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Intel Sharing at Heart of US, Europe Talks on Laptop Ban

The intelligence behind plans to broaden a U.S. ban on in-flight laptops and tablets to include planes from Europe took center stage on Wednesday as American and European officials met to discuss the looming decision.

 

The White House has defended the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss with Russian officials an Islamic State group terror threat related to the use of laptops on aircraft. European Union officials say they have not been briefed on the threat.

 

The goal of Wednesday’s talks is to “create a consultation, create a sharing of information,” said an EU diplomat, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing.

 

Banning large electronics would create logistical chaos on the world’s busiest corridor of air travel — as many as 65 million people a year travel between Europe and North American on over 400 daily flights, many of them business travelers who rely on the devices to work during the flight.

 

The ban would dwarf in size the current one, which was put in place in March and affects about 50 flights per day from 10 cities, mostly in the Middle East.

 

Airlines have said it is merely a matter of time before the ban is put in place, but the prospect has alarmed officials in the European Union, who want to know more about any new threats and the disruption such a move would create.

 

There is also the question of the relative safety of keeping in the cargo area a large number of electronics with lithium batteries, which have been known to catch fire.

 

Experts say a bomb in the cabin would be easier to make and require less explosive force than one in the cargo hold. Baggage in cargo usually goes through a more sophisticated screening process than carry-on bags.

 

The original ban on mostly Middle Eastern flights, which Britain also partially adopted and is being considered by Australia, focused on certain countries because their equipment to screen carry-on bags is not as effective as machines in the U.S., analysts say.

 

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security met last week with high-ranking executives of the three leading U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — and the industry’s leading U.S. trade group to discuss expanding the laptop policy to flights arriving from Europe.

 

The airlines still hope to have a say in how the policy is put into effect at airports to minimize inconvenience to passengers. The initial ban on passengers bringing large electronics devices into the cabin hit hardest at Middle Eastern airlines.

 

Emirates, the Middle East’s largest airline, this month cited the ban on electronics as one of the reasons for an 80 percent drop in profits last year. It said the ban had a direct impact on demand for air travel into the U.S. and it faced rising costs from introducing complimentary laptop loans to some passengers.

 

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Clashes in Greece as Thousands Protest Austerity

An anti-austerity rally in Greece’s capital turned violent Wednesday as a general strike halted flights, ferries and public transportation, and thousands joined protest marches across the country.

 

A small group of protesters threw gasoline bombs and fired flares at riot police after the marches ended in Athens. Police responded with tear gas. The clashes broke out after peaceful marches involving around 12,000 people.

 

Nearby, protesting police officers blocked the entrance to a Finance Ministry building.

 

The protests occurred as lawmakers were set to approve another batch of reforms that will impose years more hardship on austerity-weary Greeks.

 

The new belt-tightening measures that will be imposed beyond the end of Greece’s third bailout next year, including pension cuts and tax hikes. The left-led coalition government agreed to the cuts as part of a deal with the country’s international creditors to release funds from its bailout.

 

Thousands of protesters were marching through central Athens toward parliament in a series of demonstrations as part of the strike.

 

“No to the new looting of salaries and pensions,” civil servants union ADEDY said.

 

Police unionists hung a giant banner off the side of Lycabettus Hill in the center of Athens, with a slogan in German and Greek reading “how much is the life of a Greek policeman worth?”

 

Public hospitals were functioning with emergency staff only, while public transport was disrupted, leaving many main roads gridlocked in the capital. Intercity trains were not running, and there was no subway service between Athens airport and the city. Courts were shut while lawyers and notaries public backed away from official duties, and customs and local government offices were closed.

 

Air traffic controllers were holding a four-hour work stoppage in the middle of the day, leading to the rescheduling or cancellation of more than 150 flights. Ferries were also tied up in port until late Friday after seamen began a four-day strike Tuesday.

 

Unless bailout funds are unlocked, Greece would once more struggle to meet a spike in debt repayments due this summer and face another brush with bankruptcy.

 

In parliament, lawmakers were debating the measures that include additional pension cuts in 2019 and higher income tax from 2020, ahead of a Thursday midnight vote.

 

On the streets of Athens, opinions on the strike diverged.

 

“It doesn’t make a difference whether you strike or not. All the measures will pass anyway,” said Apostolos Seitanidis as he walked in the city center.

 

But another Athenian, Panagiotis Adamopoulos, disagreed.

 

“Every strike is a holy thing,” he said. “If we dismiss it, surely we’ll end up getting 300-euro [$330] salaries and 200-euro pensions.”

 

Unions and the opposition have compared the new measures to those of a fourth bailout, but without the corresponding funding from international creditors. The government, which originally came to power in 2015 promising to repeal previous austerity measures, has vehemently rejected the accusation, emphasizing that it will also take other measures to relieve poverty.

 

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke Tuesday morning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country has been the single largest contributor to the Greek bailouts, and discussed the issue of Greece’s debt, his office said Wednesday.

 

While the country’s finances have improved under the bailouts, the belt-tightening has led to spiraling poverty. Unemployment, while down from highs of above 27 percent, hovers at around 23 percent.

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‘El Daily Stormer’: Neo-Nazi Website Now in Spanish, Too

How does a leading neo-Nazi website that has railed against Hispanic immigrants expand its audience beyond a loyal base of U.S. white supremacists? By publishing a Spanish-language edition, of course.

 

The Daily Stormer — infamous for orchestrating internet harassment campaigns by its “Troll Army” of readers — recently launched El Daily Stormer as a “news portal” tailoring its racist, anti-Semitic content for readers in Spain and Latin America.

 

Andrew Auernheimer, a notorious computer hacker and internet troll who writes for the English-language site, says the Spanish edition fits their mission to spread Hitlerism across the world.

 

“We want our message to reach millions more people,” he said in a telephone interview.

 

Hate sites have realized that the U.S. has no monopoly on white nationalists and other far-right extremists, says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. Others, such as Stormfront, already created multilingual forums.

 

“The white supremacist movement has really viewed itself as past borders, reaching out to white people in other countries,” Beirich said.

 

The law center represents a Montana real estate agent who sued The Daily Stormer’s founder, Andrew Anglin, last month for unleashing an anti-Semitic “campaign of terror” against her family.

 

Anonymous trolls bombarded Tanya Gersh’s family with hateful and threatening messages after Anglin published the family’s personal information in a December post that accused Gersh and other Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, of engaging in an “extortion racket” against the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer.

 

Anglin’s site takes its name from Der Stürmer, a newspaper that published Nazi propaganda. It includes sections called “Jewish Problem” and “Race War.”

 

El Daily Stormer titles its anti-Semitic section “Judiadas,” an offensive term with roots in medieval Spain, where it was invoked to justify genocidal attacks on Jews.

 

The Spanish site also includes appeals for donations and unpaid articles, and a forum where people complain about Chile and Argentina filling up with “negros,” referring to people from Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay.

 

Auernheimer, known online as “weev,” said a team of volunteers is writing original content for the Spanish-language site. The site’s appeal for unpaid collaborators says being a dissident “has never been a lucrative activity,” and that it is looking for writers “willing to risk everything for the survival of our race.”

 

“We have a big Spanish-speaking population on our forums, so it was an easy direction to branch out into,” he said.

 

About 40 percent of The Daily Stormer’s 3.2 million unique monthly visitors are in the U.S.; the Spanish edition has added fewer than 10,000 since its recent launch, Auernheimer said.

 

Surpassing Stormfront as the top U.S. hate site hasn’t been a financial boon for The Daily Stormer, which calls itself “100 percent reader-supported.” Anglin complained in January that a Ukrainian advertising company had banned them, leaving an Australian electrician as the site’s only advertiser.

 

“We don’t have revenue commensurate with a publication of our size,” Auernheimer said.

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Trump Welcomes Erdogan to White House

A week after U.S. President Donald Trump sparked anger in Turkey by authorizing the arming of Syrian Kurds, he welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on Tuesday.

Trump said the two leaders would hold “long and hard discussions” regarding the relationship between their countries.

“We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better. So we’re going to have a very, very strong and solid discussion,” he said.

WATCH: Trump on US-Turkey relationship

The United States sees the Kurdish force, the YPG, as a key part in the fight against Islamic State and the effort to oust the militants from their de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. Turkey considers the YPG terrorists because of their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that has been waging a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey.

Erdogan called the decision to provide U.S. arms “contrary to our strategic relations to the U.S.”

He reiterated his concerns Tuesday, telling reporters Turkey will never accept the use of YPG fighters in the battle against IS.

Erdogan, however, said last week ahead of the trip that he views his visit to Washington as “a new beginning in Turkish-American relations.”

Erdogan said Tuesday that cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey is “very important for the world” and vowed to expand economic and military ties between the two countries.

“There is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region,” he said.

Protests

Prior to Erdogan’s arrival at the White House, a brief scuffle broke out between pro-Erdogan demonstrators and a group of Kurdish advocates. The two sides were quickly separated by police and Secret Service agents stationed outside the White House gates.

Both Turkey and the United States have backed rebels in Syria during the six-year war against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allies. And the NATO allies have been heavily involved in battling Islamic State since the group swept into large areas of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria in mid-2014.

In comments to reporters, Erdogan brought up the status of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric living in the United States. The Turkish president blames him for an attempted coup last year. Turkey has asked the U.S. to extradite Gulen, but that request has gone nowhere.

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Ukraine Bans Dozens of Russian Websites

Ukraine ordered the blocking of access to a number of Russian websites Tuesday in the latest round of sanctions since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

President Petro Poroshenko’s office announced the decree, which he signed a day earlier, banning operations of popular Russian websites, such as search engine Yandex, for three years.

The listed websites were still functioning in Ukraine Tuesday, and it is unclear how and when the government plans to block them.

The Ukrainian government cited security concerns, saying the ban was imposed partly to protect against companies “whose activities threaten the information and cyber security of Ukraine,” according to a statement released by the Security and Defense Council.

The latest round of sanctions adds Yandex and social media sites Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte to the list of over 400 Russian firms blacklisted by Kyiv since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and consequent pro-Russian separatist uprising in 2014. According to the Reuters news agency, the Kremlin has threatened retaliation.

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Macron Calls for EU Reforms, Vows to Work Closely with Germany

French President Emmanuel Macron spent his first full day in office traveling to Germany, telling Chancellor Angela Merkel he wants to work closely with her to create “deep reforms” to the European Union.

Macron said in Berlin Monday there must be a “less bureaucratic” Europe and that he is ready to change EU treaties if needed.

He also said France will push for economic reforms in the country to bring down unemployment and implement a reform agenda “not because Europe requests it, but because France needs it.”

Macron said he does not favor European countries taking joint responsibility for old debts and that he has never pushed for jointly issued eurobonds. Germany, which has Europe’s largest economy, has always opposed taking direct responsibility for weaker EU countries’ debts.

Merkel told Macron “Europe will only do well if there is a strong France, and I am committed to that.”

The German chancellor said she and Macron agreed to develop a medium-term road map on how to deepen European Union integration. She said Germany would also be willing to change EU treaties if the changes make sense. But the two countries should first work on what they want to reform, she added.

She said the French and German governments would hold a meeting on key issues in July.

The visit to Germany marked Macron’s first foreign trip after his inauguration on Sunday, continuing a tradition of French presidents making their first international trip to Germany.

In his inaugural address, Macron vowed to restore France’s place in Europe and the world.

Macron, a centrist, was elected last week, defeating anti-EU, anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen. The campaign exposed deep splits in France over the country’s role in Europe.

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Nearly 30 Years Ago, Soviet Union Extricated Itself From Afghan Conflict

On May 15, 1988, the Soviet Union began withdrawing from Afghanistan after eight years of military intervention that cost an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Soviet soldiers their lives and killed or displaced millions of Afghans.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described the Afghan intervention, which began in  late 1979, as a costly drain on the Soviet economy with no clear victory in sight.

Soviet troops entered Afghanistan en masse in December 1979, following infighting involving communist factions that had culminated with the ouster of the country’s president, Nur Mohammad Taraki, by supporters of a more radical rival, Hafizullah Amin. The invading Soviet forces killed Amin and replaced him with a Soviet loyalist from a rival faction.

The intervention came at the height of the Cold War, with the Soviets seizing large swaths of the country. The Soviet occupation further strained relations with the United States.  

President Jimmy Carter responded by implementing economic and other sanctions against the Soviet Union, as well as holding up arms control talks and barring American athletes from attending the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

The U.S. armed the Mujahideen, along with other interested countries, among them Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China.

For Afghanistan, the Soviet withdrawal did not mean an end to the fighting, however. By 1996, the strict Islamic rebels known as the Taliban, who had been trained in religious schools across the border in Pakistan, took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

In a twist of historical irony, the very Afghan rebels the United States armed to oust the Soviets would ultimately harbor al-Qaida, the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, that orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington. 

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Trump Taps Callista Gingrich to be Ambassador to Vatican

The Trump administration has tapped the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, days before President Donald Trump embarks on his first foreign trip.

 

Trump will nominate Callista Gingrich for the post, two people with direct knowledge of the discussions said Monday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly before an official announcement.

 

Trump’s foreign trip this month includes a stop at the Vatican.

 

Callista Gingrich is president of Gingrich Productions and has produced a number of documentaries, including one about Pope John Paul II.

 

She also served on the House Committee on Agriculture, where she worked as chief clerk until 2007. She was a key figure in her husband’s 2012 bid for the Republican nomination.

 

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

Trump’s vision for foreign relations and diplomacy has been starkly different to that promoted by the vastly popular Pope Francis. Francis has spoken of the need for bridges between nations, while Trump has advocated for walls and travel restrictions as a means of national security.

 

Francis has previously remarked that anyone who wants to build walls to keep migrants out is “not Christian.”

 

Francis also has called for an end to the use of fossil fuels, while Trump has pledged to cancel payments to U.N. climate change programs and pull out of the Paris climate accord.

 

But both share a populist appeal and speak with a down-to-earth simplicity that has endeared them to their bases of supporters. And both share a common concern about the plight of Christians in the Middle East at the hands of Islamic militants.

 

Speaking to reporters while traveling home Saturday from a trip to Portugal, Francis said he would listen respectfully to what Trump has to say when the two meet later this month. Trump will call on Francis mid-way through his first foreign trip, after visiting Saudi Arabia and Israel and before attending a NATO summit in Brussels and a G7 summit in Italy.

 

“I never make a judgment about a person without hearing him out,” the pope said.

 

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US Support for Syrian Kurds in Fight Against IS Likely to Dominate US-Turkey Summit

U.S. support for Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in Syria is expected to dominate the first official meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is fiercely opposed to that alliance, saying Kurds in Syria are linked to the Kurdish terrorist group PKK in Turkey, which is fighting for an independent Kurdish state. VOA’a Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Austrian Party Picks New Leader, Early Elections Likely

Austria’s junior government coalition partner chose a new leader Sunday and gave him the unprecedented authority he demanded as a condition for leading his party into expected early elections this fall.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters that senior officials of his People’s Party agreed to let him choose all ministers of any government he would head, as well as to nominate candidates for parliament that would include party outsiders.

Speaking after a closed meeting, Kurz said that the gathering also agreed to contest at least the next elections under a name change. Instead of the People’s Party, Kurz and other candidates would now run under the “List Sebastian Kurz – the new People’s Party.”

“We have decided to start a movement,” Kurz told reporters.  “We’re going to rely on proven forces from within the People’s Party, but at the same time we’re going to bring new people on board.”

The power grab is significant in a party where provincial governors have historically had an outsize say in running federal affairs, including pushing through ministerial appointments and overriding major policy decisions by the federal leader.

With few exceptions, that has led party heads to resign in frustration in recent decades. The latest, Reinhold Mitterlehner, threw in the towel Wednesday after less than three years as party leader and vice chancellor.

The center-right People’s Party is now a distant third among voters. But Kurz, a telegenic 30-year old, regularly tops political popularity polls.

That is due in part for his embrace of a harder line on immigrants and other positions of the right-wing Freedom Party, which leads in voter support. But he avoids that party’s xenophobic polemics, as he walks the line between keeping People’s Party supporters and attracting Freedom Party backers.

Acceptance of Kurz’s demands reflects recognition by the party’s power-brokers that refusal would mean an almost certain slide in voter support.

The often cantankerous People’s Party-Social Democratic coalition has shown increased signs of fraying over the past months. Still, Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern had resisted People’s Party calls to move up elections from next year.

But as People’s Party officials gathered Sunday he told state broadcaster ORF: “I assume that there will certainly be an election this fall.”