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Washington (AFP)

May 11, 2017

The US State Department has approved the possible sale of 160 missiles to the United Arab Emirates for an estimated $2.0 billion, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

The UAE government has requested the possible sale of 60 Patriot missiles with canisters and 100 Patriot guidance enhanced missiles, among other military equipment, according to a Department of Defense statement.

“This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of an important ally which has been, and continues to be, a force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” it said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_approves_sale_of_2_billion_in_missiles_to_UAE_Pentagon_999.html.

May 11, 2017

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Nigeria’s government is negotiating “seriously” for the release of more than 110 kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls still held by Boko Haram and will exchange more detained members of the extremist group for them if needed, an official said Thursday.

“We will not relent until all are back,” the minister of women’s affairs and social development, Aisha Alhassan, told reporters in the capital, Abuja. The mass abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school three years ago brought world attention to Boko Haram’s deadly rampage in northern Nigeria. Thousands have been kidnapped or killed in the group’s eight-year insurgency, with millions driven from their homes.

On Saturday, 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls were released. Nigeria’s government exchanged them for five detained Boko Haram commanders, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to reporters on the matter. Negotiations with the extremist group, mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, also resulted in the October release of a first group of 21 Chibok girls.

Alhassan said Nigeria’s government had no regrets about exchanging Boko Haram commanders for the schoolgirls’ release. “We’ll do it again if needed,” she said in comments tweeted by Nigeria’s government.

Families in Chibok were meeting with community leaders to identify the newly freed schoolgirls from photos to determine if they will travel to the capital to meet them. The young women were joining those released earlier in government care in Abuja, where they were undergoing medical screening that will take a couple of weeks, Alhassan said. Some must undergo surgery, she said.

The government has been caring for 24 previously released girls and four babies, Alhassan said. A small number of the schoolgirls managed to escape on their own. The group of girls released in October were in “bad shape” and spent two months in medical care, the minister said.

Human rights groups have criticized the government for keeping them so long in the capital, far from their homes. Alhassan said they traveled to Chibok for Christmas but upon their return to the capital said they were scared to go back to their community.

The girls said they wanted to go back to school so a nine-month reintegration program was designed for them, the minister said. The newly released girls will join the program. The parents of the freed Chibok schoolgirls “are free to visit them at any time. We will never prevent them from seeing their daughters,” Alhassan said.

Some of the girls who escaped shortly after the mass kidnapping said some classmates had died from illness, and others were radicalized and didn’t want to come home. Human rights advocates have said they fear some of the girls have been used by Boko Haram to carry out suicide bombings.

May 05, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A leading German politician says the government shouldn’t allow voting in Germany in a possible referendum on whether to reintroduce the death penalty in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken of reinstating the death penalty since narrowly winning expanded powers last month. Germany and other European countries vehemently oppose executions.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry has noted that the government must approve sovereign actions by other countries, such as referendums, on its territory. It permitted polling stations for Turkish nationals in last month’s Turkish constitutional referendum.

Martin Schulz, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s challenger in September elections, told Der Spiegel magazine Friday: “We cannot allow voting in Germany on an instrument that contradicts our values and our constitution.”

Schulz’s center-left party is the junior partner in Merkel’s current coalition government.

Washington (AFP)

May 4, 2017

The Pentagon will ask the White House next week to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan to break a deadlocked fight with the Taliban, a senior official said Thursday.

After a steady downsizing of US troop numbers since 2011, US military commanders say they need to strengthen the numbers on the ground to better support Afghan forces and help retake territory lost to the Taliban.

According to US media, the Pentagon will ask for 3,000 to 5,000 more soldiers, mainly to be assigned to advise and train Afghan military and police.

US troops in Afghanistan number about 8,400 today, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, also now in an advisory capacity.

But that is a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago, and the Afghan military has struggled to fill the void amid an unrelenting Taliban insurgency.

“I expect that these proposals will go to the president within the next week,” said Theresa Whelan, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

The intent is “to move beyond the stalemate and also to recognize that Afghanistan is a very important partner for the United States in a very tricky region.”

NATO officially ended its combat operations against the Taliban at the end of 2014, and its current mission is to support Afghan troops in training and advice.

Last year, with the Kabul government struggling to hold ground against the Taliban, former president Barack Obama authorized US air strikes against the Taliban in limited cases, to ensure Afghan forces on the ground would have a “strategic advantage.”

The new Trump administration could go beyond that to permit more direct engagement between US forces and the Taliban, General Raymond Thomas, commander of the US Special Operations Command, told the same hearing Thursday.

“Changes to the rules of engagement are being considered,” he said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Pentagon_to_request_thousands_more_troops_for_Afghanistan_next_week_999.html.

May 07, 2017

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Eighty-two Chibok schoolgirls seized three years ago by Boko Haram have been freed in exchange for detained suspects with the extremist group, Nigeria’s government announced early Sunday, in the largest release negotiated yet in the battle to save nearly 300 girls whose mass abduction exposed the mounting threat posed by the Islamic State-linked fighters.

The statement from the office of President Muhammadu Buhari was the first confirmation that his government had made a swap for the girls. After an initial release of 21 Chibok girls in October, the government denied making an exchange or paying ransom.

The April 2014 abduction by Boko Haram brought the extremist group’s rampage in northern Nigeria to world attention and, for families of the schoolgirls, began years marked with heartbreak. Some relatives did not live long enough to see their daughters released. Many of the captive girls, most of them Christians, were forced to marry their captors and give birth to children in remote forest hideouts without ever knowing if they would see their parents again. It is feared that other girls were strapped with explosives and sent on missions as suicide bombers.

As word of the latest release emerged, long-suffering family members said they were eagerly awaiting a list of names and “our hopes and expectations are high.” Before Saturday’s release, 195 of the girls had remained captive. Now 113 of the girls remain unaccounted for.

The freed girls were expected to meet with Buhari on Sunday in the capital, Abuja. A Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation said the freed girls were found near the town of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon.

“The location of the girls kept changing since yesterday when the operation to rescue them commenced,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make the announcement.

Boko Haram remains active in that area. On Friday, the United States and Britain issued warnings that the extremist group was actively planning to kidnap foreigners in an area of Borno state “along the Kumshe-Banki axis.”

The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 are among thousands of people abducted by Boko Haram over the years. The mass abduction shocked the world, sparking a global #Bringbackourgirls campaign supported by former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities. It has put tremendous pressure on Nigeria’s government to counter the extremist group, which has roamed large parts of the north and into neighboring countries.

“This is a very, very exciting news for us that we have over 80 of our girls coming back again,” Bukky Shonibare with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign told Sky TV. “Their life in captivity has been one that depicts suffering, it depicts the fact that they have been starved, abused, and as we have seen before some of those girls have come back with children, and some of them have also come back with news of how they have been sexually abused.”

The latest negotiations were again mediated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nigeria’s government said. At the initial release of girls in October, the government said the release of another 83 would be coming soon. But at the three-year anniversary of the kidnapping in April, the government said negotiations had “gone quite far” but faced challenges.

Buhari late last year announced Boko Haram had been “crushed,” but the group continues to carry out attacks in northern Nigeria and neighboring countries. Its insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes, with millions facing starvation.

Larson reported from Dakar. Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Hilary Uguru in Warri, Nigeria, contributed.

2017-03-18

ISTANBUL – Turkey on Saturday started work on building what it says will be the world’s longest suspension bridge, spanning the Dardanelles strait that divides Europe and Asia.

The bridge is the latest in a succession of massively ambitious infrastructure projects championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the launch of the project comes a month ahead of a referendum on expanding his powers.

Authorities expect that work on the bridge will be completed in 2023, the year that Turkey celebrates the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the modern republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Appropriately, the span of the bridge is to be 2,023 meters (6,637 feet).

This will make it the longest suspension bridge in the world, overtaking the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan which is just under 2,000 meters long, state media said.

The ground breaking ceremony was attended by Erdogan on the Asian side and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on the European side of the site.

“The bridge will be the number one in the world. It will connect Europe and Asia,” said Erdogan.

The bridge is being built by a four way consortium of Turkish firms Limak and Yapi Merkezi and Daelim and SK of South Korea.

The ceremony was attended by South Korean Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Ho-in Kang.

The bridge will also be the first ever permanent structure to span the Dardanelles — known as the Hellespont in the ancient world — which occupy a near mythical place in world history.

Persian king Xerxes is said by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus to have build pontoon bridges across the Hellespont to transport his troops from Asia into Thrace in a campaign of 480 BC.

British romantic poet Lord Byron famously swam across the Hellespont in 1810, a feat repeated by ambitious modern-day swimmers in an annual race.

The area is hugely important to Turks as where Ottoman forces resisted an 1915 invasion by British, Australian and other Allied forces in World War I, known in the West as the Gallipoli campaign.

The resistance of the Ottoman forces is seen as their greatest hour in a war the declining empire lost, and is commemorated with increasing fervor in modern Turkey.

In recognition of this, the bridge will be known as the Canakkale 1915 bridge after the year and the Turkish province where it is located.

Over the last year, Erdogan has opened the first road tunnel underneath the Bosphorus and the third bridge across the Istanbul strait.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82131.

2017-03-17

ANKARA – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday urged Turks resident in Europe to have five children, telling the millions strong diaspora community “you are Europe’s future.”

Turkey and Europe are locked in a bitter spat after Germany and the Netherlands blocked Turkish ministers from holding rallies to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in next month’s referendum on expanding Erdogan’s powers.

Erdogan has repeatedly accused EU states of behaving like Nazi Germany over what he sees as discrimination against Turks, in comments that have caused outrage across the continent.

“From here I say to my citizens, I say to my brothers and sisters in Europe… Educate your children at better schools, make sure your family live in better areas, drive in the best cars, live in the best houses,” said Erdogan.

“Have five children, not three. You are Europe’s future.”

“This is the best answer to the rudeness shown to you, the enmity, the wrongs,” he added in a televised speech in the city of Eskisehir, south of Istanbul.

Some 2.5 million Turkish citizens resident in Europe are eligible to vote in elections in their homeland. But millions more people living in EU states have Turkish origins.

Erdogan, a father of four, has previously urged women in Turkey to have at least three children to help boost the population, in comments denounced by women’s rights activists.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82124.

2017-03-16

ANKARA – Turkey is planning to ban popular television dating shows as they do not fit in with Turkish traditions and customs, the deputy prime minister has said.

Numan Kurtulmus was referring to matchmaking reality television shows which are very popular in Turkey but receive thousands of complaints every year.

“There are some strange programs that would scrap the institution of family, take away its nobility and sanctity,” Kurtulmus said in comments to a provincial TV channel published by the Hurriyet daily on Thursday.

“We are working on this and we are coming to the end of it. God willing, in the near future, we will most likely remedy this with an emergency decree,” Kurtulmus added.

“God willing, we will meet these societal demands,” he said in the interview which took place on Wednesday.

His comments are set to raise concerns in a country whose political system rests on the secular foundations laid by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at its creation in 1923.

Opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government frequently voice fears that Turkey is sliding toward conservative Islam.

Kurtulmus described such programs as counter to Turkey’s “customs, traditions, beliefs, the Turkish family structure and the culture of Anatolian lands”.

He hit back at those who claimed they were ratings successes: “So what the ratings are very high and thus the advertising revenue is high? Let there not be that kind of advertising revenues.”

The deputy premier said he had been told there were 120,000 individual cases of complaints against such programmes.

Last year, Turkey’s audiovisual authority RTUK said it received comments from 10,691 citizens about such programmes, most of which were complaints.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan previously caused controversy when he likened abortion to murder in 2012 when he was prime minister.

Critics also claim education reforms, including the increase in religious schools, show the country’s secular foundations are being undermined.

The Turkish religious affairs agency Diyanet criticized matchmaking shows last month saying they “exploited family values and desecrated the family institution by stepping on it with (their) feet”.

The Turkish authorities insist there is full freedom of religious belief in the country’s diverse society.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82110.

March 13, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey announced a series of political sanctions against the Netherlands on Monday over its refusal to allow two Turkish ministers to campaign there, including halting high-level political discussions between the two countries and closing Turkish air space to Dutch diplomats.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, briefing journalists after the weekly council of ministers meeting, said the sanctions would apply until the Netherlands takes steps “to redress” the actions that Ankara sees as a grave insult.

“There is a crisis and a very deep one. We didn’t create this crisis or bring it to this stage,” Kurtulmus said. “Those who did have to take steps to redress the situation.” Other sanctions bar the Dutch ambassador entry back into Turkey and advise parliament to withdraw from a Dutch-Turkish friendship group

The announcement came hours after Turkey’s foreign ministry formally protested the treatment of a Turkish minister who was prevented from entering a consulate in the Netherlands and escorted out of the country after trying to attend a political rally.

The ministry also objected to what it called a “disproportionate” use of force against demonstrators at a protest afterward. Separately, Turkey’s foreign minister was denied permission to land to address the same rally in Rotterdam.

The argument is over the Netherlands’ refusal to allow Turkish officials to campaign there to drum up support among Turks who are eligible to vote in an April 16 referendum that would greatly expand the powers of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

About 400,000 people with ties to Turkey live in the Netherlands, though it’s not clear how many are eligible to vote. Erdogan said the two cabinet ministers — Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, would ask the European human rights court to weigh in on their treatment. He added that he didn’t think the court would rule in Turkey’s favor.

Earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the Netherlands in its diplomatic fight with Turkey, as NATO’s chief called for alliance members to respect each other and the European Union urged Turkey to calm down.

Turkey had a similar dispute with Germany last week, but the fight with the Netherlands comes as that country prepares for its own election Wednesday pitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s right-wing PVV Party against far-right, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders’ party.

Merkel, speaking at a news conference in Munich on Monday, pledged her “full support and solidarity” to the Dutch, saying the Nazi gibes were “completely unacceptable.” Erdogan responded angrily to Merkel’s support for the Netherlands. “Shame on you!” he exclaimed during an interview with A Haber television on Monday.

He renewed accusations that Germany supported “terrorists” battling Turkey and that it backed the ‘no’ campaign in the Turkish referendum, arguing that Berlin did not want to see a strong Turkey emerge.

“Some of the European Union countries — let’s not put all of them in the same sack — unfortunately cannot stomach Turkey’s rise,” Erdogan said. “Sadly, Germany tops the list. Germany supports terror in a cruel way.”

He went on to advise Turks living in Europe not to vote for parties that he described as “enemies of Turkey.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged all members of the alliance “to show mutual respect, to be calm and have a measured approach.”

The European Union also called on Turkey to “refrain from excessive statements and actions that risk further exacerbating the situation.” EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas added that it was essential to avoid further escalation and find ways to calm the situation.

In the television interview, Erdogan repeated slurs against the Netherlands, saying: “their Vienna Convention is their fascism. Their Nazism. We can say neo-Nazism.” He was referring to a 1961 international treaty on diplomatic relations.

Turkey is a candidate to join the European Union, although the membership negotiations have made little progress over the past decade. The country has become a vital partner in a deal with the EU to curb the passage of migrants and refugees from Turkey into Europe.

Omer Celik, Turkey’s minister in charge of European Union affairs, said Monday that his country should consider reviewing the migration deal to relax controls on people reaching Europe by walking into Greece or Bulgaria.

“In my opinion the issue of the land passages should be reviewed,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying. The Dutch, meanwhile, issued a travel advisory to their citizens to “be alert and avoid gatherings and busy places throughout Turkey.”

Earlier in the day, Turkey summoned the Dutch Embassy’s charge d’affaires, Daan Feddo Huisinga, to the Foreign Ministry, where a senior official handed him two formal protest notes. It’s the third time the Dutch diplomat has been summoned since tensions broke out between the two countries.

The first note protested how the family minister was treated. The second note protested the treatment of Turkish citizens who gathered outside the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam from Saturday night into Sunday morning, saying “disproportionate force” was used against “people using their right to peaceful gatherings.”

The deputy prime minister said the political sanctions would remain in place until the Dutch government meets conditions that were set out in the diplomatic protest notes, including apologizing and punishing authorities who mistreated Turks

“Until the Netherlands takes steps to compensate for what it did, high-level relations, planned meetings, meetings between ministers or higher level meetings, high-level official talks will be suspended or delayed,” Kurtulmus said.

Associated Press Writers Mike Corder in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

March 11, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — On a mission to rehabilitate its image, Turkey is instead inching closer to being an outcast among Western nations that seem to understand their NATO ally less and less each day.

Eight months after a failed coup shattered its delicate status quo, Turkey is mounting a concerted but thus far futile campaign to convince the outside world that the horrors of that day justify both its post-coup crackdown and a referendum on strengthening presidential powers. So too has Turkey been unable to convince the U.S. that the shadowy, exiled cleric it blames for the coup attempt is culpable and must be extradited.

Squeezed between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has sought to project an image of a modern democracy that serves as a bulwark against the extremism menacing so many of its Mideast neighbors. Yet a series of self-defeating steps are telling reminders of how wide a gulf still separates Turkey from the Western world.

“I’m not saying that we’re perfect. We’re not. I’m not saying that mistakes aren’t being made,” said Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek. But he said the outside world must “at least try to understand the traumatic experience that Turkey has been going through.”

This week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to stoke tensions further when he accused Germany of “Nazi practices” after Turkish leaders had been prevented from rallying expats in several Germany cities in support of the referendum. Many in Europe worry that Erdogan is capitalizing on post-coup fears to push through a more authoritarian system with few checks on his power.

For the West, there are real risks if Turkey feels estranged and mistreated. The country is pivotal to resolving the unrelenting civil war in neighboring Syria, where Turkey and the U.S. are at a logjam over Turkey’s distrust of the Syrian Kurdish fighters the U.S. is relying on to fight the Islamic State group. And though Turkey’s bid to join the European Union has lost momentum, Turkey holds major leverage by way of its deal with the EU to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, which Turkey has threatened to scuttle.

Turkey’s inability to make its case to the West effectively was displayed this week in the capital, Ankara, whose mayor invited a group of American journalists to interview Erdogan and other top officials, including Turkey’s foreign minister, intelligence chief and military commander.

After flying to Turkey, the journalists discovered there were no interviews arranged with those officials. Instead, they spoke with other officials, including the mayor, Melih Gokcek, a member of Erdogan’s party. He screened graphic videos aiming to reinforce how traumatic the coup attempt had been. Then he offered unfounded conspiracy theories that the U.S. created the Islamic State group and that the U.S. and Israel colluded to artificially trigger an earthquake in Turkey so they could capture energy from the fault line.

Underlying Turkey’s strategy to explain itself to the West is an apparent belief that its case is most convincing when couched in bedrock Western principles, regardless of whether the appeals to those principles seem credible.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, who also met with the visiting group, claimed no journalists in Turkey are in prison for doing journalism, even though scores have been arrested. Since the failed coup, at least 100 news outlets have been forcibly closed in a clampdown Human Rights Watch says has “all but silenced independent media.” Yet Bozdag insisted any journalists in prison were there for drugs, trespassing or for “propagandizing for terrorist organizations.”

Turkish leaders have expressed exasperation that they are lambasted for the steps they took after the coup while France gets a “pass” for the state of emergency imposed after the 2015 Paris attacks. But France — unlike Turkey — didn’t arrest 41,000 people and purge 100,000 from its civil service.

Likewise, Turkey has sought to appeal to Americans’ own experiences with terrorism by repeatedly comparing 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric Turkey says plotted the coup. Gulen, living in exile in Pennsylvania, denies involvement.

Although Turkey says it has provided roughly a half million pieces of evidence to support its extradition request, the U.S. remains unconvinced. What little evidence Turkey has made public has been mostly anecdotes about arrested military members confessing loyalty to Gulen’s movement.

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament, said there are frequent and ineffective efforts taking place in Western cities and in Turkey to burnish Turkey’s image, often comprising poorly planned presentations alleging Gulen’s guilt. But Erdermir said the West isn’t the only intended audience.

Because Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party once had close ties to Gulen’s group, the party’s leaders are vulnerable to being implicated if the post-coup crackdown moves higher up the power structure, Erdemir said.

“A lot of people are trying to prove to Erdogan they are holier than thou, that they are fighting the anti-Gulen crusade at least as enthusiastically,” said Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “One of the best defenses is doing such stunts. It really is a paranoid moment in Turkish political history.”