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Defiant Catalans Vote on Split From Spain Despite Crackdown

Spanish riot police burst into polling stations across Catalonia on Sunday confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers to try to halt a banned referendum on a split from Spain as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region.

Police broke down doors to force entry into voting stations as defiant Catalans shouted “Out with the occupying forces!” and sang the anthem of the wealthy northeastern region. In one incident in Barcelona, police fired rubber bullets.

The referendum, declared illegal by Spain’s central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a centuries-old rift between Madrid and Barcelona.

Despite the police action, hundreds-strong queues of people formed in cities and villages throughout the region to cast their votes. At one Barcelona polling station, elderly people and those with children entered first.

“I’m so pleased because despite all the hurdles they’ve put up, I’ve managed to vote,” said Teresa, a 72-year-old pensioner in Barcelona who had stood in line for six hours.

The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

A minority of around 40 percent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue. The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.

However much voting takes place, a “yes” result is likely, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

Large crowds

Organisers had asked voters to turn out before dawn, hoping for large crowds to be the world’s first image of voting day.

“This is a great opportunity. I’ve waited 80 years for this,” said 92-year-old Ramon Jordana, a former taxi driver waiting to vote in Sant Pere de Torello, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees and a pro-independence bastion.

The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.

Elsewhere, people were not able to access the ballot boxes.

In a town in Girona province where Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote, Civil Guard police smashed glass panels to open the door and search for ballot boxes.

Puigdemont voted in a different town in the province. He accused Spain of unjustified violence in stopping the vote and said it created a dreadful image of Spain.

“The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans’ desire to vote… but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today,” he said.

Catalan emergency services said 38 people were hurt, mostly with minor injuries, as a result of police action. The government said 11 police officers were injured in clashes.

Around 70 polling stations had been raided by police, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said.

The aim of the raids was to seize referendum material and not to target people wanting to vote, another senior government official said.

“We have been made to do something we didn’t want to do,” said Enric Millo, the central government’s representative in Catalonia, at a news conference.

One analyst said the scenes being played out across Catalonia on Sunday would make it harder for Madrid and Barcelona to find a way forward.

“I think it is going to make the clash more intense and make it more difficult to find a solution,” said Antonio Barroso of Teneo Intelligence.

Puigdemont originally said that if the “yes” vote won, the Catalan government would declare independence within 48 hours, but regional leaders have since acknowledged Madrid’s crackdown has undermined the vote.

Markets have reacted cautiously but calmly to the situation so far, though credit rating agency S&P said on Friday that protracted tensions in Catalonia could hurt Spain’s economic outlook. The region accounts for about a fifth of the economy.

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Europeans Intensify Lobbying to Preserve Iran Deal

Iranian diplomats say they expect President Donald Trump to abandon the international deal restricting Tehran’s nuclear activities. They are intensifying their lobbying of European governments, especially the signatories to the agreement, France, Britain and Germany, hoping they can dissuade the U.S. administration from repudiating the agreement.

And in the event the U.S. repudiates the deal, then Tehran is urging Europeans not to join Washington in re-imposing sanctions.

The Iranians say if Europe and the other signatories, Russia and China, stick with the deal and don’t join a renewed sanctions regime, then Tehran will continue to adhere to the agreement.

Iran’s foreign secretary, Mohammad Javad Zarif, highlighted that appeal in an interview with British newspapers published Saturday, warning that if Europe followed Washington’s lead if the Trump administration abandons the deal, Iran would resume uranium enrichment and other aspects of its nuclear program at a more advanced level than before the deal was struck.

Trump on deal

The U.S. State Department is due to certify to Congress in two weeks time whether Iran has been complying with the terms of the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Trump has said he has made up his mind already, but hasn’t told European leaders his decision, including Britain’s Theresa May, who asked him reportedly at a bilateral meeting at the UN last month.

Trump has been a stern critic of what his predecessor, Barack Obama, saw as a signature foreign policy achievement.

Dubbing it a “bad deal,” Trump pledged during his campaign for the White House last year to rip up the agreement. And in New York in a speech last month at the UN, he described the deal as an “embarrassment,” saying it was “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Although the Trump administration has not offered any examples of JCPOA non-compliance by Iran, the belligerency of the President’s comments has heightened impressions that he’s laying the groundwork for the State Department to withhold certification on October 15. The administration is required to report to Congress every 90 days on the deal.

Iran’s intense lobbying effort has two main purposes, say analysts: to get the Europeans to press Washington not to walk away, and in the event President Trump does, to try to ensure the Europeans don’t follow suit — a move that could increase strains between Trump’s Washington and European leaders to a possible breaking point.

European impact

The Europeans would be placed in a lose-lose position, if the U.S. abandons the nuclear deal. Under the agreement’s provisions, any signatory can require the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution to continue the deal’s sanctions relief — a U.S. veto would result in the sanctions on Iran snapping back into place automatically.

That in turn would present the Europeans with the uncomfortable choice of either complying with a UN resolution or re-imposing sanctions against their own policy views. Either way, it would likely compound increasingly tense transatlantic relations.

European signatories to the deal have all publicly defended the nuclear agreement, which placed limits on Iran’s nuclear program designed to prevent Tehran from developing weapons in return for a lifting of international sanctions.

European ambassadors to the U.S. have been highly visible and vocal in Washington in recent days defending the agreement and insisting Iran has remained in compliance. That conclusion was supported last week by U.S. Marine Gen. James Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in written testimony to a Senate committee said: “The briefings I have received indicate that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations.”

Interviewed by National Public Radio, German envoy Peter Wittig, said Friday: “We believe it would be a mistake to walk away from the deal while Iran is complying.”

European envoys mounted a full-court defense of the nuclear deal last week at a think tank event, arguing Iran is complying with the deal that was struck in July 2015 and implemented since January 2016.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked midweek on the phone about Iran with President Trump, expressing her support for the deal. Although, according to German officials, she offered a sympathetic ear to the U.S. leader’s complaints about human rights abuses by Iran and destabilizing activities in the Middle East, including missile development, Tehran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and for groups like Lebanon’s radical Shi’ite movement Hezbollah.

Part of the European lobbying effort on Trump’s Washington — from leaders and envoys — has been to argue that the nuclear deal shouldn’t be sacrificed because of those other areas of concern.

And there has been a quid pro quo hint from the Europeans that they will be more forward-leaning and cooperative with U.S. efforts to contain Iran on other fronts. “European foreign ministers tell me that they would join us in confronting other Iranian misdeeds,” if the Trump administration doesn’t abandon the deal, John Kerry, the former U.S. Secretary of State wrote in an opinion article for the Washington Post published Friday.

“Nothing in the agreement is preventing us from facing the challenges raised by Iran on other issues,” according to French Ambassador Gerard Araud.

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Turkey Opens Largest Foreign Military Base in Mogadishu

Turkey’s largest foreign military base in the world opened Saturday in Mogadishu, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Somali leaders, top Turkish military officials and diplomats.

Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and the head of the Turkish military, General Hulusi Akar have jointly inaugurated the 4 square kilometer (1.54 square mile) facility, which holds three military residential complexes, training venues, and sports courts. It had been under construction for the last two years.

General Akar said the base is the biggest sign of how Turkey wants to help Somalia.

“We are committed to help [the] Somali government, and this base will cover the need for building strong Somali National Army. And it is biggest sign showing our relationship.”

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Khaire highlighted the significance of the training base for his country.

“Today our country goes to the right direction toward development and the re-establishment of Somali Army, capable and ready for the defense of their nations,” said Khaire “This base is part of that on ongoing effort.”

More than 200 Turkish military personnel will train some 1,500 Somali troops at a time, according to Somalia’s defense Ministry. The Somali prime minister said it will manufacture an inclusive united Somali Army.

“This training base has a unique significance for us because it is a concrete step taken toward building an inclusive and integrated Somali National Army,” said Khaire. “My government and our Somali people will not forget this huge help by our Turkish brothers. This academy will help us train more troops.”

The inauguration ceremony was held amid tight security around the base located in the Jaziira coastal area in southern tip of the capital.

Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Army chief said, “the Turkish government would continue to support our Somali brothers until their country becomes militarily stronger.”

Other diplomats who attended the event said the training is part of an international effort to strengthen the Somali National Army to a point where it can take over security responsibilities from African Union troops currently fighting al-Shabab militants. The African Union has said it wants to begin withdrawing troops from Somalia next year.

Prime Minister Khaire said the base also will help to defeat the extremism and the ideology that drives young Somali men into violence and terrorism.

“To defeat terrorism and fight against the poverty, we have keep in mind that building our national security and eliminating corruption is the key,” he said.

Somalia has a significant number of military personal, but they are ill-trained and poorly equipped. Last week, the government repeated its plea for world leaders to lift an international arms embargo.

The U.S. already had deployed dozens of American soldiers to Mogadishu, and their presence marked the first American military forces in Somalia, except for a small unit of counterterrorism advisers, since March 1994.

The United Arab Emirates also has a military facility where they train the Somali Army, which many politicians condemn for taking orders directly from UAE commanders.

“The good news is not only the opening of this training base but also …that when Turkey trains our troops it will also equip them,” said Somali Military Chief, Ahmed Mohamed Jimale.

Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab is attempting to overthrow the Somali government and install a strict form of Islamic law throughout the country. On Friday, 30 people were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a Somali military army base in the town of Barire, 47 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu.

 

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Spanish Authorities Blockade Polling Stations, Dismantle Equipment Ahead of Catalonia Referendum

Authorities in Spain have begun sealing off polling stations and confiscating ballots ahead of a planned referendum vote Sunday that possibly could lead to the Catalonian region’s independence.

The Spanish government says there will be no Catalonia independence vote Sunday, even as the regional government continues preparations for the referendum.

Enric Millo, the highest-ranking Spanish security official in the northeastern region, said Saturday police had already blockaded half of the more than 2,300 polling stations designated for the referendum vote.

He said Spanish authorities also had dismantled the technology Catalan officials had planned on using for voting and counting ballots, which he said would make the referendum “absolutely impossible.”

Catalan officials have said they plan to move forward with the vote despite the actions taken by Spain’s central government.

The president of the Catalan National Assembly appealed directly to the “conscience” of police officers deployed to the polling stations while speaking to reporters Saturday.

“I am aware they have a job to do, that they have their orders and have to carry them out. We are aware of that. But we also know that they have feelings, conscience,” he said.

“So tomorrow, when they carry out their orders they will undoubtedly receive, I hope they keep in mind – during the situations they find themselves in — that these could be their children, their mothers or their nephews, members of their family who just want to be able to  express themselves in freedom.”

Spanish Culture Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday the independence vote violates Spanish law and the government will not accept the results of the referendum.

“We are open to dialogue within the framework of the law. As you would understand nobody can ask us … to engage in dialogue outside the framework of the law. It’s impossible,” he said. “No European political leader can even consider dealing with an issue that is not in [Spanish] government hands.”

Catalan authorities say they will declare independence from Spain within 48 hours of the vote if residents there choose to secede. The Spanish government has fought the measure and declared the vote illegitimate.

On Friday, Catalan farmers rode tractors through the streets of Barcelona, driving slowly and waving pro-independence flags and banners. The tractors eventually stopped, converging on the regional government building.

At the same time, European Union officials say they will not mediate the dispute between Spain and Catalonia, calling it a matter of Spanish law.

“[It is] a Spanish problem in which we can do little. It’s a problem of respecting Spanish laws that Spaniards have to resolve,” said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans called on Europeans to respect the constitution and rule of law in their countries. He said people in the EU need to organize themselves “in accordance with the constitution of that member state.”

“That is the rule of law – you abide by the law and the constitution even if you don’t like it,” he said.

Catalan authorities previously had appealed to the EU for help, saying the Spanish government undermined their democratic values.

 

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Russian Soldier who Killed 3 Comrades Shot Dead

Officials in far east Russia say a soldier who opened fire at other servicemen during drills has been tracked down and killed.

The military says the soldier, who killed three and wounded two other soldiers, offered resistance to arrest and was shot dead early Saturday following a massive manhunt.

During Friday’s incident, the soldier fired his Kalashnikov rifle at his comrades waiting to have target practice at a base outside the town of Belogorsk near the border with China and then fled.

The city administration in Belogorsk says the soldier came from the province of Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has sent a commission to investigate the shooting.

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Kosovo President: US Will Be Directly Involved in Final Kosovo-Serbia Deal

Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, says U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has pledged that the United States will be directly involved in reaching a final agreement to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. 

Thaci told VOA’s Albanian service after meeting with Pence on Friday at the White House that “Pence will be focused and maximally involved” in reaching a deal between the two countries. 

“I believe that this willingness of the U.S. administration and personally of Vice President Pence is a guarantee for the success of this process,” Thaci said. 

He said he is confident the process will “lead Kosovo into a final agreement of normalization and reconciliation of Kosovo-Serbia relations and would open prospects for Kosovo’s integration into the United Nations.”

A White House statement Friday said Pence “expressed appreciation for Thaci’s leadership, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, to advance the EU-facilitated dialog to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”

The White House said Pence and Thaci “agreed on the importance of advancing reforms to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption and boost economic growth” and said Pence reaffirmed the “United States’ support for a sovereign, democratic and prosperous Kosovo.”

The White House also encouraged Kosovo to ratify the border demarcation agreement with neighboring Montenegro “to resolve this long-standing issue.”

Thaci told VOA that Pence called on Kosovo to solve the issues as soon as possible. He said Kosovo has “good neighborly relations with Montenegro” and stressed the importance of such ties.

“No one can support you if you build bad relationships with your neighbors. We have a lot of problems with Serbia. We cannot open other problems with our neighbors that could cost us the integration processes” with the European Union, he said.

Thaci said the issue is in the hands of Kosovo’s parliament.

The border agreement was signed in 2015 but has not had sufficient support in Kosovo’s parliament for ratification.

The European Union insists Kosovo must approve the border demarcation deal before its citizens enjoy visa-free travel within Europe.

Montenegro has recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, but Serbia vehemently opposes it.

VOA’s Albanian service contributed to this report.

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Russia Charges Opposition Leader for Unsanctioned Protests

Russian police released opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate Alexei Navalny on Friday after several hours in detention.

Police charged Navalny with repeatedly organizing unauthorized rallies, an administrative offense punishable with a fine of up to a 300,000 rubles ($5,200) and compulsory work for up to 200 hours.

“We were finally presented with a charge and released, and the trial will be on October 2 at the Simonovsky Court of Moscow at 15:00 Moscow time,” Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told Interfax.

Police had stopped Navalny early Friday as he was headed to a campaign rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, where at least one other rally leader was also detained — Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov. 

“I’m in a police station now and they’re going to accuse me of repeated violation of the procedure for holding a mass event,” Navalny told VOA’s Russian service reporter Danila Galperovich earlier Friday. “It means almost for sure they will arrest me after the court will hear my case. I don’t know when.”

Police in Nizhny Novgorod, about 260 miles (417 kilometers) east of Moscow, had cordoned off the campaign rally site hours before the event was to begin and removed a Navalny campaign tent.

Despite the police actions, hundreds of Navalny’s supporters rallied Friday in the provincial city in protest. Images from social media showed protesters walking on a central street while loud music from an officially sanctioned concert blared nearby. 

Call for reform

Navalny’s detention came as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights issued a memorandum saying Russian authorities should revise the country’s freedom of assembly law, which, he says, has become more restrictive in recent years.

“As a result, the authorities have rejected a high number of requests to hold public assemblies,” said Commissioner Nils Muiznieks in the published memorandum. “Over the past year, there have been many arrests of people participating in protests, even if they did not behave unlawfully, as well as a growing intolerance toward ‘unauthorized’ events involving small numbers of participants and even of single-person demonstrations. 

“This runs counter to Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and it weakens the guarantees contained in its own Constitution concerning the right to freedom of assembly,” Muiznieks said.

Russia is one of 47 member countries in the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, but routinely dismisses its criticism.

‘Trend toward deterioration’

Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign team have been harassed and attacked numerous times by police and Kremlin supporters. In April, a man threw a chemical sanitizer in the Russian opposition leader’s face, causing a chemical burn that required eye surgery and left him partially blind.

Navalny supporter Nikolai Lyaskin was reportedly attacked in Moscow this month with an iron pipe.

In an exclusive interview with VOA reporter Galperovich on September 26, Navalny expressed dismay at the repressive trend.  

“We currently see a trend toward deterioration: At first it was fines, then administrative arrests, and now it is fabrication of criminal charges [and] house arrest,” he said.

Navalny said the trend is reminiscent of how Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Purge began in 1937.

“The capabilities of propaganda are mostly exhausted: You turn on the TV, which from morning until night is talking about beautiful North Korea, awful Ukraine, ‘gay’ Europe, et cetera. It is already impossible there [on TV] to fan the flames higher. Therefore, they are using repression to take people off the streets, to intimidate them,” Navalny said.

Challenging Putin

Navalny plans to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia’s March presidential election, though Putin has made no official announcement to run in a bid to continue his 17 years as leader.

The Russian opposition leader has been campaigning in cities across the country despite the central election commission declaring him ineligible because of a suspended prison sentence. Navalny’s supporters and numerous independent analysts back up his view that the sentence was politically motivated.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on September 21 demanded that Navalny be allowed to take part in the elections and that the fraud case against him and opposition politician Pyotr Ofitserov be re-examined.

In the interview Tuesday with Galperovich, Navalny expressed doubt that Russian authorities would act on the European ministers’ demand.

“I do not think that international structures can affect that much; at least, we have not in recent years seen international structures somehow straightforwardly affecting the internal political situation in Russia,” Navalny said.

But he said the resolution was satisfying nonetheless. “It is probably the best of all possible rulings we could hope for,” he said. “It quite clearly and distinctly shows that, first of all, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights was not implemented and, secondly, that there is a demand there for my admission to the elections.”

The European Court of Human Rights had demanded Navalny’s 2013 fraud case be retried because it violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial in July that resulted in the same verdict and a suspended sentence.

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Analysts: Russia May Be Helping Catalonia Secessionists

Catalonia’s secessionists, who are trying to organize an independence vote from Spain on Sunday, may be getting aid from Russia as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy to destabilize the European Union, according to European Union analysts.

Spain’s central government has deployed thousands of police to contain expected disorder. They have threatened local officials who support the referendum with stiff fines and jail. Spain’s constitutional court has declared the pending vote illegal.

Despite what some see as a heavy-handed response by Madrid, the United States and most EU governments have backed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his efforts to keep Spain united.

Russian state media have disseminated reports consistently favorable to Catalan independence in a move some analysts consider to be Moscow’s latest attempt to interfere in Western electoral processes.

The Kremlin has taken no public position on the referendum, calling it an “internal” matter for Spain.

Russia’s use of hacked information and dissemination of “fake news,” however, has been detected in recent Western electoral events,  including the 2016 U.S. elections, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the just-concluded German elections.

“It’s not that Russia necessarily wants the independence of Catalonia. What it’s principally seeking is to foment divisions to gradually undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” said Brett Schaffer, an analyst of the Alliance to Safeguard Democracy, a project supported by the German Marshall Fund, which monitors pro-Kremlin information networks.

The Russian social media outlet Voice of Europe (@V_of_Europe) has run such headlines as “The EU refuses to intervene in Catalonia even as Spain violates basic human rights,” calling Catalonia’s referendum “a time bomb that threatens to destroy the EU.”

The internationally broadcast Russian Television, or RT, alleged on September 20 that a “state of siege” has been imposed on Catalonia and dubbed cruise liners chartered to house additional police agents being deployed to the Catalonia as “Ships of Repression.”

The Russian digital newspaper Vzglyad borrowed a page from the Western media’s treatment of uprisings against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, with the September 20 headline “Spain brutally suppresses the Catalan Spring.”

Some editorials and Kremlin-sponsored academics took note of how the U.S. and EU neglected to recognize a Russian-sponsored Crimean referendum approving reunification with Russia and compared that with their current indifference toward the Catalan vote.

Catalan secessionist politician Enric Folch, who is international secretary of the Catalan Solidarity Party for Independence, has said on Russian media that a Catalan state would support Moscow in world forums and recognize the independence of territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, which separated from Georgia with Russian support.

Folch was a star participant at a Kremlin-sponsored conference of independence movements in Moscow last year.

David Alendete, an investigative reporter with the newspaper El Pais, said the conference was organized by a Russian lawyer who is defending Russian computer hackers arrested in Spain and is wanted by the FBI in connection with the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election campaign in the U.S.

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Conservationists Work to Save World’s Rarest Cats

To the untrained eye, the Scottish wildcat looks quite similar to a normal domestic cat. But it is a unique species, and it could become extinct. As VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports, the greatest threat to these cats is other cats.

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As Germany Vows to Speed Integration, Refugees Unfazed by Rise of Far Right

The influx of more than a million asylum-seekers into Germany in 2015 is widely seen as driving the upsurge of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or AfD party, which gained 13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. The government hopes to stem that rise by integrating the refugees as quickly as possible. Henry Ridgwell visited Berlin and spoke to some of the newcomers about their experience settling in Germany and their feelings over the success of the AfD.