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Under Erdoğan, Turkey’s Secular Traditions Recede

Turkey, once considered the model of an open, secular democracy in the Muslim world, now seems to be stuck in reverse. The government is cracking down on dissidents and erasing the line between religion and state in a country that has served as the bridge between East and West.

Founded nearly a century ago, the overwhelmingly Muslim republic incorporated Western thought and philosophy and focused on science. It became an early member of NATO and aimed for European Union membership.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, riding a wave of domestic conservatism, is turning toward increasingly authoritarian rule. The once-vibrant news media have been the target of mass arrests since a failed coup attempt a year ago, with journalists joining opposition legislators in jail on terrorism charges.

Thousands of workers have been culled from the civil service and school system. The education curriculum was revamped to eliminate the theory of evolution from most classrooms. Proposed legislation would allow local religious leaders to register and conduct marriages.

Fears of extremism

Critics inside and outside the country see a steady assault on the secular system, along with marginalization of minorities, which they fear could feed extremism.

“Basically, President Erdoğan is destroying Turkey’s secular education system,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey program director at the Washington Institute policy organization. “That is the key reason why Turkey worked as a democratic society, which did not produce violent jihadist radicalization.

“The replacement of secular education with a nonsecular curriculum will inevitably expose Turkey to jihadist recruitment as well as radicalization efforts by groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida, both of which thrive across Turkey’s border in Iraq and Syria.”

The Education Ministry announced July 18 that the new national curriculum dropped the theory of evolution and added the concept of jihad. The ministry said evolution is above the level of students and was not directly relevant. It also said jihad was an element of Islam and had to be taught correctly.

​Mustafa Balbay, of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), questioned the changes.

“We have to look at this issue as a whole,” Balbay said. “If you do that, you will see that new steps by the government will move our students away from science and scientific knowledge. Science is the basis of the modern Turkish republic. An 18-year-old person is old enough to be elected to public office, but you tell him he can’t understand the theory of evolution. It makes no sense.”

But the change mirrors the sentiments of much of Erdogan’s conservative supporters.

“Evolution is monkey theory. I don’t believe in monkey theory. Allah created us,” said Kemal, a cab driver in Erzurum. “In Turkey, we as a society have to become more religious. I support the government’s moves. I am a Muslim. I want our country to produce more religious and more ethical generations.”

Rushed legislation

The proposal to open the marriage system to clerics emerged from the Cabinet Erdoğan installed after a recent referendum. Opposition and women’s rights groups say the changes could open the door to underage marriages and could be used to force Islamic traditions on other religions.

They don’t see the need to rush the legislation through, pointing out there are higher priorities, given that the current civil marriage bureaus aren’t overworked.

“It is not a surprise that the first action undertaken by the Cabinet … is an initiative that will inflict another blow to secularism,” said Candan Yuceer, deputy chair of parliament’s committee on gender equality and a member of the opposition CHP. “This is not a regulation that emerged out of need, but instead is the government’s arbitrariness.”

Parliament lost much of its clout in the referendum, which despite a clearly split electorate, gave Erdoğan the ability to revamp the judiciary and other government organizations to suit his agenda. More regressive legislation is in the works, and there has been talk of restoring the death penalty, which has drawn protests from Germany and other European nations.

The CHP says it will try to stop the marriage bill in parliament, although opponents are finding themselves off balance in fighting the government’s moves. Last year’s attempted coup has significantly weakened the opposition. The government has shackled most of the media and critics of Erdogan’s more conservative policies find themselves labeled as terrorists.

Reporters Kasim Cindemir in Washington and Yildiz Yazicioglu in Ankara contributed to this report.

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Germany Claims Vietnam Kidnapped Asylum-Seeker Wanted By Hanoi

The German government has condemned Vietnam’s “unprecedented and blatant violation” of German and international law by kidnapping a Vietnamese citizen seeking asylum in Berlin and returning him to Hanoi to face criminal charges.

The German foreign ministry expelled a Vietnamese intelligence officer and summoned Vietnam’s ambassador to hear a complaint that the incident “has the potential to have a massive negative impact on relations between Germany and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

A statement issued in Berlin Wednesday said senior German officials have “no reasonable doubt” that Vietnamese security services and embassy staff carried out the kidnapping last week of Trinh Xuan Thanh, 51, an executive of the state-owned energy company PetroVietnam, which has been the target of recent corruption investigations that have ensnared government and business leaders. Thanh is accused of responsibility for nearly $150 million in losses by a division of PetroVietnam at a time when he headed that group.

Seized by armed men

A Vietnamese-language newspaper and German media reported that armed men accosted and seized Thanh in Berlin’s Tiergarten, a large forested park in the German capital, July 23, the day before he was to appear for a hearing on his request for political asylum in Germany.

Thanh, a former high-ranking member Vietnam’s Communist Party, turned up in Hanoi this past Monday. Police in the Vietnamese capital claimed he decided to turn himself in, 10 months after an international warrant was issued seeking his arrest.

The Hanoi police did not explain how Thanh made his way from Berlin or why he returned home. No pictures of him have been published and family members were said to have been unaware that he was back in Vietnam.

The German foreign ministry said Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was demanding that Thanh be allowed to travel back to Germany immediately, so authorities there could examine both his asylum application and Vietnam’s request for his extradition. In addition, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry, Martin Schaefer, told reporters: “We reserve the right to draw further consequences, if necessary, at a political, economic and development policy level.”

In Hanoi, no comment

VOA asked the Vietnamese foreign ministry to comment on the case but received no response. Media reports in Germany said the Vietnamese embassy in Berlin was not responding to any inquiries.

Vietnam’s current anti-corruption drive marks a period of change and maneuvering within the country’s Communist Party.

“Massive corruption has been like rust eating away at the authority of the legitimacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam,” Professor Carl Thayer told VOA from Australia.

Thayer, an emeritus professor of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, explained: “This has been openly acknowledged by top party officials for well over a decade. Each major corruption case is judged not only on the financial loss to the state, but also on its impact on political stability.

“I liken anti-corruption campaigns to campaigns to end prostitution,” Thayer continued. “They are never-ending, because human greed is involved and officials will take risks.”

Quick promotions for Thanh

Thanh, a Hanoi native, graduated from the Hanoi University of Architecture in 1990 and then worked until 1995 in Germany, which currently is Vietnam’s largest trading partner in the European Union.

After returning to Vietnam, he advanced rapidly through a series of executive positions of increasing responsibility, at a state-owned technology and economic development company, a state-owned civil and industrial construction company and, in 2007, PetroVietnam Construction Joint Stock Corporation. He was chairman from 2009-2013, and was awarded a Laborers’ Hero in the Renovation Era medal in 2011.

Thanh moved into the government realm in September 2013 as deputy chief of office and head of the representative office of the Ministry of Industry and Trade in the central province of Da Nang.

In early June last year, Thanh landed in the spotlight after a photograph of him driving a privately owned car bearing government number plates was posted online.

Tripped up by privilege

An uproar ensued as people questioned why Thanh, then a deputy chairman of the southern province of Hau Giang, was assigned a government plate. After review by authorized agencies, the province’s leaders admitted they had made a mistake.

However, the outcry caught the attention of the head of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, who on June 9, 2016, called for an investigation of Thanh’s activities. That scrutiny uncovered losses of $147 million at PetroVietnam during Thanh’s tenure.

In July 2016, Thanh requested annual leave. The following month, he requested sick leave for medical treatment overseas, and then disappeared.

By mid-September, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security had charged Thanh, along with four others, with mismanagement at a subsidiary of the national oil and gas giant PetroVietnam, had removed him as a member of the Communist Party, and had issued an international warrant for his arrest.

The resulting worldwide manhunt for Thanh appeared to be fruitless until the recent events in Berlin.

One report this week indicated the two governments involved had discussed the Thanh case before he was abducted in Berlin.

The Associated Press said Germany’s foreign ministry spokesman, Martin Schaefer, confirmed that German and Vietnamese officials discussed Hanoi’s request for Thanh’s extradition during a meeting in Hamburg July 7-8, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit.

This report originated on VOA Vietnamese.

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France Finds Answers to Radicalization Problem Elusive

Centers like Pontourney in Beaumont-En-Veron were to be opened in France as reintegration centers, and were to be set up in every region of France. But that will not happen now: At the end of July, officials said Pontourney is closing.

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Georgian Court Rejects Saakashvili’s Motion to Postpone Embezzlement Hearing

A Georgian court on Wednesday rejected a request to postpone former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s hearing on embezzlement charges.

Saakashvili’s lawyers asked Tbilisi City Court to delay the hearing because the former president has been stateless since July 26, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko revoked Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship.

Calling the request unsubstantiated, Judge Badri Kochlamazashvili ruled that the hearing would be held at the court’s discretion.

Saakashvili, 49, once a lauded pro-Western reformist, served two terms as Georgia’s president, from January 2004 to November 2013. His popularity declined toward the end of his second term, in part because of a five-day war with Russia during which Moscow’s forces drove deep into the South Caucasus country, and his long-ruling party was voted out of power in a 2012 parliamentary election.

In 2015, Saakashvili forfeited his Georgian citizenship by accepting an offer from his old college friend, Poroshenko, to become governor of Ukraine’s southwestern Odessa Oblast province — a post that required Ukrainian citizenship.

Saakashvili, whom many suspect of harboring Ukrainian political ambitions, resigned as governor of Odessa in November 2016, complaining of official obstruction and corruption. He accused Poroshenko of dishonesty and said his central government had sabotaged democratic reforms required for membership to the European Union and NATO.

‘Very Soviet behavior’

Saakashvili recently told VOA that Poroshenko stripped his Ukrainian citizenship in order to eliminate his main domestic political opponent and undermine democracy in the Russian-occupied Eastern European nation.

“It’s a very Soviet behavior, very much reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s actions,” he told VOA. “First, deprive somebody of citizenship and then declare them crazy, criminal. It’s very much a déjà vu.”

Poroshenko, who announced the decision while Saakashvili was visiting the United States, said he nullified Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship upon learning that the former Georgian leader had lied on his citizenship application.

Ukrainian law requires applicants for citizenship to disclose whether they are subjects of any ongoing criminal investigations inside or outside the country.

Georgia has been seeking the former president’s extradition to face charges connected to embezzlement of public funds, the violent dispersal of protests and a raid on a private television station. Saakashvili said the charges were politically motivated.

He insisted he “indicated everything rightfully” on the 2015 document, and that Poroshenko operatives had since doctored it.

“The documents that I filed were not shown,” Saakashvili said. “We are demanding them to be shown because we need to see that everything was done legally. The fact that they are showing this [falsified application for citizenship reveals a] blatant desire to do something very illegal. We are talking about the forgery here.”

No copy of original

Asked whether he had a copy of the original application, Saakashvili said he did not.

“I happen to trust people,” he told VOA. “I have filed so many documents in my life that I don’t keep copies. I trust the state institutions; I trust people that they would do their jobs fairly.”

Kyiv officials declined to respond to Saakashvili’s assertions or comply with a request to share a copy of the disputed application.

Although Saakashvili has vowed to return to Ukraine and fight to reclaim his citizenship, it is not known whether he has taken any official steps to initiate that legal process.

On Wednesday, Kyiv officials in Washington said he had made no efforts to reach them.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, said he would be forced to extradite Saakashvili to Georgia should he return to Ukraine — but only if the Georgians filed a new request.

Georgian authorities unsuccessfully requested Saakashvili’s extradition twice prior to Poroshenko’s official visit to Tbilisi last month.

This story originated in VOA’s Georgian service.

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Turkey to Replace Army, Navy, Air Force Commanders

Turkey’s top military body will replace its heads of the army, air force, and navy, Turkish media reported Wednesday.

The heads of the three military bodies will be replaced by other high-ranking members of the military in Turkey’s latest shakeup of the armed forces after last year’s failed coup, according to media reports.

The decision followed a Wednesday meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) chaired by Prime Minister Binali Yildrim, and will go to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for final approval later Wednesday.

Commander of Turkish Land Forces Salih Zeki Colak will be replaced by the commander of the gendarmerie forces Yasar Guler. Naval commander Bulent Bostanoglu would be replaced by Adnan Ozbal, a vice-admiral, and Air Force Commander Abidin Unal will be replaced by General Hasan Kucukakyuz.

YAS usually meets once a year, but it has convened three times since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The council also has shifted to give more prominence to government ministers, and meetings now are hosted by the prime minister instead of being held at military headquarters.

Last year, YAS put 586 colonels into retirement and reduced the length of some officers’ service.

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Trump Signs Russia Sanctions Bill Into Law

U.S. President Donald Trump has signed a sanctions bill he declared is “significantly flawed” with “clearly unconstitutional provisions.”

The bill, with penalties aimed at Moscow for its interference in last year’s U.S. election, imposes fresh sanctions on Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea.  It also limits the president’s authority to lift the punishments.

“By limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together,” Trump said in one of a pair of statements issued Wednesday by the White House.  

“Despite its problems I am signing the bill for the sake of national unity,” added the president.  “Since this bill was first introduced, I have expressed my concerns to Congress about the many ways it improperly encroaches on Executive power, disadvantages American companies, and hurts the interests of our European allies.”

The legislation gained near-unanimous approval in both houses of Congress, which would have allowed lawmakers to easily override any presidential veto of the bill.

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi says majority Republicans lawmakers “must not permit the Trump White House to wriggle out of its duty to impose these sanctions for Russia’s brazen assault on our democracy.”

One Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, told CNN that the signing with no fanfare, absent the typical audience of reporters and cameras, “reinforces the narrative the Trump administration is not really serious about pushing back on Russia.  And I think that is a mistake, too, because Putin will see this as a sign of weakness.”

Before the president signed the bill the Russian government took retaliatory action, seizing two American diplomat properties and ordering the U.S. embassy and consulates to cut overall staff by 755 people, which would mostly be Russian nationals employed by the U.S. government.

About the law

The law sets new restrictions on U.S. companies working with Russian gas and oil companies and codifies sanctions imposed by former President Barack Obama for Russia’s election meddling, including the closure of two compounds in the U.S. used by Russian diplomats.

After the signing, Russia’s new U.N. Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the bill was passed after a “host of absurd accusations about Russia.”  He said it is a strange sort of encouragement for Russian cooperation with the United States.

He said Russia “will not relent on finding ways and means to cooperate with our partners, including the United States,” not because of the bill but because it “is in the interest of the international community, the U.S. and Russia.”  He added he believes it is “harming our relations inevitably, but we will be working in conditions that exist in the hope that it will turn one day.”

Trump has been largely dismissive of numerous investigations in Washington into the Russian meddling and accusations his aides colluded with Moscow, calling them a “witch hunt” and an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset win over his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.

Several congressional investigations are underway, as is a probe being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.   

Pence reassures Balkan allies

Trump’s approval of the sanctions came as Vice President Mike Pence told Western Balkan leaders their future “is in the West,” calling Russia “an unpredictable country” that has worked to destabilize the region.

Pence, in a show of support for U.S. allies alarmed by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its backing of the separatists’ rebellion in eastern Ukraine, said the United States wants “a constructive relationship” with Moscow.  But he said the U.S. will only lift sanctions against Russia when it reverses course and ends its “destabilizing activities.”

While Pence cited Russian actions in Europe, he did not mention the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a campaign to help Trump win the U.S. presidency.

The bill Trump signed Wednesday was also characterized in one of the presidential statements as sending “a clear message to Iran and North Korea that the American people will not tolerate their dangerous and destabilizing behavior.  America will continue to work closely with our friends and allies to check those countries’ malignant activities.”

UN correspondent Margaret Besheer and reporter Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report

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‘No more waiting!’ Syrians Stuck in Greece Protest at German Embassy

Syrian refugees stranded in Greece chanted “no more waiting!” and protested outside the German embassy in Athens on Wednesday against delays in reuniting with their relatives in Germany.

About 100 people, among them young children, marched from parliament to the embassy holding up cardboard banners in English reading “I want my family” and shouting slogans about travel to Germany.

Greek media have reported that Greece and Germany have informally agreed to slow down refugee reunification, stranding families in Greece for months after they fled Syria’s civil war.

About 60,000 refugees and migrants, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, have been in Greece for over a year after border closures in the Balkans halted the onward journey many planned to take to central and western Europe.

“My message is ‘enough waiting, enough suffering’,” said 41-year-old Syrian Malak Rahmoun, who lives in a Greek camp with her three daughters while her husband and son are in Berlin. “I feel my heart [is] miserable,” she said.

Rahmoun said she and her daughter applied for family reunification last year but that the Greek authorities have not given a clear reply.

A deal between Turkey and the European Union in March 2016 slowed the flow of people crossing to Greece but about 100 a day continue to arrive on Greek islands.

Nearly 11,000 refugees and migrants have crossed to Greece from Turkey this year, down from 173,000 in 2016 and a fraction of the nearly 1 million arrivals in 2015.

Most of the new arrivals this year are women and children, according to United Nations data. In earlier years, men were the first to flee to Europe, leaving other family members to follow.

“I’ve never seen my son [in] two years,” Rahmoun said.

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France, Germany Tighten Defense Cooperation in Africa’s Sahel

Germany on Monday lent support to France’s push to make operational a new multinational military force that will tackle Islamist militants in Africa’s Sahel region and urged other powers to contribute funds at an Autumn donor conference.

On a joint visit to Niger’s capital, Niamey, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her French counterpart, Florence Parly, said the Sahel force was West Africa’s best hope for defeating the militants.

Some observers see the G5 Sahel force — comprised of troops from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — as forming the basis of an eventual exit strategy for around 4,000 French troops deployed in the volatile region.

France has said it has no plans to withdraw them — a stance reiterated by Parly in Niamey.

“We need to find other European partners. Italy, Spain and others have already expressed an interest,” the German minister said before leaving Niamey, where she announced the supply of military equipment to Niger.

Parly and Von der Leyen’s trips are the latest show of tightening defense and security cooperation between Berlin and Paris since Emmanuel Macron became French president in May.In mid-July Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled plans on Thursday to develop a European fighter jet, burying past defense industry rivalries in a move designed to give fresh impetus to Franco-German relations.

Macron wants the roughly 5,000-strong Sahel force to be fully operational by the autumn.

Paris considers the Sahel a breeding ground for militants and traffickers who pose a threat to Europe. Yet the force faces obstacles, including financing, arms and training.

The European Union has pledged about 50 million euros ($59.20 million) and France has said it would contribute about 8 million euros by the end of the year. The force will cost between 400 and 500 million euros per year.

The ministers announced plans for a September donor conference in Berlin. French diplomats hope to bring Washington on board.

“We have to offer them a business model, which allows them to contribute money bilaterally, behind the scenes,”  one French diplomat said. “They want to cut funding for international organizations but have more flexibility when it comes to bilateral aid.”

Parly met the presidents of Chad and Niger. She will travel on Tuesday to a French military base in the northern city of Gao in Mali before heading to Bamako where she will meet up with Von der Leyen again.

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Experts Say Russian Retaliation Against US Could Backfire

Russian authorities are now barring American diplomats and their families from a U.S. recreational residence on the outskirts of Moscow, part of sweeping retaliatory measures announced by Kremlin leader Vladmir Putin.

The Russian president ordered the U.S. on Sunday to cut its overall staff of more than 1,200 in Russia by 755 people, in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed against Moscow for its interference in the 2016 presidential election. It is believed to be the single largest cut ever imposed on the U.S. embassy in Moscow and consulates elsewhere in Russia, although many of those to be dismissed are likely Russians working in support positions.

Putin said the cuts would leave both Russia and the U.S. with the same number of staff and diplomats in Washington and Moscow, respectively — 455.

President Donald Trump has been silent on the issue since Putin announced his retaliatory action.

Asked about this Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “Right now we are reviewing our options, and when we have something to say on it we will let you know.”

WATCH: Putin’s Move Surprises Experts

No response yet to Putin

The White House has said Trump intends to sign into law the new round of sanctions against Russia that Congress passed last week, but he has not yet done so.

The U.S. State Department said the order to reduce the number of American diplomats in Russia was “a regrettable and uncalled for act.” A spokesman said U.S. officials are assessing how to respond to Putin.

A Russian analyst, Nikolai Petrov of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said the move reflects the Kremlin’s disillusionment with Trump: “These measures are tough, and it is linked to a deep disappointment that came after the euphoria linked to the arrival of Donald Trump [to power], and to the idea that today we will start our relations anew.”

Another Russian analyst, Gleb Pavlovsky, said a return to Cold War-era hostilities with the U.S. will only boost Putin’s popularity at home ahead of another likely bid for the Russian presidency next year.

Pavlovsky, a former political consultant for the Kremlin who now is president of the Foundation for Effective Politics in Moscow, explained how U.S. efforts to “punish” Putin may have the opposite effect: “American sanctions naturally are causing a definite mass reaction [in Russia] — an anti-American, pro-Putin reaction.” If Putin wished, Pavlovsky added, he could make the American sanctions the centerpiece of his re-election campaign next year.

Russians also will feel cutback

Other experts say the vital work of the U.S. embassy in Moscow will continue despite the massive cuts.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. diplomat now with the Brookings Institution, told VOA that Russians also may discover some unintended consequences of their president’s crackdown on U.S. diplomacy.

“My assumption is hundreds of Russians are going to lose their jobs now,” Pifer said. “And when you’re looking at priority functions of the embassy, you know, visa functions are important but they’re not as important as other functions. So my guess is that those Russians [who] want to travel to the United States are going to find that visa processing is going to take longer than usual because of reduced staff in the consular section.”

Pifer was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1986, at a time when there were several back-and-forth expulsions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He later served on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton, and was ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000.

During his time in the Russian capital, Pifer said, American staff were called upon for “all-purpose duty” at times when Russian support staff were unavailable for political reasons.

“So, five or six days out of every seven, I would work on my normal portfolio, which is arms control,” Pifer recalled. “And then one day, I’d drive a truck. And the embassy got by. There was actually this incredible spirit in the embassy that we were going to show the Soviets that this kind of action was not going to cramp the embassy.”

Pifer said he expects the same determined spirit from U.S. embassy personnel now.

Congress approved the new sanctions against Russia last Thursday, as part of a package that also included new measures against Iran and North Korea. Russia’s foreign ministry denounced the U.S. for “extreme aggression” in international affairs and signaled the coming counter-measures the next day, two days before Putin personally announced the cutbacks in diplomatic staff.

In addition to sharply trimming the size of the U.S. mission, Russia reclaimed two U.S. facilities, a recreational retreat near Moscow and a storage facility in the city.

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Aid Groups Split Over Italy’s New Rules for Migrant Rescues

Five aid groups that operate migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean refused to sign up to the Italian government’s code of conduct on Monday, the Interior Ministry said, but three others backed the new rules.

Charity boats have become increasingly important in rescue operations, picking up more than a third of all migrants brought ashore so far this year against less than one percent in 2014, according to the Italian coast guard.

Italy fears the groups are facilitating people smuggling from North Africa and encouraging migrants to make the perilous passage to Europe, and it proposed a code containing around a dozen points for the charities.

Those who refused to sign the document had put themselves “outside the organized system of sea rescues, with all the concrete consequences that can have”, the ministry said.

Italy had previously threatened to shut its ports to NGOs that did not sign up, but an Interior Ministry source said in reality those groups would face more checks from Italian authorities.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has taken part in many of the rescues of some 95,000 migrants brought to Italy this year, attended a meeting at the Interior Ministry but refused to sign the code.

MSF objected most strongly to a requirement that aid boats must take migrants to a safe port themselves, rather than transferring people to other vessels, which allows smaller boats to stay in the area for further rescues.

“Our vessels are often overwhelmed by the high number of [migrant] boats … and life and death at sea is a question of minutes,” MSF Italy’s director Gabriele Eminente wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Marco Minniti.

“The code of conduct puts at risk this fragile equation of collaboration between different boats,” Eminente continued, adding that MSF still wanted to work with the ministry to improve sea rescues.

But Save The Children gave its backing, saying it already complied with most of the rules and would monitor constantly to be sure that applying them did not obstruct their work.

“We would not have signed if even one single point would have compromised our effectiveness. This is not the case, not one single point of the code will hinder our activities,” Save The Children Italy director Valerio Neri said after the meeting.

The Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms agreed to the conditions, but Germany’s Sea-Watch, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet, and France’s SOS Mediterranee abstained.


MSF, SOS Mediterranee and Jugend Rettet also called for clarity on the rules and took issue with a clause in the code which would oblige groups to accept police officers on board.


“For us the most controversial point … was the commitment to help the Italian police with their investigations and possibly take armed police officers on board,” Jugend Rettet coordinator Titus Molkenbur said. “That is antithetical to the humanitarian principles of neutrality that we adhere to, and we cannot be seen as being part of the conflict.”