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Trump Hint of Attack in Sweden Baffles Swedes

Was there a terrorist attack in Sweden Friday night? No, but U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to suggest there had been, leaving Swedes baffled by just what the new American leader might have meant by an offhand remark.

At a campaign rally Saturday in Florida, Trump alluded to past terrorist attacks in Europe linked to open-borders immigration, saying, “You look at what’s happening in Germany. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden.”

But there were no high-profile, terror-linked events in the Scandinavian country Friday night.

Trump did not elaborate on the remark until Sunday evening, when he tweeted that he was referring to a Fox News broadcast about migrants and Sweden.

In the meantime, some Swedes mocked Trump on social media accounts using the hashtag “#LastNightinSweden.”

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt took to Twitter, saying, “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound.” Some Swedes joked that Trump might have been referring to a large meatball theft, an avalanche warning or police chasing a drunken driver.

Another Twitter user, tweaking Trump’s plans to build a border wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico to thwart illegal immigration, said that “after the terrible events” of Friday night, the giant Swedish retailer Ikea had sold out of instruction manuals on how to build border walls.

Gunnar Hokmark, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, retweeted a post that said, “#lastnightinSweden my son dropped his hotdog in the campfire. So sad!”

The Swedish embassy in Washington had asked the U.S. State Department for clarification on just what Trump was referring to.

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Europeans Wonder if Trump Will Act on Pence’s Reassurances

Vice President Mike Pence was the latest in a trio of high-ranking Trump emissaries to tell European allies in person that the United States will steadfastly support NATO and demand that Russia honor its commitments to end fighting in Ukraine.

Some European leaders, however, remain skeptical of whether Pence and the U.S. secretaries of state and defense actually speak for President Donald Trump. And they worry those declarations might easily be swept away at the whim of the mercurial American president.


“We are waiting for actions,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda. “We only know what the media has reported and the statements that we’ve got. Now we are waiting for actions of the new government of Donald Trump.”


European countries along Russia’s border have been rattled by the prospect of deeper U.S.-Russia ties after Trump bucked the opinions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders by suggesting that sanctions imposed on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine could be eased in exchange for a nuclear arms deal.


Trump also raised eyebrows when he appeared to draw parallels between Russia and the U.S. when Bill O’Reilly of Fox News referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a killer.” Trump replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”


In the days before his inauguration, Trump referred to NATO as “obsolete” in an interview, but said the 28-nation alliance remained important to him. He has since tempered his language and stressed the importance of NATO during telephone conversations with multiple foreign leaders.


Pence, making his first overseas trip as vice president, sought to allay some of those fears in Munich on Saturday, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO and promising that the U.S. would “hold Russia accountable.”


Michael Chertoff, who served as homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush, noted that Pence’s comments were in line with similar assurances given by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during a NATO meeting in Brussels earlier in the week.


“They’ve all been consistent about the fact that there is a strong, deep and enduring commitment to Europe and to NATO and I think that message has been received,” Chertoff said.


The same day Mattis was in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart in Bonn, Germany, saying afterward that Russia must adhere to a 2015 deal to end fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.


But whether Trump intends to put Pence’s words into action remained a front-and-center issue at the Munich Security Conference.


German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was pressed after Pence’s speech on whether he had doubts about Trump’s commitment to NATO.


“I have no doubts that the American vice president, and also the defense minister, will do everything to take responsibility within NATO as in the past, and I don’t think there is a big argument inside the American government,” said Gabriel, who also is Germany’s foreign minister. Asked about Trump’s commitment, he said, “Since I haven’t spoken to him, I can only say what I discussed with Mr. Pence — I did that and there are no doubts there.”


Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Pence’s words were likely reassuring to Europeans in light of the similar affirmations from Mattis and Tillerson.


“But everyone is aware that this is tentative until it is reaffirmed by the president in his own words,” Rathke said in an email. “One tweet or statement casting doubt on the Europeans or on NATO will call back into question all of what Pence and Mattis have been saying.”


Democrats are still stung by the conclusion by intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. And they have continued to argue that Trump remains a major liability on the world stage.


Wrote Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Twitter: “Looks like we have 2 governments. (at)VP just gave speech about shared values btwn US and Europe as (at)POTUS openly wages war on those values.”


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Muslim Groups Criticize Wilders’ ‘Moroccan Scum’ Comments

Muslim organizations in the Netherlands have criticized disparaging comments about Moroccans made by anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, but say they are just the latest in a long string of insults.


Launching his campaign Saturday for the Netherlands’ March 15 parliamentary election, Wilders criticized what he called “Moroccan scum” for making the Netherlands unsafe.


Ebubekir Ozture, director of the Muslim umbrella group Contact Organ Muslims and Government, on Sunday called Wilders comments “reprehensible,” but added, “It is not the first time and probably won’t be the last time,” that Wilders has used such language.


Wilders was convicted late last year of inciting discrimination and insulting a group for anti-Moroccan comments he made before and after local elections in 2014. He branded the conviction “political.” 

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US Senator Graham: Trump Must Punish Russia for Election Interference

A senior U.S. Republican senator urged President Donald Trump Sunday to take action against Russia over allegations Moscow interfered in the election that brought him to power.

U.S. intelligence officials have told Trump that Moscow tried to influence voters by hacking Democratic emails and trolling social media sites, but Trump has sought to downplay Russia’s role in the election.

Speaking to world leaders, diplomats and defense officials at the Munich Security Conference, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said Congress needs to get involved to ensure there are “consequences” for the alleged hacking.

“2017 is going to be a year of kicking Russia in the ass in Congress,” Graham said.

Referring to upcoming elections in France and Germany this year and concerns of outside interference, Graham said “I promise everybody in this room that Congress is going to take a long hard look at what Russia did to undermine our elections, so you’ll be better prepared when they come your way.”

He said he planned to introduce a bipartisan motion for new Russia sanctions and it will get “north of 75 votes.”

“My goal is to put it on Trump’s desk and I hope he’ll embrace the idea that as the leader of the free world he should be working with us to punish Russia,” Graham said.

Though the allegations are that the hacking was directed at the Democrats, Graham said “we should have an Article 5 that an attack on one party is an attack on all.” He was referring to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is seen an attack of the entire alliance.

“My biggest concern with President Trump … is that he’s never really looked the camera in the eye and said, ‘Even though it was the Democratic Party that suffered from Russian interference, I am now the leader of the free world and I can assure you they’re going to pay a price on my watch for trying to interfere in our election.'”

The conference opened Friday with criticism of Trump from another senior Republican senator, Arizona’s John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who said “more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”

Later, answering question about the ouster of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia, McCain said that the issue “is something that shows in many respects this administration is in disarray and they’ve got a lot of work to do.”

McCain, who has openly quarreled with the president, added that Trump often”contradicts himself” in his statements, and that “some of us have learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says.”

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Pence Vows ‘Unwavering’ US Commitment to Transatlantic Alliance

In his first major foreign policy speech, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said at the Munich Security Conference that America will be ‘unwavering’ in its support for the NATO alliance – but warned allies that they must step up defense spending. Amid controversy over the Trump administration’s ties to Moscow, Mr. Pence said the US would continue to hold Russia accountable. Henry Ridgwell reports from Munich.

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Merkel, Pence Vow Strong NATO Support

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed that European nations strengthen their multilateral ties, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised NATO but made no mention of the European Union, fueling concerns about America’s new approach to international affairs.

At the Munich Security Conference Saturday, Merkel delivered a speech stressing the importance of supporting organizations such as the European Union, the United Nations and NATO that have played key roles in the post-Cold War global order.

“Will we be able to continue working well together, or will we all fall back into our individual roles?” Merkel asked. “I call on us, and I hope we all find common ground on this, let’s make the world better together and then things will get better for every single one of us.”

Like Merkel, Pence expressed support for NATO and sought to address concerns raised by U.S. President Donald Trump, who once said the military alliance was “obsolete.”

“The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance,” Pence said in his first major foreign policy address for the new administration.

Although Pence made no mention of the European Union, he will have the opportunity to explain the Trump administration’s position on the 28-nation alliance when he meets with EU leaders Sunday in Brussels.

US ‘will always be your greatest ally’

Pence also sought to reduce speculation that Trump would abandon guarantees that European nations believe the U.S. would protect them from Russia.


“Today, tomorrow, and every day hence, be confident that the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally,” he said.

Pence promised the U.S. would “hold Russia accountable” amid European concerns about Russian aggression and as Trump searches for new areas of interest with Moscow. Pence said Russia must honor a 2015 peace agreement to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Shortly after Pence’s address, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an end to the world order dominated by Western nations since the end of the Cold War.

“I hope that [the world] will choose a democratic world order, a post-West one, in which each country is defined by its sovereignty,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov later said Russia wanted to build a relationship with the U.S. that would be “pragmatic with mutual respect and acknowledgement of our responsibility for global stability.”

Lavrov mentioned that the U.S. and Russia have never engaged in direct conflict, and even noted the two countries were close neighbors across the Bering Strait.    

Merkel and Pence met on the sidelines of the security conference following their speeches.  The two leaders committed to cooperate on a “wide range of global challenges” and discussed the need for NATO allies to meet what a White House statement called “burden-sharing commitments” in order to effectively deal with “21st century threats.”

Before leaving Munich for Brussels Sunday, Pence was expected to meet with leaders of countries that have the most to lose or gain from any new agreements between the U.S. and Russia. The countries include Afghanistan, Iraq, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Turkey.

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Top US General Hears Turkey’s Complaints About Kurdish Fighters

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, met his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar Friday at NATO’s Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. Talks between the NATO allies reportedly focused on Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish militias in the fight against the Islamic State group.

The United States says it chooses carefully among Kurdish fighters when lending its support to Syrian rebels battling Islamic State. Ankara dismisses the Americans’ arguments and says they are actively supporting the People’s Protection Units, the YPG, whose fighters the Turks contend are terrorists group united with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, fighting against the Turkish state.

“Turkey has made its view on this organization (YPG) very clear,” says political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor, “and any step back at this moment would entail a loss of face for the government in Ankara and of course indirectly for President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan.”

‘Ultimate issue for Turkey’

“It is the ultimate issue for Turkey, and if there is no movement as far as Turkey’s requests and demands, it seems that this crisis issue between the two countries will remain,” Idiz added.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence likely will hear the same message when he discusses the fight against Islamic State on Saturday in Germany with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. The two will hold talks on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference.

The United States and European Union agree on the PKK, which both have designated a terrorist organization. Washington maintains its military does not assist the PKK but does support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a coalition of Syrian Arabs and Kurds that has proven itself to be by far the most effective force against Islamic State extremists in Syria.

The SDF is a multiethnic and multireligious alliance of militia fighters opposed to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, but its military leadership comes from the YPG, and that is what has drawn Turkey’s intense opposition.





Ankara wants YPG sidelined

Support from U.S. and European special forces, along with American air power, has enabled the SDF to advance to within a few kilometers of Raqqa, the large Syrian city that is the jihadists’ self-declared capital.

“The bulk of the forces advancing on Raqqa are Arabs, but I say the bulk of the forces, not all the forces. The Arab and Kurds (of SDF) actually work hand in glove (together),” British Lieutenant-General Rupert Jones said in a press briefing this week by the international coalition against Islamic State. “And my expectation is, if the SDF is the assault force into Raqqa, that is how they will operate; they will work together in concert with each other.”

Experts say such comments are infuriating to Ankara, which has been intensely lobbying Washington to exclude the Syrian Kurdish militia from plans to capture Raqqa. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Fikri Isik declared Washington was moving closer to the Turkish position, after word came that the Pentagon is working on an action plan to defeat Islamic State, as ordered by President Donald Trump.

Analysts point out that Ankara has so far failed to provide Washington a detailed alternate plan to using the Syrian Kurdish militia.

Raqqa mystery

“This is the big mystery, because obviously, to have an operation against Raqqa, you are going to need a massive amount of ground troops,” said columnist Idiz. “It’s not clear what Turkey is offering and how it’s planning to make up for the absence of the YPG forces, should they somehow be weeded out by the American side. So none of this has been clearly spelled out.”

“I don’t think personally that the American side and the allies supporting the Americans are going to change horses midstream unless there is some guarantee on what Turkey can do,” Idiz added.

Experts warn Ankara is finding itself increasingly isolated over its stance of absolute opposition to the YPG and its political wing, the PYD. “Turkey has a very weak hand,” warns international relations specialist Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

Ozel, who says Ankara could temper its hostility, pointed out that Erdogan reaffirmed his position that the YPG is nothing but a terrorist organization after a meeting he had earlier this month with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Ankara still has some cards to play with Washington, since Turkey shares a long border with Syria and U.S. forces depend on Turkish airbases for operations against IS.

Regional experts warn Ankara could also play spoiler to U.S. military plans to capture Raqqa, by sending Turkish military forces toward the Syrian town of Manbij. The town was liberated by Syrian Kurdish forces from Islamic State, and any battle for its control could see the YPG pulling out of an offensive against Raqqa in order to defend it.

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Pope: Migration Isn’t a Danger, It’s a Challenge for Growth

Pope Francis, who was reunited Friday with one of the Syrian refugees he brought home with him from Lesbos, Greece, said migrants don’t pose a danger to Europe’s culture but rather a challenge for societies to grow.

Francis made the comments during a visit to the Roma Tre University, one of the main public universities in the Italian capital. There, he met with Nour Essa, who along with her husband and child flew back to Rome with the pope after his April 16, 2016, trip to Lesbos.

Since then, Essa has won a government scholarship to finish her biology studies at Roma Tre and has become something of an activist for refugee rights in her new country.

During a question-and-answer session in a courtyard at the university, Essa asked Francis about fears expressed by many Europeans that Syrians and Iraqi migrants threaten Europe’s Christian culture.

Francis responded by noting that his native Argentina is a country of immigrants, and that ending wars and poverty would trim migration flows.

“Migration isn’t a danger, it’s a challenge to grow,” he said, adding that European countries must not only welcome migrants but integrate them into society.

“They bring to us a culture, a culture that is rich for us. And also they have to receive our culture and there has to be an exchange of cultures,” he said. “Respect. And this removes fear.”

Essa and her family fled to Lesbos from Syria and lived in a refugee camp for a month until Francis visited. After meeting with refugees, Francis flew back to Rome with three Syrian families, all of them Muslim, in a tangible sign of solidarity.

“Our lives changed in a day thanks to you,” Essa told Francis on Friday.

The Sant’Egidio community, a Catholic charity, took responsibility for settling the dozen refugees, getting the children enrolled in school and finding housing, jobs and language classes for the parents.

Essa recently was on hand at Rome’s airport to welcome a group of 41 Syrian refugees brought to Italy by a joint program of Sant’Egidio and a Protestant church that organizes “humanitarian corridors” for migrants to legally migrate to Europe. There, Essa told reporters that refugees aren’t terrorists. “We are refugees fleeing from war,” she said.

During Friday’s event, Essa and Francis chatted warmly with one another. She smiled when Francis recalled that in Lesbos the refugee families — already aboard his plane for the trip to Rome — didn’t want to come back down the stairs to the tarmac to bid a formal farewell to Greek authorities who had accompanied Francis to his aircraft.

“They didn’t want to get off,” Francis said. “They were afraid they’d have to stay.”

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Spain’s Princess Cristina Not Guilty in Tax Fraud Case

Spain’s Princess Cristina was found not guilty in a tax fraud case Friday, while her husband was convicted and sentenced to more than six years in prison.

A panel of judges ruled that Cristina, the sister of King Felipe VI, will be required to pay nearly 265,000 euros (more than $280,000) in fines because the court considers that she indirectly benefited from the fraud.

Her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, was found guilty of evading taxes, fraud and various other charges. He was sentenced to six years and three months in prison in a decision that can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The trial centered on accusations that Urdangarin used his former title, Duke of Palma, to embezzle about 6 million euros ($6.6 million) in public funds for the nonprofit Noos Institute.

The institute organized conferences and sports-related events and was run with a partner, Diego Torres, who was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail in Friday’s ruling by a provincial court in Palma de Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands.

Among the companies they used was Aizoon, a real estate consulting company jointly owned by Cristina and Urdangarin.

A lawyer with Cristina’s defense team, Miquel Roca, said that the princess was “satisfied for the acknowledgement of her innocence” but that she was still convinced that her husband wasn’t guilty.

“If we believed in the judicial system when the princess was made to sit in the dock, I think citizens can trust in it when she’s absolved,” Roca told reporters in Barcelona.

A spokesman for the Royal House told Spanish media that the royal family respected the court’s decision.

There was no immediate comment from Felipe and Queen Letizia, who received news of the ruling during a visit to a museum in Madrid with the Hungarian president.

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Protesters Target Anti-corruption fight in Romania

People on the streets of Bucharest are exposing a darker side of the government’s anti-corruption efforts that have been much lauded by the United States and the European Union. To many of the demonstrators, the anti-corruption fight itself has become corrupt. VOA’s Luis Ramirez reports.