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EU Leaders Seek to Overcome Stumbling Blocks to Brexit Deal

European Union leaders have gathered in Salzburg, Austria, for an informal discussion of key issues, including the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc. Britain’s conservative government has lost a majority and with it the mandate for a so-called “hard Brexit,” in which Britain would leave the EU’s single market and customs union. It is now seeking a compromise. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Report: Extreme Poverty Declining Worldwide 

The world is making progress in its efforts to lift people out of extreme poverty, but the global aspiration of eliminating such poverty by 2030 is unattainable, a new report found.

A World Bank report released Wednesday says the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day fell to a record low of 736 million, or 10 percent of the world’s population, in 2015, the latest year for which data is available.

The figure was less than the 11 percent recorded in 2013, showing slow but steady progress.

“Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said.

“But if we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor,” he warned. “For their sake, we cannot fail.”

Poverty levels dropped across the world, except in the Middle East and North Africa, where civil wars spiked the extreme poverty rate from 9.5 million people in 2013 to 18.6 million in 2015.

The highest concentration of extreme poverty remained in sub-Saharan Africa, with 41.1 percent, down from 42.5 percent. South Asia showed the greatest progress with poverty levels dropping to 12.4 percent from 16.2 percent two years earlier.

The World Bank’s preliminary forecast is that extreme poverty has declined to 8.6 percent in 2018.

About half the nations now have extreme poverty rates of less than 3 percent, which is the target set for 2030. But the report said that goal is unlikely to be met.

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Russia to Study Israeli Data Related to Downed Plane

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted Israel’s offer to share detailed information on the Israeli airstrike in Syria that triggered fire by Syrian forces which downed a Russian reconnaissance plane, the Kremlin said Wednesday.

Syrian forces mistook the Russian Il-20 for Israeli aircraft, killing all 15 people aboard Monday night. Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed the plane’s loss on Israel, but Putin sought to defuse tensions, pointing at “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Putin on Tuesday to express sorrow over the death of the plane’s crew and blamed Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad sent Putin a telegram Wednesday offering his condolences and putting the blame on Israeli “aggression,” the official SANA news agency said.

Israel’s air force chief is scheduled to arrive in Moscow on Thursday to provide details. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that Russian experts will carefully study the data that the air force chief will deliver.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia and insisted it warned Russia of the coming raid in accordance with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army fired the missiles that hit the Russian plane when the Israeli jets had already returned to Israeli airspace.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.

While Putin took a cautious stance on the incident, he warned that Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.”

Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Wednesday that those will include deploying automated protection systems at Russia’s air and naval bases in Syria.

Business daily Kommersant reported that Russia also may respond to the downing of its plane by becoming more reluctant to engage Iran and its proxy Hezbollah militia, to help assuage Israeli worries.

Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.

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Turkey Jails Protesting Workers on President’s Prestige Project

A Turkish court has detained 24 construction workers for protesting conditions at the building of Istanbul’s third airport, according to Turkish media.

International condemnation was swift. “This is an appalling assault on the right to protest and organize and on the dignity of workers in Turkey,” tweeted senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair Webb of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The 24 workers face charges of resisting police, violating protest laws and damage to public property. The detentions are in connection to protests involving thousands of workers over safety and poor conditions at the construction site of Istanbul’s new airport.

The airport is planned to be one of world’s largest, the centerpiece of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s scheme of mega-construction projects to create what he calls the “new Turkey.”

The labor unrest at the airport site started Sept. 14, triggered by the reported deaths of four workers traveling on a service bus from their dormitories to work.

“Four of our friends died,” said one protesting worker, speaking to local media anonymously. “The shuttle bus had an accident.”

He added, “5,000, 6,000, almost 7,000 workers left work because they didn’t get paid. We can’t tell them don’t go. Neither can we stay here like that.”

Within hours of the protest, police using tear gas and armored cars moved in, arresting many strikers. Early Sept. 15, police raided the worker’s dormitories, detaining as many as 500 people.

With more than 36,000 people building the airport, it’s one of Europe’s biggest construction sites, but it also has become a national focal point for the treatment of construction workers. The International Trade Union Confederation lists Turkey as one of the world’s worst places for worker safety.

Media report that since construction on the airport started three years ago, more than 400 workers have been killed. The transport ministry says the number is 27.

Trade union officials claim workers are under intense pressure to meet next month’s opening, which is timed to coincide with Turkey’s Republic Day on October 29.

“What we call as demands are simply to correct the working conditions that belong to the middle ages,” said Ozgur Karabulut, general manager of Dev IS Union. “Workers can’t sleep because of cockroaches in the dormitories, they can’t eat the food as there are worms inside.”

Karabulut blames the deepening financial crisis in Turkey as a factor for the worsening conditions. The Turkish lira has plummeted more than 40 percent this year, driving up import costs.

“Because the costs are growing for the subcontractors, to make profit [they] cut from everything, from helmets to safety shoes,” Karabulut said.

“This problem is not unique to the airport construction site,” he added. “Any of the state’s mega-projects all have the same conditions and problems, and because the workers are asking for the rights they are getting beaten, gassed and detained.”

With nearly all mainstream media under control of the president or his supporters, the protesting workers have been labeled as “provocateurs” and “terrorists.”

In Istanbul’s central Kadikoy district Sunday, union officials reached out to the public and fringe media.  Officials tried to read a statement outlining their demands and the conditions facing the workers.

Police quickly surrounded the officials and told them the Istanbul governor, Vasip Sahin, had banned the protest. Seconds later the officials were arrested, handcuffed and dragged away. More than two dozen people were detained.

Opposition parties are voicing support for the protesting workers.

Deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Sezgin Tanrikulu, says the crackdown is unprecedented.

“Nowhere in the world, just for demanding better and more humane working conditions, more than 500 workers are taken into custody, gassed, beaten in raids on dorms in the middle of the night. For demanding adequate food, payments to be made to a bank account. It shows the level of democracy and law concerning workers’ rights and workers,” Tanrikulu said.

The consortium building the airport has not commented. However, Governor Sahin promised action, saying, “The employer has begun work to eliminate the problems of the employees of the airport construction.”

But with less than six weeks left until the airport’s planned opening, union officials claim pressure is being stepped up on workers.

Paramilitary police are now reportedly supervising the workers who’ve returned to work, while new workers are being brought in from Erdogan’s traditional Black Sea voting stronghold.

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Macron Guard Fired for Beating Protesters Defends Self at Inquiry

French President Emmanuel Macron’s former personal security officer, who was fired for beating protesters, defended himself before a senate inquiry Wednesday by saying he was neither a policeman nor a bodyguard.

Alexandre Benalla was taken into custody by police last July after Le Monde released video showing him posing as a policeman in riot gear and beating protesters during France’s May Day demonstrations.

The incident grew to become the most serious scandal Macron has faced during his short time in office after it was revealed Benalla had only been punished with a two week suspension at the time.

The president fired Benalla after the videos became public on July 19, deepening the furor and leading to a senate and a judicial investigation. Macron’s ministers have denounced the investigations as politically partisan.

The president’s popularity has been hovering around 30 percent recently, half of what it has been in the past, and French media has frequently compared the incident to Watergate.

Historically, French leaders have used shadowy unofficial police and intelligence operatives to carry out dubious acts. The incident has dredged up memories of this old sore point.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Benalla claimed that he had never been an unofficial bodyguard, but rather an aide in charge of liaising between Macron’s office and the GSPR, the security body officially in charge of protecting the president.

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Migrant Terror Trial Seen as Test of Fundamental Rights in Hungary

A Hungarian appeals court will make its final verdict Thursday in the case of a man convicted of terrorism for throwing stones at police and trying to enter the country illegally, at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015.

Amnesty International says his actions can in no way be interpreted as terrorism. The human rights group says the hearing in Budapest is the first big test for the country’s judicial system since the European Parliament voted last week to sanction Hungary over its record on fundamental rights.

The defendant, named as Ahmed H., was living in Cyprus at the time of the alleged offense. In the summer of 2015, he traveled to the Balkans to help his elderly parents and other family members as they fled the war in Syria. Like hundreds of thousands of other migrants and refugees, they were making their way from Turkey to Greece, through the Balkan states, trying to reach Western Europe.

Their journey was halted at the Hungarian-Serbian border as authorities closed the crossing. Ahmed took part in protests that erupted at the border

“He threw a few stones and he urged the police to let the refugees and migrants who had amassed there cross through to Hungary,” said Eda Seyhan of Amnesty.

Ahmed was arrested by Hungarian police. In 2016, he was convicted on charges of terrorism and sentenced to 10 years in jail.

“The defendant himself shook the fence, and fiddled with the lock, and threw solid objects towards the policemen line on three occasions,” the judge, Andrea Nagy, read after the verdict.

Following an appeal, Ahmed was again convicted of terrorism in a retrial. His latest appeal is his final hope of overturning the conviction in the Hungarian judicial system.

Amnesty’s Seyhan says Ahmed’s case is symptomatic of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s vilification of migrants.

“The Orban government have tried to justify their refusal of asylum-seekers and their ill-treatment of refugees by arguing that refugees and terrorism are in some way associated,” Seyhan said. “Having found no evidence for this assertion, they’ve really used the Ahmed case to back up their claims.”

The European Parliament last week voted to enact so-called Article 7 sanctions against Hungary for flouting EU rules on fundamental rights. During a debate ahead of the vote, Orban claimed he was legitimately defending Europe’s external borders.

“Hungary is going to be condemned because the Hungarian people have decided that this country is not going to be a country of migrants,” Orban told EU lawmakers.

But Amnesty sees the upcoming verdict as a new chance for Hungary.

“What we’re hoping for on Thursday is that Hungary will see the trial of Ahmed as an opportunity to show to the international community and others that it is coming back on a path of the rule of law and of human rights,” Seyhan said.

That battle over Hungary’s future path played out Tuesday on the streets of Budapest as thousands of anti-government protesters demanded new elections.

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European Nations Plan to Use More Hydrogen for Energy Needs

Dozens of European countries are backing a plan to increase the use of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels to cut the continent’s carbon emissions.

 

Energy officials from 25 countries pledged Tuesday to increase research into hydrogen technology and accelerate its everyday use to power factories, drive cars and heat homes.

 

The proposal, which was included in a non-binding agreement signed in Linz, Austria, includes the idea of using existing gas grids to distribute hydrogen produced with renewable energy.

 

The idea of a “hydrogen economy,” where fuels that release greenhouse gases are replaced with hydrogen, has been around for decades. Yet uptake on the concept has been slow so far, compared with some other technologies.

 

Advocates of hydrogen say it can solve the problem caused by fluctuating supplies of wind, solar, hydro and other renewable energies. By converting electricity generated from those sources into hydrogen, the energy can be stored in large tanks and released again when needed.

 

Electric vehicles can also use hydrogen to generate power on board, allowing manufacturers to overcome the range restrictions of existing batteries. Hydrogen vehicles can be refueled in a fraction of the time it takes to recharge a battery-powered vehicle.

 

On Monday the world’s first commuter train service using a prototype hydrogen-powered train began in northern Germany.

 

The European Union’s top climate and energy official said hydrogen could help the bloc meet its obligations to cut carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris accord. Miguel Arias Canete told reporters it could also contribute to the continent’s energy security by reducing imports of natural gas, much of which currently comes from Russia and countries outside of Europe.

 

Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said encouraging the use of hydrogen as a means of storing and transporting energy makes sense, but added the overall goal for should be reducing fossil fuels rather than pushing a particular energy alternative.

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German Spymaster Ousted Over Anti-Migrant Violence

The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has been transferred from his job just weeks after he made remarks that appeared to downplay anti-migrant violence.

Hans-Georg Maassen has been embroiled in a controversy since anti-migrant protests began in the eastern German city of Chemnitz in late August. A video was uploaded on social media that appeared to show far-right protesters chasing a man while shouting xenophobic slogans.

Maassen told the Bild newspaper in September that the video might be “false information.” He also said his agency had found no evidence that foreigners were being “hunted” in the city streets. His remarks contradicted those of Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who had condemned the attacks based on the video.

Maassen’s comments caused an uproar among the members of Merkel’s coalition government, with most calling for resignation or termination.

However, the far-right Alternative for Germany party praised Maassen and used his comments to further attack Merkel’s “completely failed asylum policy.”

Merkel’s interior minister and rival, Horst Seehofer, also backed Maassen.

On Tuesday, Merkel’s government announced that Maassen would be relieved of his duties at the intelligence agency and be made deputy interior minister under Seehofer.

It is not clear who will replace Maassen as intelligence chief.

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Hungary’s Orban Warms to Putin Over Nuclear Deal

Russia has reiterated its commitment to investing tens of billions of dollars in Hungary’s energy sector, despite the ongoing European sanctions against Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin backed the deal Tuesday after hosting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the Kremlin.

Orban said his country’s relationship with Russia was of great importance.

“I am very glad that over the last years we have had balanced, predictable relations,” he told Putin.

Hungary’s European Union partners see relations with Russia very differently and the bloc has enacted a raft of sanctions against Moscow following its 2014 forceful annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Orban’s visit to Moscow was primarily about economic ties, said Ian Bond of the London-based Center for European Reform.

“Hungary is one of the most dependent countries in Europe on Russia for its energy supplies. Not just for its gas — and I think it gets about three-quarters of its gas from Russia — but also because more than half of its electricity comes from nuclear plants, and 100 percent of the fuel for those nuclear plants comes from Russia. So it’s very easy for the Russians to remind the Hungarians that a cold winter is coming if they want to exercise political leverage,” Bond told VOA in an interview.

After private talks at the Kremlin, Putin reiterated Russia’s commitment to investing in Hungary through its state-owned nuclear giant.

“Rosatom will start constructing two new energy units at the Paks nuclear power plant in the nearest future,” he told reporters.

The Paks nuclear project has caused alarm in Brussels, noted analyst Ian Bond.

“Hungary is taking out a large Russian loan to cover the cost of it. This is something which … the European Commission resisted and tried to block. Eventually, the commission grudgingly cleared the deal, but it’s now running into delays, cost overruns and the like.”

As Hungary warms to Moscow, relations with Brussels are increasingly icy. EU lawmakers voted last week to initiate Article 7 punitive measures against Budapest for flouting the bloc’s treaties on the rule of law.

While Hungary has repeatedly spoken out against sanctions on Russia, so far Orban has resisted voting against the measures in the European Council, a move that would in effect veto them.

“But it may be that as part of thumbing his nose at the rest of Europe now that he faces sanctions over the rule of law, that he may decide that he can actually afford to block the sanctions on Russia the next time they come up for renewal,” Bond said.

For now, it seems the Hungarian leader is not ready to take such a dramatic step, despite such close relations with Moscow.

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United States Keen to Invest Strategically in Greenland

The United States wants to invest in Greenland to enhance its “military operational flexibility and situational awareness,” its Department of Defense (DoD) said on Monday.

Greenland is strategically important for the U.S. military and its ballistic missile early warning system, as the shortest route from Europe to North America goes via the Arctic island.

The U.S. intends to “pursue potential strategic investments vigorously, including investments that may serve dual military and civilian purposes,” the DoD said in a statement published by the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen.

Greenland picked Denmark as its partner in a planned upgrade of two airports last week, seeking to defuse a diplomatic row over how the projects, of strategic interest to both Washington and Beijing, should be financed.

Greenland is a self-ruling part of the Kingdom of Denmark and while its government decides on most domestic matters, foreign and security policy is handled by Copenhagen.

Denmark has been concerned that a Chinese investment — on the agenda since Greenland’s Prime Minister Kim Kielsen visited Beijing last year — could upset its close ally the U.S. 

The DoD said in Monday’s statement that it intends to analyse and, where appropriate, strategically invest in projects related to the airport infrastructure in Greenland.

The one-page “Statement of Intent” did not go into financial details.

“We welcome the American Statement of Intent, and look forward to discuss details of possible U.S. airport investments in Greenland,” Greenland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Motzfeldt, said in a statement.

Greenland’s government lost its parliamentary majority as a row between coalition partners escalated last week over how the planned airport projects should be financed.