Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qassem Soleimani deaths absent from Donald Trump campaign pitch

Trump’s top counterterrorism triumphs missing from campaign pitch

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President Donald Trump salutes as he arrives on Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, as he returns from Springfield, Mo. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, July 20, 2020

President Trump’s two highest-profile counterterrorism victories have been largely absent from his reelection pitch, a departure from recent elections in which the winning candidate made a prominent case for fortitude in battling jihadis.

Unlike President George W. Bush, who ran for reelection during his war on terror, or President Obama, who made the raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden a cornerstone of his 2012 campaign, Mr. Trump and his team have yet to fully capitalize on the president’s successes against terrorism.

Neither the mission in October that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi nor the January strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has been given significant attention in Mr. Trump’s battle with presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden.

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The successful operations, which eliminated two of the world’s most powerful and dangerous terrorist leaders and seemingly offer powerful ammunition for a commander in chief who prides himself on strength, have been mostly missing from Mr. Trump’s recent speeches. His campaign also hasn’t made them the focus of a major concerted advertising blitz in the way political observers might expect.

Analysts say there are several reasons why. The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic free fall, as well as recent racial justice protests, have consumed so much political space that there is little room for foreign policy on the campaign trail let alone a serious appetite among voters to hear about it.

But political insiders say other factors are also at play. They say a more aggressive pitch on the president’s counterterrorism successes could backfire.

One concern is that the deaths of al-Baghdadi and Soleimani, while important victories in the fight against extremism, wouldn’t have the same emotional impact among voters as bin Laden’s demise.

“President Trump has had many foreign policy successes to advertise, though admittedly it’s hard to compare killing terrorist leaders who aren’t household names with the man responsible for 9/11 attacks,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Trump campaign national security adviser and Pentagon spokesman.

“Another complicating factor in getting that positive message out is that since many of our 2016 campaign advisers were framed as Russian agents by the #Resistance, including Democrats in Congress and legacy media, it could be safer for the current campaign to avoid foreign policy altogether,” he said.

Foreign policy record

The Biden campaign and its liberal allies have been taking the foreign policy fight to Mr. Trump. They say the president has been soft on Russia, bungled relations with China, unnecessarily stoked tensions with Iran, abandoned American allies in Syria and made a host of other serious missteps.

The backdrop of the political attacks is broader turmoil inside the Trump campaign.

Last week, Bill Stepien was tapped as Mr. Trump’s new campaign manager in a seeming demotion for Brad Parscale.

Although campaign officials denied that Mr. Parscale had been punished or demoted, the development added to an appearance of internal upheaval at a moment of questionable polling numbers for the president.

Recent polls have shown Mr. Biden with a commanding lead over Mr. Trump nationally and in key battleground states.

One of the big questions heading into the campaign’s final three months centers on the extent to which Mr. Trump may or may not try to steer public attention toward his foreign policy record.

As it tries to regain its footing, the Trump campaign seems willing to fight over foreign policy when attacked. Top campaign officials are quick to contrast the president’s record with that of Mr. Biden, who served as vice president while the Islamic State rose to power in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama also oversaw the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted some economic sanctions on Tehran but, as critics assert, allowed millions of dollars to flow to Soleimani’s Quds Force and the various terrorist outfits it backs across the Middle East.

A matter of messaging

Trump campaign officials say they are aware of the president’s wins on counterterrorism and are prepared to tout them publicly within a wider narrative of national security success over the past four years.

“President Trump kept his promise to rebuild the American military after it was severely depleted under the Obama/Biden administration,” Ken Farnaso, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, told The Washington Times. “And his ‘America First’ agenda has secured the elimination of two most-wanted terrorists, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Qassem Soleimani, the destruction of the ISIS caliphate, and sustained strong political and economic pressure on adversaries like Iran, Venezuela and Russia.”

The president and his surrogates have made those arguments, but there are key differences between the way the Trump campaign is handling the issue this year and how the Obama camp approached it in 2012.

Mr. Obama was reelected in the year after the raid that killed bin Laden, capping nearly a decade of searching for the man behind the 9/11 attacks. The Obama campaign team used the event as a sharp political weapon and suggested that Republican nominee Mitt Romney might not have ordered the mission as commander in chief.

The narrative proved effective in portraying Mr. Obama as a strong, decisive leader and blunting Republican efforts to once again cast a Democrat as weak on international affairs.

One of the more memorable campaign advertisements of 2012 featured former President Bill Clinton saying it was a momentous decision for Mr. Obama to order the assault on bin Laden’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

“Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him,” Mr. Clinton said in the commercial. “He took the harder and the more honorable path, and the one that produced, in my opinion, the best result.”

The ad then asked, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken,” before highlighting the Republican’s questioning about whether the U.S. should launch counterterrorism strikes in Pakistan or spend time and resources searching for a single terrorist leader.

Successes overshadowed

Mr. Trump has aired some memorable campaign commercials, but some political analysts say none has brought his counterterrorism achievements to the forefront the way the Bill Clinton ad did for Mr. Obama.

Some specialists also argue that there may be little the Trump campaign can do at this point to effectively capitalize on the al-Baghdadi and Soleimani operations.

Talking about the strikes or crafting multimillion-dollar ad campaigns to highlight foreign policy achievements of the past, they said, likely would turn off voters who are rightfully consumed with domestic crises playing out at the moment.

“When you have people dying at the numbers they’re dying at in the United States right now, the threat from international terrorism seems to pale by comparison,” said Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco who studies the intersection of politics and foreign policy.

“If Trump embraced that,” Mr. Zunes said, “it could even backfire.”

EU tells US: Stop threatening our companies with sanctions

EU tells US: Stop threatening our companies with sanctions

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European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, July 17, 2020. Leaders from 27 European Union nations meet face-to-face on Friday for the first time since February, despite … more >

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By BY RAF CASERT

Associated Press

Friday, July 17, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union is warning the Trump administration to hold off threatening trade sanctions against EU companies involved in the completion of new German-Russian and Turkish-Russian natural gas pipelines and instead discuss differences as allies.

This week, the Trump administration warned companies involved in the projects they will be subject to U.S. penalties unless they halt their work.

The move has further increased tension in already fraught U.S.-European ties.

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“I am deeply concerned at the growing use of sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, by the United States against European companies and interests,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement, adding similar attempts had already been made in cases involving Iran, Cuba and the International Criminal Court.

“Where policy differences exist, the European Union is always open to dialogue. But this cannot take place against the threat of sanctions,” Borrell said. “European policies should be determined here in Europe, not by third countries.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this week the administration is ending grandfather clauses that had spared firms previously involved in the pipelines’ construction from sanctions authorized by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a 2017 law aimed at punishing Russia, in particular, for interference in U.S. elections and other matters.

The move opens the door for U.S. economic and financial penalties to be imposed on any European or other foreign company over the Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream piplelines, including those that had been working on the projects before the passage of the act and had been previously exempted from the penalties.

Borrell said that “as a matter of principle the European Union opposes the use of sanctions by third countries on European companies carrying out legitimate business.”

The Trump administration has lobbied Europe, particularly Germany, to abandon the pipelines, which it believes put Europe under greater influence from Russia, which has used its energy exports as political leverage.

Pompeo called the pipeline projects the “the Kremlin’s key tools to exploit and expand European dependence on Russian energy supplies,” which he said “ultimately undermine trans-Atlantic security.”

US warns firms about sanctions for work on Russian pipelines

US warns firms about sanctions for work on Russian pipelines

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FILE – In this April 9, 2010 file photo, a Russian construction worker speaks on a mobile phone in Portovaya Bay some 170 kms (106 miles) north-west from St. Petersburg, Russia, during a ceremony marking the start of Nord Stream … more >

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By MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Trump administration on Wednesday hardened its efforts to prevent the completion of new German-Russian and Turkish-Russian natural gas pipelines by warning companies involved in the projects they’ll be subject to U.S. penalties unless they halt their work. The move will likely increase tensions in already fraught U.S.-European ties as well as anger Russia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the administration is ending grandfather clauses that had spared firms previously involved in the pipelines’ construction from sanctions authorized by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a 2017 law aimed at punishing Russia, in particular, for interference in U.S. elections and other matters.

The move opens the door for U.S. economic and financial penalties to be imposed on any European or other foreign company over the Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream projects, including those that had been working on the pipelines before the passage of CAATSA and had been previously exempted from the penalties.

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“This action puts investments or other activities that are related to these Russian energy export pipelines at risk of U.S. sanctions,” Pompeo told reporters at a State Department news conference. “It’s a clear warning to companies. Aiding and abetting Russia’s malign influence projects will not be tolerated. Get out now or risk the consequences.”

Pompeo took aim at the pipeline projects, calling them “the Kremlin’s key tools to exploit and expand European dependence on Russian energy supplies” that “ultimately undermine transatlantic security.”

He noted that the United States, which has ramped up its own energy production under President Donald Trump, “is always ready to help our European friends meet their energy needs.” The U.S. has already begun exporting gas, and some coal, to central and eastern European nations like Belarus, Poland and Ukraine.

The Trump administration has lobbied Europe, particularly Germany, to abandon the pipelines, which it believes put Europe under greater influence from Russia, which has used its energy exports as political leverage. Wednesday’s step comes as Congress advances legislation that would mandate the imposition of sanctions that had been authorized by CAATSA.

The Senate has already unanimously included mandatory Nord Stream 2 sanctions in its version of the new National Defense Authorization Act and the House is expected to follow suit. Sen. Ted Crux, R-Texas, who co-authored the Senate measure with Sen. Jeanne Shaeen, D-N.H., said Wednesday’s announcement along with the pending legislation “should serve as a reminder that any person or company that facilitates in any way pipe-laying for Nord Stream 2 will face the full force of U.S. sanctions.”

Pompeo said he would raise the matter on a brief trip to Europe next week when he plans to visit Britain and Denmark. Denmark last year lifted environmental objections to a portion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, allowing for work to start on its completion.

The U.S. has been an outspoken opponent of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would transport natural gas about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Along with eastern European countries that also oppose the project, the U.S. government argues that it will make Europe dangerously dependent on Russia.

Already the threat of U.S. sanctions has led one company that had not been covered by the grandfather clause to suspend its work on the pipeline. Late last year, the Swiss firm Allseas, which operated ships laying sections of the undersea pipeline, said it was halting work in anticipation of sanctions.

Nord Stream 2 is owned by Russia’s Gazprom, with investment from several European companies. The German government has said it regrets the threat of sanctions and considers them interference in the country’s domestic affairs. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear last week that Germany isn’t considering retaliation against the sanctions.

Russia has said it is, however, considering retaliatory measures. Pompeo spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday, and Trump spoke to Turkey’s president on Tuesday, but there was no indication that the pipelines had been discussed.

With TurkStream, Russian gas passes through the Black Sea to Turkey. Together, the two 578-mile (930-kilometer) TurkStream lines under the Black Sea, along with the Russian and Turkish onshore pipes, have the capacity to carry 31.5 billion cubic meters (1.1 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas annually. Wednesday’s sanctions threat applies to the second TurkStream line.

Russian prankster acts as UN chief, reaches Polish president

Russian prankster acts as UN chief, reaches Polish president

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Candidate in Poland’s tight presidential election runoff, incumbent President Andrzej Duda talks to reporters after having cast his ballot at a polling station in his hometown of Krakow, Poland, on Sunday, July 12, 2020. Conservative Duda is running against liberal … more >

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By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA

Associated Press

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

WARSAW, Poland (AP) – A Russian prankster posing as the U.N. secretary-general managed to reach Poland’s president on the telephone and rendered him speechless with questions about Ukraine, Russia and his reelection on Sunday.

The prankster, Vladimir Kuznetsov, known as Vovan, posted a recording of the 11-minute call on YouTube. President Andrzej Duda’s office confirmed Wednesday that it was authentic.

At various points in the conversation, conducted in English, Duda sounds surprised at the line of questioning but still refers to the impostor as “Your Excellency.”

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Duda tweeted Wednesday that he realized “something was not right” during the conversation, which took place Monday afternoon while the president awaited official word of his election victory.

Duda said he was suspicious because the real United Nations chief, Antonio Guterres does not pronounce the name of Polish vodka brand Zubrowka as well as the caller did. But he conceded that the “voice was very similar.” The president ended his tweet an emoticon of tears of laughter.

Polish state security is investigating how the prankster got through to the president and whether Russia’s secret services were involved.

The Internal Security Agency said in a statement the call had been authorized by an official with Poland’s mission to the United Nations and that his actions are under investigation.

Poland’s relations with Russia are tense, especially over Poland’s support for Ukraine’s drive for closer links with the European Union.

The caller congratulated Duda on his reelection but took the president to task for his hostile campaign comments about the LGBT community, drawing Duda’s assurance that he has “huge respect for every human being.”

Duda also rejected a provocative suggestion that Poland would seek to claim back the Ukrainian city of Lviv, which was part of Poland before World War II.

“No! No! This is Ukraine,” Duda emphasized, adding that no political group in Poland harbored such an idea.

The president also said that Poland has a “discussion about history” with Russian President Vladimir Putin about World War II and the Soviet “occupation” of Poland after the war.

Kuznetsov, and the Russian prankster Alexei Stolyarov, who is known as Lexus, have previously embarrassed European politicians including French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as Elton John and Prince Harry with similar hoax calls.

Australia to offer residence option to 10,000 Hong Kongers

Australia to offer residence option to 10,000 Hong Kongers

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Journalists take picture and video over the water-filled barriers after an opening ceremony for China’s new Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. China’s new national security office in Hong Kong got off to an … more >

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By

Associated Press

Saturday, July 11, 2020

SYDNEY (AP) – The Australian government says it will offer around 10,000 Hong Kong passport holders currently living in Australia a chance to apply for permanent residence once their current visas expire.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government believes China’s imposition of a new tough national security law on the semi-autonomous territory means pro-democracy supporters may face political persecution.

“That means that many Hong Kong passport holders may be looking for other destinations to go to and hence why we have put forward our additional visa options for them,” Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television on Sunday.

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In order to obtain permanent residency, applicants would still have to pass “the character test, the national security test and the like,” Tudge said.

“So it’s not automatic. But it’s certainly an easier pathway to permanent residency and of course once you’re a permanent resident, there’s then a pathway to citizenship there,” he said. “If people are genuinely persecuted and they can prove that case, then they can apply for one of our humanitarian visas in any case.”

Morrison announced last week Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extended visas for Hong Kong residents from two to five years.

The move comes after China bypassed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to impose the sweeping security legislation without public consultation. Critics view it as a further deterioration of freedoms promised to the former British colony, in response to last year’s massive protests calling for greater democracy and more police accountability.

The national security law prohibits what Beijing views as secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities or as foreign intervention in Hong Kong affairs. Under the law, police now have sweeping powers to conduct searches without warrants and order internet service providers and platforms to remove messages deemed to be in violation of the legislation.

China’s foreign ministry said it reserved the right to “take further actions” in response to moves by Canberra. “The consequences will be fully borne by Australia,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing on Thursday.

UN approves aid to Syria’s rebel area through 1 crossing

UN approves aid to Syria’s rebel area through 1 crossing

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FILE – In this Aug. 15, 2018 file photo, local residents receive humanitarian aid from the Russian military in the town of Al-Rastan, Syria. Over the last two days, members of the UN Security Council have been haggling over cross-border … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Saturday, July 11, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Russia scored a victory for its ally Syria on Saturday by forcing the Security Council to limit humanitarian aid deliveries to the country’s mainly rebel-held northwest to just one crossing point from Turkey, a move that Western nations say will cut a lifeline for 1.3 million people.

Russia argues that aid should be delivered from within the country across conflict lines, and says only one crossing point is needed.

U.N. officials and humanitarian groups argued unsuccessfully – along with the vast majority of the U.N. Security Council – that the two crossing points in operation until their mandate expired Friday were essential for getting help to millions of needy people in Syria’s northwest, especially with the first case of COVID-19 recently reported in the region.

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The Security Council vote approving a single crossing from Turkey was 12-0, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining.

The vote capped a week of high-stakes rivalry pitting Russia and China against the 13 other council members. An overwhelming majority voted twice to maintain the two crossings from Turkey, but Russia and China vetoed both resolutions – the 15th and 16th veto by Russia of a Syria resolution since the conflict began in 2011 and the ninth and 10th by China.

Germany and Belgium, which had sponsored the widely supported resolutions for two crossing points, finally had to back down to the threat of another Russian veto. The resolution they put forward Saturday authorized only a single crossing point from Turkey for a year.

In January, Russia also scored a victory for Syria, using its veto threat to force the Security Council to adopt a resolution reducing the number of crossing points for aid deliveries from four to two, from Turkey to the northwest. It also cut in half the yearlong mandate that had been in place since cross-border deliveries began in 2014 to six months.

Before adopting the resolution Saturday, the council rejected two amendments proposed by Russia, including one suggesting that U.S. and European Union sanctions on Syria were impeding humanitarian aid. That contention was vehemently rejected by the Trump administration and the EU, which noted their sanctions include exemptions for humanitarian deliveries. It also rejected an amendment from China.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, said after the vote that from the beginning Moscow had proposed one crossing – from Bab al-Hawa to Idlib – and that Saturday’s resolution could have been adopted weeks ago. He said Russia abstained in the vote because negotiations over the resolution were marred by “clumsiness, disrespect.”

Polyansky accused Western nations on the council of “unprecedented heights” of hypocrisy, saying they were ready to jeopardize cross-border aid over the references to unilateral sanctions.

He said cross-border aid to Syria’s northwest doesn’t comply with international law because the U.N. has no presence in the region, which he described as being controlled “by international terrorists and fighters” that make it impossible to control and monitor who gets aid.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen retorted that while Russia talks about delivery of aid across conflict lines, “in practice it doesn’t” happen.

He said his side fought to maintain multiple crossing points for aid, including the Al-Yaroubiya crossing point from Iraq in the northeast that was closed in January, because that is what is needed for efficient delivery of aid to millions in need – and he asked Polyansky “this is clumsy?”

“This is what we tried to do over these past weeks, to get the optimum to the population,” Heusgen said.

U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft told the council: “Today’s outcome leaves us sickened and outraged at the loss of the Bab al-Salaam and Al Yarubiyah border crossings.”

“Behind those locked gates are millions of women, children, and men who believed that the world had heard their pleas. Their health and welfare are now at great risk,” she said.

Still, Craft called the authorization of access through Bab al-Hawa for 12 months “a victory” in light of Russia and China’s “willingness to use their veto to compel a dramatic reduction in humanitarian assistance.”

“This solemn victory must not end our struggle to address the mounting human needs in Syria – that fight is far from over,” Craft said.

Belgium and Germany said in a joint statement that 1.3 million people, including 800 000 displaced Syrians, live in the Aleppo area, including 500,000 children who received humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Salam crossing – and now have that aid cut off.

“Today is yet another sad day. It is a sad day for this council, but mostly, it is a sad day for the Syrian people of that region.,” they said. “Both Yarubiyah and Bab al-Salam were vital crossings to deliver, in the most efficient way possible, the humanitarian help, those people deserve.”

In a later statement, they added: “One border crossing is not enough, but no border crossings would have left the fate of an entire region in question.”

Cyprus: US military training won’t harm Russia, China ties

Cyprus: US military training won’t harm Russia, China ties

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By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) – Cyprus’ government said Friday that a U.S. decision to provide education and training to the island nation’s armed forces won’t hamper relations with either Russia or China.

Cypriot Defense Minister Charalambos Petrides said “there’s no question” of disrupting the country’s ties with Russia and that inclusion in the U.S. training program doesn’t mean “that we cut relations with other countries.”

Petrides’ remarks echoed President Nicos Anastasiades who hailed the U.S. decision but noted that Cyprus’ relations with Russia and China “will never be perturbed.”

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“A small country like Cyprus strives to build the best possible relations with all permanent Security Council member states,” Anastasiades said at a gas terminal groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the U.S. would for the first time provide military education and training funding to Cyprus following congressional approval.

“This is part of our efforts to enhance relationships with key regional partners to promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Pompeo said.

The announcement prompted criticism from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, whose spokesman Hamit Aksoy said the move would neither help efforts to reunify ethnically split Cyprus nor “ensure peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Turkey cut diplomatic ties with Cyprus after the island nation was cleaved along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup aiming at union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and deploys more than 35,000 troops in the breakaway north.

Cyprus is striving to bolster relations with the U.S., but not at the expense of its ties to Moscow or Beijing on whose support it often counts in the United Nations.

The centerpiece of improved Cyprus-U.S. ties is the Eastern Mediterranean Energy and Security Partnership Act that U.S. lawmakers approved last year.

Military training funding for Cyprus was included in the legislation which underscores U.S. support for a partnership between Greece, Cyprus and Israel based on recently discovered offshore gas deposits in the region.

The act would also lift a 33-year-old arms embargo on Cyprus on the condition that the island nation denies Russian warships access to its ports for “refueling and servicing,” according to the U.S. State Department.

Pompeo slams UN report on deadly US drone strike on Iranian

Pompeo slams UN report on deadly US drone strike on Iranian

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP) more >

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By JAMEY KEATEN

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

GENEVA (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized an independent U.N. human rights expert’s report insisting a American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in January was a “watershed” event in the use of drones and amounted to a violation of international law.

The report presented by Agnes Callamard to the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council on Thursday chronicled events around the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the legal implications of his killing as part of a broader look on the use of drone strikes.

Callamard, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions who has been commissioned by the council, called the January strike in Iraq “the first known incident in which a state invokes self-defense as justification for an attack against a government official outside a declared armed conflict.”

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Pompeo said in a statement late Thursday that the U.S. rejected her report and “opinions.”

“Ms. Callamard’s conclusions are spurious,” he said. “The strike that killed Gen. Soleimani was in response to an escalating series of armed attacks in preceding months by the Islamic Republic of Iran and militias it supports on U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East region.”

Pompeo said the strike on Baghdad International Airport was carried out “to deter Iran from launching or supporting further attacks against the United States or U.S. interests, and to degrade the capabilities of the Qods Force.” He said Callamard “gives more cause to distrust U.N. human rights mechanisms.”

The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the rights council two years ago, accusing it of an anti-Israel bias and alleging that it is too accepting of autocratic regimes that regularly abuse human rights.

Callamard is perhaps best known for leading an investigation into the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national, and issuing a scathing report on the actions of Saudi officials.

In her new report, Callamard acknowledged in her report that international humanitarian and human rights law can provide “diverging answers” on the legal validity of some drone strikes, and the one against Soleimani raised “genuine uncertainty as to how to interpret its lawfulness.

She said the United States had not “engaged with” her as she drafted the drone report. But based on the evidence the U.S. provided, “the targeting of Gen. Soleimani, and the deaths of those accompanying him, constitute an arbitrary killing for which, under (international human rights law), the U.S. is responsible,” she said.

Callamard wrote that the strike targeting Soleimani was “qualitatively different” from other drone strikes that targeted non-state actors.

“This is the primary reason the Soleimani strike is considered a watershed change in the conduct of extra-territorially targeted strikes and killings,” she stated in the report.

“It is hard to imagine that a similar strike against a Western military leader would not be considered as an act of war, potentially leading to intense action, political, military and otherwise, against the state launching the strike,” she added.

Among other recommendations, the report calls on the United Nations to examine the legal framework on the use of drones and for the U.N. Security Council – which Callamard called “missing in action” on the subject of drone strikes – to take up the issues.

The report’s release came as the United States mounts an increasingly intense diplomatic offensive to try to depict Iran’s Islamic Republic as the world’s most rogue regime.

Tehran has countered by issuing an international arrest warrant and asking Interpol for help in detaining President Donald Trump and dozens of others it believes carried out the drone strike on Soleimani. Trump faces no danger of arrest, and Interpol said it would not consider Iran’s request.

___

Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Hospitals in Syria’s rebel area reduce services amid virus

Hospitals in Syria’s rebel area reduce services amid virus

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FILE – In this March 19, 2020 file photo, a member of a humanitarian aid agency disinfects inside Ibn Sina Hospital as prevention against the coronavirus in Idlib, Syria. Hospitals in Syria’s overcrowded opposition-held enclave are suspending non-emergency procedures and … more >

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By SARAH EL DEEB

Associated Press

Friday, July 10, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) – Hospitals in Syria’s overcrowded opposition-held enclave are suspending non-emergency procedures and outpatient services following the detection of the first case of coronavirus, a leading doctor in the area said Friday.

The regional education department also announced it was closing all schools.

The first case of COVID-19, a doctor in the area, was reported on Thursday in Idlib province, the last opposition-held part of Syria in a sliver of land bordering Turkey. The doctor was isolated and the hospital he worked in was shut down. The patients and medical staff he came in contact with have been quarantined.

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There have been major concerns of an outbreak in northwestern Syria, an area packed with more than 3 million people, many of them living in tents and encampments, and where health facilities have been devastated by Syria’s long civil war.

The first virus case in Idlib comes as moves by Russia, a major ally of the Syrian government, are threatening to shut down border crossing between the rebel-held enclave and Turkey.

A vote on a resolution that would determine the fate of two border crossings with the enclave, and how long they remain open, is expected later Friday in the U.N. Security Council. Aid groups and residents of the enclave have warned of dire consequences of limiting or reducing U.N. cross-border aid to the area, already devastated by displacement and destruction from frequent government attacks.

Russia, which argues that aid should come through Damascus, wants to shut down one of two crossings with Turkey. Western nations are pushing to keep the two existing ones open.

On Friday, hours before the initial Security Council resolution on the aid was to expire, 31 trucks carrying medicine and other supplies crossed into northwestern Syria from Turkey through the crossing Russia wants to shut down. U.N. agencies have been stocking up aid and relief supplies in the enclave in recent few weeks, a sign of nervousness over continued access.

As the trucks were crossing into Syria, U.N. Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Cutts said 5,000 trucks had crossed the border in the last six years, monitored by the United Nations, and expressed hope the aid flow would continue.

“It is crucial that we keep this aid operation going,” he said in a video message. He later told reporters that the first case of COVID-19 in the opposition enclave “is a very big worry for us.”

“This has been a vital lifeline that has kept thousands and thousands of civilians alive for the last few years. This is not the time for us to be reducing the aid operations. We have to increase the access not reduce it,” Cutts said. He said 11 of the trucks were carrying medical aid.

Munzer Khalil, the head of the Idlib health directorate, said the measures to suspend non-emergency procedures and reduce services in Idlib were taken to raise the medical staff’s level of readiness and show the public how serious the matter is. The measures will last at least a week.

The doctor diagnosed with the virus is a 39-year old who works in both Idlib and rural areas in neighboring Aleppo province. He had seen several patients, so contact tracing and testing is underway, Khalil said.

Fadi Hakim, of the Syrian American Medical Society, said the infected doctor is in isolation in Bab al-Hawa hospital but his symptoms remain mild.

Schools in the area will close as of Saturday until further notice, suggesting a return to remote learning, which had been in place until earlier this month.

Testing has been a major issue in the aid-dependent region, where one lab is in charge of carrying out virus tests. Some testing has been also done through Turkey, which has troops inside the enclave.

In government-held areas in Syria, authorities have recorded 394 cases, including 16 virus-related deaths. In Kurdish-held areas in Syria’s northeast, where testing facilities are limited, about half a dozen cases have been reported.

“People have been lax” when it comes to taking precautions, Khalil said of the area’s residents. “We want to use this period to raise awareness and to show how serious it is and to finish the preparedness of hospitals.”

China rejects prospect of joining arms control talks with US

China rejects prospect of joining arms control talks with US

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BEIJING (AP) – China on Friday rejected any prospect of joining in nuclear arms limitation talks with the U.S., calling reports from Washington that it would do so a distortion of its stated position.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters the U.S. was “neither serious nor sincere” in the proposed negotiations and should instead respond to Russia’s call for an extension to the existing New START treaty limiting the number of nuclear warheads.

China’s objection to the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations is very clear, and the U.S. knows it very well. However, the U.S. is persistent on the issue and even distorted China’s position,” Zhao said at a daily news briefing.

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China, with the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal after the U.S. and Russia, has maintained it will not join in talks with Washington and Moscow on reducing its number of warheads. However, Zhao appeared to hold open the door to some form of discussions saying Washington needed to “create conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to participate in nuclear disarmament negotiations.”

The U.S. pointedly noted the Chinese absence at talks with Russia in Vienna two weeks ago on extending or replacing NEW Start, a 2010 arms reduction treaty that expires in February.

The pact is between the U.S. and Russia, long the world’s major nuclear powers. The Trump administration wants China, as a rising military power, to join.

Fu Cong, the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s arms control department, on Wednesday called that demand unrealistic because China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the other two. By inviting China to join, the U.S. is creating a pretext to walk away from the talks without replacing the treaty, he said.

S Korea asks senior US envoy to try to revive N Korea talks

S Korea asks senior US envoy to try to revive N Korea talks

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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, left, walks with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon after their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Biegun is in Seoul to hold talks with South Korean officials … more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, July 9, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea on Thursday asked a visiting senior U.S. envoy to try to revive stalled nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, which has refused to resume talks because of what it calls hostile U.S. policies.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. official on North Korea, has been in Seoul for talks since Tuesday. He was to travel on to Japan later Thursday.

During a meeting with South Korea’s newly appointed presidential national security adviser, Suh Hoon, Biegun stressed the important of a resumption of talks between Washington and Pyongyang and agreed to maintain close coordination with Seoul, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.

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Suh appraised Biegun’s efforts to restart the U.S.-North Korean diplomacy and asked him to continue those efforts, the statement said.

After meeting with other Seoul officials on Wednesday, Biegun suggested that Washington remains open to talks with Pyongyang. But he also accused a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator who had blamed the deadlocked talks on American hostility of being “locked in an old way of thinking.” This indicated that Washington won’t likely make concessions to resume the talks despite the North’s pressure.

North Korea has previously demanded the U.S. lift international sanctions and provide security guarantee if it’s truly committed to talks.

The nuclear diplomacy has yielded little progress since the breakdown of a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in early 2019. South Korea’s liberal government, which earlier facilitated the early parts of the nuclear diplomacy, has said it’ll push for the talks’ resumption to achieve a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Gen. Frank McKenzie says while Russia bounty intelligence ‘wasn’t proved,’ it was ‘very worrisome’

Gen. Frank McKenzie says while Russia bounty intelligence ‘wasn’t proved,’ it was ‘very worrisome’

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In this April 14, 2018, file photo, then-Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth Franklin “Frank” McKenzie Jr. speaks during a media availability at the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The head of U.S. military operations in the Middle East said Tuesday that while intelligence that Russia had placed bounties on American troops in Afghanistan was cause for worry, it was not convincing enough to act immediately.

Speaking to a small group of reporters, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that he has not been convinced that the deaths of any American personnel serving in the region were directly linked to Russian bounties offered to Taliban militants on U.S. soldiers.

“The intelligence case wasn’t proved to me. It was proved enough to worry me. It wasn’t proved enough that I’d take it to a court of law. That’s often true in battlefield intelligence,” he said.

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He explained that intelligence often shows “troubling” indicators, “but in this case, there just wasn’t enough there.”

Gen. McKenzie’s comments mark the first time a senior Pentagon official has directly answered questions about reports that U.S. intelligence concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence agents had offered the bounties to militants linked to the Taliban.

The reports claimed President Trump was briefed on the matter and that the National Security Council held a meeting about it in late March. Mr. Trump has maintained that he was not previously briefed on the reports.

The four-star general said he has directed military intelligence officers to continue to “dig” on the reports, but at the time the intelligence emerged, he “just didn’t find that there was a causative link” to the deaths of American troops.

Four U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year, while 19 were killed last year.

“I’m very familiar with this material, and I’m a theater commander, and I’ve had an opportunity to look at it. I found it very worrisome,” he said, adding that his command takes “extreme force protection measures all the time in Afghanistan.”

Gen McKenzie cautioned, however, that the U.S. “should always remember, the Russians are not our friends.”

“They are not our friends in Afghanistan. And they do not wish us well,” he warned, “and we just need to remember that at all times when we evaluate that intelligence.”

Most Americans believe Russian bounty reports, half support sanctions on Moscow in response: Poll

Most Americans believe Russian bounty reports, half support sanctions on Moscow in response: Poll

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In this June 10, 2017, file photo provided by Operation Resolute Support, U.S. soldiers with Task Force Iron maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington are intertwined in a … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Most Americans believe that Russia had placed bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan last year, while more than half support placing sanctions on Moscow in response, said a new Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

The poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday, comes in the wake of reports that U.S. intelligence concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence agents had offered the bounties to militants linked to the Taliban.

The New York Times reported President Trump was briefed on the matter and that the National Security Council held a meeting about it in late March. Mr. Trump has maintained that he was not previously briefed on the reports.

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The latest poll found that 60% of Americans said they believe the reports to be “very” or “somewhat” credible, while 21% said they were not and 20% were unsure.

Nearly 40% of respondents said they believe Mr. Trump “did know” about Russia’s placement of bounties on U.S. soldiers prior to the reports last month, while 26% said Mr. Trump was unaware of the targets.

More than 80% of Americans said they see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a threat to the U.S. Just 35% of respondents said they back Mr. Trump’s handling of Russia, while 52% do not.

A majority of Americans — 54% — said the U.S. should impose sanctions on Russia in response for the bounties. In the poll, 9% backed military strikes as a response, while another 9% preferred a more diplomatic route.

Lawmakers in the U.S. have said that if the reports prove to be credible, it would warrant a forceful response.

Despite repeated assertions by Mr. Trump that the reports are a “hoax,” White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said last week that national security officials took the intelligence reports seriously enough at the time to prepare options for the president, although they decided not to present Mr. Trump with unverified intelligence.

The poll collected responses from 1,114 adults across the U.S. and holds a margin of error at 3 percentage points.

China threatens visa restrictions on US officials over Tibet

China threatens visa restrictions on US officials over Tibet

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

BEIJING (AP) – China said Wednesday it will impose visa restrictions on U.S. individuals following the Trump administration’s imposition of travel bans on Chinese officials it accuses of restricting foreigners’ access to Tibet.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the move would target “U.S. individuals with egregious conduct related to Tibet issues” but gave no specifics.

“We urge the U.S. to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs with Tibet-related issues … so as to avoid further damage to China-U.S. relations,” Zhao told reporters at a daily news briefing.

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While China encourages travel to the Himalayan region, it has adopted “certain management and protection measures for foreigners visiting Tibet in accordance with law and regulations,” along with consideration for Tibet’s “special geographical and climatic conditions,” Zhao said.

The Trump administration announced its new travel ban on Tuesday, hitting an unspecified number of Chinese officials with visa restrictions, limiting or entirely eliminating their ability to travel to the United States.

In announcing the restrictions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of systematically obstructing the travel of foreign diplomats, journalists and tourists to Tibet while Chinese visitors “enjoy far greater access to the United States.”

“Access to Tibetan areas is increasingly vital to regional stability, given (China’s) human rights abuses there, as well as Beijing’s failure to prevent environmental degradation near the headwaters of Asia’s major rivers,” Pompeo said.

The statement did not name any of those targeted nor did it give a number of those affected but said it the ban would be applied to Chinese government and Communist Party officials who are found to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas.”

China requires special permits for foreigners to visit Tibet, where human rights activists say Beijing has engaged in a decades-long campaign to suppress local culture, the Buddhist religion and minorities.

The latest U.S. move comes as it wages concurrent battles over Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong, human rights in western Xinjiang province, global trade practices and aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

China claims Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, although many Tibetans say their land was essentially an independent country for most of that time. Communist forces occupied the region following their seizure of China in 1949 and 10 years later crushed an abortive uprising, sending spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and more than 80,000 Tibetans into exile in India and other countries.

Thermometers in hand, Dubai opens for tourists amid coronavirus pandemic

Thermometers in hand, Dubai opens for tourists amid coronavirus pandemic

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The front desk staff wearing masks due to the coronavirus pandemic help customers at the Rove City Centre Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, July 6, 2020. Dubai reopened for tourists Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic, hoping to reinvigorate … more >

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By Jon Gambrell

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — From French soccer jerseys to slick online campaigns, Dubai is trumpeting the fact that it reopened for tourism on Tuesday — but what that means for this sheikhdom that relies on the dollars, pounds, rupees and yuan spent by travelers remains in question.

With travel uncertain and the coronavirus still striking nations Dubai relies on for tourists, this city-state wants to begin coaxing people back to its beaches and its cavernous shopping malls. By instilling the idea that Dubai is safe, authorities likely hope to fuel interest in the sheikhdom ahead of its crucial winter months for tourism.

But all that depends on controlling a virus that the United Arab Emirates as a whole continues to fight. Armed with thermometers, mandatory face masks and hand sanitizer, Dubai is wagering it is ready.

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“I think that will give people confidence — when they’re ready to travel — to come to Dubai,” said Paul Bridger, the corporate director for operations at Dubai-based Rove Hotels. “It will take time to come back. … We are expecting to be one of the first markets to be back because of the confidence that we can give to people that are traveling.”

That Dubai is a tourist destination at all is largely thanks to its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who used the state-owned long-haul carrier Emirates to put this one-time pearling post on the map. Attractions like the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab luxury hotel draw transit passengers out of Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel.

In 2019 alone, Dubai welcomed 16.7 million international guests, up from 15.9 million the year before, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. The top seven tourist-sending nations were India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Oman, China, Russia and the U.S. The city’s 741 hotels saw around 75% occupancy for the year, with visitors staying on average 3½ days.

Those travelers also fuel Dubai’s vast restaurant, bar and nightlife scene. Though drinking is illegal in the neighboring emirate of Sharjah and the nations of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, alcohol sales remain a crucial part of Dubai’s economy.

But even before the pandemic, lower global energy prices, a 30% drop in the city’s real estate market value and trade war fears have led employers to shed staff. The virus outbreak accelerated those losses, especially as Dubai has postponed its Expo 2020, or world’s fair, to next year over the pandemic.

That makes reopening for tourism that much more important, even though Dubai’s top three tourist-feeding countries remain hard-hit by the virus, said Rabia Yasmeen, a consultant at the market-research firm Euromonitor International. Even retail sales are affected by tourism, with some 35% of all revenue coming from tourists, she said.

“It’s good for them to go ahead and announce because there needs to be a call for the confidence to come back,” Yasmeen said. “Someone has to take that step first to show the world.”

And Dubai has, in typical headline-baiting fashion, taken those steps. French football club Olympique Lyonnais, under a sponsorship with Emirates, wore “Dubai Is Open” jerseys at a recent match. Dubai passport controllers have begun putting stickers on foreigners’ passports reading in English and Arabic: “A warm welcome to your second home.”

But there’s a risk, particularly in allowing more travel as the virus stalks other countries. Emirates stopped flying to Pakistan over virus fears. Across the seven sheikhdoms that form the United Arab Emirates, there have been over 50,000 confirmed cases of the virus among the 9 million people living here, with some 40,000 recoveries and 321 deaths.

At Rove Hotels, a new budget chain run by state-linked firms Emaar and Meraas, thermometer-carrying staffers check the temperature of everyone coming inside. Cleaners fog disinfectants over rooms and wipe down tables and chairs. Even a camel statue and an oversized stuffed animal wore a mask. The chain, like others in Dubai, also has sought outside certification over its cleaning routines on top of fulfilling government regulations.

“It’s kind of the icing on the cake to give people comfort that we’re following those standards,” Bridger said.

There are still risks. In order to travel, tourists must take a COVID-19 test within 96 hours of their flight and show the airline a negative result. Otherwise, they will be tested on arrival and required to isolate while awaiting the results, which travelers say typically takes a few hours.

Travelers must also have health insurance covering COVID-19 or sign a declaration agreeing to cover the costs of treatment and isolation.

“A key question comes in: Is the traveler ready to come to Dubai?” Yasmeen asked. “That’s a big question mark.”

___

Associated Press writer Fay Abuelgasim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Susan Rice: Donald Trump doing ‘our arch-enemy’s bidding’ with Vladimir Putin G-7 invite

Susan Rice: Trump doing ‘our arch-enemy’s bidding’ with Putin G-7 invite

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National Security Adviser Susan Rice walks to Marine One on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base with President Barack Obama to travel to Antalya, … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Sunday accused President Trump of doing “our arch-enemy’s bidding” by inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Group of Seven summit amid a debate over intelligence that alleges Moscow offered bounties to Taliban fighters willing to target U.S. soldiers.

Ms. Rice, who served as President Obama’s national security adviser from 2013 to 2017, also said the president is surrounded by “sycophants and weaklings” who are too afraid to give him the full picture on Russia.

“We still, I want to remind you, have credible intelligence that the Russians are trying to kill U.S. servicemen and women in Afghanistan,” she told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is not the time to be handing Putin an olive branch. This is the time to be working up options to punish him. And yet, that’s not what happened.”

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Capitol Hill leaders are receiving classified intelligence hearings on the alleged bounty payments to Taliban fighters, which were first reported in the New York Times.

Some reports say the administration was aware of the intelligence and put it in a presidential briefing earlier this year. But the White House says the president was never informed about the issue because intelligence officials hadn’t reached a consensus on the information.

Mr. Trump went a step further on Twitter, calling the story a “hoax” designed to hurt him and the GOP in an election year.

The president’s critics say he should be weighing forms of retaliation while the information is vetted, instead of moving to invite Mr. Putin to a G7 summit the U.S. is set to host later this year. Russia was ousted from the club of nations after annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Ms. Rice slammed the president’s decision-making amid rumors former Vice President Joseph R. Biden is vetting her as a potential running mate this November.

She is reportedly being considered alongside Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Tammy Duckworth, as well as Rep. Val Demmings, among other women.

Last month, Ms. Rice said in an interview that she would “certainly say yes” if asked to be Mr. Biden’s running mate.

Speaking to NBC, she said she just wants to help Democrats.

“I am going to do everything I can to help get Joe Biden elected and help him succeed as president,” Ms. Rice told NBC’s Meet the Press.” “Whether I’m his running mate or a door-knocker, I don’t mind. I just want to get Joe Biden elected and see the Democrats control the Senate and retain the House.”

• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

US envoy forges ahead with troubled Taliban peace deal

US envoy forges ahead with troubled Taliban peace deal

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FILE – In this March 9, 2020 file photo, Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, attends Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. According to a statement released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the U.S. Embassy in … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Saturday, July 4, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Washington’s envoy to Afghanistan on Saturday emphasized the economic benefits of the peace deal with the Taliban, forging ahead with an agreement that has run into new political obstacles in the U.S. and the region.

Zalmay Khalilzad was wrapping up a week-long trip that included stops in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and the Gulf state of Qatar, where Taliban negotiators are headquartered.

Accompanying Khalilzad for the first time was an economic development team led by U.S. International Development Finance Corporation Chief Executive Officer Adam Boehler.

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Khalilzad offered no details about the kinds of economic projects being envisioned to jump-start an economy battered by widespread corruption and currently 75% funded by international donations. However, he did suggest joint economic projects involving Qatar and Pakistan, possibly on infrastructure and trade.

The U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February to end 19 years of war in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has sought to stress the economic benefits of the peace deal throughout his tour. In a series of tweets early Saturday, the U.S. envoy said he met with the Qatar Investment Authority and the Taliban’s chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani, in the tiny Gulf state’s capital of Doha.

“We agreed development plans in support of peace can never start too early,” Khalilzad tweeted.

However, Washington has recently become embroiled in a controversy over intelligence reports that Russia was paying money to insurgents with links to the Taliban to kill American and NATO soldiers.

The identity of the insurgents who took the bounty money is still vague but the payments have been traced to an Afghan drug lord, Rahmatullah Azizi, who is living in Moscow, according to Afghan officials who spoke with The Associated Press.

The officials said the money was delivered through Azizi’s brother Wahidullah, who was the go-between for those facilitating the attacks on U.S. troops.

The New York Times first reported the U.S. intelligence claiming the payment of bounties as well as Azizi’s involvement.

Added to the uncertainty and delays swirling around the U.S-Taliban peace deal, the Pentagon released a report Wednesday that questioned the Taliban’s commitment to end its ties with Al-Qaida. The peace deal calls for the Taliban to fight against terrorist organizations and ensure Afghanistan would not be used again to attack U.S. interests or its allies. Critics of the deal say the militants can’t be trusted.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied contacts with Al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent, saying the insurgents were committed to the peace deal.

Khalilzad embarked on his tour of the region last weekend, even as the rate of coronavirus infections in the United States soared and countries worldwide struggled with the dangers of re-opening.

He did not travel to Afghanistan, citing the dangers of the pandemic, and instead held videoconference calls with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his government partner, Abdullah Abdullah.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi tested positive for COVID 19, just 48 after meeting with with Khalilzad. Both had been pictured wearing masks during their meeting on Wednesday in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad

Qureshi said he developed a fever on Friday and tested positive to the virus. But he promised to “carry on” his official duties from home.

Even as Khalilzad winds up his latest diplomatic mission, there was no date for crucial intra-Afghan negotiations that bring the Taliban together with the Afghan government and other local actors. Khalilzad called for a quick resolution of outstanding issues so those negotiations could begin.

The biggest hurdle has been the release of prisoners. The peace deal called for the Afghan government to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Taliban releasing 1,000 government personnel. So far, the government has freed 4,015 and the Taliban has freed 669, according to the Afghan government..

Ghani earlier this week suggested that his government had a problem with some of the names on the Taliban’s list of prisoners to be released and said alternative names would be given.

It seems unlikely that the Taliban will accept anyone not on the list agreed upon during negotiations with the U.S.

Suhail Shaheen, Taliban political spokesman in Doha, called the Afghan government reasons for delaying prisoner releases “phony excuses” and the reason for the delay in beginning intra-Afghan talks.

As of Saturday, Afghanistan had recorded 32,600 confirmed cases of coronavirus, but international non-governmental organizations say the rate is much higher and have warned that the country’s war-ravaged health care system risks collapsing.

Seemingly indicative of the lack of health care facilities in Afghanistan to deal with the virus, Ghani’s special envoy for economic development, Yosuf Ghaznafar, went to Turkey when he became ill with COVID-19. On Friday he died of the disease, according to a statement from the presidency. Ghaznafar is the senior most Afghan official to die of the virus.

Afghanistan has so far recorded 826 deaths from the virus.

_____

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

Russian FM hosts speaker of Libya’s east-based parliament

Russian FM hosts speaker of Libya’s east-based parliament

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Friday, July 3, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s top diplomat met Friday with the speaker of the parliament based in eastern Libya to discuss a political settlement for the conflict-stricken country.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the start of his talks with parliament speaker Aguila Saleh that Moscow supports a cease-fire proposal brokered by Egypt last month. He emphasized that Russia will reach out to all parties in Libya to help encourage a political settlement.

“Russia has proceeded from the assumption that the Libyan conflict has no military solution, and only the Libyans themselves could settle their differences by political means,” Lavrov said.

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Libya was plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country has been split between a government in the east allied with military commander Khalifa Hifter and another one in Tripoli in the west supported by the United Nations.

Hifter has been backed by Egypt, Russia, France and the United Arab Emirates, while the Tripoli-allied militias have been aided by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

Last year, Hifter’s forces launched an offensive trying to capture Tripoli, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the government there, but the attack has failed. After making their way deep into the west and fighting in the suburbs of the Libyan capital, Hifter’s forces were driven back by Tripoli-based fighters supported by Turkey.

Russian officials: 78% of voters back extending Putin’s rule

Russian officials: 78% of voters back extending Putin’s rule

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Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that … more >

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Associated Press

Thursday, July 2, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Almost 78% of voters in Russia have approved amendments to the country’s constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, Russian election officials said Thursday after all the votes were counted. Kremlin critics said the vote was rigged.

In the week-long balloting that concluded on Wednesday, 77.9% voted for the changes, and 21.3% voted against, with 100% of the precincts counted by Thursday morning, Russia’s Central Election Commission said. The turnout exceeded 64%, according to officials.

The reported numbers reflect the highest level of voter support for Putin in ten years. In the 2018 presidential election, 76.7% of voters supported his candidacy, while in the 2012 election only 63.6% did.

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But Kremlin critics say the numbers alone show they are false, with an unrealistic approval rating for the Russian leader amid wide frustration in the country over declining living standards.

“A record in falsifying votes has been set in Russia,” opposition politician Alexei Navalny said in a Facebook post on Thursday. “The announced result has nothing whatsoever to do with the people’s opinion.”

Putin’s approval rating was at 59% in May, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster. That was the lowest in two decades.

The week-long plebiscite was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities, with independent election observers criticizing the voting procedure as having a complete lack of transparency and independent control.

For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for an entire week to bolster turnout and avoid election-day crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic – a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome, as ballot boxes remained unattended for days at night.

Observers also pointed to the relentless pressure that state and private employers put on their staff to vote, monitoring that was hindered by bureaucratic hurdles and virus-related restrictions, and the dubious legal standing of the early voting.

White House aware of Russian bounties in 2019: AP sources

White House aware of Russian bounties in 2019: AP sources

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In this Nov. 30, 2017, file photo, American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan. Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban … more >

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By James LaPorta

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.

The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton also told colleagues at the time that he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.

The White House didn’t respond to questions about Trump or other officials’ awareness of Russia’s provocations in 2019. The White House has said Trump wasn’t — and still hasn’t been — briefed on the intelligence assessments because they haven’t been fully verified. However, it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of a doubt before it is presented to top officials.

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Bolton declined to comment Monday when asked by the AP if he’d briefed Trump about the matter in 2019. On Sunday, he suggested to NBC that Trump was claiming ignorance of Russia’s provocations to justify his administration’s lack of response.

“He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,” Bolton said.

The revelations cast new doubt on the White House’s efforts to distance Trump from the Russian intelligence assessments. The AP reported Sunday that concerns about Russian bounties also were in a second written presidential daily briefing this year and that current national security adviser Robert O’Brien had discussed the matter with Trump. O’Brien denies doing that.

On Monday, O’Brien said that while the intelligence assessments regarding Russian bounties “have not been verified,” the administration has “been preparing should the situation warrant action.”

The administration’s earlier awareness of the Russian efforts raises additional questions about why Trump didn’t take punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of American service members at risk. Trump has sought throughout his time in office to improve relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, moving this year to try to reinstate Russia as part of a group of world leaders it had been kicked out of.

Officials said they didn’t consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t a new occurrence. The officials with knowledge of Bolton’s apparent briefing for Trump said it contained no “actionable intelligence,” meaning the intelligence community didn’t have enough information to form a strategic plan or response. However, the classified assessment of Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the meeting.

The officials insisted on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose the highly sensitive information.

The intelligence that surfaced in early 2019 indicated Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 during the Obama administration.

The National Security Council and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence held meetings regarding the intelligence. The NSC didn’t respond to questions about the meetings.

Late Monday, the Pentagon issued a statement saying it was evaluating the intelligence but so far had “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations.”

“Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan — and around the world — most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the American intelligence community that Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.

The White House contends the president was unaware of this development, too.
The officials told the AP that career government officials developed potential options for the White House to respond to the Russian aggression in Afghanistan, which was first reported by The New York Times. However, the Trump administration has yet to authorize any action.

The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties was derived in part from debriefings of captured Taliban militants. Officials with knowledge of the matter told the AP that Taliban operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate tribes offered similar accounts.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Russian intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in exchange for targeting U.S. and coalition forces.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Taliban’s chief negotiator, a spokesman for the insurgents said Tuesday, but it was unknown whether there was any mention during their conversation of allegations about Russian bounties. Pompeo pressed the insurgents to reduce violence in Afghanistan and discussed ways of advancing a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February, the Taliban spokesman tweeted.

The U.S. is investigating whether Americans died because of the Russian bounties. Officials are focused on an April 2019 attack on an American convoy. Three U.S. Marines were killed after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department identified them as Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Delaware; Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania; and Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York. They were infantrymen assigned to 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve infantry unit headquartered out of Garden City, New York.

Hendriks’ father told the AP that even a rumor of Russian bounties should have been immediately addressed.

“If this was kind of swept under the carpet as to not make it a bigger issue with Russia, and one ounce of blood was spilled when they knew this, I lost all respect for this administration and everything,” Erik Hendriks said.

Three other service members and an Afghan contractor were wounded in the attack. As of April 2019, the attack was under a separate investigation, unrelated to the Russian bounties.

The officials who spoke to the AP also said they were looking closely at insider attacks from 2019 to determine if they were linked to Russian bounties.

___

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Deb Riechmann in Washington, Deepti Hajela in New York and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

EU to list which citizens can enter; U.S. likely to miss out

EU to list which citizens can enter; U.S. likely to miss out

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In this Sunday, June 14, 2020 file photo, a crane removes the concrete blocks that closed customs access, in Thonex near Geneva, Switzerland. The European Union is set to make public on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, a list of countries … more >

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By Lorne Cook

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Tuesday is announcing a list of nations whose citizens will be allowed to enter 31 European countries, but most Americans are likely to be refused entry for at least another two weeks due to soaring coronavirus infections in the U.S.

As Europe’s economies reel from the impact of the coronavirus, southern EU countries like Greece, Italy and Spain are desperate to entice back sun-loving visitors and breathe life into their damaged tourism industries.

More than 15 million Americans are estimated to travel to Europe each year, while some 10 million Europeans head across the Atlantic.

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Still, many people both inside and outside Europe remain wary of travel in the coronavirus era, given the unpredictability of the pandemic and the possibility of second waves of infection that could affect flights and hotel bookings. Tens of thousands of travelers had a frantic, chaotic scramble in March to get home as the pandemic swept across the world and borders slammed shut.

EU envoys to Brussels have launched a written procedure which would see the list endorsed Tuesday as long as no objections are raised by member countries. The list is expected to contain up to 15 countries that have virus infection rates comparable to those in the EU.

Infection rates in Brazil, Russia and India are high too, and they are also unlikely to make the cut.

The countries would also have to lift any bans they might have on European travelers. The list of permitted nations is to be updated every 14 days, with new countries being added or even dropping off depending on if they are keeping the disease under control.

The daily number of new confirmed cases in the United States has surged over the past week. The U.S. has the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with nearly 2.6 million people confirmed infected and over 126,000 dead, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say understates the pandemic’s true toll due to limited testing and other reasons.

In contrast, aside from a notable recent outbreak tied to a slaughterhouse in western Germany, the virus’s spread has generally stabilized across much of continental Europe.

In March, President Donald Trump suspended all people from Europe’s ID check-free travel zone from entering the U.S., making it unlikely now that U.S. citizens would qualify to enter the EU.

The EU imposed restrictions on non-essential travel to its 27 nations, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, which are part of the Schengen open-borders area, in March to halt the spread of the virus. Non-EU citizens who are already living in Europe are not included in the ban.

The EU list does not apply to travel to Britain, which left the EU in January. Britain now requires all incoming travelers – bar a few exceptions like truck drivers – to go into a self-imposed 14-day quarantine, although the measure is under review and is likely to ease in the coming weeks. The requirement also applies to U.K. citizens.

White House says Trump, Pence weren’t briefed on intel about Russian bounties to kill U.S. troops

Trump, Pence were not briefed on intel about Russian bounties to kill U.S. troops: White House

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In this file photo, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, June 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) **FILE** more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The White House said Saturday that President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were not briefed on U.S. intelligence that Russia offered bounties to militants in Afghanistan to kill coalition forces, including U.S. troops.

“While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA Director, National Security Advisor, and the Chief of Staff can all confirm that neither the President nor the Vice President were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany in a statement.

She said her comments do not “speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence, but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter.”

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The Times reported Friday that U.S. intelligence concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence agents had offered the bounties. The paper said Mr. Trump was briefed on the matter, and that the National Security Council held a meeting about it in late March.

Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat, asked former acting Director of Intelligence Richard Grenell on Twitter, “Did you really not tell @realDonaldTrump and @VP Pence that Russia was paying militants to kill US troops? Or is @PressSec lying?”

Mr. Grenell replied to the lawmaker, “I never heard this. And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence. You clearly don’t understand how raw intel gets verified. Leaks of partial information to reporters from anonymous sources is dangerous because people like you manipulate it for political gain.”

He said critics are “basing a whole bunch of assumptions on an anonymous source from the NYT.”

Former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on Twitter of the White House’s explanation, “I don’t believe this for a minute, but if it were true, it means that Trump is not even pretending to serve as commander in chief. And no one around him has the guts to ask him to. More evidence of their deadly incompetence.”

Putin, Macron discuss closer cooperation in video call

Putin, Macron discuss closer cooperation in video call

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Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to French President Emmanuel Macron during a via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 26, 2020. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By ANGELA CHARLTON and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press

Friday, June 26, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed international crises during a video call Friday and vowed to cooperate more closely to tackle global challenges.

Putin, noting that it was the 75th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations’ charter, spoke of the need to pool efforts to combat common threats such as the coronavirus pandemic, international terrorism and climate change.

He said the call with his French counterpart offered an opportunity to discuss the crises in Ukraine, Syria and Libya, and unresolved tensions in the Balkans, among other issues.

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“If we want to achieve positive results, we need to combine our efforts,” the Russian leader said during the conversation in which he and Macron addressed each other by their first names. “I know about your intention to organize joint work on many of those issues. We will fully support your proposals.”

Putin mentioned a Red Square parade held in Moscow on Wednesday to belatedly commemorate the 75th anniversary of World War II’s end in Europe to hail France’s contribution to defeating the Nazis.

“We in Russia will never forget the French people who fought alongside our soldiers on the Eastern Front,” Putin said.

Macron, who was due to attend the parade on May 9 before it was postponed due to the pandemic, voiced regret that the virus prevented him from visiting Moscow. The French president paid tribute to the Soviet Union’s role in World War II.

“The crisis that we have just been through, like all regional crises we’ve experienced, shows the importance of making the European space, in a broad sense, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a real space of cooperation and peace,” Macron said.

Responding to an invitation from Putin to come to Russia, Macron said he’d be happy to visit “so we could spend a lot more time together,” but only “if health conditions allow,” possibly at the end of summer.

Macron’s office said the meeting was part of an outreach effort launched in August to try to thaw France’s relations with Russia, which were damaged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The French presidency said that during the call with Putin, Macron noted the need to put an end to the “dangerous cycle of foreign interference” in Libya and the need for a quick ceasefire and the revival of political dialogue.

A French presidential official said that the two leaders spent most of the conversation discussing the situation in Libya and voiced a shared interest in the stabilization of the country and reunifying its institutions.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to make public comment, noted that Macron expressed France’s anger at foreign interference, including by Russian private military contractor Wagner.

In conflict-stricken Libya, Russia, France, Egypt and several other countries back the east-based forces led by commander Khalifa Hifter, who has been waging war against the U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, which is mainly backed by Turkey.

During the call, the French leader also stressed his concern over the humanitarian situation in Syria, which the pandemic has worsened. The French presidential official said Macron pushed for a humanitarian corridor in the country’s northwest, arguing that a long route for aid deliveries via Damascus was not an option.

Turning to Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian troops in the country’s east for more than six years, Macron emphasized quickly relaunching the implementation of a road map toward peace that was agreed to during a December meeting in Paris of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

The Kremlin said in its readout of the call that Putin emphasized the need for Ukraine to fulfill its obligations on political settlement under a 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

The two leaders also emphasized the importance of preserving existing arms control agreements and the need to improve trust and predictability in the military sphere, the Kremlin said.

__

Charlton reported from Paris.

Libya oil company: Russian mercenaries enter major oilfield

Libya oil company: Russian mercenaries enter major oilfield

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FILE – In this Feb. 26, 2011 file photo, a Libyan oil worker, works at a refinery inside the Brega oil complex, in Brega, eastern Libya. ON Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, the National Oil Corporation in Libya says that a … more >

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Associated Press

Friday, June 26, 2020

CAIRO (AP) – Russian and other foreign mercenaries have entered Libya’s largest oil field, the country’s National Oil Corporation said on Friday, describing the development as an attempt to thwart the resumption of halted oil production in the war-torn country.

In divided Libya, Russia is a leading backer of the east-based forces led by commander Khalifa Hifter, who has been waging war against the U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, which is mainly backed by Turkey.

The Russian mercenaries first met late on Thursday with the guards of Libya’s vast southwestern Sharara oilfield, controlled by Hifter’s eastern-based fighters, according to a statement from the National Oil Corporation, or NOC.

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Earlier this year, a militia known as the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which takes orders from Hifter’s forces, helped shut down oil production when Hifter-allied tribes led a blockade of Libya’s oil ports – a challenge to the Tripoli administration.

While Hifter’s east-based forces control Libya’s oil crescent, the Tripoli government in the west controls the national Central Bank reserves, mostly drawn from oil income. Although Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves, it has been unable to export oil since Hifter’s blockade started in January, costing the state corporation over $6 billion in lost revenue. Libya’s was producing over 1.2 million barrels per day before the shutdown.

“While foreign mercenaries continue to be paid vast sums of money to prevent the NOC from carrying out its essential duties, the rest of the Libyan population suffers,” said Mustafa Sanalla, the corporation’s chairman. He lamented the loss of oil revenues and the “disastrous decay of our oil infrastructure” due to the shutdown, which is preventing maintenance work at facilities.

The Russian mercenaries are said to be employed by the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed private security company. The group has provided between 800-1,200 mercenaries to bolster Hifter’s 14-month offensive to capture Tripoli, according to U.N. experts, paying some fighters up to $1,500 a month. Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role on Libya’s battlefields.

Hifter’s campaign largely collapsed earlier this month when Turkish-backed forces allied with the Tripoli government regained control of the capital’s entry and exit points and drove their rivals from a string of western towns. Turkey, the main patron of Tripoli forces, has also deployed mercenaries, mainly from Syria, to help defend the capital from Hifter’s assault.

Tripoli forces now say they’re mobilizing to retake Sirte, a strategic coastal city that would open the gateway to Libya’s vital oil fields and facilities. Hifter and his foreign backers, including Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, have pushed for a return to peace talks to avert a major escalation in the proxy war. Egypt last week warned that an attack on Sirte would trigger its direct military involvement in the conflict.

With global oil prices hitting historic lows because of the coronavirus pandemic and OPEC countries agreeing to slash production, Libya’s oil corporation has sharply criticized what it describes as the international community’s indifference to the shutdown.

“It is noteworthy that many countries are themselves benefiting from the absence of Libyan oil from global markets,” said Sanalla, the chairman. Some states, he added, are “working in the background to support blockading forces,” in reference to Russia.

The U.S. Embassy in Libya condemned the occupation by the oilfield by Wagner and other foreign mercenaries as part of “an unprecedented foreign-backed campaign to undermine Libya’s energy sector.”

Foreign powers meddling in oil-rich Libya are holding the country’s lucrative resources “hostage,” the embassy said, while ordinary Libyans continue to suffer from a crumbling economy.

Iran warns against US-led efforts to extend arms embargo

Iran warns against US-led efforts to extend arms embargo

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Friday, June 26, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Iran’s U.N. ambassador said Thursday that he believes a U.S. resolution to extend an arms embargo against his country will be defeated and warned it would be “a very, very big mistake” if the Trump administration then tries to re-impose U.N. sanctions.

Ambassador Majid Ravanchi said restoring U.N. sanctions will end the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers and release Tehran from all its commitments.

“If that happens, Iran will not be under constraint as to what course of action it should take,” he said reporters. “All options for Iran will be open.”

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Lifting the arms embargo on Tehran is part of the U.N. 2015 Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear agreement.

Ravanchi spoke a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to seek to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Iran if the Security Council does not approve a resolution that would indefinitely extend the arms embargo, which is set to expire in October.

Iran will be able to purchase advanced weapons systems and become an arms dealer of choice for terrorists and rogue regimes all throughout the world,” Pompeo said. “This is unacceptable.”

Later Wednesday, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook and U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft briefed Security Council members on the U.S. draft resolution that would maintain the arms embargo indefinitely.

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have escalated since 2018, when the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal between Tehran and six major powers and re-imposed crippling U.S. sanctions.

The five other powers that signed the nuclear deal – Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – remain committed to it, saying the agreement is key to continuing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Ravanchi said ending the arms embargo in October “is an essential part of the agreement between Iran and its partners.”

“We believe there is no stomach for members of the Security Council to digest the draft resolution like the one the U.S. presented,” he said. “So, it is our view that the draft resolution will be defeated.”

Ravanchi stressed that Iran will not accept “anything less than full implementation” of the provision lifting the arms embargo.

And he added: “It would be a wise idea for the United States to reconsider the presentation of the draft because it’s not going to be approved.”

The Iranian ambassador pointed to letters from the foreign ministers of Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, to its members opposing any extension of the arms embargo.

The 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, also includes a “snap back” provision that would restore all U.N. sanctions against Iran that had been lifted or eased if the nuclear deal is violated.

Responding to Pompeo’s threat to use that provision if the U.S. arms embargo resolution isn’t approved, Ravanchi said: “This is a very, very big mistake on the part of the United States to try to snap back the resolution, because they know that is the end of JCPOA, and they should think twice before resorting to that option.”

He said Iran and many other Security Council members believe the U.S. has no legal authority to invoke snap back because it is not part of the JCPOA.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has dismissed as “ridiculous” the possibility of the Trump administration trying to use the snap back provision, stressing that since the U.S. pulled out out of the JCPOA “they have no right” to use any of its provisions.

But Pompeo and Craft insist the resolution makes clear the U.S. retains the right to use the provision.

Ravanchi said the U.S. should ask itself how it will implement snap back in the face of strong opposition to it.

And he said the U.S. should also bear in mind the consequences of having no JCPOA, and the consequences of snap back action, including its impact on other Security Council members and the council’s credibility.

The ambassador was asked whether ending IAEA inspections, stopping unannounced inspections under the nuclear agency’s additional protocol, or withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, considered the cornerstone of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, are likely steps Iran would take if the U.S. succeeds in re-imposing U.N. sanctions.

“I am not going to tell you exactly what action we are going to take,” Ravanchi replied. ”There are a number of options available.”

Dozens detained after pro-Serb protests in Montenegro

Dozens detained after pro-Serb protests in Montenegro

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Montenegro police officers fire tear gas during protest in Podgorica, Montenegro, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Seven police officers were injured and dozens protesters have been detained, including two lawmakers of the Democratic Front, in opposition riots that broke out in … more >

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By PREDRAG MILIC

Associated Press

Thursday, June 25, 2020

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) – Montenegrin police have detained dozens of people after seven officers were injured in clashes with pro-Serb opposition protesters in several towns.

Police say two opposition lawmakers were among those detained during protests late Wednesday in the capital, Podgorica, and other towns.

The incidents reflect mounting political tensions in the small Balkan nation ahead of a parliamentary election set for Aug. 30. Main opposition parties in the country of 620,000 people are seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia.

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The Montenegrin government on Thursday described the riots as “a well-known pattern of certain political subjects aimed at destruction of the state and its institutions and fueling of instability in Montenegro.”

The demonstrations on Wednesday erupted in the coastal town of Budva, where tensions have been high for days over a dispute among municipal authorities. Police in Budva used tear gas to disperse the protesters, and detained 17 people.

An opposition party, the Socialist People’s Party, on Thursday accused the state of police brutality in Budva and attempts to affect the vote in the town.

On Wednesday, hundreds gathered in other towns and started throwing rocks, bottles and other objects at police. At least 50 people were detained at various locations, police said.

In Budva, opposition parties have refused to hand over power after the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists gained majority support in the local assembly.

Tensions in Montenegro also have soared in recent months over a religious property law that is opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Thousands have protested the law, which the church says would allow the state to take away its property. The government has denied that the law does this.

Montenegro split from much-larger Serbia after a referendum in 2006. It joined NATO in 2017, over strong opposition from Russia, and wants to enter the European Union next.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: U.S. troop reductions in Europe should be coordinated with NATO

German defense minister: Any U.S. troop reductions in Europe should be coordinated with NATO

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In this Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, photo US soldiers take part in NATO-led Noble Partner 2017 multinational military exercises at the military base of Vaziani, outside Tbilisi, Georgia. After more than a year of thinly veiled threats that the United … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Any decision to slash the number of U.S. troops in Germany is a matter that affects the entire North Atlantic alliance rather than merely those two nations, Germany’s defense minister said Wednesday.

NATO is not a trade organization. Security is not a commodity,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a video conference hosted by the Atlantic Council.

The U.S. is expected to remove about 10,000 troops from Germany, with some to return stateside while others will shift to the Pacific region or other countries in eastern Europe.

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President Trump has regularly complained that Germany and other NATO members fail to meet the 2 percent of GDP benchmark expected for defense spending.

NATO countries are actually very faithful partners,” the defense minister said. “It is important that NATO partners stand visibly united.”

With the rise of Russian aggressions, any plans to adjust the number of U.S. military personnel in Europe should be coordinated with other NATO members, she said.

“Russia has no respect for the right of self-determination of other countries,” Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

Iran’s Rouhani warns UN agency over nuke site access demands

Iran’s Rouhani warns UN agency over nuke site access demands

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General view of the board of governors meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak) more >

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By NASSER KARIMI

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran’s president on Wednesday warned the U.N. nuclear watchdog to expect a “stern response” from his country regarding the agency’s demands for Iran to provide access to sites where Tehran is thought to have stored or used undeclared nuclear material.

In a televised speech, President Hassan Rouhani said a stern response “is easy” for Iran but that the country prefers cooperation with the U.N. watchdog.

The remarks reflect Tehran’s irritation at a resolution adopted last week by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency demanding access to the sites. The resolution was proposed by Germany, France and Britain while Russia and China voted against it.

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Iran has dismissed allegations of nuclear activities at the sites in question.

Rouhani said on Wednesday that “Iran is still ready to accept legal surveillance by the (U.N.) agency and would continue close cooperation within the legal framework” of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

The IAEA resolution came after the agency’s Director General Rafael Grossi reiterated concerns that Iran had denied for more than four months access to U.N. inspectors to two locations “to clarify our questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities.”

Activities at the sites are thought to have been from the early 2000s, before Iran signed the nuclear deal. Iran maintains the IAEA has no legal basis to inspect them.

“The agency should not exit its legal path,” said Rouhani, stressing that the issues raised “belong in the past, dating 18 to 20 years ago.”

It is not clear what effect the new resolution will have on the nuclear deal but Iran has threatened unspecified consequences.

The IAEA maintains that of the two sites that Iran has blocked access to, one was partially demolished in 2004. At the other, the agency said it observed activities “consistent with efforts to sanitize” the facility from July 2019 onward.

A third site, the IAEA said, had undergone “extensive sanitization and leveling” in 2003 and 2004 and there would be no verification value in inspecting it.

The watchdog also said Iran has “not engaged in any substantive discussions” with the IAEA for almost a year to answer the agency’s questions about possible undeclared nuclear material and activities. The agency also said that Iran has continued to increase its stockpiles of enriched uranium and remains in violation of the nuclear deal.

In 2018, President Donald trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Tehran has since then hoped that the other signatories to the deal – Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China, which have been struggling to save the accord – would increase economic incentives to make up for hard-hitting sanctions imposed by Washington after the U.S. withdrawal.

Iran accuses the U.S. of trying to prevent that by pressuring the countries still in the deal. Meanwhile, Iran has been violating its restrictions, including the amount of uranium it can enrich and the purity of enrichment, to try to pressure the five countries.

“We expect the agency to preserve its independence,” Rouhani said.

UN Security Council to begin talks on extending Iranian arms embargo

UN Security Council to begin talks on extending Iranian arms embargo

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United Nations Security Council vote on a humanitarian draft resolution for Syria, which fail to gain the support of Russia and China, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) ** FILE ** more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The United Nations Security Council is expected to meet this Wednesday for its first round of talks over a U.S.-led plan to extend an arms embargo on Iran, which is set to expire this October.

American diplomats have circulated a draft proposal to extend the ban on the sale, supply or transfer of weapons by Iran unless approved by the 15-member council, Reuters reported.

The draft resolution would also require countries to inspect cargo that passes through their territory, including waterways, if they believe it contains banned products.

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U.S. officials have insisted that the arms embargo, which was put in place as part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018, should remain in place, citing Iranian violations to the Obama-era treaty.

In order to pass, the resolution needs nine votes in favor and must avoid a veto by one of the five permanent members of the council, which includes China and Russia who have both opposed the extension.

If the embargo is not extended, the Trump administration has threatened to launch a resurgence of all U.N. sanctions in a move to gain backing from the security council to renew the arms embargo.

India orders Pakistan to reduce embassy staff by half

India orders Pakistan to reduce embassy staff by half

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In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, file photo, an Indian municipal worker sweeps the road outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, India. India has ordered Pakistan to halve its embassy staff in New Delhi and said it would … more >

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Associated Press

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – India has ordered Pakistan to reduce its embassy staff in New Delhi by half and said it will do the same in Islamabad after two Indian officials were seized at gunpoint in Pakistan, the Indian foreign ministry said Tuesday.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the officials returned to India on Monday and described “graphic details of the barbaric treatment that they experienced at the hands of Pakistani agencies.”

It also accused officials at Pakistan’s High Commission in New Delhi of having been “engaged with acts of espionage and maintained dealings with terrorist organizations.”

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The Pakistani charge d’affaires was told that the decision is to be implemented within a week, the ministry said in a statement.

In a statement, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “categorically rejects and strongly condemns the baseless allegations made by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs,” and called them a pretext to seek a 50% reduction in the Pakistan embassy’s staff strength.

Pakistan authorities said two people identified as drivers for the Indian High Commission were arrested when they hit a pedestrian and tried to flee. They said police searched the vehicle and found counterfeit currency inside.

The two were released to the high commission and were transported to the border, where they crossed into India, the authorities said.

India’s action is likely to raise tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, as Indian commanders continue to negotiate a de-escalation agreement with their Chinese counterparts after a deadly clash on India’s eastern border.

India has long accused Pakistan of funding and sheltering the perpetrators of attacks in India, particularly in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region that is claimed by both countries in its entirety but is divided between them. Pakistan has rejected the allegations.