Antony Blinken signals no immediate U.S. press for Mideast cease-fire

Blinken signals no immediate U.S. press for Mideast cease-fire

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press conference with Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, following their meeting at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eigtveds Pakhus, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Monday, May 17, 2021. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo … more >

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By Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Lee and Edith M. Lederer

Associated Press

Monday, May 17, 2021

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled Monday the U.S. still would not press for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Gaza‘s Hamas rulers as fighting entered its second week, with more than 200 people dead, most of them Palestinians in Gaza.

Blinken’s stand comes despite growing pressure from the United States’ U.N. Security Council partners, some Democrats and others for President Biden’s administration and other international leaders to wade more deeply into diplomacy to end the worst Israel-Palestinian violence in years and revive long-collapsed mediation for a lasting peace there.

Speaking in Copenhagen, where Blinken is making an unrelated tour of Nordic countries this week, Blinken ticked off U.S. outreach so far to try to de-escalate hostilities in the Gaza Strip and Israel, and said he would be making more calls Monday. 

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“In all of these engagements we have made clear that we are prepared to lend our support and good offices to the parties should they seek a cease-fire,” Blinken said. 

He said he welcomed efforts by the U.N. — where the United States has so far blocked a proposed Security Council statement on the fighting — and other nations working for a cease-fire.

“Any diplomatic initiative that advances that prospect is something that we’ll support,” he said. “And we are again willing and ready to do that. But ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire.”

At least 200 Palestinians have been killed in the strikes as of Monday, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1,300 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Eight people in Israel have been killed in rocket attacks launched from Gaza, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.

Blinken also said he had asked Israel for any evidence for its claim that Hamas was operating in a Gaza office building housing The Associated Press and Al Jazeera news bureaus that was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike over the weekend. But he that he personally has “not seen any information provided.” 

Blinken’s comments came after U.N. Security Council diplomats and Muslim foreign ministers convened emergency weekend meetings to demand a stop to civilian bloodshed, as Israeli warplanes carried out the deadliest single attacks Sunday in the week of fighting.

Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told an emergency high-level meeting of the Security Council on Sunday that the United States was “working tirelessly through diplomatic channels” to stop the fighting.

But as battles between Israel and Gaza‘s militant Hamas rulers surged to their worst levels since 2014 and the international outcry grew, the Biden administration — determined to wrench U.S. foreign policy focus away from the Middle East and Afghanistan — has declined so far to criticize Israel‘s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region. Appeals by other countries showed no sign of progress.

Thomas-Greenfield warned that the return to armed conflict would only put a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict even further out of reach.

However, the United States, Israel‘s closest ally, has so far rejected moves by China, Norway and Tunisia in the Security Council for a statement by the U.N.‘s most powerful body, including a call for the cessation of hostilities.

In Israel, Hady Amr, a deputy assistant dispatched by Blinken to try to de-escalate the crisis, met with officials. Blinken himself has no announced plans to stop in the Middle East on his current trip.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, urged Biden on Sunday to step up pressure on both sides to end current fighting and revive talks to resolve Israel‘s conflicts and flashpoints with the Palestinians.

“I think the administration needs to push harder on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence, bring about a cease-fire, end these hostilities, and get back to a process of trying to resolve this long-standing conflict,” Schiff, a California Democrat, told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” 

And Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the senior Republican on the foreign relations subcommittee for the region, joined Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the subcommittee chairman, in asking both sides to cease fire.

“As a result of Hamas‘ rocket attacks and Israel‘s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further,” the two said. 

Biden focused on civilian deaths from Hamas rockets in a call with Netanyahu on Saturday, and a White House readout of the call made no mention of the U.S. urging Israel to join in a cease-fire that regional countries were pushing. Thomas-Greenfield said U.S. diplomats were engaging with Israel, Egypt and Qatar, along with the U.N.

Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised address Sunday that Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on Hamas. That will “take time,” Netanyahu said, signaling the war would rage on for now.
Representatives of Muslim nations met Sunday to demand Israel halt attacks that are killing Palestinian civilians in the crowded Gaza strip. 

At the virtual meeting of the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the U.N. was actively engaging all parties for an immediate cease-fire.

Returning to the scenes of Palestinian militant rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in the fourth such war between Israel and Hamas, “only perpetuates the cycles of death, destruction and despair, and pushes farther to the horizon any hopes of coexistence and peace,” Guterres said.

Eight foreign ministers spoke at the Security Council session, reflecting the seriousness of the conflict, with almost all urging an end to the fighting.

___

Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City, Lee from Copenhagen, Denmark, and Lederer from New York. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed.

Dogged by Mideast crisis, U.S. envoy Blinken visits Denmark

Dogged by Mideast crisis, U.S. envoy Blinken visits Denmark

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, waves after disembarking from his airplane upon arrival at Copenhagen Airport in Copenhagen, Denmark, Sunday, May 16, 2021, on his first stop on a five-day European tour. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Monday, May 17, 2021

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Denmark on Monday for talks on climate change, Arctic policy and Russia as calls grew for the Biden administration to take a tougher, more active stance on spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Blinken is seeing Danish leaders as well as top officials from Greenland and the Faeroe Islands in Copenhagen on Monday before he heads to Iceland for an Arctic Council meeting. That gathering will be marked by his first face-to-face talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a time of significantly heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Russia on Sunday called for an immediate ministerial-level session of the “quartet” of Mideast peacemakers to discuss the escalating Israeli-Palestinian crisis but there was no overt indication that the U.S. would agree. There was also no sign yet that Blinken was changing his travel plans, which currently have him returning to Washington from Reykjavik late Thursday after a brief stop in Greenland.

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The Mideast quartet includes envoys from the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. With Blinken and Lavrov both attending the Arctic Council meeting, Iceland could serve as a venue for the group to gather.

The U.N. Security Council held an urgent session Sunday on the Mideast at which U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the administration was working tirelessly through diplomatic channels to stop the fighting. President Joe Biden spoke with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, Blinken worked the phones with his counterparts while flying to Copenhagen on Sunday, and a senior U.S. diplomat is in Israel meeting with the parties there.

Yet calls for a greater U.S. response are growing, especially in Congress, where a large number of Biden’s Democratic allies are clamoring for more action, including a demand from the administration for a cease-fire. Biden has thus far resisted such calls, reaffirming staunch support for Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip while maintaining that both Israelis and Palestinians have an equal right to peace and security.

Israel on Monday unleashed a wave of new airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, saying it had destroyed 15 kilometers (9 miles) of militant tunnels and the homes of nine Hamas commanders. Gaza residents described the barrage as the heaviest since the war began a week ago. At least 188 Palestinians have been killed in the strikes and over 1,200 have been wounded, while Hamas rocket attacks have killed eight people in Israel.

In Denmark, Blinken met with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod and Denmark’s Queen Margrethe. He also saw the foreign ministers of Denmark’s semi-autonomous far north territories of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands.

Climate change is expected to dominate the discussions. The Biden administration is seeking to restore U.S. credibility with allies on the topic after four years during which the Trump administration either downplayed the threat posed by climate change or urged other nations to take advantage of the commercial possibilities resulting from a loss of sea ice and melting glaciers.

After their meeting, Blinken and Frederiksen both noted the change.

“It’s a different approach,” Frederiksen told reporters. “That means a desire for cooperation around the Arctic region, where changes are taking place.”

In a statement, the State Department said Blinken “had emphasized the importance of advancing our mutual goals of combating the climate crisis, developing green technology, and continuing common efforts with the Kingdom of Denmark on the Arctic.”

Former President Trump had also created a stir when he proposed purchasing Greenland from Denmark, an offer roundly rejected by both. Trump then canceled a scheduled state visit to Denmark in 2019, creating more ill feelings.

A senior U.S. official said Blinken hoped to get beyond any lingering doubts on Greenland by highlighting “all of the things that we’re doing with Greenland as a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.”

___

Jan Olsen contributed.

Antony Blinken asserts China commiting genocide of Uyghurs, other minorities

‘Crimes against humanity’: State Department highlights China genocide

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The State Department says China is abusing an estimated 200 million religious believers, many held at internment facilities in its Xinjiang region. (Associated Press) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The State Department on Wednesday declared that the Chinese government continues to engage in genocide and crimes against humanity through the repression of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities in western China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the assertion while introducing the department’s annual assessment of global religious freedom.

China broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minority groups,” he said.

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The annual report outlined widespread abuses by the Chinese government against the estimated 200 million religious believers, including Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

Despite Mr. Blinken’s statement, the annual report said the department is reviewing the genocide designation announced earlier this year by his predecessor, Mike Pompeo. That indicates the Biden administration is still weighing whether to back away from the label, which has drawn intense criticism from the Chinese government. Beijing denies its actions amount to genocide.

The State Department has said crimes carried out in China’s western Xinjiang province include mass imprisonment, forced sterilizations, torture, forced labor and draconian restrictions on religious freedom and freedom of movement.

The U.S. government estimates that Chinese authorities since April 2017 have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, along with ethnic Kazakhs, Hui and members of other Muslim groups, and some Christians, in internment camps and converted detention facilities.

The repression has been carried out by Chinese authorities under the guise of a national counterterrorism law and a regional counterextremism policy, according to Wednesday’s report.

Mr. Blinken also announced that the State Department is sanctioning a Chinese Communist Party official in the Chengdu area of Sichuan Province for committing “gross violations of human rights” against the anti-communist Buddhist religious group Falun Gong.

Daniel Nadel, the State Department official in charge of religious freedom, said during a briefing for reporters that China’s genocide continues.

Mr. Nadel said evidence of abuses includes testimony from survivors of repression as well as Chinese government documents. “At the end of the day, it is absolutely clear what horrors are taking place in Xinjiang,” he said. “We will continue to speak out.”

Mr. Nadel said the Chinese government has shifted from its previous position of “outright denial” about the genocide to attempting to justify the activities as an internal security issue. “Of course, the world isn’t buying it,” he said.

Chinese propaganda has gone into overdrive in recent months with stories in state media attempting to show Uyghurs as happy and content.

Asked whether the U.S. will boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics over the genocide issue next year, Mr. Nadel said the department is reviewing options and messaging related to the games and is consulting Congress and allies.

Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, argued while serving as secretary of state under President Trump that Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang are “an extreme affront to the Uyghurs, the people of China and civilized people everywhere.”

“If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world in the not-so-distant future,” Mr. Pompeo said.

In Hong Kong, where China imposed a draconian national security law last year, religious freedom is threatened but so far has not been undermined by mainland authorities, according to Wednesday’s report.

The report warned that the future of religious freedom in the former British colony is endangered by Xia Baolong, the new Beijing-appointed chief of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office who led a 2014 campaign of repression against churches in China’s Zhejiang province.

The Chinese Communist Party constitution nominally permits freedom of religion but limits practicing faith to unspecified “normal” activities. Additionally, all party members and People’s Liberation Army troops must be atheists and are prohibited from engaging in religious practices.

Austin queried on Marine writer

Two Republican House members on Wednesday wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking how a Marine Corps civilian adviser was allowed to pen an article for the Global Times, Beijing’s most ardent anti-U.S. propaganda outlet, arguing that the U.S. military would be defeated in a conflict with China over Taiwan.

The Washington Times reported Saturday that Franz Gayl, a retired Marine major who is now a civilian science adviser, wrote the opinion article without authorization from the Pentagon or Marine Corps.

Mr. Gayl’s article referred to U.S. regional partner Taiwan in terms used by Chinese propaganda, such as “separatist,” and then outlined why he believed the United States would lose in a war with China over Taiwan, the self-governing island that is partially protected against mainland aggression under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Spokespeople from the Pentagon and the Marine Corps said Mr. Gayl did not have authorization to write the April 27 Global Times piece, which appeared derived from an article published by the Marine Corps Gazette in January.

“The fact that an administration official would so openly, brazenly and repeatedly promote [Chinese Communist Party] propaganda without repercussion is outrageous,” wrote Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican. “The fact that he remains employed is frankly, mind-boggling.”

The letter asked Mr. Austin whether Pentagon officials are permitted to communicate openly with CCP functionaries and whether Pentagon officials have questioned Mr. Gayl about his article and whether he holds a security clearance.

Mr. Tiffany and Mr. Perry asserted that since the United States has never recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, “Mr. Gayl has effectively advocated for the national interests of a hostile foreign power — one that has been labeled as a perpetrator of genocide by human rights groups and the U.S. Department of State.”

The lawmakers called on Mr. Austin to explain whether any disciplinary action has been taken against Mr. Gayl.

Air Force chief: U.S. could lose next war

Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of staff, warned Congress recently that a rapid modernization program for his service is urgently needed in preparing to fight any future conflict with China or Russia.

“I have personally seen the reemergence of great power competition and how the character of war has changed,” Gen. Brown told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. “The strategic environment has rapidly evolved, and we haven’t changed fast enough to keep pace.”

China, particularly, “has recognized modern warfare as a contest among citizens, not individual units or platforms,” thus making it the most significant threat, he said, adding that competition with China and Russia will be carried out across the many domains, including air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.

To address the challenges, the Air Force needs to upgrade faster than it has in the past, said Gen. Brown, who told lawmakers that new advanced weapons and capabilities are urgently needed and must be rapidly fielded to deter and win future wars — with the Air Force of the future becoming so agile, resilient and connected that it can conduct “near instantaneous” strikes, at any place and any time.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, or ISR, need modernization so air and space forces can “sense, make sense and act,” the general said, adding that past and current ISR platforms have suffered from a lack of modernization.

In a prepared statement, he said China and Russia continue “aggressive efforts to negate our long-standing war fighting advantages while challenging America’s interests and geopolitical position.”

Both have studied America’s war fighting methods during 20 years of the U.S. war on terrorism. “They studied, resourced and introduced systems specifically designed to defeat Air Force capabilities that have strengthened the joint force for a generation,” Gen. Brown said.

“That is why the Air Force must accelerate change now, so we can protect the American way of life in 2030 and for decades to come,” he said. “Simply put, if we do not change, we risk losing. We risk losing in great power competition, we risk losing in a high-end fight, and we risk losing quality airmen and families.”

Coupled with an advanced battle management system, Air Force next-generation capabilities should entail what Gen. Brown described as increased survivability, lethality and persistence of forces, using a mix of manned aircraft, drones and optionally manned aircraft armed with advanced long-range missiles and other strike weapons.

The new advanced battle management system is a key element of the Air Force’s modernization and will create a “military internet of things” to decentralize command and control nodes and allow decision-making and communications even when fractured by an enemy attack.

The new attack strategy also will use artificial intelligence and machine learning. The Air Force also will be the first service to deploy a hypersonic missile capable of striking targets anyplace around the globe within minutes and against heavily defended targets.

• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

Joe Biden still planning June meeting with Vladimir Putin

Biden still planning June meeting with Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova via video conference at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via … more >

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By Seth McLaughlin

The Washington Times

Friday, May 7, 2021

President Biden said Friday he still plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the recent buildup of his troops on the Ukrainian border.

Mr. Biden said there are still “significantly less” Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border than a month ago.

“It does not impact my desire to have a one-on-one meeting,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House.

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Mr. Biden said he is “confident” that he will meet Mr. Putin in June, but they have yet to settle on a time and place.

Russia has stationed nearly 80,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, according to The New York Times, which reported it to be the largest Russian force amassed since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Mr. Putin’s show of force is shaping up as an early test of Mr. Biden’s approach to foreign policy and has fed concerns over Russia’s influence in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that the United States could increase assistance to Ukraine.

“I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you. Partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago, and we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions,” Mr. Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a visit to Kyiv.

• This story is based in part on wire reports.

US says fate of nuclear pact up to Iran as talks resume

US says fate of nuclear pact up to Iran as talks resume

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In this May 3, 2021, photo, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak at a news conference at Downing Street in London. A flurry of diplomatic activity and reports of major progress suggest … more >

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By MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Thursday, May 6, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is signaling that Iran shouldn’t expect major new concessions from the United States as a new round of indirect nuclear talks is set to resume.

A senior administration official told reporters Thursday that the U.S. has laid out the concessions it’s prepared to make in order to rejoin the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. The official said success or failure now depends on Iran making the political decision to accept those concessions and to return to compliance with the accord.

The official spoke to reporters in a State Department-organized conference call on the eve of the negotiations’ resumption in Vienna. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. position going into the fourth round of closed-door talks at which the remaining participants in the nuclear deal are passing messages between the American and Iranian delegations.

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The comments came after Secretary of State Antony Blinken complained of Iranian intransigence in the talks during a visit to Ukraine.

“What we don’t know is whether Iran is actually prepared to make the decisions necessary to return to full compliance with the nuclear agreement,” Blinken said in an interview with NBC News in Kyiv. “They unfortunately have been continuing to take steps that are restarting dangerous parts of their program that the nuclear agreement stopped. And the jury is out on whether they’re prepared to do what’s necessary.”

Iran has thus far given no indication it will settle for anything less than a full lifting of all the Trump sanctions and has balked at suggestions it would have to reverse all of the steps it has taken that violate the deal. Iranian officials have in recent weeks said the U.S. has offered significant, but not sufficient sanctions relief, but they have not outlined exactly what they would do in return.

The administration official said the United States is ready to return to the explicit terms of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, as they were negotiated by the Obama administration, but only if Iran will do the same. The official said the United States will not accept doing more than required by the JCPOA to bring Iran back into compliance.

The deal gave Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Much of that relief evaporated after Trump pulled out and re-imposed and expanded U.S. sanctions. Iran responded by breaking though the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, the use of advanced centrifuges and other activities such as heavy water production.

After previous rounds of talks in Vienna, the administration had said there was flexibility in what it might offer to Iran, including going beyond the letter of the deal to ease non-nuclear sanctions from the Trump era that nonetheless affected the relief the Iranians were entitled to for agreeing to the accord.

That is still the case, although the official’s comments on Thursday suggested that the limits of that flexibility had been reached. The official would not describe the concessions the U.S. is prepared to make and declined to predict whether the fourth round would produce a breakthrough.

However, the official said it remains possible to reach an agreement quickly and before Iran‘s June presidential elections that some believe are a complicating factor in the talks. The official said the outlines of what both sides need to do is clear. “We think it’s doable,” the official said. “This isn’t rocket science;”

But, the official said success depends on Iran not demanding more than it is entitled to under the terms of the original deal and by verifiably reversing the steps it has taken that violate it.

The Biden administration has been coy about what specific sanctions it is willing to lift, although officials have acknowledged that some non-nuclear sanctions, such as those Trump imposed for terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses, may have to be eased for Iran to get the relied it is entitled to. That’s because the some entities that were removed from sanctions under the nuclear deal are now penalized under other authorities.

G-7 calls out China over rights at virus-shadowed meeting

G-7 calls out China over rights at virus-shadowed meeting

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, attends a press conference with India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar following a bilateral meeting in London on Monday, May 3, 2021. (Ben Stansall/Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By JILL LAWLESS

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

LONDON (AP) – Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations on Wednesday accused China of human rights abuses and economic mischief, but offered little concrete action to deal with an increasingly forceful Beijing.

The top G-7 diplomats meeting in London said they were “deeply concerned” by China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population and other minorities, which includes mass internment in “re-education” camps, forced labor and forced sterilization.

But the U.K., the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan committed only to tackling forced labor “through our own available domestic means,” which could range from public awareness campaigns to laws for businesses, rather than through collective action.

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While the Biden administration in the U.S. is keen for a strong stand against China’s rising economic and political assertiveness, some European G-7 members are more cautious, and the G-7 joint statement stressed the need for a working relationship with Beijing.

The G-7 ministers criticized China for “arbitrary, coercive economic policies and practices” and urged it to stick to international trade rules and “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

At their first face-to-face meeting for two years, the top diplomats sought unity to deal with increasing challenges from China and Russia, smoldering conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia and the heavy toll the pandemic is taking on the world’s poorest countries.

The G-7 ministers called for “co-ordinated action and global solidarity” to help the world recover from the pandemic, and backed “affordable and equitable global access” to coronavirus vaccines and treatments. But wealthy countries have been reluctant so far to give up precious vaccine stocks until they have inoculated their own populations.

The group also condemned Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea and its “malign activities aimed at undermining other countries’ democratic systems.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was flying to Kviv after the G-7 meeting to demonstrate strong U.S. backing for the country’s response to Russian aggression.

The U.K. pushed to hold the meeting in person to give the rich countries’ club a jolt of energy after a period marked by the health crisis of the pandemic and rising nationalism around the world. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is also seeking to project a dynamic “Global Britain” image in the wake of the country’s departure from the European Union.

Delegates at Lancaster House, a grand London mansion, observed social distancing, sat behind transparent screens in meetings and were tested daily for the virus. Even so, India’s foreign minister was forced to go into self-isolation after members of his country’s delegation tested positive for COVID-19.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tweeted that he was attending “in the virtual mode” as a ”measure of abundant caution” after being told he might have been exposed to the virus.

Organizers insisted there was little risk to the rest of the delegates.

India is not a G-7 member but was invited along with fellow democracies South Korea, Australia and South Africa as a guest.

India is experiencing a vast outbreak of COVID-19, with 382,315 new confirmed cases and 3,780 reported deaths in the last 24 hours, in what is widely believed to be an undercount.

The guest nations’ delegations didn’t attend the conference on Tuesday, though Jaishankar has held meetings in London with officials including British Home Secretary Priti Patel and the American secretary of state.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “we have no reason to believe any of our delegation is at risk.”

The U.K. is due to host the group’s leaders at a summit in Cornwall, southwest England, in June.

Johnson, who attended the gathering briefly on Wednesday defended the decision to hold the foreign ministers’ meeting in person despite the virus.

“I think it’s very important to try to continue as much business as you can as a government,” the prime minister said.

Flurry of diplomatic contacts fuel Iran deal speculation

Flurry of diplomatic contacts fuel Iran deal speculation

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, is greeted by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab at the start of the G-7 foreign ministers meeting in London Tuesday, May 4, 2021. G7 foreign ministers meet in London Tuesday for their first … more >

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By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) — A flurry of diplomatic contacts and reports of major progress suggest that indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran may be nearing an agreement. That’s despite efforts by U.S. officials to play down chances of an imminent deal that would bring Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. 

With the negotiations in Vienna on hiatus, the U.S. and Britain denied Iranian reports that any agreement was at hand with Iran for a swap of American and British prisoners. Such an exchange could be a confidence-building measure to revive the nuclear deal.

A U.S. return to the deal would be the biggest and most controversial foreign policy initiative in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency. It would revive a deal that top Biden aides put together during their years in the Obama administration, only to see President Donald Trump pull out and try to prevent the U.S. from ever returning. Rejoining it — and making the concessions required to do so — would enrage Republicans and likely unsettle Israel and Gulf Arab allies.

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Even as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the prisoner swap reports at a news conference Monday in London, senior American diplomats were in the Middle East meeting Gulf Arab leaders. And two of the nuclear deal’s biggest proponents in Congress — Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Chris Murphy — were touring the region. 

Those discussions follow a week of top-level meetings in Washington between Biden; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; Blinken; his deputy, Wendy Sherman; special Iran envoy Rob Malley; and others with the head of Israel’s spy agency and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top national security aide.

The Israelis are adamantly opposed to any U.S. rapprochement with Iran, which they regard as an existential threat to the Jewish state. At least three separate meetings were held with the Israelis last week, including one Friday with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at which Biden made an appearance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Cohen was briefed on the Vienna discussions “and the progress being made there.” 

Later Friday, and on Saturday, reports emerged from Iran and Iran-linked media outlets that an agreement had been struck on what the U.S. would provide in return for Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 deal, which had given billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. On Sunday reports of the prisoner swap deal emerged.

U.S. officials were quick to bat those reports down as premature and inaccurate, although the broad contours of potential sanctions relief are well-known and Washington has made no secret of its eagerness to free Americans held in Iran.

Administration officials have allowed that limited progress has been made at the talks in Vienna, where Malley is heading the U.S. delegation. Malley was a key figure in the Obama administration’s negotiation of the original nuclear deal in 2015, as were Sherman and Sullivan, who respectively led those talks and took part in secret meetings that paved the way for the agreement.

The Biden administration reacted sharply to the Iranian reports. The State Department said “we are not at the cusp of any breakthrough” and dismissed the prisoner swap claim as false. “Unfortunately, that report is untrue,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Sunday.

Sullivan himself has been cautious in public comments about the talks, stressing that things stand at an “unclear place in Vienna.” At a virtual meeting of the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, he underscored that the talks were a “real negotiation” while acknowledging the indirect nature of the discussions have made the undertaking somewhat “inefficient.”

“I guess good faith is always in the eye of the beholder and we believe the Iranians have come in a serious way to have serious discussions about details and the teams are working through those details now,” he said.

Thus, the surge in diplomatic activity as negotiators prepare for a fourth round of talks in Vienna has given supporters of the deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018 reason for hope. And it has caused deal opponents great angst.

Complicating any potential resolution either in the short- or medium-term is the significant array of opponents lined up to try to frustrate a deal. In addition to the Gulf Arabs and Israel, there is strong opposition from Republican members of Congress who are already trying to pass legislation to block it. In Iran, elements of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appear to be using the Vienna talks to thwart a candidacy of Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif in presidential elections this year.

Deal critics have taken issue with the negotiating tactics of Malley and his colleagues, alleging that they are giving away the leverage on Iran that Trump created when he pulled out of the deal and imposed sweeping new sanctions. In fact, any U.S. return to the deal would require the easing of many of those sanctions, including possibly ones that were imposed for non-nuclear reasons, such as terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses.

Deal supporters, on the other hand, have lashed out at that criticism, accusing the other side of rejecting diplomacy and cheerleading for war. They argue that sanctions relief is the only way to bring Iran back into compliance with the agreement and shut down its pathways to a nuclear weapon.

___

Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.

G7 foreign ministers meet face-to-face after pandemic pause

G7 foreign ministers meet face-to-face after pandemic pause

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Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attend a joint press conference at Downing Street in London, Monday, May 3, 2021, during the G7 foreign ministers meeting. (Ben Stansall/Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By JILL LAWLESS

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

LONDON (AP) – Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations gathered Tuesday in London for their first face-to-face meeting in more than two years, with the issue of whether to challenge or coax a surging China high on the agenda.

Host nation Britain is keen to show that the rich countries’ club still has clout in a fast-changing world, and has warned that the increasingly aggressive stances of Russia, China and Iran pose a challenge to democratic societies and the international rule of law.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the meeting “demonstrates diplomacy is back.”

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the United States’ re-embrace of its international allies since President Joe Biden replaced his “America-first” predecessor, Donald Trump.

Blinken said engaging with China “from a position of strength … means actually working with allies and partners, not disparaging them.”

“It means leaning in and engaging in the vast array of multilateral and international organizations because that’s where so many of the rules are made. That’s where the norms are shaped,” he said. “And if we’re not leaning in, we know that Beijing is likely to be trying to do so in our place.”

At the two-day meeting, top diplomats from the U.K., the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan also were to discuss the military coup in Myanmar, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia and the precarious situation in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops and their NATO allies are winding down a two-decade deployment.

The U.K. Foreign Office said the group would also discuss “Russia’s ongoing malign activity,” including Moscow’s earlier troop buildup on the border with Ukraine and the imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

While the G-7 members likely can agree in broad terms to condemn Navalny’s imprisonment or Beijing’s repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, there are differences over how to relate to countries such as China and Russia that will have to be smoothed out in any final communique on Wednesday.

Asked what message the group would send to authoritarian regimes, Raab said the G-7 believed “in keeping trade open. We believe in standing up for open societies, for human rights and democracy. We believe in safeguarding and promoting public good.”

The G-7 ministers will also try to agree on a way to make coronavirus vaccines available around the globe in the long term. But for now, wealthy countries are reluctant to give up precious stocks until they have inoculated their own people.

The ministers wore face masks and greeted one another with arm and elbow bumps as they arrived at Lancaster House, a grand former stately home in central London. Plastic screens between participants and on-site coronavirus tests were among measures intended to make the venue COVID-secure.

The British government, which holds the G-7 presidency this year, invited the foreign ministers of Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa to join parts of the meeting, including Tuesday evening’s formal dinner. The guest list was intended to underline the G-7’s support for democracies, as well as the U.K. government’s attempts to build stronger ties with Asia in the wake of the country’s departure from the European Union.

Britain’s Conservative-led government hopes the resumption of in-person G-7 meetings – after more than a year of disruption by the coronavirus pandemic – will give the group a jolt of energy and bolster attempts to forge a post-Brexit “Global Britain” role for the U.K.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to host the other G-7 leaders at a summit in Cornwall, England, in June.

Opposition politicians and international aid organizations say the goal of Britain playing a bigger role in world affairs is undermined by the government’s decision to slash its foreign aid budget from 0.7% of gross domestic product to 0.5% because of the economic hit from the pandemic.

Raab said the aid cuts were a “difficult decision” but insisted Britain would become “an even greater force for good in the world.”

100 years old: Low-key centenary for Northern Ireland

100 years old: Low-key centenary for Northern Ireland

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A display on grass celebrating the 100 year centenary of Northern Ireland, in Ballyduff, Newtonabbey, Northern Ireland, Monday, May 3, 2021. Queen Elizabeth II has stressed the need for “reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding” as she sent her “warmest best … more >

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By PAN PYLAS

Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

LONDON (AP) – Northern Ireland marked what is widely considered to be its centenary on Monday, with Queen Elizabeth II stressing the need for “reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding” as she sent her “warmest good wishes” to its people.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a visit to London, said the U.S. will continue to encourage the U.K. and the European Union “to prioritize political and economic stability in Northern Ireland” as they work through their post-Brexit relationship.

Northern Ireland was created on May 3, 1921, when the Government of Ireland Act came into effect and partitioned the island of Ireland into two separate entities. Northern Ireland became part of the U.K. alongside England, Scotland and Wales, while Ireland would later that year become what was then known as the Irish Free State.

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Much like the day that Northern Ireland was founded 100 years ago, there were no huge celebrations or grand ceremonies Monday, given the sharply differing views on its creation and subsequent history. Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic have also led to all commemorations this year being scaled back.

Since its creation, Northern Ireland society has been split between those who want to remain in the U.K. and those who wish to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. For decades, that fissure fueled sectarian violence: the so-called Troubles, which resulted in around 3,500 deaths.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 formalized power-sharing arrangements between unionists and nationalists. It’s not always been a smooth process politically, with the two sides often unable to reach agreement on how to govern, and there’s been sporadic outbreaks of violence.

“This anniversary reminds us of our complex history, and provides an opportunity to reflect on our togetherness and our diversity,” the queen said in a statement.

“It is clear that reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding cannot be taken for granted, and will require sustained fortitude and commitment,” she added.

The queen also referred to “treasured” memories she shared in Northern Ireland with her late husband, Prince Philip, who died last month at 99.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also marked the date, describing it as a “very significant” anniversary and stressed the importance of reflecting on the “complex history” of the past 100 years.

“People from all parts of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and across the globe, will approach this anniversary in different ways, with differing perspectives,” he said.

In recent weeks, there have been outbreaks of violence across Northern Ireland, with the unionist community particularly aghast at post-Brexit trade rules that took effect this year. These imposed customs checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., which did not exist when the U.K. was part of the EU.

Blinken urged all politicians and parties to prioritize peace and stability.

“The United States remains a steadfast supporter of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland, in which all communities have a voice and can enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace,” he told reporters on Monday.

Although no major celebrations were held, plans to mark the centenary this year included tree-planting projects. Every school was given a native tree to plant in their grounds and many will explore what the future will look like in the next 100 years.

“Across generations, the people of Northern Ireland are choosing to build an inclusive, prosperous, and hopeful society, strengthened by the gains of the peace process,” the queen said. “May this be our guiding thread in the coming years.”

US to help Guatemala train its border protection force

US to help Guatemala train its border protection force

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FILE – In this Jan. 16, 2020 file photo, Honduran migrants hoping to reach the U.S. border are stopped by Guatemalan police near Agua Caliente, Guatemala, on the border with Honduras. The reasons Hondurans continue to flee their country have … more >

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By SONIA PÉREZ D. and GISELA SALOMON

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) – The United States agreed Monday to train members of a Guatemalan task force responsible for protecting the country’s borders and putting a brake on uncontrolled migration.

The U.S. offer came during a video call between U.S Vice President Kamala Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.

The U.S. will send 16 employees of the Department of Homeland Security to aid in the effort. The United States will also help Guatemala to build shelters for returned migrants and help the migrants transition back to life in their home communities.

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The agreement comes amid a spike in the number of migrant children arriving at the U.S. border, man of them Guatemalan.

“On border security, what was discussed was the establishment of a joint task force for border protection,” said Pedro Brolo, Guatemala‘s foreign minister. “The U.S. government offered training.”

The effort will be spearheaded on the Guatemalan side by the Division of Border Ports and Airports.

Harris told Giammattei the U.S. is planning to increase relief to the Northern Triangle region – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – and “strengthen our cooperation” to better manage the steep increase in migration at the U.S. southern border.

The conversation marked a ramping up of Harris’ diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of migration from the region, a role she was given by President Joe Biden last month.

In her opening remarks, Harris spoke about what she described as the “acute causes” of the spike in migration – hurricanes that battered the region last fall, a persistent drought and the coronavirus pandemic – as well as “root causes” like the lack of economic opportunity in the region, extreme weather conditions and government corruption.

“We want to work with you to address both the acute causes as well as the root causes, in a way that will bring hope to the people of Guatemala that there will be an opportunity for them if they stay at home,” Harris said.

She promised an increase in aid to countries in the region and efforts to better cooperate to “manage migration in an effective, secure and humane manner.”

Her comments come the same day the Biden administration announced sanctions against one current and one former Guatemalan government official for corruption.

“These sanctions support efforts by the people of Guatemala to end the scourge of corruption, as part of the US government’s commitment to support improvements in governance in Guatemala,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

Neither Harris nor Giammattei referred to the sanctions in their opening statements.

Giammattei told Harris that his country’s government would like to be a “partner” to the U.S. to address “not only poverty, but so many evils that affect us.”

Blinken names experienced diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as envoy for troubled Horn of Africa

Blinken names experienced diplomat Feltman as envoy for troubled Horn of Africa

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Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman is shown in this 2009 file photo. On Friday, April 23, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Mr. Feltman, a career diplomat, would serve as the State Department’s special … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, April 23, 2021

Jeffrey Feltman, a career diplomat who served for a time as assistant secretary of state and as the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for political affairs, has been named the State Department’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, where a civil war in Ethiopia has created a destabilizing humanitarian crisis in one of the continent’s most strategic areas, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced Friday.

U.N. officials and human rights groups warn that the Ethiopian government’s military campaign against the rebellious Tigray region has sparked fears of massive food shortages and atrocities directed at civilians. In addition, both Egypt and Sudan have clashed with Addis Ababa over Ethiopia’s plans for a giant power-generating dam on the upper reaches of the Nile River, warning they will not allow Ethiopia to cut off vital water resources.

“At a moment of profound change for this strategic region, high-level U.S. engagement is vital to mitigate the risks posed by escalating conflict while providing support to once-in-a-generation opportunities for reform,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement.

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U.S., EU ramp up sanctions amid junta’s crackdown on democracy in Myanmar

U.S., EU ramp up sanctions amid junta’s crackdown on democracy in Myanmar

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A man runs past a road barricade and burning debris Monday, March 22, 2021, in Mandalay, Myanmar. The BBC said Monday that a journalist from its Burmese-language service was released by authorities in Myanmar but gave no details, as protesters … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Monday, March 22, 2021

The U.S. on Monday escalated its sanctions targeting officials in Myanmar in response to the increasingly violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators unfolding in the Southeast Asian nation since the military coup that took place there last month. 

“The military regime continues its violent crackdown, which has killed at least 194 people to date, including peaceful protesters,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing new U.S. sanctions in coordination with the European Union.

Officials said the Treasury Department will freeze assets and block U.S. market access for Myanmar’s Chief of Police, Than Hlaing, and Bureau of Special Operations commander, Lieutenant General Aung Soe. The sanctions will also target two army units of Myanmar, also known as Burma, that have been involved in the crackdown on protesters.

The sanctions are designed to “show that this violence will not go unanswered,” said Mr. Blinken.

“The United States continues to call on the military regime to release all those unjustly detained; stop its attacks on civil society members, journalists, and labor unionists; halt the brutal killings by its security forces; and return power to the democratically elected government,” the secretary of state said.

The announcement was coordinated with the European Union, which announced its own slate of measures aimed at imposing costs on Myanmar‘s military regime, including sanctions against 11 Burmese individuals associated with the last month’s coup and related violence.

The Biden administration has gradually increased sanctions targeting Burmese officials since the early-February coup by Myanmar‘s military, which arrested the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior democratically elected politicians.

The weeks since the coup have seen massive pro-democracy street demonstrations and an economic shutdown in Myanmar, whose strategically sensitive location between China and the Indian Ocean have made the country a flashpoint in U.S.-China tensions in recent years. While the U.S. and its allies remain sharply criticized the military coup, Beijing has not condemned it.

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Ethiopia now calls Axum massacre allegations ‘credible’

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By CARA ANNA

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Ethiopia on Wednesday said it is investigating “credible allegations of atrocities and human rights abuses” in its embattled Tigray region, including in the city of Axum, where The Associated Press and Amnesty International have separately documented a massacre of several hundred people.

The statement by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office comes days after Ethiopia referred to the killings in Axum as an “alleged incident,” and the country’s ambassador to Belgium told a webinar that “we suspect it’s a very, very crazy idea.”

A growing number of media reports are documenting massacres in other Tigray communities, citing witness accounts, as alarm grows over the fate of the region’s 6 million people.

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And international pressure is growing on Africa’s second most populous country to allow independent investigations into atrocities committed during the conflict that began in November between Ethiopian and allied forces and those of the now-fugitive Tigray leaders who dominated Ethiopia’s government before Abiy took office in 2018.

Some of those allied forces are from neighboring Eritrea, one of the world’s most secretive countries and long an enemy of the former Tigray leaders. Ethiopia’s government denies their presence, even as some of the government-appointed interim Tigray leaders acknowledge it and several witnesses have described the soldiers’ killing and looting.

The United States has repeatedly called for Eritrean forces to leave Tigray immediately. In Washington’s strongest statement yet on Tigray, Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend said the U.S. is “gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation.”

Ethiopia replied that no foreign country should try to “dictate a sovereign nation’s internal affairs.”

The massacre in Axum in late November might be the deadliest of the Tigray conflict, with witnesses saying Eritrean forces killed several hundred people. The AP spoke with a church deacon who said he helped count the bodies, gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials. He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend around the city.

The government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is investigating allegations from Axum and elsewhere, and it has “signaled its willingness to collaborate with relevant U.N. agencies,” Ethiopia’s new statement said.

The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last week said the office is ready to support the EHRC if its monitors are granted access to the Tigray region.

Journalists also have pressed for access to Tigray, but in recent days several Ethiopians working with foreign media outlets were detained shortly after the outlets were allowed to enter. They were later released.

Ethiopia‘s new statement said Ethiopian defense forces will “ensure the security” of journalists in areas in Tigray under the forces’ control, and any journalists leaving those areas “will not be hindered from mobility, but will do so at their own risk.”

Top US diplomat ‘visits’ Mexico, Canada on virtual trip

Top US diplomat ‘visits’ Mexico, Canada on virtual trip

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, speaks during a virtual meeting at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, with Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau who is in Ottawa, Canada. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool) more >

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By BEN FOX

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – Diplomats sat beside stacks of briefing papers, flanked by flags and emphasized their closeness. But they were geographically far apart Friday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, because of the pandemic, started a new chapter in North American relations with virtual visits to Mexico and Canada in what was billed as his first official trip.

Though symbolically important in any administration, the decision by President Joe Biden to dispatch Blinken to Mexico and Canada for the first visits, even virtually, is part of a broader effort to turn the page from a predecessor who at times had fraught relations with both nations. The three nations signed a revamped trade accord last year after then-President Donald Trump demanded a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“The United States has long-standing relationships with both Mexico and Canada,” Blinken said afterward. “Today’s meetings were an opportunity to dive deeper into shared priorities.”

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Biden will engage himself with his counterpart, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on Monday when the two leaders are scheduled to hold their own virtual meeting. The two leaders are expected to discuss migration, the COVID-19 recovery and economic cooperation, according to the White House.

The secretary began his virtual visits with Mexico, a country Trump repeatedly disparaged in his campaign and early in his presidency, though relations turned more cordial under López Obrador.

“I wanted to ‘visit,’ in quotation marks, Mexico first to demonstrate the importance that we attach, President Biden attaches, to the relationship between our countries,” Blinken told his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard.

Blinken’s meetings with Mexico and Canada, two of the largest U.S. trading partners, covered economic issues as well as well as efforts to confront climate change and fight COVID-19, which prompted the countries to close their borders to all but essential traffic.

Biden last week made his first bilateral meeting, also virtual, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who at times had a frosty relationship with Trump. Biden disappointed some in Canada with his decision upon taking office to reverse Trump and revoke the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Barack Obama’s administration determined had only limited energy and economic benefits to the U.S. and conflicted with efforts to curb climate change.

That didn’t come up in the public portion of Blinken’s meeting with Foreign Minister Marc Garneau, who welcomed Biden’s commitment to “renew U.S. leadership and diplomacy.” The secretary later met privately with Trudeau.

Ebrard, for his part, welcomed Biden’s decision to reverse his predecessor and rejoin both the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. He also praised the “initiatives” of the new administration, an apparent reference to the decision to set a new course on some immigration and border policies.

“We understand that these are being done in recognition to the Mexican community,” he said, without mentioning any specific policy. “We are receiving them with empathy.”

Biden ended Trump’s policy of requiring migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico or to pursue their claims in Central America. He also restored protection for people without legal status in the U.S. who were brought to the country as children, many of whom are Mexican, and is backing legislation that would enable them to seek citizenship.

The Biden administration has begun processing the asylum claims of about 25,000 migrants who had been in Mexico, often in unsanitary and dangerous conditions, but has not lifted a policy, imposed at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, of quickly expelling people captured along the border and has sought to discourage illegal migration.

Blinken told reporters the administration is working to develop a “more rational” asylum process.

Just before his visit with Ebrard, Blinken conducted a virtual tour of the busy border crossing at El Paso, Texas, and said the administration is working with Mexico and Central American nations to ease the conditions that drive people to try to illegally reach the United States.

“To anyone thinking about undertaking that journey, our message is: Don’t do it. We are strictly enforcing our immigration laws and our border security measures,” he said.

Antony Blinken, Joe Biden face issues with European Union on defense, energy policy

Biden administration faces litany of thorny issues despite optimistic embrace from EU

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens as President Joe Biden delivers a speech on foreign policy, at the State Department, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

President Biden’s arrival in the White House has brought optimistic predictions that U.S. relations with Europe are about to get a major positive overhaul, but a slate of thorny issues that divided the two sides during the Trump years isn’t going away.

While many on the continent are eagerly embracing Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — the latter of whom spent much of his upbringing in Paris — analysts say it’s an open question whether Washington and the European Union can see eye to eye on issues such as energy policy and sharing the costs of mutual defense.

Germany’s deal with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline, American unease over a newly inked EU-Chinese investment deal, and the question of whether NATO members are spending enough on their own defense are just a few of the sticking points lurking in the backdrop when Mr. Biden makes his first major speech to European allies at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

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“The disagreements between the U.S. and Europe have not gone away,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a former high-level U.S. diplomat who heads the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

While President Trump was celebrated by right-wing and nationalist parties in several nations, Europe’s ruling establishment across most of the continent privately loathed his unorthodox, at times abrasive rhetorical style, and skepticism of the value of the EU and NATO.

While the issues complicating the trans-Atlantic relationship are “real,” Mr. Rathke said, disputes “were in some cases exacerbated by the Trump administration’s approach, which in my view was needlessly antagonistic and sometimes gratuitously antagonistic toward our European allies.”

Mr. Biden’s vow to set a new course of engagement with allies will be put to the test separately Friday when — in addition to Munich — he participates in a virtual meeting with the Group of Seven, leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest democracies. Mr. Trump was supposed to have hosted the meeting last year.

Biden administration officials he plans to focus mainly on global COVID-19 responses and the world economy but will also press for ways the group can better work together in dealing with China.

Former German State Secretary Wolfgang Ischinger suggests that may be a heavy lift but that the moment is ripe for Mr. Biden.

“I do not believe that the obstacles that would prevent the United States and Europe to see eye to eye, for example, on China and on Russia and other [issues] are insurmountable,” Mr. Ischinger told a virtual discussion Wednesday hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington.

But, he added, “we need somebody in Washington who is willing to talk to us and whom we can trust. We didn’t really have that for the last four years.”

Eye on China

China’s growing diplomatic and financial success in Europe is a source of mounting concern in Washington. It reached new heights in 2019 when Italy became the first Western European power to officially join Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure program.

The Trump administration characterized the Chinese program as a way to entrap weaker nations with predatory loans and aggressively pressed European nations to shun Chinese technology giants such as Huawei in the information and communications networks, with uneven results.

The EU went ahead with a significant investment accord with China despite clear reservations from the Biden administration, which unsuccessfully lobbied for a delay in the signing last month. The EU touts the agreement as the most ambitious ever signed between China and another country, providing Chinese companies access to many sectors including telecoms and Europe’s electric cars and hybrid vehicles.

Mr. Biden faces some popular headwinds as well in repairing America’s image and clout.

In a recent poll, the European Council on Foreign Relations found that while most Europeans rejoiced at Mr. Biden’s victory in November, many don’t think he can help the U.S. make a comeback as the pre-eminent global leader.

“Majorities in key member states now think the U.S. political system is broken,” according to the poll summary, while “a majority [also] believe that China will be more powerful than the U.S. within a decade and would want their country to stay neutral in a conflict between the two superpowers.”

Budget battles

On a separate front, heated debate over military spending among European allies appears likely to continue in the years ahead, despite Mr. Biden’s desire to soothe soreness among NATO members in the wake Mr. Trump’s demands that they pay more.

In an effort to improve “burden sharing” — the way the 30 member countries contribute cash, military hardware and troops to operations run by the world’s more powerful military alliance — Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg proposed Wednesday that the allies jointly fund more of NATO’s work.

The plan would mean using a NATO budget to pay for battle groups of troops on standby in member countries bordering Russia, aerial policing operations, the deployment of warships on permanent maritime duties and military exercises. Mr. Stoltenberg pushed the idea at a meeting Wednesday of NATO defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, for the first time.

Nine of the 30 NATO countries, meanwhile, are set to meet the target figure of 2% of gross domestic product for defense spending this year — up from three in 2014, according to The Associated Press. Washington still spends more than all of its allies combined.

But NATO members are braced for Mr. Biden to be just as demanding about military spending. The tone may change, but not the substance of a complaint that has been made by U.S. presidents for well over a decade.

Less clear is whether the Biden administration will take a stand on the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project linking Russia and Germany, a priority of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel that Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been trying to halt for years.

While Biden advisers have called the project is a “bad deal” for Europe, the president appears to be resisting pressure from lawmakers to impose sanctions on companies involved in Nord Stream 2.

Sens. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, wrote a letter to the administration last week pressing for action on a sanctions decision. Congress has mandated a report, due this week, to identify companies involved in the Nord Stream project that may be subject to the sanctions.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers added to the pressure Wednesday with their own letter to Mr. Blinken, saying the completed pipeline would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin dangerous strategic leverage over Western Europe.

“If completed, Nord Stream 2 would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe,” wrote Reps. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio Democrat; Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican; and Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat.

The majority of Europe “opposes the Kremlin-backed pipeline, particularly in light of the poisoning and wrongful arrest of leading Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition figure Alexey Navalny,” the lawmakers wrote.

The pipeline has long been vexing for Ms. Merkel, whose government allowed German firms to work with Russian companies toward its completion despite outcry from Washington.

Mr. Rathke said in an interview Wednesday that the Biden administration faces “a difficult decision” on whether to push the sanctions.

“I don’t think that Joe Biden would like to start his presidency by having a fight with Angela Merkel about sanctions on German companies” over Nord Stream 2. “Nord Stream 2 is important, but not the most important thing in the U.S. relationship.”

“What the Biden administration needs is a way to put the issue in the context of an overall strategic mind-meld with Germany. If you can have an agreement with regard to how the U.S. and European allies are going to deal with Russia, then you can allow Nord Stream 2. But if you don’t have that agreement, you’re damned.”

Rockets strike near U.S. base in Iraq, killing 1, wounding 8

Rockets strike near U.S. base in Iraq, killing 1, wounding 8

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Secretary of State Anthony Blinken introduces President Joe Biden for remarks to State Department staff, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Monday, February 15, 2021

BAGHDAD — Rockets struck outside an airport near where U.S. forces are based in northern Iraq late Monday, killing one U.S.-led coalition contractor and wounding at least eight other people, Iraqi security and coalition officials said, sparking fears of new hostilities.

At least three rockets hit areas between the civilian Irbil international airport in the semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region and the nearby base hosting U.S. troops at 9:30 p.m. No one immediately claimed responsibility.

One civilian contractor with the coalition was killed and five others wounded, coalition spokesman U.S. Army Col. Wayne Marotto said. One U.S. service member was wounded, he said. He did not reveal the nationality of the dead contractor and said this was under investigation.

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At least two civilians were also wounded and the rockets damaged cars and other property, security officials said, without providing more details. A statement from Kurdistan’s Interior Ministry said “several people” had been injured based on a preliminary investigation. The rockets were launched from an area south of Irbil near the border with Kirkuk province and fell on some residential areas close to the airport.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh condemned the attack, saying in a statement posted online that it marked a “dangerous escalation.”

Kurdish authorities cautioned Irbil residents to stay away from targeted areas and remain in their homes.

In a later statement, a little-known Shiite militant group calling itself the Guardians of Blood Brigade claimed responsibility for the attack. It claimed firing 24 rockets that avoided the airport’s defenses, specifically naming an automatic machine gun known as a C-RAM that protects American installations in Iraq.

“The American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, even in Kurdistan, where we promise we will carry out other qualitative operations,” the claim said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was pledging its support for investigating the attack and holding accountable those who were responsible.

“We express our condolences to the loved ones of the civilian contractor killed in this attack, and to the innocent Iraqi people and their families who are suffering these ruthless acts of violence,” he said in a statement.

Attacks targeting Irbil airport are rare, with Monday’s rockets the first to strike the area in five months.

On Sept. 30, when six rockets hit near the airport, Kurdish authorities said they had been launched from a pickup truck in the nearby town of Bartella in Ninevah province, which falls under federal government control. Kurdish authorities had blamed Shiite militia groups.

Hoshiyar Zebari, a politburo member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said security officials were investigating the source of the attack. “There will be consequences against the culprits. This aggression will not stand,” he tweeted.

Rocket attacks have frequently target the U.S. presence in Baghdad, including the U.S. Embassy, as well as convoys ferrying materials for the U.S.-led coalition.

The frequency of attacks diminished late last year ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a U.S. contractor would be a red line and provoke U.S. escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

• Associated Press writers Samya Kullab and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

UN welcomes US revocation of Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists

UN welcomes US revocation of Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Friday, February 12, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United States announced Friday it is revoking the designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group effective Feb. 16, a reversal by the Biden administration welcomed by the United Nations and humanitarian groups who feared former president Donald Trump’s actions would impede aid deliveries to the conflict-torn country facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called President Joe Biden’s decision to rescind the designation “a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”

He said the new U.S. administration listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups, bipartisan members of Congress and others “that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.”

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Yemen imports 90% of its food, nearly all purchased through commercial channels, and U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned last month that U.S. designation of the Houthis already had companies pulling back from dealing with the Yemenis and would likely lead to “a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.”

Blinken’s announcement followed a phone conversation Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, where Yemen was one of the issues they discussed.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Friday called the U.S. action “extremely positive.”

“We hope that helps build momentum for a political solution to the conflict in Yemen,” Dujarric said. “I think the reversal of the designation, the naming of the (U.S.) special envoy (for Yemen), and the clear, clear language from the top of the administration, from president Biden himself, expressing his strong support for the U.N.-led mediation process … are very, very welcome indeed.”

In 2014, the rebel Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen’s north, driving the government into exile. A U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year to try and restore the internationally recognized government, but years of U.N. efforts to get both sides to agree to a cease-fire and start peace negotiations have not succeeded.

The conflict has been disastrous for Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, killing more than 112,000 people, creating a humanitarian disaster, and wrecking infrastructure from roads and hospitals to water and electricity networks.

The State Department confirmed last week that Biden was moving to revoke the designation, a day after the president announced an end to offensive support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis.

The U.S. announcement came on the day that four United Nations agencies said more than 2 million Yemeni children under the age of 5 are expected to endure acute malnutrition in 2021 and urged an end to the conflict.

On Wednesday, the U.N. envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, met in Riyadh with the Saudi defense minister and other senior Saudi officials as well as the new U.S. special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, to discuss the latest developments in the country “and ways to resume the political process.”

Blinken said by revoking the terrorist designations against the Houthis, “we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue.”

He stressed that Houthi leaders remain under U.S. sanctions and said the Biden administration is “actively identifying additional targets for designation, especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea” and drone and missile attacks on to Saudi Arabia.

Blinken said the United States “remains clear-eyed” about the Houthis’ “malign actions and aggressions including taking control of large areas of Yemen by force, attacking U.S. partners in the Gulf, kidnapping and torturing citizens of the United States and many of our allies, diverting humanitarian aid, brutally repressing Yemenis in areas they control, and the deadly attack on December 30, 2020 in Aden against the cabinet of the legitimate government of Yemen.”