal democracy, ” has often been vilified by the prime minister.

Domestic protest, foreign concern

The law stipulated that the CEU must open a branch in its home state of New York alongside its campus in Budapest and secure a bilateral agreement of support from the U.S. government.

Both of those conditions would have been prohibitive by a deadline of January 2018, and CEU rejected them from the start.

The United States asked Hungary to suspend the implementation of the law, and the European Union on Wednesday threatened Orban with legal action for moves that it saw as undemocratic.

“Taken cumulatively, the overall situation in Hungary is a cause of concern,” European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said.

Analyst Zoltan Novak at the Centre for Fair Political Analysis said the government now appeared to have performed a U-turn.

“Calling it ‘Soros University’ for weeks was a clear way for the government to designate an enemy and attack,” Novak said. “Now they made the education secretary bring up a policy argument to back out, containing the political fallout.”

Novak said Orban, who faces elections in April 2018, may have miscalculated the resistance the CEU law could provoke, especially from Washington.

UK Parliament Says Brexit Voter Site May Have Been Attacked

A British parliamentary report has raised the possibility that the voter registration site used in the run-up to the June referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union may have been attacked by foreign powers.

 

Parliament’s Public Administration Committee said Wednesday it “does not rule out the possibility” that a foreign cyberattack may have caused the website to crash on June 7.

 

The report mentions Russia and China as possibly being involved but says it has no proof of foreign intervention targeting the site.

 

Officials initially blamed the crash on a surge in voter demand following a debate.

 

The committee concludes the referendum was in general well run but calls for greater emphasis on cyber security in the future.

 

Britain voted on June 23 to leave the EU bloc.

 

Lavrov: Russia Has Questions About Ambiguous US Policies

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that his government has had a lot of questions about what he said were ambiguous and contradictory ideas coming from the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Lavrov spoke at the start of a meeting in Moscow with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, adding that it is important for Russia to understand U.S. intentions.

Lavrov also referenced last week’s U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase, which came in response to a chemical weapons attack, calling the U.S. response “troubling.”

Tillerson was more brief in his opening statement, but like Lavrov, he said that Wednesday’s talks were happening at an important time and would include a frank discussion of their differences and mutual interests.

The top U.S. diplomat said the lines of communication between the two countries “shall always remain open.” He said he wants to understand why certain areas of sharp differences exist and the prospects for narrowing those divides.

Tillerson arrived in Russia with less ammunition than Washington and London had hoped he would have in his bid to convince Russia to abandon its support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

 

But he does have a tough ultimatum in hand, following reports quoting unidentified senior U.S. officials as saying that Russia had prior knowledge of the attack that killed scores of people including women and children.

G7 ministers meeting Tuesday in the Italian city of Lucca failed to agree on targeted sanctions against the Russian and Syrian military, arguing that an investigation would first have to confirm who in Syria used chemical weapons against civilians in the country last week.

 

“We cannot let this happen again,” Tillerson told reporters before flying to Moscow. “We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” he said. “Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”

The chemical attack prompted a world outcry and a U.S. missile attack that marked a turning point in the Trump administration’s approach to the seven-year-old conflict.

 

U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May had agreed to press Russia to distance itself from Assad following the chemical attack by imposing targeted sanctions, but Germany and Italy, both leading G-7 nations, disagreed.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin “must not be pushed into a corner,” said Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said Tuesday.

For his part, Putin called Tuesday for a U.N. probe of last week’s attack. Without elaborating, he also said Russia has received intelligence about planned “provocations” using chemical weapons that would put the blame on the Syrian government.

 

The G7 ministers’ decision in Italy means the prospect of sanctions is dim. The process of launching an investigation would be long and complex, requiring a U.N. resolution and an agreement by the Assad government for weapons inspectors to access sites in territory under Assad’s control before establishing who was responsible and whether there was Russian complicity.

 

As the ground rapidly shifted regarding the U.S. approach to Syria, Tillerson made it clear that Washington hopes Assad will not be part of Syria’s future. He told the foreign ministers in Lucca U.S. missile strikes were necessary as a matter of U.S. national security, and indicated the Trump administration may not be done with Assad.

 

“We do not want the regime’s uncontrolled stockpile of chemical weapons to fall into the hands of ISIS or other terrorist groups who could, and want, to attack the United States or our allies. Nor can we accept the normalization of the use of chemical weapons by other actors or countries in Syria or elsewhere,” Tillerson said.

With Media Muzzled, Turkish ‘No’ Voters Seek Alternative Channels

Strolling down the quayside in Izmir, a liberal bastion on Turkey’s Aegean Coast, Kubilay Mutlu and his Street Orchestra sing of “the naked emperor” and the collapse of sultanates in a bid to rally “no” voters ahead of Sunday’s historic referendum.

With mainstream media saturated by pro-government campaigning ahead of the vote on broadening President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers, those opposed to the changes are seeking alternative channels to get their message across.

“No” supporters have complained of threats and bans from the authorities, and a report by one non-governmental group said television coverage of the “yes” campaign had been ten times more extensive than that of the opposition.

“What we want to stress, despite the pessimistic picture, is that ‘no’ is a very important option. Let’s use our right to object,” said Mutlu, whose band, made up of teachers and students from a local university, put their song “One ‘no’ is enough” on video-sharing site YouTube.

Referendum to be decided Sunday

Sunday’s referendum will decide on the biggest change in Turkey’s system of governance since the foundation of the modern republic almost a century ago, potentially replacing its parliamentary system with an executive presidency.

Erdogan and his supporters say the change is needed to give Turkey stronger leadership at a time of turbulence. Opponents fear increasingly authoritarian rule from a president they cast as a would-be sultan who brooks little dissent.

The vote is being held under a state of emergency imposed after a failed military coup nine months ago, meaning there are “substantive” limitations on freedom of expression and assembly, according to the Venice Commission, a panel of legal experts at the Council of Europe.

Turkey has purged more than 113,000 people from the police, judiciary, military and elsewhere since the coup attempt, and has closed more than 130 media outlets, raising concerns among Western allies about deteriorating rights and freedoms.

Many opposition leaders jailed

The leaders of the pro-Kurdish opposition HDP, parliament’s third-largest party, have been jailed over alleged links to Kurdish militants along with a dozen of its MPs and thousands of its other members. The HDP opposes the constitutional changes.

“The extremely unfavorable environment for journalism and the increasingly impoverished and one-sided public debate that prevail in Turkey at this point question the very possibility of holding a meaningful, inclusive democratic referendum campaign,” the Venice Commission said last month.

Turkish officials have said international observers are free to monitor all aspects of the referendum and have repeatedly rejected the notion that the media is muzzled, saying that outlets shut down in the purges were closed on terrorism-related charges, not for their journalism.

Erdogan was quoted in February as saying there was more press freedom in Turkey than in many Western countries.

Dominating the airwaves

A stream of music videos exhorting people to vote “no” have emerged on social media, as opposition politicians complain that the playing field ahead of the vote is far from level.

In one such video, which has had close to 400,000 views on YouTube, a women’s group appeals to listeners to use “power of laughter” in a song entitled “ha ha ha, hayir,” a play on the Turkish word for “no.”

“They have the media, meeting halls, municipalities and resources in their hands. But stubbornly we try to touch people on the streets, through social media,” Dilara Yucetepe, who was part of the project, told Reuters.

Another “no” video draws on imagery from anti-government demonstrations in 2013, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in what grew from a protest against the redevelopment of an Istanbul park into a broad show of defiance.

Opposition leader interviewed

State broadcaster TRT interviewed Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP, on Friday evening and was set to interview a spokesman for the HDP on Tuesday, a development the party described on its Twitter feed as “seemingly unbelievable.”

Such appearances are relatively rare, all but drowned out by the multiple speeches each day by Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and others broadcast live on all the major networks.

According to a report by the Unity for Democracy (DIB), an opposition-affiliated organization, live television broadcasts from March 1-20 period dedicated 169 hours to Erdogan, 301.5 hours to the ruling AK Party and 15.5 hours to the nationalist MHP, which supports the “yes” campaign.

The CHP had 45.5 hours of coverage while the HDP had none, the report said. A Turkish court last week banned the HDP’s “no” campaign song on the grounds that it contravened the constitution and fomented hatred.

In a report published on the party’s website, CHP lawmaker Necati Yilmaz said “no” campaigners had faced 143 incidents of pressure, threats and bans by the end of March.

“While the state’s resources and financial power are being used to boost the ‘yes’ vote, its legal, administrative and security forces are used to clamp down on ‘no,’” he said.

Trump Gives OK for Montenegro to Join NATO

President Donald Trump gave his official approval Tuesday for Montenegro to join NATO, marking another step forward in the tiny Baltic country’s quest for NATO acceptance.

The White House says Trump looks forward to meeting with Montenegro and other NATO leaders next month in Brussels to welcome the 29th member of the alliance.

The White House statement said Montenegro’s accession will signal other countries seeking to join NATO that “the door to membership in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations remains open and that countries in the Western Balkans are free to choose their own future.”

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly last month to support Montenegro’s NATO bid.

Trump is scheduled to meet Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House.

As recently as January, Trump called NATO “obsolete” because it had not defended against terrorist attacks. He also complained other NATO countries are not paying their fair share for defense.

“A lot of these countries are not paying what they are supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States,” Trump told The Times of London.  “With that being said, NATO is very important to me.  There are five countries that are paying what they are supposed to. Five. It is not much.”

Russia has described Montenegro’s NATO membership as a “provocation” due to the country’s geographical proximity to Russia. The Kremlin has long seen the Balkans as inside its “sphere of influence.”

New French Refugee Camp Burns Down after Massive Gang Fight

A refugee camp in northern France burned down Monday night after a massive brawl involving more than 150 migrants broke out between rival groups of Kurds and Afghans, French authorities said.

The fire destroyed most of the Grande-Synthe migrant camp near Dunkirk and the fighting left several people injured, according to the regional prefect, Michel Lalande.

As many as 1,600 migrants were living in the camp at the time of the fire, many of whom lost all the meager possessions they had, Lalande said.

Around 500 migrants were taken to nearby gymnasiums, but the rest are unaccounted for, Lalande and Damien Careme, mayor of Grande-Synthe, told reporters Tuesday.

“There is nothing left but a heap of ashes,” Lalande said. “It will be impossible to put the huts back where they were before.”

Grande-Synthe was set up last year by the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders and housed mostly Kurdish refugees. Its population swelled in October after the notorious Calais refugee camp, located about 25 miles away, was shuttered and destroyed.

A large number of migrants arrived from Afghanistan recently, further increasing the camp population.

Corenne Torre, head of the group’s French operation, told the Associated Press that authorities are scrambling to find the unaccounted-for migrants.

“We just don’t know where they are,” she said, adding that some could be hiding in fear of authorities or fear of rival gangs at the camp.

Investigators are still trying to determine the exact cause of the fire, though Lalande and Careme said authorities believe it was set intentionally as part of Monday night’s brawl.

Torre said 10 migrants went to the hospital with injuries sustained during the fire. At least six migrants were wounded during the brawl, three of whom suffered stab wounds. Another migrant was left in critical condition after being hit by a car outside the camp.

Riot police intervened in the brawl, which led to further fighting between migrants and authorities.

Migrants have gathered for decades along the coast in northern France, with hopes of reaching Britain.

The Grande-Synthe camp has seen several violent incidents in recent months, with the most recent coming last week when migrants tried to block traffic and climb onto vehicles on a nearby highway.

IAAF Clears 2 Russian World Champions, 5 Others to Compete

Two world champions are among seven Russian athletes who were approved by track and field’s governing body on Tuesday to compete internationally while their country remains banned for doping.

 

The IAAF so far has approved 10 Russians this year to compete as neutrals.

 

The new list includes 110-meter hurdler Sergei Shubenkov and high jumper Maria Kuchina. Both won gold medals at the 2015 world championships in Beijing and could now defend their titles in London in August.

 

Russia was banned from the track at last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but two athletes had been approved to compete: middle-distance runner Yulia Stepanova, a key whistleblower of Russia’s doping program, and long jumper Darya Klishina, the only Russian who took part on the track in Rio.

 

To be approved, athletes must show an IAAF doping review panel they have been adequately tested for drugs over a lengthy period by non-Russian agencies.

 

However, the IAAF said the athletes are still “subject to acceptance of their entries by individual meeting organizers,” such as the Diamond League series. The 14-meet circuit opens on May 5 in Doha, Qatar.

 

Shubenkov is set to be in demand as the reigning world champion, worlds bronze medalist in 2013 and two-time European champion.

 

Shubenkov and Kuchina, a past world and European indoor champion, were unable to compete at the world indoors in Serbia last month while their cases were under review.

 

“There can be no time constraints on a process which has been established to safeguard the rights and aspirations of the world’s clean athletes and is about rebuilding confidence in competition,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said in a statement.

 

Kuchina is set to compete as Maria Lasitskene after getting married.

 

The IAAF said the other approved athletes are: high jumper Daniil Tsyplakov, who placed fifth at the 2015 worlds, pole vaulters Illia Mudrov and Olga Mullina, and race walkers Sergey Shirobokov and Yana Smerdova.

 

The IAAF previously cleared three Russians to compete as neutrals – pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova, sprinter Kristina Sivakova and hammer thrower Alexei Sokirsky.

 

The names of 17 athletes whose applications were rejected this year by the review panel have not been published, the IAAF said, adding it had received about 100 applications. Only 38 of those were endorsed by the Russian track federation, which remains suspended by the IAAF.

In Ancestral Home, Turkish Affection for Erdogan Resonates

God comes first in this mountaintop village on Turkey’s Black Sea, the saying goes. Then, according to adoring villagers, comes local boy Recep Tayyip Erdogan, today one of the most transformational, polarizing figures in modern Turkish history.

Nestled among tea plantations, the village of Dumankaya in the rugged province of Rize oozes the fervent loyalty that has propelled Erdogan, 63, to one electoral triumph after another since he took power as prime minister in 2003.

Now the Turkish president is hoping that pious Muslim bedrocks of support like Dumankaya will help deliver him another win, this time in Turkey’s April 16 referendum. The vote could extend Erdogan’s rule for many years and, in his opponents’ view, further erode Turkey’s challenged democracy.

For many Turks, Sunday’s vote on whether to expand the powers of the Turkish presidency is not a dry constitutional matter. For people on both sides of the political divide, it’s all about the outsized ambitions of one man, Erdogan.

Fisherman Birol Bahtiyar, wearing a cap emblazoned with a “Yes” slogan, dismissed suggestions by opponents that the referendum was a power-grab by Erdogan or that he was leading Turkey into a one-man regime.

“In the past 14 years, Turkey stepped into a new age,” said the 49-year-old as he and his friends fixed their nets at Rize’s harbor. “I will vote yes because I trust him. There is no such thing as a one-man rule. We still have an assembly, a parliament. We have confidence [in the proposed system].”

The constitutional amendments would shift Turkey’s system from a parliamentary to a presidential system, in one of the most radical political changes since the Turkish republic was established in 1923. Opponents fear that the changes will give the president near-absolute powers with little oversight, turning the NATO country that once vied for European Union membership into an authoritarian state.

For ‘the people’

But for the socially conservative and pious residents of Rize, such arguments ring hollow. To them, the region’s most famous son is a reformist leader who has brought unprecedented economic growth and prosperity to Turkey and provided improved health care, education and large infrastructure projects.

In Erdogan — whose parents and siblings were born in Dumankaya (Smoky Rock in English for the fog that frequently hangs over it) — they see a local who has given a greater voice to the pious — who felt marginalized under previous governments, which enforced secular laws barring Islamic headscarves in schools and public offices.

They believe Erdogan — who has ruled Turkey for over a decade, first as prime minister and as president since 2014 — is a strong leader who has provided political stability, ending the political squabbles that plagued Turkey in the 1990s.

Voters in Rize have backed Erdogan by a wide margin in a long string of election victories and promise to do so again on April 16. They support his ambition to turn Turkey into one of the world’s top powers by 2023, when the country marks its centenary.

Mehmet Celik, a Dumankaya resident, sees the president as a larger-than-life trail-blazer and fighter against Turkey’s perceived enemies.

“For us, God comes first. Then comes Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” said Celik. “He supports the people and the people support him.”

Two sides to coup

Celik believes Erdogan rescued Turkey from last summer’s failed coup and feels that a strong presidency would protect Turkey from greater calamity. Turkey has blamed the coup on the followers of the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a charge Gulen has denied.

“They [the Gulenists] would have ruined us. If we had fallen into their hands, we would have been destroyed. Why would we not vote ‘Yes?”‘ Celik said. “If our president did not exist, we would have been in a miserable state.”

But critics say Erdogan has used the coup attempt to purge his critics. More than 150,000 people have been taken into custody, fired or forced to retire from Turkey’s armed forces, judiciary, education system and other public institutions since the coup attempt.

Ismail Erdogan, a cousin of Erdogan and the chief administrator of Dumankaya, points at a long list of projects either launched or completed under Erdogan’s rule, including a major coastal highway, the Recep Tayyip Erdogan University, a hospital.

“He brought infrastructure, natural gas. He is bringing an airport. We had never seen such things. He brought a giant hospital,” Ismail Erdogan said, describing his cousin as a serious child who liked to talk about soccer and commanded respect even at an early age.

Speaking in a recently renovated local government building in Dumankaya, Ismail Erdogan also praised his cousin for standing up to Europe, following a dispute last month over restrictions imposed by the Netherlands and Germany on Turkish ministers holding referendum campaigns there.

“Let’s not [join] the European Union, we don’t need it,” Ismail Erdogan said. “We are self-sufficient.”

Erdogan campaigned in Rize recently to court the votes of his fellow townsmen, symbolically launching the start of construction for an airport that will serve Rize and the neighboring province of Artvin. In a speech laced with nationalist and anti-European rhetoric, Erdogan also promised that the construction of mountain tunnel pass would soon be finished.

Among the crowd of adoring supporters — waving flags and banners emblazoned with the word “Yes” — was 22-year-old religious studies student Leyla Erdeniz. Her affection for Erdogan runs so deep that she moved to Rize to study at the university named after him.

“A ‘Yes’ result will be very beneficial to our country,” the university student said. “There will be no trace left of the old Turkey.”

Belarus Crackdown Throws US Sanctions Relief in Doubt

The Trump administration must decide by the end of this month whether to grant Belarus continued relief from U.S. economic sanctions despite a stiff government crackdown on street demonstrations last month.

The renewal decision is considered a low-level priority for the administration, which is facing bigger questions about U.S. relations with Russia and China, and with most major diplomatic positions still unfilled.

But whether the United States renews the sanctions relief or instead returns to blacklisting nine major Belarus companies is an early test for the Trump administration on the importance it puts on human rights versus efforts to coax countries in Russia’s orbit to turn to the West.

The sanctions waivers, which began in 2015 and were extended twice last year, were tied to domestic political reforms and intended to encourage Belarus, which has long historical ties to Russia, to move closer to the European Union and the United States.

Now, however, U.S. officials are alarmed by the arrests of hundreds of people last month during an attempt to hold a street protest in the capital Minsk, and concerned if continuing sanctions relief could be seen as ignoring the crackdown.

Belarus authorities last month raided a human rights group’s offices and used violence against peaceful protesters, rights groups say.

“This most recent crackdown sharpened people’s focus,” said a U.S. congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Now there is a real question about whether or not they [the sanctions] should be reimposed.”

April deadline

The decision must be taken by the end of April. If the administration makes no decision, the sanctions will be reimposed.

NATO members, including Poland and the Baltic states, feel threatened by what they see as increased Russian intervention in Europe, including Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.

“Belarus is so important from a strategic point of view and it’s so dependent economically on Russia that we are really very concerned,” said Piotr Wilczek, the Polish ambassador to the United States. “Belarus is becoming more and more part of this wider Russian problem we have.”

The Trump administration is inclined to renew the sanctions relief, but likely would wait until the last minute “to make sure they don’t do anything awful,” said a U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

State and Treasury Department officials declined to comment in detail on the Belarus sanctions. The Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.

President George W. Bush in 2006 blacklisted top Belarus officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, for undermining the country’s democratic processes or human rights abuses. The United States later added large Belarus companies to the sanctions list.

But in 2015, Lukashenko released political prisoners and indicated he was open to better relations with the West. That October, President Barack Obama temporarily lifted sanctions on nine Belarus companies, including petrochemical conglomerate Belneftekhim and tire manufacturer Belshina.

Now, however, Lukashenko appears to be keeping his country firmly in Moscow’s orbit. In a letter to him last week, four U.S. senators said they were concerned over the crackdown and that he decided to allow Russia to conduct “provocative” military exercises in Belarus later this year.

Hungarian President Signs New Law Threatening Soros University

Hungary’s right-wing president has signed controversial legislation on foreign universities that critics warn could force the closure of a top international institution founded by U.S. financier George Soros.

The approval Monday by President Janos Ader came less than a day after tens of thousands of protesters rallied in central Budapest against the legislation, which is seen as targeting Central European University.

Soros founded CEU — an English-language institution of about 1,400 students from more than 100 countries — in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time, the financier’s move was widely hailed as helping Hungary transition from decades of communism to democracy by providing exposure to democratic ideals.

The legislation signed Monday requires all 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary to have campuses in their home countries, as well. Critics have for months pointed out that CEU is the only university among the 28 with no overseas branch, fueling widespread fears the law aims to deny young people access to the Western-leaning CEU and its pro-democracy curriculum.

The new law further bars colleges and universities based outside the European Union from awarding Hungarian diplomas without the consent of the respective governments.

Without such consent, the law will ban the university from enrolling new students after Jan. 1, 2018, and force it to close in 2021.

State media quoted the president Monday as insisting the new law “does not infringe [on] freedom of learning or of teaching” enshrined in Hungary’s constitution.

However, last week the U.S. embassy in Budapest issued a statement critical of the legislation, while accusing lawmakers who backed it of targeting the Soros-founded university. Embassy Charge d’ Affaires David Kostelancik also said that Washington will continue to advocate for CEU’s “unhindered operation in Hungary.”

Prime minister viewed harshly in West 

Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose ruling Fidesz party crafted the legislation, is viewed in much of Europe and beyond as an autocrat and a xenophobe who has long viewed the liberal internationalist Soros as an ideological foe.

Orban is an outspoken critic of EU migration policy and has loudly criticized sanctions against Russia that were imposed by the EU and the United States after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

The online U.S. publication Politico described him in 2015 as “Europe’s new dictator.”

Last October, thousands of demonstrators marched in Budapest to protest the sudden closure of the country’s largest-selling opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag. 

Those protests also targeted Orban, who has long been accused of stifling press freedoms and isolating private media outlets critical of his controversial anti-migrant stance.

The newspaper’s shutdown came just weeks after it published reports alleging widespread corruption within Orban’s ruling party, including close allies of the prime minister.

G-7 Foreign Ministers Seek US Clarity Over Syria

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven major industrialized nations meet on Monday for an annual gathering, with Europe and Japan seeking clarity

from the United States on an array of issues, especially Syria.

The two-day summit in Tuscany comes as the United States moves a Navy strike group near the Korean peninsula amid concerns over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and as the West’s relations with Russia struggle to overcome years of mistrust.

But the civil war in Syria is likely to dominate talks, with Italy hoping for a final communique that will reinforce United Nations’ efforts to end six years of conflict.

The meeting will give Italy, Germany, France, Britain, Canada and Japan their first chance to grill the new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on whether Washington is now committed to overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mixes messages

President Donald Trump had hinted he would be less interventionist than his predecessors and more willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses if it was in U.S. interests.

Given this, the U.S. attack on Syria last week in retaliation for what it said was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces on Syrian civilians confounded many diplomats.

However, there is uncertainty over whether Washington now wants Assad out, as many Europeans are pushing for, or whether the missile strikes were simply a warning shot.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said over the weekend that regime change in Syria was a priority for Trump, while Tillerson said on Saturday the first priority was the defeat of Islamic State.

The mixed messages have confused and frustrated European allies, who are eager for full U.S. support for a political solution based on a transfer of power in Damascus.

“The Americans say they agree, but there’s nothing to show for it behind (the scenes). They are absent from this and are navigating aimlessly in the dark,” said a senior European diplomat, who declined to be named.

Libyan worries

The foreign ministers’ discussions will prepare the way for a leaders’ summit in Sicily at the end of May.

Efforts to reach an agreement on statements and strategy ahead of time – a normal part of pre-meeting G-7 diplomacy – has gone very slowly, partly because of a difficult transition at the U.S. state department, where many key positions remain unfilled.

Some issues, such as trade and climate change, are likely to be ducked in Tuscany. “The more complicated subjects will be left to the leaders,” said an Italian diplomat, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

However, the foreign ministers will talk about Libya.

Italy is hoping for vocal support for a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, that has struggled to exert its influence in the city, let alone in the rest of the violence-plagued north African country.

The Trump administration has not yet defined a clear policy and Rome fears Washington may fall into step with Egypt, which supports general Khalifa Haftar, who operates in eastern Libya.

The struggle against terrorism, relations with Iran and on-going instability in Ukraine will also come up for discussion, with talks due to kick off at 4.30 p.m. (1430 GMT).

Second Suspect Arrested Over Sweden Truck Attack

Swedish authorities have arrested second person in connection with Friday’s truck attack in Stockholm that killed four people and wounded 15 others.

There were no immediate details about the additional suspect and how that person is connected to the 39-year-old Uzbek national suspected of ramming a stolen truck into an upscale shopping hub

The suspected terrorist was previously known to Swedish intelligence services, but authorities say he was not a part of any ongoing investigations.

“Nothing indicates we have the wrong person,” said the head of Sweden’s national police, Dan Eliasson, in comments to reporters Saturday. “On the contrary, suspicions have strengthened as the investigation has progressed.”

Photos taken at the scene Friday showed the vehicle was a truck belonging to beer maker Spendrups, which said its truck had been hijacked earlier in the day.

Witnesses say the truck drove straight into the entrance of the Ahlens Department Store on Drottninggatan, the city’s biggest pedestrian street, sending shoppers screaming and running. Television footage showed smoke coming out of the store after the crash.

Following the attack, Stockholm’s central train station was evacuated and nearby buildings were locked down for hours. Police say they have increased security at the country’s borders.

Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf expressed his condolences for the victims and their families in a brief statement.

“We follow developments but as of now our thoughts go to the victims and their families,” he said. The king cut short a visit to Brazil on Friday to return home.

A number of European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and London’s mayor, Saddiq Khan, have released statements indicating their solidarity with Sweden.

“One of Europe’s most vibrant and colorful cities appears to have been struck by those wishing it — and our very way of life — harm,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

French President Francois Hollande voiced his “horror and indignation” over the assault. Paris’ Eiffel Tower went dark for five minutes Friday to honor the victims of the attack.

The U.S. State Department also condemned the attack, adding, “Attacks like this are intended to sow the seeds of fear, but in fact they only strengthen our shared resolve to combat terrorism around the world.”

Tens of Thousands Gather in Stockholm After Deadly Truck Attack

Tens of thousands of Swedes turned out in Stockholm Sunday for what they called a “lovefest” after Friday’s terrorist truck attack killed four people and injured 15.

A 39-year-old Uzbek believed to have extremist sympathies is under arrest for allegedly ramming a stolen truck into a crowd at the Ahlens department store.

“Fear shall not reign. Terror cannot win,” Mayor Karin Wanngard told a crowd estimated at 50,000.

One woman held a poster reading: “We don’t respond with fear, we respond with love.”

Friday’s attack apparently had little effect on liberal Sweden’s global reputation as an open and welcoming society.

One participant at Sunday’s rally told the Associated Press that the fact the suspect is a refugee means nothing.

“This is a sick individual and has nothing to do with his refugee status. I think most Stockholmians realize that just because you are a refugee or a Muslim doesn’t mean you are a terrorist.”

Police arrested the Uzbek-born suspect hours after the truck attack. He was known to intelligence services since last year when he disappeared before he could be deported after his application for asylum was rejected. Authorities knew he had pro-extremist sympathies.

But no group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack and no motive is known.

Police say they have arrested a second person in connection with the attack, but have given no further information.

Photos taken at the scene Friday showed the vehicle was a truck belonging to beer maker Spendrups, which said its truck had been hijacked earlier in the day.

Witnesses say the truck drove straight into the entrance of the Ahlens Department Store on Drottninggatan, the city’s biggest pedestrian street, sending shoppers screaming and running. Television footage showed smoke coming out of the store after the crash.

Christians Celebrate Palm Sunday

Pope Francis, who is scheduled to visit Egypt later this month, decried Sunday’s blast at a Coptic Church in Egypt’s Nile Delta that killed 21 worshippers and wounded dozens more.

 

At the end of his Palm Sunday Mass, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholic Church said, ” I pray for the dead and the victims. May the Lord convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence and death and even the hearts of those who produce and traffic in weapons.”

Earlier, in his homily, Francis denounced the suffering in the world today.

He said those who ” . . . suffer from slave labor, from family tragedies, from diseases . . . They suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike.”

Before the beginning of the Mass, Francis and a group of cardinals, holding elaborately braided palm fronds, walked through the crowd at Saint Peter’s Square.

In Jerusalem, worshippers at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher celebrated Palm Sunday by waving palm branches during the procession next to the newly restored Tomb of Jesus.

The church in Jerusalem’s Old City is believed to be the burial site of Jesus.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ triumphant entry in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago and the beginning of the Christian Easter Holy Week.

 

Norway Police Find, Detonate Bomb, Arrest Suspect

Norwegian police set off a controlled explosion of a “bomblike device” found in central Oslo Saturday, a suspect is being held in custody, and the security police are investigating, authorities said.

A Reuters reporter described a loud bang shortly after the arrival of Oslo’s bomb squad.

“The noise from the blast was louder than our explosives themselves would cause,” a police spokesman said, while adding that further investigation would be conducted at the scene.

The device had appeared to be capable of causing only a limited amount of damage, the police said earlier.

Police declined to give information about the suspect.

Norway’s police security service said in a tweet it had taken over the investigation from local police.

Oslo’s Groenland area, a multi-ethnic neighborhood that is home to popular bars and restaurants as well as several mosques, is also where the city’s main police station is located, less than a kilometer from where the device was found.

In neighboring Sweden, a truck Friday plowed into crowds in Stockholm, killing four people and wounding 15 in what police said was an apparent terror attack.

In 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo that killed eight people and destroyed Norway’s government headquarters, before going on a shooting rampage that killed 69 people at nearby Utoeya island.

British Foreign Minister Cancels Russia Visit

Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, canceled plans Saturday to visit Moscow, just hours before he was due to depart London, as tensions escalated between the U.S. and Russia over Syria.

Russian leaders, who have dubbed as illegal the U.S. action to punish the government of President Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons, ramped up the war of words late Friday when the country’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, warned America was “one step away from military clashes with Russia.”

In an apparent show of force, a Russian frigate armed with cruise missiles, reportedly was heading into the Mediterranean. According to Russian state media, the ship, the Admiral Grigorovich, will dock at Tartus on the Syrian coast.

Russia also has pledged to bolster Syria’s air defenses.

News of the cancelation of the British foreign minister’s trip was relayed first by Johnson himself, who tweeted: “I will now not travel to Moscow on Monday 10 April.” He said his priority was to hold talks with Western allies about Syria and Russia’s support for Assad.

British officials say that Johnson’s trip was called off after the British foreign minister consulted his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who himself is due to visit the Russian capital in a few days.

They said Johnson wants to spearhead efforts to help shape a “coalition of support” against Russian activity in Syria. In a statement later, Johnson said, “Developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally.”

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman described the cancelation as “absurd.”

Johnson was due to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and the two diplomats were expected to hold a joint news conference.

“It seems that our Western colleagues live in their own kind of reality in which they first try to single-handedly make collective plans, then they single-handedly try to change them, coming up with absurd reasons,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a statement.

“Unfortunately, stability, and consistency have long stopped being the hallmark of Western foreign policy,” she added.

As the diplomatic turmoil unfolded, activists Saturday claimed Syrian government warplanes had again struck Khan Sheikhoun, the rebel-held town targeted earlier in the week in an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the London-based pro-opposition watchdog that gathers information from activists on the ground, claimed a woman was killed and three people wounded after being machine-gunned by jets in an eastern neighborhood.

The warplanes carrying out Saturday’s alleged raid are believed to have flown from al-Shayrat, the airbase targeted Thursday by the U.S. in a punitive barrage of 59 Cruise missiles strike, the greatest show of America firepower in more than a decade. Tuesday’s chemical attack left scores dead, including children and women, according activists. U.S. officials so far have not commented on the claimed raid. In addition, there was no confirmation by other monitors.

There also was an unconfirmed report of a U.S.-led raid against the Islamic State in the countryside around Raqqa, the terror group’s de facto capital in Syria. The observatory quoted local activists as saying missiles struck the village of Hanida, to the west of the city.

 

Tillerson Heads to Moscow Days After US Missile Strikes in Syria Anger Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow on April 12, just days after the United States launched missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed civilians.

Officials say the top U.S. diplomat will urge Russia to rethink its continued support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

 

Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, said on Saturday he had canceled a visit to Moscow that was scheduled for April 10. “Developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally,” said Johnson in a statement.

 

Secretary of State Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Wednesday, after he attends the G-7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Italy from April 9 to 11.

 

The State Department did not respond to VOA’s inquiry on whether Tillerson’s Moscow trip has been changed or canceled since the U.S. military strikes.  

 

Analysts say Washington needs the diplomatic follow-up, though, after the military action.

 

The top U.S. diplomat, known as a man of few words, had harsh comments for Russia, which Washington blamed for failing to rein in its ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

 

“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” said Tillerson on Thursday night. He was referring to the Kremlin’s failure to prevent the Assad government from allegedly conducting a poison gas attack that killed scores of people in rebel-held Idlib province.

 

In 2013, the Syrian government agreed to surrender its chemical weapons under the supervision of the Russia government. Prior to the recent gas attack, Tillerson said Assad’s future would be decided by the Syrian people. After the attack, he took aim at Assad’s government and Russia’s support for him.

 

Experts said the U.S. military strike could complicate Tillerson’s diplomatic mission to Moscow, and that an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the future of Assad also is possible. 

 

“For sure this means further immediate bumps in the bilateral relationship,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told VOA.

 

He said despite the fact that the missile strikes were quite limited and Washington had warned Moscow ahead of time so that Russian soldiers would not be in danger, Moscow’s reaction was rather strong.

 

Herbst, now director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said Russia’s decision to suspend the de-confliction mechanism, which is intended to avoid accidents, was not well considered.

 

“While de-confliction serves the interest of both U.S. and Russian, it is more important to Moscow” because U.S. conventional forces are far superior and “Russian forces are more at risk in case of an incident,” said Herbst.

 

“The strikes undoubtedly change the tone of the conversation, given the de-confliction protocols, between Russia and the U.S. have been suspended in Syria,” Michael Kofman from Center for Naval Analyses told VOA.

 

Professor Doga Ulas Eralp of American University in Washington told VOA on Friday that Tillerson “now has to scramble to broker a deal” that would allow a sustainable coordination mechanism between the two countries “if the U.S. is determined to escalate its military engagement in Syria.”

 

Middle East Institute scholar Daniel Serwer told VOA the military strikes “shoot the Syria agenda item to the top.” The key question is whether Tillerson can get something going with the Russians on a political solution in Syria,” he added.

 

Former U.S. officials say the Syrian chemical attack is a major challenge to the nascent relationship between the Trump administration and the Kremlin.

 

“It is vital that the U.S. corrects course and that the current administration moves quickly from a set of alarming and ignorant comments to having a real policy and strategy for managing and mitigating Putin’s negative impacts on world peace and security,” said former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Daniel Baer.

 

Alexei Arbatov, director of the Center of International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, told VOA’s Russian service that while the U.S. missile strike in Syria complicates U.S.-Russian relations, “the reaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry thus far has been quite restrained, and it is not rejecting the possibility of agreements and cooperation with the United States.”

 

While Washington is willing to work with Moscow in areas of practical cooperation, the State Department said Secretary Tillerson will make it clear the U.S. is committed to holding Russia accountable when international norms are violated.

 

Kosovo Bows to US, NATO Pressure, Puts Off Plan to Create Army

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci bowed to pressure from traditional allies the United States and NATO on Friday by putting off plans to establish an army strongly opposed by the country’s minority Serbs.

Nearly two decades after the Kosovo war, relations between Serbia and the ethnic Albanian-majority government in Kosovo remain strained. Serbia continues to regard Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, as a renegade province.

Thaci last month found a way to bypass Serb opposition in parliament to constitutional amendments required for an army by drafting changes to an existing law on the Kosovo Security Forces that would allow the KSF to acquire heavy weapons. This would effectively turn it into a military force.

But Washington and NATO, which has kept forces in Kosovo since intervening in 1999 to stop Serbia’s killings of ethnic Albanian civilians in a counter-insurgency campaign, voiced concern that the move could unravel Kosovo’s fragile peace.

The Pristina government ordered the creation of a national army in 2014 but minority Serb deputies said they would block the required constitutional amendments.

On Friday, Thaci – a former Kosovo guerrilla commander – sent a letter to parliament asking it not to vote on his amendments so as to allow Western diplomats more time to convince Serbs to approve the amendments.

“The representatives of the Serb community should not think for any single second that Kosovo will not create its armed forces,” Thaci told a conference in the capital Pristina attended by the U.S. ambassador and other West European envoys.

The KSF is currently a lightly armed, 2,500-member force trained by NATO and tasked with crisis response, civil protection and disposal of ordnance from the 1999 conflict.

NATO and the United States do not oppose the creation of an army in principle but say the constitution must be changed first, which would require the votes of 11 Serb deputies in the 120-seat parliament.

“We do not expect the people of Kosovo to wait forever on this [formation of the army], nor do we believe any party should veto,” U.S. Ambassador Greg Delawie said.

“Kosovo needs a legitimate capability to defend itself before KFOR [NATO mission] can consider leaving.” KFOR retains around 4,500 troops in Kosovo.

UN: Thousands of Children Traumatized by War in Ukraine

Hundreds of thousands of children are paying a heavy price in the three-year conflict between the government of Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern part of the country.

Although the war has taken thousands of lives and injured many more, the U.N. children’s fund said the conflict has been all but forgotten by the world and become an “invisible crisis” to all except those forced to suffer from ongoing violence, abuse and deprivation. 

Among those hardest hit are the more than 200,000 children living along the “contact line,” a 15-kilometer zone that divides government and rebel-controlled areas where the fighting is most intense.

“These are children that are surviving death, that are living constantly with the sound of shelling, that have witnessed death. Some children have even witnessed the death of loved ones,” said Giovanna Barberis, UNICEF’s Ukraine representative.

Barberis has frequently traveled to the contact line and seen the hardships and suffering of the children, who live in a state of constant fear and uncertainty. The trauma has taken a huge emotional and psychological toll, according to Barberis.

“Parents, teachers, school directors and psychologists describe striking behavior changes among children as young as 3 years old,” she said. “Children are very anxious. They wet their beds. They have nightmares. In some cases, they act quite aggressively and often withdraw from their families and friends.”

Barberis said some children no longer seek safety in bomb shelters because they think such attacks are “normal now.”

“Families and children are getting used to living in a very abnormal and exceptional situation,” she said. “But this does not mean that they cope well with the situation.”

Escalating hostilities

There have been multiple violations of the Minsk peace agreement since it was signed in September 2014 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

In its latest report on the situation in Ukraine, the U.N. Human Rights Mission found that a sharp escalation of hostilities between January 29 and February 3 had “a devastating impact” on all aspects of life for civilians living along the contact line. It said seven civilians were killed and 46 wounded in those six days.

In addition, “Several hundreds of people are isolated and deprived of basic necessities,” according to the report. The nearest grocery store is seven kilometers away, and children crossing the contact line have “to walk up to three kilometers to go to school.”

UNICEF’s Barberis told VOA that it often was not safe to go to school, so children had difficulty gaining regular access to education.

“We have estimated that from the beginning of the conflict, something like 740 schools were damaged or destroyed,” she said, “and just these last few weeks, when we had the deteriorating situation of the areas along the contact line … something like seven schools were damaged.”

Barberis said children in eastern Ukraine require urgent and sustained support to help them come to grips with the daily trauma of war. However, she noted, UNICEF has received less than one-third of the $31.2 million it needs to support children and families affected by the conflict.

“Children should not have to live with the emotional scars from a conflict they had no part in creating,” Barberis said.

Russia’s Suspension of US Cooperation on Syrian Airspace Elevates Risk of Clash

Russia on Friday condemned the U.S. strike on a government-controlled air base in Syria, saying it would bolster Syria’s air defenses in response. President Vladimir Putin’s office called the action a “significant blow” to the Russia-U.S. relationship. The tension comes just ahead of a visit to Russia by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.

Buk Missile Launcher Wasn’t Within Range of MH17, Bellingcat Reports

A few days before the July 2014 missile attack on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, a Ukraine Army-operated Buk missile launcher was located not near fighting in the east, as Moscow has long insisted, but hundreds of kilometers to the west.

That’s what a team of journalists and researchers at Bellingcat, a Britain-based investigative website, has concluded after lengthy analysis of digital images taken by a Ukrainian army chaplain.

Bellingcat, which specializes in using open-source information such as social media posts to analyze conflicts, was one of the first groups to produce evidence debunking key elements of the Russian government’s claim that Ukrainian forces shot down MH17 on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. Bellingcat’s conclusion — that Moscow doctored images in order to buttress allegations that Kyiv was responsible for the single worst atrocity of the war — was later corroborated by arms control researchers at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey in California.

Bellingcat’s new report says metadata from a series of digital images prove that the exact same Buk missile launcher that Moscow claims was within striking range of MH17 on the day of the attack was actually stationed at Mirgorod Air Base in Poltava, central Ukraine — well outside of firing distance.

“The only operational Buk missile launcher observed within firing range of MH17 on July 17, 2014, was the Russian Buk 332, from the Kursk-based 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” a surface-to-air combat unit of the Russian ground forces that was stationed in eastern Ukraine at the time, Bellingcat reported.

Kyiv-based political scientist Yuri Lesnichiy of the Institute of Analysis and Forecasting says the new information will prove vital to undercutting the Kremlin narrative surrounding the tragedy.

“Such high-profile investigations … carry across particular information and the Kremlin finds it difficult to twist the facts that the Europeans will believe in,” he told VOA’s Russian Service.

Immediately after MH17 was shot out of clear blue skies over the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s RIA state news agency reported that Russian-backed separatists had successfully shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft. They retracted the story upon learning that it was a civilian airliner that had been brought down.

In March, Ukraine asked the United Nations’ highest court to order Russia to stop funding and equipping pro-Russian separatists. In that filing, they cited a September 2016 six-country investigation team led by the Netherlands, which said MH17 had been shot down with a Russian-manufactured Buk surface-to-air missile from an area controlled by pro-Russian forces.

Russia denies sending troops or military equipment to eastern Ukraine and has dismissed findings of the September 2016 probe as biased and politically motivated.

This report was translated by Svetlana Cunningham and produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian Service.

European Lawmakers Approve Visa-free Travel for Ukrainians

The European Parliament on Thursday supported easing travel rules for Ukrainians, driving on a Western integration viewed with great suspicion by Moscow.

Ukraine has been the scene of the worst confrontation between Russia and the West in Europe since the Cold War with Moscow annexing Crimea from Kyiv in 2014 and backing separatist rebels in the east of the country.

The West has sided with Ukraine, where Russia intervened after a Moscow-allied president was toppled by street protests demanding an end to corruption and closer EU ties. Russia denies direct military involvement in its southern neighbor.

European lawmakers voted 521 to 75 to grant Ukrainians holding biometric passports the right to visit for up to 90 days for tourism, business or visiting relatives and friends.

“Great day for the people of Europe and Ukraine,” said Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a Swedish member of the Parliament.

The visa waiver, which does not give Ukrainians the right to work in the EU, is expected to take effect this summer.

The pro-Western government in Kiev is moving closer to the EU and NATO. But a weak economy and endemic corruption would hinder any move to accession, and some states would be unwilling to further anger Ukraine’s Soviet-era ruler, Russia, by incorporating it into an alliance it views as hostile.

The waiver covers all EU states except Ireland and Britain, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland – not in the EU but members of Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone.

Kyiv’s Europe Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said the vote on Thursday was “a strong signal to the aggressor that Ukraine is on its way back to the European family.”

Three years of fighting in Ukraine’s industrial east killed more than 10,000 people.

While the heaviest battles have died down, the conflict is still simmering and peace efforts are stalled amid mutual recriminations by Kyiv, EU and NATO on the one side, and Russia and the rebels on the other.

Proposed Law Aims to ‘Discredit’ Hungarian Charities, Watchdog Says

Hungarian charities on Thursday criticized a draft law that would require them to declare foreign funding, saying it would clamp down on freedom of speech and undermine their work with migrants and other vulnerable groups.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party said it would present a bill to parliament this week requiring nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) with a yearly foreign income of 7.2 million forints ($25,000) to register with authorities.

The bill said “foreign interest groups” could use their funding of local NGOs to “pursue their own interests” in Hungary, threatening the country’s political and economic interests.

“This is an attempt to discredit NGOs in the eyes of the public,” said Anika Bakonyi, project manager at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog group.

The Fidesz announcement came a day after parliament approved a law that could force out a university founded by Hungarian-born financier George Soros, despite protests against the move and condemnation abroad.

Orban, a critic of liberal civil organizations that receive grants from Soros’ Open Society Foundation, said last week that Central European University had violated regulations in awarding diplomas, an allegation the college rejected.

European lawmakers have demanded disciplinary action against Hungary over the crackdown on foreign universities, the latest step by Orban to subdue independent institutions — including the judiciary, central bank, NGOs and media.

Goran Buldioski, the Hungarian-based director of the Soros-funded Open Society Initiative for Europe, said he expected small civil society organizations would suffer the most.

This “long-term policy” of the government was designed “to eradicate all voices that speak freely,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We find it totally unnecessary, stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

French Election Looking More Like 4-Way Race

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is threatening to turn France’s presidential election into a four-way race, the latest opinion polls show, confirming a surge of support for him after a strong showing in a TV debate this week.

Two polls conducted after a televised debate among candidates Tuesday night showed the 65-year-old Communist-party-backed candidate just a percentage point or two behind third-placed conservative Francois Fillon in an unpredictable contest in which over a third of voters are still undecided.

A Harris Interactive poll published Thursday showed centrist Emmanuel Macron holding onto a narrow first round lead over far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with the two frontrunners on 25 and 24 percent respectively.

Voting starts April 23

The two-stage election will be April 23 and May 7.With just over two weeks to go until voting starts, the big move, however, was the surge by Melenchon, a veteran campaigner of the far left.

Intentions to vote for him climbed to 17 percent in the first round, up from 13.5 percent two weeks ago, while Fillon, whose campaign has struggled as he faced nepotism allegations, saw his score hold steady at 18 percent.

A separate Elabe poll published Wednesday evening showed Melenchon up 2 points from a week ago, also at 17 percent, and also narrowing the gap with Fillon, who was up 1 point at 19 percent. It had Le Pen and Macron on 23.5 percent each.

Both polls showed Macron beating Le Pen comfortably in the second round.

Winning performance

A political showman who excoriates establishment politicians with his rapid-fire discourse, Melenchon was seen by pollsters as the most convincing performer in the four-hour TV debate Tuesday night that was watched by more than 6 million people.

He clashed with Le Pen during the debate over her focus on the tensions created by religion in politics, but his policies advocating greater worker protection, and his hostility to the European Union in its current form, are similar to hers.

He would also pull France out of NATO and called during the debate for the debt of troubled euro zone states to be effectively written off to allow massive new investment to spur growth.

Founder of the “France Unbowed” party, he has split the left-wing vote and turned the Socialists into also-rans after five years of rule by Socialist President Francois Hollande marked by high unemployment and low economic growth.

Pollsters say Melenchon is gaining votes from Hamon, who is struggling to stay above a 10 percent rating in the polls, but he is also getting votes from further afield.

Unexpected supporters

Gianni Pierson, 38, from the staunchly conservative town of Provins where Fillon campaigned Wednesday, had traditionally voted on the right, and plumped for ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy at the last election in 2012.

Partly as a result of losing his job as a salesman, he has turned more to the left, first Hamon, but now, he told Reuters, “almost made my choice for Melenchon” after being inspired by his performance in debates.

In a potential boost for Hamon though, Socialist Finance Minister Michel Sapin confirmed Thursday that he would vote for the party’s official candidate.

Some other senior Socialists, including Jean-Yves Le Drian have jumped ship to join Macron.

The 29-year-old ex-banker was until 2016 a minister on the Socialist government, but is running as an independent having formed his own political movement called En Marche! (Onwards!) 

Explosive Device Disarmed in St. Petersburg Residential Building

Russian authorities have made safe an explosive device found in a residential building in St. Petersburg, the TASS news agency reported on Thursday.

A law enforcement source told Reuters that fire engines had turned up at the building in question and that people living in flats on two stairwells had been evacuated.

The city is still reeling after a bomb ripped through the St. Petersburg metro on Monday, killing 14 people.

An explosion in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don early Thursday, injured one person, a law enforcement source told TASS.

REN-TV cited witnesses as saying that the explosion happened near a school on Sadovaya Street and that a maintenance worker was injured in the blast.