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Russia Accuses Washington of Leaking Diplomats’ Bank Details

Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday accused U.S. officials of leaking to the media confidential financial details of Russian diplomats working in the United States, and demanded that those responsible be punished.

U.S. media outlet Buzzfeed reported this week that U.S. officials investigating allegations of Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election were studying records of financial transactions involving Russian diplomats. Buzzfeed cited details of several bank transfers.

“It’s obvious that this could not have happened without the knowledge of the authorities of that country (the United States),” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

“In other words, this intrusion on the sanctity of the accounts of the embassy and its staff, who have diplomatic immunity, is the work of Washington officialdom.”

The statement said that the transactions that were leaked contained nothing except routine payments, but that these were being twisted to make them appear suspicious.

“Once again we have to note that Washington is not ensuring the appropriate conditions for the functioning of Russia’s diplomatic missions. The pressure on them continues and is growing,” said the ministry.

“We demand that the American authorities, at last, start implementing their own national laws and international obligations, immediately stop the unlawful distribution of confidential information …. and hold responsible those who are to blame, including those who hold relevant posts in the American state administration.”

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Turkey Ratchets Up Pressure on Syrian Kurds

Turkey is stepping up its military and diplomatic preparations for a threatened offensive into Syria against a Syrian Kurdish militia. The escalation comes as Turkish ministers dismissed efforts by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to calm tensions.

Turkey’s threat to intervene in Syria’s Afrin enclave controlled by the Kurdish militia, the YPG, was triggered by a U.S.-led coalition announcement of the creation of a 30,000-member border security force. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dubbed the force a “terror army” and vowed to destroy it, because a large part of it would consist of YPG fighters considered by Ankara to be terrorists linked to the outlawed PKK, which is waging a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

Afrin is one several Kurdish-controlled cantons that are under the authority of the YPG militia, a key ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamic State.

Tillerson reached out to Ankara Wednesday, saying it deserved an explanation and that the “entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described; some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.” The secretary of state maintained that the U.S. just planned to continue its training of people freed from Islamic State control.

“Not enough” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as Turkish forces Thursday resumed their bombardment of Afrin and reinforcements continued to the Syrian enclave frontier.

Veiled message?

The ongoing escalation saw Damascus push back. “We warn the Turkish leadership that if they initiate combat operations in the Afrin area, that will be considered an act of aggression by the Turkish army,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad.

“Part of the game in [the] Middle East is that countries can say something directly or have others say it for them, “suggested political columnist Semih Idiz. “I think the statement by Damascus by Meqdad is significant as it is probably Moscow saying it indirectly.”

Russia finds itself performing a delicate balancing act. Russia supports the Kurds but at the same time is courting Turkey in a bid to weaken ties between Turkey and its NATO allies.

On Thursday, the head of Turkey’s armed forces, Hulusi Akar, and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, visited Moscow for talks about Ankara’s plans for a military operation. Turkish Foreign Minster Cavusoglu said Moscow’s cooperation is vital for any military operation against the YPG. Russian soldiers are deployed in the Afrin enclave as a measure to prevent the risk of confrontation between Turkish and Syrian Kurdish militia forces. Turkish air support in any Syrian incursion, considered vital by experts, would depend on Moscow’s permission, given its deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries in Syria.

Russia better positioned

“I don’t think it’s in the cards. I don’t think there is much hope of Russia giving up on the Kurds. Russia has this relationship with the Kurds going back 70 to 80 years and they have always maintained these ties, even though the PKK always had a presence in Moscow, said columnist Idiz. “But Russia does not have that much of an interest in severing ties with Turkey at the moment. So they will try and find some solution. Moscow is in a much better situation than Washington to do this, because Moscow has dialogue with all sides at the moment. So Moscow seems to be again the winner in this situation,” added Idiz.

Ankara’s threat to intervene into Afrin is seen as a sign of wider concerns that it will face being isolated in any final deliberations over the future of Syria.

“The U.S. will arrive there (talks on Syria) with the east of the Euphrates River (in Syria) under their control and more or less the Russians will arrive there with the (Syrian) regime in control of the rest of the country,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served widely in the region.

Ankara is facing growing pressure by both Moscow and Washington to allow Syrian Kurds linked to the YPG to participate in peace talks over Syria. Turkey steadfastly opposes the move, claiming “terrorists” have no place at the talks. “The president’s brinkmanship with regard to Afrin could be an attempt to change the game or concentrate minds to remind the powers that Turkey is here and it can always be a spoiler if it wishes,” columnist Idiz said.

Analysts suggest such brinkmanship carries serious risks.

“Failure (of the military operation) would significantly rattle the AKP government, while success could infuriate the U.S. and/or Russia, triggering talk of economic sanctions once again,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada, of Global Source Partners, referring to Turkey’s ruling party.

 

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US Seeks Extradition of al-Qaida Suspect Jailed in France

The United States is seeking to extradite a suspected al-Qaida terrorist imprisoned in France.

The Justice Department on Wednesday unsealed its indictment on federal terrorism charges of German citizen Christian Ganczarski, who also goes by several Arabic aliases.

The charges include conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing material support to al-Qaida.

Tunisia attack

Ganczarski is in prison in France for his part in a 2002 al-Qaida attack on a synagogue in Tunisia.

U.S. authorities say Ganczarski’s association with al-Qaida goes back to 1999 and that he was close to senior al-Qaida leaders. He allegedly provided them with expert guidance on computers, radio communications and weapon systems maintenance. He is said to have lived in al-Qaida camps and guest houses.

“He rubbed shoulders with Osama bin Laden and the men who planned and executed plots from the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 225 people to the 9/11 attacks that cost 3,000 lives,” New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

9/11 attack

Ganczarski was in Germany on September 11, 2001. But according to U.S. authorities, he had been aware that a “significant event” would happen.

Ganczarski faces life in prison if extradited and tried and convicted in the United States.

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Britain Appoints Minister of Loneliness

Britain has appointed a minister of loneliness to combat social isolation experienced by one in 10 Britons. 

Sports Minister Tracey Crouch will add the job to her existing portfolio to advance the work of slain lawmaker Jo Cox, who set up the Commission on Loneliness in 2016.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

The British Red Cross says more than 9 million Britons describe themselves as being always or often lonely, out of a population of 65.6 million.

Most people over age 75 in Britain live alone, and about 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, government data show.

“We know that there is a real impact of social isolation and loneliness on people, on their physical and mental well-being but also on other aspects in society, and we want to tackle this challenge,” Crouch told the BBC. 

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Syrian Kurds Appeal to UN as Turkey Prepares to Attack

Syria’s dominant Kurdish party on Wednesday called on the U.N. Security Council to act quickly to ensure the safety of Kurdish-controlled territories in the country’s north, including an enclave that Turkey has threatened to attack.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will launch a military offensive in the coming days against territories controlled by the dominant Syrian Kurdish militia in northwestern and eastern Syria, and in particular the enclave of Afrin, where an estimated 1 million people live. 

Turkey views the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces as terrorists, and an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast. It has criticized the U.S. for extending support and arming the Kurdish forces as part of the campaign that drove the Islamic State group from large parts of Syria. 

Coalition upsets Turkey

The Kurdish militia, which forms the backbone of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, now controls nearly 25 percent of Syrian territory. It is the U.S.-led coalition’s chief ally in the campaign against IS in Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition recently said it is planning a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border force, further angering Turkey. 

“Turkey has reached the end of its patience,” said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday. “No one should expect it to show more patience. Turkey is determined to take whatever steps are necessary.”

Turkey’s National Security Council also met Wednesday and vowed to take steps to “eliminate” threats from western Syria — in an apparent reference to Afrin.

A statement issued at the end of the meeting also criticized the United States, saying Turkey was saddened by the fact an ally has “declared terrorists as partners”  and “armed them without taking our security into consideration.” It called on the U.S. to reclaim all arms supplied to Syrian Kurdish fighters.

In reference to the planned Kurdish-led border force, the statement added: “Turkey will not allow the creation of a terror corridor or an army of terror near its border.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he told U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that those plans were a “perilous” step that would “seriously endanger ties.” The two met in Vancouver Tuesday. 

“Such a development would damage Turkish-American ties in an irreversible manner,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying on Wednesday.

Operation set to ‘purge terror’

Erdogan said the imminent military operation is to “purge terror” from near its borders. Along with Afrin, Erdogan has also threatened Manbij, a town the Kurdish-led SDF seized from IS in 2016.

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the political arm of the main Kurdish militia, said that if Turkey launches an operation against Afrin, the world will bear responsibility for the lives of people residing there. The PYD called on the Security Council to “move immediately” to ensure the security of Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria. 

“Such a responsible behavior will lead to the desired result in finding a resolution for the Syrian crisis,” the PYD said in a statement. 

The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has meanwhile accused the SDF of being “traitors” for cooperating with the United States. 

On Monday, Erdogan vowed to crush the border force and called on NATO to take a stand against the United States, a fellow ally.

Shelling continues near Afrin

Meanwhile, Syrian activists said Turkish military activities near the borders with Afrin have continued, as well as shelling of the outskirts of the town. Tanks amassed near the border with Syria, while Turkish media reported that medical personnel in Kilis, a Turkish town across the border from Afrin, were asked not to take leave, apparently in anticipation of military operations. 

Turkey’s private Dogan news agency quotes Turkey-backed Syrian rebels as saying they are awaiting Turkish orders to launch the Afrin operations. It says some 3,000 fighters are ready to participate in operations against Afrin and Manbij.

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Arson Attack Rips Through Office of Russian Human Rights Group

One of Russia’s biggest human rights groups said on Wednesday that one of its offices in southern Russia had been badly damaged in an overnight arson attack, an incident it said was part of a campaign to drive it from the region.

Pictures of the office of the group, Memorial, in Nazran, a town in the Russian region of Ingushetia which borders Chechnya, showed the blackened interior of an office strewn with fire-damaged debris.

Memorial is under pressure in the Muslim-majority North Caucasus region after police in Chechnya detained the head of its office there this month and accused him of possessing a large quantity of cannabis, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

Concerns about the case of the detained activist, Oyub Titiev, who has written to President Vladimir Putin saying that he was framed and that the police planted the drugs in his car, prompted the United States and Europe to call for his release.

Memorial has angered authorities in Chechnya by reporting disappearances, torture and punitive house burnings there. Titiev’s predecessor, Natalia Estemirova, was kidnapped and shot dead in 2009. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, has said allegations that Chechen authorities use illegal violence are false and invented to secure foreign grants.

Memorial said it had captured some of the overnight arson attack on CCTV which showed two masked men breaking into its office with petrol cans and called on the authorities in Ingushetia to investigate the attack as an act of terrorism.

“The work of Memorial’s representative office in Ingushetia is exclusively dedicated to human rights problems on the territory of Ingushetia and in no way linked to Chechnya,” Memorial said in a statement. “Nonetheless, it’s obvious to us that there is a link between the arson attack with those forces who are trying to destroy the work of Memorial in Chechnya and squeeze Memorial out of the entire North Caucasus region.”

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Catalonia Parliament Holding First Meeting Since Elections

The parliament in Spain’s Catalonia region is set to meet for the first time Wednesday since the country’s central government dissolved the body and ordered new elections in response to an independence referendum.

Pro-independence parties together have a narrow majority in the new body, but lawmakers will need to form a government and pick their leadership.

Ahead of Wednesday’s session, two separatist parties reached an agreement to support former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont as a candidate to again take that role.

Puigdemont led the push for the referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, which was supported by the majority of people who voted. After the government in Madrid dissolved the parliament and suspended the region’s autonomy, Puigdemont fled to Brussels. He faces arrest if he returns to Spain.

Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, says Puigdemont cannot act as Catalan president while in exile, and that if he is chosen then the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy will remain in effect.

Other leaders of the independence movement remain in exile or in prison within Spain.

On Tuesday night, thousands of protesters rallied in Barcelona calling for the release of Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixar, two leaders of Catalan civic organizations who are being held on sedition charges.

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As Migrants Return To French Port Of Calais, Macron Demands Britain Pay Up

France is set to demand that Britain pay more to deal with the ongoing migrant crisis around the port of Calais, the main gateway from the European mainland to the UK. 

French President Emmanuel Macron visited the northern town Tuesday, where he met migrants at a local shelter, and praised the commitment of the police in a speech to local officers.

“Under no circumstances will we allow illegal networks to emerge or develop here. Under no circumstances will we let another jungle camp appear here, or any other illegal occupation of land,” he said, criticizing those who accuse the police of abuses against the migrants.

Macron is expected to unveil new immigration policies in the coming weeks. Official figures this week showed a record number of asylum applications in 2017, exceeding 100,000 people.

 Currently, British border controls are hosted in Calais under an agreement between Britain and France.

Macron is due to travel to London Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Theresa May and is expected to demand Britain accept more asylum seekers and pay more toward policing the border.

Hundreds of asylum seekers, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, are living in dire conditions in makeshift camps around Calais. The roads leading to the port are lined with rows of razor wire fences, but the migrants regularly scale the barriers and attempt to hide in trucks and cars heading across the English Channel. 

Migrants and volunteers accuse police of routine violence. One 22-year-old Afghan refugee, who has been in Calais for three weeks, said authorities regularly raid the camps. 

“When the police stop us, they hit us, they beat us. And when we sleep at night, they take away our tents, they tear them, they gas us, and there’s nothing we can do.”

At its peak, up to 10,000 migrants lived in a sprawling camp known as ‘the jungle” just outside Calais. Former president Francois Hollande sent in bulldozers in 2016, and his successor, Macron, has taken a tougher line, insisting that migrants are bussed away from Calais to processing centers where their asylum status can be assessed.

Many migrant charities refused to meet Macron during his visit to Calais, in protest of the crackdown.

“Now there really is an incomprehensible step backwards, and it can be qualified as harassment,” said Jean-Claude Lenoir, head of the migrant charity, Salam.

Critics say the French and British governments are failing to address the factors that drive migrants to Calais.

WATCH: Crackdown on French Migrants

​”Particularly the fact that some people have family links in the U.K., or they have other reasons behind their willingness to go to the U.K. For example, they believe that there are more integration prospects, or they have language skills that would work better in the U.K. Calais is a symptom, it’s an example of how the U.K. is shirking their responsibilities,” Maria Serrano from Amnesty International told VOA in an interview.

Britain says it has a rigorous asylum process and insists that it is one of the biggest global donors to refugee aid programs. 

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US Warily Eyeing New Russian Air Defenses in Crimea

The United States is assessing the security implications of Russia’s latest deployment of S-400 air defenses to Crimea, a U.S. military official said on Tuesday, adding it could give existing Russian defenses more resilience.

“It’s not good. It doesn’t bode well,” a senior U.S. official at the U.S. military’s European Command said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We certainly are paying attention to it and what that means, as far as the security of the Black Sea.”

Moscow’s deployment on Saturday added a second division of S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, triggering economic sanctions by the European Union and United States.

It deployed its first division of S-400s in the spring of 2017 near the port town of Feodosia. The new division will be based next to the town of Sevastopol and will control the airspace over the border with Ukraine, the RIA news agency reported.

The U.S. military official acknowledged that it was difficult to assess the goal of the deployment. Any air defenses of that kind, however, add Russian military capability to Crimea, providing additional resilience and, potentially, coverage.

“If the intent should arise, it gives opportunities to either defend a little bit more of the Black Sea or to advance from there,” the official said, without predicting any future Russian actions.

“We look at it as just another affirmation of their will to use military force.”

New fighting

Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists have accused each other in recent days of ramping up attacks in their conflict.

Five Ukrainian servicemen have been killed so far this year and another roughly 20 were wounded, according to Reuters calculations based on daily data from the Ukrainian military.

The new air defense system, designed to defend Russia’s borders, can be turned into combat mode in less than five minutes, Interfax news agency quoted Viktor Sevostyanov, a commander with Russia’s air forces, as saying.

Russian officials have criticized a U.S. decision announced in December to provide Ukraine with defensive weaponry, which officials said included Javelin anti-tank missiles.

Washington has argued in the past that such weapons cannot effectively be used to take territory and U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford said during a trip to Brussels this week that the move was strictly defensive.

“Our government believes that a nation has the right to defend itself and the support that we’ve provided to Ukraine was directly focused on areas where they had capability gaps,” Dunford said.

 

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Macron Gets Tough on Migrants, Vowing ‘No More Jungles’

President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday vowed that France would no longer allow migrant camps like the notorious “Jungle” as he defended a tougher line on immigration that has attracted sharp criticism from some of his allies.

In a closely-watched speech in Calais, Macron promised a more orderly immigration policy with zero tolerance for camps like the Jungle, the squalid shantytown near the northern city’s port that was once home to some 10,000 migrants dreaming of Britain.

“There will be no reconstruction of the Jungle and no tolerance for the illegal occupation of public space,” Macron said in a speech at a police station in the port city.

While the Jungle was demolished in late 2016, hundreds of migrants remain in Calais, trying night after night to stow away on trucks heading across the Channel to England.

Calais has long been a sore point in relations with Britain and ahead of his first trip to London as president on Thursday, Macron called for better cooperation in managing the border.

Gearing up for his talks with Prime Minister Theresa May, Macron called for “specific responses” from Britain on the thorny issue of unaccompanied minors stranded in France – some of whom have relatives in Britain.

May’s spokesman issued a statement on an issue that is set to cause tension on Thursday, saying: “We’ve taken a significant number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children from the area around and in Calais already.”

Allies critical

As Europe struggles with a historic wave of arrivals, Macron blasted EU migration policy as “insufficient and incoherent,” repeating his call for the bloc to set up a shared asylum office.

He joined a chorus of criticism for the “Dublin” asylum rules which say asylum seekers must be dealt with in the country where they arrive, creating a huge burden for frontline states like Italy.

But he ruled out suggesting migrants should be able to apply for asylum in any EU country from any other, saying this would “strip the entry country of their responsibilities.”

France received a record 100,000 asylum claims last year, making it one of Europe’s top destinations.

Immigration poses a tricky political challenge for Macron, with his newly formed centrist Republic On The Move (LREM) party divided on how to greet new arrivals.

On Tuesday, his former senior aide Jean Pisani-Ferry penned a hard-hitting open letter along with several center-left trade union and think-tank chiefs claiming Macron risked betraying his image as a humanist.

Writing in Le Monde newspaper, they urged him to “live up to our ideals” and put an end to efforts that seek to dissuade asylum seekers from coming to France in the first place.

Macron has said he wants to step up expulsions of economic migrants, while speeding up waiting times for asylum applications – an approach he touts as mixing “humanity” and “efficiency.”

It currently takes 18 months on average to process an asylum claim in France – and Macron promised Tuesday to cut this to just six months.

“For years we’ve been doing things backwards,” Macron said.

Gassed while sleeping

Near the ferry port in Calais, close to the site of the razed Jungle, dozens of migrants queued for hot tea and food from an NGO after spending a cold night camped out in the woods.

A group of young men from Oromia in Ethiopia described nightly police operations to clear the camps, with NGOs accusing officers of using pepper spray on migrants as they sleep.

“They gas the tent while you’re sleeping or gas you in your face,” said Dawit, 21.

“The tent, they take it; the sleeping bag, they take it.”

Macron defended frazzled local police, stressing they were working in difficult conditions as they struggle to stop migrants blocking the roads in an attempt to slow trucks enough to jump onboard.

But he insisted they must be “exemplary” in their policing of migrants, respecting their rights and not confiscating their property.

He also criticized some pro-migrant groups active in Calais, accusing them of helping migrants to break the law by encouraging them to stay in the area or even helping them to stow away.

He announced that the government would take over from NGOs in providing food for the migrants, “without tolerating the setting up of illegal camps.”