Archive for October, 2018


October 12, 2018

ALIAGA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish court on Friday convicted an American pastor on terror charges but released him from house arrest and allowed him to leave the country, a move that’s likely to ease tensions between Turkey and the United States.

The court near the western city of Izmir sentenced Andrew Brunson to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison for allegedly helping terror groups. But since the evangelical pastor had already spent nearly two years in detention, Turkish law allowed him to remain free with time served.

The earlier charge of espionage against him was dropped. Brunson, a native of North Carolina whose detention had sparked a diplomatic dispute between the two NATO allies, had rejected the espionage and terror-related charges and strongly maintained his innocence.

The 50-year-old native of North Carolina had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges. With tears in his eyes, he hugged his wife Norine Lyn as he awaited the decision Friday. Lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Brunson was expected to leave Turkey for the U.S., but it was not clear when. His lawyer said the electronic ankle bracelet for monitoring was removed. Brunson was seen going back to his home in Izmir from the court.

President Donald J. Trump tweeted he was praying for Brunson and announced his release, saying “WILL BE HOME SOON!” Washington had repeatedly called for Brunson’s release and in August had slapped sanctions on Turkey.

But a top Turkish official criticized Trump’s tweet and American pressures for the pastor’s release. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun repeated the president’s message that Turkey would not bow to threats of sanctions and said the court’s ruling proved the judiciary’s independence.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was one of thousands caught up in a widespread government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.

He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups and of alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.

“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” Brunson told the court Friday, speaking in Turkish. Earlier, the court called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at a previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. The new witnesses did not confirm Kalkan’s accusations. Another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.

The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. He was imprisoned for nearly two years – detained in October 2016 and formally arrested in December that year – before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.

Tony Perkins, the commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he welcomed the court’s decision Friday along with “the millions of Americans who have been praying for Pastor Brunson’s release.”

Washington imposed sanctions on two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports in August. Those moves, coupled with concerns over the government’s economic management, helped trigger a Turkish currency crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had resisted U.S. demands for Brunson’s release, insisting that Turkish courts are independent. But he had previously suggested a possible swap of Brunson for the Pennsylvania resident Fethullah Gulen – the cleric that Erdogan has accused of being behind the coup attempt.

Gulen has denied the claim. Turkey has demanded his extradition but so far U.S. officials say Turkey has not provided sufficient reason for U.S. officials to extradite the cleric, a former ally of Erdogan who had a falling out with the powerful leader.

Brunson’s trial came as another major diplomatic case is developing in Turkey involving Saudi writer and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. Turkish officials claim the writer may have been killed inside the Saudi diplomatic mission and Turkish newspapers have released pictures of alleged Saudi agents flown in to allegedly handle the killing. Saudi officials reject the claim as “baseless.”

Associated Press journalists Mehmet Guzel contributed from Aliaga and Suzan Fraser from Ankara, Turkey.

OCT. 12, 2018

By Nicholas Sakelaris

Oct. 12 (UPI) — Longtime Turkish captive Andrew Brunson was released from house arrest Friday, allowing the pastor to return to the United States after two years in captivity.

Brunson has been in Turkish custody since October 2016 when he was arrested on charges that he spied on the government and aided in a military coup attempt. Diplomatic relations between Washington, D.C., and Ankara have strained during the drawn-out ordeal.

Sources in the White House familiar with the negotiations say the Trump administration struck a deal with Turkey that included easing sanctions on the country.

At a court hearing Friday, Brunson was first sentenced to more than three years in prison but the judge then lifted all judicial controls — including a travel ban — based on Brunson’s good behavior and time already served.

President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey after Ankara refused to release Brunson in August.

On Friday, he celebrated the pastor’s release on Twitter.

This followed an earlier tweet where Trump said, “Working very hard on Pastor Brunson.”

Sources confirmed Trump was working on a deal with Ankara, though no details have been released.

“This administration has been actively engaged in seeking Pastor Brunson’s release for months, along with NASA scientist Serkan Golge and the employees of the U.S. mission in Turkey,” a senior administration official said. “A positive development in the cases of Pastor Brunson, Serkan Golge, and local employees of the U.S. mission in Turkey would do much to improve confidence and to restore the bilateral relationship.”

Turkey is holding 20 Turkish-Americans and three Turks who work for the American consular mission to use as leverage for disputes with the United States. Turkey wants Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen to be extradited from the United States. Gulen is accused of running the terrorist group behind the 2016 coup attempt.

Brunson has been under house arrest since July because of health problems. A security detail took him from the home to the courthouse in Aliaga for the trial on Friday.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2018/10/12/Turkey-releases-US-pastor-Andrew-Brunson-after-2-years-in-captivity/4421539347136/.

October 21, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections entered a second day on Sunday following violence and chaos that caused delays and interruptions on the first day of polling. Independent Elections Commission Chairman Abdul Badi Sayat said more than 3 million people out of 8.8 million registered voters cast their ballots on Saturday. The biggest turnout was in Kabul and the lowest in the southern Uruzgan province.

Polling on Sunday continues in 401 voting centers, including 45 in Kabul. Polls close at 4 p.m. (1130 GMT). The results of the polling will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until December.

The first parliamentary elections since 2010 are being held against a backdrop of near-daily attacks by the Taliban, who have seized nearly half the country and have repeatedly refused offers to negotiate with the Kabul government. The U.S.-backed government is rife with corruption, and many Afghans have said they do not expect the elections to be fair.

Officials at polling stations struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. The biometric machines arrived just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan praised those who had made an effort to vote despite the technical issues, many of whom waited in long lines for hours as polling stations remained open late. “Those eligible voters who were not able to cast their vote, due to technical issues, deserve the right to vote,” it said in a statement.

The Taliban had vowed to attack the election, and on the first day of polling at least 36 people were killed in nearly 200 attacks, including 27 civilians, according to Interior Minister Akhtar Mohammed Ibrahimi. He said security forces killed 31 insurgents in gun battles.

October 20, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years suffered from violence and chaos Saturday, with a multitude of attacks killing at least 3 people, key election workers failing to show up and many polling stations staying open hours later than scheduled to handle long lines of voters.

Problems surrounding the elections — already three years overdue — threaten to compromise the credibility of polls which an independent monitoring group said were also marred by incidences of ballot stuffing and intimidation by armed men affiliated with candidates in 19 of the country’s 32 provinces. Some areas have yet to vote, including Kandahar, where the provincial police chief was gunned down Thursday.

Stakes were high in these elections for Afghans who hoped to reform Parliament, challenging the dominance of warlords and the politically corrupt and replacing them with a younger, more educated generation of politicians. They were also high for the U.S., which is still seeking an exit strategy after 17 years of a war there that has cost more than $900 billion and claimed more than 2,400 U.S. service personnel.

The most serious attack on the polls was in a northern Kabul neighborhood where a suicide bomber blew himself up just as voting was about to end, killing three people and wounding another 20, many of them seriously, said Dr. Esa Hashemi, a physician at the nearby Afghan Hospital.

The police and Interior Ministry officials reported a total of 15 casualties, without providing details on the number of those killed and wounded. However, Najib Danish, a ministry spokesman, said police officers were among the dead.

Polling stations also struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud, but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. Also, the biometric machines were received just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.

Many polling stations opened as much as five hours behind schedule. The Independent Election Commission was uncertain how many of the estimated 21,000 polling stations closed by 4 p.m. local time, the original closing time. Polling was extended until 8 p.m. local time for all those polling stations that opened late, and those that could not open before 1 p.m. local time will open Sunday.

Afghanistan’s deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqiq expressed outrage at the chaotic start to polling and assailed election preparation by the country’s election commission. “The people rushed like a flood to the polling stations, but the election commission employees were not present, and in some cases they were there but there were no electoral materials and in most cases the biometric systems was not working,” he said.

“The widespread reports today of confusion and incompetence in the administration of the elections … suggest that bureaucratic failures and lack of political will to prioritize organizing credible parliamentary elections may do more to delegitimize the election results than threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh,” said Andrew Wilder, vice-president of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, using the Arabic acronym name for the Islamic State group.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on another election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan’s remotest corners.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said, also reminding those elected that they are there to serve the people and ensure the rule of law. North of Kabul, thousands of outraged voters blocked a road after waiting more than five hours for a polling station to open, said Mohammad Azim, the governor of Qarabagh district where the demonstration took place.

Election Commission Commissioner Abdul Badi Sayat said dozens of teachers who had been trained in the new biometric system had not shown up for work at the polling stations. It wasn’t clear whether that was related to a Taliban warning directed specifically at teachers and students telling them to stay away from the polls.

“The long lines at many polling stations today, despite the threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh, clearly demonstrate that the problem with Afghan elections is not the enthusiasm of Afghan voters for a democratic future,” said Wilder.

The Defense Ministry said it had increased its deployment of National Security Forces to 70,000 from the original 50,000 to protect polling stations. Elections in the provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni have been delayed as well as in 11 of the country’s nearly 400 districts.

The Independent Election Commission registered 8.8 million people. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters “very, very brave” and said a turnout of 5 million would be a success. At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.

“We don’t care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time,” said 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan’s 249-seat Parliament. He bemoaned the current Parliament dominated by warlords and corrupt elite. “They have done zero for us.”

In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In the capital of Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested city.

Commission deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said results of Saturday’s voting will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until later in December.

Wednesday 17/10/2018

RAQA – All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverized cityscape of Syria’s Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the Islamic State group.

Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa — along with the roads and bridges leading to it — remains in ruins.

To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.

They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city’s outskirts.

“It’s hard — the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning,” says bearded Abu Yazan.

“We want the bridge to be repaired because it’s safer than water transport.”

The remains of Raqa’s well-known “Old Bridge” stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.

It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa’s bridges to cut off the jihadists’ escape routes.

The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.

But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr.

“The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges,” he says, to link vital areas in Raqa’s countryside.

Houses, belongings long gone

Rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 percent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

The national hospital, the city’s largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.

Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.

Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.

“I buried him myself with these two hands,” says Muidi, 48.

“I was not as affected when I lost the house, but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family,” he adds.

Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighborhood.

“The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them,” he says.

Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi’s hair and beard.

“How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all,” he says.

Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month.

But the city remains haunted by one of IS’s most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that still maims and kills residents to this day.

The RCC says it does not have enough money to clear out the rubble still clogging up Raqa’s streets, much less rehabilitate its water and electricity networks.

Khodr unfurls a map of the city in front of him at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighborhoods.

“The districts in the center of the city were more damaged — 90 percent destroyed — compared to a range of 40 to 60 percent destroyed in the surrounding areas,” he said.

“The destruction is massive and the support isn’t cutting it.”

‘No hope at all’

A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sits despondently on a curbside in the Al-Ferdaws neighborhood.

Fighting destroyed his home, so he now squats in another house but there has been no water there for three days.

“I come sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water. But no one comes,” the 70-year-old says, tearing up.

He points to a mound of rubble nearby.

“My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us — we’re literally begging for water.”

The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble, and rehabilitate schools in Raqa, but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.

“You can’t call this reconstruction — it’s all empty talk,” says Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.

He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.

Farwati says he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.

“If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction. But there’s no hope at all,” he says.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/raqa-remains-ruins-one-year-recapture.

Friday 26/10/2018

DEAD SEA – At least 18 people, mainly schoolchildren and teachers, were killed on Thursday in a flash flood near Jordan’s Dead Sea that happened while they were on an outing, rescuers and hospital workers said.

Thirty-four people were rescued in a major operation involving police helicopters and hundreds of army troops, police chief Brigadier General Farid al Sharaa told state television. Some of those rescued were in a serious condition.

Many of those killed were children under 14. A number of families picnicking in the popular destination were also among the dead and injured, rescuers said, without giving a breakdown of numbers.

Hundreds of families and relatives converged on Shounah hospital a few kilometers from the resort area. Relatives sobbed and searched for details about the missing children, a witness said.

King Abdullah cancelled a trip to Bahrain to follow the rescue operations, state media said.

Israel sent search-and-rescue helicopters to assist, an Israeli military statement said, adding the team dispatched at Amman’s request was operating on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

Civil defence spokesman Captain Iyad al Omar told Reuters the number of casualties was expected to rise. Rescue workers using flashlights were searching the cliffs near the shore of the Dead Sea where bodies had been found.

A witness said a bus with 37 schoolchildren and seven teachers had been on a trip to the resort area when the raging flood waters swept them into a valley.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/least-18-people-die-flash-flood-jordan%C2%A0.

Thursday 25/10/2018

AMMAN – A decision by Jordan’s King Abdullah II to reclaim territory leased to Israel for a quarter of a century was spurred by domestic pressures and the Arab nation’s struggling economy, experts said.

The move announced at the weekend risks sparking a crisis between the neighboring countries which signed an historic peace treaty in 1994, they warned.

King Abdullah said his country had notified Israel that it wants to take back two border areas: Baqura in the northern province of Irbid and Ghumar in the southern province of Aqaba.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would like to open negotiations with Jordan to keep the current arrangement in place.

The Hashemite kingdom said it was willing to engage in talks but insisted on its right to reclaim the land.

Israel occupied Jordanian territories including Ghumar in the Six-Day War of 1967 and seized Baqura when its forces infiltrated the kingdom in 1950.

During peace talks, Jordan agreed to lease the lands to Israel for a 25-year renewable period under annexes of the treaty that lay down a one-year notice period, with the kingdom retaining sovereignty.

King Abdullah’s announcement on Sunday came days before the end of this notice period.

“The king had two choices: either risking a crisis with Israel, or risking protests and a worsening of the internal situation,” said Oraib Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.

“Jordanians on the street are angry, especially over the economy, and they don’t need new crises or disappointments,” he said.

‘Nationalist card’

Jordan, largely dependent on foreign aid and devoid of natural resources, has been plagued by economic woes, with a jobless rate of 18.5 percent and around 20 percent of the population teetering on the brink of poverty as consumer prices rise.

The king’s announcement came after a series of demonstrations calling for the return of Baqura and Ghumar organised by lawmakers, political parties, trade unions and activists.

The move was greeted with joy by many Jordanians.

“The Jordanian people are happy with this courageous decision,” said teacher Mohammed Hassan.

Suad Yussef, a housewife, said it was an “historic moment”.

For Kirk H. Sowell, a Jordan-based analyst for Utica Risk Services, the decision was “the least that King Abdullah can do to play the nationalist card”.

“It is definitely directed at the domestic audience” in a country with “loads of internal socio-economic problems” but “few options in pushing back at Israel,” Sowell said.

Rantawi said that “going back on this decision is impossible” as it would be likely to destabilize the kingdom.

In June, a parliamentary delegation from the opposition Islamist bloc Al-Islah visited Baqura, where Jordanians need permission to enter.

The delegation was headed by Saleh al-Armuti, who said “the decision is that of the king, the people’s government and the parliament and we strongly support and defend it”.

“We will go further by demanding the cancellation of all agreements signed with the Zionist enemy,” he said.

‘Suicidal choice’

Opinion polls have repeatedly found that the peace treaty with Israel is overwhelmingly opposed by Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.

The Baqura zone amounts to six square kilometers (2.3 square miles) and Ghumar covers four square kilometers — land where Israeli farmers cultivate cereals, fruit and vegetables.

Rantawi does not rule out the possibility that Israel will “impede the implementation of the Jordanian decision”.

“Jordan could face a political, economic and legal battle with Israel,” he said.

“Netanyahu wants negotiations to extend the agreement, which would be a suicidal choice for Jordan.”

Relations between the two countries have been tense since the killing of two Jordanians by an Israeli embassy security guard in Amman in July last year.

But Sowell said he believes Israel does not have the legal means to challenge the Jordanian decision.

“Israel has means of pushing back on Jordan, by cutting off the water, or not lobbying for Jordan in (the US) Congress as they normally do, but whether they should is a different question,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/what-pushed-jordan-reclaim-land-israel.

October 26, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — The son of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi has left Saudi Arabia after the kingdom revoked a travel ban and allowed him to come to the United States. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino says Washington welcomes the decision.

It’s the latest turn in the saga of the killed Saudi writer and dissident after the kingdom on Thursday cited evidence showing that his killing was premeditated — changing its story again to try to ease international outrage over the macabre circumstances of Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed the case of Khashoggi’s son, Salah Khashoggi, during his recent visit to the kingdom, making it “clear to Saudi leaders” that Washington wanted the son to return to the United States.

Thursday 18/10/2018

DUBAI – A gargantuan touring book sale that touts itself as the world’s largest is making its first stop in the Middle East, filling a huge hangar in Dubai with stacks of 3 million discounted books, open around the clock.

The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2009, has since regularly toured Asian cities including Jakarta, Manila, Cebu, Colombo, Bangkok and Taipei. Organizers hope to attract as many as 300,000 visitors during 11 days in Dubai.

Founder Andrew Yap said he expects the sheer number of books will lure in punters.

“In a mature market like Dubai, this will give variety to readers,” he said.

Roudha Al Marri, an Emirati co-author of a guide to life in the UAE whose own book was on sale at the fair, said a city such as Dubai needed such an event to help spur reading among a “tablet generation” preoccupied with screens.

“To hold a book, smell it, to return us to more beautiful days, to throw us into mazes of stories. Every generation needs this,” she said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/worlds-largest-book-sale-comes-middle-east.

October 28, 2018

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian authorities have forced their way into a private zoo and removed 12 animals due to fears they were malnourished. Police and conservation officials on Sunday forced their way past a locked main gate into the Safari Zoo Park in Mbrostar, 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital, Tirana. The zoo had been closed by owners after criticism emerged about the treatment of its animals.

Veterinarians from Four Paws, an international animal welfare charity, sedated 12 animals there — three lions, a bear, a waterbuck, four deer, a fox, a zebra and a turtle — to transport them to Tirana’s public zoo.

Albania’s environment and tourism ministry said it took the animals because their living quarters were too cramped and some were sick. Zoo owners have denied that the animals were sick or malnourished.