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5 Killed in Shooting Outside Church in Russia’s Dagestan Region

Russian news reports say a gunman has opened fire on people leaving a church service in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan, killing and least five people and wounding four others.

The Tass news agency said the shooting occurred Sunday outside a church in the town of Kizlyar.  The assailant was killed by police.

“The shooter was shot dead,” Kizlyar’s Mayor Alexander Shuvalov told Tass, adding that two police officers were among those wounded.

The motive for the shooting is not known.

Dagestan is a predominantly Muslim region between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.

 

 

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Macron’s Ideas on Reform of Islam Draw Fire

Six months ago after a string of jihadist-inspired attacks in London and Manchester, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the time had come to have “embarrassing conversations” about Islam’s place in Britain.

Her comment was sparked by claims that the country’s Muslims weren’t doing enough to counter extremism and jihadist propaganda.

So far, mired in Brexit controversy, the British government hasn’t started a debate in earnest. But on the other side of the English Channel, French President Emmanuel Macron is proposing a root-and-branch reform of Islam in France — a project being closed watched by the British and by other Europeans.

Macron’s goals, he said, are to preserve “national cohesion” and to counter Islamic fundamentalism. Another key reform goal is to halt the influence of Arab states on France’s 6 million Muslims by way of the funding of mosques and paying clerics.

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters last week that although they have not finalized reform plans, the training of Islamic clerics and their funding “are at the heart of the manner in which we are rethinking the relationship between the Republic and Islam.”

“Why is the question of funding of Islam central for us? Because today, we know that the funding comes from foreign countries, and it is not desirable to have a religion in France funded by foreign countries who in fact will be defending their interests. And so, it’s a political Islam,” he said.

The plans being considered by the French president — including requiring imams to pass courses on secularism, civil liberties and theology, and the appointment of a chief imam as the sole religious authority over French Muslims — are drawing fire from some socialist politicians and Muslim leaders.

They argue government meddling in the training of Muslim clerics and interference in Islamic religious affairs would undermine the principles of freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, underpinnings of the French state’s strict brand of secularism known as laïcité, which is enshrined in a1905 law.

Macron has been rebuked by some key Muslim leaders, including the head of an organization set up more than a decade ago to encourage the development of a homegrown form of Islam more in tune with traditional French values.

“The Muslim faith is a religion, and as such, takes care of its own household affairs. The last thing you want is the state to act as guardian,” Ahmet Ogras, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), told Reuters.

Macron has said he won’t unveil a detailed reform proposal until wide consultations take place, but left-wing critics say his ideas risk undermining the state’s religious neutrality and will pull the French government into the management of religion.

“The president’s plans to restructure Islam in France call into question the 1905 law separating church and state,” said Benoît Schenckenburger, an adviser to left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a challenger in last year’s presidential elections. “The state cannot influence the organization of Islamic institutions, cannot meddle in the training of imams and cannot weigh in on how Islam in France is to be financed.”

Critics point out that Macron never talks about the state managing Catholic and Protestant churches or overseeing how Judaism is exercised. But those supporting Macron say French Catholics, Protestants and Jews accept laïcité and that no threats to the state are being mounted from within their communities.

And Griveaux said the state has no alternative but to get more involved — “because you have at the same time preaching that is completely incompatible with the values of the Republic, and you have mosques that are places of radicalization.”

On the right of the political spectrum, some resistance is also emerging. National Front critics of the reform idea fear, too, that Macron risks undermining the very idea of laïcité and will be forced to amend the 1905 law underpinning it. National Front leader Marine Le Pen has called the idea of doing that “unbearable, inadmissible.”

In a television interview she argued the influence of mainly Gulf states on French Muslims could be curtailed by imposing a “total cessation of foreign financing of mosques.”

Macron first announced his intention to reform French Islam in an interview a week ago with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

“What I’d like to get done in the first half of 2018 is set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France,” he said.

France isn’t alone among European states in struggling to formulate ideas about how to counter jihadists, harmonize Islam with Western ideals and to come up with ways of encouraging greater integration of Muslims.

He has drawn praise from British conservatives frustrated with what they argue is a muddled approach by the May government.

Last month, the British government withheld its support of an elementary school’s decision to ban young Muslim girls wearing the hijab to class, prompting an outcry from conservative lawmakers. Comparing May and Macron, historian Gavin Mortimer argued in the conservative Spectator magazine that Britain’s approach is “one of confusion.”

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US-Russia Dispute Forms Backdrop for Tense Munich Security Conference

Moscow has dismissed U.S. charges against several Russian citizens and companies for meddling in the 2016 presidential election as “blather.” Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov questioned the evidence. The charges have formed a tense backdrop to the conference, which has focused on growing threats to global security, as Henry Ridgwell reports from Munich.

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Russia Dismisses US Election-Meddling Indictments as ‘Blather’

Moscow is claiming the charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election are “blather.”

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, where dozens of world leaders are gathered this weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday questioned the evidence presented by the U.S. Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller.

“You know I have no reaction at all, because one can publish whatever one wants,” he said. “We see how accusations, statements, allegations multiply. Until we see the facts, everything else is just blather. I beg your pardon for a not really diplomatic wording.”

Mueller’s investigation has shed further light on Russia’s efforts to influence U.S. politics in cyberspace. The indictments suggest that a Russian propaganda arm oversaw a criminal and espionage conspiracy to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, by supporting Donald Trump and disparaging his rival, Hillary Clinton.

The indictments have created added tension at the three-day gathering of global political and military leaders in Munich.

Lavrov’s appearance at the podium Saturday was followed immediately by that of White House national security adviser H. R. McMaster, whose response also was blunt.

“The United States will expose and act against those who use cyberspace, social media and other means to advance campaigns of disinformation, subversion and espionage,” he told delegates.

McMaster said the United States would support Russia’s proposition of a cybersecurity dialogue, but only when Moscow is sincere about curtailing its interference in Western democracies.

Effort seen backfiring

“What’s happened is in this effort to polarize our societies — to support rightist groups, even the most extreme forms of fascist groups, and then groups on the left, in an attempt to pit Western societies against each other — all that has done is appeal to those big fringes while uniting all of our polities actually against Russia,” McMaster said.

WATCH: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s speech in Munich

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, also in Munich, said the West must counter Russian interference. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has to know the cost of this behavior in the long run will certainly outweigh the benefit” now perceived, he said.

Russian representatives in Munich have sought to present the claims of interference in Western democracies as part of a coordinated campaign of “Russophobia.”

In Russia, news of the indictments was met with more scorn.

“There are no official claims, there are no proofs for this. That’s why they are just children’s statements,” Andrei Kutskikh, the presidential envoy for international information security, told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

One of the 13 people indicted said that the U.S. justice system was unfair.

Mikhail Burchik was quoted Saturday by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda as saying that “I am very surprised that, in the opinion of the Washington court, several Russian people interfered in the elections in the United States. I do not know how the Americans came to this decision.”

Burchik was identified in the indictment as executive director of an organization that allegedly sowed propaganda on social media to try to interfere with the 2016 election.

He was quoted as saying that “they have one-sided justice, and it turns out that you can hang the blame on anyone.”

But Moscow is struggling to defend itself in the face of overwhelming evidence, according to Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a specialist in cyber- and hybrid warfare.

‘Absolutely damning’

“The fact is that now we have independent Russian media that have named the troll factory accounts; Facebook and Twitter have confirmed the troll factory accounts on Facebook and Twitter. That is absolutely damning,” Nimmo said. “There is no possible way you can say that that didn’t happen. You now have the Department of Justice further confirming it.”

U.S. officials say Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling is not finished. The White House maintains the indictments show there was no collusion between the Donald Trump presidential campaign team and Russian intelligence.

Some information for this report came from Associated Press.

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Head of Britain’s Far-Right Party Ousted

Henry Bolton, ousted Saturday as leader of Britain’s far-right United Kingdom Independence Party over a racism scandal involving his former girlfriend, said it would be “very difficult” for the party to survive its current leadership crisis.

UKIP, the party credited with the strongest support for Brexit in the 2016 vote on Britain’s departure from the European Union, must now elect its fifth leader in less than two years. 

While waiting for the decision by his party Saturday at a UKIP meeting in Birmingham, Bolton told reporters, “It’s not whether I go, specifically. It’s about whether or not the party goes through another leadership contest and an interim leadership beforehand.”

With 1,378 UKIP members voting, 63 percent cast ballots to oust Bolton.

In a speech earlier in the day, Bolton made a case for staying in the party’s top position and criticized those within the party who wanted him to leave.

The speech was not open to media, but the British newspaper Daily Mail reported that Bolton was booed when he threatened to sue the party.

Gerard Batten will serve as interim UKIP head. Bolton has not ruled out another run for party leadership.

Bolton’s personal life made headlines in December after news broke that the 54-year-old had left his wife and young children and had begun a relationship with Jo Marney, 25, a fashion model. 

In January, phone texts Marney had sent to a friend were made public, showing Marney had made racist comments about the fiancee of Britain’s Prince Harry.

Marney said biracial American actress Meghan Markle, who is engaged to marry Harry later this year, would “taint our Royal Family.”

“This is Britain, not Africa,” she wrote.

Marney publicly apologized after news media published her words. Bolton later said he had ended their relationship.

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US Man Pleads Guilty in Fraud Case Connected to Russia Election Probe

A California man has pleaded guilty to inadvertently selling bank accounts to Russians who were indicted Friday by a federal grand jury for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were then used by the Russians, according to a February 12 court filing.  

The special counsel investigating Russian meddling on Friday announced charges against 13 Russian citizens and three Russian entities for interfering in the election.  

The indictment alleges that the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based social media company with Kremlin ties, 12 of its employees, and its financial backer orchestrated an effort to influence the 2016 election campaign in favor of President Donald Trump. 

 

Prosecutors charged Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with funding the operation through companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering and a number of subsidiaries.  

 

Prigozhin and his businesses allegedly provided “significant funds” for the Internet Research Agency’s operations to disrupt the U.S. election, according to the indictment. 

 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that the Russian conspirators sought to “promote social discord in the United State and undermine public confidence in democracy.”

 

“We must not allow them to succeed,” Rosenstein said at a news conference in Washington. 

 

The conspiracy was part of a larger operation code-named Project Lakhta, Rosenstein said. 

 

“Project Lakhta included multiple components – some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in multiple countries,” Rosenstein said. 

 

Mueller, who has made no public statements about the Russia investigation since his appointment last May, did not speak at the news conference. 

 

Charges against Russian nationals

 

The indictment charges all the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Three defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and five individuals with aggravated identity theft.

 

None of the defendants charged in the indictment are in custody, according to a spokesman for the Special Counsel’s office. 

 

The U.S. and Russia don’t have an extradition treaty and it’s unlikely that any of the defendants will stand trial in the U.S.

 

The 37-page charging document alleges that the Russian conspirators sought to coordinate their effort with Trump campaign associates, but it does not accuse anyone on the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians.

 

Trump took to Twitter after the indictment was announced to again deny his campaign worked with the Russians.

 

“Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president,” Trump tweeted. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

 

The indictment marks the first time Mueller’s office has brought charges against Russians and Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 election.  

 

Mueller’s sprawling investigation has led to the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates.Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russian officials.

 

Details of indictment

 

The indictment says the Russian campaign to “interfere in the U.S. political system” started as early as 2014 and accelerated as the 2016 election campaign got underway. 

 

During the 2016 campaign, the Russian operatives posted “derogatory information” about a number of presidential candidates.  But by early to mid-2016, the operation included “supporting” Trump’s presidential campaign and “disparaging” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

                          

Taking on fake American identities, the Russian operatives communicated with “unwitting” Trump campaign associates and with other political activists “to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment says.

 

The indictment describes how Russian operatives used subterfuge, stolen identities and other methods to stage political rallies, buy ads on social media platforms, and pay gullible Americans to “promote or disparage candidates.”

 

To avoid detection by U.S. law enforcement agencies, the Russian operatives used computer networks based in the United States, according to the indictment.

“These groups and pages, which addressed the divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by defendants,” the indictment reads.

 

A number of the operatives are alleged to have traveled to the United States under “false pretenses to collect intelligence to inform the influence operations.”

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Robot Drives Itself to Deliver Packages

Delivery robots could one day be part of the landscape of cities around the world. Among the latest to be developed is an Italian-made model that drives itself around town to drop off packages. Since the machine runs on electricity, its developers say it is an environmentally friendly alternative to fuel powered delivery vehicles that cause pollution. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.

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US and Turkey Vow to Work Together to Avoid Confrontation in Syria

The United States and Turkey have vowed to work together to avoid a potential military confrontation in Syria and to step back from the brink of a collapse in ties between the two NATO allies. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrapped up his six-day tour of the Middle East on Friday, amid escalating tensions in the region over the fighting in northern Syria. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.

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In Troubling Times, Curling Might be Just What We Need

The world, some fret, is falling apart. Politicians spar viciously on social media. Leaders lie. Former heroes fall like dominoes amid endless scandals. Cruelty has come to feel commonplace.

But never fear: We have curling.

The sport with the frenzied sweeping and clacking rocks has rules that require players to treat opponents with kindness. Referees aren’t needed, because curlers police themselves. And the winners generally buy the losers a beer.

At the Pyeongchang Olympics, curlers and their fans agree: In an era of vitriol and venom, curling may be the perfect antidote to our troubled times.

“Nobody gets hit — other than the rock,” laughed Evelyne Martens of Calgary, Canada, as she watched a recent Canada vs. Norway curling match. “And there’s nothing about Trump here!”

​Thanks, Scotland

In the 500 years since curling was conceived on the frozen ponds of Scotland, it has remained largely immune to the cheating controversies and bloated egos common in other sports. This is thanks to what is known as “The Spirit of Curling,” a deeply ingrained ethos that dictates that curlers conduct themselves with honor and adhere to good sportsmanship.

The World Curling Federation’s rules state: “Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents. A true curler never attempts to distract opponents, nor to prevent them from playing their best, and would prefer to lose rather than to win unfairly.”

Kindness is the baseline for what curling is all about, says Canadian Kaitlyn Lawes, who won the gold medal this week in curling mixed doubles.

“We shake hands before the game, we shake hands after. And if someone makes a great shot against you, we congratulate them because it’s fun to play against teams that are playing well,” Lawes says. “I think that spirit of curling can be used in the real world — and hopefully it can be a better place.”

Case in point: After losing the curling mixed doubles gold medal to Canada, Switzerland’s Martin Rios swallowed his disappointment during a press conference to say that the Canadians had deserved to win, declaring: “They were the better team.”

The Canadians returned the favor by heartily applauding their Swiss opponents not once but twice. And before the women’s round-robin match Thursday, the Korean team presented their Canadian competitors with a gift bag of Korean curling banners and pins.

​A certain morality

Children new to the sport are coached about the spirit of curling from the very start, says Willie Nicoll, chairman of British Curling. Fair play is not an afterthought, he says. It is the heart of the game.

“It’s always been looked at as being a very gentlemanly sport,” says Kate Caithness, president of the World Curling Federation. “Where does that happen in sport, when you say to your opposition, ‘Good shot?’”

It’s not that curling isn’t competitive. Like every other Olympian in Pyeongchang, curlers all want the gold — just not at the expense of their integrity.

Perhaps the best example of this is the lack of referees. Officials rarely get involved in matches because players call themselves out for fouls. If a curler accidentally hits a stone that’s in motion with their foot or broom — a situation known as a “burned stone” — he or she is expected to immediately announce the mistake. Aileen Geving, a member of the U.S. Olympic curling team, says it would be unthinkable for her not to own up to such a goof.

“We all have to be true to ourselves and I know I would feel way too guilty not to say anything if I hit it!” she says, laughing. “I think there’s a certain morality behind that.”

On Friday, an exceedingly unusual controversy over a burned stone erupted that — unsurprisingly — meandered its way to a mild end. In a tense match against Canada, a Danish player accidentally hit a moving rock. Canada, which had the right to decide what happened, chose to remove the rock from play rather than allow it to remain.

The “aggression” stunned some observers. Canadian media covering the game launched into frenzied discussions, and some curling fans tweeted shock over what they considered unsportsmanlike behavior.

This, though, was the measured reaction from the Danish team’s skip a bit later: She wouldn’t have made the same choice, but she also wasn’t mad.

For the fans, seeing such displays of warmth — or, in the above case, lack of heat — can be a welcome respite from the harshness of the outside world.

Sinking into her seat at the Gangneung Curling Centre, Crystle Kozoroski was still stressed from attending the previous night’s rough and rowdy hockey game. Watching curling, she said, was just the therapy she needed.

“I’m still tense from last night’s game — my body is literally sore,” said Kozoroski, of Manitoba, Canada. “It’s nice just to sit and relax.” Curling is, she says, a “very calming and soothing sport.”

​A typical game

Here is how a typical game starts at Gangneung: Opponents turn to each other, share a handshake and wish each other “Good curling!” A bouncy organ tune blasts across the arena and the stadium announcer cheerfully bellows, “Good luck and GOOD CURLING!” The crowd whoops with glee. Even if you have no idea what is happening, it is almost impossible not to smile.

There’s a sense that everyone is welcome. And with curling, that’s kind of true. Both women and men compete in all three versions of the sport — traditional curling, mixed doubles and wheelchair — and members of curling clubs range in age from 7 to 90.

That feeling of inclusiveness is intertwined with a deep camaraderie that goes back to curling’s inception. Take “broomstacking,” named for the original practice of opponents stacking their brooms in front of a roaring fire after a game and enjoying a drink together.

These days, rivals still socialize after matches, with the winner generally buying the loser a round. The other day, Canadian gold medal curler John Morris posted a photo on Instagram of himself sharing a locker room brew with U.S. rival Matt Hamilton, their arms slung around each other and grins stretching across their faces.

Mae Polo, whose son Joe Polo is a member of the U.S. Olympic curling team, says she and her family have formed tight bonds with curlers across the globe. Those friendships have traversed any competitive or cultural divides, she says, with the curlers’ families all helping each other sort out travel logistics to the Olympics.

Curling is one big family, she says. And maybe, just maybe, curling could serve as a blueprint for us all.

“The world needs to take a lesson from it,” she says. “Let’s just love each other.”

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Tillerson Holds ‘Productive’ Talks with Turkish Officials

Turkey has proposed to the United States that Syrian Kurdish YPG militia withdraw to east of the Euphrates River in Syria and that Turkish and U.S. troops be jointly stationed in the country’s Manbij area, according to a Turkish official.

The official, who spoke to the Reuters news agency Friday on condition of anonymity because the information had not been made public, said the U.S. was considering the proposal presented to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his two-day visit to Ankara.

Meanwhile, Tillerson met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu for talks focusing on Washington’s plan to continue providing assistance to Kurdish militants.

Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference after their meeting, Tillerson called on Ankara to “show restraint in its operation” while insisting that Turkey and the United States “share the same objectives in Syria.”

Tillerson met late Thursday with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for more than three hours, after which both sides said the discussion was productive but inconclusive.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to drive the YPG from the area south of its border.

Ankara considers the YPG an arm of the PKK, a banned Kurdish group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Brussels Thursday that the United States and Turkey are in open dialogue about their differences. Turkey’s defense minister was among those Mattis met at NATO headquarters.