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Fifth Victim in Strasbourg Terror Attack Dies

A fifth person died Sunday from gunshot wounds in last week’s Christmas market terror attack in Strasbourg.

The French prosecutor’s office said the victim was a Polish national.

His brother identified him in a Facebook message as Barto Pedro Orent-Niedzielski, a 36-year-old native of Katowice.

Four others died and 11 were wounded when a gunman identified as Cherif Chekatt opened fire last Tuesday in the world-famous Christmas market in central Strasbourg.

Witnesses tipped off police Friday that a suspect matching Chekatt’s description was spotted in the Strasbourg neighborhood where he grew up.

When police confronted him, he turned and opened fire. Officers shot back, killing Chekatt.

He had an extensive criminal record and was on a terror watch list.

Chekatt’s father told investigators his son was a follower of Islamic State and the terror group claimed him as one of its “soldiers.”

But French Interior Minister Christophe said he doubts Chekatt belonged to the terror group, calling its claim opportunistic.

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Kosovo President: Decision to Form Army ‘Irreversible’

The decision to transform Kosovo’s security force into an army is ”irreversible,” the country’s president said Sunday while offering assurance that a new national military does not threaten ethnic Serbs living in the former Serbian province.

President Hashim Thaci gave a briefing on the army plan before he left for New York, where the United Nations Security Council is expected in coming days to discuss the small Balkan nation’s decision.

Kosovo’s parliament overwhelmingly approved the army’s formation Friday. Neighboring Serbia has warned that an army in a place it considers Serbian territory could result in an armed intervention.

“Whatever happens at the Security Council, despite the concerns of a certain individual or a country, the formation of the Kosovo army is an irreversible act,” Thaci said.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Its government insists the army would violate a U.N. resolution that ended Serbia’s crackdown on Kosovar separatists in 1998-1999.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic reiterated Sunday that Belgrade will insist at the U.N. Security Council session the army was formed in violation of the resolution.

“It is important that the position of Serbia will be heard,” Dacic said.

Serbia’s government has warned it might use its own military to respond, with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic saying that’s “one of the options on the table.” An armed intervention by Serbia could bring a confrontation with the NATO-led peacekeepers stationed in Kosovo since 1999.

The U.N. Security Council held closed consultations late Friday on the format of a meeting on the dispute. Russia, Serbia’s close ally, wants the council to meet publicly, and European nations have sought a closed session.  

NATO’s chief has called Kosovo’s action “ill-timed.” The United States has expressed support for “Kosovo’s sovereign right” as an independent nation that unilaterally broke away from Serbia.

Thaci said the army would be professional and multi-ethnic, with five percent of the troops coming from the ethnic Serb minority. He advised Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to take a cue from Serbs in Kosovo “who feel calm and who take part in the army.”

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Hungary Sees Another Day of Anti-Government Protests

Several thousand protesters have marched peacefully through Budapest for a fourth day to oppose laws introduced by the Hungarian government that critics say will restrict workers’ rights.

The protesters chanted anti-government slogans and braved sub-zero temperatures while gathered Sunday in front of parliament, where speakers denounced changes to the labor code that lawmakers approved Wednesday.

The demonstrations have attracted participants from across Hungary’s spectrum. They include members of Jobbik, which started out as a radical right movement and has worked to reframe itself as a “peoples”‘ party.

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Father: Strasbourg Attacker Supported IS Group

The man described as the father of the 29-year-old suspect in this week’s deadly Christmas market attack in Strasbourg says his son subscribed to the beliefs of the Islamic State group.

The interview with Abdelkrim Chekatt by the state-run France 2 television channel was shown Saturday night, two days after the son was killed in a confrontation with three police officers in his childhood neighborhood in Strasbourg following a massive manhunt. Four people died in the Tuesday night attack. A dozen others were wounded.

The Christmas market in the eastern city of Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, is the largest in France. It reopened Friday after being closed during the search for the suspect.

Mother expresses shock, sorrow

Chekatt said he had seen his son, Cherif Chekatt, three days before the attack but couldn’t contact him while he was on the run. 

He acknowledged that his son backed the IS group.

“He’d say, for example, that Daesh, fights for the just cause and all that,” the red-bearded father said, using the common term in France and elsewhere for the Islamic State group.

The interview, initially outdoors with the father, continued briefly inside with Cheriff Chekatt’s mother, Rouadja Rouag, who expressed shock and sorrow for the deaths. France 2 said the couple had been divorced for a long time.

Tried to dissuade son

Abdelkrim Chekatt, a French-Algerian, said he’d tried in the past to dissuade his son from backing the Islamic State, saying, “You don’t see the atrocities they commit.” The son would reply that “it’s not them,” the father said.

Shortly after Chekatt’s death, the Islamic State group’s Amaq news agency claimed he was a “soldier” of the group. French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner rejected the claim as “totally opportunistic.”

The father and mother and two siblings of the suspected killer were among seven people held for questioning. French media reported that the family members were released. The three others, still in custody, are unrelated but close to Chekatt.

The young Chekatt had been on a French intelligence watch list for radicalism and was convicted 27 times for criminal offenses, the first time at age 13, mainly in France but also in Germany and Switzerland. Investigators are trying to determine whether he had accomplices or logistical support.

Father went to police

The father said he went to police of his own accord and on a suspicion the night of the son’s rampage with a handgun and a knife.

He said he told police that “if ever you locate Cherif, tell me. I’ll go to him and try to reason with him to give up.”

He also said that if his son had told him about a project to kill “I would have denounced him, and he wouldn’t have killed or been killed.”

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Putin: Rap Can’t Be Banned, Must Be Controlled

Alarmed by the growing popularity of rap among Russian youth, President Vladimir Putin wants cultural leaders to devise a means of controlling, rather than banning, the popular music.

Putin says “if it is impossible to stop, then we must lead it and direct it.’’

But Putin said at a St. Petersburg meeting with cultural advisers Saturday that attempts to ban artists from performing will only bolster their popularity.

Putin noted that “rap is based on three pillars: sex, drugs and protest.’’ But he is particularly concerned with drug themes prevalent in rap, saying “this is a path to the degradation of the nation.’’

He said “drug propaganda” is worse than cursing.

Putin’s comments come amid a crackdown on contemporary music that evoked Soviet-era censorship of the arts.

Crackdown on rappers

Last month, a rapper known as Husky, whose videos have more than 6 million views on YouTube, was arrested after he staged an impromptu performance when his show was shut down in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar.

The 25-year-old rapper, known for his lyrics about poverty, corruption and police brutality, was preparing to take to the stage Nov. 21 when local prosecutors warned the venue that his act had elements of what they termed “extremism.’’

Husky climbed onto a car, surrounded by hundreds of fans, and chanted “I will sing my music, the most honest music!’’ before he was taken away by police.

On Nov. 30, rapper Gone.Fludd announced two concert cancellations, citing pressure from “every police agency you can imagine,’’ while the popular hip hop artist Allj canceled his show in the Arctic city of Yakutsk after receiving threats of violence.

Other artists have been affected as well: Pop sensation Monetochka and punk band Friendzona were among those whose concerts were shut down by the authorities last month.

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Fewer People Gather for ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests in Paris

French protesters for the fifth straight weekend rallied against the high cost of living, although demonstrations were more subdued nationwide Saturday, partly because of concessions made by the President Emmanuel Macron earlier this week, as well as a combination of cold weather and rain. 

 

Several thousand people turned out in Paris. Scuffles erupted between protesters and police, who fired tear gas and used water cannons on demonstrators as they scurried down side streets near the famed Champs-Elysees boulevard.  

 

About 8,000 police and 14 armored vehicles were deployed to prevent a repeat of previous protests that turned violent, with protesters looting stores and setting up burning barricades in the streets.  

Police said more than 115 people had been taken into custody by Saturday afternoon.  

 

A week ago, French officials said more than 100,000 people had joined protests around the country. This week, police counted just over 33,000 protesters nationwide. 

 

In Paris, police had reopened the Champs-Elysees to traffic by early evening. 

 

The protests, triggered by fuel tax hikes, have morphed into a movement about France’s high living costs, and has ballooned into the biggest crisis of Macron’s presidency. 

 

The weeks of protests have exposed intense resentment among noncity residents who feel that Macron, a former investment banker, is out of touch with struggling middle-class and blue-collar workers.  

 

Macron has since abandoned the fuel tax hikes and hopes a package of tax and minimum-wage measures will help ease tensions in the country after the recent violent clashes. 

 

Protesters, however, have made new demands to address other economic issues hurting workers, retirees and students.   

Government officials are concerned that repeated outbreaks of violence will weaken the economy and raise doubts about the government’s survival. 

 

Officials are also concerned about far-right, anarchist and anti-capitalist groups like Black Bloc that have mimicked the “yellow vest” movement.   

 

The “yellow vest” movement was named after the safety jackets French motorists are required to keep in their vehicles, which the protesters wear at demonstrations. 

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Ukraine to Establish Independent Orthodox Church

Ukrainian Orthodox priests are holding a historic synod in Kyiv’s Saint Sophia’s Cathedral to establish a new national church, one that does not have ties to Russia.

The clergy gathering Saturday follows a landmark decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodoxy, to remove the Ukrainian Orthodox church from under the Moscow Patriarchate, which has overseen the Ukrainian branch for hundreds of years.   

The decision infuriated the Russian church, prompting it to cut all ties with Constantinople.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia have been strained since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, following a pro-Western uprising in Kiev.  

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is expected to attend Saturday’s meeting between representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.  The Moscow-loyal branch of the church says it will not attend the synod and denies being a tool of the Kremlin.

Before the meeting, Russian Patriarch Kirill asked Pope Francis, the United Nations and religious and world leaders to protect the faithful and the clergy from “persecution.”

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Russian Spy’s Guilty Plea Illustrates Danger Facing US

Former top U.S. intelligence officials are warning the guilty plea by a former Russian graduate student and self-proclaimed gun-rights advocate should serve as a wake-up call about the Kremlin’s brazen desire and ability to interfere with the American political system.

Maria Butina, a 30-year-old native of Siberia, entered the plea Thursday in Washington, admitting she worked with a top Russian official, and two other Americans, to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups and the Republican Party for Russia’s benefit.

Her efforts, according to court documents, which included attending events hosted by the National Rifle Association gun-rights group and hosting so-called “friendship dinners,” were directed by Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At one gathering in 2015, she even managed to ask President Donald Trump, a candidate at the time, about U.S.-Russian relations, prompting him to say he thought he would “get along very nicely” with President Putin.

“It certainly is yet more validation of the Intelligence Community Assessment,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told VOA via email, referring to the unclassified January 2017 report by the country’s top three intelligence agencies that concluded that Putin and the Russian government aspired to sway the election in Trump’s favor

Significance of plea

Clapper, who has been publicly critical of Trump since leaving office, said the Butina plea is most significant because it shows “the lengths to which the Russians went to meddle in the 2016 election.”

“It illustrates, as well, the astute understanding the Russians have of our political ecosystem; the fact that they singled out the NRA speaks to the death grip the NRA has on many of our politicians,” he added.

Other former intelligence officials said the details in Butina’s guilty plea put a spotlight on the Kremlin’s obsession with undermining the U.S. from within.

“The big picture takeaway is that Russia comes at the U.S. target with every option it can muster — full-fledged spies operating under some kind of cover, a corps of “Illegals” like the 10 expelled from the U.S. in 2010, and someone like Butina who is best seen as espionage ‘lite,’” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.

“In combination, these three techniques increase dramatically the possibility that Moscow will gain something — or someone — of intelligence value,” he warned.

​Plea agreement downplayed

A Kremlin spokesman Friday called the charges against Butina “absolutely groundless and invalid.”

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov downplayed the significance of the plea agreement.

“As far as I understand the whole idea of this plea agreement — this practice is typical for the U.S. — is to bargain for a chance to go free as soon as possible and to get back home,” he told reporters.

Plea deal unusual

Former U.S. officials admit a plea deal in a case like this is unusual and note that if she makes good on her promise to cooperate truthfully with prosecutors, it could help unravel and expose others who were part of Butina’s network, leading perhaps to more indictments and embarrassment for some organizations.

“It basically pulls the curtain back on the Kremlin’s broader objectives, to gain influence with the Republican Party and the right in America,” said Max Bergman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of the Moscow Project, and who served in the State Department under President Barack Obama.

One of those coming under scrutiny is Paul Erickson, a U.S. political activist with extensive ties to the Republican Party who was romantically linked with Butina.

Erickson matches the description of “Person 1” in the statement offense provided by prosecutors. “Person 1” helped advise Butina on which politicians to target, according to the document.

Erickson’s lawyer, William Hurd, said in an email to the Reuters news agency, “Paul Erickson is a good American. He has done nothing to harm our country and never would.”

White House officials had no comment Friday on the Butina guilty plea.

Trump himself, while not having commented on Butina specifically, has repeatedly denied allegations he or his presidential campaign coordinated with Russia, calling the special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller a “witch hunt” and stating “NO COLLISION” on Twitter.

Russian efforts to meddle

U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also have not commented on the significance or impact of the Butina guilty plea, though many officials have warned Russia’s efforts to meddle in U.S. domestic politics have not stopped.

“We continue to see a pervasive message campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters from the White House briefing room in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections this past November.

And in October, U.S. prosecutors unsealed charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, described as the chief accountant for Russia’s multimillion-dollar information warfare operation to influence both the 2016 and 2018 elections.

While many of Khusyaynova’s social media efforts focused on conservative U.S. voters, some also targeted liberal voters and aimed to stir up anger, and even hatred, for Trump.

Officials and experts said as a result, it would be a mistake to assume there are no others like Butina out there who, rather than targeting Republicans and conservative groups, are looking to infiltrate liberal parties and organizations.

“The Russians don’t have a partisan agenda,” said the Moscow Project’s Bergman, pointing to a 2015 gala to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Russian-owned television outlet RT, during which Russia’s Putin sat at a table with former Trump adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and U.S. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

“Their agenda is for discord,” Bergman said.

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Police Deploy Across Paris, France for ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests

A strong police presence deployed in Paris on Saturday for planned demonstrations by the “yellow vest” protesters, with authorities repeating calls for calm after protests in previous weekends turned violent.

Security forces in riot gear were positioned around central train stations and along the famed Champs-Elysees boulevard, where shops were closed and their windows boarded up in anticipation of the protests. Authorities have said about 8,000 police and 14 armored vehicles were being deployed in the French capital.

Paris police say 21 people have been detained by midmorning in the French capital before the protests.

Last weekend, groups of demonstrators smashed and looted stores, clashing with police and setting up burning barricades in the streets.

The “yellow vest” movement, which takes its name from the fluorescent safety vests French motorists must have in their vehicles, emerged in mid-November as a protest against fuel tax increases. It soon morphed into an expression of rage about the high cost of living in France and a sense that President Emanuel Macron’s government is detached from the everyday struggles of workers.

There was a strong police presence Saturday outside the central Saint Lazare train station, where police in riot gear checked bags. More than 20 police vans and a water cannon truck idled nearby.

‘Being bled dry’

Hundreds of people began converging on the Champs-Elysees in the morning.

“We’re here to represent all our friends and members of our family who can’t come to protest, or because they’re scared,” said Pierre Lamy, a 27-year-old industrial worker wearing a yellow vest and with a French flag draped over his shoulders as he walked to the protest with three friends.

He said the protests had long stopped being about the fuel tax and had turned into a movement for economic justice.

“Everything’s coming up now,” Lamy said. “We’re being bled dry.”

Macron calls for calm

Macron on Friday called for calm during the demonstrations, and the French government reiterated the call online for demonstrators to remain peaceful.

“Protesting is a right. So let’s know how to exercise it,” the government tweeted from its official account, with a 34-second video, which begins with images of historic French protests and recent footage of “yellow vests” rallying peacefully before turning to violence.

“Protesting is not smashing. Protesting is not smashing our heritage. Protesting is not smashing our businesses. … Protesting is not smashing our republic,” the video says.

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Mexico Loses 10-Year WTO Battle Over US Tuna Labeling

The United States won a legal battle over “dolphin safe” tuna-labeling on Friday, when the World Trade Organization’s appeals judges dismissed Mexico’s argument that the U.S. labeling rules violated WTO rules.

More than 10 years after the dispute first came to the WTO in October 2008, the WTO ruling ended Mexico’s claim that U.S. labeling rules unfairly penalized its fishing industry.

Mexico said it had cut dolphin deaths to minimal levels but that it was being discriminated against by U.S. demands for paperwork and sometimes government observers. Tuna catches from other regions did not face the same stringent tests, it said.

The dispute centered on U.S. refusal to grant a “dolphin safe” label to tuna products caught by chasing and encircling dolphins with a purse seine net in order to catch the tuna swimming beneath them. Mexico’s tuna fleet in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean used such methods almost exclusively.

“Dolphin-safe tuna” could only be used to describe tuna captured in nets where there was no death or serious injury of dolphins. But the WTO found that “setting on” dolphins with a purse seine net was likely to kill or injure them, even if there was not observable evidence of such deaths and injuries.

The United States lost a first round of the legal battle and changed its rules in 2013. The WTO said the rule change was not enough and a second U.S. rule change followed in 2016. In April last year Mexico won the right to impose $163 million in annual trade sanctions if the WTO ruled that U.S.

labeling laws were still not in line with WTO rules. Mexico had said it planned to impose the sanctions on imports of U.S. high-fructose corn syrup.

Six months later the WTO said the U.S. tuna labeling rules were now WTO-compliant, derailing Mexico’s case and its claim for sanctions. Mexico appealed, leading to Friday’s ruling.