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US, Russia Boost Communication to Head Off Syria Incidents

The commander in charge of U.S. air operations in the Middle East says the United States and Russia have communicated more via an established military hotline as the airspace around Islamic State territory in Syria has become more crowded.

“We have had to increase the amount of deconfliction work we are doing with the Russians, given the tighter airspace that we are now working ourselves through,” Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters Wednesday.

Islamic State has been reduced from its peak of about 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria to current estimates of fewer than 15,000.

The communication hotline was created between Russia and the U.S. several months ago to avoid misunderstandings or unintended incidents in the sky over Syria.

Harrigian confirmed the U.S. has established deconfliction zones around U.S. military personnel inside Syria, adding that Russian movement within these areas is restricted to protect American and U.S.-backed forces.

“There have been times we’ve had to work through mitigation strategies to ensure we can continue our mission, and vice versa,” he said. “The Russians are understanding of what we’re trying to do.”

Harrigian added that communication on the hotline is not always easy, however, and sometimes it takes multiple calls to work through one deconfliction issue.

A recent example of this communication came last week when the U.S. conducted what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called a “self-defense” strike against Iranian-directed, pro-Syrian government forces.

The forces violated a coalition deconfliction zone that had been established within a 55-kilometer radius of the al-Tanf army base, where U.S.-led coalition forces are training Syrian militias fighting IS.

U.S. officials said that, as the pro-Syrian government forces began creating fighting positions near the base, they used the deconfliction hotline to see whether the Russians could get the pro-Syrian forces to leave the area.

When that failed, the coalition launched airstrikes against the forces, destroying a tank, two front-end loaders, another piece of construction equipment and a tactical vehicle, according to a U.S. Central Command strike release.

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Europe’s Leaders Hope for Change in Direction at NATO Summit

NATO leaders are going to Brussels for a summit meeting on Thursday expecting to agree on key principles.  With Monday’s attack in Britain overshadowing the meeting, there will be quick consensus on the need to keep fighting terrorism both at home and abroad, in places like Afghanistan.

How to do it is a different question. 

The war in Afghanistan is one of the key topics European leaders hope to learn more about when they meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. 

The U.S. leader wants a boost in NATO contributions for the effort, but Germany’s Angela Merkel has indicated she is lukewarm about this and will wait for NATO discussions on the matter.  “We are also coordinating the cooperation of about 20 member countries which are active there,” she said earlier this month.

“I am going to wait for the decisions. I do not think we’re first in line to expand our capacities there,” Merkel said.​

Pressing again for NATO members’ payments

Aside from the Afghanistan war, Trump has made clear he wants alliance members to meet minimum contribution levels, and spend two percent of their gross national income on defense.  Only five of the alliance’s 28 members – the United States, Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland – are doing so.

European leaders expect to hear a reaffirmation that NATO’s anti-terrorism work extends beyond Europe and the Atlantic.

Former British Foreign Minister David Owen said NATO “is a vehicle for the world” already. 

“Actually it is a global entity, and I think there is a case for expanding that now to dealing with ISIS,” Owen told VOA. “I know this is controversial, but I think if it’s approached carefully and steadily, we will see NATO accepting that it is right for there to be an extension of the remit [authority] from Iraq to go out and to deal with ISIS, and I think it’s a much better way of American power being globally used within the framework of NATO.”

There are disagreements going into the meeting, but there is also the prospect of progress in some key areas.

Manchester attack highlights global war on terror

The global fight on terror is on the NATO summit agenda. In the wake of the Manchester attack, Britain’s Theresa May was expected to present a strong case in support of more coordination among allies to tackle terrorism, something analysts said would further bolster the view that NATO remains relevant and necessary.

Russia also looms large for European leaders at both the NATO summit and the G-7 meeting that follows in Italy. 

Germany, Austria and others hope for a new direction in relations with Moscow following the Ukraine crisis, as continued sanctions against Moscow have created pressure on western European nations dependent on Russian energy exports. 

European leaders also hope to use the NATO summit to ease tensions with Turkey following the recent referendum that gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, and raised new concerns about growing authoritarianism.

Waiting for Trump…

A dispute between Turkey and Austria emerged on Tuesday when reports said the Turkish government has suspended cooperation with NATO members following Austrian opposition to Turkey’s membership in the EU.  Austria is not a member of NATO but its troops sometimes partner with alliance forces.

The big hope among European leaders is that seeing Trump face to face and hearing him repeat assurances that he no longer believes NATO is obsolete will quell anxieties about the U.S. role as guarantor of Europe’s security.

Reports quote NATO sources as saying officials will hold off on issuing a formal declaration as is common after some summits.  It may depend on what is said at the meeting.  In this time of transition and surprises, that is something no one can predict.

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Russia, Trump Team in Contact, Former CIA Director Tells Congress

President Trump’s reported demands to top leadership of U.S. intelligence agencies to deny there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia dominated an intense day of Congressional testimony. Congressional probes into Russian election interference showed no signs of letting up, even as Special Counsel Robert Mueller launches a wide-ranging Justice Department investigation. VOA’s Katherine Gypson has more from Capitol Hill.

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Europe’s Leaders Hope for Change of Direction as They Face Trump

NATO leaders are going to Brussels for the May 25th summit expecting to agree on key principles. With Monday’s attack in Britain overshadowing the meeting, there will be quick consensus on the need to keep fighting terrorism both at home, and abroad in places like Afghanistan. How to do it, is a different question. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Brussels.

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Security Expert: Manchester Bomb Designed to Maximize Casualties

The bomber who struck a concert by American pop star Ariana Grande in the northern English city of Manchester, killing 22 and injuring 59 Monday night, set out to kill and maim as many of the music fans — many of them teenagers and children — as possible, say British police.

The device that exploded as concert-goers started exiting Europe’s largest indoor arena was a ‘nail bomb’ that sent metal shards ripping into the bodies of the music fans.

 

Security expert Will Geddes, CEO of British security consultants ICP, told reporters that the device appeared to be “a shrapnel-based” one, designed to cause as much injury as possible. “When a bomb goes off it is the shrapnel from the explosion which has the biggest impact which is often why terrorists use bags of ball bearings,” he said.

Witnesses say the ground near the epicenter of the blast was covered with nuts and bolts. Medics on the scene reported as the horror unfolded that they were treating wounds consistent with shrapnel injury.

Criticism quickly mounted of what some concert-goers said was “lax security” at the venue. Some fans said that guards at the entrances to the concert were more concerned about whether they were carrying alcohol on them or water bottles. The Daily Mail reported that one woman complained of the lack of “proper security checks” in a review on the TripAdvisor website of an Ed Sheeran concert last month at the Manchester Arena.

The woman, who used listed herself Anna W, wrote: “’A female security person just scanned our ticket and didn’t check my bag at all. Once we got in and bought a bottle of wine the top is taken off so they r not used as missiles but no check to see if u have any type of weapon/bomb in your bag in these times of terror attacks its not good enough for the crowd or the act on stage. Needs sorting.

Soft targets

Nightclubs, restaurants, bars, vacation beaches and concerts have all been targeted in recent years by Islamic militants in the West, either directed or inspired by the Islamic State terror group, say analysts.

The targeting is partly a matter of convenience, according to counter-terror officials. Like transports hubs, concerts and nightclubs are not always tightly secure and draw large crowds, thereby maximizing the chances for attackers to inflict heavy loss of life as the bomber did on Monday night — and as militants did in November 2015 when they struck a sold-out rock concert at the Bataclan theater in the French capital, Paris, killing more than a hundred.

But jihadist strategists and propagandists also take cruel delight in striking at pop concerts, say analysts. IS propagandists made a point of stressing that the Bataclan concert by the Eagles of Death Metal band had been “precisely chosen” as a target by three suicide bombers because of its immoral nature.

“The targets included the Bataclan theater for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice,” read a statement released by the terror group after the Paris attack.

Manchester Arena on Monday night presented an “ideal target” for jihadists, says Olivier Guitta, managing director at GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting firm, as it combined music, which is abhorred by the militants, a “U.S. singer, children and teenagers.”

He notes that in the past year-and-half music venues and clubs have been targeted four times by jihadist attackers — “Bataclan, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the Reina nightclub, Istanbul and now the Manchester Arena.”

And there could have been more if Western security services had not prevented other attacks. In February 2016 a group of IS followers were arrested in France for planning terror attacks on nightclubs.

 

Attack on ‘Crusaders’

IS supporters were quick after the carnage to celebrate the bombing on social media sites, saying it was as a victory over “the crusaders” of the West.

There were celebrations also on IS channels on Telegram, a social messaging app, prompting Michael S. Smith, a counter-terrorism analyst, to argue that that is a “strong indicator” the attack may be linked to the terror group. IS normally claims responsibility for attacks through their semi-official news channels, often not immediately but normally within 24 hours.

Concert halls were among a long list of targets recommended for attack in the latest issue of the IS magazine Rumiyah.

This is the worst terrorist attack in Britain in more than a decade. In July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers killed 52 people when they struck the London public transport system. After that incident the British government introduced measures to restrict the purchase of materials that can be used to make homemade explosives.

Britain’s interior minister Amber Rudd noted the particular barbarity of the bombing, “deliberately targeting some of the most vulnerable in our society — young people and children out at a pop concert.” She added: “My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and victims who have been affected.”

Oliver Jones, 17, who attended with his 19-year-old sister, told the Guardian newspaper: “The bang echoed around the foyer of the arena and people started to run.”

And Erin McDougle, aged 20, from Newcastle, said: “There was a loud bang at the end of the concert. The lights were already on so we knew it wasn’t part of the show. At first we thought it was a bomb. There was a lot of smoke. People started running out. When we got outside the arena there were dozens of police vans and quite a few ambulances.”

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IS Claims Responsibility for Blast Targeting Ariana Grande Concert

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Monday’s blast at a concert by U.S. pop star Ariana Grande in Manchester, England that killed at least 22 people.

The group said that “a soldier of the caliphate planted bombs” then detonated them.  

British police have said investigators believe the attacker was carrying an improvised explosive device, which he detonated, and that he died at the site.  The blast has left at least 59 people wounded.

Prime Minister Theresa May said police and security officials believe they know the identity of the attacker, but are not yet ready to confirm it publicly.  

The police department later said on Twitter that officers had arrested a 23-year-old man in South Manchester in connection with the attack, but did not give any information about how he was involved.

The blast happened in the lobby of the 21,000 seat Manchester Arena at the end of a concert by Grande.

Reaction from Grande

“Broken.  From the bottom of my heart, I am so, so sorry,” Grande wrote on Twitter after the blast.  “I don’t have words.”

May said the blast was timed to “cause maximum carnage” and targeted “the young people of our society with cold calculation.”

“All acts of terrorism are cowardly attacks on innocent people, but this attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice, deliberately targeting innocent, defenseless children and young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives,” she said.

May and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, agreed to suspend campaigning ahead of the country’s June 8 elections.

US monitoring situation

 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it was monitoring the situation in Manchester, and that it did not have any information showing a “specific credible threat” to music venues in the U.S.

 

President Donald Trump said the victims in Wednesday’s attack were killed by “evil losers in life.”

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term, they would think that’s a great name,” Trump said.  “I will call them from now on losers, because that’s what they are.”

He added, “We cannot stand a moment longer for the slaughter of innocent people.”

WATCH: Trump reacts to Manchester attack

After the attack, Manchester police deployed hundreds of officers overnight and at one point conducted a precautionary controlled explosion near the arena of an object they later said turned out to not be anything suspicious.

Video from the concert showed thousands of concertgoers, many of them young girls, scrambling and screaming, trying to escape the building.

Some witnesses said the ground near the blast was covered with nuts and bolts.

Abandoned shoes, phones and jackets were scattered throughout the arena.

“It was a huge explosion. You could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming just trying to get out,” a concertgoer told Reuters.

In Photos: Manchester suicide bombing

Search for survivors, victims

Worried parents who had brought their children to the show crowded the streets outside the building. A nearby hotel opened its doors to the kids looking for their mothers and fathers.

Cab drivers turned off their meters and offered to drive people from the ill-fated concert to wherever they want to go.

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Trump, Pope Seek to Patch Up Differences During Vatican Meeting

U.S. President Donald Trump stops at the Vatican Wednesday for a meeting with Pope Francis. It is the last of Trump’s visits to the seats of the world’s three Abrahamic religions. The first two – Saudi Arabia and Israel – were filled with symbolism, ceremony and history. But as VOA White House correspondent Peter Heinlein reports, this one will be shorter, less formal, and possibly more awkward.

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Russia, Western Summits: No Love Lost

International summits this week are expected to touch on problems dealing with Moscow, including the NATO Western military alliance and the G-7 meeting of developed nations. Neither embraces Russia as a member.

NATO leaders meet May 25 in Brussels, while the G-7 holds talks in Sicily a day later. U.S. President Donald Trump is attending both meetings. He is not expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin until the July 7 G-20 meeting in Hamburg.

While Moscow has never applied to join NATO and often depicts the alliance as its adversary, its leaders have over the years touched on the idea of Russia one day becoming a member.

“It was half-serious,” said the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexander Baunov. “… because all other members of NATO, even the major economic powers in military aspect, are under American leadership. It’s quite difficult to imagine psychologically and practically that Russian military forces, that Russia as a military power, would be just a minor player under the command of American generals.”

The Kremlin has painted NATO as “moving eastward,” intent on surrounding Russia for possible aggression. To ease mistrust and build cooperation, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act established regular meetings between the two sides through the NATO-Russia Council, or NRC.

Russia suspended

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, NATO suspended cooperation with Russia, but the NRC still meets a few times a year.

The G-8 also suspended Russia, changing the group’s name back to G-7 for the first time since 1998. Russia’s ejection came just two months before it was to host a G-8 summit.

“Of course it is a failure for Russian leadership, because in the long run it was one of the major priorities for Russian elite to be accepted as equals, well, as part of equal member[ship] of the international elite,” said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies and Social Movements.

Russia was G-8 outsider

The G-8 was more of a symbolic and prestigious gathering than one aimed at any negotiating or decision-making, say analysts, as a Western-oriented, liberal-democratic consensus is usually reached before any summit takes place.

“At [the] G-8, there was no possibility [for Russia] to make alliances,” said Baunov. “It was only [the] Western alliance of the G-7 and Russia.” Besides the United States, the other members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain.

Russia’s G-8 membership was seen to advance Boris Yeltsin’s choice of pursuing democracy and a market-based economy, but was always tenuous, Baunov said. “Almost every year or every second year, there was a subject or topic that allowed to the Western media, the politicians, the public opinion, to put under question Russian membership in the G-8, showing basically that it’s not a democracy so what’s this country doing in the club.”

Russia’s G-20 strategy?

Russian officials in January said Moscow had no intention of re-joining and its priority is the G-20.

Russia is more comfortable with the G-20’s diverse format where there is no consensus and Moscow is not the least democratic or free member of the club, as it was with the G-8, says Baunov. “So, you’re not the only bad among good,” he said. “There’s Turkey, there’s China. There are different, more problematic countries.”

Kagarlitsky says the Kremlin struggles with setting goals and objectives.

“The main problem is what is Russia going to do within these structures,” he said. “And, well, that was always the biggest failure for Russian diplomacy because they didn’t have a strategy, they didn’t have a list of priorities to achieve. And, in that sense, they were much weaker than, say, Brazil or China or India or even South Africa.”

Putin-Trump meeting

Analysts say little is expected to come from the Trump-Putin meeting at the July G-20 summit.

“Of course, at some point there was a tremendous illusion among Russian elites, because they thought that Trump was going to change totally the relationship between Russia and the West,” Kagarlitsky said. “And, it didn’t happen and it’s not going to happen.”

Analysts say the ongoing investigations into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia have made it very difficult for the U.S. president to negotiate with Putin. He’s not free to offer something without being heavily blamed for it, says Baunov, “So, for me, it can be only the opportunity to establish real, personal relations.”

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Turkey’s Erdogan Extends Emergency Rule

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has formally extended the state of emergency declared after a failed 2016 military coup, saying the decree will remain in place until the country finds “welfare and peace.”

Erdogan spoke Sunday in Ankara to tens of thousands of his followers and members of his ruling (AK) Justice and Development Party, which convened to re-elect their party co-founder to the post.

The state of emergency permits Erdogan and his Cabinet to issue decrees without parliamentary approval or judicial review.  

Erdogan’s announcement and his return as party chief came four weeks after Turkish voters narrowly approved a national referendum greatly expanding presidential powers.

The April 18 vote created a powerful executive presidency that largely sidelines Turkish lawmakers and the office of prime minister.  Under the constitutional amendments, Erdogan will also set the national budget and appoint judges to the high court and the constitutional court.

Critics, including prominent human rights organizations, have argued the reforms are tantamount to creating an elected dictatorship.  Erdogan and his supporters claim they will create a less cumbersome system of government better able to confront terrorism and a sluggish economy.

Tens of thousands jailed in crackdown

Under emergency rule, more than 47,000 people have been arrested and 100,000 others dismissed from public service for alleged connections to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Erdogan has accused the cleric of fomenting the July 15, 2016, uprising that left more than 260 people dead.  Gulen has denied involvement.

Erdogan’s address comes just days after his visit to the White House, where he sought to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump to scrap a U.S.-led military alliance with Syrian Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State extremists in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s efforts appeared unsuccessful.  The Turkish leader also drew sharp U.S. public criticism when, hours after the White House visit, he was shown outside the Turkish embassy in Washington standing by as his bodyguards assaulted protesters opposed to his rule.

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Tillerson: US Expressed ‘Dismay’ Over Violence at Turkish Embassy

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. has expressed its “dismay” to Turkish officials about last week’s clash in which Turkish security personnel apparently attacked demonstrators in Washington.

Tillerson told Fox News Sunday that Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. has been told that last Tuesday’s violence was “simply unacceptable.”

“There is an ongoing investigation,” he said, adding that he will wait on the outcome of that probe before deciding on a more formal response.

The clash broke out between Turkish security personnel and protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington.

Protesters say they were attacked by Turkish security forces as they demonstrated peacefully. Turkey blamed the clash on the demonstrators, claiming they aggressively provoked people who had gathered to see Erdogan.

VOA’s Turkish service recorded images at the scene that indicated the Turkish security detail suddenly turned on the demonstrators, knocking them to the ground and kicking them until American police pushed the Turks away. The video showed Erdogan standing beside his limousine, watching the brawl.

U.S. officials briefly detained two members of Erdogan’s security detail, but they were soon released, under customary diplomatic protocols granting immunity to aides accompanying a visiting dignitary.

Some U.S. lawmakers have demanded the United States take stronger action, including Republican Senator John McCain, who called for the Turkish ambassador to be expelled.