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German Police Shoot, Injure Man After Apparent Car Attack

Police in Heidelberg, Germany, shot and seriously injured a man Saturday after the man hit three people with a car.

The man drove his car into the people in a central square while they were standing in a pedestrian area. A brief stand-off ensued before police shot the man, who was believed to have been armed with a knife.

Police said that at the moment they are unclear about the man’s motives but added they don’t suspect the attack to be terrorism-related.

The man appears to have acted alone, police said, refusing to confirm local media reports he is mentally disturbed.

The incident renewed fears in Germany of an attempted repeat of a terrorist truck attack last December at a crowded Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people and injuring 50 more.

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Merkel Formally Nominated for German Election Run

Angela Merkel’s conservatives have formally nominated the German chancellor as her party’s top candidate for the September parliamentary election in the region where she has her political base.

The dpa news agency reported that Merkel won the support of 95 percent of delegates at a convention of the Christian Democrats’ branch in northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state Saturday. Merkel has held her parliamentary constituency in Stralsund since 1990.

Polls show Merkel facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from the center-left Social Democrats, who have been boosted by their choice of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz to challenge her.

Merkel didn’t mention Schulz in her speech Saturday. But she did make a point of praising the economic reforms enacted by her center-left predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, some of which Schulz has suggested he might amend.

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Turkish PM Launches ‘Yes’ Campaign to Boost Erdogan Powers

Turkey’s prime minister has officially launched his ruling party’s campaign for a “yes” vote in a referendum on ushering a presidential system, which critics fear will concentrate too many powers in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Binali Yildirim formally got campaigning going on Saturday telling supporters in a sports arena that the proposed new system would build a strong Turkey capable of surmounting terror threats and make its economy more robust.


Yildirim said: “We are taking the first steps on the path of a future strong Turkey.”

The proposed reforms – to be voted on April 16 – will give the largely ceremonial presidency executive powers and abolish the office of the prime minister.


Opponents say the proposed system foresees too few checks and balances on Erdogan’s rule.

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Migrant Fatalities Surge on Libya-Italy Mediterranean Route

The International Organization for Migration reports a surge in the number of migrant deaths on the Mediterranean Sea’s central route linking Libya to Italy in the first two months of the year.

The IOM estimates 326 migrants and refugees have died this year while transiting by sea from Libya to Italy, compared to just 97 fatalities during the same period last year.

While the numbers are alarming, IOM spokesman Joel Millman said they do not reflect the full scope of the sea tragedies as many bodies are never recovered and an unknown number of victims remain missing.

He said most of the victims are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. However, he told VOA not everyone making the perilous sea journey in smugglers’ boats is a migrant who intended to go to Europe.

“There is a thriving business in kidnapping right now in Libya,” said Millman, “where people are being taken off the street, held to paid ransom and forced into these boats just because the ransom takers are done with them and they do not want to try to pick them up again and go through the long process of trying to ring a few hundred euros out of a family somewhere thousands of miles to the south.”

Millman said that is not the only horrendous crime being perpetrated against the defenseless people. He said human smugglers have been employing another, potentially lethal tactic — stealing engines from the boats and leaving the vessels drifting in the water with people aboard.

“They do not know whether this is the Mafia that is cracking down on competition, that is not paying and punishing them by taking the engine, or weather — and it could be a mixture of both,” he said. “Parts and vessels are so hard to come by now, with the amount of migrants that are coming through, that the smugglers just feel that they need to recover the expensive parts of their operation, the components as quickly as they can.”

Millman said passengers are promised that a rescue ship is on its way. He said in many cases that has happened, but there have been other instances where the migrants have been left adrift without any help on the horizon.

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Turkey Ramps Up Pressure on Washington to Abandon Syrian Kurds

Top Turkish officials are increasing pressure on the United States to dissolve the American military partnership with Syrian Kurds in the battle against Islamic State.

With just days to go before the Pentagon is expected to deliver to U.S. President Donald Trump a new war plan to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Turkey, a NATO ally, is urging Washington to earmark Syrian opposition groups aligned with Ankara for the push to drive Islamic State militants from their de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.

This week, there has been a parade of senior Turkish officials making the point publicly time and again, urging the U.S. to drop its support of the Kurds and exclude the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from the assault to capture Raqqa.

Instead, they want the U.S. to train and arm Syrian militias who have been fighting alongside the Turks in northern Syria in Operation Euphrates Shield, a months-long Turkish intervention in northern Syria west of Raqqa aimed at clearing both IS and the YPG from territory close to the Turkish border.

“If heavy weapons and armored vehicles that have been delivered to the YPG would be given to the opposition groups, there would be no more Daesh problem,” Turkey’s European Union minister, Omer Celik, told a group of journalists this week while in Poland, using an acronym for IS.

Turkey sees the YPG as a terror group and an offshoot of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in Turkey for more than three decades.

It remains unclear whether the Trump administration is going to be any more successful than Barack Obama’s in juggling the competing demands of Ankara and Syria’s Kurds. There is deep skepticism in Washington that Ankara can assemble even a force large enough, drawn from Syria’s rebel militias to attack Raqqa. In the past the militias, whose main enemy is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have dismissed efforts by Washington to persuade them to see IS as a priority.

Turkish officials have voiced confidence in recent days that their argument will prevail in Washington, if not with the Pentagon, at least with the White House, which has wanted to improve U.S.-Turkish relations more broadly.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık, who announced on Thursday that the Syrian town of al-Bab had been largely captured from IS by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces during the Euphrates Shield operation, told reporters in the Turkish capital that the Trump administration is evaluating whether to abandon the YPG as a partner.

Turkish hopes appear to be misplaced, say analysts, who point out heavy armor was supplied to the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces on January 31, 11 days into the Trump presidency.

Syrian Kurds also are convinced the Pentagon will maintain its alliance with the YPG and their Arab SDF allies. Their confidence was boosted this week by a visit to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani by U.S. Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Turkish effort to persuade the new U.S. administration to abandon the Kurds began on February 8 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a phone call with President Trump, emphasized that the PKK is considered a designated terrorist organization by the U.S.

According to Turkish officials, Erdogan stressed it was not a good idea to side with one terrorist organization against another and warned of bitter consequences if the U.S. persists in its alliance with the Syrian Kurds.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım conveyed a similar message to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last week at a security conference in Munich.

During the last few weeks, U.S. and Turkish defense and intelligence chiefs thrashed out plans for an assault on Raqqa. But according to U.S. officials, a Turkish delegation of diplomats as well as defense and intelligence officials visiting Washington on February 13 and 14 was rebuffed when it argued for the Kurds to be excluded from the assault on Raqqa.

U.S. defense chiefs were the most vocal in pushing back on the Turks, a Pentagon official told VOA on condition of anonymity.

“The Turks had no clear battle plan to offer and we are under pressure from the White House to come up with a plan to take Raqqa quickly,” he said. “If we switch now and drop the SDF, it would delay an attack on the city by several months, possibly even a year.”

Analysts argue the Trump administration has little appetite for delaying an assault on Raqqa. They say there’s deep Pentagon skepticism even of Ankara’s seriousness about an offensive on the IS stronghold.

“Recapturing Raqqa is not Turkey’s main and immediate goal,” argued Ferhat Gurini, Middle East editor of RÆSON, a Danish political quarterly.

The Turks have publicly indicated their next target is the Kurdish-controlled town of Manbij — part of their bid to ensure Syrian Kurds are blocked from linking Kurdish cantons along the border with Turkey.

Securing some agreement from the Turks may well be essential for a Kurdish-dominated SDF assault on Raqqa to take place, though. Ankara could disrupt an offensive on Raqqa by escalating attacks on the YPG in northern Syria — and by mounting a full-scale assault on Manbij.

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Pope Francis: ‘Better to Be an Atheist’ Than a Hypocritical Catholic

Pope Francis told his followers Thursday that it was better to be an atheist than one of “many” Catholics who he said led hypocritical double lives.

“So many Catholics are like this,” he said during morning Mass at his residence at the Vatican. “There are those who say, ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this and that association,’ ” the head of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church said, according to a Vatican Radio transcript.

But, he suggested, those people should also say, ” ‘My life is not Christian, I don’t pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, [I lead] a double life.’ ”

He then quoted a sentiment he said he had heard often: “But to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.”

Francis has surprised the church before with his stance toward atheists. Less than two months after his election in 2013, he said Christians should see atheists as good people if they do good.

He has also taken other unorthodox positions. He condemned sexual abuse of children by priests as being tantamount to a “Satanic Mass” and said Catholics in the Mafia excommunicate themselves. He also told his own cardinals to not act as if they were “princes.”

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US Sees a Role for Russia in Trying to Restore Peace in Libya

The commander of U.S. forces in Africa has told VOA the only way to restore peace in Libya is to bring rival factions together, and that will require cooperative efforts by many parties, including Russia.

General Thomas Waldhauser, who heads the U.S. Africa Command, discussed the continuing political chaos in Libya while in Germany for the recent Munich Security Conference.

Libya is a checkerboard of separate, divided power centers: The internationally backed Government of National Accord controls only part of Tripoli, while rival power bases vie for control over the rest of the capital and other cities. Along the North African coast, the head of the Libyan National Army, General Khalifa Haftar, holds sway over much of eastern Libya through his House of Representatives.

Waldhauser says Haftar’s influence “is something to be dealt with,” and that eastern Libya “is where a political solution … has to take place,” in large part because the army chief controls most of Libya’s oilfields.

“This is where it all begins,” the American commander says, and also where Russia comes in.

Russia invests in Libya’s oil

Waldhauser noted it is apparent Russia wants to become actively involved in trying to resolve Libya’s political unrest — not least for its own economic interests — and said he welcomes that. 

Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft has offered billions of dollars in investments to Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC), and officials of the two companies announced Tuesday in London that they have a preliminary agreement to pursue a development program. Russia also committed itself to buying an undisclosed share of Libya’s future crude oil output.

The AFRICOM chief said the key to political progress in Libya, which would enable the country to get the greatest benefit from such international deals, is cooperation between the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital and Haftar and the Libyan National Army in the east.

“The goal is to get those two together,” Waldhauser said. “The goal is to get those two to talk, and the goal is to make some accommodation in that regard.”

Kremlin’s broader influence

Russia has been trying to gain a larger grip on oil supplies in the Mediterranean and extend its influence in the Middle East and North Africa more broadly. Rosneft’s agreement with NOC, announced at an international oil conference in the British capital, was in addition to a separate deal for Russia to prefinance crude exports from Kurdistan, making Rosneft the first major oil company to take an active role in the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. Rosneft also recently acquired a stake in the Zohr gas field in Egypt.

The Libyan oil company estimates it needs $20 billion to reach its production goal of 2.1 million barrels per day within five years.

Turning again to Libya’s political situation and rivalries, Waldhauser said many parties are trying to assist.

“The Egyptians and Russians are also involved in trying to get this all together, because at the end of day a political solution is going to require” the participation of both General Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the GNA, the U.S. commander said.

U.S. supports Tripoli faction

U.S. forces also have been actively fighting against the Islamic State group in Libya — most notably last month, when American B-2 bombers flew a 9,400-kilometer mission from their base in the central U.S. to strike IS training camps in Libya — and Waldhauser says the extremists’ efforts to expand in the north African nation have taken a significant setback.

“It has been very complicated and it continues to remain very complicated. Perhaps, if it’s possible, even getting more complicated,” Waldhauer added. “Our official government position is to support the GNA. And at AFRICOM, we’ve had a very good and close relationship not only with our State Department personnel, but with Prime Minister Surraj as well.”

The AFRICOM chief, who oversees U.S. military operations throughout Africa, was speaking in Munich last week about American participation in Operation Flintlock, a joint military exercise hosted by seven African nations.

American forces in Africa are eager to build partnerships in the sub-Saharan region to tackle terrorists — particularly Islamic State extremists, but also other dangerous groups. Waldhauser said the U.S. works to strengthen its regional partnerships by helping African nations develop their infrastructure, with training and also with crisis response.

U.S. can help in crises

“Many times we think of [crisis response] as a military operation,” the American commander said. “But crisis response is something we would be very, very involved in if there was a humanitarian disaster — famine in Somalia, for example; the Ebola breakout is another example. We do pay close attention to that.”

Nigeria is a key regional partner, and the United States is providing intelligence support and other assistance in the country’s fight against the Islamic State-affiliated terror group Boko Haram. A Nigerian representative to the Munich Security Conference, Major-General Babagana Monguno, said the increasing expansion of terror groups across national borders means international cooperation is vital.

“The uprising in Libya and the eventual capitulation of the Gadhafi government resulted in a southward flow of arms and human beings,” Monguno said. “The most natural place in sub-Saharan Africa for this flow was Nigeria.”

Importance of ‘battlefield ethics’

In the course of their efforts to suppress Boko Haram, Nigerian military forces have been accused of human-rights abuses by Amnesty International and others. Waldhauser said the United States takes such allegations against its partners seriously.

“We understand the requirement for battlefield ethics,” he told VOA. “We make it part of our training, and we try to continue to emphasize that … in the legal system [of the partner nations] and in our discussions with key leaders, as well.”

Operation Flintlock 2017, which is just getting underway, will bring together 2,000 service personnel from more than 20 African, European and North African nations.

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Macedonia’s Social Democrat Leader Expects to Form Government in March

The leader of Macedonia’s Social Democrats said on Thursday he expected to be able to form a new government in March, ending a two-year political crisis in the wake of a wiretapping scandal that brought down the previous administration.

Zoran Zaev said he had secured the support of ethnic Albanian parties and expected to complete talks on forming a government in early March.

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party at the center of the scandal had tried but failed to form a coalition after winning a December election but falling short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

“Now we have to agree on the distribution of ministries and the future government reform platform,” Zaev told reporters while on a trip to Sarajevo. “I am very optimistic that in the first half of March Macedonia will have a government led by Social Democrats.”

The Balkan nation’s two-year political crisis was triggered by a surveillance scandal that forced veteran VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski to resign a year ago.

The crisis was the worst since Western diplomacy helped drag the country of 2.1 million people back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, promising it a path to membership of the European Union and of NATO.

VMRO-DPMNE won 51 seats to the Social Democrats’ 49 in December’s poll.

Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian parties had made their support for any potential coalition conditional on the passage of a law backing broader use of their language in the country.

The Democratic Union of Integration, the biggest ethnic Albanian party in parliament, said on Wednesday it had agreed with the Social Democrats on such a law but did not give details and suggested agreements were needed in other policy areas.

Albanian is currently an official language only in municipalities where Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population.

“It’s true that yesterday we overcame an important hurdle.

But there are still other issues that have to be agreed if we are to decide to govern together in the next period,” DUI spokesman Bujar Osmani told reporters. “We have to align our party platforms for the entire mandate.”

The other two ethnic Albanian parties, Besa and Alliance for Albanians, which together have eight seats in the parliament, have already said they will support Zaev to form a government.

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Bleak Barracks Hold Lure for Serbia’s Desperate Refugees

Widespread media coverage last month helped shine a light on the conditions for refugees inside Belgrade’s crumbling barracks. But with an official camp recently opened specifically to accommodate them, some have chosen to remain in the bleak shelter. John Owens reports on why from Belgrade.

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Brit Awards Pay Tribute to David Bowie, George Michael

The Brit Awards recognized big international stars, including Drake and Beyonce, and a cross section of homegrown talent Wednesday, but the ceremony was overshadowed by the much-missed David Bowie and George Michael.


Bowie, who died in January 2016 at age 69, was crowned British male artist of the year and won British album of the year for “Blackstar,” released days before his death.


Bowie’s son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, accepted the best album award on behalf of his father. 

“This award is for all the kooks, and all the people who make the kooks,” Jones said. “Kooks” is the song Bowie wrote for his son when he was born.


As well as rewarding Bowie, the show paid tribute to one of the music industry’s many losses of 2016: George Michael, who died Christmas Day at age 53.


His Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley said that with Michael’s death, “a supernova in a firmament of shining stars has been extinguished.”


Coldplay singer Chris Martin performed a moving rendition of Michael’s “A Different Corner” — dueting with a recording of Michael himself and backed by a group of violins.

Beyond the tributes

The flashy show at London’s O2 Arena opened with girl group Little Mix giving a thunderous performance of “Shout Out to My Ex,” backed by silver-painted dancers. The song went on to be named British single of the year.

 There were also performances by Bruno Mars, The 1975, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Robbie Williams and grime musician Skepta on a night where Britain’s music industry celebrated U.K. talent and a smattering of international stars.


Soulful chanteuse Emeli Sande was named female British artist of the year, while Manchester indie pop group The 1975 won the trophy for best British band.


Singer Matt Healy noted that the band, whose album “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It” has been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, has had the same lineup since the members were 13.


Politics (mostly) stay home

Few of the winners and performers took up the invitation. The closest thing to edginess at the show was provided by a pinstripe-clad Katy Perry. 


She performed “Chained to the Rhythm,” with its references to zombified people “living in a bubble,” accompanied by Skip Marley and a pair of giant skeletons dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May.


The international awards went to global stars, none of whom came to accept them. Drake was named international male solo artist, while Beyonce took the international female prize. A Tribe Called Quest took the trophy for international group.


Adele, who took four Grammys last week, was not up for many Brits because her album “25” was eligible last year, and won four Brits. She won this year’s Global Success award, which recognizes international sales.


Robbie Williams, former member of boy band Take That turned adult pop hitmaker, was given the Brits Icon award.


The award for British breakthrough artist went to big-voiced soul singer Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, whose song “Human” has had heavy play around the world,


“Oh my days,” said the singer, whose real name is Rory Graham. “I’m nearly speechless.”


Rag ‘n’ Bone Man beat nominees including the favored grime musician Skepta. Grime artists Stormzy and Kano were also award contenders, reflecting the growing artistic and commercial clout of the distinctly British rap genre.

More diverse lineup

The awards have been accused of failing to represent the industry’s ethnic diversity. All last year’s British nominees were white, and protesters rallied under the hashtag britssowhite.


Organizers responded by expanding the diversity of the voter base of 1,000 music-industry figures.


This year’s list was more diverse, with Sande, soul singer Michael Kiwanuka and singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas among non-white British contenders, along with the three grime performers. 

La Havas, who lost to Sande for best British female artist, said on the red carpet she was glad the London-centric sound of grime was being recognized.


“For me personally, when I hear grime, because I’m from London it sounds like London to me,” she said. “It does in hindsight feel a bit unusual that it was something that wasn’t promoted as much.


“But I also think now we’ve got some real stars happening in that genre, it makes a lot of sense now.”


Keith Harris, who was appointed to head a diversity task force for the British music industry, said “people feel there might actually be a breakthrough.”


“The question is whether this is going to be long-term or short-term,” he said. “That’s my concern.”


Most Brits winners are chosen by music-industry members, with several selected by public vote, including a best video category decided by social-media ballot during the broadcast. It was won, for the fourth year in a row, by One Direction.