From The Alpha and the Omega - Chapter Eight
by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved
"KING OF THE SOUTH 2019"

    This file is attached to http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterEight/BeastThatCameOutOfTheSea.htm from “Beast That Came Out Of The Sea” - Chapter Eight by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved.
    This link will take you to King Of The South 2019 for March-April

KING OF THE SOUTH 2019 JANUARY-FEBRUARY



    So as 2018 has passed do we know who the "King of the South in 2019" is?
    The phrase “king of the South” is found in the Bible in only one location — Daniel 11, which is also the chapter containing the most detailed prophecy in the Bible.    The first mention of this ruler is found in verse 5, where we find that “the king of the South shall become strong” and that “His dominion shall be a great dominion.”    Who was this king?    Who will he be in the “time of the end” spoken of in verse 40?    To answer these questions, we need a little background information.    One of the first considerations is the setting of this prophecy.    Daniel received the message in “the third year of Cyrus king of Persia,” which was 537 or 536 B.C. according to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Daniel 10:1).    The prophecy of Daniel 11 begins with verses 2-4, which describe what would happen in the Persian and Greek Empires after Daniel was given this vision, and continues through “the time of the end” (verse 40).
    The Persian Empire refers to any of a series of imperial dynasties that were centred in Persia/Iran from the 6th century B.C. Achaemenid Empire era to the 20th century AD in the Qajar dynasty era.    Know that Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
    Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC) also called the First Persian Empire, in Western Asia founded by Cyrus the Great.    It ranges from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west to the Indus Valley in the east, it was larger than any previous empire in history, incorporating various peoples of different origins and faiths, it is notable for its successful model of a centralised, bureaucratic administration (through satraps under the King of Kings), for building infrastructure such as road systems and a postal system, the use of an official language across its territories, and the development of civil services and a large professional army.    The empire's successes inspired similar systems in later empires.
    By the 7th century BC, the Persians had settled in the south-western portion of the Iranian Plateau in the region of Persis, which came to be their heartland.    From this region, Cyrus the Great advanced to defeat the Medes, Lydia, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, establishing the Achaemenid Empire.    Alexander the Great, an avid admirer of Cyrus the Great, conquered most of the empire by 330 BC.    Upon Alexander's death, most of the empire's former territory came under the rule of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Seleucid Empire, in addition to other minor territories which gained independence at that time.    The Iranian elites of the central plateau reclaimed power by the second century B.C. under the Parthian Empire.
    The Achaemenid Empire is noted in Western history as the antagonist of the Greek city-states during the Greco-Persian Wars and for the emancipation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon.    The historical mark of the empire went far beyond its territorial and military influences and included cultural, social, technological and religious influences as well.
    Despite the lasting conflict between the two states, many Athenians adopted Achaemenid customs in their daily lives in a reciprocal cultural exchange, some being employed by or allied to the Persian kings.    The impact of Cyrus's edict is mentioned in Judeo-Christian texts, and the empire was instrumental in the spread of Zoroastrianism as far east as China.    The empire also set the tone for the politics, heritage and history of Iran (also officially known as Persia).    The image below shows you the area for the "King of the South."
       
    So based on the above information I would acknowledge that the "King of the South" will come out of that area.
    I am going to go out on a limb and claim that individual will be: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
    The reason I have chose him is as I have said before is the image of the pentagram a Satanic symbol which is at the top of Erdogan’s Tek Devlet (One State) monument in Turkey, which is a pentagram, a satanic symbol.
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that beheading is coming to Turkey and all who betray him, and Shriah Will Rise Again, religious education, Koranic courses, Arabic and Ottoman lessons, Islamization of all schools, sharia education and finally compulsory worship services in all schools.
    Erdogan was quoted also as saying, “If Parliament passes a bill on resuming executions (beheading) in Turkey, I will sign it.”
   
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan
    Could Recep Tayyip Erdogan be the upcoming antichrist, the last antichrist of the latter days?    We can’t be certain, although he very well, thus far, fits the description.
    It wasn’t that long ago that Barack Hussein Obama fit many of the descriptions of the antichrist.    He may, or may not be the antichrist.    Erdogan may, or may not be the final antichrist.    The Bible tells us there are “many antichrists” (1 John 2:18); many believe there will be the single antichrist, and we are rapidly approaching the end of time as we know it, before the great tribulation begins.
    All of the antichrists have the same modus operandi (mode of operation).
    As Prime Minister, Erdogan mandated reforms to return the properties of Christians and Jews, which were seized by the Turkish government in the 1930s.    He consistently swayed in and out of humanitarianism and reform, ordering the demolition of the Monument to Humanity, which had been dedicated to encourage Armenian and Turkish relations.
    Overall, Erdogan promoted Democracy during his early political career, but there have been hints of hypocrisy along the way.
    Since Erdogan’s election to President of Turkey in August 2014, he has steadily become dictatorial.
    On the anniversary this month of the attempted coup d’etat last year, Erdogan enacted laws to give him excessive powers.    He also erected a monument depicting Tek Devlet (One State) and he stated in his speech that he will decapitate traitors.
    Erdogan came on the political scene in Turkey in the name of peace; but it turns out he and his main Fatwa Judge, Hayrettin Karaman, have already imposed sharia law, it will be mandated in the schools, and the opposition will be beheaded.
    All of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?    “And in his estate shall stand up a vile person, to whom they shall not give the honor of the kingdom, but he shall come in peaceably and obtain the kingdom by flatteriesDaniel 11:21.
    This, in fact, is a very good description of Erdogan, in that he was barred from entering politics initially, due to an earlier conviction and incarceration, but the law was changed, which allowed him to run for office.
    The Word of God tells us that the antichrist will behead those who refuse his mark on their right hand, or forehead, and who refuse to worship him.
    “I saw thrones and they sat upon them and judgment was given unto them; and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God, who had not worshiped the beast (antichrist), neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands, and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Revelation 20:4.
    The Bible, in a number of instances, refers to the antichrist as the “Assyrian.”    A good part of Turkey was included in the Assyrian Empire, which also persecuted God’s people.
    “Therefore, thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Oh My people who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrian; he shall smite you with a rod and shall lift up his staff against you, after the manner of Egypt.    For yet a little while and the indignation shall cease and My anger in their destructionIsaiah 10:24-25.
    “And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land and when he shall tread in our palaces; then shall we raise against him seven shepherds and eight principal menMicah 5:5.
    Erdogan announced on Sunday, “The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the honor of 1.7 billion Muslims, not just Palestinians, and the Muslim world cannot wait to remain indifferent to the restrictions imposed on the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
    Actually, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is situated on the historical Jewish Temple Mount.    Palestinian Muslims just shot and killed two Israeli police officers by smuggling guns onto the Temple Mount.    The entire Muslim World is now protesting because Israel placed metal detectors at two entrances to the Temple Mount for security purposes.
    These maniacal people don’t want security; they want to be able to smuggle more guns to the Temple Mount and continue killing Jews.
    Israel is actually being extremely condescending with the Muslims.    They should kick Muslims off the Temple Mount permanently – and out of Israel permanently because they are a menace to society; always killing people, stoning people, beheading people, burning people alive, burying people alive, etc.    Factually, they don’t deserve to live on the face of the earth, but we do not exact judgment.    The Bible says,
    “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the LordRomans 12:19.
    Erdogan’s real crimes are buying the Russian S-400 missile system for Turkey, refusing to accept US support for America’s Kurdish YPG allies and allowing Islamist fighters to pour over Turkey’s border into Syria along with a load of weapons, mortars and missiles.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the United States had taken the wrong path by threatening and using blackmail instead of dialogue, and said that it was impossible for any country to trust it.
    Erdogan said Turkey will work with the Syrian people directly to help achieve peace in the war-torn country.    He went on to clarify this does not mean he is willing to work with the Syrian government.
    “Russia takes the necessary measures against a (possible) threat by Syrian regime in Idlib, and as Turkey, we are taking all kind of measures against radical groups in Idlib,” stated President Erdogan.    “We are also taking joint action with Russia if it is necessary.”
    His remarks come almost a month after Turkish and Russian forces announced a demilitarized zone in the Idlib province.
    In a sign Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud may seek a diplomatic solution to the incident, he stressed the strength of Saudi-Turkish ties in a telephone call with President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the Saudi press agency said late on Sunday.
    The king thanked Erdogan for welcoming a Saudi proposal to form a joint working group to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance and said no one could undermine their relationship.
EUROPE SEEKS CREDIBLE INVESTIGATION
    Europe’s largest economies — Britain, France and Germany — said on Sunday they were treating the case with “the utmost seriousness.”
    “There needs to be a credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened, and – if relevant – to identify those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, and ensure that they are held to account,” the countries said in a joint statement.
    In Decembrer, President Donald Trump’s called Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border, and delivered a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, in the course of the conversation Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

2019 JANUARY-FEBRUARY


12/31/2018 Israel’s Netanyahu said would not resign during possible indictment hearing
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset,
Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
    RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he would not resign from office should the attorney general accept police recommendations to indict him before his side of the case is heard.
    Netanyahu last week announced a snap election would be held in April, seeking a fresh political mandate that could help him weather possible charges in corruption investigations.
    The Israeli leader is enmeshed in three graft cases and denies any wrongdoing.
    Should Israel’s attorney-general decide to press charges against Netanyahu, he would announce the indictment pending a hearing, after which charges could be filed in court.
    Asked at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro whether he would bow out of the election race should that happen, Netanyahu said: “I don’t intend to resign.”
    “According to the law, the prime minister does not have to resign during the hearing process … The hearing doesn’t end until my side is heard,” he said.
    “Imagine what would happen if a prime minister is ousted before the hearing is finished, and then after the hearing they decide to close the case.    It’s absurd.    It’s a terrible blow to democracy.”
    The indictment decision had been expected within weeks, but some analysts say the attorney general could opt to delay the move out of concern he might influence the outcome of the election. The Justice Ministry has promised to continue its work “independent of political events.”
    Opinion polls show Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party easily winning the April 9 vote, which was originally scheduled for November.
    Netanyahu held the news conference during a trip to Brazil for the inauguration of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday.    He is the first Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams)

1/1/2019 Former Israeli foreign minister Livni left out in political cold by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO - Tzipi Livni, co-leader of Zionist Union attends the
Most Powerful Women summit in London, Britain June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s main left-wing alliance split apart on Tuesday, leaving one of the country’s most prominent politicians, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, out in the cold ahead of an April general election.
    The Zionist Union, which was the main opposition party, had been a partnership between the Labour Party led by Avi Gabbay and the smaller Hatnua party headed by Livni.    With a stone-faced Livni sitting next to him at a meeting of Zionist Union lawmakers, Gabbay unceremoniously dumped her.
    “I hoped and believed this alliance would bring about our blossoming, a real connection and we would complement each other.    But the public is smart, saw this is not the situation and distanced itself from us,” Gabbay said in a nod to the Zionist Union’s weak showing in recent opinion polls.
    “Tzipi, I wish you success in the election – in any party you’re in,” he said, announcing the split on live television.
    The move appeared to catch Livni, a former peace negotiator with the Palestinians and current leader of the opposition in parliament, by surprise.
    “I’m not responding.    I will make my decisions.    Thank you,” she said, and then left the room.
    Opinion polls have predicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will easily win the snap election he called for April 9, taking between 27 to 31 of parliament’s 120 seats – enough to lead a right-wing coalition government, despite three corruption investigations against him.
    Zionist Union trails far behind Netanyahu’s Likud and centrist parties in the polls, which predict it will capture only eight to nine seats compared with the 24 it took in its second-place finish in the previous election in 2015.
    Livni, who became a leading advocate of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, entered politics in 1999 as a member of the right-wing Likud party, serving in several cabinet posts and eventually moving to the center-left as head of the now-defunct Kadima party.
    She was foreign minister from 2006 to 2009 and founded Hatnua in 2012, joining up with Labour to establish the Zionist Union for the 2015 ballot won by Netanyahu, now in his fourth term.
(Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

1/1/2019 Trump and Egypt’s Sisi discuss Middle East in phone call
FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during presidential session at Africa 2018 Forum
at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi discussed the stability of the Middle East with U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone call on Tuesday night, a spokesman for the Egyptian presidency said.
    They discussed Egypt’s efforts in fighting terrorism, and the importance of continuing coordination and cooperation with the United States to support these efforts, the spokesman added.
(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/1/2019 Pompeo says cooperation with Israel over Syria and Iran to continue by Mary Milliken
FILE PHOTO - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
during a meeting at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 29, 2018. Thomas Coex/Pool via Reuters
    BRASILIA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday that the United States would continue to cooperate with Israel over Syria and in countering Iran in the Middle East, even as President Donald Trump plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.     Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he met with Pompeo in the Brazilian capital that he planned to discuss how to intensify intelligence and operations cooperation in Syria and elsewhere to block Iranian “aggression.”
    In his first public comments on Trump’s decision, Pompeo said it “in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel.”
    “The counter-ISIS campaign continues, our efforts to counter Iranian aggression continue and our commitment to Middle East stability and the protection of Israel continues in the same way it did before that decision was made,” he said.
    Trump announced last month that he planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, declaring that they had succeeded in their mission to defeat Islamic State and were no longer needed in the country.
    In making the announcement, Trump ignored the advice of top national security aides and did so without consulting lawmakers or U.S. allies participating in anti-Islamic State operations.    The decision prompted Jim Mattis to resign as defense secretary.
    “We have a lot to discuss,” said Netanyahu, who like Pompeo was in the Brazilian capital for the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president.
    “We’re going to be discussing our, the intense cooperation between Israel and the United States which will also deal with the questions following the decision, the American decision, on Syria and how to intensify even further our intelligence and operational cooperation in Syria and elsewhere to block Iranian aggression in the Middle East.”    Netanyahu said Israel was very appreciative of the “strong … unequivocal support” Pompeo gave Israel’s “efforts at self defense against Syria” in the past few days.
    State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said Pompeo and Netanyahu “discussed the unacceptable threat that regional aggression and provocation by Iran and its agents poses to Israeli and regional security” and Pompeo reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and right to self-defense.
    Netanyahu said last month after Trump’s announcement that Israel would escalate its fight against Iranian-aligned forces in Syria after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
    Israel sees the spread of Iran’s influence in the Middle East as a growing threat, and has carried out scores of air strikes in civil war-torn Syria against suspected military deployments and arms deliveries by Iranian forces supporting Damascus.
(Reporting by Mary Milliken; writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Susan Thomas)

1/1/2019 Congo cuts internet for second day to avert ‘chaos’ before poll results by Stanis Bujakera and Fiston Mahamba
FILE PHOTO: Agents of Congo's National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) count casted ballot papers
after election at a polling station in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 30, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Democratic Republic of Congo’s government cut internet connections and SMS services across the country for a second straight day on Tuesday as the country nervously awaited results from the weekend’s chaotic presidential election.
    Both the opposition and ruling coalition said on Monday they were on track to win after a turbulent election day on Sunday in which many Congolese were unable to vote due to an Ebola outbreak, conflict and logistical problems.
    Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi, a senior adviser to President Joseph Kabila, said internet and SMS services were cut to preserve public order after “fictitious results” began circulating on social media.
    “That could lead us straight toward chaos,” Kikaya told Reuters, adding the connections would remain cut until the publication of complete results on Jan. 6.
    The signal to Radio France Internationale (RFI), one of the most popular news sources in Congo, was also down, and the government withdrew the accreditation of RFI’s main correspondent in the country late on Monday for having aired unofficial results from the opposition.
    The various moves reflected high tensions in Congo, where the long-delayed election was meant to choose a successor to Kabila, who is due to step down next month after 18 years in power – and two years after the official end of his mandate.
    Congo has never seen a democratic transfer of power, and any disputed outcome could lead to a repeat of the violence that followed the 2006 and 2011 elections and a wider security breakdown in its volatile eastern provinces.
    The opposition says the election was marred by fraud and accused Kabila of planning to rule from the sidelines through his preferred candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
    Internal U.N. reports, seen by Reuters, noted allegations of irregularities across the country.    In some parts of eastern Congo’s North Kivu province, for example, militia fighters reportedly forced voters to select candidates from the ruling coalition, they said.
    In other places, the United Nations received reports that security forces intimidated voters to choose ruling coalition candidates.
    The government and national electoral commission (CENI) said the election was fair and that any problems were minor.
FEARS OF VIOLENCE
    In the eastern city of Goma, residents were on edge as they awaited the results.
    “If the results during the publication of the presidential results don’t reflect the truth … trouble will break out across the city,” said Fabrice Shweka, a Goma resident.
    The first partial results were initially expected on Tuesday but CENI spokesman Jean-Pierre Kalamba said that they would not be ready until around Friday.
    “We don’t want to release too many voting trends (before Jan. 6) because in our country we don’t have a population that has the same understanding (of electoral practice as in Europe),” he told Reuters.
    In a statement late on Monday, the embassies in Congo of the European United, United States and several other countries called for calm and urged the government to restore internet access.
    Shadary faced off in Sunday’s poll against two main opposition challengers, Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu, both of whom opinion polls before the vote showed running ahead of Shadary.
    Fayulu complained in a statement on Monday about irregularities during Sunday’s vote but said he was encouraged by the determination of Congolese to vote despite long queues and voting machines that broke down.
    “I call for vigilance across the board and the general mobilization of all Congolese so that the truth of the ballot box, the sole witness to the will of the Congolese people, can reward their efforts and sacrifices,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross, Editing by William Maclean)

1/2/2019 Lebanon’s Hezbollah believes solution to government impasse ‘very close’
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri attend a military parade
to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Lebanon's independence in downtown Beirut, Lebanon November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The powerful Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah believes a solution to be “very close” for the country’s impasse over forming a new government, one of its senior officials said on Wednesday, following nearly eight months of political wrangling.
    Lebanese politicians have been unable to agree a new government since a general election in May as rival parties have competed over the allocation of cabinet positions, further unsettling the country’s fragile economy.
    Hezbollah, a heavily armed, Iran-backed movement set up in the 1980s to combat Israeli occupation, started taking part in electoral politics in the 1990s and is the most powerful group in the country.
    “We believe the solution is very close,” said Mahmoud Qamati, deputy head of the group’s political council, and suggested it could happen in time to be considered “a holiday gift.”    “The intentions held by everybody are positive and for the benefit of the country,” he added.
    On Tuesday, Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri said he and President Michel Aoun had met and were “determined to form a government,” state news agency NNA reported.
    A breakthrough to create a national unity government in line with Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system seemed close last month, but it did not work out and the deadlock resumed.    However, Hariri said on Sunday he still believed the government would form early in the new year.
    The lack of a government has caused particular concern because Lebanon faces both structural economic problems and regional instability.
    Lebanon has the world’s third-highest level of debt to GDP and Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said on Sunday it faces an economic crisis that he warned could turn into a financial one.
    Hariri has pledged to carry out economic reforms that could unlock billions of dollars of international investment in Lebanese power, transport and data infrastructure, aimed at boosting the economy after years of weak growth.
    The International Monetary Fund has stressed the importance of Lebanon putting its debt on a sustainable footing, while bond yields and the cost of insuring against Lebanese sovereign debt have shown signs of stress in recent months.
    Last month, Israel uncovered several tunnels it said Hezbollah had dug under the border, adding to tensions between the countries some 12 years after Israel and Hezbollah fought a war on Lebanese soil.
    Qamati said the government formation was beneficial “particularly in light of the Israeli dangers.”
    The latest hitch in efforts to form a government came over Sunni Muslim representation in the cabinet.    Hariri said on Tuesday that only one difficulty remained and that he and Aoun were working to solve it.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall and Tom Perry, Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, William Maclean)

1/2/2019 Honduras to talk with Israel, U.S. on Jerusalem embassy
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez
during a meeting in Brasilia, Brazil January 1, 2019. Presidency Honduras/Handout via REUTERS
    BRASILIA (Reuters) – Honduras will hold talks with Israel, joined by the United States, aimed at opening an embassy in Jerusalem, the countries said on Tuesday, as the small Central American nation looks to follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s much-criticized move.
    U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez held a meeting in the Brazilian capital on the sidelines of the inauguration of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
    The three agreed to hold meetings in the capitals of each country “to advance the decision process to open embassies in both Tegucigalpa and Jerusalem,” as well as “strengthen political relations and coordinate development cooperation in Honduras,” the countries said in a joint statement.
    The right-leaning Hernandez is the latest leader to consider following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, which infuriated Palestinians and drew international condemnation.
    Hernandez told reporters the trilateral talks represented “an important political alliance.”
    Trump has repeatedly threatened to cut off aid to Honduras, a poor nation of less than 10 million people, over caravans of migrants crossing Mexico heading for the U.S. border.
    Guatemala, another country seeking closer U.S. ties, quickly joined Trump’s decision and moved its embassy to Jerusalem just two days after the U.S. opened offices in May.    Paraguay also followed, but a new government backtracked in September.
    Netanyahu said on Sunday that Bolsonaro told him it was a question of “when, not if” Brazil would move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
(Reporting by Mary Milliken in Brasilia and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa. Writing by Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/2/2019 Somalia orders top U.N. official to leave by Abdi Sheikh
FILE PHOTO: Nicholas Haysom, the then head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan,
listens to a question during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
    MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Somalia has kicked out the country’s top United Nations official in a decision likely to harm relations with foreign powers backing government attempts to restore stability after decades of turmoil.
    The government accused Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, of interfering with internal affairs.
    The United Nations is a major backer of Somalia, a country that has lacked strong central government since 1991.    The government’s decision over Haysom could intensify a confrontation between Mogadishu and the semi-autonomous regions.
    Haysom raised questions in a Dec. 30 letter about the involvement of U.N.-supported Somali security forces in the arrest of a former militant of the Islamist al Shabaab group who was blocked from running in a recent regional election.
    Haysom “is not required and cannot work in this country,” the foreign affairs ministry said.    “He openly breached the appropriate conduct of the U.N. office in Somalia,” said the statement late on Tuesday, which effectively makes the South African persona non grata.
    The United Nations is looking into the matter, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York on Wednesday.
    “We’re trying to get the various details corroborated and we’re going to see, based on that, what further steps are needed,” Haq said.
    He said Haysom was due to brief the U.N. Security Council on Thursday – as previously scheduled – on the U.N. mission in Somalia, which also supports an African Union peacekeeping force fighting al Shabaab.    Haysom was also due to meet with Guterres.
    Haysom’s letter to Somalia’s interior security minister expressed concern over the government’s handling of the arrest of former Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow and subsequent unrest last month.
    At least 15 civilians were killed and around 300 people detained, most of them children, when protests erupted after Robow’s arrest in the southern city of Baidoa, according to the U.N. letter.
    The government said Robow was arrested on suspicion that he had brought militants and weapons back to Baidoa, the capital of South West region where he tried to contest for president in last month’s election.
    His arrest sparked clashes between militiamen loyal to Robow and Somali forces.    Ethiopian security forces, who are part of an African Union peacekeeping force, were also involved.
    Al Shabaab has sought for over a decade to topple the central government and implement its strict version of Islamic law.    It was driven out of the capital in 2011 but maintains a foothold in some regions including South West.
    Robow renounced violence and recognized federal authority in 2017.
    In the letter, Haysom asked the minister to explain the legal basis for Robow’s arrest.    He also asked what action had been taken to investigate the deaths during the demonstrations in Baidoa following the arrest.
    The U.N. letter also contained an annexed letter from the European Union, Germany and Britain announcing the suspension of their support to the police in South West state due to their conduct during last month’s election.
    Haysom also detailed the U.N. support to the Somali police force and the South West regional police which includes the payment of stipends to the police.
(Writing by Maggie Fick, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations,; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and James Dalgleish)

1/2/2019 Sudan restricts social media access to counter protest movement by Yousef Saba and Nafisa Eltahir
A Sudanese man holds his phone with restricted internet access social media platforms,
in Khartoum, Sudan January 1, 2019. Picture taken January 1, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
    CAIRO/DUBAI (Reuters) – Sudanese authorities are blocking access to popular social media platforms used to organize and broadcast nationwide anti-government protests triggered by an economic crisis, internet users say.
    Sudan has been rocked by near-daily demonstrations over the past two weeks.    Protesters have set alight ruling party buildings and have called on President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in 1989, to step down.
    In a country where the state tightly controls traditional media, the internet has become a key information battleground. Of Sudan’s 40 million people, some 13 million use the internet and more than 28 million own mobile phones, local media say.
    Authorities have not repeated the internet blackout they imposed during deadly protests in 2013.    But the head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah, told a rare news conference on Dec. 21: “There was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end it was decided to block them.”
    Users of the three main telecommunications operators in the country — Zain, MTN and Sudani — said access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has only been possible through use of a virtual private network (VPN).
    Though VPNs can bring their own connection problems and some Sudanese are unaware of their existence, activists have used them widely to organize and document the demonstrations.
    Hashtags in Arabic such as “Sudan’s_cities_revolt” have been widely circulated from Sudan and abroad.    Hashtags in English such as #SudanRevolts have also been used.
    “Social media has a really big impact, and it helps with forming public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user with over 50,000 followers who has been active in documenting the protests.
    NetBlocks, a digital rights NGO, said data it collected, including from thousands of Sudanese volunteers, provided evidence of “an extensive internet censorship regime.”
    Bader al-Kharafi, CEO of parent company Zain Group, told Reuters: “Some websites may be blocked for technical reasons beyond the company’s specialization.”
    Neither the National Telecommunications Corporation, which oversees the sector in Sudan, nor MTN or Sudani could be reached for comment.    Twitter and Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp, declined to comment.
    “While Sudan has a long history of systematically censoring print and broadcast media, online media has been relatively untouched despite its exponential growth… in recent years,” said Mai Truong of U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom House.
    “The authorities have only now started to follow the playbook of other authoritarian governments.”
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Hagagy in Kuwait; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Gareth Jones)

1/3/2019 Israeli police, settlers clash in evacuation of illegal outpost
A pre-fabricated home is lowered onto a tow truck as it is removed during an evacuation by Israeli paramilitary
police of Jewish settlers from Amona, an illegal outpost in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
    AMONA, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli paramilitary police dragged dozens of Jewish settlers out of an illegal outpost in the occupied West Bank on Thursday and said more than 20 officers were hurt during violent resistance to the evacuation.
    Settlers had set up two caravans at the Amona outpost last month, in what they described as a protest against a recent surge in Palestinian attacks in the West Bank.
    Two years ago, Amona’s 300 settlers were removed by police after the Supreme Court ruled it had been built illegally and without Israeli government authorization on privately-owned Palestinian land in 1995.
    Police said that in Thursday’s operation, which lasted several hours, at least 23 officers were injured by stones thrown by the settlers, many of them teenagers, or in scuffles, and were taken to hospital for treatment.
    Israeli media reports said at least three settlers were also hurt.    At least seven people were arrested for attacking officers, police said.
    The evacuation was carried out after the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday denied the settlers’ petition against eviction.
    Most countries consider all Israeli settlements on land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war to be illegal.
    Israel disputes this, and last week Israeli authorities issued approvals for more than 2,000 settler homes in the West Bank.
    Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which was also captured by Israel in the 1967 conflict.    The two areas are home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians.
    While Israel’s settlement projects have regularly drawn condemnation from the Palestinians and in Europe, the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump has taken a largely uncritical public stand.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

1/3/2019 Saudi prosecutor seeks death sentence for five suspects in Khashoggi murder case
FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – A Saudi prosecutor has asked for the death penalty for five of 11 suspects held over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, the state news agency SPA reported on Thursday.
    The call came during the first court hearing in the Khashoggi case, which has badly hurt the kingdom’s international reputation and strained its relations with Western countries.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/3/2019 Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war?
FILE PHOTO: Kurdish-led militiamen ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory over
Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The future of Kurdish-led areas of northern and eastern Syria has been thrown into doubt by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops who have helped to secure the region.
    Amounting to about one quarter of Syria, the area is the largest chunk of territory still outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.
    Trump said on Wednesday the United States would withdraw slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters as Washington withdraws troops, but without giving a timetable.
    Syrian Kurdish leaders fear Turkey will use the withdrawal as an opportunity to launch an assault.
    As a result, they are in contact with Moscow and Damascus in the hope of agreeing arrangements to protect the region from Turkey while also aiming to safeguard their political gains.
HOW DID THE KURDS EMERGE AS A FORCE?
    The main Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), began to establish a foothold in the north early in the war as government forces withdrew to put down the anti-Assad uprising elsewhere.    An affiliated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), secured the region.
    Early in the conflict, their control was concentrated in three predominantly Kurdish regions home to roughly 2 million Kurds.    Kurdish-led governing bodies were set up.
    The area of YPG influence expanded as the YPG allied with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (IS), becoming the spearhead of a multi-ethnic militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
    SDF influence widened to Manbij and Raqqa as IS was defeated in both.    It has also reached deep into b>Deir al-Zor, where the SDF is still fighting IS.
    Kurdish leaders say their aim is regional autonomy within a decentralized Syria, not independence.
WHY DOES TURKEY VIEW THEM AS A THREAT?
    The PYD is heavily influenced by the ideas of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights.    Ocalan has been in jail since 1999 in Turkey.    He is convicted of treason.
    The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.    Turkey says the PKK is indistinguishable from the PYD and YPG.
    Turkey has a Kurdish minority equal to 15 to 20 percent of its population, mostly living in eastern and southeastern areas bordering Syria.    Wary of separatistism, Turkey views the PYD’s Syrian foothold as a national security threat.
    Syria’s main Kurdish groups do not hide Ocalan’s influence: they organized elections towards establishing a political system based on his ideas.
    Turkey has already mounted two cross-border offensives in northern Syria as part of its efforts to counter the YPG.
FOR KURDS, IS ASSAD A FRIEND OR FOE?
    Syria’s Baathist state systematically persecuted the Kurds before the war.    Yet the YPG and Damascus have broadly stayed out of each other’s way during the conflict, despite occasional clashes.    They also have been seen to cooperate against shared foes, notably in and around Aleppo.
    The YPG has allowed the Syrian state to keep a foothold in its areas.    The YPG commander told Reuters in 2017 it would have no problem with the Assad government if Kurdish rights are guaranteed in Syria.
    But Damascus opposes Kurdish autonomy demands: the Syrian foreign minister last month said “nobody in Syria accepts talk about independent entities or federalism.”
    Talks between the sides last year made no progress.
    The Kurdish-led authorities are launching a new initiative aiming to put pressure on the government to reach a political settlement “within the framework of a decentralized Syria,” leading Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed said last week.
    Analysts say the Kurds’ negotiating position has been weakened by Trump’s announcement.
WHAT WOULD AN ASSAD-KURD DEAL MEAN FOR THE WAR?
    The territory held by Damascus and the Kurdish-led authorities accounts for most of Syria.    A political settlement – if one could be reached, perhaps with Russian help – could go a long way to stitching the map back together.
    But it would not mark the end of the war.
    Anti-Assad insurgents, though defeated across much of Syria by the government and its allies, still have a foothold in the northwest stretching from Idlib through Afrin to Jarablus.    Turkey has troops on the ground in this area.
    The rebels include Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army groups and jihadists.
    Enmity runs deep between the YPG and these groups.
    For the YPG, one priority is recovering Afrin from the rebels who seized it in a Turkey-backed offensive last year.
    Assad also wants Turkey out as he vows to recover “every inch” of Syria.
(GRAPHIC: Syria control map – https://tmsnrt.rs/2RgCxxb)
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/3/2019 One candidate clearly won Congo election: Catholic church by Giulia Paravicini and Stanis Bujakera
A man re classifies voting materials at Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI)
tallying centre in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Democratic Republic of Congo’s Catholic church said on Thursday it was clear which candidate won the country’s presidential election, and demanded that the electoral commission publish accurate results.
    The church, one of Congo’s most trusted institutions and representing about 40 percent of its 80 million population, based its finding on tallies from more than 40,000 observers it deployed for the Dec. 30 poll, meant to mark the country’s first democratic transfer of power.
    The church’s bishops conference, known as CENCO, did not say which candidate had won.
    But if its count points to victory for an opposition candidate, it could set up a standoff with outgoing President Joseph Kabila’s ruling coalition, which has insisted its man is poised to win.
    The CENCO’s mission and another domestic observer group, SYMOCEL, both said in reports on Thursday they witnessed widespread irregularities on election day, though they did not allege outright fraud.
    The electoral commission had been scheduled to publish provisional results on Sunday, but it said on Thursday that could be delayed because counting centers are still waiting for 80 percent of local vote tallies.
    The opposition says the delay could be used to manipulate vote totals.
    Government spokesman Lambert Mende defended its handling of the election, saying public safety concerns justified a decision to cancel voting in the Ebola-hit cities of Beni and Butembo, and cutting Internet access until the results were known was intended to stop the spread of false news about the outcome.
    The vote, meant to choose a successor to long-term leader Kabila, had been repeatedly delayed since 2016, when his mandate officially expired.    Those delays sparked violent protests in which security forces killed dozens of people.
    Pre-election polling showed ex-interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, Kabila’s preferred candidate, trailing the main opposition candidates, Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi. Both Shadary and the opposition say they expect to win.
    The CENCO mission “observes that the figures in its possession from polling stations’ vote tallies reveal the choice of one candidate as president of the republic,” its secretary-general Donatien Nshole told reporters.
    “We call on the CENI … to publish, with all responsibility, the results of the election that respect truth and justice.”
‘IRREGULARITIES’
    Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001, helped reunify the country amid civil war, and has presided over strong economic growth driven by exports of copper and cobalt, a component of electric car batteries.
    But critics say there has been little improvement in the quality of life for average Congolese and accuse the government of brutally suppressing dissent.
    More than one million Congolese were unable to cast ballots due to the cancellation of voting, which hit opposition strongholds and for which the electoral commission also cited ethnic violence.
    In areas where polls did go ahead, many were kept from voting because polling stations often opened late, closed early and voting machines sometimes did not work, according to SYMOCEL’s report based on what its staff saw at a third of voting centers.
    SYMOCEL said 24 percent of the polling stations it observed closed without allowing those already in line at closing time to cast their ballots, as required by law.    Twenty-seven percent opened late and 18 percent had problems with malfunctioning voting machines.
    Seventeen percent of polling stations it observed allowed voting by people who either did not having voting cards or whose names were not on the voter roll, it said.
    CENCO’s report said that 38 percent of polling stations it observed were missing materials at the start of election day, and also noted ballot boxes that did not remain sealed before counting and polling stations that did not properly verify voters’ identities.
(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister and John Stonestreet)

1/3/2019 ‘Walking in the Lord’s footsteps’ in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre by Stephen Farrell
Worshippers visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, November 18, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – It is three o’clock in the morning and Artak Tadevosyan is wafting incense through the corridors of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and buried.
    “Walking in the Lord’s footsteps, really, you have feelings that cannot be explained,” said the 26-year-old Armenian Orthodox cleric.    “We don’t see it as stone, all these are holy places for us.”
    The Holy Sepulchre lies in Jerusalem’s Old City.    A church was first built there in the 4th century under Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity.
    Today, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches share custody of the building, and tensions sometimes run high over who controls what.
    Other denominations also hold services there, in languages including Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic and Ge’ez.
    At night the building falls silent.    Muslim families have long held the door key, because of the tensions between the Christian clergy.
    In the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate nearby, His Beatitude Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, said he feels deep reverence for the church.
    “For the Christian world the Holy Sepulchre is the heart of Jerusalem and the world,” he said during preparations for the Orthodox Christmas on Sunday.
    “Why?    Because this particular place, which is the rock of the crucifixion and the rock of the tomb, or the burial site, of Jesus Christ, has been watered, and therefore blessed, by the blood of The Righteous One.”
Click on https://reut.rs/2BRkPqm to see a related photo essay
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell. Editing by Patrick Johnston)

1/3/2019 Turkey, Iraq will deepen cooperation in fight against terrorism, Erdogan says
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony
at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey January 3, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey and Iraq will deepen their cooperation in the fight against terrorism, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.
    Erdogan was speaking at a news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih. Turkey has said it would take over the fight against Islamic State following the U.S. decision to pull out of Syria.    Ankara also carries out regular air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/4/2019 U.N. rights office says Saudi trial in Khashoggi case ‘not sufficient’
FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
    GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights office said on Friday it could not assess the fairness of a trial taking place in Saudi Arabia related to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but that in any case it was “not sufficient.”
    Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, asked about reports that a Saudi prosecutor had sought the death sentence for five suspects linked to the Oct. 2 killing, reiterated the office’s call for an independent investigation “with international involvement.”
    The U.N. rights office always opposed the death penalty, she added.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/4/2019 U.N. chief regrets Somalia envoy expulsion, will send replacement by Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres looks on during the High-Level Pledging Event
for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen, in Geneva, Switzerland, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy/File Photo
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will appoint a new envoy to Somalia, a U.N. spokesman said on Friday, after failing to convince the country to retract its decision to expel the current representative over accusations of interference.
    Since Somalia’s foreign ministry declared late on Tuesday that U.N. envoy Nicholas Haysom “cannot work in this country,” Guterres has spoken twice with Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York.
    “The Secretary-General deeply regrets the decision of the Government of the Federal Republic of Somalia,” Haq said.    “The Secretary-General has full confidence in Mr. Haysom.”
    Haq noted that the doctrine of persona non grata does not apply to United Nations personnel.
    “At the same time the Secretary-General is totally committed to ensuring that the needs of the Somali people are at the forefront of the work of the United Nations in Somalia,” Haq said.    “Therefore, he intends to appoint in due course a new Special Representative for Somalia.”
    The U.N. Security Council is due to discuss the developments behind closed doors later on Friday, diplomats said.
    The United Nations is a major backer of Somalia, a country that has lacked strong central government since 1991.    The government’s decision on Haysom could intensify a confrontation between Mogadishu and the semiautonomous regions.
    Haysom had raised questions in a letter on Sunday about the involvement of U.N.-supported Somali security forces in the arrest of a former militant of the Islamist al Shabaab group who was blocked from running in a regional election.
    Haysom, a South African, told the Security Council on Thursday that the allegations of interference by the federal government in the regional election and the violence that followed the former militant’s arrest “does not bode well for the upcoming electoral processes in other regions or for the 2020 national elections.”
    Somalia’s U.N. Ambassador Abukar Dahir Osman told the Security Council that the Somali people wanted “Somalia leading international support, not international support leading Somalia.”
    “Somalia distinguishes between the institutions that we are part of an individual conduct that’s had detrimental effect on our fragile nation,” he said.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

1/4/2019 U.S. anti-Islamic State meeting turns to damage control after Syria decision by Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay and Lesley Wroughton
FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near
Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria Nov. 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A routine U.S.-hosted conference of nations fighting the Islamic State militant group has become a damage control effort following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, sources familiar with the matter said on Friday.
    The previously scheduled conference, tentatively set for Feb. 7 in Washington, aims to gather ministers from many of the 79 nations in the Global Coalition To Defeat Islamic State and galvanize their fight against the militant group.
    However, Trump’s shock Dec. 19 decision to withdraw and the mixed signals Washington has sent about when it may pull out the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria have left U.S. allies and partners rethinking their own commitments.
    In the latest ambiguous signal, a senior State Department official on Friday first told reporters the United States has no timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Syria and then said it does not plan to stay indefinitely.
    Another senior State Department official, also briefing reporters before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East next week, said one of his main messages would be that “the United States is not leaving the Middle East.”
    “Despite reports to the contrary and false narratives surrounding the Syria decision, we are not going anywhere.”
    However, three sources familiar with the matter said that the Trump administration is still working assiduously to contain the fallout from Trump’s troop decision.
    A Pentagon adviser described the conference as part of a “damage control” effort necessitated by Trump’s abrupt decision and as designed to explain to the coalition members “that nothing has been put in place” with regard to the pullout.
    “This (Trump’s withdrawal announcement) was a slap-dash, individual decision” that angered and frustrated U.S. military commanders and blind-sided members of the anti-ISIS coalition, said the Pentagon adviser on condition of anonymity.    “This is nothing more than damage limitation.”
    Other people familiar with the administration’s discussions stressed that the meeting had been previously scheduled, but one said it had been given “extra urgency” by the troop decision.
    A State Department spokeswoman who declined to be identified confirmed the conference was going ahead as scheduled and that “save the date” invitations had gone out but she declined comment on the agenda, saying it was still being worked out.
    Another source familiar with administration discussions said the meeting had been made more pressing and more difficult by the mixed signals about the withdrawal, possibly making foreign officials reluctant to attend until there is greater clarity.
    “They are trying to square the circle of what the president said and what they (other U.S. officials) want to do, which is not easy,” said this person, who is familiar with the administration’s discussions on the issue.
    U.S.-backed forces are still retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria, Pentagon officials said on Friday, two weeks after Trump said the troops had succeeded in their mission and were no longer needed there.
    Trump has provided a number of different timelines on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.    On Dec. 19, he said that the forces would be “coming back now.”
    A few days later, he tweeted that the pullout would be “slow and highly coordinated.”    Earlier this week Trump said the withdrawal would be “over a period of time.”
    While military planners have looked at various timelines, U.S. officials have told Reuters it could take several months to carry out a withdrawal, potentially giving time for U.S.-backed forces to deal parting blows to the militant group that once held broad swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
    One of the proposals under consideration is a 120-day withdrawal period, according a person familiar with discussions.
    Two sources familiar with the discussions predicted it would take at least until the end of 2019 to complete a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
    “Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t be out in four months,” said the Pentagon adviser on condition of anonymity.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)

. 1/4/2019 U.S. targets suspected USS Cole bombing planner in Yemen: statement
FILE PHOTO: A US naval war ship, the USS Cole that was attacked yesterday, floats October 13, 2000
in the Yemeni port of Aden with a white cloth covering the hole created by an explosion. AN/WS/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. strike targeted a militant in Yemen believed to be one of the planners of a deadly bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000, but the results of the strike were still being assessed, the U.S. military said on Friday.
    U.S. Central Command said in a statement that the strike on Jan. 1 in the Marib governorate of Yemen had targeted Jamal al-Badawi, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2003 and was wanted for his role in the USS Cole attack.    He escaped from prison in Yemen twice, once in 2003 and again in 2006.
    There is a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
    On Oct. 12, 2000, two men in a small boat detonated explosives alongside the Navy guided missile destroyer as it was refueling in Aden, killing 17 sailors, wounding more than three dozen others and blasting a gaping hole in its hull.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Grant McCool)

1/5/2019 Congo’s electoral commission slams Catholic Church over vote comment by Giulia Paravicini
An official of Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) reads out the presidential elections results
of one polling station at a tallying centre in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission accused the country’s Catholic Church on Friday of “preparing an insurrection” by saying it knows the winner of last Sunday’s presidential election.
    The commission is scheduled to release provisional results on Sunday but has said there could be delays because of the slow arrival of tally sheets.
    Donatien Nshole, the secretary-general of the Church’s bishops’ conference, known as CENCO, said on Thursday its vote tallies showed a clear victor in the Dec. 30 election, a pronouncement widely seen as a warning to authorities against rigging the vote.
    “The announcement of voting trends by Priest Nshole is likely to brainwash the population while preparing an insurrection that CENCO alone will be responsible for,” commission president Corneille Nangaa wrote in a letter to CENCO president Marcel Utembi, seen by Reuters.
    Nangaa said CENCO’s declaration violated electoral law and a code of conduct signed by poll monitors that gives the electoral commission, CENI, alone the authority to announce results.
    The Catholic Church is one of Congo’s most powerful institutions, representing about 40 percent of its 80 million people.
    The ruling coalition of President Joseph Kabila, which is backing his hand-picked successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, also took aim at CENCO on Thursday.
    The coalition “deplores … the partisan, irresponsible and anarchic attitude of CENCO,” said Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, an adviser to Kabila and spokesman for Shadary.
    The U.N. Security Council was briefed behind closed doors on the latest developments on Friday at the request of France.    French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the 15-member body would continue to monitor the electoral process in Congo.
    “The consolidation of the results must continue with transparency,” Delattre told reporters.    “We call on all actors for calm and restraint.”
    Observers and the opposition say the election was marred by serious irregularities.    The opposition, represented by its two main candidates Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi, and Shadary’s camp have all claimed they are on course to win, without posting specific figures.
    Kikaya told Reuters Kabila had met Catholic bishops on Friday but provided no details.
    The government says the election was fair and went smoothly.
    The poll is meant to lead to Congo’s first democratic transfer of power, but the international community has raised concerns that a disputed result could cause unrest, as was the case after the 2006 and 2011 elections.
    President Donald Trump said on Friday about 80 U.S. military personnel had deployed to Gabon in case they were needed to protect American citizens and diplomatic facilities in Congo.
    On Thursday, the United States called on CENI to publish accurate results and threatened sanctions against anyone who sought to undermine the process.
    An election dispute could further destabilize Congo’s volatile eastern provinces, where wars around the turn of the century resulted in millions of deaths, most from hunger and disease, and where dozens of militia remain active.
INTERNET CUT
    Kabila’s government cut access to the internet as well as Radio France Internationale (RFI) and some local media this week, saying it wanted to prevent fake results from circulating.
    “This being a very sensitive, a very tense period, we are concerned that these efforts to silence dissent could backfire considerably when the results are announced,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
    “We are calling on all sides to refrain from the use of violence,” she said.
    The European Union also called on election authorities to ensure the results reflect the will of the Congolese people.
    Opinion polls had shown Shadary trailing Fayulu and Tshisekedi, who have been buoyed by rising dissatisfaction with Kabila’s tenure.
    Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001, helped reunify the country amid civil war and has presided over strong economic growth, driven by exports of copper and cobalt, a component of electric car batteries.
    But critics say there has been little improvement in the quality of life for average Congolese and accuse the government of brutally suppressing dissent.
(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera in Kinshasa, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing By Aaron Ross; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Sandra Maler)

1/5/2019 Bolton warns Syria against use of chemical weapons by Steve Holland
U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton speaks during a press briefing
at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
    TEL AVIV (Reuters) – U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has warned the Syrian government it should not see the impending U.S. military withdrawal from the country as an invitation to use chemical weapons.
    U.S. President Donald Trump said in December that U.S. troops had succeeded in their mission to defeat Islamic State militants and were no longer needed in the country.
    The announcement, which took officials in Washington and allies abroad by surprise, contributed to Jim Mattis’ decision to resign as U.S. defense secretary and prompted concern that Islamic State could stage a comeback.
    “There is absolutely no change in the U.S. position against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and absolutely no change in our position that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a very strong response, as we’ve done twice before,” Bolton told reporters on his plane shortly before landing in Tel Aviv, Israel.
    “So the regime, the Assad regime, should be under no illusions on that question,” said Bolton, who is on a four-day trip to Israel and Turkey.
    Trump has twice bombed Syria over the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.    In September a senior U.S. official said there was evidence showing chemical weapons were being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
    More than half a million people have died during the Syrian war and 11 million have been forced to flee their homes.
    During his trip Bolton is set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.    He said he was not suggesting Syria appeared ready to use chemical weapons.
    “As we elaborate how the (U.S. troop) withdrawal is going to occur and the circumstances, we don’t want the Assad regime to see what we do as representing any diminution in our opposition to the use of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
    If chemical weapons were to be used, “a lot of options would be on the table … if they don’t heed the lessons of those two strikes the next one will be more telling,” Bolton said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Alison Williams and David Holmes)

1/5/2019 Hamas arrests Gaza men suspected of attacking Abbas’s TV station
FILE PHOTO: Palestinians inspect the damage inside the office of Palestine TV, in Gaza City January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Zakot
    GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza authorities arrested five Palestinians on Saturday on suspicion of ransacking the offices of President Mahmoud Abbas’s official Palestine Television station, Hamas’s interior ministry said.
    On Friday, assailants destroyed cameras, editing and broadcasting equipment in the Gaza office of the station, part of the Palestinian Broadcast Corporation (PBC), which broadcasts material supportive of Abbas.    Station officials immediately blamed Hamas for the attack.
    The incident underscored tensions between Abbas’s Western-backed Palestinian Authority, based in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza.
    But Hamas on Saturday said all five suspects men were former employees of the Palestinian Authority, whose salaries were recently suspended.    There was no immediate response from the Palestinian Authority.
    There has long been antipathy between Hamas, which won the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and is opposed to any peace negotiations with Israel, and with Abbas’s more moderate and secular Fatah faction.
    The two rivals have tried and failed to end the divisions.    Egypt has brokered a Palestinian reconciliation pact that provides for Hamas to cede control of Gaza to Abbas, but a dispute over power-sharing has hindered implementation.
(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; editing by David Evans)

1/5/2019 Congo election results delayed past Sunday deadline by Giulia Paravicini
FILE PHOTO: Officials from Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) count presidential elections
ballots at tallying centre in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Preliminary results from Democratic Republic of Congo’s tumultuous presidential election will be delayed past Sunday’s deadline, the head of the election commission told Reuters.
    The commission, known as CENI, had received only 47 percent of vote tally sheets as of Saturday, said its president, Corneille Nangaa, and it was not yet clear when the results would be ready.
    The delay is the latest setback in a disorganized poll to pick a successor to President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the country of 80 million people since his father was assassinated in 2001.
    The Dec. 30 vote could mark Congo’s first democratic transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.    But tensions rose after observers reported a litany of irregularities that the opposition says are part of the ruling party’s effort to steal the election.
    The opposition, represented by its two main candidates Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi, and the ruling coalition all say their candidates have won.
    “It will not be possible to announce the results tomorrow,” Nangaa said.
    A CENI spokesman later said that the commission was holding a meeting on Sunday to decide when they will be announced.
    Worried that disputes and delays could spark the kind of violence seen after the 2006 and 2011 elections, the United Nations Security Council met on Friday to discuss how to react, but was unable to reach an agreement, according to an internal report seen by Reuters.
    The United States condemned a lack of transparency in the contest, while China, a major investor, lauded the process.
    “Tensions were mounting while the CENI tabulated the results, notably in light of posturing by parties and candidates,” Leila Zerrougui, head of the UN Stabilization Mission in Democratic Republic of Congo, told the meeting, according to the internal report.
    But the 15 council members “differed in their appreciation of the problems that beset the process and were divided over the question of whether the Council should issue a press statement,” the report went on to say.
    A negative international reaction could be problematic for Kabila, whose government has defended the election’s organization, and could weaken the legitimacy of Kabila’s hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, should he be declared winner.
INFLAME THE SITUATION
    In the meeting, France pushed for the publication of a statement that recognized that Congo’s election had allowed people to exercise their democratic right and called for calm, but criticized the government’s decision to cut access to the Internet and some media outlets.
    The United States, which has threatened to impose sanctions against those who undermine the election process and has deployed troops to Gabon in case its citizens need rescuing from any violence, backed the statement, alongside Britain, Ivory Coast, Belgium and others.
    South Africa, long a Kabila ally, said the statement could “inflame” the situation if issued before the results, the report said. Russia said it could be seen as an attempt to skew public opinion. China “lauded the manner in which elections were conducted,” the report said, and said a statement should not be published before the results.
    Congo’s Catholic church body, CENCO, said this week that it had identified the victor based on its own tallies collected by 40,000 observers, though it did not name the winner.    The declaration was widely seen as a warning to authorities against rigging the vote.
(Additional reporting By Aaron Ross; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/6/2019 Turkey should not attack Kurds after U.S. Syria pull-out: U.S. national security adviser by Steve Holland
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton speaks during a
press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – White House national security adviser John Bolton added a new condition on Sunday to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, saying Turkey must agree to protect the United States’ Kurdish allies.
    President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to announce a U.S. pull-out from Syria left open many questions, chiefly whether Kurds fighters operating in northern Syria would now be targeted by their long-time enemy Turkey.
    Bolton, on a four-day trip to Israel and Turkey, said he would stress in talks with Turkish officials, including President Tayyip Erdogan, that the Kurds must be safeguarded.
    “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered,” Bolton told reporters ahead of talks with Israeli officials.
    Bolton, who will travel to Turkey on Monday, said the United States will talk to Turkey to find out what its objectives and capabilities were.
    But Bolton said Trump’s position is Turkey may not kill the Kurds and that the U.S. withdrawal would not take place without an agreement on that.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

1/6/2019 Syrian opposition urges countries not to reconcile with Assad by Marwa Rashad
FILE PHOTO: Nasr al-Hariri, Head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), speaks at a
news conference in Brussels, Belgium, February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Syria’s chief opposition negotiator said on Sunday he was surprised by countries rebuilding ties with the Syrian government and urged them to reverse their decision.
    Arab states, including some that once backed rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, are seeking to reconcile with him after decisive gains by his forces in the war, aiming to expand their influence in Syria at the expense of non-Arab Turkey and Iran.
    The United Arab Emirates re-opened its embassy in Damascus last month and Bahrain said its embassy there, and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Manama, had been operating “without interruption.”
    “We do not have the power to stop this reconciliation,” Nasr Hariri told reporters in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, where he is based.
    “We still hope there is a possibility for (these countries) to revisit their decisions and realize that the real and solid relation should be with their brothers of the Syrian people not with the regime that has committed all these crimes,” he said.
    “Bashar al-Assad will remain a war criminal even if thousands of leaders had a handshake with him.”
    Kuwait said last week it expected more Arab countries to reopen embassies in Damascus in “coming days,” although the move would need a green light from the Arab League.
    Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended in 2011 in response to the government’s violent crackdown on “Arab Spring” protests.    For Syria to be reinstated, the League must reach a consensus.
    “We do not think it would be a sound step to readmit Syria into the Arab League.    We think this is a decision that won’t be in the interest of the political process,” Hariri said.
    U.S-allied Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were the main regional backers of armed groups opposed to Assad, providing finance or weapons or both, acting largely as part of a program of support for the armed opposition coordinated by Washington.
(Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Giles Elgood)

1/6/2019 Fairouz Cafe brings Levantine nostalgia to southern Iraq by Aref Mohammed
An Iraqi woman reads a book at a cafe called Fayruz Cafe after the famous female Lebanese singer Fayruz,
in Basra, Iraq December 29, 2018. Picture taken December 29, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani
    BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – Mohammed Abdul Ameer’s nostalgia for better days and his roots in the Levant were what inspired him to open Basra’s first mixed-gender cafe since the rule of Saddam Hussein, and themed in honor of the Lebanese singer Fairouz.
    The southern Iraqi city, the home of Abdul Ameer’s father, has since Saddam was toppled in a 2003 U.S. invasion seen conflict, unrest, religious conservatism and an acute lack of jobs and services.
    Abdul Ameer hopes his customers, mostly young Iraqis, can temporarily forget that and lose themselves in the Arab literature stacked on bookshelves at his cafe while they drink coffee out of cups imprinted with Fairouz’s face.
    “Fairouz songs are associated with good memories.    This place will bring people back to the past, to better days,” the owner said at his new Fairouz Cafe and Bookshop in central Basra.
    “We learned Fairouz’s songs during school days so we associate her name with nostalgia.”    Mugs picturing Fairouz, whose soothing voice emanates from car radios in Iraqi cities and throughout the Arab world, are also sold at the cafe.
    The 29-year-old grew up in his mother’s homeland of Syria but fled for Basra in 2012 near the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
    The conflict, which began more than seven years ago with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, has killed hundreds of thousands and driven millions from their homes.
    “Life in Syria became tough.    Snipers and kidnappings became common.    I decided to leave and find a new life in Basra,” said Abdul Ameer.
CONSERVATIVE CITY
    The economics graduate’s dream project – to open a cafe that emulates the Damascus cafe culture – has come to fruition, and many locals are delighted.
    “What I love about this place is the library and the good service.    This place is quiet and free from people who try to restrict our freedom,” said Samana Sajjad, a 23-year-old woman who works as a local radio presenter.
    “After a long day, it’s a place where you can forget your worries by listening to Fairouz and reading a book.”
    Located where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers merge near the Gulf, Basra was for centuries a melting pot of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Indians and Greeks who left their cultural imprint.
    After Saddam was toppled, conservative Shi’ite-led parties took power in Basra, bringing with them a religiously restrictive lifestyle.
    Young people in Basra took part in protests in September which turned violent, complaining of unemployment, lack of services and corruption.
    Basra’s oil fields bring in the vast majority of Iraq’s oil wealth but the city suffers from power and water shortages like much of the country.
    Iraq’s population is predominantly Shi’ite Muslim, and much of its society in the south is conservative, with many women wearing the black head-to-toe abaya and public mixed-gender socializing often frowned upon.
(Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by John Davison)

1/6/2019 Egypt’s Sisi opens mega-mosque and Middle East’s largest cathedral in New Capital
A member of Egyptian Army walks outside the new Coptic Cathedral "The Nativity of Christ" before
Sunday's Coptic Christmas Eve Mass in the New Administrative Capital (NAC) east of
Cairo, Egypt January 3, 2019. Picture taken January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
    CAIRO (Reuters) – President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated Egypt’s largest church and mosque in the New Administrative Capital on Sunday, the eve of Coptic Christmas, in a message of tolerance in the predominantly Muslim country.
    Copts, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, were due hold a midnight mass in the Cathedral of the Nativity, billed by the government as the Middle East’s largest church, a few hours after the inauguration.
    Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s nearly 100 million people and have long complained of discrimination under laws that favor Muslims.
    They have also increasingly been targeted in recent years by Islamist militants including Islamic State, which is waging an insurgency in the north of the remote Sinai Peninsula.
    Foreign dignitaries and officials including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab League Chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit flanked Sisi at the opening, state television showed.
    Angham, a prominent local singer, sang for Muslim-Christian coexistence as a display of fireworks lit the skies over the two houses of worship.
    “This is an important moment in our history,” Sisi said in a speech as he opened the cathedral.    “e are one and we will remain one,” he added, referring to Egyptian Christians and Muslims.
    “On this day we see you have fulfilled this promise and here we are witnessing a great opening on this grand occasion,” the head of the Coptic church Pope Tawadros II said.    He will preside over midnight mass later in the evening with Sisi in attendance.
    U.S. President Donald Trump also praised the opening of the church and the mosque.
    “Excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East.    President Al-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future,” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
    The Cathedral of the Nativity, adorned with Coptic icons, can accommodate more than 8,000 worshippers while the al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque can hold nearly double the number.    Both are located in the new administrative capital, a major development located some 45 km (28 miles) east of Cairo.
    Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, said Islam obliges Muslims to safeguard and defend houses of worship, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish.
    Contractors have been clearing debris from the perimeter of the cathedral in the last two weeks in preparation for its grand opening.
    The new Egyptian capital, announced in March 2015, is intended partly to reduce crowding in Cairo but will also be home to government ministries and an airport.    The government is expecting to begin moving to the new premises later this year.
(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty; writing by Nadine Awadalla, Patrick Werr and Sami Aboudi; editing by David Evans)

1/6/2019 Palestinian Authority pulls employees from Egypt-Gaza crossing by Nidal al-Mughrabi
FILE PHOTO - The gate of Rafah border crossing is seen , in Rafah, in the
southern Gaza Strip November 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority said on Sunday it had ordered its employees to pull out from the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, effectively closing the main exit point from the impoverished Gaza Strip.
    The dispute over the border stems from a rift between the PA, based in the occupied West Bank and headed by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Islamist militant group Hamas, which took control of Gaza more than a decade ago in a civil war.
    Re-opening the Rafeh crossing, which according to human rights groups is the sole exit point from Gaza for an estimated 95 percent of its 2 million population, will require Egypt to agree on a new operator.
    It is unclear whether it will allow Hamas to run the passage.    Cairo has not so far commented on the situation.
    PA employees were deployed to Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt in 2017 under Egyptian mediation in what was seen as the first concrete step towards ending the dispute.
    The PA said Sunday’s decision to pull out from the crossing was a response to Hamas undermining its operations and detaining some of its workers.
    “After Hamas’s insistence on bolstering division … and the questioning, detention and suppression of our employees, we have become convinced it is useless to maintain our presence there,” it said.
    The decision takes effect on Monday, though the crossing was already scheduled to be closed until Tuesday due to a holiday.
    Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters the closure of the border amounted to “additional sanctions by Abbas against the people of Gaza.”
    “This is a blow to… Egypt, which had overseen the handover of the crossings as part of the implementation of the reconciliation deal that Abbas has destroyed,” he said.
    Poverty is rampant in Gaza due to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and three armed confrontations with Israel since 2008, as well as the internal rivalry. Israel says its restrictions are to stop weapons entering the territory.
    The two Palestinian groups have tried and failed numerous times to end their dispute.
    Officials from Abbas’s Fatah movement said Hamas-led security forces have detained nearly 400 of their supporters and activists in Gaza in recent days, while Hamas said dozens of their men were detained by the PA in the West Bank.
(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Jan Harvey)

1/6/2019 Libya’s oil revenue rose to $24.4 billion in 2018: NOC
FILE PHOTO: A general view of the El Sharara oilfield, Libya December 3, 2014. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/File Photo
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Libya’s oil revenue rose to $24.4 billion in 2018, up 78 pct from 2017, Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said in statement on Sunday.
    NOC also said it recorded an average production of 1.107 million barrels per day in 2018.
(Reporting by Hesham Hajali and Ali Abdelaty; editing by David Evans)

1/6/2019 U.S. Ambassador to Israel Indicates peace plan may be released this year by OAN Newsroom
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman indicates the Trump Administration may release its “Mideast Peace” plan later this year.
    Speaking to press in Jerusalem, Friedman said the contents of the plan are “pretty much completed.”
    He also suggested the administration wants to release it when it has the best chance of getting good reception, and mentioned April’s Israeli elections are a factor.
    Friedman also said the challenge of the peace plan is making the case for a much more sober assessment of the realities of the region.

1/7/2019 Gabon arrests four military officers after coup attempt by Gerauds Wilfried Obangome
FILE PHOTO: Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba arrives for a group picture at the BRICS summit
meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
    LIBREVILLE (Reuters) – Military officers in Gabon staged an apparent coup attempt early on Monday, seizing the state radio station and declaring their dissatisfaction with President Ali Bongo, but several of the putschists were arrested within hours, the government said.
    Government spokesman Guy-Bertrand Mapangou told Reuters that four of the five officers who had taken over the state radio in the capital Libreville were arrested.    A fifth officer fled and is being pursued, he said.
    A military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the masterminds of the attempted coup had not yet been arrested, however.
    Outside the radio station, loyalist soldiers fired teargas to disperse about 300 people who had come out into the streets to support the coup attempt, a Reuters witness said. Helicopters circled overhead, although most of Libreville was quiet.
    In a radio message at 4:30 a.m. (0330 GMT), Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, who described himself as an officer in the Republican Guard, said Bongo’s New Year’s eve address from Morocco, where he is recovering from a stroke, “reinforced doubts about the president’s ability to continue to carry out of the responsibilities of his office.”
    Bongo’s speech was slurred and he appeared unable to move his right arm.    It is unclear if he is able to walk.
    Bongo, 59, was hospitalized in October in Saudi Arabia after suffering a stroke.    He has been in Morocco since November to continue treatment.
    The Bongo family has ruled the oil-producing country for nearly half a century.    Bongo has been president since succeeding his father, Omar, who died in 2009.    His re-election in 2016 was marred by claims of fraud and violent protest.
    A sharp drop in oil production and prices has squeezed revenues and stoked discontent in recent years.
DISPUTED ELECTION
    In a video circulating on social media, Ondo is seen in a radio studio wearing military fatigues and a green beret as he reads the statement.    Two other soldiers with large assault rifles stand behind him.
    Ondo said the coup was being carried out by a group called the Patriotic Movement of the Defence and Security Forces of Gabon against “those who, in a cowardly way, assassinated our young compatriots on the night of August 31, 2016,” a reference to deadly violence that erupted after Bongo was declared the winner of the disputed election.
    The military officer said the coup attempt was carried out by one unit under the command of a high-ranking officer but that other units were monitoring the situation.
    “President Bongo’s record as defense minister under his father lowers the possibility that current military leadership is supportive of his ouster,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
    Former colonial power France has a permanent military force of 300 soldiers in Gabon.    The United States also sent about 80 soldiers to Gabon last week in response to possible violent demonstrations in Democratic Republic of Congo after a presidential election there.
    Bongo and members of his government have faced repeated suspicions by foreign governments of corruption, including allegedly using the American financial system to launder assets.    They have denied the accusations.
    During his father’s rule, Gabon was a pillar of “La Francafrique,” an intricate, shadowy web of diplomacy, commerce and French military might that kept African autocrats in power and gave French companies privileged access to them.
    Bongo won the election in 2016 by fewer than 6,000 votes, sparking deadly clashes between protesters and police during which the parliament was torched.
    The European Union said it found anomalies during the election in Bongo’s stronghold province of Haut-Ogooue, where he won 95 percent on a 99.9 percent turnout.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis, Maggie Fick and Ange Aboa; Writing by Aaron Ross and Edward McAllister; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Raissa Kasolowsky)

1/7/2019 Secretary Pompeo to tour Middle East, will clarify withdrawal in Syria & warn of Iranian influence by OAN Newsroom
    America’s top diplomat is set to begin a Middle East tour to clarify President Trump’s agenda in the region.
    Over the next week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making at least eight stops, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the Persian Gulf.
    Other cabinet officials also traveled to the region after President Trump announced the United States’ historic disengagement from Syria.    National Security Advisor John Bolton toured Israel, and even President Trump spent a few hours near Baghdad after Christmas.
    Ever since the president announced he was pulling troops out of Syria, Secretary Pompeo has been assuring U.S. allies the United States is still committed to its allies in the region.
    “The decision president made in Syria in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel,” he stated.    “The counter-ISIS campaign continues, our efforts to counter Iranian aggression continue and our commitment to Middle East stability and the protection of Israel continues in the same way it did before that decision was made.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Photo/AP)
    The U.S. is also continuing to push for countries to cut off Iran and limit the country’s influence in the Middle East.    Bolton emphasized the Trump administration’s continued pressure on Iran during his visit to Israel.
    “We’ve got the continuing threat of Iran’s quest for deliverable nuclear weapons and despite getting out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, despite the sanctions we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons,” stated Bolton.
    The national security advisor has also explained the U.S. is not withdrawing out of Syria quickly, but instead slowly and carefully.
    In the meantime, Pompeo’s key policy speech will be in Egypt on the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Middle East.
    Pompeo is calling for a united Gulf Country Coalition against Iran.    Though, that’s complicated as other states have a blockade against Qatar, which has been in place since June 2017.    Pompeo will be visiting all countries involved in the ongoing dispute.
    Additionally, his trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also key stops as opposition in Washington is growing about the United States’ involvement in their coalition in Yemen.

1/7/2019 Netanyahu demands to confront state’s witnesses in corruption probes by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset,
Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, contesting an April election under the shadow of possible corruption charges, demanded on Monday to confront the state’s witnesses against him.
    Announcing on Twitter, three hours beforehand, that he would make a “special announcement” on Israeli TV, Netanyahu – now in his fourth term – touched off a wave of social media speculation that he might resign or even launch legal action of his own to try to stay any indictment.
    Instead, he kicked off Israel’s main TV evening news programs with an anticlimactic speech in which he again professed his innocence in a series of corruption cases.    He contended he was a victim of a political witchhunt and said he was being denied the chance to challenge his accusers face-to-face.
    “I demand a confrontation with the state’s witnesses now.    What are they afraid of?    What do they have to hide?    I am not afraid and I have nothing to hide…As far as I am concerned it can be broadcast live, so the public can see and hear it.”
    In response, Israel’s Justice Ministry said the investigations against Netanyahu – who is now in his fourth term – have been carried out professionally and thoroughly.
    Netanyahu’s calling of the snap election, ahead of a national ballot due by November, was widely seen as a direct appeal to voters for a fresh political mandate that could help him weather a potential indictment.
    Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, said investigators had twice turned down his requests to confront the witnesses.    At least three ex-Netanyahu confidants have agreed to provide evidence against him, Israeli media reports said.
    Netanyahu is enmeshed in three graft cases. He has said he would not bow out of the election race if Israel’s attorney-general announces his intention to accept police recommendations to indict him.
    Should he decide on an indictment, the attorney-general would, under Israeli law, then hold a hearing with Netanyahu in which the prime minister and his lawyers could make their case against filing charges in court.
    There has been mounting speculation in Israel that an indictment decision will be announced in the next few weeks, before election day.
    Police have alleged that Netanyahu granted regulatory favors to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for more positive coverage on a news website belonging to the firm’s owner.
    In a second case, police contend that Netanyahu received expensive gifts from wealthy friends.    A third investigation focuses on suspicions that Netanyahu negotiated a deal with one newspaper for better coverage in return for promises to back legislation that would have limited the circulation of a rival.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/8/2019 Turkey to ask U.S. to hand over military bases in Syria: Hurriyet by Steve Holland and Orhan Coskun
FILE PHOTO: A Turkish flag flutters on a military vehicle on the border of Manbij city, Syria November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey was expected to ask U.S. officials either to hand over its military bases in Syria to Ankara or to destroy them, the newspaper Hurriyet reported, a request that could further complicate discussions over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
    The request was expected to come in talks on Tuesday between U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin.    Bolton had also added a condition to the talks: Turkey must agree to protect the Kurdish YPG militia, a U.S. ally. Ankara calls YPG a terrorist group.
    It was unclear immediately after the talks whether either condition was met.    With tensions simmering over U.S. plans to exit Syria, Bolton did not meet with President Tayyip Erdogan.
    Trump said last month he was bringing home the some U.S. 2,000 troops in Syria, saying they had succeeded in their mission to defeat Islamic State.    His abrupt move sparked concern among officials in Washington and allies abroad and prompted Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
    The YPG has been a key ally in campaign against Islamic State, an alliance that has long caused tension between Washington and Ankara.    Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south east.
    “Give them or destroy them,” a Hurriyet newspaper headline said, referring to what it said were 22 U.S. military bases in Syria.    It cited unspecified sources as saying Turkey would not accept Washington’s handing them over to the YPG.
    A senior Turkish security official told Reuters last week Washington needed to allow Turkey to use its bases in Syria.
    Bolton was joined by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and U.S. special Syria envoy James Jeffrey as he met with Kalin on Tuesday morning in Ankara.    They concluded their talks by late morning.
    Kalin is Erdogan’s spokesman and deputy head of Turkey’s security and foreign policies board.
    Erdogan warned on Monday the U.S. withdrawal must be planned carefully and with the right partners.    Only Turkey, he said, had “the power and commitment to perform that task.”
    In an op-ed article for the New York Times, Erdogan said Turkey was committed to defeating Islamic State and “other terrorist groups” in Syria.
    The White House sought to make the case on Monday that Trump had not changed his position on withdrawing troops.
(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; writing by Daren Butler; editing by David Dolan, Larry King)

1/8/2019 Turkey cannot accept Trump adviser’s comments on Kurdish fighters, Erdogan says
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during
a meeting at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, December 25, 2018. Cem Oksuz/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey cannot accept recent comments from U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser that Ankara must agree to protect Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.
    Erdogan, speaking to members of his AK Party in parliament, said John Bolton had made “serious mistake” in calling for a new condition for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, and that Turkey could never compromise on the issue of the YPG Kurdish militia.
    Turkey sees the YPG, which the United States has backed in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, as a terrorist organisation and part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
(Reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Dominic Evans)
[Should the U.S. give Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to be the guardian of Syria?    Remember above of what I think he will become.].

1/8/2019 Secretary Pompeo: U.S. ‘redoubling’ diplomatic, commercial pressure on Iran by OAN Newsroom
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reassuring U.S. allies in Jordan that the U.S. troop pull out of Syria will not impact the fight against ISIS.
    Pompeo spoke at a joint press conference with Jordan’s foreign minister Tuesday, where he said ISIS is still the most dangerous threat to the region.    He added, there is also widespread agreement on the risk that the terror group poses to Jordan and neighboring countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi hold a press conference in Amman, Jordan,
Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Pompeo has begun a Mideast visit to talk to regional leaders about ramping up pressure on Iran.
The trip comes amid confusion over conflicting Trump administration statements about a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
Pompeo’s first stop Tuesday is pro-Western Jordan, followed by visits to Egypt and Gulf nations. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
    Pompeo also assured that the U.S. also plans to address the serious threat from Iranian militants in Syria.
    “Our President’s decision to withdraw our folks from Syria in no way impacts our capacity to deliver on that and you’ll see in the coming days and weeks, we are redoubling not only our diplomatic but our commercial efforts to put real pressure on Iran to achieve what it is we set out for them back in May, and these are simple tasks we ask of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to behave like a normal nation and the coalition is just as committed to it today as it was yesterday,” he stated.
    He went on to say the battle continues in light of the decision to withdraw troops from the region.

1/8/2019 U.S.-led coalition in Syria approves framework for troop withdrawal by OAN Newsroom
    The U.S.-led coalition in Syria has announced its plans are in motion for the removal of U.S. troops from the country.    According to the Pentagon Monday, the coalition has signed off on a new conditions-based framework for the withdrawal that is now in effect.
    Earlier in the day, President Trump tweeted the U.S. “will be leaving at a proper pace,” while at the same time fighting ISIS and tying up loose ends in Syria.
    Trump tweet: “The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria.    No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!.....
    He went on to blast the mainstream media for inaccurately reporting his intentions of a swift pullout, saying this agreement is in line with his previous statements on the matter.
    “I never said fast or slow.    I know somebody said four months, but I didn’t say that either.    I’m getting out.    We’re getting out of Syria.” — President Donald Trump.
    Commander Sean Robertson of Operation Inherent Resolve claimed there is no arbitrary deadline for a pullout, which is conditions-based.    Commander Robertson declined to give specifics about those conditions, but said military leaders are taking into consideration every factor that could affect U.S. interests in Syria even down to the weather.
    His statement seemed to echo comments made by White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, which were made over the weekend while in neighboring Israel.
    “Right on your border we have the problem of the conflict in Syria,” said Bolton.    “We are going to be discussing the President’s decision to withdraw, but to do so from northeast Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again.”
    Bolton also explained the U.S. will continue to offer assistance and protection for allies in the region, including for Kurdish forces facing threats from Turkey.
    Commander Robertson did not give a deadline for the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, but said the Pentagon will keep Americans apprised of the progress.    This will happen through regular updates about the percentage of equipment removed from the country.

1/8/2019 U.S. withdrawal from Syria does not jeopardize efforts to counter Iran, Pompeo says
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman
at the start of a Middle East tour, Jordan January 8, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    AMMAN (Reuters) – The U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Syria will not jeopardize Washington’s efforts to counter threats in the region, which come from Iran and Islamic State, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.
    Pompeo was in Jordan, making his first visit to the Middle East since President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement that he will pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which caused alarm among U.S. allies in the region and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
    The U.S. troops in Syria have been fighting against Islamic State and also served as a counterweight to the Syrian government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.
    Many of Trump’s domestic and international critics have said that withdrawing the troops abruptly could expose Washington’s Kurdish allies to repression from Turkey, and also allow Iran to solidify its influence in Syria.
    But Pompeo said Washington was not stepping down from its efforts to challenge Iran.    American policy makers were “redoubling not only our diplomatic but our commercial efforts to put real pressure on Iran,” he said.
    “There is enormous agreement on the risk that Iran poses to Jordan and other countries in the region,” Pompeo added.
    Jordan, which has expressed worries in the past about Iranian influence, particularly near the Jordanian border in southern Syria, said Tehran should refrain from meddling in the affairs of its neighbors Syria and Iraq.
    “We all have problems with Iran’s expansionist policies in the region,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.
(Reporting By Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

1/9/2019 U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo meets Iraqi Speaker in Baghdad
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with the press as he
flies to the Middle East on January 7, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi in Baghdad on Wednesday, according to a statement from the Speaker’s office.
    Pompeo is on a tour of Middle Eastern capitals. The U.S. State Department did not immediately comment on reports of Pompeo’s visit to Iraq.    Asked on Tuesday about a possible visit, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi declined to confirm it.
    However, he said any meeting with Pompeo would involve a discussion of how to deepen Iraq’s relationship with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
    “He’s an ally, he represents a friendly country,” said Abdul Mahdi.    “We will raise those issues, and how to deal with regional issues altogether and deepen our economic and educational relations with the United States.”
    Pompeo told a news conference in Amman on Tuesday that the fight to defeat Islamic State and Iran remained the most pressing issues in the region.
    Pompeo’s visit comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, as Washington seeks to counter Iran’s sway in the Middle East.
    It also comes weeks after President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement that he will pull all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which caused alarm among U.S. allies in the region.
    Trump has not said, however, that he intends to withdraw American forces from Iraq, where 5,200 American troops are stationed.
    Trump made a visit to the Al Asad Air Base outside Baghdad on Dec. 26 in the wake of the announcement.
    He met with U.S. troops stationed there but not with Iraqi leaders, leading to condemnation from Iraqi political and militia leaders.
    A meeting between Trump and Abdul Mahdi was canceled due to a disagreement over the venue, and the men instead spoke by telephone.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Raya Jalabi; writing by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/9/2019 Erdogan threats against Kurds will not stop Syria withdrawal, Pompeo says by Raya Jalabi and Lesley Wroughton
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with the press as he flies to the Middle East
on January 7, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD/CAIRO (Reuters) – The U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria will not be scuppered despite Turkish threats against Washington’s Kurdish allies there, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday, promising to ensure that the Kurds would still be protected.
    Pompeo met leaders in Iraq’s capital and its semi-autonomous Kurdistan region on Wednesday, aiming to reassure them about Washington’s plans following President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last month of an abrupt withdrawal from Syria.
    The unannounced visits to Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital Erbil came on the second day of a Middle East tour also taking in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.
    Pompeo has the task of explaining U.S. policy in the region after Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which rattled allies and came as a shock to top U.S. officials.    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quit over it.
    The U.S. forces have been working with a Kurdish militia to fight against Islamic State.    The Kurds control a swath of northeastern Syria, Washington’s foothold in a conflict that has drawn in Russia, Iran, Turkey and other regional powers.
    Washington has repeatedly said its Kurdish allies will remain safe despite the withdrawal.    But Turkey, which considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia an enemy, has repeatedly vowed to crush the group and repudiated any suggestion of protecting it once U.S. troops leave.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan denounced visiting U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton on Tuesday for suggesting that protecting the Kurds would be a pre-condition of the U.S. withdrawal, a suggestion Erdogan called “a serious mistake.”
    Asked in Erbil if Erdogan’s pushback on the protection of the Kurds puts the withdrawal at risk, Pompeo told reporters: “No.    We’re having conversations with them even as we speak about how we will effectuate this in a way that protects our forces…."
    “It’s important that we do everything we can to make sure that those folks that fought with us are protected and Erdogan has made commitments, he understands that,” Pompeo added.
SMOOTH OVER RELATIONS
    The withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria strengthens the hand both of Turkey and of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Russia and Iran.    Pompeo has stressed throughout his trip to the region that Washington still aims to counter Iranian influence.
    In Iraq, Pompeo also sought to smooth over relations after political leaders were angered when Trump visited U.S. troops on the day after Christmas at a remote desert air base without stopping in Baghdad or meeting any Iraqi officials.
    Many politicians from the ruling coalition of mainly Shi’ite parties called Trump’s visit a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanded the United States withdraw troops.
    In Baghdad, Pompeo met Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim, Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi and President Barham Salih.
    President Salih, answering a reporter’s question on whether he wants the United States to keep troops, said Iraq “will need the support of the U.S,” and expressed his “gratitude to the U.S. for support over the years.”
    “ISIS is defeated militarily but the mission is not accomplished,” Salih said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
    The United States withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 eight years after an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, but sent thousands back after Islamic State fighters swept into the north of the country in 2014.    It now has around 5,200 there, and Trump has not announced plans to pull them out.
    Islamic State militants are still waging insurgent attacks in the north of the country and trying to make a comeback, although they were driven from all towns and cities last year.
    Asked on Tuesday about what would be discussed during a possible meeting with Pompeo, Abdul Mahdi said deepening Iraq’s relationship with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
    “He’s an ally, he represents a friendly country,” Abdul Mahdi said of Pompeo on Tuesday.    “We will raise those issues, and how to deal with regional issues altogether and deepen our economic and educational relations with the United States.”
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Cairo, Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Peter Graff)

1/9/2019 Police deploy ahead of Congo election result announcement by Giulia Paravicini and Stanis Bujakera
Martin Fayulu, Congolese joint opposition presidential candidate, speaks during a
press conference in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Democratic Republic of Congo’s election commission promised to release results of a presidential vote late on Wednesday, while residents said they feared violence would mar the first electoral transfer of power in 59 years of independence.
    Riot police were deployed at the commission’s headquarters in Kinshasa and elsewhere in the capital before the announcement of the outcome of the Dec. 30 vote.
    Pre-election polls gave businessman Martin Fayulu a healthy lead but his supporters believe President Joseph Kabila plans to rig the vote in favor of his hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, or alternatively forge a power-sharing pact with Felix Tshisekedi, head of the largest opposition party.
    Any widespread perception the election has been stolen could set off a destabilizing cycle of unrest, repeating violence that followed elections in 2006 and 2011.
    Whoever wins would be the first leader to take power at the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.    Kabila has ruled since the 2001 assassination of his father Laurent Kabila, who overthrew long-serving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in a 1996-1997 civil war.
    The election commission (CENI) said it would start to issue the results around 11 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Wednesday.
    “We don’t want people to die when they announce (the results), blood to be spilled,” said Kinshasa resident Ohn Kabamba.    “We are fed up, we are tired and we are waiting for a peaceful announcement which will allow us to rejoice rather than cry.”
    “If the CENI announces the true results of the ballot boxes it will be calm but if not, I don’t know what will happen,” said another Kinshasa resident, Abraham Tumba.
    Kabila had wanted to hand over to Shadary when he stands down this month two years after the official end of his mandate.    But polls suggested the former interior minister was trailing both Tshisekedi and frontrunner Fayulu.
    The Roman Catholic Church, which helped monitor the poll, has said there was a clear winner in the vote but refrained from saying who it thought had won.    It has been working behind the scenes in the strongly Catholic central African country to secure a peaceful transfer of power.
    In a joint declaration with a group of Protestant churches and election observer mission SYMOCEL, the Catholic bishops conference called for calm and demanded that CENI publish “only results that come from the ballot box.”
    “It is on that condition that the Congolese people, who are already in possession of vote tallies posted in front of polling stations, will trust CENI and accept the results,” it said.
    Besides the election commission’s headquarters, police also took up positions along Kinshasa’s main boulevard.    Although Kinshasa residents went about their normal activities, some parents kept their children home from school as a precaution.
    “Everyone … voted against the government in place. We are preparing fully to demand victory if it is stolen from us,” said Augustin Bujiriri, 25, a student in the eastern city of Goma.
CONTACTS
    The results were originally due last Sunday but were postponed due to delays tallying the vote.
    Tshisekedi’s camp, which says it expects to win, said on Tuesday that it had met with Kabila’s representatives to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, although Kabila’s camp denied any such meetings had occurred.
    Supporters of Fayulu have voiced suspicions that Kabila may be looking to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with Tshisekedi if his candidate Shadary loses.
    On Tuesday, Fayulu and six other presidential candidates issued a statement saying that the results “cannot be negotiated.”
    Tshisekedi’s spokesman, Vidiye Tshimanga, on Wednesday sought to play down the contacts with Kabila’s representatives, saying they had occurred only on the sidelines of meetings with the CENI and regional observers about the electoral process.
    Domestic election observers say they witnessed serious irregularities on election day and during vote tallying, although a regional observer mission said the election went “relatively well.”
(Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba in Goma; Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Toby Chopra, William Maclean and Peter Graff)

1/9/2019 Sudan’s Bashir vows to stay in power as protests rage nearby
People participate in an anti-government protest in Omdurman, Sudan January 9, 2018
in this still image taken from a social media video. Haitham Seo/via REUTERS
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir told a rally of thousands of supporters on Wednesday he would stay in power, as protesters massed a few miles away calling for him to quit over an economic crisis.
    A defiant Bashir challenged his opponents to beat him at the ballot box and blamed unnamed foreign powers for provoking weeks of almost daily protests prompted by bread and currency shortages.
    “(To) those who are seeking power, there is one way which is in the ballot box, through free and fair elections,” said Bashir, who opened and closed his address dancing to patriotic music and waving his cane in the air.
    Across the River Nile in Omdurman, witnesses said security forces used tear gas to break up a demonstration of more than 200 people, some of whom chanted: “Freedom, freedom, peaceful against the thieves.”
    Witnesses said policemen chased demonstrators into side roads, from where they regrouped to resume their protest.    Hundreds also blocked a main road, witnesses said.
    Protests over rising bread prices and currency shortages began on Dec. 19 in the northern city of Atbara and soon spread and turned into demonstrations against Bashir.
    A former army general who overthrew the elected government in 1989, Bashir has since repeatedly won elections which his opponents have challenged as neither fair nor free.
MUTINY AND WAR
    On Wednesday, Bashir stood on an open-air stage in central Khartoum’s Green Square and told his supporters that foreign enemies were trying to break Sudan.
    “There was the war, mutiny and war … They besieged us economically to make Sudan kneel down and they are trying to humiliate us with a small amount of wheat, petrol and dollars,” Bashir said during the rally organized by his ruling party.
    “But our pride is more valuable than the dollar,” he told the crowd of flag-waving supporters.
    Sudanese authorities say at least 19 people, including two security officers, have died in the protests.    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the toll is twice as high.
    Sudan has slid deeper into economic crisis since the southern part of the country seceded after a referendum in 2011, taking away much of the country’s oil resources.
    The crisis has deepened further since last year, when the country saw some brief protests over bread shortages.
    The United States lifted 20-year-old trade sanctions on Sudan in October 2017.    But many investors have continued to shun a country still listed by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism, whose president is wanted by the International     Criminal Court over charges of masterminding genocide in Darfur – charges he dismisses.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

1/9/2019 Syrian minister optimistic on Kurdish talks
FILE PHOTO: Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad speaks during a
news conference in Damascus, Syria March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
    DAMASCUS (Reuters) – A Syrian government minister expressed optimism on Wednesday over dialogue with Kurdish groups that want to strike a political deal with Damascus, suggesting progress had been made in contacts mediated by Russia.
    Kurdish-led groups who control swathes of northern Syria have revived contacts with Damascus in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from their region.    These groups are keen to stave off any Turkish attack.
    Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s comments to journalists were the first on the talks with the Kurds, who are calling on Damascus to deploy troops at the border with Turkey.
    Asked whether progress had been made, Mekdad said: “I feel that we must always be optimistic.    The past experiences were not encouraging.    But now matters are reaching their conclusion.”
    He signaled approval of recent statements by Kurdish groups affirming they are part of the Syrian state and nation, saying “the conditions” were favorable for them return to the state.
    “Therefore I am always optimistic … we encourage these political groups to be sincere in dialogue that is happening now between the Syrian state and these groups, taking into account that there is no alternative to that,” he told a small group of journalists including Reuters.
    A top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters last week that the Kurdish groups had presented a “road map” for a deal with Damascus during recent meetings at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
    If such a deal could be agreed, it would piece back together the two biggest chunks of a country splintered by eight years of war and leave one corner of the northwest in the hands of anti-Assad rebels backed by Turkey.
    The immediate priority for the Kurdish-led authorities of northern Syria is to find a way to shield the region from Turkey, which views the Kurdish YPG militia as a national security threat.
    Turkey has already sent its army into Syria twice to push back the YPG.    But it has held off attacking the large Kurdish-controlled area of the northeast where U.S. forces operate.
    Mekdad said he was certain all “foreign forces” would withdraw from Syria.
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)

1/10/2019 Congo opposition leader Tshisekedi clinches surprise win in presidential election by Giulia Paravicini and Stanis Bujakera
Martin Fayulu, Congolese joint opposition presidential candidate, speaks during a
press conference in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission on Thursday declared opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi the surprise winner of last month’s chaotic presidential election, but the runner-up dismissed the outcome as an “electoral coup.”
    The result sets the stage for Congo’s first democratic transfer of power, but also a tense political standoff with the potential for the kind of violence that followed polls in 2006 and 2011 whose outcome was contested.
    Vote tallies by Congo’s Catholic church (CENCO) showed second-placed opposition candidate Martin Fayulu as victor, according to two diplomats briefed on the findings.
    Tshisekedi won with 38.57 percent of more than 18 million ballots cast, Corneille Nangaa, the president of the election commission (CENI), told a news conference at 3 a.m. (0200 GMT) that seemed timed to avoid any immediate reaction in the streets.
    “Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo is declared the provisionally- elected president of Democratic Republic of Congo,” Nangaa said, to a mixture of cheers and gasps inside CENI headquarters.
    In the Kinshasa neighborhood of Limete where Tshisekedi lives, thousands of people danced in the streets in celebration and cars slowed down and honked their horns.
    Some chanted that Congo had “turned the page” on the Kabila era, which began in 1997 when Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent, led a rebellion that overthrew longtime leader Mobutu Sese Seko.    Joseph took over in 2001 when Laurent was assassinated.
    “For a ruler to pass power to an opponent is rare, and it gives hope for the rest of Africa,” said John, a school teacher in Kinshasa who declined to give his full name.
    “We now want change with this new power.    Poverty, insecurity, killings, we must finish with all this.”
    Speaking to cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters, Tshisekedi paid his respects to outgoing President Joseph Kabila, whom he called “an important political partner,” and promised to rule for all Congo’s 80 million people.
    “I will not be the president of a political organization … I will not be the president of a tribe … I will be the president of all Congolese,” he said.
    If Tshisekedi’s victory is confirmed in the next 10 days by the constitutional court, he will become the first leader to take power at the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.
    Opposition fears that authorities would rig the vote in favor of Kabila’s hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, did not materialize as Shadary finished a distant third to Tshisekedi and Fayulu, with about 4.4 million votes.
    However, the result will fuel suspicion among Fayulu’s supporters that Tshisekedi, shown by pre-election opinion polls to be running well behind Fayulu, struck a power-sharing pact with Kabila.
    Tshisekedi’s camp has acknowledged contact with Kabila’s representatives since the vote but said they were aimed at ensuring a peaceful transition and denied there had been any deal.
    In an interview with Radio France Internationale, Fayulu, who was backed by prominent foes of Kabila, described the vote as an “electoral coup.”
    “The results have nothing to do with the truth of the ballot box,” he told RFI, and called on observers of the Dec. 30 vote to publish the real results.
CONTESTATION
    Tshisekedi is the son of the legendary Etienne Tshisekedi, who led opposition to three successive presidents over 35 years. Felix’s profile rose when his father died in 2017 after helping to negotiate Kabila’s reluctant departure.
    Kabila initially refused to step down when his mandate ended in 2016.    In an interview last month, he did not rule out running again for president in 2023.
    Losing candidates can contest Tshisekedi’s victory before Congo’s constitutional court, which has 10 days to hear and rule on any challenges.
    Any widespread perception the election has been stolen could set off a destabilizing cycle of unrest, particularly in the volatile eastern borderlands where Fayulu enjoyed some of his strongest support.
    The Catholic Church’s bishops conference said last week that it knew the identity of the winner and demanded that CENI publish accurate results.    The Church did not say who it thought the winner was, but briefed diplomats on its conclusions.     CENCO was not immediately available for comment after the results.
    The vote was initially delayed by a week in part because of a fire that destroyed ballot papers.    Authorities canceled voting on election day for more than one million people, saying the vote could not go ahead because of an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.
    Observers said many polling stations opened late and closed early and in some places voting machines malfunctioned.
(Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba in Goma; Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross and Edward McAllister; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)

1/10/2019 Congo presidential loser’s supporters cry foul after surprise result by Giulia Paravicini
Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the Congolese main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS)
who was announced as the winner of the presidential elections gestures to his supporters
in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Furious supporters of the runner-up in Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election denounced Thursday’s results as a fix, while France said the outcome was at odds with what was seen on the ground.
    The electoral commission (CENI) announced around 3 a.m. (0200 GMT) that opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi had won the chaotic Dec. 30 vote, edging ahead of another opposition candidate, businessman Martin Fayulu.
    Fayulu called the results an “electoral coup” engineered by outgoing President Joseph Kabila to deny him the presidency.
    Vote tallies collected by Congo’s Catholic church showed Fayulu winning, according to two diplomats briefed on the findings.
    The anger over the results, and particularly the Fayulu camp’s suspicions that Tshisekedi won by cutting a power-sharing deal with Kabila, could cast a cloud over what is meant to be Congo’s first democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence.
    Tshisekedi’s camp has acknowledged contact with Kabila’s representatives since the election but said they were aimed at ensuring a peaceful transition and denied there was a deal.     The streets of the capital Kinshasa and other major cities appeared calm early on Thursday, but Fayulu supporters vented their frustrations.
    “We will never accept this nomination.    It’s not a victory for Felix.    CENI has appointed him,” said Georges Bingi, a member of Fayulu’s ECIDE party in the eastern city of Goma.    “They have stolen the victory of the people.    We will not accept it.”
    Fayulu can appeal the results to Congo’s constitutional court but has not yet indicated whether he plans to do so.
    By contrast, the campaign of Kabila’s hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who finished a distant third, said it accepted CENI’s results.
    “Of course we are not happy as our candidate lost, but the Congolese people have chosen and democracy has triumphed.    And we believe in the democratic and republican values,” Shadary spokesman Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi told Reuters.
WHITHER KABILA?
    Tshisekedi’s win also raises questions over the political future of Kabila, who has governed since his father’s assassination in 2001, and overstayed the official end of his mandate by two years.
    Kabila said before the election that he planned to remain involved in politics after stepping down and could not rule out running again for president in 2023, when he will no longer be term-limited.
    Any escalation in the Fayulu camp’s rhetoric or actions risks igniting a destabilizing cycle of unrest, particularly in the volatile eastern borderlands where he enjoyed strong support and dozens of militia groups are active.
    Members of Tshisekedi’s UDPS party called the election a historic triumph in a struggle for democracy spearheaded by his father, the late Etienne Tshisekedi, under three successive presidents.
    “Today marks the liberation of the people. It is the democratic reality that we have sought for a long time,” said Simphora Biduaya, a candidate for provincial assembly in the east.
    But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tshisekedi’s surprise victory contrasted with observations in the field.
    “We must have clarity on these results, which are the opposite to what we expected,” Le Drian told CNews.    “The Catholic Church of Congo did its tally and announced completely different results.”
    United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged “all stakeholders to refrain from violence and to channel any eventual electoral disputes through the established institutional mechanisms,” his spokesman said.
    If Tshisekedi’s victory is confirmed in the next 10 days by the constitutional court, he will become the first leader to take power at the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.    He was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.
(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera, Fiston Mahamba and Djaffa; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
[ As seen above in this African nation so far has had a decent civility over the election results I cannot believe that the Democrats in the United States of America have shown how low they can go as shown below on January 20th, 2017 all the press pushed was demonstrations from the sore anti-christian losers, and since then anything the Trump administration does from this point on will be attacked and misconstrued in the press
                   
    The election of Donald Trump to office in 2016 slowed up their agenda and they have done nothing but attack him using the press and protests from all the low life’s they can muster from day one and he has even been attacked by insiders of his own staff, who were obviously influenced by the dark side from the former administration corruption, which is why Trump has had to clean the swamp, which is very full of it.    May God help him, especially for his acknowledgement of Jerusalem the capital of Israel, which signaled to me he is doing what is right as all of us will see in the near future.].

1/10/2019 Yemen’s Houthi drones strike government military parade, several killed
Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade
in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
    ADEN (Reuters) – Houthi drones on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in Lahaj province, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.
    The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when a loud explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said, adding high-ranked officials including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff were wounded in the attack.
    Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five were killed and several were injured.    The Houthi’s Al-Masirah TV said the attack targeted “the leadership of the invaders.”
    A military source said the attack targeted the podium where officials were sitting.
    It was unclear if military officials were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Gulf states leading a coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
    The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement a U.N.-sponsored peace deal.
    The Iranian-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to a ceasefire in the strategic port city of Hodeidah and to withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure to end the nearly four-year-old war that has killed tens of thousands of people.
    But its implementation has stalled as the agreement did not spell out who would control Hodeidah city after the troop withdrawal.
(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Toby Chopra)

1/10/2019 Turkey says U.S. missile deal impossible if tied to dropping Russian S-400s
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference
in Istanbul, Turkey October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey may buy U.S. Patriot missile systems if conditions are right, but a deal will be impossible if Washington forces Ankara not to purchase the S-400 systems which it agreed to buy from Russia, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday.
    In an interview with broadcaster NTV, Cavusoglu said Turkey will not accept the United States imposing conditions regarding its deal to buy the Russian-made S-400 defense systems.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/10/2019 Saudi woman’s flight rallies opposition to male guardianship by Stephen Kalin
FILE PHOTO: Women walk past a poster of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
during Janadriyah Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 12, 2018.
Picture taken February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo
    RIYADH (Reuters) – An 18-year-old Saudi woman’s flight from what she said was an abusive family has rallied opposition to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, still a major constraint on women despite the conservative Muslim country’s efforts to open up.
    Some freedoms have been granted under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ended a ban on women driving, eased restrictions on gender mixing, and championed firsts such as allowing women to serve in the armed forces.
    Yet those changes have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of some of the activists who campaigned for decades to improve women’s rights – as well as Muslim preachers who opposed them.
    Many activists are calling for an end to the guardianship system, which has been chipped away at slowly over the years but remains in force.
    Under the system, every Saudi women is assigned a male relative – often a father or husband but sometimes an uncle, brother or even a son – whose approval is needed if she is to marry, obtain a passport and travel abroad.
    The plight of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun, who slipped away from her family last weekend during a holiday in Kuwait, recalls the cases of other Saudi women who fled mistreatment only to be forcibly returned to the kingdom and never heard from again.
    Amid global outrage at Saudi Arabia over last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Qanun’s tweets from Bangkok airport sparked an online campaign.    She barricaded herself inside a hotel room for hours until the Thai government reversed its decision to send her home.
    In some countries, her adult age would have prevented the authorities from telling her family anything about her.    In Saudi Arabia, her gender meant she was her father’s ward.
    “Remove guardianship and we won’t all migrate” trended this week on Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
    Mai, who identified as a 36-year-old physician, said she was embarrassed to have two children and a degree from Harvard University but still be viewed as a minor.
    “I am trusted to make life and death decisions for patients, trusted to raise kids … but not trusted to make my own decisions regarding MY life.    The irony! #EndMaleGuardianship,” she tweeted.
    Qanun was also attacked on social media for shaming her family and renouncing Islam, highlighting the delicate balance Prince Mohammed must strike in reforming Saudi society without destabilizing it.
FAMILY PROBLEM
    Guardianship’s status between law and custom makes it a thorny issue for Prince Mohammed, who indicated last year he favored ending the system but stopped short of endorsing its annulment.
    “If I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters,” he told U.S. magazine The Atlantic.
    Without a codified system of law to go with the texts making up sharia, or Islamic law, the Saudi police and judiciary have long cited social customs in enforcing certain prohibitions on women.    Many aspects of guardianship stem from informal practice rather than specific laws.
    Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.
    Activists launched the “I Am My Own Guardian” campaign in 2016 demanding legal representation.
    King Salman issued an order the following year allowing women to benefit from services such as education and healthcare without the consent of a male guardian, though rights groups say this is being implemented only on a limited basis.
    Other challenges remain.    There is no formal bar on women buying or renting property but it can be difficult for them to do so without a male relative, according to rights groups.
    Authorities have removed restrictions on women in the labor code and ended formal requirements for them to obtain a guardian’s permission to work, but some employers still demand this and are not penalized for doing so.
    The kingdom also ended requirements that a woman bring a male relative to identify her in court, and women can obtain a license and drive cars without their guardian’s approval.     Mohammed al-Issa, a former justice minister who sits on the kingdom’s top clerical body, told Reuters last year there was no reason why women should be barred from obtaining a passport or traveling without the consent of a male guardian but it may take time for society to accept that.
    Some Saudi women do not want to wait.
    “We have the right (to) be treated as adults since we’re above 18 years,” a woman named Fatin wrote online.    “This guardianship is no more than modern enslavement system!
(Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Giles Elgood)

1/10/2019 In Cairo, Pompeo blasts Obama’s Middle East policies by Lesley Wroughton and Lena Masri
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Barack Obama on Thursday of sowing chaos in the Middle East by failing to adequately confront Islamist militants in a blistering critique of the policies of President Donald Trump’s predecessor.
    Speaking in Cairo, where Obama gave a major speech in 2009 in the first year of his presidency, Republican Trump’s chief diplomat took on Obama by arguing that the Democratic former president had in effect misread and abandoned the Middle East.
    The comments raised eyebrows in the United States and abroad not the least because Trump himself is being criticized for his ambiguous plan announced last month to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.    While that decision’s timing is unclear, it is widely seen as abandoning the region and benefiting U.S. rivals Russia and Iran.
    “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows.    When we neglect our friends, resentment builds.    And when we partner with our enemies, they advance,” Pompeo said in a speech at the American University in Cairo in which he did not mention Obama by name but called him “another American” who gave a speech in the capital of the Arab world’s most populous nation.
    Pompeo is touring the region to try to explain U.S. strategy after Trump’s surprise announcement of an abrupt withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which rattled allies and shocked top U.S. officials, prompting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
    It is highly unusual for an American secretary of state to deliver a speech in a foreign capital attacking a former U.S. president.    But Trump has frequently sought to belittle his predecessor and has reversed Obama policies on international issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, trade agreements and the Paris climate change accord as well as domestic policies.
    Describing the United States as a “force for good” in the Middle East, Pompeo sought to reassure allies that Washington remained committed to the “complete dismantling” of the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group despite Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
    Pompeo also faulted what he called Obama’s “desire for peace at any cost” that led him to strike the 2015 nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear weapons program in exchange for easing of international economic sanctions.
    Trump this year abandoned that deal, pursuing instead what his administration has called a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran to try to force it to limit its nuclear program, curtail its ballistic missile activities and cease supporting proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
‘SELF-INFLICTED AMERICAN SHAME’
    “The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over.    And so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering.    Now comes the real new beginning,” Pompeo added.
    In his June 2009 speech at Cairo University, Obama called for better mutual understanding between the Islamic world and the West and said both should do more to confront violent extremism.    As a result, Republicans have long accused Obama of apologizing to the world for U.S. actions abroad, a point that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney emphasized during his 2012 attempt to unseat Obama.
    Pompeo’s speech drew immediate criticism from Middle East experts as well as officials who served under Obama who accused the secretary of state of violating the American tradition that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
    “It feels a little bit as if the approach is to ‘talk loudly and carry a small stick,'” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
    “There is a lot of ambitious language, but very little actual commitment of U.S. resources.    You could read this as obscuring a continued U.S. retrenchment from Middle Eastern commitments,” Alterman added.
    On Twitter, Martin Indyk, who served in the Obama administration, called the speech “shameful Obama-bashing.”
    Pompeo directly repudiated Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, which was an overture by the then-new president to the Islamic world.
    “Remember, it was here in this city that another American stood before you.    He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology.    He told you that 9/11 (the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States) led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East,” Pompeo said.
    “He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed, quote, a new beginning, end of quote.    The results of these misjudgments have been dire,” Pompeo added.    “In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid in asserting ourselves when the time and our partners demanded it.”
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Lena Masri; Additional reporting by Amina Ismail in Cairo and David Brunstrom and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Will Dunham)

1/10/2019 Catholic Church rejects Congo vote result, loser decries ‘coup’ by Giulia Paravicini and Stanis Bujakera
Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the Congolese main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS)
who was announced as the winner of the presidential elections gestures to his supporters
in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – The Catholic Church rejected the official result of Congo’s presidential election on Thursday and the loser denounced a “coup,” dashing hopes that the country could stage the first uncontested transfer of power in its 59 years of independence.
    Electoral officials proclaimed opposition figure Felix Tshisekedi the victor of the election to replace Joseph Kabila who has ruled Democratic Republic of Congo for 18 years.
    Pre-election polls had predicted a landslide win for another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, who is backed by powerful exiled politicians and former militia leaders with influence in the violent east.
    Fayulu’s supporters say the authorities rigged the result on behalf of Tshisekedi as part of a deal to protect figures from the outgoing administration.    At least four people were reported killed in demonstrations in one eastern city, although much of the rest of the country appeared calm.
    Tshisekedi’s supporters celebrated his victory. But Thursday’s intervention by the Catholic Church could make it harder for him to win broad acceptance as the first leader to come to power through the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was overthrown in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960.
    Congolese fear that a dispute over the poll could restart a cycle of violence in a country where civil wars causing hunger and disease have killed millions of people since the 1990s.
    The Catholic Church is widely venerated across the country of 80 million and is believed to have accurate election data gathered by a 40,000-strong team of election observers who tallied results displayed at individual polling stations.
    While bishops stopped short of publishing their own results or saying who they believed was the true winner, they made clear it wasn’t Tshisekedi, as declared by election commission CENI.
    “The results from the presidential election as published by CENI do not correspond to the data collected by our observation mission from polling stations and vote counts,” the National Episcopal Conference of Congo observers said in a statement.
    Three diplomats briefed on the Church mission’s tally said it showed Fayulu had won.
OPPOSITE TO WHAT WE EXPECTED
    France and former colonial power Belgium also expressed doubt.    French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian demanded clarity on results “which are the opposite to what we expected.”
    Britain’s foreign secretary tweeted that he was “very concerned about discrepancies” in the results and that the U.N. Security Council would discuss it.
    Fayulu, who has led anti-government demonstrations and is seen as far more hostile to the outgoing administration than opposition rival Tshisekedi, said Kabila had engineered an “electoral coup” to deny him the presidency.
    In the city of Kikwit, 500 km (310 miles) from the capital Kinshasa, crowds of Fayulu supporters attacked symbols of government and clashed with security forces.    Four people were killed, Kikwit’s mayor Leonard Mutangu told Reuters.
    There were celebrations in parts of Kinshasa and the south of the country where Tshisekedi has broad support.    Towns in Katanga, the southeastern mining heartland, were calm.
    Protests were reported in the eastern city of Kisangani, and Fayulu supporters vented their frustrations.
    “We will never accept this nomination.    It’s not a victory for Felix.    CENI has appointed him,” said Georges Bingi, a member of Fayulu’s party in the eastern city of Goma.
GUN TO HIS HEAD
    Fayulu may appeal to Congo’s constitutional court.
    Fayulu supporters say Kabila made a deal with Tshisekedi after Kabila’s own hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, failed to gain enough support to be a credible winner.    Shadary conceded following the announcement of the results.
    Kabila has ruled since the 2001 assassination of his father Laurent Kabila, whose victory in a 1996-1997 civil war ended more than three decades of rule by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
    Kabila says he wants to stay in politics and may run again in 2023, when he will no longer be barred by term limits.
    Tshisekedi inherited the leadership of his UDPS party when his father Etienne Tshisekedi died in 2017.    But he lacks the experience, political clout and firebrand reputation his father earned as a leading opposition figure since the Mobutu era.
    An official from the from U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations said Tshisekedi’s win might buy some temporary calm but that “the exiled and cheated will rebel,” referring to ex-militia and political leaders who are backing Fayulu.
    “Tshisekedi has no capacity to rule, no way of controlling the army or ministerial appointments.    He will do as told, gun to his head,” the official said.
    In the run-up to the results, Tshisekedi said Kabila had nothing to fear should he come to power.    Fayulu, by contrast, is backed by ex-rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba and former governor Moise Katumbi, two of Kabila’s fiercest rivals.
    Any escalation from the Fayulu camp risks igniting Congo’s cycle of unrest, particularly in the eastern borderlands where he enjoys strong support and dozens of militia groups operate.
    It is unclear whether voting will ever be held in parts of Congo where the election was delayed – disenfranchising more than 1.2 million people – due to concerns about Ebola and violence.    Tshisekedi’s margin over Fayulu was less than 700,000 votes, according to the official results.
    Members of Tshisekedi’s UDPS party called the election a historic triumph in a struggle for democracy.    The inauguration had been scheduled for Jan. 18.
    “Today marks the liberation of the people,” said Simphora Biduaya, a candidate for provincial assembly in the east.
(Additional reporting Fiston Mahamba and Sabiti Djaffar; Writing by David Lewis and Aaron Ross; Editing by Alexandra Zavis, Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Graff)

1/10/2019 Hamas leader’s Jan. 15 trip to Moscow canceled
FILE PHOTO: Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh gestures as he delivers a speech
in Gaza City January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo
    GAZA (Reuters) – A planned trip to Moscow next week by the leader of Hamas has been canceled, Palestinian officials said on Thursday amid new friction between the Islamist group that controls Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank.
    The Jan. 15 meeting between Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and ,b>Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was called off due to Lavrov’s busy schedule, Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, tweeted.    No new date was announced.
    The cancellation was first reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency, which cited information from the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador.
    A long-running dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over power-sharing worsened this week when the PA pulled its personnel from Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt.    They were replaced by Hamas employees.
    Egypt responded by blocking the entry of travelers from Gaza through Rafah, the Palestinian territory’s main exit to the world.
    Israel maintains tight restrictions on its border crossings with Gaza, citing security concerns.
    Haniyeh had been due to travel to Russia via Egypt, but it was unclear whether Rafah’s closure would have prevented him from making the visit.
    In the past, Egypt has allowed Hamas leaders in even when Rafah has been closed to the public.    Battling an Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai peninsula that borders Gaza, Egypt has frequently curtailed passage through Rafah.
    Two senior Egyptian security officials met Hamas representatives in Gaza on Thursday to discuss the faltering unity efforts as well as tensions along the border with Israel, Palestinian sources said.
    Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in a brief Palestinian civil war in 2007, and the PA have failed repeatedly to implement an Egyptian-mediated reconciliation deal.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Nidal al-Mughrabi; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Jeffrey Heller and Robin Pomeroy)

1/10/2019 Archaeologists restore ancient Palmyra artifacts in Damascus museum
A specialist works on a damaged statue from Palmyra at Syria's National Museum of Damascus,
Syria January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
    DAMASCUS (Reuters) – In the National Museum of Damascus, archaeologist Muntajab Youssef works on an ancient stone bust from Palmyra, one of hundreds of artifacts his team is painstakingly restoring after they were damaged by Islamic State.
    Centuries-old statues and sculptures were wrecked by the jihadists when they twice seized control of the old city in central Syria during the country’s war, which will go into its ninth year in March.
    The 1,800-year-old bust of a bejeweled and richly clothed woman, The Beauty of Palmyra, was damaged during the first offensive on the city by Islamic State fighters in 2015.
    After Syrian government forces took back the city with Russian military support in March 2016, the bust, alongside other damaged ancient monuments, was taken to Damascus and archived in boxes.    When restoration work on it began last year, Youssef said it was in pieces.
    “The hands and face were lost completely, also parts of the dress and there are areas that are weaker,” Youssef, who has been working on the bust for two months, said.
    Youssef is one of 12 archaeologists working on the arduous restoration job, which first began with the of moving the damaged pieces to Damascus.
    Mamoun Abdulkarim, the former Head of Syrian Antiquities, said that in some cases broken artifacts were transported in empty ammunition boxes provided by the Syrian army in Palmyra.
    How many artifacts there are in total is difficult to say, given the state they were found in.
    The lack of documentation for the artifacts also adds to the restoration challenge.
    “A big part of the documentation in the Palmyra museum, was damaged with the antiquities and computers,” archaeologist Raed Abbas said.
    “A statue needs pictures … in order to be rebuilt.”
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Alison Williams)

1/10/2019 Sudan police use tear gas as protests kill three: SUNA
Supporters of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir chant slogans to his favour during a
rally at Green Square in Khartoum, Sudan January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese police used tear gas to disperse “illegal” protests against the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir in the city of Omdurman in which three people were killed, state news agency SUNA said on Thursday.
    Sudan’s second-largest city “witnessed riots and illegal gatherings” on Wednesday, SUNA said, amid weeks of demonstrations.
    SUNA quoted police as saying that they knew of three deaths and several people being wounded and that these attacks were being investigated.
    No other details were immediately available.     Police chased demonstrators into side roads, from where they regrouped to resume their protests, witnesses said. Hundreds also blocked a main road.
    Bashir vowed at a rally of thousands of supporters in the capital Khartoum on Wednesday that he would stay in power.
    His speech failed to quell the unrest, with security forces fighting running battles on Wednesday with protesters in Omdurman on the other side of the Nile to the capital.
    Protesters have been staging demonstrations almost daily for weeks, enraged by shortages of bread and foreign currency.    The unrest has come as the ruling party has pressed ahead with plans to change the constitution so Bashir can stay in office beyond his present term, which ends in 2020.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ali Abdelaty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

1/11/2019 U.S. troops begin withdrawing from Syria by OAN Newsroom
    The U.S. is reportedly beginning the process of withdrawing troops from Syria.    While he didn’t release details, a U.S. military official recently said equipment is being removed from the region.
    This comes just three-weeks after President Trump announced he is bringing troops home.    Stalling the process were fears about Turkey invading territory held by Kurdish allies to the U.S., and leaving a power vacuum in the war-torn country.    However, the Kurds reached out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for help.
FILE – In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier, left, sits on an armored vehicle behind a sand barrier
at a newly installed position near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and
the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. An American military official said Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 that the
U.S.-led military coalition has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
    International players in the conflict have been in talks about the future of former U.S. territory in Syria.
    Russia is mediating talks between the Syrian government and the Kurds to ensure a smooth transition when U.S. troops leave the region.
    While speaking to reporters Friday, a spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said establishing dialogue is vital to maintaining peace.    The spokesperson also urged the U.S. to hand over its territory to Assad amid threats from Turkey of a possible attack on Kurds in the region.
    However, Moscow has not officially picked a side in the brewing conflict as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to meet with his Turkish counterpart later this month.
    National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both visited countries in the region to explain the shift in U.S. policy.

1/11/2019 U.S.-led coalition withdrawing equipment from Syria by Rodi Said and Phil Stewart
FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of
U.S military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    QAMISHLI, Syria/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State added to confusion surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Syria on Friday by declaring that it had started the pullout process but U.S. officials later clarified that only equipment, not troops, had exited the country.
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he had decided to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops there stunned allies who have joined Washington in the battle against Islamic State militants in Syria. Senior U.S. officials were shocked too, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in protest.
    U.S. Colonel Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman, said the coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.”
    “Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” Ryan said.
    After media reports suggesting the departure of U.S. forces had begun, U.S. officials told Reuters that no troops had yet withdrawn and stressed that the battle against Islamic State was continuing as U.S.-backed forces try to capture the group’s last remaining pockets of territory in Syria.    The three U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
    But the U.S. officials confirmed that equipment was being moved out of Syria, a sign that despite mixed messages from Washington preparations for a withdrawal of troops was proceeding apace.
    Residents near border crossings that are typically used by U.S. forces going in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of U.S. ground forces on Friday.
SYRIA UPHEAVAL
    The U.S. decision has injected new uncertainties into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the U.S. forces are stationed.
    On the one hand, Turkey aims to pursue a campaign against Kurdish forces that have allied with the United States, and on the other the Russia-and Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.
    U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested on Tuesday that protecting Washington’s Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the U.S. withdrawal.    That drew a rebuke from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who called his comments “a serious mistake.”
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been touring the Middle East this week to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to regional security, said on Thursday the withdrawal would not be scuppered despite the Turkish threats.
    The Kurdish groups that control the north have turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their autonomy in the north.
    Russia, which has deployed forces into Syria in support of the Damascus government, said it had the impression that the United States wanted to stay despite the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops, RIA news agency reported.
RUSSIA URGES DAMASCUS-KURDISH DIALOGUE
    Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said it was important for Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government to start talking to each other in light of the U.S. withdrawal plans.
    She also said the territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian government.
    “In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance.    After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society,” Zakharova said.
    Turkey views the U.S.-backed YPG Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights, mostly in southeastern areas near Syria.
    A Kurdish politician told Reuters last week the Kurds had presented Moscow with a road-map for a deal with Damascus.    Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Wednesday he was optimistic about renewed dialogue with the Kurds.
    Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, welcomed what he believed was a slower withdrawal by the United States after pressure from its allies.
    “President Macron spoke to him (Trump) several times and it seems that there has been a change that I think is positive,” he said in a television interview on Thursday.
    In a rare acknowledgment that French troops were also in Syria, he said they would leave when there is a political solution in the country.
(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry and Phil Stewart; Editing by Angus MacSwan and James Dalgleish)

1/11/2019 Israeli gunfire kills Gaza woman during border protests
A wounded Palestinian demonstrator is evacuated during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence,
in the southern Gaza Strip January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian woman during Gaza border protests on Friday, medics said, and the military said it opened fire in response to grenade and rock attacks and breaches of the frontier.
    Ashraf Al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza health ministry, said 25 other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire during the mass demonstration, a weekly event along the border since March 30.
    An Israeli military spokesman said troops had faced off with around 13,000 Palestinians, some of whom threw rocks and grenades across the fenced-off border.    On three occasions, Palestinians crossed into Israel before doubling back, he said.
    Gaza’s health ministry, run by the Islamist militant group Hamas, says more than 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops in the protests, billed as pressing for an end to a grinding Israeli-led blockade of the enclave.
    The 44-year-old woman killed on Friday was shot in the head, Gaza medics said.
    Palestinians also want a right of return to lands from which their families fled or were forced to flee in the 1948 war of Israel’s founding.
    Israel says the protests are organized by Hamas to distract from its governance problems and provide cover for cross-border attacks.    Hamas denies this.
    On Friday, two senior Egyptian security officials left the territory after meeting with officials from Hamas and other factions.    Participants said they discussed Cairo-led efforts to reconcile Hamas with the rival Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and reduce border tensions.
    A Palestinian official said Egypt’s message was that Israel sought no escalation.
    “Factions here are also committed to calm as long as the Israeli occupation abides by it,” the official told Reuters.
    In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Abbas has a measure of control, the army said troops shot a Palestinian who attempted to carry out a stabbing attack near a Jewish settlement.    The Palestinian was detained and taken for medical treatment.
(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/11/2019 Near Syrian border, Turkish defense minister vows operation when time is right
FILE PHOTO: Turkey's Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar is seen during the
EFES-2018 Military Exercise near the Aegean port city of Izmir, Turkey May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s defense minister on Friday , sharpening focus on a potential conflict the United States has sought to prevent.
    The comments from Hulusi Akar, on an unannounced visit to inspect troops stationed near the Syrian border directly opposite territory held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG, appeared to be aimed at both Washington and its Kurdish allies.
    Turkey and the United States, although NATO allies, are deeply divided over the implementation of President Donald Trump’s plan to bring home about 2,000 troops stationed in Syria.    The plan hinges on Turkish cooperation to secure a swathe of northeast Syria as the United States departs.
    While the pull-out has been clouded by mixed messages from both Trump and his administration, on Friday the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State began the process of withdrawing, a spokesman said.
    Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, this week tried to make the case for guarantees that Turkey would not harm the YPG after the withdrawal.    That earned a stiff rebuke from President Tayyip Erdogan.    Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and sees Washington’s support for it against Islamic State as a betrayal.
    “When the time and place comes the terrorists here will be buried in the ditches they have dug, as was done in previous operations,” Akar said in a speech to military personnel at a brigade command center in the province of Sanliurfa, referring to two other cross-border campaigns that Turkey has carried out in Syria.
    Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. The Kurdish groups that control a vast swathe of northern Syria have now turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their autonomy in the north.
    Ankara has repeatedly expressed frustration over a deal with the United States for the withdrawal of the YPG from the city of Manbij, just west of the Euphrates river.
    “Before us we have Manbij on one side and the east of the Euphrates on the other,” Akar said, underscoring the scale of a potential operation.    “Important preparations and planning have been made in connection with this.    Our preparations are continuing intensively.”
    Turkey’s planned military operation against a Kurdish militia in Syria does not depend on an American withdrawal from the region, Ankara said on Thursday.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Toby Chopra)
[The U.S. troops might have to stay and fight off NATO Turkey from their aggression.].

1/12/2019 Pompeo says good outcome possible for both Turkey and Syrian Kurds
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Manama International Airport in
Manama, Bahrain, January 11, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    ABU DHABI (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday he was optimistic that a “good outcome” could be reached between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups, after speaking to the Turkish foreign minister.
    “We recognize the Turkish people’s right to defend their country from terrorists, but we also know that those … who are not terrorists and fighting alongside us for all this time deserve to be protected,” Pompeo told reporters.
    “There are many details to be worked out but I am optimistic we can achieve a good outcome,” he said.     Kurdish-led groups who control swathes of northern Syria fear an attack from Turkey in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from their region.    Turkey sees the Kurdish YPG militia so close to its border as a security threat.    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crush the group.
    Speaking in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi as part of a regional tour, Pompeo also said the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria is a “tactical change” and does not alter U.S. military capacity to counter Islamic State and Iran.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson)

1/12/2019 Saudi Arabia to set up $10 billion oil refinery in Pakistan by Gul Yousafzai
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih speaks during a news conference
in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo
    GWADAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia plans to set up a $10 billion oil refinery in Pakistan’s deepwater port of Gwadar, the Saudi energy minister said on Saturday, speaking at the Indian Ocean port that is being developed with the help of China.
    Pakistan wants to attract investment and other financial support to tackle a soaring current account deficit caused partly by rising oil prices.    Last year, Saudi Arabia offered Pakistan a $6 billion package that included help to finance crude imports.
    “Saudi Arabia wants to make Pakistan’s economic development stable through establishing an oil refinery and partnership with Pakistan in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor,” Saudi Energy Khalid al-Falih told reporters in Gwadar.
    He said Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would visit Pakistan in February to sign the agreement.    The minister added that Saudi Arabia would also invest in other sectors.
    Beijing has pledged $60 billion as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that involves building power stations, major highways, new and upgraded railways and higher capacity ports, to help turn Pakistan into a major overland route linking western China to the world.
    “With setting up of an oil refinery in Gwadar, Saudi Arabia will become an important partner in CPEC,” Pakistan Petroleum Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said.
    The Saudi news agency SPA earlier reported that Falih met Pakistan’s petroleum minister and Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Zaidi in Gwadar to discuss cooperation in refining, petrochemicals, mining and renewable energy.
    It said Falih would finalize arrangements ahead of signing memorandums of understanding.
    Since the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power in August, Pakistan has secured economic assistance packages from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China.
    In November, Pakistan extended talks with the International Monetary Fund as it seeks its 13th bailout since the late 1980s to deal with a looming balance of payments crisis.
    The Pakistani prime minister’s office had said on Thursday that Islamabad expected to sign investment agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in coming weeks.
(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Edmund Blair)

1/13/2019 Israel says it has completed hunt for Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon
FILE PHOTO: Israeli drilling equipment is seen next to the border with Lebanon, near the
Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, seen from the Israeli side December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it had completed a search for Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon after uncovering at least six of the passages dug secretly under the border by the Iranian-backed guerrillas.
    The operation, made public by Israel in early December, had stirred fears on both sides of a flare-up.    Israel, coordinating with U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon said it sought no escalation.
    Hezbollah and Israel last fought a war in 2006.    While they have at times traded blows within Syria – where Hezbollah has been helping Damascus beat back rebels – the Israel-Lebanon border has mostly been quiet.
    After previously reporting the discovery of five tunnels, the Israeli military said another had been found on Saturday, 55 meters (yards) deep and reaching “a few tens of meters” into Israel from a point 800 meters within Lebanon.
    “All of the tunnels have been exposed and have either already been destroyed or are going to be destroyed,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.
    “According to our assessments, there are no longer any tunnels crossing into Israel,” he said, adding that Hezbollah retained some underground facilities on the Lebanese side.
    Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels, the existence of several of which has been confirmed by UNIFIL peacekeepers.
    Citing intelligence assessments, Israel says the tunnels were prepared in secret, over a period of years, as part of a Hezbollah plan to send as many as 1,500 fighters in a shock assault on its northern communities and military bases during any future war.
(Writing by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

1/13/2019 Secretary of State Pompeo urges Gulf states to heal rift by Eric Knecht
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani,
the Deputy Prime Minister and Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Sheraton Grand in the
Qatari capital Doha, Qatar January 13, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via Reuters
    DOHA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that a rift between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors had gone on for too long and was threatening regional unity needed to counter Iran.
    Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and non-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Egypt cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism and their regional foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran — something Doha denies.
    The United States, an ally of the six-nation Sunni Muslim GCC, sees the rift as a threat to efforts to contain Iran and has pushed for a united Gulf front.
    “When we have a common challenge, disputes between countries with shared objectives are never helpful,” Pompeo, who is on an eight-day tour of the Middle East, told a news conference in the Qatari capital Doha.
    “They never permit you to have as robust a response to common adversaries or common challenges as you might,” he added.
    Gas-rich Qatar says the boycott is aimed at undermining its sovereignty and has started charting a course away from its Gulf neighbors, including forging new trade partnerships, strengthening its ties with Turkey and quitting OPEC.    Those moves have deepened expectations that the row will not be resolved quickly.
    “We’re hoping that the unity of GCC will increase in the days and weeks and months ahead,” Pompeo said, adding that Gulf unity was essential for a planned Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) that would also include Jordan and Egypt.
    Saudi Arabia and the UAE have repeatedly said the dispute is not a top priority and assured Washington it will not affect defense cooperation.
    Pompeo later told reporters that he had brought up the rift with officials in Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE.    “It’s … not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday and I regret that,” he said.
KHASHOGGI MURDER
    Pompeo has used the regional tour, which included stops in Abu Dhabi and Cairo, to shore up support for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
    He will head next to the Saudi capital Riyadh, where he said the United States would ensure there is “full and completeaccountability on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi U.S.-based Washington Post journalist from Saudi Arabia.
    “We will continue to talk about that and make sure we have all the facts so that they are held accountable certainly by the Saudis but by the U.S. as well where appropriate,” Pompeo told the news conference.
    Khashoggi, a long-time royal insider who had become a critic of the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
    U.S. intelligence agencies believe the crown prince ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi, whose body was dismembered and removed from the building to a location still publicly unknown.    Top Turkish officials have also tied his death to the highest levels of Saudi leadership.
    Saudi officials have denied accusations that the prince ordered the murder, which has left the kingdom facing its worst political crisis in generations, strained ties with Western allies and focused attention on the prince’s domestic crackdown on dissent and the war in Yemen.
    The sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of several Saudi women’s rights activists detained in the kingdom since last summer and accused of treason, pressed Pompeo to raise the issue with officials in Riyadh.
    In a New York Times op-ed, Alia al-Hathloul described how her sister was allegedly tortured and threatened while in detention.    “Even today, I am torn about writing about Loujain, scared that speaking about her ordeal might harm her,” she wrote.
    The Saudi authorities have denied such torture charges.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Writing by Asma Alsharif and Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Catherine Evans)

1/13/2019 U.S.-backed Syrian force: Islamic State in ‘its final moments’ by Rodi Said and Tom Perry
FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near
Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria Nov. 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    QAMISHLI, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants are “living their final moments” in the last enclave they hold near the Iraqi border, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are attacking them, an SDF official said on Sunday.
    A defeat of the jihadists in the enclave would wipe out Islamic State’s territorial foothold on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
    A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said the SDF were making “great progress … but the fight continues.”
    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militias led by the Kurdish YPG, have driven Islamic State from a swathe of northern and eastern Syria with the help of the U.S.-led coalition over the last four years.
    Mustafa Bali, SDF media office head, said the SDF had stepped up attacks in the last two days and taken control of the area between the Islamic State enclave and the Iraqi border, cutting an escape route.
    “They are living the final moments and realize that this battle is the battle to eliminate them,” he added.
    U.S. President Donald Trump last month announced he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, declaring they had succeeded in their mission to defeat Islamic State and were no longer needed.
    Since then, U.S. officials have given mixed messages.    On Friday, the U.S.-led coalition said it had started the pullout, but officials later said only equipment, not troops, were going.
    Colonel Sean Ryan, the coalition spokesman, said: “The SDF is making great progress and continues to liberate more territory once held by ISIS (Islamic State), but the fight continues."
    “The lasting defeat of ISIS is still the mission and they still present a very real threat to the long-term stability in this region, so it is not over yet.”
    The U.S. decision has injected new uncertainty into the eight-year-old Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how the security vacuum will be filled in the swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the U.S. forces are now stationed.
    While Turkey aims to pursue the Kurdish forces allied with the United States, the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian government sees a chance to recover extensive territory.
    U.S. national security adviser John Bolton suggested last week that protection for Washington’s Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the U.S. withdrawal.    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called his comments “a serious mistake.”
    Bali said the people of northern Syria and the coalition must discuss a plan for “after the elimination of Daesh, and to take measures to prevent Daesh reorganizing itself and returning once again.”
    Islamic State still holds territory on the western bank of the Euphrates, between areas controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian-backed allies.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/13/2019 Damascus seeks ‘intensified’ talks with Kurds: official
Ayman Sousan, Assistant Syrian Foreign Minister, talks to journalists
in Damascus, Syria January 13, 2019. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi
    DAMASCUS (Reuters) – The Syrian government hopes dialogue with Syrian Kurdish groups will intensify, a minister said on Sunday, signaling support for talks the Kurds hope will lead to a political deal between two of the main players in the multi-sided war.
    The Kurds have sought Russian meditation for the talks with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, part of their strategy to fill a vacuum that will be left when U.S. forces withdraw from the country, as instructed by President Donald Trump.
    Their aim is to guard against any invasion by neighboring Turkey, which views the main Syrian Kurdish group – the YPG – as a national security threat, and to preserve autonomy in northern Syria.
    “We hope for the intensification of the dialogue.    Many of the Kurdish statements were positive regarding their concern for the unity of Syria,” Assistant Syrian Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan told a small group of journalists in Damascus.
    “We are confident that through dialogue we can deal with some of the demands … and this dialogue guarantees that, as long as it based on a commitment to Syria’s unity.”
    A political deal could piece back together the two biggest chunks of a country splintered by eight years of war, leaving one corner of the northwest in the hands of anti-Assad rebels backed by Turkey – an adversary of both the YPG and Damascus.
    Damascus has previously stated its opposition to the kind of federal state sought by the main Kurdish groups.
    A Kurdish politician told Reuters earlier this month that the leadership of northern Syria had presented Russia with a road map for a deal and would pursue one regardless of U.S. plans.
    Sousan said intensified dialogue was important when set against challenges, “especially the expansionist ambitions that lead the policies of the Turkish regime.”
    Russia said on Friday it was important for Syria’s Kurds and government to start talking in light of U.S. plans.
    Trump’s decision to withdraw troops has been clouded by mixed messages from Washington since it was abruptly announced last month, catching off guard allies including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces militia.
    The U.S.-led coalition said on Friday it had started the pullout process, but officials later clarified that only equipment, not troops, were being withdrawn.
    Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey, and aims to crush its foothold in Syria.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday he was optimistic that a “good outcome” could be reached between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups, after speaking to the Turkish foreign minister.
(EXPLAINER: Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war? – https://reut.rs/2spXk3f)
(GRAPHIC: Syria control map – https://tmsnrt.rs/2RgCxxb)
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

1/13/2019 Secretary of State Pompeo Calls Removal of U.S. Troops from Syria ‘Tactical Change’ by OAN Newsroom
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is defending President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria.
    In an interview on Sunday, Pompeo described the removal as a “tactical change” and reasserted U.S. efforts remain the same.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, holds a joint press conference with Qatari Foreign Minister
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, at the Sheraton Grand in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)
    He added that pulling the troops does not reduce the nation’s influence in the Middle Eastern country, nor does it hinder U.S. global objectives.
    Pompeo stressed those fighting alongside the U.S. are not terrorists and deserve protection.
    He also acknowledged some things still need to be worked out between Turkey and Kurdish forces, but remains confident of a positive outcome.

1/14/2019 In Lebanon, U.S. State Department official calls Hezbollah ‘unacceptable’
David Hale, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs of the Department of State,
talks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department criticized Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group on Monday for digging tunnels into Israel and stockpiling rockets, as Washington steps up efforts to isolate Tehran.
    In recent weeks, Israeli forces uncovered tunnels they said were dug by Hezbollah, and Lebanon complained about Israel’s construction of a barrier along disputed parts of the border.
    The United States, Israel’s closest ally, regards Hezbollah as a terrorist group and has pledged tougher steps to counteract Iranian influence in the region, but it has also reiterated its backing for the Lebanese government – which includes Hezbollah representatives – and army.
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria, where Iran has been fighting alongside Hezbollah, and where Israel has been carrying out strikes against both.
    “While Lebanon has the right to defend itself, that is the right of the Lebanese state alone,” said David Hale, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, after meeting Lebanese prime minister designate Saad al-Hariri.
    “It is unacceptable to have a militia outside the control of the state, and unanswerable to all people of Lebanon digging attack tunnels across the blue line to Israel or assembling an arsenal of over 100,000 missiles with which to threaten regional stability,” he added.
    Israel, which regards Hezbollah as the biggest threat on its borders, on Sunday said it had completed efforts to find and destroy tunnels under the frontier that it said the group had dug to infiltrate fighters during a future war.
    Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels.    Lebanon’s National Security Council last week said an Israeli border wall that crosses into territory claimed by Lebanon, constitutes an act of aggression.
    However, both sides appear ready to contain matters for now.    “Israel’s interest is to keep the (situation) quiet.    I think for them (Hezbollah), that interest is even greater,” Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot said last week after completing his term as Israeli army chief.
OIL DISPUTE
    Hezbollah was set up by Iran in the early 1980s to fight Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, but it retained its weapons after Israeli forces withdrew in 2000 and has become the strongest political force in the country.
    The last conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, fought on Lebanese soil, was in 2006.    A United Nations Security Council resolution ending that conflict called for work to delineate the border, but the frontier has still not been agreed.
    The border dispute has also affected Lebanese plans to drill for oil and gas near an area of sea claimed by both countries.
    Hale’s visit comes as Lebanese politicians continue to jostle over the formation of a new coalition government more than eight months after an election.
    Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s caretaker government and is expected to be included in any new coalition formed by Hariri.
    Lebanon’s failure to form a new government was dragging down the economy and “endangering the country,” Hale said, and urged the caretaker government to move forward on the economy to maintain international confidence.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

1/14/2019 Ethiopia protesters block main highway to the sea by Aaron Maasho
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a media conference at the
Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 29, 2018. Michel Euler/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Protesters in Ethiopia’s northeastern Afar region have blocked the landlocked country’s main route to the sea to demonstrate against surging ethnic violence, organizers said on Monday.
    The demonstrators started a five-day blockade of the highway to neighboring Djibouti on Sunday, Mahi Bule, a member of an organizing committee said.
    Djibouti handles roughly 95 percent of all inbound trade for Ethiopia, a nation of 105 million and an economic power in East Africa.
    Nearly 3 million people were displaced last year due to clashes between ethnic groups. Critics of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April, say his political reforms had allowed dormant ethnic rivalries to resurface in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
    The 42-year-old has signed a peace deal with Eritrea, released political prisoners, and moved to open up the state-controlled economy and overhaul the security services.
    But the sudden changes in a nation where political dissent has long been repressed have inspired many of its myriad ethnic groups to jockey for power and influence.
    The latest deadly clashes between ethnic Afars and Issa Somalis, who are a minority in the area, broke out in December. Locals say dozens have been killed.
    Afar elders said the attacks were an attempt to break away areas inhabited by Issas away from the region.    An Afar rebel group said the attacks were supported by ethnic Somalis from Djibouti and Somalia.    Afars majority.    Isse minority Protesters were demonstrating against violence and a government order for local militias to pull out from disputed areas and be replaced by federal soldiers.
    “The militias provided protection for civilians. We will protest until the government reverses its decision,” Bule told Reuters.
    Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
(Editing by Katharine Houreld and Robin Pomeroy)

1/14/2019 Sudan’s Bashir says protests will not lead to change in government
FILE PHOTO: People participate in an anti-government protest in Omdurman, Sudan
January 9, 2018 in this still image taken from social media video. Haitham Seo/via REUTERS
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir insisted on Monday that he would not step down after weeks of violent protests and calls for him to quit over a worsening economic crisis.
    Protests have rippled across Sudan since Dec. 19 in the most sustained challenge yet to Bashir’s near 30-year rule.    Security forces have used live ammunition to disperse demonstrations.    The official death toll stands at 24, including two security forces personnel.    Amnesty International has said that more than 40 people have been killed.
    “The government does not change through demonstrations,” Bashir said, speaking to thousands of supporters in Nyala, the main city in South Darfur, a day after protesters demonstrated there for the first time.
    “We said we have an economic problem and it is not solved via vandalism,” he said in the speech, which was shown on Sudanese television.
    Since the protests started nearly four weeks ago, more than 800 people have been arrested, the government said last week.    Human rights activists say those detained include political activists, civil society members and journalists.    Earlier this month the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Sudanese authorities to release at least three journalists who had been detained after publishing columns in support of the protests.
    In Khartoum on Monday, Reuters witnessed a group of journalists being arrested as they attempted to deliver a petition protesting control of the press to the media department of the national security and intelligence service.
    The CPJ had earlier said that Sudanese authorities were attempting to censor news coverage of the protests.
    Sudanese authorities have blocked access to popular social media platforms.
    Speaking in Khartoum last week, Bashir challenged his opponents to beat him at the ballot box and blamed unnamed foreign powers for provoking weeks of almost daily protests prompted by bread and currency shortages.
    The protests quickly spread and turned into demonstrations against Bashir.
    Sudan has slid deeper into economic crisis since the southern part of the country seceded after a referendum in 2011, taking away much of the country’s oil resources.
    The crisis has deepened further since last year, when the country saw some brief protests over bread shortages.
    On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi expressed concern about the situation in Sudan.
    “If the situation deteriorates further there could be displacement (of people) and there could also be external displacement,” he told reporters during a visit to Cairo.    “But we hope that the situation will be stabilized in a peaceful manner, respecting the lives of the people of course, as soon as possible.”
    The United States lifted 20-year-old trade sanctions on Sudan in October 2017, but many investors have continued to shun a country still listed by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism.
    Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges of masterminding genocide in Darfur – charges he denies.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo; Writing by Lena Masri; Editing by Toby Chopra)

1/15/2019 Erdogan says discussed Turkey setting up safe zone in Syria with Trump
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS//File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday he had discussed a safe zone which Turkey would set up inside Syria along the length of their border, during a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump which he described as positive.
    Trump, who announced he was pulling U.S. troops out of northeast Syria last month, suggested in a tweet on Sunday creating safe zone, without elaborating.
    “The safe zone issue, including a safe zone along Turkey’s borders that will be formed by us – an issue that I have brought up since the Obama era – was reiterated by him as 20 miles,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.
    He later told reporters that the zone could be extended beyond 20 miles, but did not say by how far.
    Turkey has promised to take over the fight against Islamic State in Syria following the U.S. withdrawal.
    However, bitter differences between Washington and Ankara over the Kurdish YPG militia had soured talks between the two NATO partners.
    The YPG has been a main U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State, but Turkey views it as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
    Monday’s call between the two leaders came after Trump threatened Turkey with economic devastation if Turkish forces attacked the YPG militia.
    Erdogan said he was saddened by Trump’s tweet but that the phone call later in the day was positive.
    Trump’s threat to devastate Turkey’s economy also sparked concern among investors, sending the lira down as much as 1.6 percent on Monday.    Erdogan said he and Trump had agreed to improve economic ties during their phone call.
    “Turkey will continue to do what it has to in order to solve this issue in line with the spirit of its alliance, so long as our rights and laws are respected,” he said.    “We reached a historic understanding with Trump last night.”
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Ali Kucukgocmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/15/2019 Soldiers patrol Zimbabwe streets after deadly protests over economy by MacDonald Dzirutwe
A man cycles past a petrol station closed after protests in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
    HARARE (Reuters) – Soldiers patrolled Zimbabwe city streets on Tuesday as confrontations with demonstrators threatened to boil over, while banks, schools and businesses stayed shut a day after protests over the country’s collapsing economy turned deadly.
    Monday’s unrest, during which several people died, followed sharp fuel price hikes decreed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who impatient Zimbabweans accuse of failing to live up to pre-election promises to kick-start growth.
    Mnangagwa, absent on an official visit in Moscow, has also promised a clean break from the oppressive regime of long-term leader Robert Mugabe, who he forced out in a de facto coup in November 2017.
    The president said Zimbabwe might need Russia’s help in modernizing its army and was interested in receiving Russian loans, RIA news agency reported.
    In Harare and Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, witnesses said security forces were deploying to halt demonstrations, and many people in the capital said they could no longer access the Internet.
    “We are suffering.    Mnangagwa has failed this country. Enough is enough, we no longer want this,” said protester Takura Gomba in Warren Park, a Harare township, as he and a group of others retreated when they saw soldiers approach in trucks.
    A human rights lawyers’ group said it had received reports of soldiers and police breaking into homes in townships overnight and assaulting suspected demonstrators.
    Defence Forces spokesman Overson Mugwisi, police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said they could not immediately comment, as did the country’s three mobile telecoms firms.
TEAR GAS
    Mnangagwa – a one-time protege of Mugabe who served the post-independence leader as defense and state security minister – faces a daunting task in trying to resolve what is Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis in decade.
    The decline has been marked by a severe shortage of dollars in circulation that – in an echo of the Mugabe era – has triggered a return to high inflation and shortages of fuel and drugs.
    Following Monday’s unrest, in which the government said several died and some 200 people were arrested, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions called for three days of stay-at-home protests.
    But while shops and businesses remained shut in the capital and in Bulawayo and few residents ventured out, protesters were gathering again.
    In Kuwadzana township on the outskirts of Harare, riot police deployed to block demonstrators from marching into town while an army helicopter circled overhead, firing tear gas to disperse them, witnesses told Reuters.
    Many people in the capital said they could no longer access social media platforms, and suspected that authorities had blocked the Internet.
    The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZHLR) said it had received distress calls from residents in Harare’s Mabvuku and Chitungwiza who were forcibly taken from their homes on Monday and made to remove barricades from roads – a tactic used by Mugabe’s security agents.
    “Of concern is the involvement of soldiers in these illegal acts who are actively participating in the cruel and inhuman treatment of residents,” ZLHR said in a statement.
    A Bulawayo-based local journalist told Reuters that police had fired tear gas in the township of Cowdray Park on Tuesday, to stop protesters from looting some shops.    Youths who blocked roads were demanding money from motorists to allow them to pass.
    The government blamed the opposition and rights groups for Monday’s violence.
    On Tuesday, the Ministry of Information said it was looking for a man seen on videos posted on social media brandishing an assault rifle in Harare and giving orders to motorists.
    “Where did he obtain the assault weapon …He is suspected of shooting some innocent civilians,” the ministry said.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/15/2019 Saudi aide fired over Khashoggi murder still wields influence: sources
FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal -/File Photo
    LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Saudi royal advisor fired over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to wield influence in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle, according to Western, Arab and Saudi sources with links to the royal court.
    Saud al-Qahtani was dismissed as a top aide to the de facto Saudi leader in late October, after overseeing the operation to kill Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders via Skype, according to regional intelligence sources.
    A senior Saudi official at the time called his removal “a political decision … based on dereliction of duty and participation in the sequence of events” that led to the murder.    Weeks later, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Qahtani for his role.
    But six sources told Reuters that Qahtani remains active on behalf of the royal court.    Two of them said he has kept in touch with the crown prince while three others said he has continued to instruct a small group of Saudi journalists on what to write about the kingdom’s policies.
    As head of the royal court’s media center until his dismissal, Qahtani ran an electronic media army tasked with protecting Saudi Arabia’s image, dictating the official line on issues from a dispute with Qatar to security and human rights.
    The apparent impunity of Qahtani, seen as the crown prince’s right-hand man, risks undermining Saudi promises to hold those responsible to account, the sources say.    The U.S. Senate last month backed a resolution blaming the crown prince, known as MbS, for the killing and insisted Riyadh fully investigate.
    A Saudi official denied Qahtani was still playing a role inside the royal court, saying he has not conducted any work since his dismissal and that he remains under investigation and banned from travel.
    The official referred Reuters to comments by the public prosecutor’s spokesman last year that 21 Saudis were taken into custody in relation to the Khashoggi case, 11 of whom have been indicted and referred to trial.
    Reuters has been unable to reach Qahtani since he was fired.
FREE AND IN FAVOR
    At the heart of the crown prince’s inner circle, Qahtani controlled access to MbS and would often speak on his behalf before he was dismissed, government insiders have said.
    No official replacement has yet been announced.
    Qahtani has continued to make repeated appearances at the royal court, although it was not clear in what capacity, five of the sources said.    All of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
    “He is still around, free and in favor.    The crown prince is still holding on to him and doesn’t seem to be willing to sacrifice him,” one of the foreign sources said.
    MbS himself has told visitors that Qahtani is still an advisor while assuring them that some responsibilities have been taken from him, according to a source familiar with the discussion between the crown prince and the visitors.    The source did not elaborate.
    Qahtani has also continued to dictate the royal court’s official line to columnists and top editors he considers able to influence public opinion, according to three of the sources, despite leaving a WhatsApp group he ran for that purpose.
    Instead he has messaged individuals directly, instructing them on what or what not to write, these sources said.
LYING LOW
    Qahtani’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, which intelligence sources have said included giving orders over Skype to the team inside the consulate, has fueled speculation that MbS ordered the hit.    Saudi officials have said the crown prince knew nothing of the killing.
    The public prosecutor has said Qahtani briefed a team of Saudi operatives ahead of a mission to repatriate Khashoggi.    Saudi officials have refused to disclose whether Qahtani was among those arrested.
    The Saudi public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects detained over Khashoggi’s killing and a first court hearing was held this month.    The suspects were not named and Reuters could not determine whether Qahtani was present at the hearing.
    A source familiar with U.S. government agencies’ reporting and analyses said they believe Qahtani has been instructed to lie low for a while but think it is unlikely that MbS would ditch Qahtani.
    Some Western allies had been concerned, even before Khashoggi’s killing, by the power Qahtani wielded within the royal court and have privately urged Riyadh to replace him with more seasoned advisers, according to Western diplomats in Riyadh.
    Qahtani stopped using Twitter, a platform he regularly used to attack the kingdom’s critics, on Oct. 23 and changed the biography on his profile to “personal account.”
    But Saudi activists living abroad still see his influence on Saudi media and in the Twitter attacks they say they face, accusing them of being disloyal to MbS or unpatriotic for not supporting his policies.
    “Nothing has changed.    It seems to have the same line, the same offensive language.    His fingerprints are all over it still,” said Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar and activist based in the United States.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall)

1/15/2019 Gunmen kill seven in Kenya hotel compound attack claimed by Somali Islamists by George Obulutsa and Baz Ratner
Cars are seen on fire at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the
Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
    NAIROBI (Reuters) – Gunmen blasted their way into a hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital on Tuesday, killing at least seven people and sending workers diving under desks from an attack claimed by Somali Islamists al Shabaab.
    Police warned the “terror attack,” which echoed a 2013 assault on a Nairobi shopping center, may be ongoing, with assailants still inside the upscale 14 Riverside Drive complex.
    Nairobi is a major expatriate hub, and the compound attacked houses offices of various international companies     “The main door of the hotel was blown open and there was a human arm in the street severed from the shoulder,” said Serge Medic, the Swiss owner of a security company who ran to the scene to help when he heard of the attack from his taxi driver.
    Medic, who was armed, entered the building with a policeman and two soldiers, he said, but they came under fire and retreated.    An unexploded grenade lay in the lobby, he said.
    “One man said he saw two armed men with scarves on their head and bandoliers of bullets,” Medic told Reuters, as gunfire echoed in the background.
    Kenya has often been targeted by al Shabaab, who killed 67 people at the Westgate shopping center in 2013 and nearly 150 students at Garissa university in 2015.    Al Shabaab says its attacks are revenge for Kenyan troops stationed inside Somalia, which has been riven by civil war since 1991.
    More than three hours after Tuesday’s attack began, small groups of workers were still being taken out by officers escorting them to armored vehicles.    Foreign security advisors on the site scrambled to make sure their clients were safe.
GUNFIRE AND EXPLOSIONS
    Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinnet said the attack began with an explosion targeting cars followed by a detonation from a suicide bomber.    As he spoke, a Reuters reporter on the scene reported heavy gunfire then an explosion shortly afterwards.
    At least seven people were killed and eight wounded, hospital officials and witnesses told Reuters.
    A security guard said four bodies had been carried out in bags at the ICEA insurance company’s offices.
    Two further bodies were put into bags at I&M bank, said a medic, and one person died at MP Shah hospital.
    A woman shot in the leg was carried out and three men emerged covered in blood.    Some office workers climbed out of windows.    Many told Reuters that they had to leave colleagues behind, still huddled under their desks.
    “There’s a grenade in the bathroom,” one officer yelled as police rushed out from one building.
    “We heard a loud bang from something that was thrown inside.    Then I saw shattered glass,” Geoffrey Otieno, who works at a beauty salon in the complex, told Reuters.
    “We hid until we were rescued.”
INTERNATIONAL COMPANIES
    Al Shabaab, which wants to overthrow the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government and impose strict Islamic law, quickly said it was responsible.    “We are behind the attack in Nairobi.    The operation is going on,” Abdiasis Abu Musab, the group’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters by telephone in Somalia.
    According to its website, 14 Riverside is home to local offices of international companies including Colgate Palmolive , Reckitt Benckiser , Pernod Ricard , Dow Chemical and SAP , as well as the dusitD2 hotel, part of Thai group Dusit Thani .
    Kenya is a base for hundreds of diplomats, aid workers, businessmen and others operating around east Africa.
    The Australian embassy is across the road from the compound.
    “I just started hearing gunshots, and then started seeing people running away raising their hands up and some were entering the bank to hide for their lives,” a woman working in a bank in the complex said, adding she heard two explosions.
    Kenyan television featured appeals for blood from local hospitals and showed police cordoning off the route to ensure vehicles could move quickly.    Red Cross ambulances ferried victims away.
    Kenyan troops, concentrated in south Somalia, originally went into Somalia to try to create a buffer zone along the border.    They are now part of an African Union peacekeeping force.
(The story corrects to show BASF not located in 14 Riverside Drive as indicated by office complex’s website.)
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld, David Lewis, John Ndiso, Hereward Holland, Humphrey Malalo and Duncan Miriri in Nairobi and Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Andrew Cawthorne)

1/15/2019 As economy sours, Erdogan’s party could lose grip on big cities in local polls by Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP)
during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – After a decade and a half in power and an economic boom gone sour, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party could lose control of some large cities in local elections on March 31.
    While Erdogan will continue to hold sweeping executive powers, a weak showing by the AKP would be a symbolic blow and illustrate how frustration over the economy has hurt a politician long seen as unbeatable.
    Two party sources told Reuters that two of its internal polls showed support for the AKP had fallen to 32-35 percent, before accounting for the 30 percent of voters still undecided.    In 2014 local elections the AKP took 43 percent, far ahead of its nearest rival, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which polled less than 25 percent.
    The AKP now faces the potential loss of Ankara, the capital, and a tight race in Istanbul, the sources said.    The AKP party, or its predecessor, has controlled both cities, as well as most other big Turkish municipalities, for more than 20 years.
    Erdogan rose to prominence as mayor of Istanbul and is known to attach special importance to municipal elections, seeing local politics as key to how voters view the national government.    While he is not up for election, the polls are widely regarded as a referendum on his rule.
    A sharp fall in AKP support would be all the more discomforting given that its alliance partner, the nationalist MHP, is not fielding candidates in some municipalities.
    “For Erdogan, it’s about prestige, too. He had to form alliances with other parties in the last two elections, which he didn’t need to in the past,” said Gareth Jenkins, a veteran Turkey analyst.
    “If he loses Ankara or Istanbul this time despite the alliance, it will mean that his political career is in decline.    It may be a long and slow decline, but at the end of the day, it’s a decline.”
ECONOMIC DOWNTURN
    The Islamist-rooted AKP swept to power in 2002 on a platform of ending graft, boosting the economy and aiding millions of poor, pious Turks largely ignored by the secular elite.
    It has overseen a period of thunderous economic growth, fueled largely by debt and construction, that economists warned was unsustainable.    The economy was shaken last year by a currency crisis that sent inflation to 25 percent and sapped growth.
    The AKP is now pushing stimulus measures aimed at poorer voters – hiking the minimum wage, cutting some import taxes, restructuring credit card debt – but the impact appears limited and the economy is headed for recession.
    “Support for our party is around 32-35 percent, clearly below our expectations.    But we are still at the beginning of the election campaign, and we will work toward persuading those who have not decided yet,” a senior AKP official told Reuters.
    “The situation in Ankara is not great. We may face similar challenges in other big cities,” the official said, adding he believed it was doing relatively well in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and its commercial capital.
    A second AKP official confirmed that the two surveys put support for the party at below 35 percent, down from the 52.59 percent Erdogan received in last June’s presidential election.
    The opposition CHP declined to discuss its internal poll figures when asked by Reuters.    A senior member said their aim was to take some big cities, including Istanbul and Ankara.    Turkey’s third biggest city, Izmir, is a CHP stronghold.
    Former prime minister Binali Yildirim is running for mayor of Istanbul but faces a stiff challenge from the CHP, even though its candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, is relatively unknown.
    The victor in Istanbul will likely win by a narrow margin, said Murat Sari of polling company Konsensus, which puts Yildirim at 53 percent and Imamoglu at 46 percent.
    “The CHP is leading in Ankara by one percentage point.    There are many people who haven’t decided yet, but the AKP may lose Ankara,” Sari said.
    Jenkins, the analyst, said it was clear that Erdogan’s message was not resonating as strongly as it once did: “He has successfully sold hope to the society that they will become richer.    At the moment, we don’t expect any return to higher growth soon, so he’s no longer able to sell this hope.”
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)

1/15/2019 How Trump slowed rush for Syria exits after huddle in Iraq by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced
visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump was reeling from sharp rebukes at home and abroad over his surprise announcement last month to immediately pull American troops out of Syria when he flew into the al Asad airbase in neighboring Iraq the day after Christmas.
    Inside a canvas Quonset hut, one of the arced prefabricated structures used by the military and surrounded by concertina wire, Trump received operational briefs from U.S. commanders suggesting a territorial victory against Islamic State was within sight, but the military needed just a bit more time, U.S. officials said.
    “They were upbeat about their ability to wrap things up,” one of the officials told Reuters.    “I definitely think that was a seminal meeting” in terms of influencing Trump’s thinking.
(Graphic: Islamic State in Syria and Iraq control zones – https://tmsnrt.rs/2S9TGpu)
    Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, explained to a president who had lost patience with the war why too rapid a withdrawal could not be done without putting troops at risk, according to three officials familiar with the briefing, the contents of which have not been reported in such detail.
    In the chaotic aftermath of Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement, which was one of the reasons that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned, the 45-minute briefing appears to have helped crystallize an understanding between Trump and his top brass on the ground.    Trump, in remarks to reporters, admitted that he felt better about the situation after talking to commanders in the theater instead of officials in Washington.
    The briefing also helped win the U.S. military and diplomats some breathing room to plan a more deliberate exit from Syria.
    It was a novel experience for the president, who was making his first visit to a war zone in his nearly two years in office, fresh from a political pummeling over his decision on Syria from fellow Republicans in Congress and U.S. allies.
    Nearly three weeks after the briefing, no troops have withdrawn from Syria and only some equipment has moved out.
    In 2015, then-President Barack Obama first ordered U.S. special operations forces into Syria after long hesitating to deploy “boots on the ground” in the midst of the Syrian civil war.    What started off as a mission involving dozens of commandos eventually turned into hundreds and then just kept growing.    There are about 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria today.
    Although Trump initially announced plans for a speedy pullout, he has since said it does not need to go quickly.
    “We are pulling back in Syria, we are going to be removing our troops, I never said we are doing it that quickly,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Jan. 6.
    In fact, Trump said on Dec. 19 that American troops were coming home “now” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGw7ZOGPr8w&feature=youtu.be and they had already defeated Islamic State in Syria.    No experts believe Islamic State has been defeated, despite the group having lost almost all of the territory it held in 2014 and 2015 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq and declaring a “caliphate.”
    The Pentagon said on Friday that the withdrawal “is not subject to an arbitrary timeline,” and would take into account conditions on the ground and talks with allies.
    Trump’s concession of additional time has set off an apparent scramble by the U.S. military and Trump administration officials to accomplish as much as possible in the twilight of the Syria campaign.
    U.S. officials tell Reuters that planning for a complete withdrawal from Syria is still underway, despite confusing and sometimes contradictory statements from the White House and tension with Turkey, which was meant to take over the campaign against Islamic State.
    Several officials said they expected a withdrawal before the end of March, but would not commit to a date, given fast-evolving policy discussions and hard-to-predict battlefield developments.
FINAL BLOWS
    Privately, some U.S. officials worry the final push will not be enough to preserve hard-won gains against Islamic State or ensure protection for U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG allies who helped in the fight.    NATO ally Turkey views Kurdish militia as terrorists, an extension of a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
    Trump himself acknowledged his concerns for the Kurds on Monday, warning Turkey of “economic devastation” if it attacks a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he believed Trump was referring to sanctions.
    According to U.S. estimates, Islamic State oversaw about 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under its control.    The group had estimated revenues of nearly one billion dollars a year and used its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria as a base to plot attacks in Europe.
    Backed up by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, artillery and advisers and equipment, U.S.-supported ground forces in Iraq and Syria clawed back towns and cities from the jihadists.    Iraq declared victory against the group in 2017.
    U.S. military officials are reluctant to predict how quickly Islamic State militants can be vanquished from their final towns in Syria, recalling how the insurgents fought until the death in Mosul, Iraq.    The group still influences about 300 square kilometers in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, according to the U.S.-led coalition.
    The persistence of the group was one of the reasons that Trump’s decision stunned the Pentagon.
    But after the initial shock, military and civilians leaders including Mattis met at the Pentagon the week before Christmas to discuss the quickest, safest and most responsible way they could carry out the troop pullout and protect Kurdish allies.
    It became clear that a rapid 30-day withdrawal, as initially suggested by the White House, would not meet the criteria of a “safe and responsible” withdrawal.    Before Trump’s surprise decision, Pentagon planning had suggested four months would be needed.
    One source played down Trump’s concerns about whether the drawdown would be done in weeks or months.
    “All he wants to know is that it is happening,” the source said.
    Significantly, Mattis’ order issued before Christmas did not include a specific timeline, although U.S. officials said military commanders told the White House that a safe and responsible drawdown could not be done in less than 120 days.    The order has not been changed since Mattis left office on Dec. 31, when his deputy Patrick Shanahan took over, officials said.
    In the meantime, the U.S.-backed forces in Syria, including Kurds, are keeping up the fight – confounding analysts’ predictions that they would rapidly head north to prepare for an offensive by Turkey.
    In fact, since Trump’s withdrawal announcement, those forces have been fighting Islamic State with support from U.S.-led coalition air strikes and artillery.
    U.S. allies, who were caught entirely off-guard by Trump’s announcement, are still seeking clarification about the timing of America’s exit.
    The troop pullout from Syria dominated discussions by Pompeo during his meetings in Amman, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Iraq over the past week, in which he told U.S. allies that a withdrawal was a tactical change only.
    Allies also want information about any post-withdrawal role by the U.S. military to ensure Islamic State militants do not rise from the ashes of their caliphate, U.S. officials and diplomats said.
    But they appear relieved at the apparent slowdown of the pullout.
    “It seems that there has been a change that I think is positive,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France said last week.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

1/15/2019 Hundreds join demonstration in poor district of Sudan’s capital
A tear gas canister fired to disperse Sudanese demonstrators, during anti-government
protests in the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters turned out to demonstrate against President Omar al-Bashir’s rule in a densely populated neighborhood of the Sudanese capital Khartoum late on Tuesday before being dispersed by security forces, witnesses said.
    The protesters in the working class area of Kalakla in south Khartoum chanted slogans including “Freedom, peace, justice and revolution are the people’s choice,” before security forces fired tear gas and chased demonstrators down sidestreets.
    Near daily demonstrations triggered by a worsening economic crisis have spread across Sudan since Dec. 19, the most prolonged challenge to Bashir’s rule since he took power in a coup in 1989.
    The protests have continued despite a crackdown in which officials say 24 people have been killed.    Activists say at least 40 have been killed.    On Monday Bashir insisted he would not step down, saying Sudan’s economic problems would not be solved by “vandalism.”
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, Writing by Aidan Lewis, Editing by William Maclean)

1/16/2019 U.S. service members killed in suicide bombing in Syrian city of Manbij by OAN Newsroom
    The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Syria, which took the lives of at least 20 people.    At least five of the fatalities were reportedly American service members.
    The blast happened early Wednesday near a U.S.-led coalition patrol in Manbij.    A man wearing an explosive vest struck a military patrol near a vegetable market.    The man was allegedly targeting U.S. troops, who were conducting a routine patrol.
This frame grab from video provided by Hawar News, ANHA, the news agency for the semi-autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria, shows
a damaged restaurant where an explosion occurred, in Manbij, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory
for Human Rights, a Syrian war monitoring group, and a local town council said Wednesday that the explosion took place near a patrol
of the U.S.-led coalition and that there are casualties. (ANHA via AP)
    The coalition group Operation Inherent Resolve has confirmed American military members were killed in the attack.
    OIR tweet: “U.S. service members were killed during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria today. We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time.”
    President Trump has reportedly been briefed on the situation, and the U.S.-led coalition in the area is gathering additional details.
    This attack is the deadliest on U.S. forces in Syria since American troops were deployed there in 2015.

1/16/2019 Militia groups battle in Libyan capital, breaking four-month truce
FILE PHOTO: Security forces stand around the headquarters of Libya's foreign ministry
after a suicide attack in Tripoli, Libya December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hani Amara/File Photo
    TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Rival militias clashed in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Wednesday and at least two people were killed, medics said, splintering a four-month-old, U.N.-brokered ceasefire.
    Armored vehicles could be seen in southern Tripoli where militia groups had fought for a month until September, part of the widespread factional conflict plaguing Libya since the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
    A United Nations-engineered ceasefire agreed then had managed to hold for the most part until now.
    But on Wednesday a militia known as the 7th Brigade, or Kaniyat, and a collection of factions called Tripoli Protection Force fell back into fighting in the same southern district.
    “The clashes resulted in two killed and 17 wounded from both civilians and fighters,” Tripoli health department official Malik Marsit said.    Some casualties had not yet been accounted for due to lack of safe access to the area, he added.
    The 7th Brigade and some allied groups triggered the August fighting in a bid to challenge the dominance of four “super militias,” including the Tripoli Protection Force, in the streets of the capital.
    The U.N. mission in Libya warned in a statement against any breach of the ceasefire deal.    “Any party initiating a confrontation will be held fully responsible,” it said.
    The internationally-recognized government in Tripoli, backed by the United Nations, has been working on a new security plan since the ceasefire deal but achieved little as Libya, long a major oil producer, lacks a national police force or army.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Mark Heinrich)

1/16/2019 Severe sandstorm hits Egyptian cities, ports
Women cover their face near the River Nile during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s capital Cairo and some of its port cities were hit by a severe sandstorm, with strong winds and heavy dust forcing the closure of several ports.
    Pedestrians ducked into buildings for cover as a dark orange cloud descended on Cairo, with many to using surgical masks to shield themselves against the sand blowing in the wind.
    Motorists complained of reduced visibility on the highways leading and out of the city.
    “The color of the air is changing.    There is some kind of fog.    No one can see.    So I hope God will get us through this, given that we’re riding motorcycles,” said Mahmoud, a motorcycle driver.
    Sources at Cairo airport said the storm had caused some delays.
    The Red Sea Ports Authority closed the ports of Suez and Zeitiyat at 2 pm (1200 GMT) due to bad weather, wind and high waves.
    In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Reda El Ghandour, a spokesman for the Alexandria Port Authority, said that the maritime traffic remained suspended for the fourth consecutive day in the ports of Alexandria and Dekheila.
    The health ministry has advised people suffering from respiratory problems to avoid leaving their homes amidst the storm.
(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Ahmed Fahmy; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/16/2019 U.S. official cautions Israel over Chinese investments
FILE PHOTO: Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy Dan Brouillette
attends a meeting in Chile, September 7, 2017 REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. official cautioned Israel on Wednesday over investments from China, citing cyber-security concerns and the prospect of Israel’s allies limiting intelligence-sharing with it.
    The Trump administration has taken steps to curb market penetration by Huwaei Technologies Cos Ltd and ZTE Corp, two of China’s biggest network equipment makers, seeing them as spying threats.    Both firms deny having any such purpose.
    Interest by Huwaei and ZTE in Israel has worried its U.S. ally, as has the green light it granted China’s Shanghai International Port Group in 2013 to build a private port near Haifa, a berth for the U.S. Mediterranean fleet.
    “We know that the threat of cyber attacks is growing each and every day,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said in a statement to Reuters during a visit to Israel.
    He said that in his meetings with Israeli officials, he would “share our experiences and concerns regarding certain Chinese foreign investment in Israel, and hope to continue a dialogue on best practices.”
    One of Brouillette’s hosts, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, said in a statement after their meeting that the U.S. deputy secretary had “raised their concern about the issue of foreign investments in the State of Israel.”
    There was no immediate Israeli comment on Chinese investment, however.
    Asked separately about Chinese investment in Israel, Brouillette said in remarks aired by Israeli Army Radio: “If done incorrectly, you inhibit the other allies from sharing intelligence with you.”
    In a possible sign of U.S. displeasure at the Chinese involvement in Haifa, one of the Sixth Fleet’s warships in October docked in Israel’s second-tier Mediterranean port of Ashdod, the fleet’s first such visit in almost 20 years.
    In December 2016 Huawei acquired Israel’s HexaTier, whose technology secures databases in the cloud, for $42 million.    This followed a visit to Israel by the Chinese technology giant’s CEO.    That same month, it also acquired IT research firm TogaNetworks for an undisclosed amount.
    According to Israeli media, ZTE has shown interest inIsrael’s tech sector since sending a senior delegation to the country in 2013.
    The Israeli daily Haaretz reported in 2016 that Israel has an undeclared policy of not using Huwaei or ZTE technologies, out of concern about possible security breaches.    Israeli authorities have not commented on that report.
(Reporting by Dan Williams and Tova CohenEditing by Jeffrey Heller)

1/16/2019 Turkey-backed rebels await ‘zero hour’ to attack Syria’s Manbij by Khalil Ashawi
FILE PHOTO: Turkish military vehicles ride at the Bab el-Salam border crossing between the
Syrian town of Azaz and the Turkish town of Kilis, in Syria January 1, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    JARABLUS, Syria (Reuters) – Rebel commander Adnan Abu Faisal and his army are encamped near the frontline in northern Syria, waiting to launch an offensive on his home city of Manbij.
    But they are not the ones who will decide whether to march on the strategically important city, held for more than two years by Kurdish forces supported by the United States.
    The decision will depend on Turkey, the main backer of Abu Faisal’s group, and on how contacts evolve between Washington and Ankara over the United States’ plans to withdraw forces from Syria, a move set to reshape a major theater of the war.
(graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2RgCxxb)
    The United States and Turkey are allies both in the NATO defense alliance and in the fight against Islamic State, but Ankara sees the Kurdish YPG forces that helped the U.S.-led coalition drive IS out of Manbij in 2016 as a security threat.
    The YPG fear the U.S. withdrawal will open the way for a threatened Turkish attack into northern Syria, including Manbij, but U.S. President Donald Trump has warned Turkey of “economic devastation” if it goes ahead with the attack.
    Abu Faisal’s fighters are awaiting orders near Jarablus, a town held by Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies about 35 km (22 miles) south of Manbij.    The frontline in the area runs through open farmland where wheat and corn are usually grown.
    “We are ready with our forces … for ‘zero hour’ to begin any military action,” Abu Faisal, whose forces have more than 300 vehicles including pickup trucks and armored vehicles provided by Turkey, told Reuters.
    “Preparations are going at full speed,” he said.
    Abu Faisal, 36, was an army captain before Syria’s civil war began in 2011 but defected from the Syrian army in 2012 to join the fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
    Abu Faisal helped wrest control of Manbij from the Syrian army early in the conflict but fled when it was seized by Islamic State in 2014 and has not set foot there since then.
    The YPG have also left Manbij but retain influence over the Kurdish-allied groups that hold the city 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Turkey.
    Manbij lies near the junction of three separate blocks of territory that form spheres of Russian, Turkish and, for now, U.S. influence.
    The U.S. military pullout will not only leave Kurds exposed to possible confrontation with Turkey but will also open the way for the expansion of Russian and Iranian sway into the areas that U.S. forces will be leaving.
    The U.S. military deployed into Syria as part of the fight against Islamic State but officials later indicated wider objectives included containing Iran, Assad’s main regional ally.
    Late last month, the YPG called on Assad’s forces to protect Manbij from attack by Turkey. Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia, answered the YPG appeal by deploying outside Manbij.
    Abu Faisal’s rebel fighters, backed by Turkish forces, made their own advance towards the city the same day but stopped short of an attack.    Since then, Turkey has been engaged in diplomatic contacts with Washington and Assad’s Russian allies.
    The Kurds who control swaths of northern Syria have turned to Russia and the Syrian government since Trump’s announcement, hoping to secure a deal that keeps Turkey at bay and preserves their autonomy within a reformed Syrian state.
    Abu Faisal said “political understandings” would determine whether an attack went ahead, reflecting the influence of foreign powers in the Syrian conflict.    A political solution that spared blood would be welcome, he added.
TRUST IN TURKEY
    For Abu Faisal, the YPG — People’s Protection Units — is no less of an enemy than IS or Assad.
    Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights, mostly in southeastern areas near Syria.
    A top Kurdish politician told Reuters this month the Kurds had presented Moscow with a road map for a deal with Damascus.    Syria’s deputy foreign minister has said he is optimistic about renewed dialogue with the Kurds.
    A deal between Damascus and the Kurds would piece back together the two largest chunks of Syria and leave one corner of the northwest under the control of anti-Assad insurgents who have been driven out of many of the areas they once held.
    Abu Faisal — head of the opposition’s Manbij Military Council in exile — says it would be a catastrophe if Assad were allowed to recover Manbij.    He warned this would trigger yet more displacement of civilians fleeing a return of Assad’s rule.
    His priority is to secure the return home of Manbij residents who have been living either as refugees in Turkey or in nearby areas of northern Syria that are controlled by Turkey and its Syrian allies.
    “There cannot be acceptance of any political solution or military solution except with the return of these displaced people to their city,” Abu Faisal said.
    “Our goal is to reassure the people of Manbij that its people will run the affairs of this city,” he said.
(Writing by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/17/2019 Booming Qatar-Turkey trade to hit $2 billion for 2018 as Gulf rift drags on by Eric Knecht
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani shakes hand with
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during their meeting in Doha, Qatar November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon
    DOHA (Reuters) – Trade between Qatar and Turkey is expected to have hit $2 billion in 2018, a Turkish official said, up 54 percent from the previous last year and underscoring Ankara’s solidified role as a top ally to Qatar amid a political rift in the Gulf region.
    Ankara has emerged as one of Qatar’s top partners since a Saudi Arabia-led bloc launched a trade and diplomatic boycott of the tiny Gulf state in 2017, sending additional troops and food to shore up Qatar’s needs just after it began.
    Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the charge and says the boycott aims to infringe on its sovereignty.
    Speaking at a Turkish trade expo that kicked off in Doha on Wednesday, Turkish Deputy Finance Minister Osman Dinçbas said that Qatar was one of the fastest growing areas of trade for Turkey in 2018, and the $2 billion figure is expected to grow.
    Qatar last year pledged a $15 billion package of economic projects, investments and deposits for Turkey that included an up to $3 billion currency swap to firm up the country’s battered lira.
    Dinçbas said “a portion of the $15 billion” had so far arrived but declined to specify how much or in what form.
    Qatar-Turkey trade volume for the first 10 months of 2018, the latest data available, indicates $1.7 billion of total trade, higher than the $1.3 billion in all of 2017, a Turkish trade official said.
    That trade includes goods such as Turkish food and building materials to Qatar and Qatari liquefied natural gas and aluminum to Turkey.
    Abu Issa Holdings, one of the largest distributors and retailers of supermarket goods in Qatar, has seen its Turkish brands mushroom to about 25 percent of its portfolio from about 10 percent before the boycott, CEO Ashraf Abu Issa said.
    At the expo, Abu Issa showcased Turkish honey and pasta introduced after the boycott that he said have become top sellers in Qatar, replacing Saudi and Emirati brands that once crowded shelves in Doha.
    Others, like Kingspan, an importer of Turkish insulated panels for warehouses and cold storage, said volume nearly doubled last year.
    Abu Issa said he would stick with Turkish brands that have become popular even if the boycott were lifted, despite higher shipping costs.
    “We will continue with Turkey for sure.    They are not a replacement.    This should have happened a long time ago — we discovered some amazing products and the quality is superior to what we would get from there,” he said.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/17/2019 French military to continue Islamic State fight in Levant: Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with paratroopers of the 11th Brigade of the Paratroopers
of the Infantry before he delivers his 2019 New Year wishes to military forces at Toulouse-Francazal
air base near Toulouse, France, January 17, 2019. Guillaume Horcajuelo/Pool via Reuters
    PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday the death of four Americans in Syria this week showed that the battle against Islamic State militants would continue and he vowed that France would keep its troops in the region this year.
    “The announced withdrawal of our American ally should not deflect us from our strategic objective to eradicate Daesh (Islamic State),” Macron said in a speech in Toulouse to the armed forces.
    Citing the death of 16 people, including four Americans, in a suicide bombing in Manbij, Syria, near the border with Turkey, Macron said the next few months would be decisive.
    “We will remain militarily engaged in the Levant in the international coalition (…) over the coming year,” he said.
(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Leigh Thomas)

1/17/2019 Zimbabwe to charge activist pastor with subverting the government by MacDonald Dzirutwe
FILE PHOTO: A soldier stands before a burning barricade during protests
in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo
    HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire appeared in court on Thursday to charged with subverting the government, punishable by up to 20 years in jail, after protests this week in which three people were killed and dozens injured.
    Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday and initially charged by police with the lesser crime of inciting public violence after he posted on social media encouraging Zimbabweans to heed a strike call by the biggest labor union.
    On entering the courthouse, he told reporters: “None of what I am accused of is what I have done at all.    If we have true justice in this country, let’s see it at play.    I am very upset.”
    The Harare pastor rose to prominence as a critic of former strongman Robert Mugabe and led a national protest shutdown in 2016.    He was tried on similar charges in 2017 but was acquitted by the High Court for lack of evidence.
    President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government decreed a 150 percent hike in fuel prices last weekend, which triggered the three-day strike, during which protesters barricaded roads with rocks and burnt tires in the capital Harare.    In the second city of Bulawayo, shops were looted.
    Police rounded up 600 people, including Mawarire and an opposition legislator, in a crackdown on protesters.    A doctors’ group said they had treated 68 people for gunshot wounds.
    The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, whose lawyers are representing Mawarire and more than 130 others, said police had decided to upgrade the charges against Mawarire.
FAMILIAR WAYS
    Mnangagwa promised to repair the struggling economy after replacing long-time leader Mugabe in an election following a coup in November 2017, Zimbabwe has fallen back into familiar ways.
    While some businesses reopened on Thursday after the strike, new data showed that inflation had soared to a 10-year high of 42 percent in December, even before the fuel price increase.
    As dollar shortages batter the economy, rocketing inflation is destroying the value of citizens’ savings.
    The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said its members had treated 172 people, some with dog bites, in private and public hospitals since Monday, when the protests started.
    “There are cases of patients who had chest trauma and fractured limbs who were forcibly taken from hospital to attend court despite the advice of doctors,” ZAHDR said in a statement.
    Of the 68 people treated for gunshot wounds, 17 underwent emergency surgery.
    On Thursday, there were still long queues at the few filling stations selling fuel, sometimes under the watchful eye of soldiers.
    The few shops that were open were packed with people buying basics such as sugar, flour and bread.
    Media platforms including Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter remained blocked because of a government order, leading to accusations from opposition figures that it wanted to prevent images of heavy-handed police tactics being broadcast around the world.
(Editing by James Macharia and Kevin Liffey)

1/17/2019 Israeli museum to drop ‘McJesus’ sculpture after protests by Rami Ayyub
A sculpture by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, entitled "McJesus," is seen on display
at Haifa Museum of Art in the northern Israeli city of Haifa January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) – An Israeli museum plans to withdraw a sculpture depicting the McDonald’s mascot as the crucified Jesus following protests which briefly united the country’s Christian minority, its populist culture minister and the pro-Palestinian artist.
    The life-sized sculpture showing the Ronald McDonald clown on a cross has been at the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion.    Other pieces depict Jesus and the Virgin Mary as Ken and Barbie children’s dolls.
    Protests became violent on Friday.    Police said they arrested one man on suspicion of assault and were searching for two others people who threw firebombs at the Haifa Museum of Art.
    Three police officers were hurt as dozens of protesters tried to forcibly enter the museum, police said.    Panes of glass along its entrance were smashed. Protests continued on Saturday.
    “I object to this disgraceful sculpture,” said Nicola Abdo, a Haifa resident and protester.    “As a Christian person … I take deep offense to this depiction of our symbols.”
    The mayor of the Jewish-Arab city of Haifa said on Thursday the sculpture would be taken out of the exhibition following consultations with church leaders.
    “The sculpture will be removed and returned as soon as possible,” Einat Kalish Rotem tweeted.    “We regret the aggravation the Christian community experienced … and the physical injury and violence that surrounded it.”
    She did not say when it would be removed, but it had been due to be returned to the Finnish museum that loaned it last year at the end of the month.
    Christian Arabs, who make up around 2 percent of the Jewish majority country’s population, found a champion for their anger in Miri Regev, the culture minister whose censure of art deemed pro-Palestinian has made her a darling of the Israeli right.
    Citing the injury to religious sensitivities, Regev had threatened to cut state funds to the museum.    Israel’s Justice Ministry slapped her down, arguing she had no such authority.
    The McJesus sculptor, Jani Leinonen, from Finland, had also demanded that the exhibit be removed as he was boycotting Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians.
    Others saw in Thursday’s decision a chance for reconciliation.
    “The winner today is the people of Haifa,” said Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to local church leaders.    “The removal of this sculpture is a reflection our desire to coexist in the city.” (Editing by Alison Williams)

1/17/2019 Before start of new oil pact, OPEC made progress averting glut by Alex Lawler
FILE PHOTO: The logo of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is
seen at OPEC's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – OPEC cut oil output sharply in December before a new accord to limit supply took effect, it said on Thursday, suggesting that producers have made a strong start to averting a glut in 2019 as a slowing economy curbs demand.
    The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said in a monthly report that its oil output fell by 751,000 barrels per day (bpd) in December to 31.58 million bpd, the biggest month-on-month drop in almost two years.
    Worried by a drop in oil prices and rising supplies, OPEC and allies including Russia agreed in December to return to production cuts in 2019.    They pledged to lower output by 1.2 million bpd, of which OPEC’s share is 800,000 bpd.
    OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo told Reuters that producers were seeking to avoid a build-up in the industrialized world’s oil inventories above the five-year average.
    They were above that mark in November, figures in OPEC’s report showed.
    “We are not yet out of the winter woods,” he said.    “The oil industry cannot afford to relapse into another downturn,” he said in reference to a 2014-2016 oil market slump.
    The supply reduction in December means that if OPEC fully implements the new Jan. 1 cut, it will avoid a surplus that could weaken prices.    Oil slid from $86 a barrel in October to less than $50 in December on concerns over excess supply.
    OPEC expects 2019 global oil demand growth to slow to 1.29 million bpd from 1.5 million in 2018, though it was more upbeat about the economic backdrop than last month and cited better sentiment in the oil market, where crude is back above $60.
    “While the economic risk remains skewed to the downside, the likelihood of a moderation in monetary tightening is expected to slow the decelerating economic growth trend in 2019,” OPEC said in the report.
    Barkindo added that he remains optimistic that demand” would hold this year.
    The supply cut was a policy U-turn after the producer alliance known as OPEC+ agreed in June 2018 to boost supply amid pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to lower prices and cover an expected shortfall in Iranian exports.
    OPEC changed course after the slide in prices starting in October.    A previous OPEC+ supply curb starting in January 2017 – when OPEC production fell by 890,000 bpd according to OPEC figures – got rid of the 2014-2016 glut.
    The group confirmed on its website that it plans to meet over April 17-18 in Vienna to review the supply cut agreement.    OPEC sources said another meeting could follow in June.
SAUDI CURBS
    The biggest drop in OPEC supply last month came from Saudi Arabia and amounted to 468,000 bpd, the report showed.
    Saudi supply in November had hit a record above 11 million bpd after President Trump demanded more oil be pumped.     The kingdom told OPEC that it lowered supply to 10.64 million bpd in December and has said it plans to go even further in January by delivering a larger cut than required under the OPEC+ deal.
    The second-largest was an involuntary cut by Libya, where unrest led to the shutdown of the country’s biggest oilfield.
    Iran registered the third-largest decline in output, also involuntary, as U.S. sanctions that started in November discouraged companies from buying its oil.
    Iran, Libya and Venezuela are exempt from the 2019 supply pact and are expected by some analysts to post further falls, giving a tailwind to the voluntary effort by the others.
    OPEC said in the report that 2019 demand for its crude would decline to 30.83 million bpd, a drop of 910,000 bpd from 2018, as rivals pump more and the slowing economy curbs demand.
    Delivering the 800,000 bpd cut from December’s level should mean the group would be pumping slightly less than the expected demand for its crude this year and so avoid a surplus.    Last month’s report had pointed to a surplus.
    The figures for OPEC production and demand for its crude were lowered by about 600,000 bpd to reflect Qatar’s exit from the group, which now has 14 members.

1/17/2019 U.N. members owe $2 billion in debt to peacekeeping, U.S. owes a third by Michelle Nichols
UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol the border with Israel near the village
of Kfar Kila, Lebanon December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.N. member states owe nearly $2 billion in peacekeeping funds, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has warned, with the United States responsible for more than a third of that.
    “Active peacekeeping missions are soon expected to face liquidity gaps due to late payments and increasing arrears,” Guterres wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to the 193 member states.    “Arrears are nearing $2 billion and are likely to keep growing.”
    Guterres also said that while 152 members had paid in full what they owed for a separate U.N. regular budget in 2018 – a record – more than $528 million was still outstanding.
    The United States is responsible for 22 percent of the $5.4 billion regular budget for 2018 and 2019 and more than 28 percent of the $6.7 billion peacekeeping budget for the year to June 30.
    The United States owed $381 million to the regular budget as of Jan. 1 and some $776 million to the peacekeeping budget, U.N. officials said, figures the U.S. mission to the U.N. confirmed.
    President Donald Trump says Washington is shouldering an unfair burden of the cost of the United Nations and pushed for the world body to reform operations.
    In December, the U.N. General Assembly agreed what percentage of the regular and peacekeeping budgets each country would pay for the next three years.
    The U.S. contribution to the regular budget is already limited to 22 percent and Washington unsuccessfully pushed to cap its peacekeeping contribution at 25 percent – as required by U.S. law – instead of more than 28 percent.
    “The lack of agreement on a 25 percent ceiling will cause the organization to continue to face a three percent shortfall in its peacekeeping budget,” Cherith Norman Chalet, the U.S. envoy for U.N. Management and Reform, told the U.N. budget committee Dec. 22.
    This amounts to some $200 million, diplomats said.    The United Nations has 14 peacekeeping operations, half of them in Africa.
    “Current cash balances cover less than two months of operations, compared to four months last year,” Guterres said of peacekeeping finances in his letter.    Last year he twice wrote to warn states about the “troubling financial situation.”
    India’s U.N. Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin said the $2 billion shortfall was “unsustainable.”
    Some troop contributing countries “are owed amounts equivalent to their annual assessed contributions for 100 years.    Some even more,” he tweeted on Wednesday.
    The top contributing countries are Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Rwanda. They pay their troops according to their national salary scales and are reimbursed by the U.N. As of July 2018, the U.N. paid $1,428 a month per soldier.
    The United Nations says its peacekeeping operations cost less than half of 1 percent of world military expenditures.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish)

1/18/2019 Sudan protesters, police clash as anti-Bashir unrest spreads by Khalid Abdelaziz
Sudanese demonstrators gather as they participate in anti-government
protests in Khartoum, Sudan January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Stone-throwing Sudanese demonstrators battled security forces in Khartoum on Thursday, witnesses said, and a child and a doctor were reported killed at the start of a fifth week of protests against President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule.
    Protests also broke out in six other cities in some of the most widespread disturbances since the unrest began on Dec. 19.    The Sudan Doctors’ Committee, a group linked to the opposition, said the doctor and child were killed by gunshot wounds during the violence.
    Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of a government-affiliated private hospital in Khartoum’s Burri neighborhood, where activists said the two died of their injuries.    The protests continued into early Friday. Demonstrators chanted: “Freedom” and “Until the morning, we’re staying,” video footage showed.
    Police could not immediately be reached for comment on the reported deaths.
    The protests were triggered by price rises and cash shortages, but have quickly developed into demonstrations against Bashir.
    In the day’s most violent clashes, police in Burri fired rubber bullets and tear gas and chased demonstrators with batons, witnesses said.    Several people were overcome with tear gas, while some were bruised by rubber bullets and others beaten.
    Hundreds of young men and women blocked streets and alleyways with burning tyres, witnesses said.    Some hurled stones at security forces.    Many recited the chant that has become the crying call of demonstrators: “Down, that’s it,” to send the message that their only demand is Bashir’s fall.
    Demonstrators also taunted security forces by ululating each time a stone-throwing demonstrator hit police, witnesses said.
    A live video posted on social media and verified by Reuters showed security forces pointing guns at protesters in Burri.    A sound of gunfire could be heard.
‘WHY ARE YOU SHOOTING?’
    In the video, a demonstrator yelled: “Why are you shooting?” as protesters, some wearing masks as protection from tear gas, ducked to avoid the firing.    It was not clear if rubber or live bullets were used.    One man who appeared to be injured and had spots of blood on his shirt was carried away.
    “There were people shooting at us,” one protester told Reuters.
    He said he saw five people fall to the ground, adding he was not sure if they were hit by rubber or live bullets.    He said he saw a few other injured people being carried away.    Security forces blocked the area and the wounded were unable to reach a hospital, he said.
    Instead they were being treated in a makeshift emergency room inside a home.    At some point, security forces approached the makeshift clinic and fired tear gas into it as the wounded were being treated, three witnesses said.
    A police spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on the witnesses’ account of the Burri clashes.
    Hundreds also protested in al-Qadarif, Atbara, Port Sudan, al-Dueim, Omdurman and Al-Ubayyid, drawing tear-gas volleys from police, witnesses said.
    Security forces have at times used live ammunition to disperse demonstrations.    The official death toll stands at 24, including two security forces personnel.    Amnesty International has said that more than 40 people have been killed.
BASHIR BLAMES FOREIGN ‘AGENTS’
    Bashir has blamed the protests on foreign “agents” and said the unrest would not lead to a change in government, challenging his opponents to seek power through the ballot box.
    U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday that she was deeply worried about reports of excessive use of force by Sudanese security forces.
    “The government needs to ensure that security forces handle protests in line with the country’s international human rights obligations by facilitating and protecting the right to peaceful assembly,” said Bachelet, a former Chilean president.
    Sudan has struggled economically since losing three-quarters of its oil output – its main source of foreign currency – when South Sudan seceded in 2011, keeping most of the oilfields.
    The protests began in Atbara, in northeastern Sudan, a month ago when several thousand people took to the streets after the government raised bread and fuel prices to reduce the cost of subsidies.
    Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges, which he denies, of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region, had been lobbying to be removed from the list of countries, along with Syria, Iran and North Korea, that Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism.
    That listing has prevented an influx of investment and financial aid that Sudan was hoping for when the United States lifted sanctions in 2017, according to economists.
    Sudan has been rapidly expanding its money supply in an attempt to finance its budget deficit, causing spiraling inflation and a steep decline in the value of its currency.
    Sudan’s inflation rate increased to 72.94 percent in December from 68.93 percent in November, state news agency SUNA said.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai; Writing by Lena Masri; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Cooney)

1/18/2019 Oil climbs 1 percent on OPEC output cut, but U.S. production robust by Noah Browning
FILE PHOTO: An oil pump jack pumps oil in a field near Calgary, Alberta, Canada, July 21, 2014. REUTERS/Todd Korol
    LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose over 1 pct on Friday after a report from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) showed its production fell sharply last month, easing some fears about prolonged oversupply.
    International Brent crude oil futures were up 62 cents, or 1.01 percent, at $61.80 per barrel at 0955 GMT. Brent has risen about 2 percent this week, its third straight week of gains.
    U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were at $52.64 per barrel, up 57 cents, or 1.09 percent, from their last settlement.
    OPEC along with other producers including Russia agreed last year to output cuts effective Jan. 1 to avert a glut.
    The producer club’s monthly report showed it had made a strong start in December even before the pact went into effect, implementing the biggest month-on-month production drop in almost two years.
    In a sign that global supply could tighten further, a U.S.-based think-tank predicted that the United States may grant waivers on sanctions it imposed on importing Iranian oil to fewer countries.
    Political risk advisory Eurasia Group said China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey are likely to receive extended waivers, while those for Italy, Greece and Taiwan would likely be removed.
    “The combination of production cuts by OPEC+ (especially the Saudis) and tightening sanctions on Iranian oil exports have brought the market close to balance,” U.S. investment bank Jefferies said on Friday.
    Tempering support for prices, however, are signs of weakening demand and surging U.S. output.
    The International Energy Agency said on Friday that U.S. oil production growth combined with a slowing global economy will put oil prices under pressure.
    “By the middle of the year, U.S. crude output will probably be more than the capacity of either Saudi Arabia or Russia,” said the IEA, which kept its estimate of oil demand growth unchanged and close to 2018 levels at 1.4 million barrels bpd.
    Markets were also buoyed by signs that the United States and China may soon resolve their trade dispute in talks scheduled for Jan. 30.
    The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Washington was considering lifting some or all tariffs imposed on Chinese imports.
    But U.S. stocks pared some of those gains after a Treasury spokesperson denied the report, adding more uncertainty to the dispute which has kept global markets on edge for months.
(GRAPHIC: Russian, U.S. & Saudi crude oil production – https://tmsnrt.rs/2CTwqaq)
(Reporting by Noah Browning; Additional eporting by Henning Gloystein and Koustav Samanta; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

1/18/2019 Protester’s funeral becomes new flashpoint in Sudan unrest as protests spread by Khalid Abdelaziz
Children play near a police car flipped over and damaged by mourners near the home of a demonstrator who died
of a gunshot wound sustained during anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese police clashed with mourners on Friday during the funeral of a 60-year-old protester who died from a gunshot wound sustained during a fifth week of anti-government demonstrations.
    They fired live ammunition after some mourners hurled rocks and chanted slogans demanding an end to the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir, a Reuters witness said.
    Police used teargas against protesters in another part of the capital Khartoum and also in the adjacent city of Omdurman, on the other side of the River Nile.
    U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday he was worried about the situation in Sudan and encouraged the government to respect human rights and “restrain any form of handling the situation of demonstrations that can undermine those rights and can of course be dangerous to people.”
    Earlier, around 5,000 mourners turned out for the funeral and burial of Moawia Othman, who was shot late on Thursday.
    Mourners blocked a main street in the Burri district of Khartoum with stones and chanted “There is no God but God!” and “Martyr! Martyr!.”    Several were wailing and crying and some were carrying Sudanese flags.
    There were no immediate reports of casualties.    Police could not immediately be reached for comment.
    After Othman had been buried and the weekly Muslim Friday prayers began at noon, the mourners dwindled to hundreds who began chanting “Down, that’s it,” which has become the slogan of protesters signaling their main demand for Bashir to step down.
    As the atmosphere in the area grew more tense, police pulled out of Burri completely, leaving no security presence on its streets.    The Burri protests continued late into the afternoon.
    Elsewhere, demonstrators blocked Sahafa Zalat Street, one of Khartoum’s main arteries that runs through some densely populated districts.    They included older people and many women, not just the young who have dominated most protests so far.
    At least seven police vehicles, other security forces’ vehicles and riot police were at the scene.
    In Omdurman, police fired teargas at dozens of protesters as they left a mosque in the Wad Nubawi district, witnesses said.
PRICE RISES
    The wave of protests in Sudan began on Dec. 19 over price rises, but quickly turned into demonstrations against Bashir.    He has blamed the unrest on foreign “agents” and challenged his opponents to seek power instead through the ballot box.
    But the near-daily protests pose one of the most serious and sustained challenges to Bashir’s rule as his party prepares to change the constitution to allow him to seek another term.
    Security forces have at times used live ammunition to disperse protesters.    The official death toll in five weeks of protests stands at 24, including two security forces personnel.    Rights groups say the figure may be nearly twice as high.
    In violent clashes in Burri on Thursday, a child and a doctor were shot dead, the Sudan Doctors’ Committee, a group linked to the opposition, said. A live video posted on social media and verified by Reuters showed security forces pointing guns at protesters in Burri.
    Sudan is mired in a deep economic crisis that now requires radical reforms or a bailout from friendly nations.
    Critics blame years of economic mismanagement for Sudan’s woes. The government announced an emergency 15-month austerity program in October, but it still heavily subsidizes basic goods.    The inflation rate increased to 72.94 percent in December from 68.93 percent in November.
    Sudan’s economy was also weakened when the south seceded in 2011, taking about three-quarters of the country’s oil wealth.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Yousef Saba; Editing by William Maclean, Gareth Jones and David Gregorio)
[Sudan, a country in Northeast Africa, bordered by Egypt to the north, the Red Sea to the northeast, Eritrea to the east, Ethiopia to the southeast, South Sudan to the south, the Central African Republic to the southwest, Chad to the west, and Libya to the northwest.
    Sudan's history goes back to the Pharaonic period, witnessing the kingdom of Kerma (c. 2500 BC–1500 BC), the subsequent rule of the Egyptian New Kingdom (c. 1500 BC–1070 BC) and the rise of the kingdom of Kush (c. 785 BC–350 AD), and after the fall of Kush the Nubians formed the three Christian kingdoms of Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia, until around 1500, and between the 14th and 15th centuries much of Sudan was settled by Muslim Arabs, an extensive Islamization and Arabization.
    By the eighth millennium BC, people of a Neolithic culture had settled into a sedentary way of life there in fortified mudbrick villages, where they supplemented hunting and fishing on the Nile with grain gathering and cattle herding.
    During the fifth millennium BC, migrations from the drying Sahara brought neolithic people into the Nile Valley along with agriculture, and the population that resulted from this cultural and genetic mixing developed a social hierarchy over the next centuries which became the Kingdom of Kush (with the capital at Kerma) at 1700 BC.    Anthropological and archaeological research indicate that during the predynastic period Nubia and Nagadan Upper Egypt were ethnically, and culturally nearly identical, and thus, simultaneously evolved systems of pharaonic kingship by 3,300 BC.].

1/18/2019 Divisions overshadow Lebanon’s Arab summit as few leaders come to Beirut by Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall
Flags of Arab League member countries on display at Beirut's
Phoenicia Hotel, Lebanon January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Divisions among Arab states over Syria, and internal Lebanese disputes, have overshadowed a summit to be held in Beirut this weekend, with several leaders who had planned to come now staying away.
    At least eight heads of state were originally expected in Beirut, said a source in the organizing committee, but only the Somali and Mauritanian presidents will now join Lebanese President Michel Aoun in attending.
    A big point of contention, in a region plagued by bellicose politics, is whether to welcome Syria back into the Arab fold now that President Bashar al-Assad has restored control over most of his country.
    Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, at a pre-summit meeting on Friday, called for Syria to return to “our embrace” in the Arab League after being suspended for seven years.
    The group’s secretary general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, was cited by Lebanese state media on Thursday as saying there was “no Arab agreement over the return of Syria.”
    The issue has played into divisions inside Lebanon, as has a row over Libya’s attendance, harking back to the disappearance of a Lebanese cleric there in the 1970s.
    Lebanese leaders had hoped to agree a new government before the summit to showcase a fresh political dynamic after months of gridlock.    But government formation talks drag on amid fears for the Lebanese economy.
    Having closed down many Beirut streets, shutting schools and businesses in the city centre, the summit was on Friday portrayed in Lebanese media as a let down.
    “The summit of excuses and Arab disappointment,” was the headline in al-Jumhuriya daily newspaper.    That of another daily, al-Nahar, was: “Beirut’s shock… a summit without presidents.”
    Still, some of the 20 countries taking part in the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit are sending prime ministers, foreign ministers or finance ministers, and officials played down the notion that the meeting would be poorly attended.
    “It doesn’t take away from the importance of the issues (to be decided at the meeting),” said the Arab League assistant secretary general Hussam Zaki.
SYRIA AND LIBYA DISPUTES
    Although the economic summit has a lower profile than the Arab League summit, to be held in Tunisia in March, it still attracted numerous leaders when it was last held, in Saudi Arabia, in 2013.
    Then, as now, Arab states were divided over the 2011 uprisings that toppled four leaders and led to three wars, over the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011, but some members are pushing for its reinstatement and others have reopened shuttered embassies in Damascus.
    In Lebanon, where Syrian forces were present for about three decades, the extent of relations with Damascus remains controversial.
    Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah fought alongside Assad in Syria and wants Arab states to normalize ties with Damascus.    Some other Lebanese parties are wary of Damascus’ role.
    “No Arabs without Damascus,” was the headline on Friday in the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper.
    Meanwhile, members of the Amal party, a Hezbollah ally, on Sunday tore down a Libyan flag near the summit venue and burned it.    They are angry over the disappearance of Shi’ite cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr while visiting Libya in 1978.
    Libya was then ruled by Muammar Gaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011, but Amal politicians accuse the internationally recognized government in Tripoli of not cooperating with investigations into Sadr’s disappearance.
    The Libyan government has boycotted the summit in protest and pointed out that thousands of Libyans also disappeared under Gaddafi’s four decades of autocratic rule.
    “I don’t think this was necessary.    It’s just two or three presidents,” said chocolate shop employee Mustafa Shatila in Beirut, bemoaning the closure of streets.
    “They’ve always convened here and other places and no firm decisions that come out… they’ll be done in three days and leave as if nothing happened.”
(Reporting By Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam and Angus McDowall in Beirut and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai, Editing by William Maclean)

1/20/2019 Lebanon’s Aoun urges more efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani meets with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun as he arrives
to attend the Arab Economic and Social Development summit meeting in Beirut, Lebanon January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese President Michel Aoun urged world powers on Sunday to “make all efforts” for Syrian refugees to return home regardless of any political solution to the war there.
    Aoun told an Arab economic summit in Beirut that Lebanon would suggest solutions for safe refugee returns in the meeting’s final statement.
    Since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, more than 1 million people have fled across the border to Lebanon, where aid agencies say most refugees live in extreme poverty.
    The United Nations says conditions are not yet in place for safe returns.
    “Lebanon calls on the international community to make all efforts possible and provide suitable conditions for a safe return of displaced Syrians…without linking that with reaching a political solution,” Aoun said.
    Lebanese politicians have stepped up calls for refugees to go home now that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has recovered control over most of the country with Russian and Iranian help.
    Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, which fights alongside Assad, and its political allies including Aoun have urged rapprochement with Damascus.    Other politicians oppose this, insisting the United Nations must oversee any repatriations.
    A key point of contention ahead of the summit has been whether to bring Syria back into the Arab League, more than seven years after its membership was suspended.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/20/2019 Saudi-led coalition’s planes pound Yemen’s capital
A guard inspects damage at a factory hit by a Saudi-led air strike
in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, Yemen January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
    ADEN/SANAA (Reuters) – Saudi-led forces launched overnight air strikes on Yemen’s capital, described by one resident on Sunday as the worst in a year, as the United Nations struggles to implement a peace deal.
    A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said its warplanes attacked seven military facilities used for drone operations in Sanaa, which held by rival Houthi forces.
    Yemen’s nearly four-year-old civil war, which pits the Iran-aligned Houthi movement against the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi, has killed tens of thousands and left millions on the brink of starvation.
    Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television said the overnight targets included al-Dulaimi Air Base, a drone storage site, and military training sites.
    Medical workers and residents told Reuters at least two civilians were killed, and others injured, and that the raids also damaged homes.
    Houthi-run al-Masirah TV said on Sunday that the coalition had conducted 24 air strikes on Sanaa since Saturday evening, including four on the air base.    It said a plastics factory was also hit, causing a large fire.
    Reuters footage showed a large crater next to the factory, and damaged homes nearby.
    “The raids were very violent, the likes of which we have not seen for a year,” Sanaa resident Arwa Abdul Karim told Reuters.    “The house shook so much we thought it would fall on our heads.”
FRAGILE TRUCE HOLDS IN HODEIDAH
    The escalation in fighting, which follows a deadly Houthi drone attack last week on a Yemeni government military parade, augurs badly for a second round of U.N.-sponsored talks this month aimed at ending the war.
    Hadi was ousted from power in 2014, and the Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in 2015 to try to reinstate him.
    The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal agreement in the port city of Hodeidah, the main entry point for most of Yemen’s imports and aid.
    In the first significant breakthrough in peace efforts, a deal was reached in talks in Sweden last month to avert a full-scale assault on the port.
    The truce has largely held in Hodeidah, which is controlled by the Houthis with thousands of coalition-backed forces massed on the outskirts.    But the withdrawal of forces by both sides has stalled over disagreements over who would control the Red Sea city.
    Rights groups have criticized the coalition for air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians at hospitals, schools and markets since 2015.    They also criticize the Houthis for missile attacks on Saudi cities, including the capital Riyadh.
    Western nations, including some which supply the coalition with arms and intelligence, have pressed Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to end the conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
    The conflict is largely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim Iran.    The Houthis deny receiving any help from Iran and say their revolution is against corruption.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Reuters team in Sanaa and Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet)

1/20/2019 Congo top court declares Tshisekedi presidential-elect by Giulia Paravicini and Stanys Bujakera
FILE PHOTO: Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the Congolese main opposition party,
the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, gestures to supporters at party headquarters in
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo
    KINSHASA (Reuters) – Congo’s constitutional court confirmed Felix Tshisekedi’s presidential election win on Sunday, dismissing a challenge from another opposition leader who rejected the court’s decision and declared himself president.
    Second-placed Martin Fayulu accused Tshisekedi and the ruling party of stitching up the result.    His move that risks stoking further unrest over the bitterly disputed poll.
    Tshisekedi’s supporters were celebrating the court decision in the streets of Kinshasa.    Fayulu says the results were the product of a secret deal between Tshisekedi and outgoing President Joseph Kabila to cheat him out of a win of more than 60 percent.
    Kabila’s camp and Tshisekedi’s denied making any such deal.    The president of the constitutional court, Benoit Luamba, rejected the challenge as “inadmissible.”
    “The constitutional court has just confirmed that it serves a dictatorial regime … by validating false results, (and enabling) a constitutional coup d’etat,” Fayulu said in a statement.
    The provisional results in the election, which was meant to enable Congo’s first democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence from Belgium, showed Tshisekedi winning with a slim margin over Fayulu.    Kabila’s favored candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary came in a distant third.
    Government spokesman Lambert Mende welcomed the court’s decision.
    “Felix Tshisekedi will become the fifth president of the republic,” Mende said by telephone.
    A spokesman for Tshisekedi, Vidiye Tshimanga, said: “We are happy that the voice of the Congolese people has been heard and that a true democratic and peaceful handover will occur.”
    If Fayulu’s supporters reject the result, it could worsen unrest that has already seen 34 people killed, 59 wounded and 241 “arbitrary arrests” in the past week, according to the U.N. human rights office.
    Congo’s constitutional court is widely seen as beholden to Kabila, who has been in power since his father was assassinated in 2001.
SERIOUS DOUBTS
    Independent monitors have flagged major flaws, including faulty voting machines and polling stations at which many were unable to vote.    Catholic Church, which had a 40,000-strong team of observers, denounced the provisional result.
    A tally from the church reviewed by Reuters from about 70 percent of polling stations suggested a victory of 62 percent for Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil country manager.    Tshisekedi and Ramazani were virtually neck-and-neck second place with 16.93 percent and 16.88 percent, respectively.
    The African Union (AU) called for final results to be postponed.    The AU, which often sits on the fence when it comes to mediating internal conflicts of member countries, cited “serious doubts” about the election’s credibility.
    On Friday, Congo rejected the AU’s request.
    Accusations of cheating are not new to elections in Congo, which was ruled by kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko for 32 years before tumbling into chaos and war in the late 1990s.
    Foreign powers have overlooked alleged crookedness in past polls for the sake of stability in a country where two wars sucked in multiple African armies and killed millions.
    Congo’s vast interior is a vital source of copper and other metals, including cobalt, used in electric car batteries and mobile phones.
    Yet the scale of the alleged rigging in December’s election has stoked fears the vote could degenerate into renewed street fighting or another regional conflict.
    The country of 80 million is one of the world’s poorest, and the frustration and hardship in the slums of the capital Kinshasa quickly boils over into violence.
    However, most of the opposition to Kabila in the capital has been harnessed by the party of Tshisekedi, whose supporters are celebrating.    His father Etienne Tshisekedi was a popular opposition figure before he died last year.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)

1/20/2019 Zimbabwe crackdown a taste of things to come, president’s spokesman warns by MacDonald Dzirutwe
Police patrol in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
    HARARE (Reuters) – A crackdown last week on protests in Zimbabwe is a foretaste of how the government will respond to future unrest, the president’s spokesman was quoted saying on Sunday, fuelling concerns that the southern African country is reverting to authoritarian rule.
    Police say three people died during demonstrations that turned violent in the capital Harare and second city Bulawayo.    But human rights groups say evidence suggests at least a dozen were killed, scores were treated for gunshot wounds and hundreds were detained.
    “(The) government will not stand by while such narrow interests play out so violently,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s spokesman George Charamba told the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper.    “The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come.”     Mnangagwa, who has been on a four-nation European tour and was expected to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos this week to pitch for investment to revive Zimbabwe’s crippled economy, said he was instead returning home.
    “In light of the economic situation, I will be returning home after a highly productive week of bilateral trade and investment meetings.    The first priority is to get Zimbabwe calm, stable and working again,” Mnangagwa posted on Twitter.
    Charamba, who has been accompanying Mnangagwa on the trip, said the authorities would review some provisions of the constitution adopted in 2013, which he said were being abused by proponents of democracy.
IN HIDING
    Lawyers and activists say hundreds of Zimbabweans are in custody accused of public order offences, including at least four lawmakers from the opposition MDC party, and Evan Mawarire, a pastor who rose to prominence as a critic of former leader Robert Mugabe and led a national shutdown in 2016.
    Local rights groups say security forces, accused of night raids and beating suspected protesters in their homes, were on Sunday trying to track down people who have gone into hiding.
    A partial internet blackout was still in force on Sunday, two days after mobile networks sent messages to customers saying they had been ordered to keep social media sites shut until further notice.
    Before winning a contested election in July, Mnangagwa promised a clean break with the 37-year rule of Mugabe, who used the security forces to quell civilian protests before being forced out in a de facto coup in November 2017.
    But the MDC says former Mugabe ally Mnangagwa, nicknamed the Crocodile, is now overseeing a reversion to authoritarian rule by using the same tactics.
    Charamba said the MDC leadership and affiliate organizations would be “held fully accountable for the violence and the looting.”    The MDC denies fomenting unrest.
    U.N. rights officials denounced last week’s crackdown, while an independent inquiry found that the army used excessive force when it stepped in to stop post-election violence last August, during which six people were shot dead.
    Zimbabweans, who have seen their purchasing power eroded by soaring inflation, also say Mnangagwa has not delivered on pre-election pledges to kick-start economic growth after Mugabe’s exit.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Milan Writing by John Stonestreet; Editing by David Holmes)

1/20/2019 Israel and Chad revive diplomatic relations, call for closer security ties
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement together
with Chad's President Idriss Deby, during their meeting in N'Djamena, Chad January 20, 2019.
Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
    N’DJAMENA (Reuters) – Israel confirmed a diplomatic rapprochement with Muslim-majority Chad on Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a visit to the Chadian capital to stress their mutual interest in confronting Islamist insurgencies.
    Seeking to rebuild ties with Africa damaged by the occupation of Palestinian territories in the 1967 Middle East war, Israel said in November that diplomatic links with Chad would be revived after President Idriss Deby paid the first official visit to Jerusalem by a Chadian leader.
    Speaking at a joint press event, Netanyahu said recent attacks by the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency and a militant attack on a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, last week showed the need to cooperate on security.
    “The game is far from lost if we pull together,” Netanyahu said.    “We are happy to know that a Muslim-majority country is connected through diplomatic ties to Israel.”
    Deby echoed Netanyahu’s call for closer cooperation: “I note with satisfaction our shared view on the need to combine forces to tackle terrorism, which spares no country.”
    They said security had been a key topic of discussion during an earlier meeting, but gave no details.    Last year a source told Reuters Israel had supplied Chad’s army with weapons and equipment to help fight rebels.
    Netanyahu has previously cited Chad’s renewed relationship with his country as an example of how Israel can make diplomatic inroads in Africa and the Middle East despite its conflict with the Palestinians.
(Reporting by Madjiasra Nako; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by David Holmes)

1/20/2019 Syria says repels Israeli air attack, Israel says downs Golan rocket
FILE PHOTO: An Israeli soldier rides an armoured vehicle during an army drill after the visit of
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File photo
    BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Syrian military air defenses thwarted an Israeli attack on Sunday, shooting down seven missiles targeting an airport in southeastern Damascus, Russia’s National Defense Control Center was cited by RIA news agency as saying.
    The attack, launched by four Israeli F-16 jets, did not damage the airport and there were no casualties, the control center was cited as saying.
    Syrian state media also reported the attack.
    “Our air defense systems thwarted … an Israeli air aggression … and prevented it from achieving any of its goals,” a military source told state news agency SANA.    It gave no further details.
    An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment.
    The Israeli military later said its Iron Dome interceptor system shot down a rocket fired at the northern part of the occupied Golan Heights on the Syria frontier.
    The military’s statement did not immediately specify where the rocket was launched from.    The northern Golan is also close to Lebanese territory.
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged an Israeli attack last week on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, where Tehran provides Damascus with vital support.
    He told his cabinet Israel had carried out “hundreds” of attacks over the past years of Syria’s war to curtail Iran and its ally Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
    Usually silent about its attacks on Iranian targets near its frontier, Israel has lifted the veil this month, a sign of confidence in a campaign waged amid occasional tensions with Syria’s big-power backer Russia.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

1/20/2019 Erdogan: Turkey is ready to take over Syria’s Manbij
FILE PHOTO - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP)
during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is ready to take over security in Syria’s Manbij without delay, President Tayyip Erdogan told U.S. President Donald Trump in a telephone call on Sunday, the Turkish presidency said.
    Erdogan said an attack that left four U.S. personnel dead last week in Manbij was an act of provocation aimed at affecting Trump’s decision last month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
    Manbij is controlled by a militia allied to the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG, who last month invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the area around the town to forestall a potential Turkish assault.
(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

1/21/2019 Israel strikes in Syria in more open assault on Iran by Ellen Francis and Ari Rabinovitch
What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be
an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media.
Facebook Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus/Youmiyat Qadifat Hawun fi Damashq/via REUTERS
    BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel struck in Syria early on Monday as part of its increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.
    Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes, but a war monitor said 11 were killed and Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers died.
    The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad fight Sunni Muslim rebels seeking to oust him.
    Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah without claiming responsibility for the attacks.
    But with an election approaching, and with the U.S. vowing more action on Iran, Israel’s government has lifted the lid on strikes that it once preferred to keep quiet, and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon.
    It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran’s work.
    In Tehran, air force chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth,” according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.
    Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control, though two large enclaves are still held by other forces.
    His other main ally Russia, worried about the consequences of Israeli strikes for the wider pursuit of a war that is now entering its ninth year, has provided Syria with air defense systems.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out “hundreds” of attacks over recent years to curtail Iran and Hezbollah.
    “We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” he said on Sunday.
    In a highly publicized operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon that it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch attacks during any future war between them.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria and a senior U.S. official in Lebanon last week criticized Hezbollah over the tunnels.
    Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006.    It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.
    Tensions have also risen with Israel’s construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory along the contested border.
NIGHT ATTACK
    The Israeli military said its fighter jets had attacked Iranian targets early on Monday, including munition stores, a position in the Damascus International Airport, an intelligence site and a military training camp.
    Its jets then targeted Syrian defense batteries after coming under fire, the Israeli military said, and the Defence Ministry of Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, said four Syrian soldiers were killed and six wounded.
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said 11 people had been killed.
    Syrian air defenses, supplied by Russia, had destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs, the Russian Defence Ministry said, according to RIA news agency.
    Syrian state media, citing a military source, said the country had endured “intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles, but had destroyed most “hostile targets.”
    Israel’s target was the Iranian Quds Force, a special unit in charge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps overseas operations, the Israeli military said.
    It followed a previous night of cross-border fire, which Israel said began when Iranian troops fired an Iranian-made surface-to-surface missile from an area near Damascus at a packed ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
    Iran has yet to respond to the accusation.
    Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the area it was fired from “is an area we were promised the Iranians would not be present in,” in an apparent allusion to Russian reassurances to Israel.
    Syria said it was Israel that had attacked, and its own air defenses that had repelled the assault.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

1/21/2019 Israel opens new airport to boost Eilat tourism, provide wartime back-up by Steven Scheer
FILE PHOTO: A general view of the new Ramon International Airport in Timna Valley,
north to Eilat, Israel June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
    TIMNA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel opened a new international airport outside its Red Sea resort of Eilat on Monday, hoping to boost winter tourism from Europeans and provide an alternative for times of conflict to its main gateway in Tel Aviv.
    Abutting the Jordanian border some 19 km (12 miles) north of Eilat, Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport cost $500 million and will replace the city’s cramped municipal airport as well as Ovda, an Israeli desert airbase that also accommodates civilian traffic.
    Named after an Israeli astronaut lost in the 2003 space shuttle disaster and his eldest son, who died in a 2009 air force accident, the single-runway Ramon is designed for wide-body planes and an annual capacity of 2.5 million passengers.
    Jordan and Egypt, Red Sea neighbors which both have peace treaties with Israel, may also benefit from transit tourists landing there, Israeli officials say.
    “It (Ramon) is going to be a regional airport and if some of our tourists are going to Aqaba and Taba, that’s great,” Chanan Moscowitz, head of Eilat-area airport operations, told Reuters, referring to the Jordan and Egyptian border terminals.
    “It means that the area is quiet.”
    Ramon is designed to take any planes re-routed from Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv – a lesson of the 2014 Gaza war, when foreign carriers briefly halted flights there because of Palestinian rocket fire.    Israel worries that Ben Gurion could also be targeted by Lebanese Hezbollah rocketeers.
    Ramon is 200 km (124 miles) from Gaza and 370 km (230 miles) from Lebanon.    It is at a safe remove from Islamist insurgents in the Egyptian Sinai who have fired short-range rockets at Eilat in the past, and has a security fence billed as a precaution against shoulder-fired missile attacks from Jordan.
    Eilat has seen a big revival in tourism since 2015, when Israel offered airlines 60 euros ($70) per passenger brought on direct flights from abroad to Ovda.    Taxes and fees were also scrapped for three years to lower fares.
    That lured airlines such as Ryanair – which has a 50 percent market share to Eilat for its winter flights – and Wizzair, which is next at 18 percent.    Lufthansa began nonstop flights to Eilat in October.
    Moskowitz said foreign tourism to Eilat doubled over the last two years.    Tourism from Russia, Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, via Ovda airport, has been especially brisk.
(Editing by Dan Williams and Peter Graff)

1/21/2019 South Africa turned down Zimbabwe request for $1.2 billion loan in December
Shoppers wait to enter a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
    JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa turned down a request from its southern African neighbor Zimbabwe for a $1.2 billion loan in December, a spokesman for the finance ministry said on Monday.
    “South Africa doesn’t have that kind of money,” National Treasury spokesman Jabulani Sikhakhane said.
    Zimbabwean officials were not immediately available for comment.
    Zimbabwe was hit by anti-government protests last week after a hike in fuel prices stoked anger over an economic crisis.
    Police say three people died during demonstrations that turned violent in the capital Harare and second city Bulawayo.    But human rights groups say evidence suggests at least a dozen were killed.
    Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Sunday that he would return home from a European tour and skip the World Economic Forum in Davos to address the crisis.
(Reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

1/21/2019 Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria by OAN Newsroom
    Israel recently conducted more airstrikes in Syria in a new effort to push back against Iranian forces in the region.    Early Monday morning, Jerusalem announced it hit targets around Damascus for the second day in a row, killing at least 11 people including four Syrian soldiers.
    Israel’s president said the latest round of strikes were a direct response to a surface-to-surface rocket that Iranian forces fired toward Israel on Sunday.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin speaks during his meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko
at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    “These attacks are clear evidence of the build up of the Iranian forces in Syria and across the region, we will not allow this to happen,” stated Israeli President Reuven Rivlinz.    “The international community must understand that the build up of Iran’s forces in the Middle East could lead the region into escalation.”
    Iranian news agencies said the country’s military forces are impatient to fight and destroy Israel.
    The arch enemies may be headed closer to conflict in Syria as U.S. forces withdraw from the region.

1/21/2019 Sudan’s Bashir to visit Qatar amid ongoing unrest at home
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir addresses the nation on the eve of the 63rd Independence Day anniversary at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan December 31, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will visit Qatar this week, Qatar’s state news agency QNA said on Monday, as widespread anti-government protests rage at home.
    Sudan has seen near-daily demonstrations since Dec. 19 triggered by an economic crisis, and protesters have blamed Bashir for soaring inflation and shortages of staples such as bread.
    Bashir will arrive on Tuesday and meet Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Wednesday to discuss ways of boosting relations, QNA reported, without providing further detail.
    Sheikh Tamim was among the first leaders to express support for Bashir after the protests broke out, saying Qatar was ready to offer all necessary help, according to Bashir’s office.
    The tiny but wealthy Gulf state has yet to announce any financial aid.
    Qatar is vying with rivals in the region for influence in Sudan and other countries on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/21/2019 Zimbabwe court says internet shutdown illegal as more civilians detained by MacDonald Dzirutwe
FILE PHOTO: People run at a protest as barricades burn during rainfall
in Harare, Zimbabwe January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo
    HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s government exceeded its mandate in ordering an internet blackout during civilian protests last week, a court ruled on Monday, as authorities pressed on with rounding up opposition figures blamed for the unrest.
    In his interim ruling, High Court Judge Owen Tagu told mobile operators to immediately and unconditionally resume full services.    The biggest, Econet Wireless, compiled with the order late on Monday, it said in a message to subscribers.
    The sporadic blackout began on Tuesday following the start of protests against a rise in fuel prices that turned violent.
    With evidence growing that the country is slipping back into authoritarian rule, critics of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government had accused it of shutting off the internet to prevent a security clampdown being broadcast to the world.
    Mnangagwa was due back in Zimbabwe late on Monday after cutting short a foreign trip.
    There was no immediate comment from the government’s lawyer on whether it would appeal the court judgment.
    On Monday police arrested Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which called for a stay-at-home strike last week in conjunction with the fuel protest.
    He faced subversion charges, his lawyer said, while the organization’s president was in hiding.
    Police say three people died during the unrest, but lawyers and human rights groups point to evidence suggesting at least a dozen were killed, while scores were treated for gunshot wounds and hundreds have been held on public order charges.
    They include six opposition lawmakers, of one whom was detained on Monday, as well as pastor Evan Mawarire, a rights activist and critic of former leader Robert Mugabe held on subversion charges for urging support for the union strike.
    His application for bail will be heard on Wednesday, his lawyer said.
‘DISMANTLING’ THE MDC?
    The spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said several of its leaders were also in hiding, and accused the president – – nicknamed “Crocodile” during his time as a high-ranking official in Mugabe’s strong-arm administration – of seeking to “dismantle” the party.
    A spokesman for Mnangagwa, who became leader after Mugabe was forced out in November 2017, said on Sunday that the crackdown was a foretaste of how authorities would respond to future unrest.
    With high inflation and a shortage of cash in circulation eating into ordinary Zimbabweans’ spending power, the fragile state of Zimbabwe’s economy was also in focus on Monday.
    The main teachers union said after a weekend meeting that its members remained “incapacitated” until the government made a meaningful adjustment to their salaries.
    The president broke off a foreign trip during which he had been expected to pitch for investments at the World Economic Forum in Davos.    A foreign ministry source said he was now due back in Harare on Monday night.
    Earlier in the day, South Africa said it had last month turned down a request from its northern neighbor for a $1.2 billion loan.
    As many businesses, including banks, shops and government offices re-opened in Harare on Monday, the government introduced subsidies for bus travel after public taxis increased prices in response to the fuel price hike.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; writing by John Stonestreet)

1/21/2019 Turkey, U.S. discussed Syria pullout, foreign ministry source says
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu talks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey January 14, 2019.
Cem Ozdel/Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Syria pullout process and bilateral issues in a phonecall on Monday, a Turkish foreign ministry source said.
    No further details were immediately available.
    Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Washington would withdraw troops from Syria, in an abrupt policy shift.    Two NATO allies are in contact over the pullout plan and fight against remaining Islamic State elements.
(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Catherine Evans)

1/21/2019 Erdogan says Kurdish rebels will not shelter in Syrian safe zone by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP)
during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan made clear on Monday that Turkey would not allow a “safe zone” that it is considering setting up in northern Syria to become a base for Kurdish separatists.
    Last week, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on Dec. 19 to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, Erdogan said he and Trump had discussed Turkey setting up a 20-mile-deep safe zone inside Syria along the length of their border.
    Erdogan said Turkey would work with anyone willing to provide it with logistics support for the zone, but that it would take action in Syria if promises were not kept.
    “We will never allow a safe zone that will turn into a new swamp for Turkey like the one in Northern Iraq, where we still experience problems,” Erdogan said.
    “We are not talking of a safe zone (as protection) against Turkey, but rather one against terrorists.”
    Turkish planes regularly attack bases in northern Iraq belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for three decades for autonomy for southeast Turkey.    It is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union.
    On Sunday, Erdogan told Trump that Turkey was ready to take over security in Syria’s Manbij, where two U.S. soldiers and two American civilian staff died last week in an attack claimed by the jihadist group Islamic State.
    Turkey has welcomed Trump’s decision to pull out U.S. forces as it makes preparations for an offensive in northern Syria against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey says is linked to the PKK.
    U.S. forces have been helping the YPG to drive Islamic State out of swathes of northern Syria, and Trump’s decision, which confounded his own national security team, has prompted accusations at home that he is abandoning an ally.
    U.S.-Turkish ties have been strained for months over U.S. support for the YPG and a host of other issues.
    “If the promises made to us are kept and the process continues, all the better.    If not, we have already largely completed our preparations, so we will start taking steps in line with our own strategy,” Erdogan said.
    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia allied to the YPG, said last week it was ready to help create the planned safe zone.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/22/2019 Turkey planning international investigation into Khashoggi case: minister
FILE PHOTO: People protest against the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey
outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, Britain, October 26 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey is planning to launch an international investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and will take further steps in coming days, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying by state-owned media.
    Khashoggi, a royal insider who became a critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and began writing for the Washington Post after moving to the United States, was killed in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2.
    After making numerous contradictory statements about Khashoggi’s fate, Riyadh said he had been killed and his body dismembered when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.
    Turkey has previously said it was working with other countries on the Khashoggi investigation, and has accused Saudi Arabia of not fully cooperating to uncover the journalist’s killing.
    Cavusoglu said in a speech that some Western countries were trying to cover up Khashoggi’s murder, adding that Turkey had made preparations to launch an international investigation on the matter, the state-owned Anadolu reported on Monday.
    “There are Western countries trying to cover this case up.    I know the reasons.    We know and see what sorts of deals are made.    We see how those who spoke of freedom of press are now covering this up after seeing money,” Anadolu quoted him as saying.
    “We, however, will go until the end.    We made preparations for an international investigation in the coming days and we will take the necessary steps,” he was cited as saying.
    Despite a joint investigation with Saudi officials looking at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the consul’s residence and several other locations, the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains are still unknown.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said Khashoggi’s killing was ordered by the highest level of Saudi leadership, but Riyadh has rejected accusations that the prince was involved.
    Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects detained over the murder, which has caused international outrage and damaged the reputation of the 33-year old crown prince.
    Saudi Arabia has come under heavy international pressure over the Khashoggi killing, including from the United States, its closest ally, whose Senate has voted for a resolution blaming the prince for the murder.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Andrew Heavens)
[My comment: Khashoggi was a "jihadist," and a passionate member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a secret underground fraternity that wanted to purge the Arab world of the corruption and autocratic rule and it saw as a legacy of Western colonialism, and "His attraction to political Islam helped him forge a personal bond with President Erdogan of Turkey," which is why he is going nuts to try to hang a saudi prince now.
    According to others, Khashoggi was critical of Salafism, the ultra-conservative Sunni movement, though "not as a French liberal, but as a moderate Muslim reformist."
    Khashoggi was acquainted with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s in Afghanistan while bin Laden was championing his jihad against the Soviets.    Khashoggi interviewed bin Laden several times, usually meeting bin Laden in Tora Bora, and once more in Sudan in 1995.    According to The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "Khashoggi couldn't have traveled with the mujahideen that way without tacit support from Saudi intelligence, which was coordinating aid to the fighters as part of its cooperation with the CIA against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. ... Khashoggi criticized Prince Salman, then governor of Riyadh and head of the Saudi committee for support to the Afghan mujahideen, for unwisely funding Salafist extremist groups that were undermining the war."
    The New York Times describes that after American commandos killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, Khashoggi mourned his old acquaintance and what he had become.    He wrote on Twitter: "I collapsed crying a while ago, heartbroken for you Abu Abdullah," using bin Laden's nickname, and continued: "You were beautiful and brave in those beautiful days in Afghanistan, before you surrendered to hatred and passion."].

1/22/2019 Israel’s Arabs to embrace Netanyahu’s anti-Arab slogan in election by Rami Ayyub
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chats with Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List,
in the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo
    HAIFA (Reuters) – Israel’s Arab lawmakers plan to commandeer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim in the last election that Arabs were heading to the polls “in droves” to encourage their own voters in April’s election.
    Netanyahu’s election-day message to mobilize his right-wing voter base became a defining moment of the 2015 election, drawing criticism and accusations of racism from across the globe.    Netanyahu, who won the election, later apologized.
    Now Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List party said he plans to use Netanyahu’s phrase, which has become an iconic and sometimes ironic part of the language in Israel, to whip up turnout amongst the Arab minority in the April 9 vote.
    “Arabs are not going to forget Netanyahu’s incitement,” Odeh told Reuters.    “Netanyahu benefited from the slogan the first time around.    Now it is our turn to benefit.”
    Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office.    If successful, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
    The party will run the slogan in Arabic and Hebrew, said Odeh, whose faction holds 13 of the 120 Knesset seats.
    Israel’s Arab citizens, many of whom identify as Palestinian, comprise mainly descendants of the Palestinians who remained in their homes or were internally displaced after the 1948 Arab-Jewish war that surrounded Israel’s creation.
    Today they make up just over one-fifth of Israel’s population.    Although the Arab minority has full equal rights, many say their communities face discrimination and are treated as second-class citizens.
    Arab citizens have typically turned out to vote at a rate below the national average, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
    Odeh said that the Arab lawmakers’ main task will be to convince potential voters that their participation can effect real change, even if no Arab party has ever been included in an Israeli government coalition.
    So far polls show Netanyahu’s Likud will be the largest party in parliament with around 30 seats.    The Joint List, a coalition of four parties, may split in to two, each taking about six seats.
    Odeh said a key campaign issue will be Israel’s “nation state” law, passed in 2018.    It said only Jews had the right of self-determination in the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” and downgrades Arabic as an official state language on a par with Hebrew.
    The law angered the Arab minority and Israeli left-wing and center-ground politicians, many of whom opposed its passage in parliament.    The bill’s supporters said it was largely symbolic and Netanyahu said it was needed to fend of Palestinian challenges to Jewish self-determination.
    “I can argue that if we had only voted in greater numbers, we would have been able to block the law,” Odeh said.    “They simply wouldn’t be able to ignore us.”
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Alison Williams)

1/22/2019 Israel launches series of retaliatory airstrikes at Iranian interests in Syria by OAN Newsroom
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doubling down on his support for airstrikes targeting Iranian military interests in Syria.
    Netanyahu said Israel was forced to launch a series of strikes on Monday in response to Iran firing a missile at Golan Heights over the weekend.    Israel’s strike targeted Iranian intelligence sites as well as stockpiles of ammunition and weapons housed near Damascus.
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows missiles flying into the sky near
international airport, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. In a very unusual move, the Israeli military has issued a statement saying
it is attacking Iranian military targets in Syria. It is also warning Syrian authorities not to retaliate against Israel. (SANA via AP)
    Netanyahu has described Iran as the greatest threat to the world, and said Israel will continue to defend itself from Iran’s state-sponsored acts of terrorism.
    “We will not ignore such acts of aggression as Iran attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria and gives explicit statements by Iran that it intends to destroy Israel,” stated the Israeli Prime Minister.    “We are operating both against Iran and against the Syrian forces that are abetting the Iranian aggression — we will strike at anyone who tries to harm us, whoever threatens to eliminate us, bears full responsibility.”
    Israel was forced to temporarily close a popular ski resort near the Syrian border in Golan Heights in response to the attack.    That resort is expected to reopen late Tuesday.

1/22/2019 Assad blocks access to Damascus for EU envoys: diplomats by Robin Emmott
FILE PHOTO: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP news agency
in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 13, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has revoked special visas for European Union diplomats and officials traveling regularly between Beirut and Damascus, complicating efforts to distribute aid to civil war victims, three senior EU diplomats said.
    Since conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, the EU has used the Lebanese capital, the nearest major city, for its diplomatic base while closing most embassies in Damascus in protest over what they describe as Assad’s brutal assault on the opposition.
    But the special permission to use multiple-entry Syrian visas for access to Damascus was rescinded at the start of January with no explanation from the Syrian government, the EU diplomats said, meaning personnel have to apply for time-consuming, single-entry visas every time they wish to travel.
    The EU diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said they believed it was an attempt to try to force European governments and the bloc to re-open embassies in Damascus, as the Syrian army, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, regains control of most of the country.
    “It’s a serious problem for the EU’s humanitarian assistance,” said one EU diplomat.    “This is a measure that hits diplomats and staff of European government embassies and the European Union institutions.”
    Reuters was unable immediately to reach Syrian Foreign Ministry officials for comment.
    After more than seven years of a devastating war drawing in foreign powers, the European Commission, the EU executive, has channeled almost 800 million euros ($909.44 million) on food, medicine and shelter for Syrians inside the country.
    There was no immediate available estimate for the impact of the multi-visa ban, but a Commission spokesman said that the bloc was “doing everything in our power to take appropriate measures to minimize any impact on the delivery of EU humanitarian assistance inside Syria.”
SANCTIONS
    The European Union, which imposed the latest in a series of economic sanctions on Assad’s government on Monday, says it will not shift its policy until a political transition away from Assad is underway as part of a U.N.-led peace process.
    But EU diplomats also say Assad feels far more secure in his position than several years ago as he consolidates territorial advances and other countries reconsider their positions.
    “So far, the EU is united on its policy that we won’t deal with Assad, but he appears to feel his bargaining position is stronger now,” a second diplomat said.
    The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus in December, a significant shift for a U.S.-allied Arab state that once backed rebels fighting him.    Also in December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab head of state to visit Damascus since the start of the Syrian conflict, flying into Damascus airport.
    Syria’s possible rehabilitation by its Arab peers is also under consideration, as the Arab League debates whether to end its membership suspension.    Leaders of the EU and the Arab League will hold a rare, two-day summit in Cairo from Feb. 24.
    The U.S. withdrawal from Syria also appears to have emboldened Assad, the diplomats said.    The U.S. departure from the quarter of Syria held by Kurdish-led forces could allow to regain control over the area, home to much of the country’s natural resources.
    Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision on Dec. 19 to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring the Islamic State militant group had been defeated there, a view not shared by many experts.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by William Maclean)

1/22/2019 Car bomb kills one, injures 14 in Syria: state media
A view of damage in aftermath of a car bomb blast in Latakia, Syria, January 22, 2019
is seen in this still image taken from a video. Al Ikhbaria/ via REUTERS
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – A car bomb detonated in the government-held Syrian city of Latakia on Tuesday, killing one person and wounding 14, Syrian state media reported.
    Footage carried on the state-run al-Ikhbariya news channel showed a large group of people milling around in a street while wreckage smoldered on the ground.
    Though President Bashar al-Assad has regained control over more than half of Syria, attackers have periodically continued to strike in cities he controls with suicide blasts and car bombs.
    State news agency SANA cited the head of the Latakia health department as saying a “terrorist explosion” had killed one civilian and wounded 14.
    SANA earlier said the person killed was the driver of the vehicle, a Suzuki minivan, that blew up in the Sahat al-Hamam district.
    It reported that the authorities had dismantled another explosive device in the same location before the blast.
    Latakia, located on the Mediterranean coast, has stayed in government hands throughout Syria’s eight years of civil war, avoiding the fighting that caused massive damage and casualties in most other major cities.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/22/2019 Israel kills Hamas militant, delays Qatari cash after Gaza flare-up
A relative of a Palestinian Hamas militant reacts at a hospital in the
central Gaza Strip January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – An Israeli tank fired into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, killing a Hamas militant in what the army described as retaliation for the wounding of a soldier and a brief incursion during a violent Palestinian border protest.
    An Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also canceled a Qatari donation of $15 million for the impoverished enclave that had been due on Wednesday as part of international efforts to head off escalation.
    The Gaza border has simmered since Palestinians launched weekly demonstrations last March to press for the lifting of an Israeli-led blockade on the impoverished territory and rights to family lands lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its foundation.
    Palestinian medics in Gaza said a Hamas militant died and two others were wounded in the Israeli shelling of a lookout post near the fortified frontier in the central sector of the enclave ruled by the Islamist group.
    Hamas confirmed the three casualties as its members.
    Earlier on Tuesday, the army said in a statement, one of its officers was shot at as he faced Palestinian rock-throwers at the fence.    The bullet struck his helmet, lightly injuring him, the army said, adding that during the incident two Palestinians also crossed into Israel before returning to Gaza.
    Gaza’s health ministry says more than 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in 10 months of protests.    Israel says it troops resort to lethal force to prevent border breaches by Hamas, against which it has fought three wars since 2008.
    Worried about a potential flare-up into full conflict, Egypt and the United Nations have sought to calm Gaza, while Qatar in November pledged $150 million in donations, to be transferred via Israel over six months, in hope of easing economic pressure.
    A third Qatari payout of $15 million was due on Wednesday, after it was previously held up by Israel in protest at border violence.    An Israeli official, announcing the new postponement, did not say when the payout might now take place.
(Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/22/2019 Sudan protesters clash with police in ongoing unrest by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudanese demonstrators burn tyres as they participate in anti-government protests
in Omdurman, Khartoum, Sudan January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese police fired tear gas on Tuesday at hundreds of protesters blocking roads, burning tires and chanting anti-government slogans in and around the capital Khartoum as month-long protests continued unabated.
    Demonstrators have been on the streets near-daily since Dec. 19, initially to protest against an economic crisis then to call for an end to the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir.
    In Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, smoke could be seen rising from burned tires and tree branches, with the sound of the main rallying cry for Bashir’s fall: “Down, that’s it.”
    In the north of the capital, protesters blocking a main road in one of the most populous neighborhoods chanted: “How much does a martyr’s blood cost?,” witnesses said.
    Police fired tear gas to try and disperse crowds in both places, chasing protesters into side-streets, witnesses said.
    “We will continue to protest so we can fulfill the goals of those who died, the martyrs,” said a 36-year-old housewife who asked not to be named.
    The official death toll from the month of unrest stands at 26, including two security personnel.
    Rights groups say at least 40 have died.
    Earlier on Tuesday, police also fired tear gas at dozens of protesters gathered in Omdurman near the home of a man whose family said had died of wounds on Monday after he was shot at an anti-government protest last week.
    Bashir, who has blamed the unrest on foreign “agents” and rebels from the western region of Darfur, was traveling to Qatar on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Nadine Awadalla and Yousef Saba; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)

1/23/2019 Oil up nearly 1 percent as stimulus hopes ease growth concerns by Noah Browning
FILE PHOTO: A gas torch is seen at the Filanovskogo oil platform operated by
Lukoil company in Caspian Sea, Russia October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose almost 1 percent on Wednesday on hopes that Japan and China would take fiscal stimulus measures to stem an economic slowdown which has weighed on financial markets.
    Brent crude oil futures were at $62.10 per barrel at 1040 GMT, up 60 cents or 0.98 percent, from their last close.
    U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were at $53.48 per barrel, up 47 cents or 0.89 percent.
    Oil prices fell by 2 percent on Tuesday as financial markets reeled from concerns about a global economic slowdown and the heavy losses spooked investors into safe-haven assets such as government bonds or gold.
    A litany of poor economic data worldwide – including tumbling U.S. home sales, slumping Canadian factory sales and wholesale trade along with Japanese import and export data which fell short of expectations – sapped market confidence.
    A widespread economic slowdown is expected to dent growth in demand for fuel, weighing on energy prices.
    But some optimism emerged as China and Japan said they would use fiscal spending to boost growth.
    Chinese finance ministry officials said on Wednesday the government would step up fiscal spending this year to support its economy, which last year registered its lowest growth rate since 1990.
    The Bank of Japan said it would keep its ultra-easy monetary settings which have been running since 2013.
    Steen Jakobsen, chief economist at Denmark’s Saxo Bank, said “the global economy is suffering,” but added that China’s government would “do all it can for stability.”
    Should a U.S.-China trade deal to resolve the two superpowers’ trade tensions be reached promptly, Jakobsen said, “we will see powerful support for the Chinese economy.”
    Providing oil prices with support in 2019 have been production cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), aimed at reining in an emerging supply overhang.
    Whether OPEC’s efforts will be successful will also depend on the development of oil production in the United States, where crude output jumped by 2 million bpd in 2018 to an unprecedented 11.9 million bpd.
    While the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said on Tuesday that it expected shale output to rise further, it said that production growth would slow in the coming years.
(Graphic: U.S. oil production growth – https://tmsnrt.rs/2AZSnDc)
(Reporting by Noah Browning; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein; Editing by Joseph Radford/Christian Schmollinger and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

1/23/2019 Oil turns negative on U.S. stock market weakness by Scott DiSavino
FILE PHOTO: A gas torch is seen at the Filanovskogo oil platform operated by
Lukoil company in Caspian Sea, Russia October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
    NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil prices turned negative on Wednesday, following U.S. stock markets down, on concerns about global economic weakness, forecasts for record U.S. shale production and lower U.S. gasoline prices.
    Brent futures were down $1.07, or 1.7 percent, at $60.43 a barrel by 11:58 a.m. EST (1658 GMT), while U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude fell 99 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $52.02 per barrel.
    “Today’s trade is extending a daily pattern of oil moving in close tandem with swings in the equities,” Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch and Associates in Chicago, said in a report.
    The Dow Jones Industrial Average turned negative around midday Wednesday after rising about 1.2 percent earlier in the day.
    Ritterbusch said he expects “the energy complex will prove more reactive to large equity sell-offs than to rallies as this month proceeds.”
(Graphic: U.S. oil production growth – https://tmsnrt.rs/2AZSnDc)
(Additional reporting by Noah Browning in London and Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Alexandra Hudson)

1/24/2019 Saudi crown prince offers full support for Iraq’s security: Iraq PM’s office
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 14, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on Thursday offered his full support for Iraq’s continued security in a phone call to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
    The countries have been at loggerheads since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.    The call was the latest indication of attempts to improve relations, which began with the reopening of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Baghdad in 2016.
    “His Highness … expressed …full support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Iraq and its support for its permanent security and prosperity,” a statement from Abdul Mahdi’s office said.
    Saudi Arabia is wooing Baghdad as part of a combined effort with the United States to stem the growing regional influence of Iran, while Iraq is seeking economic benefits from closer ties with Riyadh.
    The Iraqi premier welcomed the “development of relations,” the statement said.
    In October 2017, two months before Iraq declared victory over Islamic State, the countries established the Iraqi-Saudi Joint Coordination Council, to help rebuild devastated areas retaken from the Islamist militants in Iraq.
(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/24/2019 Hamas refuses to let Qatar pay Gaza salaries by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub
A Palestinian Hamas-hired civil servant displays U.S. Dollar banknotes after receiving her salary paid
by Qatar, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza’s dominant Hamas group refused to let Qatar send in $15 million of aid on Thursday, part of a tortuous standoff involving Israel and rival Palestinian factions that has left thousands of civil servants there short of pay.
    In November Qatar began a six-month, $150 million program to fund the wages and shipments of fuel for power generation in Gaza.
    The staggered payments, widely seen as a Qatari bid to increase its regional role, need Israel’s permission to get through – an involvement that has riled many among Hamas’ Islamist leadership.
    Khalil Al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, said on Thursday Israel had broken previous agreements brokered by Qatar and Egypt.    He said Hamas had told Qatar’s ambassador, Mohammed Al-Emadi, that it refused the money “in response to the occupation policy.”,br>     Gaza economist Mohammad Abu Jayyab said that he believed Qatar had told Hamas leaders that Israel had put new conditions over the mechanism for paying out the money.    Israeli officials refused to comment.
POLITICAL FOOTBALL
    The civil servants have also become a symbol of a bitter and protracted power struggle between Hamas, which has its power base in Gaza, and the western-backed Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
    The workers were hired by Hamas after it unexpectedly won elections in 2006 and seized military control of Gaza the next year.
    But after years of Israeli-led blockades, successive wars and the continued failure of internal reconciliation efforts, Hamas was left with little in its coffers.    With Hamas hardly able to pay its own employees, and Abbas refusing to, the workers were caught in the middle.
    Qatar’s intervention angered Abbas, whose strategy has been to pressure Hamas back to the negotiating table by slashing salaries, thereby worsening economic conditions in Gaza.
    The Qatari largesse has also posed problems for Israel’s government, which detests Hamas but does not want to see Gaza’s economic problems spill over into violence against Israelis.,br>     Israel initially blocked the latest Qatari transfer, then relented on Thursday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government accepted a “recommendation” by the Israeli military to let the money in.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Heavens)
[What they are not telling us is that Iran is having troubles backing Hamas, who cannot pay them.].

1/24/2019 Exclusive: Syrian Kurdish YPG expects negotiations with Damascus soon by Rodi Said
FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) fire rifles at a drone operated
by Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo
    QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – The head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia believes talks with the government over the future of the northeast region will begin in days after a “positive” reaction from Damascus.
    Any deal between the YPG and President Bashar al-Assad’s state could piece together the two biggest chunks of a nation splintered by eight years of conflict.
    Dialogue attempts have revived in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the Kurdish-led region.
    “There are attempts to carry out negotiations … the Syrian government stance was positive,” the YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters.    “We believe they will start in the coming days.”
    In a voice recording sent from his representatives late on Wednesday, Hemo said U.S. moves to withdraw were over-hasty and could not happen while the battle against Islamic State militants still rages.
    Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought Russian mediation for talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region when U.S. troops currently backing them pull out.
    They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the YPG.
    On a recent visit, U.S. envoy James Jeffrey talked to him and other officials about both satisfying Turkey and protecting northern Syria, Hemo said.br>     U.S. arming of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG spearheads, has infuriated NATO ally Turkey.    Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.
    The Kurdish-led authority that runs much of north and east Syria presented a road map for an agreement with Assad in recent meetings with his key ally Russia.
    Hemo said there had been no direct talks with the state since, but Damascus had received the proposal, which focused on preserving Kurdish and minority rights, including education, as well as self-rule.
    Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war.    Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.
    Short-lived talks between the two sides last summer went nowhere.
    Government officials were not immediately available for comment, but a minister last week expressed optimism.
LONG WAR WITH DAESH
    Mixed messages from Washington have clouded Trump’s abrupt announcement last month, which sparked concern among Western allies.    The 2,000 American forces are still deployed in the SDF region, rich in oil, farmland and water – the biggest chunk of Syria outside state rule.
    “Implementing this (U.S.) decision to withdraw practically is not possible in the near term,” Hemo said.
    SDF fighters are now battling Islamic State remnants in an enclave in eastern Syria, after seizing vast swathes of land from the jihadists with U.S. help.
    “Daesh is headed towards demise.    There are many sleeper cells and there will be a long war with Daesh in this region,” Hemo said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
    He said any safe zone in northeast Syria, which Trump mentioned on Twitter, should be under U.N. auspices.    The SDF has welcomed the possibility but said any such zone must keep Turkey out.
    “We want to be on good ties as neighbors, but the Turkish state does not accept this,” Hemo said.    “If Turkey attacks our region, we will respond appropriately.”
    Ankara has drawn on Syrian rebel proxies to help fight the YPG in the northwest before and has vowed to march further east.
    Turkey’s foreign minister said on Thursday his country has the capacity to create a safe zone in Syria but would not exclude other states that want to cooperate.
(Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/24/2019 Israel’s far right, security agency spar over charges in Palestinian’s killing by Dan Williams
Relatives, friends and Israeli lawyers representing an 16-year-old Jewish seminary student
from the occupied West Bank charged with killing a Palestinian woman Aisha al-Rawbi in 2018, stand outside the
courtroom at the District Court in Lod, Israel January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Rami Amichay
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli prosecutors indicted a 16-year-old Jewish seminary student on Thursday over the killing of a Palestinian woman, a case that has sparked public recrimination between Israel’s far-right and its usually tight-lipped internal security agency.
    The minor, whose was not named, was charged with ideologically motivated manslaughter, which can carry a 20-year jail term.    His DNA was found on a rock that fatally struck Aisa al-Rawbi, 47, in the head as she drove through the occupied West Bank in October, the court was told.
    The defendant’s lawyers say he had no connection to the incident, and they accused Shin Bet security investigators of misconduct.    Several far-right figures have echoed this, including a state-employed Israeli rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu.
    “They (the authorities) have been using the Shin Bet against Jews,” he said in a lecture at the defendant’s seminary in a West Bank settlement, a video of which was posted on Facebook.
    “The order is skewed.    Change the order: Let the Shin Bet pursue the evil-doers, not schoolboys.”
    The West Bank sees frequent friction between Palestinians, who seek the territory for a future state, and Israel’s settlers, some of whom identify with radical Jewish groups that promote religiously fueled hostility toward Arabs.
    “This (al-Rawbi’s killing) was a terrorist attack in every regard, and similar acts, when carried out by Arab assailants, including minors, were handled identically by the security establishment,” the Shin Bet said after Thursday’s indictment.
    The Shin Bet operates under full judicial oversight, the agency’s statement said, adding that unnamed “interested parties” were trying “to obstruct justice and disseminate lies and smears against the security agencies involved in the case.”
    Israeli officials say Jewish militancy is hard to crack because suspects keep to small and secretive networks and train in resisting Shin Bet interrogation.
    Palestinians – who unlike Israeli citizens are subject to military regulations, including longer detentions without trial – say Israel is slow to act on anti-Arab violence.
    According to the Shin Bet, incidents of Jewish militant violence increased by almost 50 percent between 2017 and 2018.    Indictments for such incidents in the same period increased by 26.6 percent, the Shin Bet said.
    Amir Bracha, a lawyer for the defendant in al-Rawbi’s killing, told reporters the indictment against him “stands on a weak footing and DNA, which we doubt will stand up to court scrutiny.”
(Reporting by Rami Amichay, Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Toby Chopra and Hugh Lawson)

1/24/2019 Eight years after uprising, Egyptians say freedoms have eroded by Mohamed Abdellah and Mahmoud Mourad
FILE PHOTO: Anti-government protesters celebrate next to soldiers inside Tahrir Square after the announcement
of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih/File Photo
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Everyday at sunset, Ahmed Maher, one of Egypt’s best known activists, says good night to his family and heads to a Cairo police station to spend the night under police watch.
    While what he describes as ‘half an imprisonment’ has disrupted his family life, career and education, Maher considers himself luckier than other activists of the 2011 uprising that ended autocratic president Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power.
    Like many young Egyptians who camped out for days at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the 38-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee expected Mubarak’s downfall to pave the way for more freedoms to allow the country to flourish.
    Instead, Maher and other activists say things have gotten worse.
    “No one imagined that the situation would be this bad,” Maher, an engineer who is also studying for a degree in political science, told Reuters.    “Even the right to gather in a crowd or to express an opinion is not available.”
    President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood after a year in office that saw the economy suffer, has also targeted secular activists, including many prominent figures of the January 25 uprising.
    Many have fled the country, others are in prison while a third group have been cowed into silence.
    Maher, freed from a three-year-prison sentence in early 2017 for breaking anti-protest laws, immediately began a three-year-probation period under which he must spend the night, from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., at a police station.
    Sisi supporters, who now celebrate the anniversary of the June 30, 2013 uprising that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, argue tough action was needed to rescue the economy and get rid of Islamists they accused of trying to take steps to retain power.
    Egypt’s economy has begun to turn around since Sisi came to office in 2014, but reforms adopted under a 2016 IMF loan that included devaluing the Egyptian pound and a gradual lifting of state fuel subsidies have also deepened poverty in Egypt.
WORST CRACKDOWN IN MODERN HISTORY
    Rights activists say that Sisi has presided over the worst crackdown on freedoms in Egypt’s modern history.
    Thousands of activists, most of them Islamists but also including dozens of liberals and leftists, have been jailed under strict regulations imposed since 2013.
    Rights activists say that intellectuals, government critics and human rights campaigners have been rounded up on charges of belonging to “terrorist organisations” or publishing false news or disturbing public order.
    They include Wael Abbas, an award-winning journalist, Hazem Abdelazim, a well-known Sisi supporter turned critic, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger jailed for five years.
    Ahmed Douma, another figurehead of the 2011 uprising, was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this month after he was convicted of rioting and attacking security forces in 2011.
    “Every time a human being is tortured, disappeared, extra-judicially killed, executed or arbitrarily arrested, Egypt’s authorities convey a clear message to their people: the change they demanded will not come,” EuroMed Rights, a Copenhagen-based network seeking to bolster ties between NGOs on both sides of the Mediterranean, said in a statement.
    Egypt, which denies holding political prisoners, rejects abuse allegations.    But Sisi’s admirers say firmness has been necessary to end years of lawlessness and militants behind attacks that have killed hundreds.
    “The whole world had thought that the youths of the revolution would play a role in running the country, like in any country that looks for qualified youths would,” said Maher, who founded the April 6 Movement, a grassroots group founded in 2008 that had campaigned against Mubarak’s rule.    “Sadly, there is a big hostility towards the youths,” he added.
    Last September, 17 U.N. human rights experts criticised Egypt for its use of anti-terrorism laws to detain activists fighting for women’s rights and against graft, torture and extra-judicial killings.
    Israa Abdel Fattah, another member of the April 6 Movement, said that Egypt was worse off now than it was before the January 25 uprising.    “Egypt can change and everything will be good if it possessed one thing, and that’s justice,” said Abdel Fattah, who like many other activists is barred from travelling abroad.
    Activists say the only positive result of the revolution, a two-term limit on presidential terms, could also soon be lost if Sisi supporters pursue plans to amend the constitution.
    At a ceremony to mark Police Day, Sisi paid tribute to the January 25 uprising, but stayed silent when a speaker asked him to agree to remain in office for two additional four-year terms.
    Anwar al-Hawary, former editor of the privately-owned al-Masri al-Youm newspaper, said Sisi appears to favour staying in power beyond a second term, warning that any such move would be “illogical.”
    “The country cannot cope with another uprising or a coup,” he said.
(Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean)

1/24/2019 Car bomb explodes in Damascus, no casualties: Syrian state media
A man stands near the wreckage of a car at a site of a car bomb blast in Damascus, Syria January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi
.     BEIRUT (Reuters) – A car bomb exploded in Syria’s capital Damascus on Thursday causing damages but no casualties, state media said, the third such blast in a city under government control this week.
    State news agency SANA said the bomb hit the al-Adawi neighborhood just north of the central Old City district.    A witness said the blast occurred near a hospital and security forces were examining a blown-up blue car in the street.
    A car bomb detonated in the coastal city of Latakia, near President Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral village, killing one person and wounding 14 on Tuesday, state media reported.    On Sunday, a bomb exploded near a highway at the edge of Damascus and authorities arrested one attacker.
    Syria’s war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced more than half its pre-war population from their homes and dragged in global powers.
    Though Assad has regained control over most of Syria with Russian and Iranian help, attackers have struck in cities he controls with suicide blasts and car bombs.
    Latakia and central Damascus have stayed in the military’s hands throughout Syria’s eight years of war, avoiding the air strikes that battered other big cities.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; editing by John Stonestreet)

1/24/2019 Germany approves export of weapons systems to Qatar
FILE PHOTO: German Economic Affairs and Energy Federal Minister Peter Altmaier addresses
the media in Berlin, Germany, July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo
    BERLIN (Reuters) – The German government has approved the export to Qatar of four RAM naval missile systems developed by Germany and the United States, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told lawmakers in a letter seen by Reuters.
    The Jan. 23 letter did not provide the value of the deal, citing a 2014 court ruling that exempts such disclosures if it could harm companies’ ability to compete.
    Approval of the sale comes amid a halt in all weapons sales to Qatar’s rival Saudi Arabia imposed by Berlin after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
    RAM is a ship-based rolling airframe missile that protects naval vessels against missiles, aircraft, helicopters and other ships.    The sale also includes 85 dual-mode radar and infrared seekers that guide the missile into its target.
    The RAM system is manufactured and marketed by RAM-System GmBH, a joint venture of Germany’s Diehl and European missile maker MBDA, and U.S. arms maker Raytheon Co.    MBDA is jointly owned by Airbus, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Leonardo.
    The missile system will be exported to Qatar via Italy, while the seekers will be exported through the United States, Altmaier said in his letter.
    Klaus Ernst, a member of the radical Left opposition party, blasted the German government’s decision, given continued concerns about security and human rights in the Gulf region.
    “It is irresponsible of the German government to continue to approve arms sales to crisis regions,” Ernst said.
    Germany last year announced plans to expand ties with Qatar, which pledged to invest 10 billion euros in the German economy.
    The RND newspaper chain, which first reported the latest arms sale to Qatar, said the RAM system had previously been sold by Germany to Egypt, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

1/24/2019 Turkish Foreign Minister: Country can create ‘safe zone’ in Syria alone, won’t exclude U.S., Russia by OAN Newsroom
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik}
    Turkey said it has the ability to create its own ‘safe zone’ in Syria, but won’t turn the U.S. away if it wants to help.    While speaking on television Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his nation is confident it could establish a safe zone, but would welcome U.S. and Russia assistance if the countries offered.
    His comments come after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he and President Trump agreed to create a 20-mile deep safe zone along Syria’s northeastern border.    Turkey has said the zone will provide security as well as refugee relief.
    “There is a humanitarian angle to this, there is an angle concerning migrants — people will return and help will be provided to them,” Cavusoglu explained.    “We will assess all the angles of this issue and talk with everybody, and we try to coordinate this matter by talking about everybody’s opinions and and how we can work together.”
    Only about 300,000 of the four million Syrian refugees in Turkey have reportedly returned as Turkey reported the cost of hosting them is more than $30 billion a year.
    The foreign minister said nothing was certain about the planned zone, but that Ankara and Washington’s views were in line.

1/25/2019 Egypt won’t sign Rafale jet deal during Macron visit: Elysee
French Navy Rafale fighter jets are seen aboard the upgraded "Charles de Gaulle" aircraft carrier
off the coast of Toulon, France, November 14, 2018. Christophe Simon/Pool via REUTERS
    PARIS (Reuters) – France does not expect Egypt to finalize a deal to buy a further 12 Dassault Aviation-made Rafale fighter jets during President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the North African country next week, an official in the president’s office said.
    “Egypt could complete its fleet of Rafale jets in the weeks or months to come but there will not be a signing of contracts during the president’s visit,” the official said.
(Reporting by Michel Rose and Marine Pennetier; Writing by Richard Lough; editing by John Irish)

1/25/2019 Sudan opposition leader says Bashir “must leave” as hundreds march by Khalid Abdelaziz
Sudanese leading opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi addresses his supporters after he returned from
nearly a year in self-imposed exile in Khartoum, Sudan December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – The leader of Sudan’s largest opposition party demanded that President Omar al-Bashir’s administration bow to mass protests and step down, in an address to hundreds of party supporters in a mosque near Khartoum on Friday.
    After Sadiq al-Mahdi’s remarks at Friday prayers, hundreds of protesters then marched through Omdurman, across the River Nile from the capital, and police fired teargas to try to break up the rally.
    Students, activists and other protesters have held almost daily demonstrations across Sudan since Dec. 19, calling for an end to economic hardships and mounting the most sustained challenge to President Omar al-Bashir’s three decades in power.
    “The most important demand is that this regime must leave and be replaced by a transitional government,” Mahdi said at Al-Sayed Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi mosque, which has links to his Umma Party.
    The former prime minister expressed support for the protests and condemned security forces’ use of live bullets, saying more than 50 people had been killed since unrest began.    The official death toll stands at 30, including two security personnel.
    Protesters also gathered in different neighborhoods in Khartoum.    South of the capital, hundreds of protesters blocked a main road, chanting “peaceful, peaceful, against the thieves,” drawing tear gas volleys from police, a Reuters witness said.
    Bashir has blamed the protests on foreign “agents” and challenged his rivals to seek power through the ballot box.    He has shown no sign that he is prepared to concede any power.
    Earlier this month, a group of Sudanese political parties signed a petition calling on Bashir to dissolve the government and form a transitional administration that would set a date for elections.    Mahdi’s Umma party was not one of the signatories at the time although he has expressed support for the protests and called for a change in government before.
    Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges, which he denies, of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region.    He has been lobbying to be removed from a list of countries, along with Syria, Iran and North Korea, that Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism.
    That listing has prevented an influx of investment and financial aid that Sudan was hoping for when the United States lifted sanctions in 2017, according to economists.
    Sudan has been rapidly expanding its money supply in an attempt to finance its budget deficit, causing spiraling inflation and a steep decline in the value of its currency.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, Writing by Lena Masri, editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean)

1/25/2019 Turkey’s Erdogan wants Syria ‘safe zone’ in place within months by Ali Kucukgocmen and Daren Butler
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Turkish Military Academy in Ankara, Turkey
January 24, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey expects its allies to help set up a “safe zone” in Syria along the Turkish border within a few months, otherwise it will establish the zone alone, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
    U.S. President Donald Trump decided in December to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and Erdogan subsequently said they had discussed Turkey setting up a 20-mile-deep safe zone in Syria along the border.
    Trump’s decision came as Turkey made preparations for an offensive against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia east of the Euphrates river in northeast Syria, having seized control of regions west of the river in previous operations.
    Turkey has long been enraged by U.S. support for the YPG, which Ankara regards as a terrorist group, and Erdogan said the safe zone should be “aimed at protecting our country from terrorists, not protecting terrorists right beside our border.”
    “Otherwise, we will definitely form this safe or buffer zone ourselves. Our only expectation from our allies is that they provide logistical support to Turkey’s effort,” he told his AK Party supporters in a speech in the eastern city of Erzurum.
    The YPG has been a key ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State, and Trump has previously warned Ankara not to attack them in Syria, appearing to threaten Turkey’s economy if it did.
    Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the Kurdish-led region, which confounded his own national security team, has also led to a revival in attempts at dialogue between the YPG and the Syrian government.
    The YPG’s commander has told Reuters he believes talks with Damascus over the future of the region it controls in northeast Syria will begin in days after a “positive” reaction from Damascus.
ONLY TURKEY CAPABLE
    Erdogan said that neither the United Nations nor the international coalition formed to protect the Syrian people were capable of creating a safe zone or maintaining security in the region.
    “The only power that can in a true sense establish the safety and functioning of this region on our Syrian border is Turkey,” he said.    “We are closed to all proposed solutions besides this.”

    He said Turkey had the right to enter Syrian territory when it faces threats under a 1998 agreement, which Ankara reached with Damascus after pressuring Syria to expel Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, now jailed in Turkey.
    Ankara regards the YPG as an extension of Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-old insurgency in southeast Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
    U.S. special Syria envoy James Jeffrey, visiting Ankara for talks with Turkish officials, held talks with Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Turkish armed forces chief General Yasar Guler on Friday, the defence ministry said.
    During the talks, Akar said Turkey expected the United States to end its support for the YPG and complete the road map which the two countries agreed upon for the Syrian town of Manbij to the west of the Euphrates, the statement said.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Daren Butler and Toby Chopra)

1/26/2019 Russia warns against setting deadlines for Libya elections
FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the site of the headquarters of Libya's foreign ministry
after suicide attackers hit in Tripoli, Libya December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hani Amara/File Photo
    RABAT (Reuters) – Setting deadlines for elections in Libya is counterproductive as the political players need to agree first on a political solution to end the country’s conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday.
    The comments add to doubts whether the troubled North African oil producer can hold parliamentary or presidential elections by June as sought by the United Nations and Western powers.
    “We have repeatedly highlighted the counterproductive character of setting deadlines in Libya,” Lavrov told reporters after talks in Rabat with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita.
    Libyans needed to agree first on the “rules of the game” for elections, he added, speaking through a translator.
    Under a French plan, Libya was meant to hold national elections on Dec. 10 but the idea was dropped due to a spike in violence in the Tripoli and a lack of progress between rival parliaments in the west and east to find a political solution.
    Libya has two governments, the internationally recognized one in Tripoli and a parallel version in the east, a result of conflict going back to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
    U.N. Special Envoy Ghassan Salame said in November he hoped elections would happen by June but so far there is no law or constitutional frame in place for a vote to go ahead.
(Reporting by Ahmed ElJechtimi; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
[Does anyone recognize the issue here due to Obama's interference in Libya and went to war and killed Gaddafi?].

1/26/2019 Hezbollah could ‘for years’ enter Israel via tunnels, group’s leader says
Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gestures as he addresses his
supporters via a screen in Beirut, Lebanon August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran-backed Hezbollah has “for years” been able to enter Israel, the Lebanese group’s leader said on Saturday, responding for the first time to Israel’s discovery of tunnels dug into Israeli territory from Lebanon.
    “Part of our plan in the next war is to enter into Galilee, a part of our plan we are capable of, God willing.    The important thing is that we have this capability and we have had it for years,” said Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in an interview with al-Mayadeen TV.
    Israel said last month it had discovered Hezbollah “attack tunnels” and the U.N. Middle East envoy this week confirmed the existence of two of them, which he said constituted a breach of the 2006 truce existing between Israel and Lebanon.
    Nasrallah indicated the tunnels had been dug long ago and it was “a surprise” that Israel took so long to locate them.
    “One of the tunnels discovered goes back 13 years,” he said, without discussing how old any other tunnels were.
    U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, said both sides must stick to their side of the border and that the group must leave the area around the frontier.
    Nasrallah said Hezbollah did not want to draw Lebanon into a war with Israel, but added that there was a fear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might miscalculate before the Israeli elections in April and do something rash.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Suleiman al-Khalidi, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Edmund Blair)
[I am sure if he knew his location he would send a missle to his cowardly location.].

1/26/2019 Egypt opens new international airport in Giza for trial flights
A police officer walks in front of a poster presenting an Egyptian plane at the new
Sphinx International Airport in west Cairo, Egypt January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt opened a new international airport on the outskirts of the capital on Saturday for an initial trial period, in a bid to ease pressure from Cairo’s main airport and help boost tourism.
    The Sphinx International Airport, located near the Giza Pyramids and the new Grand Egyptian Museum, is expected to operate 30 flights by early February during its trial run.
    The $17 million project comes as part of the Tourism Ministry’s plan to improve accessibility to historical sites from resort areas on the Red sea like Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada.    It will fully open in 2020.
    The bombing of a Russian airliner shortly after it took off from Sharm el Sheikh in 2015 hit tourism numbers hard, continuing a downward trend that started with the years of turmoil following the “Arab Spring” protests of 2011.
    Tourism revenues had begun to rebound, jumping 77 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2018 to $4.8 billion, before a deadly attack on a bus in December killed three Vietnamese tourists and their Egyptian guide.
    The bus attack was the first deadly attack against foreign tourists in Egypt for over a year.
(Reporting by Mohamed Zaki; Writing by Mostafa Salem and Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Edmund Blair)

1/26/2019 Fire damages vital wheat silos in Yemen’s Hodeidah: U.N.
FILE PHOTO: A ship is docked to unload a cargo of wheat at the port of
Hodeida, Yemen April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/ File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Wheat silos in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah have been damaged by a fire caused by suspected mortar shelling, threatening food supplies for millions of hungry people, the United Nations said.
    The blaze damaged two silos at the Red Sea Mills grains facility, which holds 51,000 tonnes of World Food Programme (WFP) wheat — enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month in the war-torn country.
    “WFP urgently needs to get access … so we can assess the level of damage and begin transporting the unaffected wheat stocks to areas of Yemen where it is desperately needed,” country director Stephen Anderson said in a statement on Friday.
    The WFP has been unable to access Red Sea Mills on the eastern edges of the city since September due to fighting between the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that controls Hodeidah and other Yemeni forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition that are massed on the outskirts.
    A source in the coalition said the silos were hit by Houthi mortars while a Houthi official told Houthi-run media that the fire was caused by coalition artillery fire.
    “The world cannot turn a blind eye to these violations, and the coalition will not tolerate them for much longer,” the source from the alliance told Reuters on Saturday.
    The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed at U.N.-sponsored talks in December on a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, the entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial and aid imports.
    The truce has largely held but sporadic clashes intensified on Friday as the United Nations struggled to implement the troop withdrawal, a confidence-building step aimed at paving the way for political talks to end the almost four-year war.
    Both sides have accused one another of violating the deal.
    The port used to supply food to Yemen’s 30 million people became the focus of fighting last year, raising fears that a full-scale assault could cut off supply lines.
    “A quarter of a million people are in a catastrophic condition, facing near starvation if assistance doesn’t get to them,” Lise Grande, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, said in Friday’s statement.    “This is the first time we are seeing conditions like this. We need this wheat.”
    Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
    Hadi was elected to a two-year term to head a transitional government but the Houthis drove him from power in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene in 2015 to restore his government.
    The Houthis say their revolution is against corruption.

1/26/2019 One dead after protesters storm Turkish military camp in north Iraq: Kurdish officials
A smoke rises from vehicles after protesters stormed a Turkish military camp near Dohuk, Iraq January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
    DOHUK, Iraq (Reuters) – One protester was killed and at least 10 others wounded when they stormed a Turkish military camp near Dohuk in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region on Saturday, burning two tanks and other vehicles, residents and Kurdish officials said.
    Najib Saeed, the chief health official in the area, said it was not yet clear what caused the death.    He said Turkish soldiers had shot at protesters and that the burning of vehicles and equipment had caused several explosions.
    Turkey said the attack was carried out by members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who disguised themselves among civilians to fuel conflict between Turkish forces and local residents.
    We are committed to maintaining our close partnership with the people of Dohuk and doing everything in our power to prevent civilian casualties in the area,” Fahrettin Altun, communications director for the Turkish Presidency, told Reuters.
    Turkey carries out regular air raids near the border against the PKK insurgent group which has bases in northern Iraq and has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

    The Kurdish government in Erbil in northern Iraq condemned the storming of the camp, accusing “saboteurs” of instigating the incident, a veiled reference to the PKK, a rival of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) that dominates the Erbil government and has a working relationship with Turkey.
    Erbil said it had sent its forces to the area to calm the situation.
    A Kurdish official in the region of Dohuk said the crowd was demonstrating over a recent Turkish air raid that killed four civilians.    The official did not want to be named.
    A second Kurdish official, who also did not give his name, said Turkish troops at the camp in Shiladze, east of Dohuk, had initially shot at the protesters and then left the camp.
    Kurdish security forces are trying to control the situation, he said.
    The surprise announcement last month that U.S. forces would withdraw from neighbouring Syria, where they have been directing the fight against Islamic State, raised fears that Turkey would move against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces which it views as terrorists.
    Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia is an extension of the PKK.    Trump has threatened economic ruin for Turkey should it attack the YPG, however.
(Reporting by Kawa Dosky and Ari Jalal, and by Ali Sultan in Sulaimaniya; Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Edmund Blair and Clelia Oziel)
[AFTER READING ALL THE ARTICLES ABOVE FOR 1/26 ALL I CAN SAY IS THE MIDEAST AND KINGS OF THE SOUTH HAVE MADE THEIR WORLD A PLACE THAT IS NOT SAFE FOR ANYONE IN THE WORLD TO VIEW AND THIS INCLUDES FROM TURKEY ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM OF AFRICA AND THIS IS ALL BASED ON WHOSE ISLAMIC VIEW IS CORRECT AND WHAT KIND OF INDIVIDUAL THAT COULD COME OUT OF THIS TO FIND A PEACEFUL AGREEMENT FOR 7 YEARS.].

1/26/2019 Saudi seeks to attract $427 billion with industrial program by Marwa Rashad
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih speaks during a news
conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia aims to attract private sector investments worth 1.6 trillion riyals ($427 billion) over the next decade through an industrial development program aimed at diversifying the economy, Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Saturday.
    Investments will be made through the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program (NIDLP), one of the programs set out under Vision 2030, a wider reform strategy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and intended to wean the economy off hydrocarbons and create jobs for Saudis.
    Falih said the kingdom would on Monday announce projects worth 70 billion riyals that are “ready for negotiations” under the NIDLP to boost industry, mining, energy and logistics.
    At a later stage, it plans to announce projects in the military, chemicals and small businesses industries worth $50 billion, he added without giving a timeframe.
    “The (NIDLP) program targets 1.6 trillion Saudi riyals … it is quite ambitious but it is over a 10-year period so we have got the time to do it,” Falih told a press conference.
    The program will seek to raise money from both domestic and foreign investors.
    The program will integrate the mining, industry and energy sectors, which Falih said were each vital to the kingdom’s plan to empower the private sector and make it the main driver for economic growth.
    After decades of spending on development projects, the government has made attracting greater foreign investment a cornerstone of its Vision 2030 plan.
    But foreign investors have been rattled in recent months by Saudi Arabia’s deteriorating relations with Western governments after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.
    Transport Minister Nabeel al-Amudi told the press conference that NIDLP would launch 60 initiatives in the logistics sector, including five new airports and 2,000 km of railways, and aims to attract more than 135 billion riyals of investments.
    “We aim by 2020 that the logistics sector contributes 221 billion riyals to GDP,” he said.
    Under Vision 2030 the kingdom aims to have the private sector operate much of its transport infrastructure, including airports and sea ports, with the government keeping a role as regulator.
(Writing by Hesham Hajali, Ghaida Ghantous and Marwa Rashad; Editing by Edmund Blair and Clelia Oziel)

1/26/2019 Syria says Turkey must pull troops to revive security pact by Suleiman Al-Khalidi
FILE PHOTO: A Turkish flag flutters on a military vehicle on the border of Manbij city, Syria November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria said on Saturday it was ready to revive a landmark security deal with Turkey that normalized ties for two decades before the 2011 conflict if Ankara pulled its troops out of the war-torn country and stopped backing rebels.
    In a foreign ministry statement, Syria said it was committed to the 1998 Adana accord, which forced Damascus to stop harboring the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.
    “Syria remains committed to this accord and all the agreements relating to fighting terror in all its forms by the two countries,” said a foreign ministry statement released on state media.
    Damascus, however, said reviving the Adana deal, which Russian President Vladimir Putin raised during his summit meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last week, depended on Ankara ending its backing of rebels seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad and pulling its troops out of northwestern Syria.
    Turkey has carved a sphere of influence in an opposition-held enclave in northwestern Syria around Idlib province with the help of mainstream Arab rebels who it backs.    Its troops monitor a buffer zone in the province under a deal with Russia and Iran.
    Western diplomatic sources say the timing of Putin’s proposal to revive the Adana deal signaled a move to counter U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent call to set up a safe zone along the border inside Syria to support the Kurds.
    Syria did not mention how it would deal with the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara says is an extension of the PKK.
    The YPG has during the conflict established a Kurdish-led authority that runs much of northern and eastern Syria and which governs millions of ethnic Arabs in former Islamic State territory where most of Syria’s oil wealth lies.
    The YPG have engaged in dialogue with government officials to safeguard their autonomous region when U.S. troops that back them pull out.
    In a speech on Friday, Erdogan, who has long called for the ousting of President Bashar al Assad and whose country hosts millions of Syrians who fled the war, did not disavow the Adana agreement, saying it gave Turkey the right to enter Syrian territory when it faces threats.
    Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population, sees Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria as a threat to its national security.    It has repeatedly said it would not wait indefinitely to push out the YPG and that only it can establish the safe zone along its borders with Syria.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

1/27/2019 Sudan’s Bashir fights for survival as protests spread by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir delivers a speech during a rally in
Al Fasher, northern Darfur March 8, 2009. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir does little to hide his contempt for the young men and women who have been protesting for more than a month to demand an end to his three-decade rule.
    Addressing soldiers this month, Bashir, a 75-year-old former paratrooper who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1989, warned the “rats to go back to their holes” and said he would only move aside for another army officer, or at the ballot box.
    “They said they want the army to take power.    That’s no problem.    If someone comes in wearing khaki, we have no objection,” Bashir, wearing his military uniform, told soldiers at a base in Atbara, the northern Sudanese city where the protests started.
    “When the army moves, it doesn’t move in a vacuum.    It doesn’t move in support of traitors.    It moves in support of the homeland,” he added in colloquial Arabic.
    Bashir has long been a divisive figure.
    Since taking office in what was then Africa’s largest country, he fought a protracted civil war with southern rebels which ultimately ended with the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and the loss of more than 70 percent of Sudan’s oil.
    Sudan has suffered prolonged periods of isolation since 1993, when the United States added Bashir’s government to its list of terrorism sponsors for harboring Islamist militants.    Washington followed up with sanctions four years later.
    Bashir has also been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague over allegations of genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region during an insurgency that began in 2003.
    Now, he is facing almost daily defiance at home in towns and cities across the country, protests that are still spreading despite mass arrests and a harsh crackdown by security forces using tear gas and live ammunition.
    Authorities say at least 30 people have died in the unrest, which started on Dec. 19 after the government tried to raise bread prices, while rights groups and local opposition figures say at least 45 have been killed.    Hundreds have been injured and hundreds more detained.
    “The current protests represent the biggest and deepest challenge to Bashir’s rule because they indicate that the crisis has reached a new level,” analyst Khalid al-Tijani said.
ECONOMIC MELTDOWN
    Bashir’s critics blame him for Sudan’s marginalization and an economic meltdown that saw inflation soar to 72 percent by the end of 2018 and left the country unable to pay for food imports.
    Supporters blame a Western conspiracy designed to undermine Islamist rule in Sudan, just as Bashir rejected the ICC charges over Darfur as part of a neo-colonialist plot.
    In the months before the protests began, Sudanese had already been struggling to makes ends meet.    The government tried to introduce reforms, devaluing the Sudanese pound and relaxing import restrictions, all to little effect.
    The government had hoped for quick financial support from wealthy Gulf Arab allies after Bashir sent troops to Yemen as part of a Saudi-led alliance fighting rebels aligned with Iran, but help was slow to arrive.
    The trigger for the wave of protests was a government attempt to introduce unsubsidized bread, allowing bakeries to sell at a higher price.    That came on top of the crippling, drawn-out crisis that had led to fuel and banknote shortages.
    The demonstrations quickly turned political, targeting ruling party offices and demanding Bashir step down.
    Unlike previous bouts of unrest, the protests have spread to parts of the country normally loyal to Bashir – and the heavy-handed response has so far failed to stem the spread.
    Security forces have mostly used tear gas and stun grenades to try to quash the protests, but demonstrators and local rights groups have also documented the use of live ammunition.
    Protesters often repeat one chant: “Down, that’s it.”    Others shout, “Down, down with Keezan,” a derogatory name used to describe Islamists.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
    Bashir was born on Jan. 1, 1944 to a poor farming family in Hosh Bannaga, a small village consisting mainly of mud houses and dusty streets on the eastern bank of the Nile River, some 150 km (93 miles) north of the capital Khartoum.
    He has often played up his humble beginnings.    Earlier this month, he repeated a story he told in 2013 of how he broke a tooth while carrying concrete at a construction site where he worked as a student to pay for his education.
    Bashir said he refused a silver tooth implant when he joined the military because he wanted to remember that incident whenever he looked in the mirror.
    After graduating from Sudan’s military academy in 1967, Bashir served in the Sudanese contingent despatched to Egypt to help in the war of attrition against Israel that began following the Six Day War in 1967.
    As a young officer in the parachute regiment, he joined the armed wing of the Islamist Movement, which broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood and has ruled Sudan since Bashir took office.
    The head of the junta that seized power in 1989, Bashir dissolved the military council in 1993 and has since ruled with an iron fist, accused by rights groups of violence and torture to get rid of his political opponents.
DARFUR LEGACY
    But it was Bashir’s response to the insurgency in the western Darfur region that has come to define his legacy.     Facing an ICC arrest warrant over the death of an estimated 300,000 people in Darfur, Bashir has focused on his survival, holding on to power as a shield against a trial similar to that of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.     Defying the ICC, Bashir continued to visit friendly foreign states as he tried to demonstrate he had not been cowed by the international arrest warrant issued by the court.
    Bashir has sought to play on regional and international differences to improve Sudan’s standing.    In 2013, he hosted then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Khartoum.
    Two years later, Bashir joined a Saudi-led alliance that had intervened in Yemen’s civil war as part of a strategy to contain Iran’s expanding influence.
    Bashir has also courted Turkey and Russia, at the same time as Khartoum stepped up security cooperation with Washington – hoping to speed up the country’s emergence from decades of U.S. sanctions that were lifted in 2017.
    Now, facing the most sustained challenge to his rule yet, Bashir will be counting on steadfast support from the security establishment he has nurtured for 30 years to see him through.
    “We say to the youth, this country is yours, protect it, and if it goes up in smoke we won’t be refugees, we will die here,” he said this month, dressed in white robes and waving his trademark cane.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Aidan Lewis and David Clarke)

1/27/2019 U.S.-Backed Coalition Continues Final Offensive Against Islamic State by OAN Newsroom
    A U.S.-led coalition is cracking down on the remnants of the Islamic state in Syria, ahead of the planned troop withdrawal from the country.
    According to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the ongoing U.S.-backed offensive is focusing on the last outposts of ISIS on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
FILE – In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier, left, sits on an armored vehicle behind
a sand barrier at a newly installed position near the front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council
and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. An American military official said Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 that the
U.S.-led military coalition has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
    Officials say ISIS only controls two small villages on the east bank of the Euphrates River.
    SDF fighters believe ISIS will lose its last remaining territories over the upcoming weeks.
    The ongoing military operation is expected to end the existence of the ISIS caliphate on the ground in Syria.
    The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said at least 42 people–including 13 civilians–were killed in a recent series of airstrikes against the Islamic state.

1/27/2019 Egypt’s rights record seen as worse than under Mubarak: Macron by Marine Pennetier
FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
as he leaves the Elysee palace, in Paris, France, October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
    CAIRO (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday human rights in Egypt were perceived as worse now than under former strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by protests in 2011.
    His comments marked a hardening after he said in 2017 he would not “lecturePresident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over civil liberties, which activists say are being eroded.
    “I think current policies are perceived by intellectuals and Egypt’s civil society as tougher than under the Mubarak regime,” Macron told reporters on the sidelines of a trip to Egypt.
    Mubarak, a former air force commander, was jailed for conspiring to kill demonstrators who ended his three-decade rule, but he was freed on appeal in 2017.
    “I can’t see how you can pretend to ensure long-term stability in this country, which was at the heart of the Arab Spring and showed its taste for freedom, and think you can continue to harden beyond what’s acceptable or justified for security reasons,” Macron added.
    “I think that’s becoming paradoxical and harmful for Egypt itself.”
    Non-governmental organizations are pressuring Macron to be firm with the Egyptian president, who in April secured a second term, shoring up his position as a power-broker in the region.
    Macron said he would be more outspoken during the three-day trip, which began on Sunday, and would also mention individual cases in private.    He was to meet Sisi on Monday.
    Sisi’s critics accuse him of cracking down on all dissent, but supporters say tough measures are needed to stabilize Egypt, rocked by years of unrest after the fall of Mubarak.
    In an interview earlier this month, Sisi denied that Egypt was holding political prisoners, though one rights group estimates the number at 60,000.
    In October 2017, Macron gave Sisi, who was visiting Paris, a list of activists he believed could be released from prison.
    On Sunday, he said only two of them had been freed, which he considered “unsatisfactory.”
    “I will at the same time have a confidential dialogue on individual cases and speak out more distinctly, as well as have symbolic exchanges, because I think that’s in the interest of President Sisi and Egypt’s stability,” Macron said.
    “In Egypt, we’re not only talking about political opponents who are being imprisoned, but opponents who are part of the traditional democratic sphere and are not threatening the regime.    Journalists, homosexuals, women and men of conviction.”
(Reporting by Marine Pennetier in Cairo; Writing by Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
[Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil El-Sisi, an Egyptian politician who is the sixth and current President of Egypt, in office since 2014.    After the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and election of Mohamed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency, Sisi was appointed Minister of Defence by Morsi on 12 August 2012, replacing the Mubarak-era Hussein Tantawi.
    As Minister of Defence, and ultimately Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Sisi was involved in the military coup that removed Morsi from office on July 3, 2013, in response to June 2013 Egyptian protests, called a revolution by its proponents.    He dissolved the Egyptian Constitution of 2012 and proposed, along with leading opposition and religious figures, a new political road map, which included the voting for a new constitution, and new parliamentary and presidential elections.    Morsi was replaced by an interim president, Adly Mansour, who appointed a new cabinet.    The interim government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist supporters in the months that followed, and later on certain liberal opponents of the post-Morsi administration.    On 14 August 2013, police carried out the August 2013 Rabaa massacre, killing hundreds of civilians and wounding thousands, leading to international criticism.].

1/27/219 Sudan’s Bashir says protesters trying to copy Arab Spring
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inspects an honour guard with his Sudan counterpart Omar al-Bashir
upon his arrival at Cairo's Airport, Egypt, January 27, 2019, in this handout picture
courtesy of the Egyptian Presidency. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS
    CAIRO/KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Protesters in Sudan are trying to imitate the Arab Spring uprisings that shook the region in 2011, President Omar al-Bashir said on Sunday during a visit to Egypt.
    Bashir is facing the most sustained challenge since he came to power in a coup in 1989.    Demonstrators have turned out almost daily across the country to call for an end to his rule.
    Bashir’s trip to neighboring Egypt is his second foreign visit since unrest began on Dec. 19.    He has also visited Qatar.
    Speaking next to his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bashir blamed unidentified “harmful organizations” for working to destabilize the region.
    “We do not claim there is no problem, but it is not of the size or dimensions that some of the media portray.”
    “This is an attempt to copy the Arab Spring in Sudan, these are the same slogans and appeals and the very wide use of social media sites.”
    Citing what he said was the “harmful agitation” that countries affected by the Arab Spring witnessed, he added: “The Sudanese people are alert and will not allow for any intrusion or attempt to destabilize the security of Sudan.”
    In Khartoum, authorities tried to disperse a number of sit-ins taking place in public squares in response to an appeal from a professionals’ association that has led calls for protests.
    Security forces fired tear gas cannisters at protesters gathered in at least four of the sit-ins, while in others demonstraters tried to block side streets leading to the main squares with rocks and other materials.
    One of the slogans used by Sudanese protesters – “The people want the fall of the regime” – was made famous by uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states.
    Sudanese security forces have deployed tear gas, stun grenades and live ammunition to disperse protests, as well as arresting hundreds of people.
    Authorities say at least 30 people have died in the unrest while rights groups and local opposition figures say at least 45 have been killed.
    Sisi, who has been Egypt’s president since 2014, says he is working to restore stability following the turmoil triggered by the country’s uprising eight years ago, overseeing a widespread crackdown on opposition.
    He said Bashir’s visit was “the culmination of the numerous efforts we made in the past year to reinforce bilateral relations.”
(Reporting by Mohamed Wali; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Keith Weir and Mark Potter)

1/27/2019 Iraq must move away from economic reliance on Iran: British official by John Davison
FILE PHOTO: Alistair Burt arrives at 10 Downing Street as Britain's re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron
names his new cabinet, in central London, Britain May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Neil Hall/File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq must wean itself off economic reliance on Iran and become more energy self-sufficient, Britain’s foreign office minister for the Middle East said on Sunday.
    Alistair Burt visited Iraq after a flurry of high-profile diplomacy in Baghdad this month that followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement he was pulling American troops out of Syria.
    U.S. allies worry the withdrawal, even if it proceeds more slowly than initially planned, will embolden Iran, whose influence has grown in Iraq and Syria in recent years.
    Washington hopes to counter Iranian influence through renewed sanctions, and has pressured Iraq to halt imports of Iranian gas.
    “To expect Iran to have no influence in Iraq is fanciful,” Burt said in an interview with Reuters at the British Embassy in Baghdad.
    “What is important is that Iraq finds the opportunity to follow its own future in terms of foreign relations and that its economy is strong, and isn’t reliant on Iran.”
    Burt said Iraq must convert oil resources to become more self-sufficient.    “The sooner all its oil wealth can come on stream and can capture all the energy that is sometimes not used as effectively as possible … the better,” he said.
    Iraq’s oil export capacity is nearly 5 million barrels per day, although it is pumping below capacity in line with an OPEC agreement to reduce production to stabilize prices.    Washington hopes it can reduce its gas flaring to satisfy domestic energy needs and rely less on Iranian power imports.
    Burt said there were ideas for more power projects in Iraq, without elaborating.
U.S.-IRAN TENSIONS MOUNT
    He doubted that a military escalation between the United States and Iran in Iraq or Syria was imminent, but warned of “confrontation which might occur should there be a miscalculation.”
    Tension has ramped up between Washington’s chief regional ally Israel, and Iran and its allies in Syria and Iraq in recent weeks.    Israel struck what it said were Iranian targets near Damascus on Monday in an increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there.
    Burt said Britain remained concerned about the threat from Islamic State in the region especially after the U.S. decision to withdraw troops, and that London would continue to support Baghdad’s efforts against remaining IS militants who have stepped up insurgent-style attacks in Iraq.
(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/28/2019 Turkey aims to form safe zones in Syria for refugees to return
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Turkish Military Academy in
Ankara, Turkey January 24, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is aiming to form safe zones in northern Syria so that around 4 million of Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey could return, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday.
    Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan also said nearly 300,000 Syrians had already returned and that he expected millions of Syrian nationals would return to the safe areas.
    U.S. President Donald Trump announced in December the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria and Erdogan subsequently said they had discussed setting up a 20-mile-deep safe zone in Syria along the border.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Alison Williams)

1/28/2019 Bahrain upholds life sentence against opposition leaders: BNA
FILE PHOTO: Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq, speaks
to gathering of tens of thousands in the village of Diraz, West of Manama, Bahrain, July 1, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Bahrain’s highest court upheld life sentences against three opposition leaders on charges of spying for Qatar, state news agency BNA and a rights group said on Monday.
    Al-Wefaq secretary-general Sheikh Ali Salman and two senior al-Wefaq leaders Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali Alaswad were sentenced to life imprisonment in November, overturning a previous acquittal.
    The decision was made by the Bahrain’s highest court of appeal, the Court of Cassation.
    Al-Wefaq, which has strong links to the country’s Shi’ite Muslim majority, has campaigned for social and political reforms in the country, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family.
    Al-Wefaq said in a statement the ruling was made for “political reasons.”
    The London-based human rights group Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) condemned the decision and said it marked the end of a “long, flawed trial.”
    Since the Bahrain authorities crushed street protests in 2011, demonstrators have clashed frequently with security forces, who have been targeted by several bomb attacks.    Manama says Qatar supports the unrest, accusations denied by Doha.
    Sultan and Alaswad were tried in absentia.    Salman is already serving a four-year prison sentence for inciting hatred and insulting the interior ministry, after he was arrested in 2015.
(Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

1/28/2019 U.N. envoy urges Yemen combatants to withdraw from lifeline port by Lisa Barrington and Alex Fraser
People eat a meal in their hut at a makeshift camp for internally displaced people
near Sanaa, Yemen January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
    DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – The United Nations envoy for Yemen on Monday urged the warring parties to withdraw their troops from the port of Hodeidah quickly, and international aid agencies said that conditions for thousands of starving people were deteriorating fast.
    Envoy Martin Griffiths acknowledged that proposed timelines on a pull-out from the port, the main entry point for Yemen’s commercial and aid imports, had slipped while the country stood on the brink of famine.
    “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said in comments posted on Twitter.    “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”
    The aid agencies, meeting in London, said people were struggling to feed their children in what had become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
    But, said Isabelle Moussard Carlsen of Action Against Hunger, more aid was not the only solution to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people.
    “I think we need to be very clear that we need a political solution to this conflict,” she said.
    Agreements reached in December between the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi were the first significant breakthrough in four years of conflict which has killed tens of thousands of people through military actions or other causes.
    But little further progress has been made, risking the unraveling of the peace efforts.
    The Houthis control Hodeidah and troops of a Saudi-led coalition are massed on its outskirts.    The warring sides disagree over who should control the city and port after forces withdraw.
    The truce in Hodeidah has largely been respected since coming into force a month ago, but skirmishes continue.     Troops have not yet pulled out, missing a Jan. 7 target, and residents and aid workers have told Reuters that barricades, trenches and roadblocks have been reinforced.
    Although fighting has escalated in other parts of Yemen, U.N. envoy Griffiths said he remained optimistic.
    “More than any time in the past, there is a political will demonstrated by all parties to put an end to this conflict,” he said.    “What we need to see now is the implementation of the provisions of the agreement, fully and rapidly.”
PRISON WITHOUT WALLS
    The war has been stalemated for years, with the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Muslim Arab states and Yemeni allies unable to dislodge the Houthi movement that controls the capital Sanaa and most urban centers.
    The coalition has twice attempted to capture Hodeidah port since last year to force the Houthis to negotiate, but held off from a full-blown assault amid fears that a disruption to supply lines would trigger mass starvation.
    At the London meeting, 14 aid agencies called for action on the humanitarian crisis.
    “It is what I like to call a prison without walls for the people living in the country at the moment.    It is a difficult situation where people are struggling to buy their daily rations to be able to feed their children,” Yemeni Oxfam campaign manager Awssan Kamal told Reuters.
    Kimberley Brown of the British Red Cross said 85,000 children had lost their lives and malnutrition was taking a huge toll.
    “I know from my colleagues that the situation is absolutely deteriorating at the moment,” she said.
    The coalition intervened in 2015 in Yemen to restore Hadi’s government, which was ousted from power by the Houthis in late 2014.    The group says its revolution is against corruption.
    Western nations, some of which supply the coalition with arms and intelligence, are pressing for an end to the conflict that is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai amd Alex Fraser in London, Editing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/28/2019 Deals worth 235 billion rials signed at Saudi industry conference: Al Arabiya TV
Pictures of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz
are seen during the launching of National Industrial Development and Logistics Program (NIDLP)
in Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal al-Nasser
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Agreements worth 235 billion riyals ($63 billion) were signed on Monday on the sidelines of a Saudi Arabian industrial development conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, said Al Arabiya TV.
    No details were available on the nature of the agreements signed.
($1 = 3.7504 riyals)
(Reporting by Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin, Writing by Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Toby Chopra)
[The above image looks like an 'Arab Star Gate".].

1/28/2019 Israel’s Netanyahu to eject foreign observers in flashpoint Hebron
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at
his office in Jerusalem January 27, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS
    HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he would eject a foreign force set up to help safeguard Palestinians in a flashpoint city in the occupied West Bank, accusing the observers of anti-Israel activity.
    “We will not allow the continued presence of an international force that acts against us,” Netanyahu said in a statement announcing that the Temporary International Presence in Hebron’s (TIPH) mandate would not be renewed.
    The statement did not elaborate on the alleged misconduct of TIPH, which draws staff from Norway, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.    The TIPH website says the force works on six-month mandates but did not specify when the current one expires.
    A force spokesman declined comment.    Palestinians denounced the move.
    “The Israeli government’s decision means it has abandoned the implementation of agreements signed under international auspices, and given up its obligations under these agreements,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014.
    Conservative Israeli commentators had accused the TIPH of agitating against Jewish settlers who live under heavy Israeli army protection in Hebron, a biblical city with an overwhelmingly Palestinian populace.
    The TIPH was set up after a settler killed 29 Palestinians at a Hebron shrine holy to both Muslims and Jews in 1994.
    Since Israel partially withdrew from Hebron in 1998 under interim peace deals with the self-rule Palestinian Authority, the TIPH has “observe(d) and report(ed) on breaches of the agreements (and) violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the force’s website says.
    Most world powers consider Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, where Palestinians want a state, to be illegal.    Israel disputes this, and the rightist Netanyahu has played up his pro-settler credentials as he seeks reelection in an April 9 ballot.
    “They want to uproot us from here.    They will not,” he said in separate remarks on Monday at another West Bank settlement.
    “There’s a line of thought that says that the way to achieve peace with the Arabs is to be extirpated from our land.    That is the certain path to achieving the opposite of this dream.”
(Writing by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Peter Graff)

1/28/2019 Iran strikes economic deals with Syria during VP visit
Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri leaves the plane upon his arrival at
Damascus international airport in Damascus, Syria January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
    DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Iran struck economic and trade deals with Syria on Monday, as it widens its role there after helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim most of his country.
    Tehran has reached “very important agreements on banking cooperation” with Syria, Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said in the Syrian capital Damascus.
    Iran will also help repair power stations across Syria and set up a new plant in the coastal province of Latakia, he added.
    During Syria’s eight-year conflict, Tehran has dispatched forces and allied Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, to provide Damascus with vital military support.    Experts say Tehran is now looking to reap a financial dividend.
    Shunned by Western powers, the Syrian government has looked to friendly states such as Iran, Russia and China to play a major role in rebuilding the country.
    Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis said Syria and Iran signed a “unique” agreement on Monday for long-term economic cooperation which includes industry, trade, and agriculture.
    The two countries signed several memorandums of understanding during Jahangiri’s visit to Damascus which Khamis described as “historic.”    Officials said they covered education, housing, public works, railways, investment, and other fields, without providing further details.
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Catherine Evans)

1/29/2019 Netanyahu’s toughest ballot rival, ex-general Gantz, to break silence by Dan Williams
Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief and the head of a new political party, Israel Resilience, attends a handover
ceremony for the incoming Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, at the Defense ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest rival in Israel’s April ballot, former military chief and political enigma Benny Gantz, will set out his goals on Tuesday in a marker of the center-left opposition’s prospects.
    Polls predict a Netanyahu reelection, with his right-wing Likud party taking around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, and Gantz’s Resilience party coming a distant second with around 15.
    That would line Gantz up to join a future Netanyahu-led coalition government – unless the ex-general tries to mobilize like-minded factions against the incumbent, now in his fourth term.
    Much depends on the ideology of Gantz’s newly formed party.    On this he has so far been silent.    His campaign, meanwhile, has stoked his residual popularity from his term as top general with graphic ads claiming hundreds of enemy deaths in two Gaza wars.
    But mindful of Israeli moderates, Gantz’s image-makers also cast him in a softer light, releasing a video in which the tall, taciturn 59-year-old says “there is no shame in pursuing peace.”
    At a launch party on Tuesday timed to coincide with the evening TV news, Gantz was due to deliver his first political speech, with voters watching for combustible policy points like Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, frozen since 2014, or corruption allegations dogging Netanyahu.
    Tamar Hermann, a scholar with the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, predicted Gantz would try to stay “very vague on certain topics: for instance ‘yes to peace but Israel’s security comes first'.”
    For Netanyahu to be defeated, Hermann said, Gantz would have to bring together disparate center-left parties.
    “Anything can happen, but at the moment the most likely outcome of the election would be a (Netanyahu-led) center-right government,” she said.
    Likud has sought to write Gantz off as a “leftist,” casting him as an untested whimsy candidate and no match for Netanyahu, 69, who is also defense minister.
    As the election approaches, and facing possible indictment, Netanyahu has highlighted his handling of national security, publicly acknowledging Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
    Martin Dempsey, a retired U.S. army general whose tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mirrored that of Gantz as Israeli armed forces chief between 2011 and 2015, told Reuters that he would bring “an open mind to change” and have the “instincts to build a team to solve the most urgent challenges.”
    “His silence would likely signal to me that he is carefully and deliberately thinking and learning, preparing to express his views with clarity and confidence, so that he knows who and what he wants to be and do when the political winds begin to blow with greater velocity,” Dempsey said.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean)

1/29/2019 Syria, Iran sign economic trade deal as Tehran expands role in country by OAN Newsroom
    Iran and Syria have signed a deal for long term economic cooperation.    The agreement, struck on Monday, will expand Tehran’s role in Syria in exchange for Iran helping President Bashar al-Assad win back large amounts of territory.
    Under the new deal, Iran will help Syria by investing in its power plants, ports and businesses, which could prove profitable for Tehran.
    Assad is looking at his allies in Iran, China and Russia to rebuild almost $400 billion worth of infrastructure that was destroyed during the war.
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaks with
Iran’s first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, left, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Syria’s president said Tuesday that new trade
agreements with Iran will help the two countries face the “economic war” waged against them by the West. (SANA via AP)
    “We’d like to tell nations around the world that Iran and Syria’s relations will support regional and global peace,” said Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri Kouhshahi.    “We hope the economic ties of our two nations can be as strong as our political ties.”
    The new economic deal will likely be denounced by Israel, which has stepped up efforts in recent weeks to keep any long-term Iranian military presence out of Syria.

1/29/2019 Palestinian prime minister, government resign by Ali Sawafta
FILE PHOTO: Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah waves as he leaves after attending the opening ceremony
of a health center near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma/File Photo
    RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah has tendered his resignation and that of his unity government to President Mahmoud Abbas, he said on Tuesday, dealing a blow to faltering reconciliation efforts with Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
    Abbas said in a statement that he accepted the resignation and that the government will “continue its duties until the new government is formed.”
    A Hamas official condemned the move as an attempt to marginalize and exclude the group from Palestinian politics.
    Hamdallah, a little-known academic, headed the national unity government formed in 2014 and led the West Bank-based Fatah’s reconciliation efforts with Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007.
    The two groups signed a reconciliation deal two years ago which set in motion a plan for Abbas’s Palestinian Authority to resume governing in Gaza and take control of the coastal enclave’s crossing points into Egypt and Israel.
    But disputes over power-sharing and policy toward Israel have hampered the deal’s implementation.
    “The president will begin consultation to form a political government made up by factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that will prepare for the holding of new parliamentary election,” Abbas said.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

1/29/2019 Palestinians say Israel removing witnesses by ejecting Hebron monitors by Yosri Al Jamal
A man speaks with members of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) near an
Israeli checkpoint in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
    HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinians in Hebron accused Israel on Tuesday of trying to rid the flashpoint city of witnesses to its actions in the occupied West Bank by ejecting a foreign observer force that helps safeguard residents.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he will not renew the mandate of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), accusing the observers of unspecified anti-Israel activity.    The force has declined to comment.
    Hebron, a Palestinian city of 200,000 people, is home to a community of around 1,000 Israeli settlers who are heavily guarded by a large Israeli military presence.
    The TIPH was set up after a Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinians at a Hebron shrine holy to both Muslims and Jews in 1994.    The city has also seen stabbing and shooting attacks against settlers and Israeli soldiers by Palestinians.
    Since Israel partially withdrew from Hebron in 1998 under interim peace deals with the self-rule Palestinian Authority, the TIPH has monitored “breaches of the agreements (and) violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the force’s website says.
    “The settlers’ attacks will increase,” said Aref Jaber, a Palestinian resident of Hebron.    TIPH’s presence was particularly helpful to schoolchildren, he added, because they patrol the city “in the morning and the afternoon, when they go to and return from school.”
    The United Nations said it regretted Israel’s decision.
    “While the TIPH is not a United Nations body its role in contributing positively to defusing tensions in such a sensitive area has been widely recognized,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
    TIPH draws staff from Norway, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.    The TIPH website says it has 64 international staff in the city.    An Israeli official said its mandate ends on Jan 31.
    “[TIPH] is our window to the world. They can show the Israeli occupation’s ugly face – which is definitely annoying to the Israelis,” said Bader Daour, a ceramics merchant in Hebron’s old city.
    Settler leaders welcomed news of the force’s upcoming departure.    They have accused the TIPH of harassing settlers and agitating against them.
    Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, said the TIPH observers “created an atmosphere of conflict, not a congenial atmosphere of peace.”
    Jews and Palestinians, he said, have inhabited the city for centuries: “We know each other and I’m sure we’ll find a way to get along without Norwegian help,” Fleisher said.
    Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in November that the TIPH were pro-Palestinian, “ignore Palestinian terrorism and harm IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers by documenting their daily security activity.”
    Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014.    Most world powers consider Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, territory captured by Israel in a 1967 war, to be illegal.    Israel disputes this, citing biblical, historical and political ties to the land.
“(The Israelis) don’t want there to be witnesses to their crimes, or any other crime they commit against the Palestinians anywhere, and especially in Hebron,” said the city’s mayor of Tayseer Abu Sinaneh.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/29/2019 Saudi crown prince receives phone call from U.N. Secretary General
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud shakes hands with U.N.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a photo opportunity at the United Nations headquarters in the Manhattan borough
of New York City, New York, U.S. March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received a telephone call from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday, Saudi Press Agency reported.
    They discussed Yemen and other regional issues the report said.
(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

1/29/2019 Islamic State pinned in tiny eastern Syria enclave with families, U.S. backed force says by Rodi Said
FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province
liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria Ocotber 27, 2018. REUTERS/Aboud Hamam/File Photo
    QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a final tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing a U.S.-backed militia to slow its advance to protect civilians, the militia said on Tuesday.
    An aid agency said separately that 10,000 civilians had fled the enclave since last week and were arriving hungry and desperate at a camp.
    The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 U.S. troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with Islamic State in eastern Syria after helping to drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
    SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said Islamic State fighters were now confined to a pocket of just 5-6 square km (around 2 square miles) by the Euphrates River.    The presence of the fighters’ wives and children meant the U.S.-backed militia could not launch an all-out storm of the enclave, and was using slower, more precise tactics instead.
    “There are thousands of Daesh families there.    They are civilians at the end of the day,” Bali told Reuters, using an acronym for Islamic State.    “We cannot storm the area or put any child’s life in danger.”
    The SDF had refused an offer from the jihadists via mediators to surrender the territory in return for safe passage out, Bali said.
    Clashes had slowed because of the presence of the civilians, and “precise operations” were taking more time.    “Calm prevails on the frontlines but there’s a state of caution and waiting.”
    The International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity said it was helping tend to a sudden influx of more than 10,000 people, almost all women, children and elderly, who had arrived at a camp in northeast Syria since last week.
    Most were exhausted, extremely hungry, and thirsty as they fled Islamic State territory, the global aid agency said.    Many arrived barefoot.    The United Nations confirmed that 12 young children had died after reaching the al-Hol camp or on the dangerous journey there, the IRC added on Tuesday.
    The SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized much of north and east Syria with U.S. help.    It has been battling Islamic State remnants near the Iraqi border for months.
    Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that Islamic State had been defeated and announced the abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. troops, over objections of top advisors including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in protest.
    The SDF vowed to escalate its operations against Islamic State this month after a bomb attack killed several people including two U.S. soldiers in northern Syria.    SDF officials have warned of an Islamic State revival if Washington withdraws.
    On Tuesday a suicide bomber struck in the same city, targeting a military vehicle used by the U.S.-backed civil authorities there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
    Kurdish leaders also fear a U.S. pullout would give Turkey, which sees the YPG as a threat on its border, the chance to mount a new assault. Washington has since said it will make sure its allies are protected when it leaves.
(Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff)

1/29/2019 Islamic State to lose last bits of Syria territory in ‘weeks’: U.S. by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during the Missile Defense Review
announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Islamic State is expected to lose its final bits of territory in Syria to U.S.-backed forces within a couple of weeks, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Tuesday, even as U.S. intelligence assessed that the militant group would continue to pose a threat to the United States.
    The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 U.S. troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with Islamic State in eastern Syria after helping drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
    Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing a U.S.-backed militia to slow its advance to protect civilians, the militia said on Tuesday.
    “I’d say 99.5 percent plus of the ISIS-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians.    Within a couple of weeks, it’ll be 100 percent,” Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon, using an acronym for Islamic State.
    Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that Islamic State had been defeated and announced the abrupt withdrawal of American troops in Syria, over the objections of top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in protest.
    Critics say a U.S. withdrawal could allow Islamic State to regroup and also unleash a threatened offensive by Turkey against Kurdish elements within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara believes is an extension of the PKK militant group waging an insurgency on Turkish soil.
    The annual Worldwide Threat Assessment from the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI), released on Tuesday, contradicted claims by Trump and other top administration officials that Islamic State has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, saying the group still commands thousands of fighters and poses a long-term threat to both countries.
    During a Congressional hearing on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Islamic State and other militant groups will continue to be active for years around the world.
    “ISIS will continue to be a threat to the United States,” he said.    “This terrorism threat is going to continue for some time.”
    The SDF has vowed to escalate its operations against Islamic State this month after a bomb attack killed several people, including two U.S. soldiers in northern Syria. SDF officials have warned of an Islamic State revival if Washington withdraws.
    “ISIS is no longer able to govern in Syria, ISIS no longer has freedom to mass forces, Syria is no longer a safe haven,” Shanahan said.
    He said the withdrawal was in its early stages.    While the Pentagon has declined to set a timeline for the withdrawal, officials have estimated that it could be complete by the end of March.
    Earlier this month, the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State added to confusion surrounding the American withdrawal from Syria by saying it had started the pullout process, but officials later clarified that only equipment – not troops – was being withdrawn.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and James Dalgleish)
[The warmongers in the U.S. will not give it up, lets all sing the song "IRONMAN".].

1/29/2019 Eyeing reconstruction, Syria and Iran strike deal to allow bank transfers
Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis attend a
Iranian-Syrian business forum in Damascus, Syria January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
    DAMASCUS (Reuters) – The governments of Syria and Iran have agreed steps that will allow bank transactions between the countries, officials said on Tuesday, a move aimed at boosting trade and investment as Damascus looks to its ally Tehran to help rebuild from war.
    The deal was one of several concluded during a visit to Damascus by Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, whose country’s support has been vital to President Bashar al-Assad during the war.
    Shunned by Western states that backed the opposition, Damascus is looking to countries such as Iran, Russia and China to help rebuild.    But banking transactions between Syria and Iran have been affected by Western restrictions on their access to the international financial system.
    Addressing an Iranian-Syrian business forum in Damascus, Jahangiri said “ministers confirmed that banking transactions will take place very soon between the countries.”
    In comments circulated by Iranian state media, Abdolnaser Hemmati, Iran’s central bank governor, said the agreement enabled banks to conduct transactions in their local currencies and non-dollar foreign currencies.
    Iran has supported Damascus in the war through the deployment of its own forces in addition to Tehran-backed Shi’ite militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
    Mohammad Saeed Shahmiri, an executive with the Iranian company Saab Niroo which specializes in building infrastructure, said his firm was studying projects in and around Damascus but described the banking issue as the “most important problem.”
    “We hope if they solve this problem, immediately we can start the project here,” Shahmiri told Reuters at the forum.
    Keyvan Kashefi, chairman of an Iranian-Syrian chamber of commerce, said Iran and Syria had not had strong banking ties in the past few years.
    “This issue was constantly raised by the private sector of both countries,” he said.
    “It was announced today that some agreements have been reached.    And the banks of the two countries can now help businessmen and industrialists with financial exchanges and this problem of ours will be solved.”
    Mohamad Hamsho, a businessman and chairman of the Syrian chambers of commerce, said agreements had been concluded to “overcome obstacles with respect to the banking activity between Iran and Syria.”
    Helped by Russia and Iran, the government has crushed rebel enclaves across much of Syria, leaving a corner of the northwest in the hands of anti-Assad insurgents.    Kurdish-led forces that are not hostile to Damascus control much of the east and north.
    Iran will build a 213 billion-Syrian pounds ($413.59 million), 526-MW power plant at Latakia, and a gas pipeline from Baniyas to fuel it, to be finished in three years, Syrian state media reported.
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Ed Osmond)

1/29/2019 Decisive week for Lebanese government formation: Hariri
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon, November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – This week will be decisive in efforts to form a government in Lebanon, representing a last chance to break the deadlock, prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri said on Tuesday.
    The formation of a government nine months after an election is seen as a vital first step towards boosting confidence in the economy as political leaders warn of crisis.
    The International Monetary Fund has called for urgent fiscal reforms to address the country’s large public debt, equivalent to about 150 percent of GDP.
    “Matters are positive and will become clear within two days… This week is decisive, positively or negatively,” Hariri was cited as saying in a statement from his office, adding that he was “cautiously optimistic.”
    The situation could not go on like this, and this week represented “a last chance to settle things and to launch the government formation,” Hariri was quoted as saying.
    Members of parliament from President Michel Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, said in a statement the government could be formed this week if concessions were made by all sides.
    If not, then “next week we will have something else to say … because then it will be clear that is an intention to obstruct the birth of the government,” the FPM’s Cesar Abi Khalil said in a statement after a meeting of the MPs.
    The FPM’s Alain Aoun told Reuters the latest effort to clinch a deal was “very, very serious” but cautioned of a “small margin for a last-minute bad surprise.”
    “I think this time, if there isn’t a conclusion, it means we are really facing an external problem,” he said, suggesting that in such a scenario foreign interference would be to blame, without giving further detail.    Foreign powers have long held major and sometimes decisive sway over Lebanese politics.
    On Saturday, the leader of Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said “extraordinary efforts” were being made to form the government, but two obstacles remained – how to include a group of six Sunni lawmakers in the cabinet and the distribution of government portfolios among the political parties.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Ed Osmond)

1/30/2019 U.S. security aid to Palestinians to end Thursday, envoys seek workaround by Rami Ayyub and Ali Sawafta
FILE PHOTO: A member of Palestinian security forces stands guard before the arrival of Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch
of Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 6, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma/File Photo
    RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – U.S. security aid for the Palestinian Authority was set to dry up on Thursday after it declined the money over concerns it could increase its exposure to U.S. anti-terrorism lawsuits.
    The loss of the some $60 million in annual funding would marks another tear in ties between the Trump administration and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and potentially undermines his security cooperation with Israel in the occupied West Bank.
    Diplomatic sources said Palestinian, U.S. and Israeli officials were seeking a way to keep the money flowing despite Abbas’s decision to turn it down as of a Jan. 31 deadline set by Congress’ Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) of 2018.
    The ATCA empowers Americans to sue foreign aid recipients in U.S. courts over alleged complicity in “acts of war.”
    Abbas’s administration, long accused by Israel of stoking Palestinian militant attacks, worries about such legal exposure.    It denies encouraging any such acts.
    “We do not want to receive financial aid, including aid provided to the security forces, so as not to be subject to the anti-terrorism law approved by Congress,” one Palestinian official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
    “The U.S. administration was surprised by the Palestinian decision, and said it wanted to find a solution in order to continue aid to the Palestinian security services.”
    Such a solution may include finding alternative funds within the CIA budget or amending U.S. legislation, he said.
    The U.S. Embassy in Israel had no immediate comment.    Israeli officials declined to confirm or deny there were workaround talks, but sought to offer reassurance that Israel could manage security in the West Bank, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East War, even without Palestinian help.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may also be disinclined to signal worries about the West Bank ahead of his bid to stay in office in an election in April as the Palestinians’ goal of an independent state is rejected by many of his fellow Israeli rightists.
    “Israel cannot save the failing leadership of the Palestinian Authority,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Reshet Channel 13 TV when asked about the cut in U.S. funding.
    “The most we can do is say to them, ‘since this is our land, if you cannot govern, then we can.”
    The Palestinian Authority is an interim self-government body set up following the 1993 Oslo peace accords.    The peace process, aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been stalled for several years.
    The Palestinians have also been boycotting the United States since it recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.
    The Trump administration has cut hundreds of millions of dollars to humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies which aid the Palestinians as it seeks to pressure Abbas to come back to the negotiating table.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/30/2019 Houthi rebels in Yemen release Saudi prisoner by OAN Newsroom
    The Houthi rebels in Yemen have released a Saudi prisoner.    The man was released on humanitarian grounds Tuesday as part of a prisoner swap between the warring parties in Yemen.
    The sickened prisoner was flown to Riyadh with officials from the Red Cross, who served as mediators.
    The Saudi-led coalition promised seven Yemeni-prisoners would be released in return.
FILE – In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels hold up their weapons as they attend
a gathering to show their support for the ongoing peace talks in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
    “We consider today a positive step and we hope that in the future, and the ICRC is completely ready to facilitate the transportation of prisoners, and this is something that could give security and reassurance to the thousands of families who lost contact with their children in Yemen because of the conflict,” stated Mirella Hodeib, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
    The United Nations is pushing for another major prisoner swap along with a ceasefire in Hodeidah to be implemented before a second round of peace talks can take place.

1/30/2019 Saudi-led coalition ready to use ‘calibrated force’ to push Yemen port deal: UAE
FILE PHOTO: Hodeidah port's grain silos are pictured from a nearby shantytown in
Hodeidah, Yemen June 16, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition is prepared to use “calibrated force” to push the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement to withdraw from Yemen’s Hodeidah port city under a U.N.-sponsored deal, a senior United Arab Emirates official said on Wednesday.
    Yemen’s warring parties have failed to pull troops from the country’s main port under a month-old truce, reviving the threat of an all-out assault on Hodeidah that could unleash famine.
    The Houthis control Hodeidah while other Yemeni factions backed by the coalition trying to restore the internationally recognized government are massed on its outskirts.
    Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the Western-backed Sunni Muslim Arab coalition struck 10 Houthi training camps outside Hodeidah governorate on Wednesday.
    “Coalition prepared to use more calibrated force to prod Houthi compliance with Stockholm Agreement,” he tweeted.
    “To preserve ceasefire & any hope for political process, UN and international community must press Houthis to stop violations, facilitate aid convoys, and move forward on withdrawal from Hodaida city & ports as agreed,” he added.
    U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths has been shuttling between the parties to rescue the deal, the first major diplomatic breakthrough of the nearly four-year-old war that has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the verge of starvation.
(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Editing by William Maclean)

1/30/2019 Saudi Arabia closes 15-month anti-corruption campaign: SPA
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 14, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has ended a sprawling crackdown on corruption ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that it said had recovered more than $106 billion through settlements with scores of senior princes, ministers and top businessmen.
    Under the surprise campaign launched in November 2017, the government summoned 381 people, some as witnesses, and reached settlements with 87 people who confessed to the charges against them, the royal court said in a statement. Reclaimed assets included real estate, companies and cash.
    The public prosecutor refused to settle the cases of 56 people due to existing criminal charges against them, and eight people refused to reach a settlement and stand accused of corruption, the statement added.    Detainees who were not indicted on charges related to corruption were released.
    For the first three months of the campaign, many of the kingdom’s economic and political elite, including global investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, were detained in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel for nearly three months.
    Critics called the campaign a shakedown and power play by Prince Mohammed, and it unsettled some foreign investors who he is courting to diversify its economy away from oil.
    “The committee has completed its objective, and accordingly, HRH the Crown Prince requested The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque’s approval to conclude its tasks.    The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has approved this request,” the statement said.
(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Marwa Rashad and Mohammed El Sherif; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/30/2019 Sudan opposition leader’s daughter detained as professors protest by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudanese leading opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi addresses his supporters after he returned from nearly a year
in self-imposed exile in Khartoum, Sudan December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Security forces detained the daughter of Sudanese opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi on Wednesday, her family said, as anti-government protests spread to the capital’s main university.
    Two security vehicles arrived at Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi’s home in Khartoum in the morning and took her away, her sister Rabah told Reuters, a day after Sudan’s security chief ordered the release of dozens of detained protesters.
    There was no immediate comment from the government.
    Mariam is deputy head of the opposition Umma Party led by her father, Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, who was overthrown by President Omar al-Bashir in a coup in 1989.
    She has supported a wave of protests that have shaken cities across Sudan since Dec. 19.    Demonstrators, frustrated with price increases, cash shortages and other economic hardships, have called for an end to Bashir’s three-decade rule.
    Later on Wednesday, the army released a statement saying that those leading the protests were hurting Sudan and that the military would not allow the state to collapse.    The statement followed calls by some activists for the military to back the protests and pressure the government to step down.
    “The armed forces will not allow the Sudanese state to fall or to slide into the unknown,” said General Kamal Abdul Maarouf, chief of staff of the armed forces, in a statement.
    Rights groups say at least 45 people have been killed in the protests.    The government puts the death toll at 30, including two security personnel.
    Around 250 professors from the University of Khartoum protested on campus on Wednesday, demanding a new transitional administration to replace the current one.
    More than 500 of the university’s professors signed a memo calling for the creation of a “sovereign body” to form a new government and oversee a four-year transitional period.
    The university educated many of Sudan’s leading politicians and has been the scene of protests and unrest throughout the country’s tempestuous history.
    “The University of Khartoum’s role as an academic institution is to find solutions for the peaceful transfer of power,” Montasser al-Tayeb, one of the professors, told reporters.
    Sadiq al-Mahdi returned to Sudan last month from nearly a year in self-imposed exile and called for a democratic transition before thousands of supporters.
    He was overthrown by an alliance of Islamists and military commanders, led by Bashir, that still forms the nucleus of the ruling National Congress Party.
    Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges – which he denies – of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region.    He has been lobbying to have Sudan removed from a list of countries, along with Syria, Iran and North Korea, that Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism.
    That listing has prevented an influx of investment and financial aid that Sudan was hoping for when the United States lifted sanctions in 2017, according to economists.
    Sudan has been rapidly expanding its money supply in an attempt to finance its budget deficit.    But that has caused spiraling inflation and a steep decline in the value of the country’s currency in foreign exchange markets.
(Writing by Yousef Saba and Lena Masri; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

1/30/2019 UNHCR sees anti-migrant rhetoric rise despite arrivals decline by Clare Roth
A flag is pictured in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United Nations’ refugee agency warned on Wednesday of a likely rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric ahead of European Parliament elections in May despite a fall in the number of migrant arrivals to Europe in 2018 to a four-year low.
    Around 116,000 refugees and migrants entered Europe in 2018, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in its annual report, down from some 172,000 in 2017, 360,000 in 2016 and more than a million in 2015, when the continent experienced its largest influx since World War Two.     Commissioner Filippo Grandi said the politicization of migration had made it impossible for countries to allow in even a handful of refugees and there was little hope of change before the elections, when populist and eurosceptic parties are expected to perform well.
    “I foresee an actual exacerbation of that rhetoric in the next few months, unfortunately,” he told Reuters.
    Grandi said that even humanitarians understood that anti-migrant rhetoric had won a lot of votes for some politicians.    However, he added that he believed compromises on migrant issues with EU lawmakers could be found after the May elections.
    “In the end it is in the interest of everybody, even these (populist) leaders, to find solutions,” he said.
    Populist and anti-immigration candidates and parties in countries such as Poland, Italy and Hungary hope to win additional seats in the EU assembly.
    Italy’s populist government, which took office last year, has closed its ports to humanitarian vessels in an effort to force other European Union nations to take a bigger share of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.
    The UNHCR report said that, although migrant arrivals had decreased, the number of deaths per attempted crossing of the Mediterranean had risen.
    Grandi said this was because the number of campaign group rescue boats had fallen from 10 in 2015 to two now, and because people are taking increasingly dangerous routes due to Italy’s tough stance.
(Reporting by Clare Roth and Antonia Kerrigan; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Gareth Jones)

1/31/2019 Lebanon agrees new government, PM vows bold reforms by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri meet ahead
of a new government announcement at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon formed a new national unity government on Thursday, ending nine months of wrangling, and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said bold moves were needed without delay to address chronic problems facing the heavily indebted state.
    The government of Hariri, who has Western backing, includes most parties including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which emerged stronger from the parliamentary election last May thanks to gains by its allies.    Hezbollah chose the new health minister.
    Some Lebanese bond prices jumped to their highest level since August in response to the news, and celebratory fireworks burst over Beirut shortly after the deal was announced.
    Hariri must now deliver on promises to rein in public spending to address the dire state finances with reforms that could unlock billions of dollars in pledged aid and loans for infrastructure investment.
    In a statement read from the presidential palace, Hariri apologized to the people of Lebanon for the time it had taken to form the government and noted that they were “living in concern” over the economy.
    The time for “painkillers” was over, he said.    “No one can put their head in the sand any more … All the problems are known and the causes of the corruption and waste and administrative deficiency are also known,” he said.
.     “The solution is with a clear program and bold reforms … and developing laws that cannot be delayed.”
    Earlier on Thursday he said the new government would be forced to “take difficult decisions” to reduce spending.
    Concerns have grown over the state of the economy and government finances.    Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil – who retained his post – warned last month that Lebanon was in an economic crisis that has “started to turn into a financial one.”
    Lebanon’s public debt is one of the highest in the world set against the size of its economy, and it has suffered low growth for years for reasons including regional turmoil.
    Gebran Bassil, a political ally of Hezbollah who is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and leads the political party he founded, remained foreign minister.
    The defense portfolio, significant partly due to major U.S. military aid, went to another Aoun loyalist, Elias Bou Saab.
    Hariri nominated Rayya Hassan, a former finance minister, to the post of interior minister.    She is one of four women in this cabinet, compared with only one in the last cabinet.
    While not a Hezbollah member, Health Minister Jamil Jabak’s appointment has been seen as a signal of its determination to exercise more direct sway over government after playing marginal roles in past cabinets.
    The ministry has the fourth-biggest budget in the state.
    Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by Washington and has come under fresh U.S. sanctions, also has two other cabinet seats.
    The anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party, which nearly doubled its number of MPs last May, has ceded ground at least twice in the negotiations, enabling the government to be formed.
TOUGH REFORMS
    Hezbollah together with groups and individuals that support its possession of weapons, won more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats in the May election.
    Hariri lost more than a third of his lawmakers but kept his status as the leading Sunni and so returns as premier for the third time.    The post is reserved for his sect under Lebanon’s sectarian system of rule.
    The last big hurdle was a dispute over how Hezbollah’s Sunni allies should be represented in cabinet, resolved by the inclusion of Hassan Mrad, the son of the pro-Hezbollah and pro-Damascus MP Abdul Rahim Mrad.
    While Lebanon’s economy and financial system have shown resilience during previous periods of political paralysis, investor concerns have been reflected of late in bond prices.
    Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Markets in London, said the government would need to show it was able to implement tough reforms.
    “It’s taken them nine months to put together a government, let alone how long it will take to agree on the very harsh fiscal consolidation that would be needed to put the debt position on a firmer footing,” he said.
    The formation of the government is the third boost for Lebanese bonds in two weeks.    They rose last week when Qatar said it was investing $500 million in them, and again when Saudi Arabia said it would support continue supporting Lebanon.
(Reporting By Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut and Sujata Rao in London; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

2/1/2019 USAID assistance in the West Bank and Gaza has ceased: U.S. official by Stephen Farrell and Maayan Lubell
A Palestinian walks past a ceramic sign of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project in
Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 31, 2019. Picture taken January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has ceased all assistance to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, a U.S. official said on Friday.
    The decision was linked to a Jan. 31 deadline set by new U.S. legislation under which foreign aid recipients would be more exposed to anti-terrorism lawsuits.
    The deadline also sees the end of about $60 million in U.S. aid for the Palestinian security forces, whose cooperation with Israeli forces helps maintain relative quiet in the West Bank.
    Congress’ Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) empowers Americans to sue foreign aid recipients in U.S. courts over alleged complicity in “acts of war.”
    The Palestinian Authority declined further U.S. funding over worries about its potential legal exposure, although it denies Israeli accusations that it encourages militant attacks.
    “At the request of the Palestinian Authority, we have wound down certain projects and programs funded with assistance under the authorities specified in ATCA in the West Bank and Gaza," a U.S. official told Reuters on Friday.     “All USAID assistance in the West Bank and Gaza has ceased.”
    It was unclear how long the cessation would be in effect.    The official said no steps were currently being taken to close the USAID mission in the Palestinian territories, and no decision had been made about future staffing at the USAID mission in the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
    USAID is the main agency administering U.S. foreign assistance in the Palestinian territories.    According to it website, the agency spent $268 million on public projects in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinian private sector debt repayment in 2017, but there were significant cuts to all new funding through the end of June 2018.
    Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “The suspension of aid to our people, which included critical sectors such as health and education, will have a negative impact on all, create a negative atmosphere, and increase instability.”
    The Palestinian Authority is an interim self-government body set up following the 1993 Oslo peace accords.    The peace process, aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been stalled since 2014.
    In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ismail Rudwan condemned the stopping of aid, deploring what he called “politicised money.”
HUMANITARIAN CUTS
    The USAID announcement comes after humanitarian officials in the West Bank and Gaza said they were facing a general cutback in funding from donors worldwide.
    Last year Washington cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians, which included funding to humanitarian groups supported by USAID.
    The U.S. cuts were widely seen as a means of pressuring the Palestinian leadership to resume the peace talks with Israel and to engage with the Trump administration ahead of its long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
    As a result, dozens of NGO employees have been laid off, health and unemployment programmes have been shut down, and infrastructure projects halted.
    In August, Washington announced an end to all U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees.    The agency received $364 million from the United States in 2017.
    In January the World Food Programme cut food aid to about 190,000 Palestinians due to a shortage of funds.
    Diplomatic sources said Palestinian, U.S. and Israeli officials were trying to find ways to keep the money flowing to Abbas’s security forces.
    “We will find a solution to these things.    I won’t get into details,” Israeli security cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio on Thursday.
    USAID will continue to implement conflict management and mitigation grants in Israel, with Jewish and Arab participants, the official said.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/1/2019 At fresh protests, Sudan police fire tear gas at demonstrators by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudanese demonstrators march during anti-government protests in
Khartoum, Sudan, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese police fired tear gas on Friday at hundreds of protesters in Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, witnesses said, in the latest of more than a month of anti-government demonstrations.
    Demonstrators frustrated with a worsening economic crisis have been on the streets near-daily since Dec. 19 calling for an end to the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir.
    The protesters, who began demonstrating after weekly Muslim prayers, chanted: “Down, that’s it.” which has become the main rallying cry for Bashir’s fall.
    They also chanted: “Freedom, peace, justice” and “Revolution is the people’s choice,” witnesses said.
    Security forces have at times used live ammunition to disperse protesters.    Rights groups say at least 45 people have been killed in more than six weeks of protests.    The government puts the death toll at 30, including two security personnel.
    The protests in December began in the city of Atbara, where hundreds protested against price rises and torched the local headquarters of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party.    They have since swelled to become the most sustained street opposition Bashir has faced in power.
    Striking a defiant tone on Thursday, Bashir told supporters in the provincial capital of Kassala: “Changing the government and changing the president will not be through WhatsApp nor Facebook, but will be through the ballot box.”
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Yousef Saba, Editing by William Maclean)

2/2/2019 Yemen truce monitor mission to meet on U.N.-hired ship: sources
FILE PHOTO: Houthi allied police troopers secure a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 31, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/File Photo
    ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) – A committee overseeing a ceasefire in Hodeidah will hold its next meeting on a ship off the port city as Yemen’s warring parties cannot agree on a venue, Yemeni and U.N. sources said on Saturday.
    The United Nations is trying to implement a truce and troop withdrawal accord in Hodeidah, the main entry point for most of Yemen’s imports, as part of efforts to end a war that has killed tens of thousands and left millions on the brink of starvation.
    The U.N. envoy for Yemen has urged the warring parties to withdraw their troops from the port quickly, and international aid agencies said conditions for thousands of starving people were deteriorating fast.
    The truce in Hodeidah has largely been respected since coming into force a month ago, but skirmishes continue between the Houthi movement and their foes in a Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore the internationally-recognised government.
    A Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC), which is chaired by the world body and includes both sides, holds regular meetings to supervise the implementation of the ceasefire.
    One of the sources said that the United Nations has hired a ship to be used as the headquarters for the RCC and its meetings.    Another source said representatives of the warring parties would be taken to the ship on U.N. helicopters.
    The RCC had previously met in Houthi-run territory, but attempts to convene a meeting in areas held by coalition forces failed because the Houthis were unwilling to cross the frontline, sources told Reuters in late January.
    Troops have not yet pulled out, missing a Jan. 7 target, and residents and aid workers have told Reuters that barricades, trenches and roadblocks have been reinforced.
    As part of the accord, both sides agreed to the deployment of international monitors in Hodeidah.
    The next meeting of the RCC is expected next week after the arrival of Danish Major General Michael Anker Lollesgaar who was appointed on Thursday to replace retired General Patrick Cammaert.    Lollesgaar is expected to arrive in Amman on Sunday and will travel to Hodeidah afterwards.
    The Houthis control Hodeidah and coalition troops are massed on its outskirts.    But the warring sides disagree over who should control the city and port after forces withdraw, and both sides have accused one another of violating the pact.
    The U.N. envoy, Martin Griffiths, has been shuttling between the parties to rescue the deal, the first major diplomatic breakthrough of the nearly four-year-old war.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; writng by Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yakoubi; Editing by William Maclean)

2/3/2019 Egypt to consider longer presidential term: lawmaker by Mohamed Abdellah
FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives at the airport in
Amman, Jordan, January 13, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt will consider extending the presidential term to six years from four, a senior lawmaker said on Sunday, which could allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power beyond 2022, when his second term is due to end.
    The speaker of Egypt’s parliament, Ali Abdelaal, said he had received a motion from lawmakers proposing constitutional amendments which will be considered by parliament after the motion is discussed in committee.    He gave no details on the proposed changes.
    But Abdel-Hadi al-Qassabi, head of the Support Egypt parliamentary bloc that is sponsoring the amendments, said the proposed changes included extending the presidential term.
    “Looking to maintain stability and to complete the development plans, there is a proposal to extend the presidential term to six years,” Qassabi told journalists in parliament before the motion was conveyed to Abdelaal.
    Speculation has been building that authorities would seek to change the current constitution, approved in a 2014 referendum, to allow Sisi to remain in office.
    It was not immediately clear if the proposed amendments would scrap the two-term limit stipulated in the current constitution or if that limit would be retained to apply to the longer new six-year presidency.
    Constitutional changes could take months because they require approval by two thirds of parliament’s 596 members followed by a referendum.
    Parliament, which Abdelaal said would be allowed to debate any proposed changes, overwhelmingly supports Sisi.
    The current constitution, approved by a referendum in 2014, allows the president and a fifth of parliament members to propose an amendment to any of the constitution’s articles, said Qassabi.
    The proposed changes also include adding a second, upper parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators as well as the appointment of one or more deputy presidents, he said.
    Egypt had a second upper chamber known as the Shura Council, but it was abolished in 2014.
    Other proposals include a quota guaranteeing women at least 25 percent of seats in parliament, as well as “adequate representation” for youth, farmers, workers and the country’s Christian minority.
    Egyptian state news agency MENA said in December that an Egyptian court had scheduled hearings of a petition by a number of ordinary Egyptians demanding that the speaker of parliament take steps to introduce constitutional changes that would allow Sisi to seek re-election after his second term in office expires.
    The petitioners argue that article 140 of the constitution, which sets the term limits, is “unfair to the great Egyptian people” and that eight years gives a president too little time to deal with the economic and security challenges facing the country.
(Reporting by Mohamed Abdellah and Ahmed Tolba, writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Susan Fenton)
[As long as he does not make himself the Pharoah.].

2/3/2019 Yemen’s warring parties meet on ship to discuss stalled troop withdrawal
FILE PHOTO: A coast guard walks past a ship docked at the Red Sea port of
Hodeidah, Yemen January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/File Photo
    DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – Representatives from both sides in the Yemen conflict met on a ship on the Red Sea on Sunday in a U.N.-led push to implement a stalled troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah as agreed at December peace talks, a U.N. official told Reuters.
    The United Nations is overseeing the implementation of a ceasefire and troop withdrawal accord in Hodeidah, the main entry point for most of Yemen’s imports, in the hope it will lead to a political solution to the almost four-year war.
    The warring parties were meant to withdraw their forces by Jan. 7 as part of efforts to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, but have failed to do so as the Iranian-aligned Houthi group and the Saudi-backed government disagree on who should control the city and ports.
    Sunday’s meeting was the third time the U.N.-led Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) convened since it was formed in December, bringing together the Houthis with the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized Yemeni government and U.N. mediators.
    The parties met on a U.N. ship because attempts to convene the third meeting in territory held by coalition forces failed because the Houthis were unwilling to cross the frontline, sources have told Reuters.    The first two meetings were held in territory under Houthi control, after which the head of the U.N. mission tasked with overseeing the deal, Patrick Cammaert, shuttled between the two parties.
    The vessel picked up a delegation from Yemen’s internationally recognized government at an offshore meeting point in the Red Sea before sailing to Hodeidah to pick up the Houthi delegation, a U.N. statement said on Saturday.
    The spokesman for the Yemeni government’s delegation to the RCC, Sadiq Dweid, told Reuters the committee had discussed Cammaert’s proposals for the troop withdrawal at Sunday’s meeting.
    “The meetings will continue,” he said.
    The truce has largely held in Hodeidah, but clashes have increased in recent weeks and the U.N. Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths has urged all parties to reduce tensions.    Violence has continued in other parts of the country not subject to the deal.
    Griffiths’ office told Reuters the meeting had begun on Sunday.     A Sunni Muslim Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
    The Houthis, who say they are enacting a revolution against corruption, control most urban centers in the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation while Hadi’s government controls the southern port of Aden and string of coastal towns.
    Pope Francis said on Sunday he is following the humanitarian crisis in Yemen with great worry and urged all sides to respect international agreements and ensure food reaches suffering Yemenis.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai and Mohamed Ghobari in Aden; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/3/2019 Turkey says countries supporting Guaido fuel Venezuela crisis
Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido gestures during a rally against
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s foreign minister said on Sunday countries which have recognized Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido were fueling Venezuela’s troubles and punishing millions of its people.
    Turkey has backed Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in contrast with NATO allies the United States and Canada, and several right-leaning Latin American countries which have recognized Guaido’s move to declare himself interim leader.
    Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who has strengthened economic and political ties with Caracas, called Maduro last month to urge him to stand tall against what he described as “anti-democratic developments.”
.     Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday the countries which were supporting Guaido should instead have worked for negotiations to resolve Venezuela’s crisis.
    “There is a problem in a country, there is a spark that can turn into a fire at any moment.    In this case, they should have contributed to the solution of the problem through dialogue,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Istanbul.
    “But is that how they handled things?    No.    On the contrary, the event was fueled from the outside.    The people of Venezuela are being punished by such approach,” he said.
    Cavusoglu said Turkey had tried to initiate talks on Venezuela last year between Washington and Latin American countries.    “But today, none of the countries that have taken these steps against Venezuela has sought dialogue.”
    Disagreement over Venezuela could become another serious point of friction between Washington and Ankara, which are also divided over policy in Syria, Iran sanctions and Turkey’s plans to buy Russian missile defense system.
    On Friday Marshall Billingslea, U.S. assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury, held talks with Turkish officials about sanctions on Venezuela and Iran.
    A senior U.S. official said last week Washington was looking at Turkey’s commercial activities with Venezuela and would take action “if we assess a violation of our sanctions.”
    Turkish officials say Ankara’s trade is in accordance with international laws and regulations.
    In his remarks on Sunday Cavusoglu also reiterated Turkish criticism of what Ankara sees as a weak international response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four months ago.
    “Recently Western countries – you know they are very sensitive about human rights, trying to teach everyone about human rights – are silent,” he said suggesting they were more interested in protecting commercial ties with Riyadh.
    “They are making deals and selling arms,” Cavusoglu said.
(Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/3/2019 Netanyahu’s Likud uses Trump photo in Israeli election billboard
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event by his
Likud Party in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
    TEL AVIV (Reuters) – A giant billboard of a smiling Donald Trump shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loomed over a main entrance to Tel Aviv on Sunday, part of the Israeli leader’s re-election campaign.
    Trump is popular in Israel because of his tough policies toward the Palestinians and Iran and his transfer last May of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he recognized as Israel’s capital in a break from long-standing U.S. policy.
    “Netanyahu.    In another league,” read the Hebrew-language billboard, in a swipe at the caliber of the veteran prime minister’s opponents in the April 9 national election.
    A spokesman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, whose logo adorns the sign over Tel Aviv’s busy Ayalon highway, did not immediately respond to a Reuters query on whether the White House had authorized it to use the photograph.
    Netanyahu is favorite to win the election but opinion polls show one of his toughest challengers, former general Benny Gantz, making gains.
    The prime minister is facing possible charges in three graft cases.    He denies any wrongdoing and has called the investigations a witch-hunt.
    On Friday, Israel’s attorney general said there was no legal reason to prevent him from announcing, before the election, any intention to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges should he decide such a move was warranted.
    Formal indictment in court would depend on pre-trial hearings, likely to be held only after the poll.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

2/3/2019 Erdogan says Turkey has maintained contacts with Damascus
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Turkish Military Academy in Ankara, Turkey
January 24, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey has maintained low-level contact with the Syrian government, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday, even though Ankara has supported rebels who fought for years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
    Erdogan has described Assad as a terrorist and said several times during Syria’s eight-year conflict that the Syrian leader must go.    But with support from Russia and Iran, Assad has recaptured large parts of Syria from rebel fighters, driving them from most of their former strongholds.
    Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in December Turkey and other countries would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election, and last month said Ankara was in indirect contact with Damascus via Russia and Iran.
    Erdogan suggested on Sunday that Turkey also had direct contacts with the Syrian government.
    “Foreign policy with Syria continues at a lower level,” he told broadcaster TRT in an interview, adding that intelligence services operated differently to political leaders.
    “Leaders may be cut out.    But intelligence units can communicate for their interests,” Erdogan said.    “Even if you have an enemy, you should not break the ties.    You may need that later.”
    The Turkish president also said that a proposed safe zone in northeastern Syria, which President Donald Trump has said should be established as U.S. forces withdraw from the area, could not be set up by Western coalition forces without Turkey.
    “We can provide the security in the area. We can manage the region together with you,” Erdogan said.    “No problem there.    But we can’t leave the region for coalition forces.”
    Washington has said the proposed safe zone should address Turkish concerns about preventing any cross-border threat from Kurdish YPG militia fighters in north Syria, while also preventing Turkish military operations against the YPG.
    Trump abruptly announced his intention in December to withdraw the 2,000-strong U.S. force from Syria, over the objections of top advisers including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in protest.    One of the main concerns of critics of Trump’s decision is the fate of the YPG if U.S. forces leave.
    The group has been the main ally of U.S. forces battling Islamic State in Syria. Turkey, however, considers the YPG to be a terrorist group indistinguishable from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey since the 1980s.
    Erdogan is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for talks on Syria in the Russian resort of Sochi on Feb. 14.
(Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff)

2/4/2019 Israel beefing up Gaza border fence after months of protest
    Israel said it is reinforcing its border fence with the Gaza Strip, erecting a galvanized steel barrier 20 feet high that will run the length of territory.
    Israel’s Defense Ministry issued a statement Sunday saying it had commenced construction of an aboveground barrier that complements a subterranean wall aimed at thwarting Hamas attack tunnels beneath the border.
    The fence’s construction comes after months of mass protests by Palestinians in Gaza along the border.    Nearly 190 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since they began last March.    An Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper last July.

2/4/2019 Iraqi president says Trump did not ask permission to ‘watch Iran’ by Ahmed Aboulenein and John Davison
Iraq's President Barham Salih attends a forum in Baghdad, Iraq February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi President Barham Salih said on Monday that President Donald Trump did not ask Iraq’s permission for U.S. troops stationed there to “watch Iran.”
    Speaking at a forum in Baghdad, Salih was responding to a question about Trump’s comments to CBS about how he would ask troops stationed in Iraq to “watch” Iran.
    U.S. troops in Iraq are there as part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific mission of combating terrorism, Salih said, and that they should stick to that.
    Trump said it was important to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq so that Washington can keep a close eye on Iran “because Iran is a real problem,” according to a CBS interview broadcast on Sunday.
    “Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues,” Salih said.    “The U.S. is a major power … but do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here.”
    Iraq is in a difficult position as tensions between its two biggest allies, the United States and Iran, increase.
    “It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran” and other neighboring countries, Salih said.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and John Davison, editing by Louise Heavens)
[Salih you and your country would be speaking Iran's language now if we did not come over there, so you better burden yourself to watch Iran.].

2/4/2019 No plan for Mosul: chaos and neglect slow Iraqi city’s recovery by John Davison
Destroyed buildings in Mosul, Iraq January 30, 2019. Picture taken January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
    MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The demolition of a wrecked building in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul where Islamic State used to execute men they said were gay is already in its third month.
    Homeless boys who hunt for scrap in the remains of the former National Insurance Company building work quicker some days than the lone digger perched on its crumbling carcass.
    Two years after the battle in which Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul from IS, the authorities do not own enough equipment to clear the rubble littered across the city.
    Hundreds of Mosul council’s vehicles were destroyed in fighting or used by IS as suicide bombs.    Few have been replaced.
    Companies hired by the governor on lucrative contracts to make up the shortfall work deliberately slowly, or sometimes do not exist, lawmakers and locals say.
    Mosul was held by IS for three years.    Under the militant group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, homosexuality is a grave sin punishable by death.    But rights activists say those executed in the seven-storey insurance building, now reduced to two floors, were often IS opponents who were falsely accused.
    The digger on top of the building is hired for $300 a day, a laborer at the site said.    It often stands idle.
    The regional governor denies allegations of fraud and says not enough money is coming to his office to fund rehabilitation.
    Many residents are struggling financially.    Families forced to build their own homes go into debt, borrowing from friends and living off charity.    Others cram into increasingly expensive rented homes.    Foreign-funded projects also suffer delays.
    “There’s no strategic plan.    It’s chaos,” lawmaker Mohamed Nuri Abed Rabbo said.
    Poor planning allows mismanagement of reconstruction efforts and alleged corruption, making recovery slow and haphazard.    In this environment, residents fear the remnants of IS will again exploit resentment.
    “The city’s being rebuilt only on paper,” said Abu Ali Neshwan, a 52-year-old shopkeeper.    “There’s no state here.    Corruption’s everywhere.”
    Abdelsattar al-Hibbu, who is in charge of the municipal government — and is still recognized by Baghdad as such, despite the governor’s attempts to remove him — said the little money allocated to Mosul was being misspent.
    “With the amount spent so far on removing rubble, the city could have been completely cleared by now,” he said by telephone.    Of an estimated 7 million tonnes of debris, more than half remains, he said.
    Hibbu warned last year that there was simply not enough money to rebuild.
    The 2019 state budget allocates $560 million for Mosul’s reconstruction, according to two Mosul lawmakers.    A U.N. advisor in the city said one estimated cost for one year of rebuilding work was $1.8 billion.
    “It’s mostly international organizations getting things done.    It’s ridiculous that money has to come from outside, with Iraq’s oil wealth,” the adviser said.    “Authorities overspend and work takes ages.    It should take a few days at most to demolish a large building and cost a few thousand dollars, tops.”
FEARS THAT ISLAMIC STATE COULD RE-EMERGE
    Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan, governor of Nineveh province which includes Mosul, dismissed the allegations of mismanagement and overspending.
    “Clearing rubble is not being done haphazardly … but there are some neighborhoods that are so destroyed that there’s no solution,” he said.    “People shouldn’t be asking why (reconstruction) is slow.    They should be asking why hurry it?
    The clearance work looks anything but organized.    Grubby children, who outnumber workmen, load steel rods and window frames onto donkey-drawn carts to sell at scrapyards.
    Wheelbarrows are displayed outside shops for residents wanting to do their own work.
    Some Mosul families are rebuilding by themselves.    Younes Hassan, 67, borrowed $9,000 from friends to rebuild his purple-walled home at the highest point of the Old City, overlooking a bank of the Tigris river strewn with rubble.
    “We’ve borrowed everything — there’s no money from the government, and certainly no bank loans,” he said.
    Bank transfers to Mosul, which was a Sunni Islamist stronghold even before IS arrived, are banned by authorities over fears over the financing of extremists.
    “Ten people live here, but my daughter hasn’t come back yet.    She’s renting in east Mosul for $100 a month that she can’t afford,” Hassan said.
    Hassan’s family is among those returning to west Mosul, which suffered the worst damage from air strikes in its crowded Old City streets.
    Nearly 2 million Iraqis are still displaced by the fight against IS, according to a survey by REACH, a non-governmental organization.    Many say they are not ready to go home because of the destruction and lack of services.
    Residents worry that the longer it takes to fix Mosul, the easier it will be for groups such as IS to re-emerge and recruit.    Conditions that helped IS take over Mosul and other cities in 2014, including corruption and the neglect of Sunni Muslim communities by a Shi’ite-dominated government, remain.
    A policeman manning a makeshift checkpoint said he worried most for the children picking around in the rubble.
    “They’ll be the next generation of IS — it thrives on corruption and chaos,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Salih Elias in Baghdad; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/4/2019 Oil hits 2019 high near $64 on Venezuela sanctions, OPEC by Alex Lawler
An oil pumpjack and a tank with the corporate logo of state oil company PDVSA
are seen in an oil facility in Lagunillas, Venezuela January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia
    LONDON (Reuters) – Oil hit a two-month high close to $64 a barrel on Monday as OPEC-led supply cuts and U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s petroleum industry offset forecasts of weaker demand and an economic slowdown.
    The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies began a new round of supply cuts in January.    These curbs, led by Saudi Arabia, have been compounded by involuntary losses that the Venezuelan sanctions could deepen.
    Brent crude, the global benchmark, hit $63.63 a barrel, the highest since Dec. 7, and was up 66 cents at $63.41 as of 1040 GMT.
    U.S. crude hit a 2019 high of $55.75 and was later up 33 cents at $55.59
.
    “You have the sanctions on Venezuela, on top of the reduced supply from Saudi Arabia,” said Olivier Jakob, oil analyst at Petromatrix.    “There’s no sign of overhang in the crude oil markets.”
    OPEC supply fell in January by the largest amount in two years, a Reuters survey last week found.    That offset limited compliance with the output-cutting deal so far by non-OPEC Russia.
    The U.S. sanctions on Venezuela will limit oil transactions between Venezuela and other countries and are similar to those imposed on Iran last year, some analysts said after examining details announced by the government.
    Underlining the lack of excess supply, Jakob cited a rapidly clearing West African crude market and the structure of Brent crude futures, in which the first-month contract is trading near the price of the second month.
    While OPEC and its allies are cutting output, the United States is expanding supply.    Nonetheless, figures on Friday showed a drop in the number of U.S. oil rigs to their lowest in eight months, lending prices some support.
(Graphic: U.S. oil output, drilling levels – https://tmsnrt.rs/2S87iVI)
    “The collapse in oil prices late last year has resulted in more cautious spending by U.S. oil explorers,” Vivek Dhar, commodities analyst for Commonwealth Bank of Australia, said in a report on Monday.
    The main drag on prices has been concern about a possible slowdown in demand this year due to a weaker outlook for economic growth and developments such as the U.S.-China trade dispute.
    U.S. President Donald Trump last week said he would meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in the coming weeks to try to settle the dispute, and there are hopes that the two sides will come to an agreement.
(Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Dale Hudson)

2/4/2019 As EU-Arab summit approaches, more headaches than planned by Gabriela Baczynska
Saudi's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir attends a joint meeting of European Union
and League of Arab States foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – When plans for a summit between the European Union and the Arab Leaguez were first hatched last year, it was envisioned as the start of a new friendship across the Mediterranean.    What a difference a few months makes.
    The EU hopes that improving ties with its Arab neighbors would help advance its policies, not least its aim to fight illegal immigration from the Middle East and North Africa.
    But after the murder of a journalist in a Saudi consulate last October, European officials helping to prepare for the Feb. 24-25 summit in Egypt say they are now focused mainly on limiting the awkwardness.
    “The idea was to give them red carpet treatment and start engaging with them more, see what we can do on migration,” said one European diplomat.    “But now we are in an unlucky spot as some of the (Arab League) national leaders are not our favorites.”
    With barely three weeks to go before the summit, top EU leaders have yet to confirm their participation.
    A lower-level meeting of Arab League and EU foreign ministers intended to set up an agenda for the summit ended on Monday in Brussels with no agreement on a joint statement.
    As top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini was explaining to a news conference why they had failed to agree, she was interrupted by her co-chair, the Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
    There were “more complications on the European side than the Arab side,” Aboul Gheit said.    In a friendly but public sign of disagreement, Mogherini snapped back: “I would say the contrary.”
    The EU wants to focus at this month’s summit on migration, but that is a fraught area in which EU member states disagree sharply among themselves.    Hungary, led by an anti-immigration hardliner, vetoed Monday’s joint declaration over the subject.
    “This summit has been very difficult to organize, to find a date, nobody really wants this,” another EU official said of the top-level talks later this month.
    “For the EU it is all about migration, but there are so many other touchy subjects that people would rather not address.”
SAUDI, SUDAN AND SYRIA
    A key change in the European-Arab relationship in recent months has been the collapse in the global standing of the wealthy and influential Arab leader, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
    The West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia — the world’s biggest exporter of oil and second biggest importer of arms — has been the bedrock of its ties to the Arab world for decades.
    But the de facto ruler has been shunned since U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.    Riyadh initially denied the killing, then gave conflicting accounts.    It now accepts that its agents killed him but says its leadership had nothing to do with it.
    Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, arrived at Monday’s meeting in Brussels speaking as if little had changed: the sides faced common challenges “like countering extremism and terrorism,” he said.    “There are also big offers related to trade and investment.”
    But relations are not what they once were.    Attending an event with the crown prince is tricky for some European leaders who were already accused by rights groups of rubbing shoulders with him at a meeting of the G20 industrialized countries in November, European sources said.
    Nor is Crown Prince Mohammed the only potentially awkward guest for the EU.    In recent weeks, Arab states have been showing solidarity with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who has been facing the most sustained anti-government demonstrations at home of his 30 years in power.
    Bashir, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, is persona non grata for some Europeans.
    “We don’t deal with him directly, but we deal with Sudan,” an EU official said.    “They could send somebody else.”
    A guest even more unwelcome to the Europeans will not be invited to this summit, but could be at a future one soon: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
    Hostility to Assad has long been an issue on which European countries agreed with the leading Arab states, which suspended Damascus from the Arab League in 2011.    But with Assad’s future now all but secured by Russian and Iranian forces, some Arab countries are pushing to readmit Syria.    Most EU countries are not ready to rehabilitate him.
    “We are not in a situation today to renew a normal relationship with Syria,” Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said on Monday.
    However, Austria and the Czech Republic are more amenable, hopeful that restoring ties with Assad would help Syrian refugees return home.
    “Preparations for the summit are going very slowly, it’s all rather uncomfortable,” one EU diplomat said, but stressed there were no plans to call the whole thing off.
    “There are plenty of embarrassing traps to avoid, like sitting at one table with the Saudis, Sudan’s Bashir, or even Assad returning.”
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Alissa de Carbonnel, Stephen Kalin, Aidan Lewis, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Peter Graff)

2/4/2019 U.N. council pushes Yemen’s warring parties to withdraw Hodeidah troops
FILE PHOTO: Houthi militants patrol a street where pro-Houthi protesters demonstrated against the
Saudi-led coalition in Hodeidah, Yemen December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad/File Photo
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations Security Council urged the warring parties in Yemen on Monday to withdraw forces from the country’s main port of Hodeidah and two other ports “without further delays.”
    Representatives from both parties met for a second day on a ship on the Red Sea on Monday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, in a U.N.-led push to implement the stalled troop withdrawal which was agreed at December talks in Sweden.
    “Both parties have reiterated their commitment to implementing the Hodeidah aspects of the Stockholm agreement,” Dujarric said.
    The warring parties were meant to withdraw their forces by Jan. 7 as part of efforts to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, but have failed to do so as the Iranian-aligned Houthi group and the Saudi-backed government disagree on who should control the city and ports.
    A Sunni Muslim Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014.
    The truce has largely held in Hodeidah, but clashes have increased in recent weeks.    Violence has continued in other parts of the country not subject to the deal.
    In a statement on Monday, the 15-member U.N. Security Council expressed concern at allegations of violations of the ceasefire.    In a Jan. 31 letter to the council, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen accused the Houthis of 970 violations since Dec. 18.
    “The members of the Security Council called on the parties to seize this opportunity to move towards sustainable peace by exercising restraint, de-escalating tensions, honoring their commitment to the Stockholm Agreement and moving forward with swift implementation,” the council said.
    The council asked U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths “to continue to keep them closely informed of developments so that they may consider further action as necessary in support of a political settlement.”
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Gregorio)

2/4/2019 Hezbollah says will not use Lebanon health ministry funds for own benefit
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gestures as he addresses his
supporters via a screen in Beirut, Lebanon August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Monday it would never use state funds for its own benefit after it named the health minister in a new coalition government, adding that its choice for the post was close to the movement but not a member.
    Hezbollah, heavily armed and backed by Iran, secured three seats in the new Lebanese government formed last week after months of wrangling.    Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah named a doctor, Jamil Jabak, as health minister, the first time it has held a ministry with a big budget.
    The U.S. State Department urged Lebanon’s new cabinet to ensure resources do not help Hezbollah, which Washington deems a terrorist organization.
    Hezbollah’s bigger role points to its appetite to shape state affairs, after gaining military clout from Syria’s war next door.    The United States has hit Hezbollah with fresh sanctions as part of its strategy to counter Iran.
    Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said it had picked a health minister who is not a party member so that he could work and travel freely.
    “Of course, (Jabak) is a brother and friend.    He is close and trusted… This is a ministry for all the Lebanese people,” Nasrallah said.    He added it was forbidden under Islamic law to misuse state funds.
    Nasrallah said the new government’s top priority must be fighting corruption and financial waste.    “The consensus is that there is economic and financial danger,” he said.
    Lebanon’s Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said last week bold and urgent moves were required to tackle chronic economic and other problems facing the heavily indebted nation.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Additional reporting by Nayera Abdallah in Cairo; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/4/2019 Constitutional proposals could allow Sisi to stay in power till 2034: document by Amina Ismail
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a welcoming ceremony with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (unseen)
at the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, January 27, 2019. in this handout picture
courtesy of the Egyptian Presidency. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Constitutional amendments proposed by Egyptian lawmakers would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power for up to 12 years beyond his current term and boost his control of the judiciary, according to a draft seen by Reuters.
    The proposed amendments were submitted to the speaker of parliament on Sunday.    Any changes need approval by two-thirds of parliament members, followed by a referendum.
    Sisi, a former general, ousted President Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 after mass protests against his rule and was elected president the following year.
    In recent months, speculation has been building that his supporters would seek to amend a constitutional clause according to which he should step down at the end of his second four-year term in 2022.
    The amendments submitted on Sunday include an extension of the presidential term to six years from four in article 140 of the constitution, and a “transitional” clause that would reset the clock, potentially allowing Sisi to stay in power until 2034.
    “After the expiry of his current term, the President of the Republic may run again in accordance to the amended article 140,” the draft clause says.
    The proposed changes also give Sisi new powers over appointing judges and the public prosecutor.    They add a second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators, in which the president would appoint one-third of the 250 members.
    Sisi’s supporters say extending his term is necessary to allow him more time to implement economic development plans and ensure Egypt’s stability.
    “He is doing a lot of projects and people are fighting him from all sides,” said Ayman Abdel Hakim, a lawyer and former civil servant who filed a court case along with 300 Sisi supporters in December demanding that Egypt’s parliament debate the two-term limit and consider changing it.
    Parliament is overwhelmingly supportive of Sisi, though a 16-member leftist bloc held a news conference on Monday to denounce the proposed amendments, saying they canceled out the principal gain of Egypt’s Jan. 25, 2011 uprising, the changeover of civilian power.
    One leftist lawmaker, Haitham al-Hariri, told Reuters the proposals were a “coup against the Egyptian constitution.”
    “We were naive to think that they would only extend the presidential term limits,” he said, referring to the plan to widen the president’s powers.
    Critics say 63-year-old Sisi has led Egypt deeper into authoritarianism than former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 after ruling for three decades under a state of emergency.
    Rights groups say he has muzzled political opponents, activists and critical media, while courts have passed sentences against hundreds of his opponents.
    Some Egyptians took to social media to criticize the draft amendments.    “No to changing the constitution” was the top trending hashtag late on Sunday, with more than 26,000 tweets.
    “The proposed amendments don’t come as a surprise, they are a continuation of what we have seen ever since Sisi came to power, or a continued expansion of his powers as well as consolidation of that power,” said Timothy Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
(Writing by Amina Ismail, additional reporting by Mahmoud Morad, Editing by Aidan Lewis)

2/5/2019 Turkey’s Erdogan says no satisfactory plan with U.S. on north Syria safe zone
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Turkish Military Academy in
Ankara, Turkey January 24, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had not yet seen an acceptable plan for the creation of a safe zone in northeastern Syria, three weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump suggested establishing the zone.
    “There is no satisfactory plan that is put before us concretely yet,” Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his AK Party.    “Of course we are loyal to our agreements, our promise is a promise.    But our patience is not limitless.”
    Turkey wants the zone to be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia which Ankara considers a terrorist group.    Erdogan also said that if terrorists are not removed from the northern town of Manbij in a few weeks, Turkey’s waiting time will end.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans)
[Like I said above Erdogan has got ants in his pants to get his agenda going.].

2/5/2019 Yemen’s warring sides hold talks in Jordan on prisoner swap deal by OAN Newsroom
    The warring parties in Yemen are meeting once more to discuss a mass prisoner exchange.    Representatives of Yemen’s government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels came together in Jordan Tuesday for the second round of talks.
    The Red Cross has said the prisoner swap is extremely fragile, because of deep distrust on both sides.
Abdel-Kader Murtada, center, the head of the Houthi rebel delegation speaks during a meeting with a delegation from the
internationally recognized Yemeni government, in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. The talks center on implementing a stalled
prisoner exchange agreed upon in December. The U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths stressed that a breakthrough in the prisoners’ deal would
give momentum to the rocky talks over Yemen’s most crucial port of Hodeida where a U.N. brokered truce has witnessed multiply breaches. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
    The mass exchange of prisoners is meant to be a confidence building measure that could lead to the end of the devastating war.
    “Success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released and returned to their families, but also for the broader political process on which we are engaged together and in which we have hopes that the parties will together resolve the issues that divide them and return Yemen to peace,” said Martin Griffiths, UN Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen.
    The goal of the ongoing talks is to finalize a list of prisoners to be released or exchanged.    8,000 names of fighters were shared originally, but many are dead, not captured, so the final list will likely be much smaller if the swap ever materializes.

2/5/2019 Lebanon’s new government to agree to economic reforms: Finance Minister by Angus McDowall
FILE PHOTO: A man holding an umbrella walks past a banner of Lebanese Prime Minister
Saad al-Hariri in Beirut, Lebanon February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s new government will agree to implement all the economic reforms the country promised at an international donor meeting last year, its finance minister said on Tuesday after talks to set policy.
    Rival parties formed a new unity government on Thursday after nearly nine months of wrangling.    Like the previous coalition, it is headed by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and includes most major factions.
    Since the government was formed, a cabinet committee has been working on a draft statement of government policy that will be put to parliament.
    The ministerial statement will include all the reforms contained in a Paris conference of donors and the commitment to reduce the deficit and carry out fundamental reforms in various sectors, Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told Reuters.
    At last year’s conference, donors pledged more than $11 billion in infrastructure investment in Lebanon to help boost its weak economy, on condition the country carries out economic reforms.    Hariri pledged at the conference to reduce the deficit as a proportion of GDP by a total of 5 percent over five years.
    Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of public debt, equivalent to around 150 percent of gross domestic product.
    The policy statement will be put to cabinet for approval on Wednesday, before it goes to parliament, and will maintain the existing position of keeping out of regional conflicts like Syria, Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah said earlier.
    Lebanon declared a principle of “disassociation” in 2012 to keep the deeply divided state formally out of regional disputes such as the lengthy war in neighboring Syria.
    Washington had urged it to uphold that after the Iran-backed Hezbollah group gained more influence with another seat in cabinet.    Despite the disassociation policy, the heavily armed Hezbollah has been fighting for years in Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad.
    “We as a state are committed to distancing ourselves from events in the region,” Jarrah said.
    Hezbollah’s bigger role – with three seats out of 30 in cabinet – reflects the greater clout it has obtained from involvement in Syria and gains by allies in May’s parliamentary election.
    The U.S. government has urged Lebanon’s new government to ensure resources do not help Hezbollah, which it deems a terrorist organization.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Angus McDowall; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

2/5/2019 U.N. envoy says Yemen prisoner swap would help peace process by Suleiman Al-Khalidi
Yemen's warring parties attend a new round of talks to discuss a prisoners
swap deal, in Amman, Jordan February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
    AMMAN (Reuters) – A U.N. special envoy told warring Yemenis on Tuesday that rapid implementation of a prisoner swap deal would help advance efforts at a political settlement of a nearly four-year-old war.
    The envoy, Martin Griffiths, said finalizing a list of the thousands of prisoners should be completed by the end of three days of talks in Amman between teams from the Saudi-backed government and their Iranian-aligned Houthi adversaries.
    The list is to be handed over to the world body and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
    “It will lay the basis for the next step which will be to see that release happening,” Griffiths told delegates before the start of the second round in Amman in less than a month.
    Griffiths stressed how important the swap deal was to achieving progress in ending a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and left 15.9 million people facing severe hunger.
    “Success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released … but also for the broader political process in which we have hopes the parties will together resolve the issues that divide them and return Yemen to peace.”
    As he spoke, the new head of the U.N. mission tasked with overseeing a fragile ceasefire deal in Yemen, Danish Major General Michael Anker Lollesgaard, arrived in the port city of Hodeidah.
    Implementation of the deal, reached in Sweden in December, has stalled as the two sides cannot agree on who will control the port – a lifeline for millions of Yemenis – and the city after a planned redeployment of their forces.
    Representatives from the warring parties will meet for a fourth day on a ship on the Red Sea on Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, in a U.N.-led push to implement the troop withdrawal.
    “They are grappling with the complexities of disengaging forces in close proximity of each other and the gradual redeployment of heavy weapons, armor, and infantry,” the United Nations said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the parties are getting closer to an agreement.
CONFIDENCE-BUILDING
    The prisoner swap was one of the least contentious confidence-building measures at the peace talks in Sweden.
    The Amman prisoner negotiations will verify names of about 15,000 prisoners exchanged by both sides, some of whom include Saudis and other nationals fighting on the government side.
    The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose agency would oversee the operation, said implementing the deal could take weeks and involve the repatriation of third country nationals.
    “Trust doesn’t come from one day to another.    It is a difficult process and we know this is work in progress,” ICRC President Peter Maurer said at the start of the Amman talks.
    The conflict, widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been bogged down in a military stalemate for years.
    A Sunni Muslim Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
    The Houthis control most urban centers in the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation while Hadi’s government controls the southern port of Aden and a string of coastal towns.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Editing by Gareth Jones and James Dalgleish)

2/5/2019 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with Russian Pres. Putin on Feb. 21st to discuss Iran by OAN Newsroom
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will travel to Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin.    While speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem Tuesday, Netanyahu said he will meet with the Russian president on February, 21, 2019 to discuss Iran.
    Netanyahu suggested Putin could influence the Ayatollah regime’s behavior in the Middle East.
    The meeting will be the first formal talks since the Kremlin blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian warplane by the Assad government last year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in
Jerusalem Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)
    The Israeli prime minister said he and Putin will discuss Iranian presence in Syria as well.
    “We have a great challenge from Iran that openly calls for our destruction, it’s very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria,” explained Netanyahu.    “In many ways we’ve blocked that advance, but we’re committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights.”
    Netanyahu also said Israel remains committed to stopping the Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

2/5/2019 Erdogan says expects Greece to return eight Turkish soldiers with coup links
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday he expected more cooperation from Greece in the repatriation of eight soldiers who fled to Greece following a 2016 coup attempt.
    Earlier on Tuesday, Turkey updated a list of former military officers wanted for their alleged role in a 2016 coup attempt to include the eight officers who have been granted asylum in Greece, with a bounty of 4 million Turkish lira ($770,446) each.
    Erdogan made the remarks in a joint news conference with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/6/2019 Turkey condemns French declaration of Armenian genocide commemoration day
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Turkish Military Academy in
Ankara, Turkey January 24, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey on Wednesday said it strongly condemned French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to declare April 24 as a day for the commemoration of the Armenian genocide, an issue that caused regular friction between Turkey and European Union nations.
    “We condemn and reject attempts by Mr Macron, who is facing political problems in his own country, to save the day by turning historic events into political material,” Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement.
    Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler)

2/6/2019 Eastern Libyan forces take over El-Sharara oilfield: official
A general view of the El Sharara oilfield, Libya December 3, 2014. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/File Photo
    BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar took over the El-Sharara oilfield on Wednesday, an official in the force said.
    The 315,000-barrels a day oilfield has been closed since December when tribesmen and state security forces seized it to make payment and development demands.
    Haftar is a dominant figure in the east where his Libyan National Army (LNA) in 2017 seized the second-largest city of Benghazi by expelling Islamist and other fighters.
    “Our forces arrived safely at the field,” a spokesman for the forces, Ahmed Mismari, told a news conference.
    No more details were immediately available and state oil firm NOC had no immediate comment on the field, which is located deep in Libya’s south had been previously formally belong to the Tripoli-based internationally recognized government.
    Haftar’s forces are allied to a parallel administration based in eastern Libya.    His LNA faction last month started a military offensive in eastern Libya to fight militants and secure the region’s oilfields.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli: Writing by Ulf Lessing; Editing by Alexander Smith)

2/6/2019 Lebanon’s Berri: Israel violating water borders in oil exploration
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is seen at the presidential palace
in Baabda, Lebanon, November 6, 2017. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israel has breached Lebanon’s waters by licensing a company to “exploit an area” for oil and gas near disputed borders, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said on Wednesday.
    The two countries have an unresolved maritime border dispute over a sea zone of about 860 sq km (330 square miles) which extends along the edge of three of Lebanon’s energy blocks.
    U.S. diplomats mediated between them last year after a spike in tensions that also involved a row over a border wall Israel built and over Iran-backed Hezbollah’s growing arsenal.
    “(It is) a dangerous matter.    Israel has licensed and exploited an area adjacent to the Lebanese southern maritime borders,” MPs from Berri’s Amal party quoted him as saying on Wednesday after a meeting.
    “This is an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty and targets our oil wealth and waters.”
    The Israeli Energy Ministry did not immediately comment.
    Berri vowed “not to remain silent” and will bring it up with the Italian prime minister visiting Beirut this week, as well as other foreign states, the lawmakers said.
    Ali Bazzi, an Amal lawmaker, said Israel pressed on with the “violation” even though the companies on the Lebanese side have stayed away from the contentious border.
    Lebanon sits on the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean – along with Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Syria – where a number big gas fields have been discovered since 2009.
    Lebanon has signed its first offshore oil and gas exploration and production agreements for two energy blocks, including one disputed by Israel.    A consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek signed the contracts.
    Lebanon has said the dispute would not stop it benefiting from potential undersea reserves in Block 9, while consortium operator Total said it would not drill the block’s first well near the disputed sliver of water.
    Instead, the well would be drilled more than 25 km (15 miles) from the maritime border claimed by Israel, Total has said.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

2/7/2019 Explainer: The race for Nigeria’s presidency in 2019 by Paul Carsten
FILE PHOTO: Supporters of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) attend a campaign rally
in Lafia, Nigeria January 10, 2019. Picture taken January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo
    ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigerians will on Feb. 16 choose between two septuagenarians to lead Africa’s largest democracy: President Muhammadu Buhari and former vice president Atiku Abubakar.    The pair have run for president nine times between them.
.     There are more than 60 other candidates, though their chances of winning are slim as the wealth and patronage networks of the two main parties drive the politics of Africa’s top oil producer and most populous country.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
    Buhari’s 2015 victory with his All Progressives Congress (APC) party was built on three promises: to rid Nigeria of endemic corruption, fix the economy and tackle security threats.
    The government says it is making progress but the military’s efforts to fight the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency and its Islamic State-allied offshoot, now in its tenth year, are crumbling.
    The economy entered and climbed out of recession under Buhari, yet the average Nigerian is still getting poorer; and opponents say his government is failing to tackle corruption, targeting only the president’s enemies and ignoring allegations against his allies.
    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the army has been responsible for human rights abuses, including the massacre of protesters.    The army has said its use of force is justified.
    After spending five months in Britain in 2017 receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment, opposition groups and other critics said Buhari was unfit for office and his administration was beset by inertia.    But the president has said he is strong enough to serve.
    If Buhari wins again, Nigeria would be in for another four years of political torpor and disregard for rights, his opponents say.
    The president said he would continue to develop the rail and road network if reelected for a second term.    He has also vowed to expand a nationwide vocational skills program, improve access to credit for entrepreneurs and continue his fight against corruption.
    Atiku, the candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been caught up in corruption allegations since serving as vice president from 1999-2007. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
    His businesses include a port logistics firm and a private university.    He has promised business-friendly policies to double the size of the economy to $900 billion by 2025 if elected.
    He wants to privatize parts of the state oil company and create a $25 billion fund to support private sector infrastructure investment.
    Atiku’s opponents say he would exploit those pro-business policies to enrich himself and those around him.
FAULT LINES AND FRACTURES
    Nigeria is deeply divided.    The north is mainly Muslim and the south is largely Christian and the population is fairly evenly split between religions.    There are also more than 200 ethnic groups.    The three largest are the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast.
    The divisions have led to an unofficial power-sharing agreement among Nigeria’s political elite.    The presidency is supposed to alternate between the north and south after every two four-year terms.
    Buhari, a northern Muslim, is in his first term, having held the post since 2015.    His predecessor, the PDP’s Goodluck Jonathan, is a southern Christian.    In keeping with the accord, the PDP selected Atiku, a northerner, as its candidate for 2019.
    As it is not the turn of a southerner, and both Atiku and Buhari are Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group – one of the largest in the north – the chance of election violence around ethnicity, religion and region is reduced.    However, the south has favored the PDP in the past, while the north is Buhari’s stronghold.
    In the diverse Nigerian hinterland states known as the Middle Belt, the picture is less clear.    Long-running violence over diminishing arable land between farmers and nomadic herders has exploded, with a death toll of more than 3,600 since 2016, according to Amnesty International.
    This could turn the Middle Belt, much of which voted for Buhari, into swing states.
GENERATION GAP
    Nigeria’s median age is just 18, according to the United Nations.    Many youths say the aging leaders are out of touch and started the “Not Too Young to Run” campaigns to encourage younger people to seek office.
    Buhari, 76, is the oldest person to lead Nigeria since the transition to civilian government in 1999 and the PDP chose 72-year-old Atiku as their candidate.    Both men have said they remain energetic enough to take on the top job.
    Nigeria’s former military leaders also retain a strong influence over politics nearly two decades after the start of civilian rule.
    Buhari himself is a retired general who was head of state from 1983-1985. Other military-era chiefs continue to wield political leverage, including Olusegun Obasanjo, who led the country in the 1970s and was president from 1999-2007, and Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled from 1985-1993. Both back Atiku.
THE PARTIES
    The two main parties, the ruling APC and opposition PDP, do not have clear ideological differences.    Competition for control of national oil revenues by elites, patronage and complex rivalries between ethnic groups have played a much bigger role in elections than ideology.
    However, Buhari’s 2019 campaign has prioritized poverty alleviation and social schemes, while Atiku has stressed the need for a better business environment. Both vow to improve the decrepit infrastructure.
    Buhari won in 2015 after assembling a broad coalition across the north and southwest under the APC party, a version of the other vehicles he used to run in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
    The PDP has links to the military and held power until Jonathan’s defeat in 2015.    The party has traditionally appealed to the business community, which developed during the military regime.
    Atiku, a long-time PDP member, joined the APC and became a key ally and funder of Buhari during the 2015 campaign, allowing him to use the tycoon’s private jet.    Atiku switched sides in late 2017.
ELECTION INTERFERENCE
    International observers and civil society groups fear election interference and rigging.    They expressed concern about the way some state level votes were conducted last year and have called for free and fair elections to take place.
    The 2015 contest is the only time Nigeria has had a handover of power from a defeated incumbent since civilian government took over in 1999. Even then, independent observers saw evidence of vote buying, voter intimidation and other forms of corruption.     Last month, Buhari triggered a constitutional row when he suspended the chief judge, who has a crucial say in resolving election result disputes, over his alleged violation of wealth declaration rules.    The judge has not responded to the charges and his lawyers say the tribunal investigating the allegations does not have the authority to try him.
    The European Union, United States and Britain said they were concerned about the move. Nigeria said foreign governments should “tread with caution” and that their interference was “insulting.”
    The elections feature in discussions and on news feeds in social media.    The government launched a campaign against “fake news.”    Facebook said it would roll out some of its political advertising rules and tools for curbing election interference to Nigeria.
    The National Security Adviser’s office released a statement on Feb. 1 saying the internet would not be shut down during the vote.
TURNOUT AND RUNOFFS
    Voter turnout in the 2015 election was 29.4 million, or 44 percent of the 67.4 million registered voters, according to Independent National Electoral Commission data.    For 2019, the number of registered voters has risen by a quarter to 84 million, with just over half of them aged 18-35.
    The candidate with the most votes is declared winner as long as they have at least one-quarter of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states and the capital.    Otherwise there is a run-off.
(Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Anna Willard)

2/7/2019 Turkey says work on roadmap for Syria’s Manbij has accelerated by Humeyra Pamuk
FILE PHOTO: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels stand with their weapons at Manbij
countryside, Syria December 29, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Work to implement an agreement between Turkey and the United States over the Syrian town of Manbij has recently accelerated, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, adding that Kurdish YPG militia remained inside the town.
    “The process in Manbij has sped up despite the weather conditions but the road map should have been completed by now and the reason it hasn’t been is the United States,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Washington.
    Cavusoglu said apart from the joint patrols in the city, Turkey has begun working with the United States in identifying who will run Manbij and who could be within the security units of the town once Kurdish militia YPG has withdrawn from the area.
    After months of disagreement, Ankara and Washington agreed in June on a roadmap that would see the YPG removed from the town.    Turkey has repeatedly expressed its frustration that the implementation of the plan has been delayed.
    “The U.S. administration also wants the roadmap to be implemented as soon as possible,” Cavusoglu said.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Turkey would only wait a few weeks for militants to be removed from the north Syrian town of Manbij.    The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is spearheaded by the YPG, has controlled Manbij since 2016.
    Cavusoglu was in the U.S. capital to attend a gathering of 79 countries partnering with the United States against Islamic State.    He said there was still little clarity on the details of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the creation of a safe zone in the northeastern part of the country.
    “No concrete ideas on the safe zone has emerged yet.    We are discussing this with Russians as well and trying to coordinate it with the Americans,” he said.
    In December, Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring that Islamic State had been defeated there.
    Turkey wants to set up the safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia.    Cavusoglu repeated the safe zone could not be an area that would give protection to the group.
    “It is important what we understand from a safe zone.    If what is understood or desired is a buffer zone that will protect the terrorists, we are against it,” he said.
    Cavusoglu also said a ‘task force’ group was set up between the United States and Turkey specifically to focus on the work linked to U.S. withdrawal from Syria.    “We have put in place this mechanism to ensure this process is carried out in coordination and without problems,” he said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)

2/7/2019 Evidence shows Khashoggi murder planned, carried out by Saudi officials: U.N. by Stephanie Nebehay
FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in
front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – A United Nations-led inquiry into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said on Thursday that evidence pointed to a brutal crime “planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials.
    Khashoggi’s killing by a team of Saudi operatives on Oct. 2 provoked widespread revulsion and tarnished the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, previously admired in the West for pushing deep changes including tax reform, infrastructure projects and allowing women to drive.
    U.S. intelligence agencies believe Crown Prince Mohammed ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi, a critic and Washington Post columnist, and say his body was dismembered and removed to a location still publicly unknown. Riyadh denies the prince had any involvement in the murder.
    “Evidence collected during my mission to Turkey shows prime facie case that Mr. Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia,” Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, said in statement issued in Geneva.
    She said her Jan 28-Feb 3 mission to Turkey with a team of three experts “could not firmly establish whether the original intention was to abduct Mr. Khashoggi, with his murder planned only in the eventuality of this abduction failing.”
    Saudi officials had “seriously undermined” and delayed Turkey’s efforts to investigate the crime scene at its Istanbul consulate, where Khashoggi had gone to get papers needed for his wedding, she said.
    Neither the Saudi government communications office nor Turkey’s foreign ministry gave immediate responses to requests for comment on the report.
CLEAN-UP OF THE CRIMES SCENES
    Delayed access to the consulate and residence and “clean up of the crimes scenes,” had severely limited the potential for the Turkish criminal forensic investigation to “produce telling evidence,” Callamard added.
    After Khashoggi’s first visit to the consulate on Sept 28, Saudi planning included “the travel of the three teams that carried out the operation; the presence of a lookalike of Mr Khashoggi who was seen leaving the consulate; the presence of a forensic doctor; the escape of the teams’ members and, of course, the disposal of Mr. Khashoggi’s body.”
    It was “unconscionable” that Saudi authorities continued to fail to disclose the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains, “after having admitted that he met his death within their custody in their consular premises,” she added.
    Callamard said her team had access to part of “chilling and gruesome audio material” of Khashoggi’s death obtained by the Turkish intelligence agency.    She had also been promised access to forensic and police reports critical to her inquiry.
    A Saudi public prosecutor’s spokesman said late last year that 11 Saudis had been indicted and referred for trial over the case, with authorities seeking the death penalty for five.
    Saudi Arabia has denied Turkey’s request for extradition of the 11 suspects, amid conflicting claims for jurisdiction, Callamard said.    She had “major concerns” about the fairness of the trial proceedings and had sought an official visit to the kingdom.
    Callamard is due to submits her final report in June to the U.N. Human Rights Council, including recommendations on formal criminal accountability.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by William Maclean in London and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/7/2019 A legacy of war: U.N. clears thousands of explosives in Iraq by Tom Miles
FILE PHOTO: Damaged buildings are seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations cleared almost 17,000 bombs, suicide belts and other explosive hazards in Iraq last year and the dangerous work of sifting through the debris of war – 7.6 million tonnes in Mosul alone – will take many years, U.N. experts said on Thursday.
    There are 100,000 damaged buildings in the country that could harbor explosive hazards such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by retreating Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, said Pehr Lodhammar, head of the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq.
    The bulk of the clearance work is likely to take a decade, and 2 million displaced people are keen to go home.    UNMAS trained almost 500,000 people last year to help them recognize the risks.
    Last year’s haul of around 17,000 explosive hazards included a “staggering” 2,000 IEDs, Lodhammer told a news conference, noting these had pressure plate fuse triggers, trip wires, infrared devices, anti-lift devices, remote control devices, or a combination of those things
    That figure included 782 suicide belts, many of them actually fitted on dead ISIS fighters found in the debris, he said.
    Islamic State held Mosul for three years, and UNMAS arrived when the fighting ended in 2017.    Its experts are finding explosive hazards almost everywhere, Lodhammar said.    It is also working in Fallujah, Tikrit and Kirkuk, and expanding to Sinjar.
    Picking through the flattened wreckage of Western Mosul in temperatures close to 40 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) is gruesome work and physically and psychologically demanding, UNMAS director Agnès Marcaillou said.
    “You have decomposing body parts that are still attached to suicide belts.    You are walking around in a stench and clouds of flies, and at any given time you can have a rat or a cat or dog actually detonating something that is buried under there,” she said.
    Lodhammar said the task was not traditional one-dimensional mine clearance.
    “These are not mines any longer.    An anti-personnel mine would have up to 230-250 grams (8.1-8.8 oz) of explosives in it.    Now we’re looking at 10-20 kilos (22-44 lb).”
    Buildings up to nine storeys high needed to be searched and made safe, while many of the bombs and shells dropped on Mosul by Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition had failed to go off, he said.
    There were 250-pound (113 kg) bombs and 500-pound bombs, some still buried 7-8 meters (23-26 ft) down.
    Generally at least 10 percent of bombs are assumed not to explode, and if not cleared away they may turn up decades later, like the World War Two bombs that are still discovered in Germany, he said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/8/2019 U.S. military aims to withdraw from Syria by April: WSJ
FILE PHOTO: A U.S military vehicle travels in the town of Amuda, northern Syria April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – The U.S. military is preparing to withdraw American forces from Syria by the end of April and a significant portion of them will be out by the middle of March, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing current and former U.S. officials.
    A U.S. official confirmed the April target to Reuters, saying the withdrawal included a pull-out from the U.S. military base at Tanf, near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan.
    President Donald Trump announced in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.
    The president’s sudden decision surprised many in his own administration as well as coalition allies such as Turkey and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that fought Islamic State with U.S. military support.
    Washington has been trying to reach agreement with Turkey, which considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia a terrorist organization, for the safety of the YPG fighters after it pulls out.    It is also discussing setting up a safe zone along the border to address Turkish security concerns.
    Asked about the WSJ report, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq referred Reuters to comments by Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson, who declined to discuss the pull-out timeline.
    A Turkish official said the United States had not signaled to Ankara a date when the U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be completed.
    An official from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed alliance which is spearheaded by the YPG, told Reuters: “What we know is that so far there is no withdrawal, and the situation on the ground is unchanged.    There is no discussion to set any date or time ceiling (for a withdrawal).”
(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch in Ankara and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/8/2019 Turkey says Saudi lack of transparency on Khashoggi concerning, detrimental to credibility by Orhan Coskun
FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest
in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal//File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – The “complete lack of transparency” from Saudi officials on the investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is deeply concerning and detrimental to their credibility, an aide to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said.
    Khashoggi, a royal insider who became a critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and began writing for the Washington Post, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of Saudi operatives on Oct. 2, provoking international revulsion and tarnishing the image of the prince.
    After making numerous contradictory statements about Khashoggi’s fate, Riyadh said he had been killed and his body dismembered when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.
    Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, told Reuters that the series of “false denials” from Saudi officials had led to uncertainty on a host of issues around the case.
    “Over the past four months, the Saudi authorities have been less than forthcoming in their dealings with their Turkish counterparts and the international community,” Altun said in a written statement to Reuters.
    “Saudi authorities must extradite Mr. Khashoggi’s killers to Turkey, where they committed a premeditated murder, as proof of their willingness to serve the cause of justice.”
    Saudi Arabia has previously denied Turkey’s extradition request for the 11 suspects, five of whom are facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
    On Thursday, a United Nations-led inquiry into the murder said evidence pointed to a brutal crime “planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials, adding that Saudi officials had “seriously undermined” and delayed Turkey’s investigation.
    Despite Turkey’s joint investigation with Saudi officials looking at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the consul’s residence and several other locations, the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains are still unknown.
    Erdogan has said Khashoggi’s killing was ordered by the highest level of Saudi leadership, but Riyadh has rejected accusations that the Crown Prince was involved.
    Altun said Turkey’s findings on the case were in line with those of the U.N.-led inquiry, adding that Ankara was committed to cooperating in a potential U.N. investigation into the case.
    “The world is watching.    Turkey, along with all nations that believe in democracy and freedom, seeks justice and the truth,” he said.
(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Ece Toksabay, Tom Hogue and Michael Perry)

2/8/2019 Yemen’s Houthis say prisoner swap talks could drag on for months by OAN Newsroom
    According to officials, talks for a prisoner exchange in Yemen could drag on for months.    A representative for the Iran-backed Houthis made the comments Thursday on the sidelines of the second round of talks in Jordan.
    The United Nations is backing the prisoner exchange as well as a ceasefire Hodeidah as a confidence building measure to eventually bring the four-year-long conflict to a peace deal.    However, both of the warring sides are accusing the other of having more prisoners than they are openly listing.
Hadi Haig, center, the head of the delegation from the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and the Houthi rebel delegation
meet for talks, in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. The talks center on implementing a stalled prisoner exchange
agreed upon in December. The U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths stressed that a breakthrough in the prisoners’ deal would give
momentum to the rocky talks over Yemen’s most crucial port of Hodeida where a U.N. brokered truce has witnessed multiply breaches. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
    So far, the sides are refusing to exchange partial groups of prisoners.
    “We reject splitting any lists of prisoners in the exchange process — we see that all of it is important, therefore we say we should exchange all for all,” stated Majed Fadayel, Under Secretary for the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights.
    The United Nations has a list of 15,000 verified prisoners, but the ongoing talks show little signs of them being returned home any time soon.

2/8/2019 Saudi Arabia’s al-Jubeir says crown prince did not order Khashoggi killing
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir attends a gathering of foreign ministers aligned toward the defeat of
Islamic State at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A top Saudi official on Friday reiterated his government’s position that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not order the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and he declined to comment specifically on a newspaper report that the crown prince in 2017 said he would use “a bullet” on the journalist.
    On Thursday, the New York Times reported that a year before Khashoggi was killed, the crown prince told an aide he would use “a bullet” on the journalist if he did not return home and end his criticism of the government.
    Those comments were made in 2017, well before Khashoggi was killed last October in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Times said, citing current and former U.S. and foreign officials knowledgeable about intelligence reports.
    Asked about the report, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told reporters: “I can’t comment on reports based on anonymous sources.    We have seen in the past that many so-called reports based on intelligence sources have not panned out.”
    Asked if he rejected the idea that the crown prince had used the phrase in a conversation, al-Jubeir replied: “It’s not about reject or not reject.    We know that the crown prince did not order this. We know that this was a rogue operation.”
    Separately on Thursday, a United Nations-led inquiry into Khashoggi’s murder said that evidence pointed to a brutal crime “planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials.
    Khashoggi’s killing by a team of Saudi operatives on Oct. 2 provoked widespread revulsion and tarnished the image of the crown prince, who had been admired in the West for pushing deep changes including tax reform, infrastructure projects and allowing women to drive.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by David Gregorio, Phil Berlowitz and Dan Grebler)

2/8/2019 Israeli gunfire kills Gaza teens during border protests
A relative of Palestinian teen Hassan Shalabi reacts as his body is brought into a
hospital in the southern Gaza Strip February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian teenagers including a 14-year-old boy during Gaza border protests on Friday, Palestinian health officials said.
    Israel’s military said it had opened fire in response to explosives and rocks hurled at the border fence.     Palestinians have been staging weekly protests since last March at the border of Gaza, an enclave controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.    The enclave’s health ministry says more than 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops at the protests.    One Israeli soldier has died.,br>     Gaza health officials said one of the youths shot dead on Friday was 18 and the other 14.
    Israel says it has no choice but to use deadly force at the protests to defend the frontier from militants trying to destroy the barrier and infiltrate.
    An Israeli military spokesman said troops had faced off on Friday with more than 6,000 Palestinians, some of whom threw rocks and “a number of explosive devices, which exploded on the Gaza side of the fence.”
    The spokesman said soldiers used riot dispersal equipment and opened fired “in accordance with standard operating procedures.”
    Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians, nearly all of them the stateless descendents of people who fled or were driven out of Israel on its founding in 1948.
    Israel and Egypt imposed a security blockade on the enclave after Hamas seized control of it in 2007, which the World Bank says has reduced the local economy to a state of collapse.    Israel has fought three wars against Hamas in the past decade.
    Palestinians say the weekly protests are led by civil society groups demanding an easing of the blockade and recognitition of their right to return to homes in Israel.    Israel says militants use the demonstrations to threaten the border and provoke violence.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/8/2019 Morocco recalls envoy to Saudi Arabia for consultations: Morocco media
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening of the
G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes/File Photo
    RABAT (Reuters) – Morocco has recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia for consultations, indicating apparent cracks in relations between the traditional Sunni Muslim allies over Yemen, Qatar and Western Sahara, Moroccan media said on Friday.
    Ambassador Mustapha Mansouri confirmed the recall to pro-establishment news website Le360.
    The Ambassador added that Morocco and Saudi Arabia are bound by strong and longstanding ties that are currently undergoing a “transient crisis,” Le360 reported.
    There was no official confirmation from Morocco’s foreign ministry.    Mansouri did not respond to a request for comment.    The Saudi embassy in Rabat declined to comment.
    A government official told Reuters on Thursday that the ambassador had been in Morocco for about a week, without specifying the reason
    The recall is due to the airing by Saudi TV channel Al Arabiya of a documentary that diverged from the Moroccan position on the Western Sahara issue, the ambassador told Le360.
    Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have traditionally supported Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that is also claimed by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
    The Al Arabiya documentary comes after Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera last month aired an interview with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita who expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
    Morocco, a member of the Arab coalition in Yemen’s war, no longer participates in military operations and did not attend the alliance’s recent military maneuvers and ministerial meetings, the minister said.
    Morocco “changed the form and content of its participation in the Arab coalition after an assessment of developments on the ground” he said.
    Tension in Moroccan-Saudi relations has been silently brewing since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Gulf kingdom’s de facto ruler, political analysts in Morocco say.
    Saudi Arabia along with the United Arab Emirates did not vote for Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid after the north African kingdom took a neutral stand in a dispute between Qatar and a number of Gulf states who have severed relations with Doha.
    The Saudi crown prince was not received in Morocco last year while on a North African tour.    Bourita, the foreign minister, said the visit did not take place due to what he described as a time conflict.
    Morocco did not voice support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, an incident that damaged Riyadh’s reputation internationally.
(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi, Editing by William Maclean)

2/8/2019 Palestinian chief negotiator Erekat says will not attend Warsaw conference
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat looks on during a news conference following his meeting with
foreign diplomats, in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
    RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinian officials will not attend next week’s U.S. conference hosted by Poland, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Friday after a U.S. official said they had been invited.
    “Regarding statements that we have been invited, we can say that only today there was some contact from the Polish side,” Erekat said on Twitter.    “Our position remains clear: We are not going to attend this conference and reiterate that we have not mandated anyone to talk on behalf of Palestine.”
(Reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, writing by Lesley Wroughton)

2/9/2019 U.S.-backed Syrian force to start ‘final battle’ against IS enclave by Rodi Said
FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride on trucks as their convoy passes
in Ain Issa, Syria October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo
    QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will start an assault on Saturday against Islamic State’s last enclave in the part of Syria where a U.S.-led coalition has been supporting operations against the group, an SDF official told Reuters.
    The United States said on Jan. 29 that Islamic State was expected to lose the final chunk of territory within a couple of weeks.
    “The battle will be launched this evening and its mission will be to eliminate the last remnants of the terrorist organization,” Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office, said, describing it as the “last battle.”
    He said in the last 10 days SDF fighters had handled the battle “patiently” as more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the besieged enclave comprising two villages near the Iraqi border.
    The SDF, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has driven Islamic State out of a swathe of territory in northern and eastern Syria.
    After defeating the jihadists from their Syrian headquarters at Raqqa in October 2017, the SDF advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province, attacking them in territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
    Islamic State still has a territorial foothold in Syria west of the Euphrates in a part of the country otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies.
(Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria; Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Alexander Smith and John Stonestreet)

2/9/2019 Saudi allocates $3.1 billion to help companies with 2017-18 expat fee hikes by Marwa Rashad
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the
King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 23, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has approved a scheme to reimburse some of the companies who struggled to pay steadily increasing fees for expatriate work permits in 2017 and 2018 and waive the fee hikes for some who weren’t able to pay, the labor minister said.
    The government is allocating 11.5 billion riyals ($3.1 billion) for reimbursements under the decision, according to the royal decree, a classified copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
    “This initiative will support private sector companies, help them overcome the obstacles and achieve their goals and encourage them to expand employment of Saudi citizens,” Labour Minister Ahmed bin Suleiman al-Rajhi tweeted on Friday.
    Only companies that had a higher or equal number of Saudi employees versus expats will be eligible for the reimbursement or waiver of fees, according to the decree.    Companies with a lower number of Saudis compared to expats will benefit from the initiative only after they hire more locals, it said.
    In its fiscal balance program announced in 2016 and implemented in 2017, Saudi Arabia said it would gradually increase the fees for hiring expatriates and obtaining visas for their dependents to encourage companies to hire more locals.
    It also changed the system of payment from an annual work permit renewal to a one-time lump sum payment at the beginning of the year accounting for each foreign worker employed by the company – a so-called collective invoice.
    The annual fee hikes, rising gradually to 2020, were seen as crucial to Riyadh’s plan to create more jobs and cut a 12.8 percent unemployment rate.
    But private sector companies and businessmen lobbied vigorously against the collective invoice as crippling for labor-intensive sectors like the construction industry and for small- and medium-sized enterprises.
    “The decision will have a huge positive impact on the Saudi economy and especially the manpower intensive construction sector, which was the worst hit by the collective invoice,” Osama al-Afaliq, head of the Saudi Contractors Association, told Reuters.
    Some 10 million foreigners are working in Saudi Arabia, most of them doing strenuous, dangerous and lower-paid jobs largely shunned by the country’s 20 million citizens.
    Getting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Saudis into the workforce is a major challenge for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees economic policy for the world’s top oil exporter.
(Reporting by Marwa Rashad; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

2/10/2019 U.S.-backed Syrian fighters advance in clashes with Islamic State: official
FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride on trucks as their convoy passes
in Ain Issa, Syria October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized ground from Islamic State in a fierce battle to capture its last enclave in eastern Syria, an SDF official said on Sunday.
    The SDF, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, began the assault on Saturday, seeking to wipe out the last remnants of the jihadist group’s “caliphate” in the SDF’s area of operations in eastern and northern Syria.
    The enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages.    Islamic State (IS) also still retains territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.
    SDF fighters had so far seized 41 positions but had faced counter attacks early on Sunday that had been repelled, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters.
    “The clashes are ferocious naturally because the terrorist group is defending its last stronghold.”
    President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, said on Wednesday he expected a formal announcement as early as this week that the coalition had reclaimed all the territory previously held by Islamic State.
    Bali said 400 to 600 jihadists were estimated to be holed up in the enclave, including foreigners and other hardened fighters.
    Between 500 to 1,000 civilians are also estimated to be inside, Bali said.    More than 20,000 civilians were evacuated in the 10 days leading up to Saturday, he said.
    “If we can, in a short time frame, get the (remaining) civilians out or isolate them, I believe that the coming few days will witness the military end of the terrorist organization in this area,” Bali said.
    Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters on Saturday the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.
    IS redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large areas of Syria and Iraq.    But it steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.
    Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main U.S. partner in Syria.
    A top U.S. general said last week Islamic State would pose an enduring threat following the U.S. withdrawal, as it still has leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/11/2019 U.N. says grain stores in Yemen’s Hodeidah ‘at risk of rotting’
FILE PHOTO - United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths (C), shakes hands with Houthi officials
upon his arrival at Sanaa airport in Sanaa, Yemen January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
    DUBAI (Reuters) – The U.N. special envoy to Yemen on Monday said the urgency of accessing grain stores trapped in a frontline position in the port city of Hodeidah was increasing as the food was “at risk of rotting.”
    The World Food Programme grain stores at the Red Sea Mills are enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month and have been inaccessible for more than five months, Martin Griffiths said.
    Yemen’s almost four-year war has killed tens of thousands of people, collapsed the economy and brought millions of people to the brink of famine.
    The U.N. is pushing for the implementation of a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, the main entry point for most of Yemen’s imports, agreed in December in Sweden.
    Accessing the 51,000 tonnes of U.N. wheat and milling equipment at the frontline flashpoint is a key aim of ongoing peace talks.
    Yemen’s conflict pits the Iran-aligned Houthi movement against a Saudi-backed coalition trying to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after it was ousted from power in Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014.
    Negotiations between warring parties last week produced what the U.N. called a “preliminary compromise” on how to withdraw troops, although the deal has not yet been finally agreed.
    Griffiths said he was encouraged by the recent engagement of all sides in talks to find a way of accessing the mills.
    “We emphasize that ensuring access to the mills is a shared responsibility among the parties to the conflict in Yemen.    With safe, unfettered and sustained access, the United Nations can make this urgently needed food available to people in need,” the statement said.
    The joint statement between Griffiths and U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock said the U.N. was scaling up its operations to provide food assistance to nearly 12 million people across Yemen struggling to meet their daily food needs.
(Writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Christian Schmollinger)

2/11/2019 Withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria likely to start in ‘weeks’: U.S. general by Phil Stewart
U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, testifies before the Senate
Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
    ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) – The United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, the top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday.
    U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, cautioned that the exact timing would depend on the situation in Syria, where U.S.-backed fighters have launched a final assault against Islamic State enclaves near the Iraqi border.
    The U.S. military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria.    Asked whether the withdrawal of America’s more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: “Probably weeks.    But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”
    “In terms of the withdrawal … I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be,” Votel told reporters traveling with him during a trip to the Middle East.
    “Moving people is easier than moving equipment and so what we’re trying to do right now is again (to) kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need.”
    Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria helped trigger the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and sent U.S. military officials scrambling to construct a withdrawal plan that preserves as many gains as possible.
    Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.
    U.S. officials have long estimated that the Syria pullout could take until sometime in March or April to execute fully, but have been reluctant to set an exact timeline given hard-to-predict battlefield conditions.
    Votel did not speculate about when the drawdown would be completed.
IRAQ TROOPS STEADY
    One big question has been whether some U.S. forces in Syria might move to neighboring Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 troops helping Baghdad fight Islamic State and prevent the group’s resurgence.
    Votel said he did not believe the United States would broadly increase overall troop numbers in Iraq.    He did leave open the possibility of changing the composition of forces to help the United States keep pressure on the militant group.
    Referring to future U.S. troop levels in Iraq, Votel said: “I think it’s going to remain more or less steady.”
    “This isn’t just wholesale — ‘Everybody in Syria move over to Iraq.’    That doesn’t make sense,” Votel said.
    Votel is one of many current and former U.S. officials who have warned of the risk of a resurgence by Islamic State unless the United States and its allies can keep pressure on the group following the U.S. withdrawal.    They say Islamic State still has enough leaders, fighters, facilitators and financial resources to fuel a menacing insurgency.
    But a clear U.S. plan on how to keep up the pressure has yet to be articulated.    It is also unclear whether the United States will be able to satisfy the security concerns in Syria of its NATO ally Turkey without sacrificing the interests of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters there.
    Ankara sees the Kurdish militia as terrorists.
    Washington views the Kurdish militia as loyal partners in the fight against Islamic State, whose help will likely continue to be needed to prevent the group’s resurgence.
    The Pentagon’s own internal watchdog released a report last week warning about the risks still posed by Islamic State.    It cautioned that, absent sustained pressure, the group would likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and retake some limited territory.
    A U.N. report seen by Reuters last week estimated there are up to 18,000 Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters.    It warned the group was interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

2/11/2019 Coalition warplanes hit last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria by Rodi Said
Members of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together near Baghouz,
Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition warplanes struck Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria and hundreds of civilians fled the besieged enclave on Monday as U.S.-backed fighters pressed their campaign to seize it.
    Coalition jets roared overhead as columns of white smoke rose from the Islamic State-held Baghouz area a short distance from the Iraqi border, a Reuters witness said.     The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have driven Islamic State (IS) from swathes of northern and eastern Syria with U.S.-led coalition support, launched an offensive on Saturday to capture the enclave in Deir al-Zor province.
    The jihadists are putting up stiff resistance and had sought to counter-attack again on Monday morning, according to Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office.    Around 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, he added.
    SDF combatants watched as a column of at least 17 trucks filled with men, women and children left Baghouz along a dusty track into SDF-held territory. Women and children were crammed into the back of one of the trucks.
    Some of those fleeing identified themselves as Iraqis.
    “It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz,” Bali said.    “We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle.”
    On the outskirts of Baghouz, the people who had left stood in lines to be questioned by coalition and SDF forces apparently trying to identify whether any were jihadists.
    Ahead of launching the attack, the SDF said more than 20,000 civilians had left Baghouz in the preceeding 10 days.
    The SDF believes 400 to 600 jihadists may be holed up there, including foreigners and other hardened militants.
    Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large tracts of Syria and Iraq.    But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.
    The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province after capturing Raqqa.    Their operations have been focused in areas east of the Euphrates River.
    To the west of the Euphrates, in territory otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies, Islamic State retains a foothold in mountainous terrain.
    U.S. President Donald Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.
    The top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal.
    Islamic State is still widely seen as a threat, however.
    A top U.S. general said last week IS would be an enduring menace following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel further insurgency.
    Italian freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was wounded on Monday while covering the battles, Italian media reported.    The reports said Micalizzi was badly hurt but had not suffered life-threatening injuries and was being flown to Baghdad where he would be evacuated to Italy.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

2/11/2019 Lebanon calls for Syrian guarantees to speed return of refugees
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a meeting with his
Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s foreign minister urged Syria on Monday to offer guarantees on property rights and military service to encourage Syrian refugees to return home.
    Tiny Lebanon has been host to more than a million refugees from neighboring Syria since the civil war there began in 2011, though some have returned as fighting has eased in more and more areas of the country.
    “In the process of encouraging returns, the Syrian government can make a big contribution, on top of the reconciliations that are already happening, by giving security guarantees,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told a news conference in Beirut.
    More than half of Syria’s pre-war 22 million population was displaced by the war, over 5 million of whom left the country as refugees, mostly to adjacent Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad government’s has recovered most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, clawing back rebel enclaves in what Damascus calls reconciliation deals.
    Bassil, speaking alongside visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he hoped the pace of returns would increase and that Damascus could help smooth this with guarantees on “individual property rights and military service.”
    Aid agencies that work with refugees have cited concerns over the loss of property and conscription into the Syrian army as big reasons discouraging Syrians from returning, along with fear of reprisals.
    Bassil also said guarantees from Damascus would help end what he called an “ongoing campaign of intimidation” to stop refugees from going home, without elaborating.
(Reporting By Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut with additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

2/11/2019 Turkey opens government vegetable stalls in battle with inflation by Ezgi Erkoyun
People shop at a food market in Istanbul, Turkey, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Battling a sharp rise in food costs, Turkish authorities opened their own markets on Monday to sell cheap vegetables directly to shoppers, cutting out retailers who the government has accused of jacking up prices.
    Crowds queued outside municipality tents to buy tomatoes, onions and peppers in Istanbul’s Bayrampasa district, waiting for an hour for items selling at half the regular shop prices.
    The move to set up state markets follows a 31 percent year-on-year surge in food prices in January and precedes local elections next month in which President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party faces a tough challenge to maintain support.
    Traders blamed storms in southern Turkey’s farming region for food price inflation, as well as rising costs of labor and transport.    Authorities called it “food terror” and said they would punish anyone trying to keep prices artificially high.
    This was a game.    They started manipulating prices, they tried to make prices skyrocket,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in a campaign speech on Monday.    “This was an attempt to terrorize (society),” Erdogan said.     Under the government initiative, municipalities are selling vegetables at around 50 percent of prices recorded by the Turkish Statistical Institute in January.    A maximum of three kilos of goods per person is allowed.
    The move will be extended to rice and pulses such as lentils, as well as cleaning products, Erdogan said.
    The project is currently taking place only in Istanbul, where around 50 sites are selling the cut-price goods, and in the capital Ankara.    That means it is unlikely to have a direct impact on national inflation figures, but could mitigate the price rises for residents of Turkey’s two largest cities.
BARELY MANAGING
    Mustafa Dilli, 55, said he was struggling to make ends meet and hoped shops would follow suit by lowering their prices.    “I think I can only shop here from now on,” he said.    “We barely make it through to the end of the month.”
    Several shoppers in Bayrampasa said they hoped the sales would carry on after next month’s vote.    “I am curious whether this will continue after the elections,” 43-year-old housewife Nebahat Deniz said as she bought spinach and eggplants.
    Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli, visiting a tent set up by the Ankara municipality, said the project would continue as long as it is needed, and could become permanent.
    Last week, authorities inspected fresh produce wholesalers and imposed fines totaling 2 million lira ($380,000) on 88 firms for setting unreasonably high prices, according to the Trade Ministry.
    At an Istanbul food market in a covered parking lot, traders complained that they could not compete with municipality stalls they said were subsidized by taxpayers and had been set up to win votes.
    Standing behind an array of peppers, tomatoes and fresh greens, one trader said he was being hit by rising costs across the board.
    “Prices in the food market are affected by the price of plastic bags, employee wages, stall fees, taxes, fuel prices.    All of them are increasing the cost of the goods,” said the trader, who only gave his first name, Yusuf.
    “The government does not have these costs,” Yusuf said.    “All of their costs are paid from the money out of our pockets.”
    Another vendor, Erkan, said municipality sales were aimed purely at maximizing votes.    “After the election, municipality sales will halt,” he said.
    Erkan said the profit margin at his own stall, which supports three or four families, was very tight.    “If we buy for 8 liras per kilo from the wholesaler we sell with little profit.    We sell the goods for 9 liras for example,” Erkan said.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

2/12/2019 Palestinians ask Arabs to boycott Mideast summit in Poland
    RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinians on Monday called on Arab nations to boycott or downgrade their representation at a Mideast summit cohosted by the United States, as President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Saudi Arabia discuss “the dangers facing the Palestinian cause.”    The conference in Poland is widely seen as a U.S.-led effort to isolate Iran, which was not invited.    The Palestinians cut off contact with the Trump administration after it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

2/12/2019 Trump objects to measure ending U.S. support for Saudis in Yemen war by Patricia Zengerle
U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel to a rally in El Paso, Texas
from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration threatened on Monday to veto an effort in the U.S. Congress to end U.S. military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the war in Yemen, continuing a stand-off with lawmakers over policy toward the kingdom.
    Democrats and Republicans re-introduced the war powers resolution two weeks ago as a way to send a strong message to Riyadh both about the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and condemn the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
    The administration said the resolution was inappropriate because U.S. forces had provided aircraft refueling and other support in the Yemen conflict, not combat troops.    It also said the measure would harm relationships in the region and hurt the U.S. ability to prevent the spread of violent extremism.
    The White House has angered many members of Congress, including some of President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, by failing to provide a report by a Friday deadline on the murder of Khashoggi last year at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.    Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and columnist for the Washington Post.
    “It’s hard to feel any affection or some obligation to a regime that does that kind of stuff,” Democratic Representative Ed Perlmutter said at a House of Representatives hearing on the resolution on Monday.
    The Saudis, who Trump considers an important regional partner, are leading a coalition battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.    The war has killed tens of thousands and left millions on the brink of starvation.
    The United States has supported the Saudi-led air campaign with mid-air refueling support, intelligence and targeting assistance.
    Democrats view the war powers resolution as a way to assert Congress’ constitutional right to authorize the use of military force in foreign conflicts. Republican opponents of the measure, echoing Trump, argue that support for the Saudis constitutes a security agreement, not the use of force.
    The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate passed the war powers resolution in December, the first time such a resolution had passed even one house of Congress.    But Republicans, who then controlled the House, did not allow a vote in the lower chamber.
    After sweeping election victories, Democrats now have a House majority.    They intend to take up the resolution this week.
    However, the resolution would struggle to garner the two-thirds majorities needed in both the House and Senate to overcome a Trump veto.    Republicans still hold a slim majority in the Senate. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

2/12/2019 ‘Slow and methodical’ progress in Islamic State Syria pocket: coalition
FILE PHOTO: Members of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand near a pick up truck near
Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/ Rodi Said/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Kurdish-led fighters battling to capture Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Syria are making “slow and methodical” progress, the U.S.-led coalition backing them said on Tuesday.
    “The enemy is fully entrenched and ISIS fighters continue to conduct counter attacks,” coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said in an email, adding it was “too early for a timetable” on when the operation might end.
    Baghouz, a village on the east bank of the Euphrates at Syria’s border with Iraq, is Islamic State’s last territorial foothold in the U.S.-led coalition’s area of operations.
    However, the jihadists still hold land in central Syria in a remote desert area otherwise controlled by the government. In places it lost in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State was able to go to ground and has carried out deadly guerrilla attacks.
    Even after Baghouz is captured, there will have to be clearing operations to rid the village of explosive booby traps left by Islamic State to kill civilians, Ryan said.
    The battle is being waged by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, which has seized about a quarter of the country, mostly through the U.S.-backed offensive against Islamic State.
    On Monday, columns of white smoke from coalition air strikes were visible and trucks crammed with fleeing civilians drove along a dusty track out of the enclave, a Reuters witness said.
    Coalition air power, crucial to the SDF’s advances, has leveled entire districts of towns and cities in the fight against Islamic State, though it says it takes care to avoid hitting civilians.
    On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 70 civilians had been killed and wounded by air strikes that it said struck a camp for civilians in Baghouz, and that 16 civilians were killed in strikes overnight.
    In letters to the United Nations, Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned U.S.-led strikes that it said killed 16 civilians in a camp in Baghouz including women and children.
    “Syria calls on the (U.N.) Security Council again to stop these crimes…and end the aggressive, illegitimate presence of American and other foreign forces,” the ministry said.
    Ryan said the coalition was aware of the report and was looking into it.    “The coalition continues to strike at ISIS targets whenever available,” he said.
    SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Monday many civilians remained in Baghouz, compelling the fighters to proceed cautiously.    The SDF believes 400-600 jihadists may still be dug in there.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
[These jihadist ISIS cowards are hiding among civilians instead of taking their due for failing their mission and beliefs.].

2/12/2019 U.S.-backed Syrian fighters say trapped civilians complicate fight with ISIS by OAN Newsroom
    As the fighting against the Islamic State’s last enclave in Syria continues, forces there are saying their biggest challenge is trapped civilians.
    A leader of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces made the statement Tuesday as the group advances on the last of the militant’s territory in Syria.    However, the official said this is making the fighting more difficult as the terrorists are working to hold onto their last stronghold.
    Additionally, he said those remaining in the province are professional terrorists from countries all over the world, who have worked with groups like Al Qaeda.
This frame grab from video posted online Jan. 18, 2019, by supporters of the Islamic State group, purports to show a gun-mounted
IS vehicle firing at members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, Syria.
As they cling to the tiny remains of what was once a self-styled caliphate spanning two countries,
IS militants are laying the groundwork for an insurgency. (Militant Photo via AP)
    Over 20,000 civilians have fled in the past 10 days, but the Syrian Democratic Forces said more could still be trapped.
    “The presence of civilians remain the main challenge that face our forces — we have to isolate civilians from the clash points,” explained Mustafa Bali, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces media office.    “If we managed successfully to isolate civilians, we are talking about few days to finish the battle, but if terrorists continued to use civilians as human shields, it might take more than just a few days.”
    According to Kurdish forces, there are between 400 and 600 ISIS militants still in the stronghold, which they plan to defeat in the coming days.

2/12/2019 Two tales of a city: Jerusalem tour guided by a Palestinian and an Israeli by Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell
The tour guide, Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, speaks to tourists, during the Dual Narrative tour he leads together with
his colleague Lana Zilberman Soloway, a Jewish seminary student, next to the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Jews as
Temple Mount and Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem's Old City February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – On a Jerusalem plaza looking up at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, a crowd gathers in front of two guides, listening attentively, a common sight in a city packed with pilgrims and tourists visiting its religious landmarks.
    What is unusual is that one of the guides is Palestinian, one is Israeli, and they are taking turns to give their perspectives on the city known to Jews as Yerushalayim and to Arabs as al-Quds.,br>     “We are in Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Jewish state.    We are in one of the holiest places in the world for Christianity.    And the keys are held by Muslim families,” said Israeli guide Lana Zilberman Soloway, who spoke first as the group reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus is believed to be buried.    “And all three coexist at the same time.”
    Her counterpart, Noor Awad, from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank just a few km (miles) away, took a different view of the status quo, noting that Muslims and Christians from the West Bank or Gaza need Israeli travel permits to worship here.
    "Palestinians, this is the capital of Palestine and the capital of their country,” said Awad, 28.    “If you don’t get that permission, you can’t come actually here to pray.    So the place is being used, and plays a lot into the two narratives and the conflict we have today.”
    The two guides heard each other out politely, with the occasional quip or raised eyebrow.    Two dozen tourists, mainly foreigners living in the city, peppered them with questions.
    The company, MEJDI Tours, says its “Dual Narrative” tour was “created in partnership by Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews.”    The weekly tours have been under way since last October.
    Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital.    The Old City and holy sites lie in the mainly Arab eastern half, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.    Palestinians say the eastern half is occupied land and must become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
    At the heart of Old City, the tour came to the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
    “Where the Dome of the Rock today is standing, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to talk to God,” Awad told the tour party, describing what Muslims consider the holiest spot on earth outside of the two Arabian cities Muhammad called home.
    “That’s a very central event, somehow similar to the story of Moses talking to God from Mount Sinai.”
    For Jews, it is the site of the biblical temple, destroyed by Babylonian conquerors, rebuilt and razed again under the Romans.    The Western Wall, a restraint for the foundations built by Herod the Great 2000 years ago, is a sacred place of prayer.
    “All the way down deep underground, underneath the golden dome, 5779 years ago, God created the world.    4,000 years ago we believe Abraham came to bind Isaac on that exact spot,” Zilberman Soloway said.
    Dave Yedid, 26, a Jewish seminary student from Long Island, New York who came on the tour, said “exactly what differs in the sort of Jewish Zionist narrative versus the Palestinian narrative is something I’ll take home with me.”     “I wanted to see those two side by side.”
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Peter Graff)

2/12/2019 Lebanon’s Hezbollah urges talks with banks to reduce debt servicing by Tom Perry
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-HarirI is seen during the meeting to discuss a draft policy statement
at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The powerful Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah on Tuesday urged the new government to launch talks with banks to bring down the cost of servicing the state’s massive public debt, setting out its view on the major problem in unusually clear terms.
    The remarks by a Hezbollah lawmaker in parliament point to the wider influence his heavily armed group aims to exercise over the way Lebanon is governed as it departs from the more marginal role it has played in the past.
    The government last month said it was absolutely not proposing to restructure the public debt and affirmed its commitment to paying all maturing debt and interest payments at predetermined dates.
    Deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, the Iran-backed Hezbollah has assumed control of three ministries in the new government, the largest number of portfolios it has ever held.
    The new government, which groups nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, was formed at the end of January, ending nine months of wrangling over its 30 cabinet portfolios.
    The most significant portfolio under Hezbollah control is the Health Ministry, the first time Hezbollah has controlled a ministry with a big budget.
    Its ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, retained control of the finance ministry and another political ally, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, retained the foreign ministry.
    The government is vowing bold reforms to put public finances on a sustainable footing.    Such reforms have been put off for years but are now seen as more pressing than ever.
LOW GROWTH
    Lebanon has one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, at about 150 percent, much of it accumulated through the cost of servicing existing debt.    The economy has suffered from years of low growth.
    “I call on the government to hold dialogue with the banks, a serious dialogue,” Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah said, adding that it should be “serious and constructive dialogue to reduce the cost of the debt.”
    “Yes we are all in one boat, and the banks are with us in this boat.    God forbid if the financial and monetary situation is shaken what will happen to these banks?” he said.
    Speaking at a parliamentary session expected to bestow confidence on the Hariri government, Fadlallah also said his group would wage a “battle” against corruption and the government reforms should “start at the top and not the bottom.”
    Hariri, speaking at the start of the session, read a government policy statement committing his administration to fast and effective reforms.    These include to a “financial correction” equal to at least one percent of GDP a year over five years, starting with the 2019 budget.
    With fixed exchange rates and some of the world’s worst debt and balance-of-payment ratios, Lebanon’s newly-formed government knows it needs to act fast to avoid sinking into a full-blown economic crisis.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Cairo, Editing by William Maclean)

2/12/2019 Turkey orders 1,112 arrested over links to cleric Gulen: state media by Daren Butler
FILE PHOTO: U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg,
Pennsylvania, U.S. July 29, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller/File Photo
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey launched on Tuesday one of its largest operations against alleged supporters of the U.S.-based Muslim cleric accused of leading an attempted coup in 2016, ordering the arrest of 1,112 people, state media reported.
    The operation, related to alleged cheating in police examinations, showed authorities were not letting up on their crackdown two-and-a-half years after rogue soldiers used warplanes, helicopters and tanks in a bid to seize power.
    More than 250 people were killed in the failed putsch, in which preacher Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of President Tayyip Erdogan, has denied involvement.    Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
    Tuesday’s operation related to a police force examination in 2010 for those seeking to become deputy inspectors, and allegations that some of those taking part had received the questions in advance, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported.
    So far 124 suspects have been detained in the operation launched by the Ankara chief prosecutor’s office and extending across 76 provinces, Anadolu said.    It was not clear how many, if any, of the suspects were serving police officers.
    Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said on Sunday a “big operation” was looming against Gulen supporters.
    “Devils would not perpetrate deceptions like they have,” he said.    “We will finish them off.”
    The government says his network over decades infiltrated state institutions including the security forces, judiciary and ministries, often helped by cheating in exams, to create a “parallel state.”
PURGE OF SUSPECTS
    Since the coup attempt, the government has carried out a deep and lasting purge of state institutions while prosecutors have launched a steady stream of investigations against those suspected of links to Gulen.
    Turkey’s Western allies have criticized the crackdown, which was pursued mainly under a state of emergency that was declared after the coup and remained in effect until July last year.
    Erdogan’s critics accuse him of using the failed putsch as a pretext to quash dissent.    Turkish authorities say the measures are necessary to combat threats to national security.
    More than 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial since the putsch and widespread arrests are still routine.    Authorities have suspended or sacked 150,000 civil servants and military personnel.
    Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, the former chief of staff, has said more than 15,000 military personnel had been dismissed since the coup, including 150 generals and admirals.
    Authorities have also taken control of hundreds of firms accused of links to Gulen and his supporters, and shut down more than 130 media outlets as part of the purge.
    Ankara has also increasingly targeted alleged supporters of the movement abroad, seeking the extradition of Gulen himself and many others across Europe, Asia and the United States.
(Editing by Dominic Evans, Editing by William Maclean)

2/12/2019 Netanyahu confirms latest Israeli strike in Syria
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement during his visit to a navy base
in Haifa, Israel, February 12, 2019. Jack Guez/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces had carried out another strike in Iran-aligned Syria, a day after the Syrian army said an Israeli drone fired missiles near a demolished hospital and an army observation post.
    “We are operating every day, including yesterday, against Iran.    All the time.    Against Iran and against its attempt to entrench itself in the area,” Netanyahu told reporters before flying to Poland for a Mideast conference.
    Israel is trying to counter the influence carved out in Syria by Iran, which has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war that erupted in 2011.
    Monday’s air strike, which occurred in the southern Quneitra province, caused only material damage, the Syrian army said.
    Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes in Syria with an election looming in April.
    Netanyahu has said in recent weeks that Israel has carried out hundreds of attacks in Syria over the past several years and would ramp up its fight following the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

2/13/2019 U.S. Senate proposal would block Saudi path to atomic weapon in nuclear deal by Timothy Gardner
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud attends the 2019 budget meeting in
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 18, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators from both parties introduced a resolution on Tuesday requiring that any deal to share U.S. nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia block the kingdom from making a nuclear weapon.
    Under the measure, any U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, or 123 agreement, with Saudi Arabia would prevent enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of plutonium made in reactors – two routes to making nuclear weapons.
    It is unclear whether a majority of the 100-member Senate would support the resolution of Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ed Markey and Republican Rand Paul.    The resolution is also non-binding on the U.S. government.
    But with significant support, it would signal concern in Congress over Saudi-led bombing campaigns in Yemen and over the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.
    U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been holding quiet talks with officials from Saudi Arabia on sharing U.S. nuclear technology.    U.S. President Donald Trump hosted nuclear power executives on Tuesday for talks on keeping the industry competitive on exports with France, China, and Russia.
    The Trump administration is trying to advance nuclear energy technology domestically and abroad as the industry suffers from plentiful supplies of cheap natural gas and high safety costs at home.    A resolution could pressure the administration to push for a deal with tougher standards.
    “If Saudi Arabia is going to get its hands on nuclear technology, it’s absolutely critical that we hold it to the gold standard for non-proliferation,” Merkley said in a release.    “The last thing America should do is inadvertently help develop nuclear weapons for a bad actor on the world stage.”
    Riyadh has said it wants to be self-sufficient in producing nuclear fuel and that it is not interested in diverting nuclear technology to military use.    But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS last year the kingdom will develop nuclear weapons if arch-rival Iran does.
    In previous talks, Saudi Arabia has refused to sign an agreement with Washington that would deprive it of enriching uranium.    The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    Last year Saudi Arabia put the United States on a shortlist with South Korea’s state-run utility KEPCO, along with France, China and Russia to bid for a nuclear power project.    The winner will likely be selected in 2019.
    U.S. reactor builder Westinghouse, owned by Brookfield Asset Management Inc, would likely sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in any deal.
    Chris Crane, president and chief operating officer of Exelon Corp, the largest U.S. nuclear power operator, told reporters Trump was supportive in Tuesday’s meeting with the executives but wanted them to clarify their expectations.
    Crane was joined by Daniel Poneman, head of uranium enrichment company Centrus Energy Corp and deputy energy secretary under former President Barack Obama, and John Hopkins, head of NuScale Power, a company developing small modular reactors.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Howard Goller)

2/13/2019 House to vote on ending U.S. involvement in Yemen war by OAN Newsroom
    House lawmakers are set to vote on a on a proposed bill to end U.S. involvement in the proxy war in Yemen.    The motion is spearheaded by Democrat Congressman Ro Hhanna of California.
    President Trump is expected to veto the bill if it passes after White House officials have claimed the U.S. does not have military presence in Yemen and the matter is not a subject to congressional vote.
FILE – In this Feb. 12, 2018, file photo, Saudi-led coalition backed forces petrol, Mocha, Yemen.
Moroccan government officials said Thursday Feb. 7, 2019 that Morocco has stopped taking part in military action with the
Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s war, and has recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)
    However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said involvement in the war doesn’t serve U.S. interests in the Middle East.
    “With regards to Yemen, frankly, our leverage to date hasn’t worked, what have we gotten for our leverage?” asked Rep. Seth Moulton, (D) Massachusetts.    “We need to be stricter, and by clamping down on the war I think we’ll have more leverage there.”
    Administration officials are pushing for the U.S. to continue supporting the Saudi-led coalition in order to contain the spread of Iranian influence in Yemen.

2/13/2019 U.S. meeting on Middle East brings together Israel, Gulf Arab states by Lesley Wroughton and Justyna Pawlak
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda
at Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, Poland, February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    WARSAW (Reuters) – A U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference aimed at building a coalition against what Washington sees as the threat posed by Iran also produced signs of a warming of ties between Israel and some Arab countries on Wednesday.
    Foreign ministers and other officials from more than 60 countries were gathering for the conference in Warsaw, which was starting on Wednesday evening and whose agenda included Iran, conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
    On the sidelines, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Oman’s foreign minister.
    “Many are following this (Omani) lead, and may I say, including at this conference,” a video released by Netanyahu’s office showed him telling Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whose Gulf state hosted the Israeli leader in October.
    Oman does not formally recognize Israel.    Nor do Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, which also sent envoys to Warsaw and which share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and involvement in several regional flashpoints.
    Speaking to Netanyahu, bin Alawi said: “People in the Middle East have suffered a lot because they have stuck to the past.    Now we say, this is a new era, for the future.”
    Netanyahu – who has been trying to play up his diplomatic gains ahead of Israel’s April election – has frequently hinted at warmer ties with Gulf Arab states.
    A photo-op with Netanyahu and senior figures from Arab countries in Warsaw would be a win for Washington as it seeks to ratchet up pressure against Tehran.    The Iranians say it is U.S.-aligned forces in the region, and not they, who are belligerent.
    Leading European countries Germany and France opted not to send their foreign ministers over concerns the meeting could highlight big-power tensions over Washington’s decision last year to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions against Tehran.
    Vice President Mike Pence is leading the U.S. delegation, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House advisor Jared Kushner.
    “We’re trying to expand the number of nations who are engaged and have a stake in the future of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, told Reuters.
    Arab nations and Israel faced a common threat of Iranian regional aggression and Washington was working closely with these nations to counter this, he said.
    “Iran isn’t behaving like a normal country.    They have a very expansionist foreign policy and that destabilizes other countries,” said Hook when asked whether the absence of Germany and France’s top diplomats at the meeting mattered.
    EU policy chief Federica Mogherini, a key player in the Iran nuclear deal, will also not attend the two-day conference due to scheduling issues, an EU official said, although Pompeo will travel to Brussels on Friday to meet with her.
ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PLAN
    Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, will brief delegates behind closed doors on Thursday on U.S. plans for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
    Palestinian officials, viewing the current U.S. administration as having a pro-Israel bias, declined to attend the conference.
    Hosting the meeting is a chance for Poland’s conservative government to bolster ties with Washington at a time when it is increasingly isolated within the EU amid a dispute over its adherence to rule-of-law standards.
    Transatlantic cooperation was necessary to resolve problems in the Middle East, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said.
    “The European Union alone does not, in my opinion, carry sufficient political weight to try to really influence the situation in the Middle East,” he told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Alan Charlish and Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/14/2019 Israeli election: More ‘King Bibi’ or bye-bye Bibi? by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks at the Cybertech 2019
conference in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face beams down from election billboards depicting him as a statesman, shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump.
    Opponents portray him as a criminal. Even before he called an election for April 9, he was branded “CRIME MINISTER” in huge banners at protest rallies, a reference to three corruption investigations threatening his decade of political dominance.
    Love him or loathe him, the election is all about Netanyahu.
    Although the names of parties will be on ballot papers, the vote will amount to a referendum on Netanyahu in the shadow of his legal woes.    If he wins, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister this summer.
    “There’s no central issue other than Netanyahu’s reign and clean government – whether he remains prime minister and what the price is for corruption,” said Tamar Hermann, a political science professor with the Israel Democracy Institute.
    Opinion polls show Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to win about 30 seats in the 120-member parliament, enough for the right-wing leader, now 69 and in his fourth term, to form the type of nationalist-religious coalition government he already heads.
    He faces a strong challenge from former armed forces chief Benny Gantz.    But Gantz’s centrist Resilience party, which is second in opinion polls, would need to pursue groundbreaking political alliances to outstrip a right-wing bloc.
    In power since 2009, after a first stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, the man ardent supporters hail as “King Bibi” has struck a chord with an electorate that has moved to the right and watched with delight as, under Trump, Washington lined up with many of Netanyahu’s policies.
    That has included U.S. withdrawal from the international deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and a cut-off of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority over its refusal to resume peace talks that collapsed in 2014.
    “He (Netanyahu) has brought us excellent achievements, he represents me with dignity.    I feel like my country is flourishing because of him,” said Ronit Levy, a 49-year-old insurance agent from the northern city of Afula who goes by the handle of “Ronit the Bibi’ite” on Twitter and Facebook.
    The sign on the giant city-center billboards featuring Netanyahu and Trump says: “Netanyahu. In a different league.”
CORRUPTION CASES
    But in three corruption cases, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensing favors in alleged bids for favorable coverage in an Israeli newspaper and a website.
    He has denied wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of a left-wing witchhunt to topple him and that he has no intention of resigning.    But his opponents are attacking his record and underlining the need for clean governance.
    In a speech that boosted his ratings on Jan. 29, Gantz said Israel’s present leadership encouraged incitement, subversion and hatred, and was so detached from the people that it had adopted “the mannerisms of a French royal house.”
    “There was already a king who said: ‘The State is me,’" Gantz said, referring to King Louis XIV of France.    “But no.    Not here.    No Israeli leader is a king.    The state is not me.    The state is you.    The state is actually us.    The state is all of us.”
    Netanyahu’s legal saga looks set to enter a new chapter soon.    Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit could announce by the end of February whether he intends to file criminal charges, as police have recommended, in the three corruption investigations.
    Indictment in court would await the outcome of pre-trial hearings in which Netanyahu would try to dissuade Mandelblit from filing formal charges.
    Those hearings would be unlikely to be wrapped up before the election, meaning voters would go to the polls aware that the attorney-general believes there is sufficient evidence to convict Netanyahu of criminal activity.
    mere notion that in Israel a prime minister can remain in office while under indictment is ridiculous,” Gantz said.
PALESTINIAN ISSUE
    Palestinian leaders have had little to say about the Israeli election, maintaining their traditional policy of watching quietly from the sidelines.
    They have already broken off contacts with the Trump administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias.    Any new Netanyahu government would be likely to include veteran allies opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
    Comments last week by Gantz that Israel must find a way “not to have dominion over other people” — a reference to its continued occupation of the West Bank — won praise from a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
    “It’s encouraging, if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” the spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said.
    Trump intends to present a long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan only after the election and has been trying to enlist the support of U.S. Arab allies in the region.    But expectations of a breakthrough are low.
    Another question looms for after the election: will coalition partners still stick with Netanyahu if Mandelblit, after a hearing, moves ahead with indictment?
    Knives are already out: former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an erstwhile political ally of Netanyahu, has predicted that right-wing parties now pledging their support would eventually turn on the Israeli leader.
    Hermann, of the Israel Democracy Institute, said Netanyahu enjoys loyalty from his core supporters of lower-income Israelis who see him as their champion.
    Netanyahu’s backers, many of them Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa, hold grudges against left-wing parties that once dominated Israeli politics, accusing them of maltreating immigrants from those regions.
    “It doesn’t matter what he does, they don’t expect him to conduct himself by the same moral standards that bind ordinary people,” Hermann said.    “You don’t regard the king the same way you do a peasant.”
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/14/2019 Pompeo urges new era of cooperation in Middle East meeting by Lesley Wroughton and Marcin Goclowski
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at Lazienki Palace
in Warsaw, Poland February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    WARSAW (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Thursday for a new era of cooperation on the Middle East and said no country could afford to stay on the sidelines in tackling regional challenges such as Iran, Syria, Yemen and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
    Pompeo spoke amid tensions with the European Union over Washington’s decision to pull out of world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran deal and its sudden announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria.
    “The United States seeks a new era of cooperation between all of our countries on how to confront these issues,” Pompeo told foreign ministers and other officials from more than 60 countries in Warsaw.
    Pompeo refrained from directly criticizing Iran and instead included it in a list of Middle East challenges, while acknowledging differences among countries on all of the issues.
    “None of the region’s challenges will solve themselves.    We must work together for security,” he said.    “No country can afford to remain on the sidelines.”
    European allies of Washington have voiced concern that the conference would turn into an Iran-bashing session and increase tensions with the Islamic Republic, which has lambasted the gathering as a “desperate circus.”
    Earlier, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pompeo said peace and stability in the Middle East could not be achieved without confronting Iran.
    Iran says its ballistic missile program is defensive and a deterrent only, and that it has has deployed forces to Syria and Iraq only after the invitation of governments of those countries.
    The Warsaw meeting was a rare show of Middle East cooperation, bringing together Israel and Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
    Netanyahu, who met with the Omani foreign minister on the sidelines on Wednesday, called the conference a “historical turning point” in tackling the threat from Iran.
    “I think this marks a change, an important understanding of what threatens our future, what we have to do to secure it and the possibilities of cooperation that extend beyond security to every realm of life for the peoples of the Middle East,” said Netanyahu, who faces an election on April 9.
    “This happened here, it happened in Warsaw, and I think the main conclusion I have is that it must continue, in other forms, in other ways, for the same purpose.”
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Alicja Ptak; editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mark Heinrich)

2/14/2019 Turkish MP says Ankara sticking to Russian missile purchase
FILE PHOTO: A Patriot missile unit at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, October 8, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Turkey is going ahead with a purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, a Turkish parliamentarian said ahead of an informal Friday deadline which a U.S. official said Washington has set for Ankara to respond to a rival U.S. offer.
    NATO member Turkey has repeatedly said it is committed to buying the Russian missile defense system, despite warnings from the U.S.-led alliance that the S-400s cannot be integrated into the NATO air defense system.
    Volkan Bozkir, chairman of Turkey’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, said Ankara would remain loyal to its S-400 deal with Russia as Turkish authorities needed the system to address security concerns.
    “With regard to Patriots, if the opportunity is at a level we desire, we have expressed we could also buy those too,” he said during a visit to Washington, adding Turkey’s relations with Russia and the United States are both important.
    “Just because … Russia has issues with another country that we care very much about – the resolving of that issue via Turkey would not be right,” he told reporters.
    He said Ankara had already paid the bulk of the price for the S-400s and the systems are expected to arrive in November.
    U.S. officials have said that if Turkey proceeds with the S-400 purchase, Washington will withdraw its offer to sell a $3.5 billion Raytheon Co Patriot missile package.
    They have also said it would jeopardize Turkey’s purchase of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets and possibly result in the United States imposing sanctions.
    The formal U.S. offer for Turkey’s purchase of Patriot systems expires at the end of March, U.S. officials told Reuters, after which a new offer would have to be submitted.
    The United States has asked Turkey to give at least an informal answer on whether they will go ahead with their S-400 purchase by Friday, one U.S. official said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Additional Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Idrees Ali; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans/Mark Heinrich)

2/14/2019 U.S.-Libya forces raid al Qaeda site in Libyan city of Ubari -Libyan official
File Picture: A view shows Sharara oil field near Ubari, Libya, July 6, 2017. Picture taken July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Aidan Lewis
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Joint U.S.-Libyan forces raided an al Qaeda site in the Libyan city of Ubari on Wednesday, according to a statement by a Libyan official.
    The spokesperson for Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Presidency Council of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord of Libya, said in a statement late on Wednesday that a site with a number of al Qaeda members in Ubari was “raided” but gave no details.
    “This joint work between the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord and the US Government coincided with the meeting of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Foreign Minister Mohamed Sayala at the Global Coalition To Defeat Islamic State meeting last week,” spokesperson Mohamed El Sallak said in the statement.
    The U.S. Africa Command, which is responsible for American forces in that area, could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Mohamed Elsherif; Editing by Sandra Maler)

2/14/2019 Egyptian lawmakers back changes that could keep Sisi in power til 2034 by Mahmoud Mourad
FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is pictured during his meeting with the
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    CAIRO (Reuters) – The Egyptian parliament on Thursday approved in principle draft constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2034 and tighten his control of the judiciary.
    The proposed changes have divided the Western-allied Arab country of nearly 100 million people.    Sisi supporters say they are necessary to give the president more time to complete mega development projects and economic reforms he has launched.
    His critics say they concentrate more powers in the hands of a president accused by rights groups of presiding over the most relentless crackdown on freedoms in Egypt’s modern history.
    Parliament Speaker Ali Abdelaal said that 485 MPs in the 596-seat assembly voted in favor of the changes, comprising more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendments.    Parliamentary sources said 14 voted against and two abstained.
    Parliament began debating the changes on Wednesday after a parliamentary committee endorsed a petition to amend the constitution, which was approved in a 2014 referendum.
    The proposed amendments include an extension of the presidential term to six years from four in Article 140 of the constitution, and a “transitional” clause that would reset the clock, potentially allowing Sisi, 63, to stay in power until 2034.
    “After the expiry of his current term, the President of the Republic may run again in accordance to the amended article 140,” the draft clause says.
    Sisi would also get new powers on appointing judges and the public prosecutor.    They would add a second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators, in which the president would appoint one-third of its members.
    The constitution’s Article 200 would also be amended to say the military’s duty is to protect “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature.”    Some critics fear this will increase the armed forces’ influence over politics in Egypt.
    Sisi is a former general who came to power after the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Mursi in 2013 following mass protests against his rule. Sisi was elected president the following year.
    Abdelaal said the proposed amendments had “no relation to the presidency and had come at the initiative of parliament.”
    Ahmed al-Tantawi, a member of an opposition bloc comprising 16 MPs, said the moves violate the spirit of the constitution.
    “All the articles are a revision, a setback, a return to a system of rule that is worse than what existed before January 25,” Tantawi said, referring to the 2011 uprising that forced long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down.
    The proposed changes will now be reviewed by a parliamentary committee and then return to parliament for a second vote before they are presented for a national referendum, expected before the middle of this year.
(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

2/15/2019 Exclusive: U.S. general recommends arming, aiding Syrian fighters after pullout by Phil Stewart
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting
with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa, Syria August 16, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
    MUSCAT (Reuters) – The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.
    The recommendation by Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East as head of Central Command, is one of the strongest signs yet of U.S. military hopes for an enduring partnership with the SDF despite the concerns of NATO ally Turkey, which says Kurdish SDF fighters are terrorists.
    “As long as they are fighting against ISIS and continue to keep pressure on them, I think it would seem to me to be in our interest to continue to provide the means for them to do that,” Votel said in an interview, using an acronym for Islamic State.
    Votel said he expected future U.S. assistance to the SDF to change after it seizes the final bits of Islamic State territory.    The SDF will then have to contend with a more dispersed, harder-to-detect network of Islamic State fighters, who are expected to wage guerrilla-style attacks.
    “When they go to a kind of a wider area security mode, then that will drive a different type of requirement (for support),” he said during a trip to Oman.
    Asked about Votel’s remarks, a White House official did not comment on future assistance to the SDF but reaffirmed the Trump administration’s commitment to the broader anti-Islamic State coalition.
    U.S. President Donald Trump confounded his own national security team, including generals like Votel, with a surprise decision to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring that Islamic State had been defeated there.    The decision ran against Pentagon recommendations and helped lead to the resignation of Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis.
    It also triggered rare public criticism from Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress.
    Also on Friday, Votel told CNN, of Trump’s decision, “It would not have been my military advice at that particular time.”
    Reuters has reported that Trump’s decision was in part driven by an offer by Turkey to keep the pressure on Islamic State once the United States withdrew.
    But current and former U.S. officials warn Ankara would be unable to replicate the SDF’s success across the areas of Syria that the militias captured with U.S. support including arms, air strikes and advisers.
    Brett McGurk, who resigned in December as Trump’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, warned last month that the SDF could not be replaced as the provider of stability in areas of Syria formerly held by the militant group.    He also cautioned that Turkey was not a reliable partner.
    Asked whether he agreed that the SDF could not be replaced, by Turkey or anyone else, Votel said: “I would agree with that and I would include Americans, frankly.    This is not a mission we should take on ourselves completely.”
    “The fact that they (the SDF) own this, they represent the tribes … is a really important aspect,” Votel said.
PLAYING CATCH-UP
    Nearly two months after Trump announced the pullout, Votel and other U.S. military leaders are hammering out the best way to carry it out while preserving as many gains as possible.
    Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who sits on the Senate committee overseeing the military, voiced deep concern in an earlier interview about Trump’s decision and the impact on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the SDF.
    “The military (are) going to make the best of it, but it’s clear to me that what they are doing is playing catch-up in terms of determining what the strategy is,” he told Reuters.
    U.S. arming of the SDF has infuriated Turkey, which sees the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters that spearhead the group as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.
    The YPG fear a Turkish onslaught once U.S. forces withdraw.
    That has left Washington searching for a way to address the concerns of both partners.
    In Europe, the plight of the SDF has come into sharp focus.    A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the issue came up at a meeting of defense ministers on the sidelines of the Munich Security conference on Friday.
    “Many of (them) recognize the degree to which the SDF has actually done the hard fighting and dying and they feel a sense of obligation to just not turn our backs,” the official said.
    The SDF hold about 800 foreigners who fought with Islamic State.    What will happen to those prisoners in Syria following the U.S. withdrawal is unclear.    A top Kurdish official recently warned the SDF may not be able to hold them if the security situation spirals out of control.
    Votel, however, said there were no indications that the SDF would release them.
    “They recognize the importance of this … and they have recognized what it would mean if they were (let) loose,” he said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Munich; Editing by James Dalgleish)

2/15/2019 Acting Pentagon chief says committed to defeating Islamic State, but allies skeptical by Idrees Ali and John Irish
U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks at the annual Munich
Security Conference in Munich, Germany February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
    MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday the United States was committed to defeating Islamic State in the Middle East and beyond, but officials said European allies were skeptical of Washington’s pledges.
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement in December that he was withdrawing all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria surprised and rattled allies.    U.S. officials have crisscrossed the Middle East in recent weeks to reassure them that Washington remains committed to the region.
    Trump’s Syria decision was opposed by top aides, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit, leaving his deputy Shanahan in charge of the Pentagon.
    “While the time for U.S. troops on the ground in northeast Syria winds down, the United States remains committed to our coalition’s cause, the permanent defeat of ISIS, both in the Middle East and beyond,” Shanahan said after a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
    The meeting included about a dozen defense ministers from the coalition to defeat Islamic State. Kurdish-led fighters are battling to capture the militants’ last major stronghold in Syria, but even without territory, the group is widely seen as a continuing threat.
    Shanahan said he envisioned a “bigger and stronger” coalition to fight Islamic State globally.    “We will continue to support our local partners’ ability to stand up to the remnants of ISIS,” he added, using an acronym for Islamic State.
    However, European officials said they were given few details during the closed-door meeting in Munich and many questions remain.    “We are still trying to understand how the Americans plan to withdraw,” said one European official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    Another official said Shanahan did not provide allies with a timeline of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and allies expressed scepticism during the meeting.
    A senior U.S. defense official said no commitments were made during the meeting and there was little discussion about timelines.    “These meetings don’t tend to have specific deliverables or decisions,” the U.S. official said.
    Trump on Friday, though, indicated that he would have solid progress to share very soon.
    “We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” he said during a Rose Garden event at the White House.
SYRIA SAFE ZONE
    Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
    The U.S. official said the ministers talked about the need for some sort of security arrangement in northeast Syria after the United States has left.
    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, said the top U.S. general would ask allies to contribute forces to help stabilize areas liberated from Islamic State.
    France expressed scepticism at the suggestion.
    “Once the Americans leave we’ll be forced to leave.    We aren’t going to be the patsy for the Americans,” a senior French diplomat said, adding he did not see others ready to fill the void.
    French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers on Wednesday he had doubts about a safe zone.    “Who will watch it?    Who will be its guarantors?    What would be its perimeters?
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Frances Kerry, Gareth Jones and Dan Grebler)

2/15/2019 Ankara says only Turkish forces should be in Syria safe zone: Anadolu
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, reviews a guard of honour as he arrives at the
Turkish Military Academy in Ankara, Turkey January 24, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Only Turkish forces should deploy in the planned safe zone in northeast Syria, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted by state-owned Anadolu news agency as saying on Friday.
    Turkey wants to set up the safe zone with logistical support from allies after U.S. troops pull out of Syria.    It says the safe zone should be cleared of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
    Turkey’s plans have stirred tensions with Moscow, which said this week that establishing a safe zone inside Syria would need the consent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
    That is likely to be an unappealing prospect for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has called for Assad to step down after years of civil war that has shattered Syria.
    On Friday, Anadolu quoted Akar, who is in Germany for the Munich Defence Summit, as saying it would not be “suitable or sufficient” for countries from an international coalition against Islamic State to secure the safe zone along 440 km of border territory east of the Euphrates rive.
    “The safe zone isn’t for Turkey alone, but also for the safe return of Syrian refugees who have had to leave their homes back to their country.    Only Turkey should be present in the safe zone,” Akara said, according to Anadolu.
    Erdogan said on Thursday uncertainty over the withdrawal remained.    Earlier this month, Erdogan said that he had not yet seen an acceptable plan from the United States on the creation of the safe zone.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans)

2/16/2019 SDF take control of last IS enclave in east Syria: Observatory
FILE PHOTO: Islamic State billboards are seen along a street in Raqqa, eastern Syria, which is controlled by the Islamic State,
October 29, 2014. The billboard (R) reads: "We will win despite the global coalition." REUTERS/Nour Fourat
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said U.S.-backed fighters seized the last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria on Saturday after the jihadists who were still there surrendered.
    Reuters could not immediately confirm the report.
    The UK-based war monitoring group said the last few hundred Islamic State militants, many of them foreigners, had surrendered in the past two days to the Syrian Democratic Forces.    It said some militants may still be hiding in underground tunnels.
    With the help of U.S. air strikes, the Kurdish-led SDF has battled to crush Islamic State in the shrinking Baghouz enclave east of the Euphrates river near the Iraqi border.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; editing by Darren Schuettler)

2/16/2019 Turkey’s Erdogan says no going back from S-400 deal with Russia: NTV
FILE PHOTO: Russian S-400 missile air defence systems on display during a parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the
victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not turn back from its deal to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Saturday, a day after an informal deadline Washington set for Ankara to respond to a rival offer passed.
    NATO member Turkey has repeatedly said it is committed to buying the Russian missile defense system, despite warnings from the U.S.-led alliance that the S-400s cannot be integrated into the NATO air defense system.
    U.S. officials had set an informal deadline of Feb. 15 for Ankara to respond to the rival U.S. offer and have said that if Turkey proceeds with the S-400 purchase, Washington will withdraw its offer to sell a $3.5 billion Raytheon Co Patriot missile package.
    They have also said it would jeopardize Turkey’s purchase of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets and possibly result in the United States imposing sanctions.
    However, speaking to reporters on the flight back from the Russian resort of Sochi, where a three-way summit on Syria between Turkey, Russia and Iran was held, Erdogan said Ankara would press on with the S-400 purchases.
    “We made the S-400 deal with Russia, so it out of the question for us to turn back.    That’s done,” Erdogan said, according to broadcaster NTV.
    He said Turkey was open to purchasing Patriot systems from the United States as long as the deal served Turkey’s interests, but added there were issues on delivery and production that were still being discussed with Washington.
    “The U.S. administration views the early delivery issue positively, but they won’t say anything about joint production or a credit.    We continue our work based on the promise of the S-400 deliveries in July.”
    The formal U.S. offer for Turkey’s purchase of Patriot systems expires at the end of March, U.S. officials have told Reuters, after which a new offer would have to be submitted.
    The United States asked Turkey to give at least an informal answer on whether it would go ahead with its S-400 purchase by Feb. 15, one U.S. official said.
    It was not immediately clear whether Turkey had responded to the U.S. offer.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Mark Potter)

2/16/2019 Trump to nominate Satterfield ambassador to Turkey
FILE PHOTO: Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, prepares ahead of his address to
the 11th Annual International Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Conference in Tel Aviv, Israel January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump intends to nominate David Satterfield, a veteran diplomat with deep experience in the Middle East, to be U.S. ambassador to Turkey, the White House said on Friday.
    Satterfield has been the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs since 2017.    He has previously served as the deputy U.S. chief of mission in Iraq, ambassador to Lebanon, director for Near Eastern affairs on the National Security Council, as well as in Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
    Turkey, a Muslim-majority NATO ally, borders Syria, Iraq and Iran and is a major player in the region.
    The conflict in Syria following Trump’s announcement of a U.S. pullout, the fallout from the murder of a Saudi journalist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Turkey’s demand for the extradition of a Muslim cleric from the United States are among the main issues in the two countries’ relations.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Trump’s decision in December to withdraw American troops from Syria.
    Washington has backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters while Turkey brands the group a terrorist organization.
    Erdogan said in November Turkey would not abide by renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil and shipping industries because they were aimed at “unbalancing the world.”
    Trump and Erdogan have also taken different tacks in their response to the Oct. 2 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
    Trump has said he wants Washington to stand by the Saudi government and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite a CIA assessment it was likely the prince had ordered the killing. Saudi Arabia has said the prince had no prior knowledge of the murder.
    Trump said in November that he was not considering extraditing Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for a failed 2016 coup.
(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham)

2/16/2019 Iran rejects anti-Semitism allegation by Pence
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence walks outside Hotel Bayerischer Hof during Munich
Security Conference in Munich, Germany February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Michael Dalder
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran on Saturday rejected accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against it by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, saying it respected Judaism but opposed Israel, which Tehran said was acting like a “killing machine against the Palestinians.”
    Pence accused Iran of Nazi-like anti-Semitism on Friday after visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, maintaining his harsh rhetoric just a day after attacking European powers for trying to undermine U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
    “Iran’s historic and cultural record of coexistence and respect for divine religions, particularly Judaism, is recorded in reliable historic documents of various nations,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said.
    “The principle that underlies our foreign policy is the aggressive and occupying nature of the Zionist regime (Israel)…, which is a killing machine against the Palestinian people,” Qasemi said, according the ministry’s website.
    Speaking to Germany’s Der Spiegel Online, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described Pence’s accusation as “laughable,” adding: “Iran has always supported the Jews.    We are just against Zionists.    The Holocaust was a disaster.”
    Iran’s ancient Jewish community has slumped to an estimated 10,000-20,000 from 85,000 at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but it is believed to be the biggest in the Middle East outside Israel.
    A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander in January threatened Israel, which Iran does not recognize, with destruction if it attacks Iran, state media reported.
    The United States is seeking to isolate Tehran.    It reimposed economic sanctions last year after pulling out of the landmark 2015 Iran accord with world powers aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
    The European Union is trying to keep the nuclear deal alive, however, and has developed a mechanism to open a channel to continue trade with Iran, drawing sharp criticism of Brussels from Pence on Thursday.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

2/16/2019 Sudan lawmakers postpone amendment to keep Bashir in power
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir speaks during the signing of a peace deal
between the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups following two weeks of talks in the Sudanese
capital Khartoum, Sudan, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – A parliamentary committee tasked with amending Sudan’s constitution to allow President Omar al-Bashir to run for another term said on Saturday it would indefinitely postpone a meeting to draft these changes, state news agency SUNA said.
    The move comes amid almost daily street protests since mid-December, initially sparked rising food prices and cash shortages, against Bashir’s nearly 30-year rule.
    SUNA cited “special emergency commitments” as the cause for the delay without providing further details.
    A majority of lawmakers had backed the proposed amendment two weeks before protests broke out and had tasked an emergency committee with drafting the changes ahead of the parliament’s first session in April.
    Bashir, an Islamist and former army officer, came to power after a military coup.    He won elections in 2010 and 2015 after changes in the constitution following a peace agreement with southern rebels, who then seceded to form South Sudan.
    He is now facing unprecedented opposition to his rule, with street protests involving hundreds of people almost every day.
    Elections are expected to be held in the spring of 2020.
(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Clelia Oziel)

2/16/2019 Report: U.S.-Backed SDF Close to Defeating Last ISIS Stronghold by OAN Newsroom
    U.S.-backed forces in Syria discuss the progress in the campaign against the Islamic State, which is nearing its end after years of unrest in the country.
    On Saturday, a commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces said the final push to retake the last territory held by ISIS is underway.
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters sit outside a building as fight against Islamic State militants
continue in the village of Baghouz, Syria, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
    The announcement follows a week of intense airstrikes as the rebel-held territory has been reduced to less than one square mile.
    This marks the final stages of a four year campaign to defeat the so-called caliphate, which once held a large amount of territory in Iraq and Syria.

2/17/2019 IS ‘caliphate’ on brink of defeat in Syria as Trump urges Europe to do more by Rodi Said
FILE PHOTO: Islamic State billboards are seen along a street in Raqqa, eastern Syria, which is controlled by the
Islamic State, October 29, 2014. The billboard (R) reads: "We will win despite the global coalition". REUTERS/Nour Fourat
    NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters in Syria are poised to capture Islamic State’s last, tiny enclave on the Euphrates, the battle commander said on Saturday, bringing its self-declared caliphate to the brink of total defeat as U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of “100 percent victory.”
    Jiya Furat said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had cornered the remaining militants in a neighborhood of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border, under fire from all sides.
    “In the coming few days, in a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
    He was speaking after Trump said on Friday there would be “great announcements” about Syria over the next 24 hours.
    Trump on Saturday said the caliphate was “ready to fall and that the United States was asking European allies to take back more than 800 Islamic State fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial.
    “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” he said in a Tweet.    “The Caliphate is ready to fall.    The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them…"
    “….The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go.    We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”     Trump has sworn to pull U.S. forces from Syria after Islamic State’s territorial defeat, raising questions over the fate of Washington’s Kurdish allies and Turkish involvement in northeast Syria.
    As the SDF advanced under heavy U.S. airstrikes in recent days, a stream of civilians fled the few square miles of hamlets and farmland that remain within Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’, along with defeated jihadists trying to escape unnoticed.
    Though Islamic State fighters still hold out in a pocket of central Syria’s remote desert, and have gone underground as sleeper cells in Iraqi cities, able to launch new attacks, their territorial rule is, for now, almost over.
    It ends a project launched from the great medieval mosque of Mosul in northern Iraq in 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seized advantage of regional chaos to proclaim himself caliph, suzerain over all Muslim people and land.
    He set up a governing system with courts, a currency and flag that at its height stretched from northwest Syria almost to Baghdad, encompassing some two million inhabitants.
(This story adds dropped word in paragraph 4)
HUMAN SHIELDS
    But its reign of terror over minorities and other perceived enemies, marked by massacres, sexual slavery and the beheading of hostages, drew a forceful international military response that pushed it steadily back from 2015.
    Most of the fighters left in Baghouz are foreigners, the SDF has said, among the thousands drawn by Baghdadi’s promise of a new jihadist utopia straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and expunging national borders.
    All that remains, said Furat, is an encircled pocket some 700 meters square.    “Thousands of civilians are still trapped there as human shields,” he said.
    The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF had taken control of all of Baghouz after the jihadists there surrendered. SDF officials denied this.
    Spokesman Mustafa Bali said the SDF had caught several militants trying to flee among the civilians.    Others had handed themselves over.
    Their fate, and that of their families, has befuddled foreign governments, with few ready to repatriate citizens who pledged allegiance to a group sworn to their destruction, but who might be hard to legally prosecute.    The SDF does not want to hold them indefinitely.
    The fate of Baghdadi is also a mystery. He has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
STILL A THREAT
    Its capacity then for strategic retreats in hard times, followed by rebounds when circumstances changed, has prompted numerous warnings that Islamic State’s defeat has not ended the threat it poses to the region.
    Islamic State suffered crippling defeats in 2017, when Iraq recaptured Mosul, the SDF seized its Syrian capital of Raqqa, and the Damascus government pushed it east to the Euphrates.
    But in Iraq it has switched to guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, aimed at undermining the Baghdad government.    It has also claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in swathes of northeast Syria held by the SDF, including one last month that killed four Americans.
    That attack came soon after Trump pledged to pull out, saying Islamic State was already defeated, rattling allies and prompting defense secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
    Turkey, which regards the SDF’s strongest component, the Kurdish YPG, as terrorists, has threatened to march deeper into northern Syria to drive it back.
    On Friday U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East as head of Central Command, said the end of the territorial caliphate would lead to a more dispersed, harder-to-detect network of fighters waging guerrilla warfare.
    That should require continued help from Washington, he said.
(Reporting by Rodi Said in eastern Syria; Writing by Ellen Francis, Angus McDowall in Beirut and Nick Macfie in London; Editing by Mark Potter, Gareth Jones and Sam Holmes)

2/17/2019 In Iraq visit, U.S. general eyes longer-term Islamic State threat by Phil Stewart
FILE PHOTO: General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, speaks aboard the
USS New Orleans as it travels through the Strait of Hormuz July 11, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Stewart/File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East flew into Iraq on Sunday for talks with U.S. and Iraqi officials expected to focus on ensuring that Islamic State cannot stage a resurgence after U.S. troops withdraw from neighboring Syria.
    U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, made no remarks to reporters upon landing in Iraq, where he was expected to get battlefield briefings on the final push to retake the remnants of Islamic State’s once vast territory in Syria.
    Votel was also expected to discuss with officials in Baghdad what impact the U.S. withdrawal might have on Iraq, where Islamic State has already shifted to guerrilla hit-and-run tactics after losing all its territory.
    Votel has said he does not expect President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of more than 2,000 troops from Syria to significantly alter U.S. troop levels in Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 forces.    Those force numbers would stay “more or less steady,” he said.    "We will want to make sure that we get the right capabilities on the ground to support the Iraqis going forward,” Votel told reporters traveling with him last week.    “But I don’t necessarily think that will result in an expanded footprint by the United States or by the coalition forces.”
THREAT OF RESURGENCE
    Trump’s surprise decision in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria confounded his national security team and led to the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis.    It also shocked U.S. allies and sent generals like Votel scrambling to carry out the pullout in a way that best preserves as many gains as possible.
    Islamic State still poses a threat in Iraq and some U.S. officials believe that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may be hiding in Iraq.    Baghdadi has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
    The Pentagon’s Inspector General said in a report Islamic State remained an active insurgent group and was regenerating functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than Syria.
    “Absent sustained (counter-terrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory,” the report said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
    In an interview on Friday, Votel told Reuters he would recommend continued arms and aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as needed, provided the Kurdish-led fighters keep the pressure on Islamic State and help prevent its resurgence.
    Votel has said Islamic State may still count tens of thousands of fighters, dispersed throughout Iraq and Syria, with enough leaders and resources to present a menacing insurgency in the months ahead.
    Iraq’s military has already shifted how it combats the group, moving away from major combat operations to what Votel calls “i>wide-area” operations.    The U.S. military has also modified the way that it supports Iraqi security forces.
    “We’ve adjusted our footprint as well, and where we go and where we are best located to continue to advise and assist them with their operations,” Votel said last week.
    “We’ve made some changes in terms of where we are so we can be in the best locations.”
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)

2/17/2019 Syria’s Assad pledges no bargaining over constitution
FILE PHOTO: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP news agency
in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 13, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday his government would not bargain over the country’s constitution with the Turkey-backed opposition, lambasting a U.N. peace process that aims to rewrite its terms.
    A congress convened by Russia, Assad’s key ally, last year tasked the U.N. envoy for Syria with forming a committee to draft a new constitution, after many rounds of talks to end the war had failed.
    The stalled process is meant to lead eventually to new elections.
    “The constitution is the fate of the country and as a result, it does not succumb to any bargains that could have a bigger price than the war itself,” Assad said in a televised speech.
    Assad added that the U.N. role was welcome as long as it respected state sovereignty.    He described opposition officials chosen for the constitutional committee as “agents” of Turkey, which backs anti-Assad rebel factions in northwest Syria.
    U.N.-based talks to end the eight-year conflict have never led to direct meetings between the two warring sides.    With the help of Russia and Iran, government forces have seized most of the country back from rebels and Islamic State militants.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Editing by Jan Harvey)

2/17/2019 Paramount Group in talks to develop Africa’s defense industry by Alexander Cornwell
FILE PHOTO - Paramount Group military aircraft are seen on display at the Africa Aerospace and Defence expo
at the Waterkloof Air Force Base near Pretoria, South Africa, September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Bavier
    ABU DHABI (Reuters) – South African defense company Paramount Group expects to sign agreements with four African governments this year to set up production facilities in their countries, its chairman said on Sunday.
    Paramount, Africa’s largest privately owned defense firm, has established manufacturing capabilities to meet demand from specific domestic markets before, including in India, Jordan, and Kazakhstan.
    It is in talks with four countries in west and east Africa over deals that it expects to sign this year.    A further three agreements could be signed in southern Africa in two years’ time.
    “Africa really is innovative,” Ivor Ichikowitz told Reuters at the IDEX military exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
    “There is a huge amount of skill.    There is a huge amount of human capital on the African continent that makes what we are planning to do very achievable.”
    Paramount, which has maintenance and overhaul operations in Africa, has started to implement some agreements, he said, declining to disclose further details.
    The company manufactures military vehicles, aircraft, ships, and weapons systems.    It is also interested in working with governments on software, cyber security, and artificial intelligence, Ichikowitz said.
    Commenting on the potential shape of any deals, the company prefers to be a majority shareholder in a government joint venture with concessions to build domestic capabilities, he said.
    “We would implement long-term training, long-term capacity creation programs which would ultimately put us in a position where we are building a domestic defense industry in that country.”
    Paramount has previously held talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Middle East countries heavily investing in domestic defense industries.
    Ichikowitz declined to comment specifically on those talks but said that in the Middle East “there are substantial agreements close to finality.”
    Paramount on Saturday launched a 4×4 version of its Mbombe armored personnel vehicle, which Ichikowitz said had been designed for the operational requirements of Middle East countries.
    He said he expected there would be regional demand for 4,000-5,000 of the vehicles over the next ten years.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Jan Harvey)

2/17/2019 Saudi Arabia signs warship construction deal with France’s Naval Group by Stanley Carvalho and Alexander Cornwell
A general view of the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) exhibit is seen during the International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX)
in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
    ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia signed a preliminary agreement on Sunday with France’s Naval Group to build warships in the kingdom, as part of its efforts to develop domestic manufacturing capabilities.
    Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), the kingdom’s state defense company, made the announcement at the IDEX military exhibition in Abu Dhabi, a show piece event for Saudi Arabia’s close ally the United Arab Emirates.
    Saudi Arabia, among the top five defense spenders in the world, has been fighting a costly war in Yemen since 2015 in support of the internationally recognized government against the armed Houthi movement.
    The latest agreement includes building warships, frigates, corvettes and related items in Saudi Arabia through a majority SAMI-owned joint venture with the French firm, SAMI Chief Executive Andreas Schwer told reporters.
    “Through design, construction, and maintenance activities the joint venture will contribute significantly to further enhance the capabilities and readiness of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces,” he said.
    Saudi Arabia set up SAMI in 2017 to develop manufacturing capabilities with the aim of producing half of the country’s required military equipment domestically by 2030.
    The localization of Saudi Arabia’s military needs is part of efforts led by de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify away from an oil-based economy.
    Neighbor UAE has heavily invested in developing its own manufacturing capabilities and has military and civilian contracts with several foreign companies.
    SAMI signed an agreement with Abu Dhabi state-fund Mubadala on Saturday to co-invest in manufacturing, maintenance, and engineering.
    Military deals with Saudi Arabia have come under renewed scrutiny since the October killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
    Germany halted arms exports to Saudi Arabia over what it said was the uncertainty surrounding the murder.
    Paramount Group Chairman Ivor Ichikowitz told Reuters that had created a “huge opportunity” for those outside of Europe such as his South African defense firm.
    “I think some of them may be quite short sighted but quite honestly that is their problem and we are quite happy to be continuing,” he said.     The U.S. Senate, in a largely symbolic gesture, voted in December to end U.S. military support for the war in Yemen and blame the Saudi crown prince for the murder of Khashoggi.    Saudi Arabia denies its crown prince was involved.
(Editing by Mark Potter)

2/17/2019 Netanyahu gives up role as Israel’s foreign minister
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the
Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 17, 2019. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday handed over his role as foreign minister to intelligence minister Israel Katz, giving up the portfolio he has held since 2015.
    Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Katz as acting foreign minister came after an advocacy group, the Movement for Quality Government, went to court to press the prime minister to stop serving as foreign minister as well.
    Government officials said Katz, who will remain intelligence minister and also serves as transport minister, will hold the foreign affairs portfolio through the upcoming parliamentary election on April 9.    Katz is a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.
    In addition to the premiership, Netanyahu still holds the defense portfolio, which he assumed after his former far-right coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman quit that post in November.    Netanyahu is also health minister.
    The advocacy group that pushed for a new foreign minister had argued that Netanyahu’s workload was untenable and further harmed a foreign ministry beset by budget disputes.
    Netanyahu’s defenders have noted his personal rapport with the U.S. and Russian leaders and regular tours abroad.
    “Together with the prime minister we will continue to lead the State of Israel’s foreign policy to new achievements,” Katz, 63, said on Twitter.
(Writing by Dan Williams. Editing by Jane Merriman)

2/17/2019 Lebanese women hail first female Arab interior minister
FILE PHOTO - Lebanon's Finance Minister Raya Haffar al-Hassan speaks to a reporter at the end of
her news conference in her office in Beirut April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon has appointed the Arab world’s first female interior minister in its new government, prising open a wider foothold for women in its overwhelmingly male political scene.
    Raya al-Hassan is one of four women to take cabinet jobs in the new coalition, more than ever before in Lebanon and three more than in the last government, in which even the minister for women was a man.
    Though Hassan has already held top jobs – including finance minister in 2009-2011 – her appointment to a portfolio managing security was hailed as a step forward for women in Lebanese politics.
    “This is a point of pride for all women and all the people who believe in women’s capabilities,” Hassan said.
    “There are a lot of female interior and defense ministers in the world and they have proved their efficiency.    It might be a new phenomenon for Lebanon and Arab countries, but hopefully it will be repeated and not be unique,” she added.
    The three other women in the 30-strong cabinet are in charge of energy, administrative development and the economic empowerment of women and young people.
    Though Lebanon is widely held to be liberal by regional standards, with women playing a prominent role in public life, some of its laws continue to uphold a patriarchal social code.
    Much Lebanese civil law, including personal status matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, is applied according to religious sect and in some cases treats women differently to men. Lebanon has 17 recognized Muslim and Christian sects.
OLD MALE PATRIARCHAL MIND
    In 2017 the parliament abolished an old law that absolved rapists if they married their victims.    But marital rape and child marriage are still legal.
    “You can’t keep up with the international community and say you have a civilized state when all the world is working on gender equality and Lebanon is still living with the old male patriarchal mind,” said May Chidiac, the new administrative development minister.
    Lebanese politics continues to revolve around men.    The complex sectarian power-sharing system has helped entrench former warlords and the scions of political dynasties – all male – who dominate the government and the parliament.
    “Lebanon is a male-dominated society and though women reached very important positions, when we talk about politics, especially parliament and government, their presence was modest,” said the women and youth minister Violette Safadi.
    “I think we broke this barrier.”
(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Angus McDowall)

2/17/2019 UAE announces $1.1 billion of military deals with international companies: IDEX
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan attends the International Defence
Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
    ABU DHABI (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said on Sunday it had signed military deals worth 3.87 billion UAE dirhams ($1.1 billion) with international companies.
    A spokesman for the IDEX defense conference said the UAE had also announced military deals worth 1.1 billion UAE dirhams with local companies.
($1 = 3.6726 UAE dirham)
(Reporting by Stanley Carvalho; Writing by Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Mark Potter)

2/17/2019 Netanyahu’s main rival in Israeli election voices agreement with him on Iran
Former Israeli armed forces chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual Munich
Security Conference in Munich, Germany February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
    MUNICH (Reuters) – Former general Benny Gantz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strongest challenger in an election scheduled for April, voiced support on Sunday for the right-wing leader’s tough policy toward Iran.
    “I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the fight against Iran’s aggression,” Gantz, a former chief of Israel’s armed forces and a centrist candidate, told the Munich Security Conference.
    Polls predict that Netanyahu’s Likud party will win the April 9 election, taking about 30 of parliament’s 120 seats – enough to form a coalition of right-wing and religious factions similar to one he now heads.
    The surveys forecast a second-place finish, with some 20 seats, for Gantz’s Resilience party.    That would line him up to join a future Netanyahu-led coalition – unless he tries to mobilize other factions against the incumbent.
    In the speech, Gantz echoed many of Netanyahu’s themes in describing Iran as a danger to the Middle East and the world.
    “On my watch, there will be no appeasement.    On my watch Iran will not threaten Israel by taking over Syria, Lebanon or the Gaza Strip.    Nor will it undermine pragmatic regimes in the Middle East.    On my watch, Iran will not have nuclear weapons,” Gantz said.
    Netanyahu, in an apparent swipe at Gantz, said in public remarks to his cabinet on Sunday that as prime minister he had spearheaded a campaign against Iran and “today we have all kinds of hitch-hikers who are riding the wave.”
    Netanyahu has strongly opposed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and international powers, and Israel’s air force has carried out numerous attacks in neighboring Syria against Iranian forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad.
    “When Israel’s security is under threat, there is no daylight between us,” Gantz said about Netanyahu.
    Gantz spoke shortly after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the conference that risk of war with Israel was great and accused it of violating international law with its bombing campaigns in Syria.
    Gantz, while not commenting directly on Zarif’s allegations, cautioned the forum not to be “fooled by his lies” or eloquence.
    On prospects for Middle East peace, Gantz did not mention the Palestinians or the collapse of talks with them in 2014.    But he said Israel “will always reach its hand out to anyone who seeks peace with us” while guarding its security interests.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/17/2019 U.S. envoy on Syria tells allies troop withdrawal won’t be abrupt
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Soldiers surveil the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria,
November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. Courtesy Zoe Garbarino/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS
    MUNICH (Reuters) – The United States will not make an abrupt and rapid withdrawal of its troops from Syria and will consult closely with its allies on the issue, its special envoy on Syria said on Sunday.
    “We’ve been telling them (allies) continuously this is not going to be an abrupt, rapid withdrawal but a step-by-step withdrawal,” James Franklin Jeffrey told the Munich Security Conference, addressing concerns from allies over the U.S. decision to pullout 2,000 troops.
    With talks of creating a safe zone on the Turkish-Syrian border, Jeffrey and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar appeared to differ on what to do about Kurdish-led militias working with the U.S.-backed coalition fighting Islamic State militants.
    “We have respect for the territorial integrity of Syria, but the main issue is the safety and security of the Turkish border and     Turkish people,” Akar said.    “The main issue is security to get rid of the terrorists regardless of whether the YPG (Kurds) or Daesh (Islamic State).”
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Madeline Chambers)

2/17/2019 U.S. cannot back Syrian forces who align with Assad: U.S. commander by Phil Stewart
FILE PHOTO: A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on the main road to the
airport in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, a senior U.S. general said on Sunday.
    The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Syria.
    Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops currently backing them.
    They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the Kurdish YPG militia.    Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.
    But LaCamera warned that U.S. law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as Assad’s military.
    “We will continue to train and arm them as long as they remain our partners,” LaCamera said, praising their hard-won victories against Islamic State militants.
    When asked if that support would continue if they aligned themselves with Assad, LaCamera said: “No.”    “Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don’t have a relationship with, (or) the Russians … when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them,” LaCamera told a small group of reporters.
    President Donald Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State.
    With U.S.-backing, the SDF has routed Islamic State and is on the verge of recapturing the final bits of its once sprawling territory.    But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks.
    On Friday, the four-star U.S. general overseeing U.S. troops throughout the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told Reuters that he backed supporting the SDF as needed as long as it kept the pressure on Islamic State militants.
    But LaCamera’s comments make clear that the SDF may have to choose between backing from Assad, Russia or the United States.
    Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war.    Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.
    Earlier on Sunday, Assad warned the United States would not protect those depending on it, in reference to the Kurdish fighters.
    “We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said without naming them.    “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”
    Reuters has reported that Trump’s decision was in part driven by an offer by Turkey to keep the pressure on Islamic State once the United States withdrew.
    But current and former U.S. officials warn Ankara would be unable to replicate the SDF’s success across the areas of Syria that the militias captured with U.S. support including arms, airstrikes and advisers.
    Brett McGurk, who resigned in December as Trump’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, warned last month that the SDF could not be replaced as the provider of stability in areas of Syria formerly held by the militant group.    He also cautioned that Turkey, a NATO ally, was not a reliable partner in the fight in Syria.
    “The Syrian opposition forces (Turkey) backs are marbled with extremists and number too few to constitute an effective challenge to Assad or a plausible alternative to the SDF,” McGurk wrote.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; editing by David Evans)

2/17/2019 Pompeo to visit Kuwait next month, says Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister
FILE PHOTO - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference
at Lazienki Palace in Warsaw, Poland February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Kuwait next month to hold the third round of strategic dialogue between the two countries, Kuwait’s state news agency quoted the deputy foreign minister, Khaled Al-Jarallah, as saying on Sunday.
    Pompeo visited several Arab capitals in January, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in part to reassure allies after President Donald Trump said he would start withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria.    He had to cut a short his Middle East trip to return to the United States for a family funeral.
(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy; Writing by Hesham Hajali; Editing by Peter Cooney)

2/18/2019 U.S.-backed Syrian forces call for 1,500 coalition troops to stay by Phil Stewart
FILE PHOTO - A Coalition convoy of U.S. led international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
stops to test fire their M2 machine guns and MK19 grenade launcher in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the Deir ez-Zor province,
Syria, November 22, 2018. Picture taken November 22, 2018. Courtesy Matthew Crane/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS
    AIRBASE IN NORTHEAST SYRIA (Reuters) – The commander of U.S.-backed forces in Syria called on Monday for about 1,000 to 1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope that the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.
    The remarks by Mazloum Kobani, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, followed talks with senior U.S. generals in Syria and offered perhaps the most comprehensive view to date of his requests for an enduring military assistance from the U.S.-led coalition.
    It also shows that Kobani is still holding out hope that U.S. President Donald Trump may soften his withdrawal order, which has been criticized by allies at home and abroad and which triggered the resignation of Trump’s defense secretary.
    “We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us,” Kobani told a small group of reporters who traveled with the U.S. military to the talks at an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria.
    With U.S. help, the Kurdish-led fighters are poised to seize Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria.    At the height of its power four years ago, Islamic State held about a third of both Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed caliphate.
    But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style attacks.
    Kobani said there was discussions about perhaps French and British troops supporting the SDF in Syria.    But he stressed he also wanted at least “a partial group of American forces,” who now number more than 2,000 in Syria, to stay as well.
    “American forces must remain beside us,” Kobani said through a translator.
    U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, said after talks with Kobani that he was still carrying out Trump’s December order for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.
    “We certainly understand what they would like us to do, but of course that’s not the path we’re on at this particular point,” Votel told reporters.
    Asked about any discussions on a continuing U.S. presence in Syria, Votel said: “So the discussion really isn’t about U.S. forces staying here.    We’ve looked at potentially what coalition (forces) might be able to do here.”
LULL IN FIGHTING
    A Reuters witness said there was a lull in fighting on Monday where Islamic State fighters could be seen strolling in their last neighborhood of Baghouz village, near the Iraqi border where they are sheltering among civilians.
    SDF commanders said the presence of civilians among the militants was compelling their fighters to proceed cautiously.
    The U.S. military and intelligence officials have warned of the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State.
    But the pullout raises an even more immediate concern to Kobani’s SDF, which fears that Turkey will make good on threats to attack the Kurdish-led fighters that Ankara brands as terrorists.    He warned of a “new genocide” in SDF controlled areas of Syria unless the United States and its allies can reach some agreement with Turkey.
    Kobani thanked Trump for publicly stating his intent to protect the SDF but said: “I want him to live up to his word.”
    Without a deal with the U.S.-led coalition, experts say Kobani may have to strike a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to avoid a Turkish sweep or Islamic State revival.
    Votel is recommending continued support to the SDF as long as it keeps up pressure on Islamic State militants.
    But Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said on Sunday the United States would be legally unable to support the SDF if they partnered with Assad or Assad’s Russian backers.
    Kobani said he was not seeking a military deal with Assad.
    “We’re trying to preserve the current situation,” he said, speaking through a translator.    “We’re trying to have a political deal with the regime to reach a solution, a constitutional solution, for this part of Syria.”
    Perhaps sensing an opportunity to stoke doubt among Kurdish communities, Assad warned on Sunday the United States would not protect those depending on it.
    Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, is among the U.S. lawmakers expressing concern the U.S. withdrawal could deal a devastating blow to Kurdish forces and warned that any sense of U.S. betrayal could cast a long shadow for years to come.
    “It will chill future potential groups from assisting us if we’re going to treat the people who have been so stalwart on our behalf in this way.    It is very dangerous in terms of national security,” he told Reuters in Washington.
    Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia.    But Kobani said ceding the area to Turkish control would be unacceptable to the SDF, which is led by Kurdish fighters but also includes Arabs.
    The United States is hoping allies will contribute forces to help stabilize areas freed from Islamic State.    But it is unclear which allies will send their troops once U.S. forces depart.
    A French diplomat said Europeans would not provide troops when it was completely unclear what the objectives of such a safe zone would be or how this would monitored or guaranteed.
    “For now, there is no plan,” the diplomat said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by John Irish in Munich, Germany; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/18/2019 Iraq’s Kurdish regional parliament elects interim speaker amid boycott
Members of the Kurdistan Region Parliament attend a session in Erbil, Iraq February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
    ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers on Monday elected an interim speaker of parliament, an assembly key to regional stability, although the Kurds’ second largest party boycotted the vote due to a rift between the main political forces in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
    Vala Fareed, nominated by the region’s dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was confirmed in the post by 68 votes. She is the first female speaker in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
    However, proceedings were boycotted by the region’s second-biggest party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), amid a breakdown in talks.
    “Without a signed political agreement between us, we will neither participate in the parliamentary session nor the government formation process,” PUK spokesman Latif Sheikh Omar said on Monday.
    The 111-seat parliament legislates the semi-autonomous region, and its functioning is important to regional stability after several years of political upheaval which culminated in an independence referendum in September 2017.
    The Kurdistan region was destabilized by the referendum, which damaged relations with the federal capital Baghdad and weakened the KRG’s budget share.    Relations have since improved, despite continued disagreements over oil exports.
    The KDP and the PUK have traditionally brokered a power-sharing agreement for the Kurdistan Regional Government.
    Monday’s boycott was evidence of a continued rift between the parties, who are at odds over several key positions.    Chief among these is the governorship of the disputed Kirkuk province and the Federal Justice Ministry in Baghdad.
    The KDP acknowledged that once a binding political agreement is brokered between the two major parties, then the speakership would revert to the PUK and a new vote would be held.
    “Whenever there is an agreement between the two parties, we will withdraw our candidate and vote for the PUK candidate, per our agreement,” said Umed Khoshnaw, the head of the KDP bloc in parliament.
    Kurdish regional elections were held on Sept. 30.
(Reporting by Raya Jalabi, Editing by William Maclean)

2/18/2019 Livni warns over peace and democracy as she quits Israeli politics
Tzipi Livni, former Israeli foreign minister enters a car after speaking at
a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – One of Israel’s most prominent dovish politicians, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, said on Monday she was leaving politics and warned “democracy is in danger.”
    A former peace negotiator with the Palestinians, Livni won recognition abroad for her part in U.S.-brokered talks that aimed to end the decades-old conflict and which collapsed in 2014.But her career has foundered in recent years, along with the Middle East peace process.    The United States plans to present a new peace plan after Israel’s April 9 election, although expectations of a breakthrough are low.
    “I am leaving politics but I will not let Israel abandon the hope for peace,” a tearful Livni told a televised news conference in Tel Aviv.
    “These past years have been hard for me and for the things I believed in … peace became a dirty word, and democracy is in danger,” she said, citing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of legal authorities conducting corruption probes against him and attacks he has made on the local media.
    Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
    Opinion polls have shown that Livni’s centrist Hatnua party was expected to win no seats in parliament in the election in which the right wing, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, looks likely to prevail.
    Hatnua had been part of the biggest left-wing faction in parliament, the Zionist Union, together with the Israeli Labour party.
    But in January the alliance, which led the opposition, ended after Labour head Avi Gabbay dumped Livni on live television as he announced he was dissolving the partnership.
    Livni, now 60, served as foreign minister from 2006 to 2009.    A former junior officer in the Mossad intelligence agency, she has been a member of several parties and coalition governments since entering politics in 1999 and has quit politics before only to return.
(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alison Williams)

2/18/2019 U.S. pressing Gulf states to keep Syria isolated: sources by Ghaida Ghantous and Michael Georgy
FILE PHOTO: A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen at a train station in
Damascus, Syria, September 12, 2018. Picture taken September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – The United States is lobbying Gulf states to hold off restoring ties with Syria, including the UAE which has moved closer to Damascus to counter the influence of its rival Iran, five sources told Reuters.
    The opposing approaches are an early test of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can gain political and diplomatic credibility after a nearly eight-year civil war turned him into an international pariah.
    Many countries cut links with Syria at the start of the war.
    Several Gulf states shut or downgraded their embassies, Syria was suspended from the Arab League, flights stopped and border crossings were closed.    The United States and other countries imposed economic sanctions.
    Washington, backed by Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, does not want Syria welcomed back into the international community until a political process to end the war is agreed.
    “The Saudis are quite helpful in pressing the others.    Qatar also is doing the right thing,” said a U.S. official, when asked about the diplomatic pressure.
    The official said that the United States was pleased that “some Gulf states are putting the brakes on.”
    The U.S. position suggests that Assad is still a long way from being accepted, even after his forces reclaimed most of Syria through victories over Sunni rebels, thanks largely to help from Iran and Russia.
    The lack of support from Washington and regional heavyweight Riyadh to end Syria’s isolation will make it harder for the devastated country to attract investment needed to rebuild it.
    While the UAE believes Sunni Muslim states must embrace Syria swiftly in order to move Assad out of Shi’ite Iran’s orbit, Saudi Arabia and Qatar back the U.S. approach.
    The UAE sees Assad as the “only option,” according to one Gulf source, and believes that stemming Iranian influence in Syria could help prevent the kind of hold it now has in Iraq.
    During the war, the UAE did support armed groups opposed to Assad.    But its role was less prominent than that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and its support was mostly to do with ensuring that Islamist forces did not dominate the uprising.
    U.S. and Saudi officials have spoken to representatives of other Gulf countries, urging them not to restore ties with Syria, three Gulf political sources, a U.S. official and a senior Western diplomat said.
    They particularly want to ensure that those countries do not back Syria’s return to regional organization the Arab League, and that embassies are kept closed or operating with only junior staffing.
GAVE THEM FLAK
    With Assad strengthening his position militarily, relations with some countries have started to thaw.    The UAE reopened its Damascus embassy in December.
    This was a major boost for Assad, and the United States “gave the Emiratis flak,” said the U.S. official.    A UAE official did not respond to a request for comment.
    “In the last seven years there has been absolutely zero Arab influence in Syria.    Zero Arab influence has been a disaster,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told reporters in a recent briefing in Washington.
    He said Abu Dhabi re-established diplomatic ties with Damascus to “be closer to the reality on the ground.”
    Gargash said more Arab states need to engage “to crowd the space” taken by Russia and Iran, who support Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.
    The next step for Syria’s international rehabilitation could be reinstatement to the Arab League, which would be largely symbolic but something Assad’s government would likely use to show its return from the diplomatic wilderness.
    The League said last Monday that there was not yet the necessary consensus for this to happen, and the United States is pushing hard to ensure it does not, according to the sources.
    “Washington is lobbying against it and Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working to slow down the readmittance of Syria in the Arab League,” said the senior Western diplomat.
    Government media offices in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman’s foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters’ request for comment.
    A Kuwaiti foreign ministry official declined to comment on whether Kuwait had been asked by Washington or Riyadh to hold off on normalizing ties and reiterated the country’s stance that “any possible return of relations with it can only be through the Arab League.”
    Not all Arab League nations severed ties with Syria after the outbreak of the war in 2011.    Oman maintained diplomatic ties with Damascus.    A day after the UAE reopened its embassy, Bahrain said its embassy in Damascus and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Manama had been operating “without interruption.”
    Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister said in December it would reopen its embassy in Damascus once the Arab League allowed it.
SOFT POWER
    Saudi Arabia has no plans now to normalize ties, said one Gulf official, adding “everything is suspended” until Syrians agree a transition from Assad’s rule.
    Rival Qatar has said it sees no “encouraging” signs for restoring normal relations, its foreign minister said in January.
    But Abu Dhabi hopes it can eventually sway Syria toward the business-friendly UAE model, and Dubai can play a role as a hub for trade with Syria.
    Abu Dhabi last month hosted a Syrian delegation led by prominent businessman Mohammad Hamsho to discuss potential cooperation in trade, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, logistics and renewable energy, state media reported.
    Gargash acknowledged, however, that real investment would not happen without a political process.
    A second senior Western diplomat said that without a U.N.-led political process it would be difficult for sanctions to be removed which would clear the way for investment.
    “I don’t think this is the end of the war and time for reconstruction,” that diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Michelle Nichols in Washington, Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Eric Knecht in Doha; Editing by Anna Willard)

2/19/2019 U.K. strikes trade deals with Israel, Palestine to reduce Brexit risks by OAN Newsroom
    The U.K. is striking trade deals with both Israel and Palestinian authority.    In two separate statements Monday, British Trade Secretary Liam Fox said Israel and Palestine are now enjoying a free trade agreement with the U.K.
    Secretary Fox said the deals will boost the U.K.’s bilateral trade with both parties, and make sure that trade is not disrupted by Brexit.
    This comes after the U.K. also reached a preliminary agreement to enter a free trade agreement with Japan after Brexit.
Britain’s Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox arrives to attend a cabinet meeting
at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
    Secretary Fox also said the trade deals could help the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
    “Thank you for taking the time, and to you and to all of your officials for putting on the hard work to get this agreement this time,” stated Fox.    “It is very important for us — provides us with continuity as we leave the European Union, but even more important than its economic element is the symbolic element that shows our commitment.”
    Meanwhile, Palestinian officials called on the U.K. to support their position in the ongoing dispute with Israel.

2/19/2019 U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in
Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.
    The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held.    They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.
    U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government,” according to an embassy statement.
    Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions – decisions that endanger the rest of the country.”
    It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries,” she said.    Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.
    Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
    Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year.    Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.
    A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.
    The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country.    The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.
    “In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance – and that’s an increase over the previous year.”
(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

2/20/2019 Explainer: Does Islamic State still pose a threat?
FILE PHOTO: Islamic state members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of
Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State looks about to lose its last foothold on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, but though its era of territorial rule may have been expunged for now, there is near universal agreement that the group remains a threat.
WHAT HAS ITS TERRITORIAL DEFEAT ACCOMPLISHED?
    Islamic State’s possession of land in Iraq and Syria set it apart from other like-minded groups such as al Qaeda and became central to its mission when it declared a caliphate in 2014, claiming sovereignty over all Muslim lands and peoples.
    Destroying the quasi-state it built there denies the group its most potent propaganda and recruiting tool as well as a logistical base from which it could train fighters and plan coordinated attacks overseas.
    It also freed its former subjects from summary executions and draconian punishment for breaking its strict laws or, for some minorities, sexual slavery and slaughter.
    Warfare wiped out thousands of its fighters.    And, financially, its defeat deprives it of greater resources than any modern jihadist movement has enjoyed, including taxes on its inhabitants and the proceeds of oil sales.
WHAT THREAT DOES ISLAMIC STATE STILL POSE IN IRAQ AND SYRIA?
    In its previous guise as an al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq a decade ago, it navigated adversity by going underground, biding its time to rise suddenly again.
    Since suffering devastating territorial losses in 2017, IS has steadily turned again to such tactics.    Sleeper cells in Iraq have staged a scatter-gun campaign of kidnappings and killings to undermine the Baghdad government.
    The group has also carried out many bombings in northeast Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, including one that killed four Americans in January. Kurdish and U.S. officials say its threat there persists.
    In Syria, its fighters still hold out in the remote desert area near the road from Damascus to Deir al-Zor.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ITS LEADERS, FIGHTERS AND FOLLOWERS?
    The fate of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains a mystery.    The U.S. government’s top experts strongly believe he is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq, U.S. sources recently said.    Other top-echelon leaders have been killed in air strikes.
    Thousands of its fighters and civilian followers have also been killed and thousands more captured.    An unknown number remain at large in both Syria and Iraq.
    Iraq is putting on trial, imprisoning and often executing Islamic State detainees.    The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds around 800 foreign fighters.    More than 2,000 Islamic State wives and children are in its hands too. Many low-level local operatives have been released in Syria.
    The SDF complains that Western states are reluctant to take back the foreign fighters, who are widely seen as a security threat at home but who might be hard to legally prosecute.
CAN IT STILL ORGANIZE OR INSPIRE ATTACKS OVERSEAS?
    As Islamic State clung to its last scrap of land, the head of Britain’s spy agency MI6 warned that the group would return to “asymmetric” attacks.
    Even after it began losing ground militarily, the group still claimed responsibility for attacks made in different countries, though often these have been blamed on “lone wolves” without its direction.
    It started years ago to call on followers abroad to plan their own attacks, rather than focusing purely on ones staged by trained operatives supported by the group’s hierarchy.
    In early 2018 the head of U.S. military central command said Islamic State was resilient and remained capable of “inspiring attacks throughout the region and outside of the Middle East”.
WHAT DOES ITS FALL MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF GLOBAL JIHAD?
    Although Islamic State’s core territory was in Iraq and Syria, jihadists fighting in other countries, notably Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan, pledged their allegiance to it.
    Whether those groups will still wear its mantle, especially if Baghdadi is captured or killed, is an open question, but there seems little chance they will soon end their campaigns.
    Al-Qaeda also retains numerous franchises around the world and other militant Islamist groups operate in countries where normal governance has broken down.
    Jihadist ideology has long proven itself able to mutate as circumstances change, and there is no shortage of warfare, injustice, oppression, poverty, sectarianism and naked religious hatred for it to exploit.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry and Gareth Jones)

2/20/2019 Palestinian president rejects tax money from Israel
FILE PHOTO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting of Fatah Revolutionary Council,
in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
    RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority (PA) will no longer accept tax revenues collected on its behalf by Israel following its decision to trim the sum over the PA’s financial support of militants’ families, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said.
    The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, an interim self-government body set up following the 1993 Oslo peace accords, has suffered a series of financial blows in the past year.
    Under interim peace deals, Israel collects taxes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and makes monthly payments to the PA, which says it receives around $222 million each month.
    The Israeli Finance Ministry said on Wednesday it collects about 700 million shekels ($193 million) in Palestinian taxes and transfers around 600 million shekels of that to the Palestinian Authority after deducting payments for electricity, water, sewage and medical treatment services.
    On Sunday Israel said it would freeze about 5 percent of that against stipends the Palestinian Authority pays to families of Palestinians killed or jailed by Israel.
    In remarks made late on Tuesday and broadcast on Palestinian radio on Wednesday, Abbas said the PA would continue to pay out these stipends rather than accept a partial transfer of the tax revenues from Israel.
    “We reject the tax, we don’t want it,” Abbas told visiting U.S. congressmen.    “Frankly, if we are left with only 20 or 30 million shekels, which is the sum paid to families of martyrs, then we will pay them to the families of martyrs,” he said.
    Israel and the United States say the stipend policy fans Palestinian violence while the Palestinians see the slain and jailed Palestinians as heroes of a national struggle.
    The United States last year passed legislation to sharply reduce aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it stopped the pay-outs.    The measure, known as the Taylor Force Act, was named after a 29-year-old American military veteran fatally stabbed by a Palestinian while visiting Israel in 2016.
    Last month the Palestinians declined some $60 million in U.S. annual funding for their security forces, worried about exposure to lawsuits under new U.S. anti-terror laws.
    Washington has further slashed hundreds of millions of dollars to humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies which aid the Palestinians as it seeks to pressure Abbas to enter peace negotiations with Israel.    Peace talks have been frozen since 2014.
    The Palestinians suspended ties with Washington after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and opened the new U.S. Embassy in the city in May.
    Israel has at times withheld the tax money over other matters.
(Reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/20/2019 Turkey says cannot accept U.S. Patriot offer as it stands, talks continue
Turkey and U.S. flags are seen in this picture illustration taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    ANKARA (Reuters) – It is impossible for Turkey to accept the United States’ offer on purchasing Patriot defense systems as it currently stands, the chairman of Turkey’s Defence Industry Directorate said on Wednesday, adding that talks on the issue continued.
    Speaking to broadcaster NTV, Ismail Demir also said two Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets would be delivered to Turkey next month.
    U.S. officials have warned that Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems would jeopardize Ankara’s purchase of F-35 jets and possibly even result in U.S. sanctions.    U.S. officials had set an informal deadline of Feb.15 for Ankara to respond to its rival offer on the Patriot systems purchases.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler)

2/20/2019 Netanyahu makes deal with far-right party ahead of Israeli election by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he meets with
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel -/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forged an election alliance with a far-right party on Wednesday that could give followers of the late anti-Arab rabbi, Meir Kahane, a stronger voice in Israeli politics.
    The deal, announced by Netanyahu’s Likud and the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, was aimed at solidifying a potential right-wing coalition after the April 9 parliamentary election.
    Opinion polls predict Netanyahu’s Likud will win the most parliamentary seats and will be in a position to form a governing coalition of rightist and religious parties similar to the one he now heads.
    But the surveys also show that a possible alliance between two of his strongest centrist opponents, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who leads the Resilience Party, and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid faction, could spark an upset.
    Gantz and Lapid met on Wednesday, with speculation high they could strike a deal.
    Moving to counter that prospective partnership, Netanyahu agreed to set aside two cabinet posts for Jewish Home on condition it agreed to a merger with the Jewish Power party, whose leaders have portrayed themselves as Kahane’s successors.
    Jewish Home’s chairman said in a statement he accepted the deal after talks with Netanyahu.    Its central committee then met and ratified the pact, party officials said.
    Jewish Power has already agreed to the merger, saying it would “prevent the establishment of a leftist government, God forbid”.
    Such an alliance could be crucial to the two parties’ survival: opinion polls have shown that Jewish Home and Jewish Power might not garner enough votes on their own to win even a single seat in the Knesset.
    Kahane, a U.S.-born rabbi, served one term in the Knesset in the 1980s as head of the Kach party, which advocated the “transfer” of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab countries and also called for a ban on intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
    Kahane’s movement was subsequently banned from Israeli politics as racist. He was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian-born American.
    Netanyahu’s political future has also been clouded by three corruption cases.    The attorney-general is weighing whether to accept police recommendations to indict him over allegations he wrongfully accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to win favourable coverage in an Israeli newspaper and a website.
    In office since 2009, after an earlier term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing.    He says he is a victim of a left-wing witchhunt to topple him.
(Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/21/2019 Where Libya’s revolution began, many now yearn for a strong hand by Ulf Laessing
Men restore their shops which were destroyed by the war in an old popular market, known as the
Souk al-Jureid, in Benghazi, Libya February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
    BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Sitting in his cafe near the spot where the protests against Muammar Gaddafi touched off the Libyan revolution eight years ago, Miftah Atluba is not sorry the dictator has gone.
    Yet like many in Benghazi, who are tired after three years of street fighting that flattened whole districts, the 45-year-old thinks it’s time to return to the old way of running things.
    “Muammar needed to go but democracy hasn’t worked out in Libya,” he said, sipping coffee in one of the few buildings still standing in a city center where from 2014 to 2017 war raged between the forces of Khalifa Haftar, a general who turned against Gaddafi, and his mainly Islamist opponents.
    Atluba’s cafe was damaged.    But the building survived, unlike the courthouse next door where the families of political prisoners gathered to demand their release in February 2011, triggering the uprising that toppled Gaddafi.
    “We’ve had chaos and terrorism.    Now we need military rule to build a state,” Atluba said.
    The United Nations wants to hold a national conference to prepare for elections and unite a country which sits on Africa’s largest proven oil reserves and produces just under one million barrels a day.
    Currently, political control in Libya is split between rival tribes, armed groups and even administrations.    The east has its own government, which is opposed to a U.N.-backed authority in Tripoli.
    But the scars of war in Benghazi show the difficulties of reconciling two rival camps – former soldiers and tribesmen in eastern Libya versus Islamists and urban elites in the west.
    Pictures of a somber Haftar, dressed in uniform, have adorned Benghazi’s streets since his Libyan National Army (LNA) expelled their enemies.
    Many Haftar supporters see little point in reconciling with opponents, whom they call “terrorists” or “Muslim Brothers.”
    That leaves limited scope for moderates who believe Libya can become a civil state without a dominant role for the military.
    “In Benghazi, most people would not allow you to criticize the army because they’ve paid a price,” said Jamal Falah, an activist, referring to Haftar’s forces and the battles they fought.
    Falah is trying to organize a forum for Libyans from different regions to discuss a political solution that does not involve the United Nations.    He wants to include people in the east who say the U.N. is biased towards Islamists.
    But many LNA supporters are skeptical about dialogue.    They are more encouraged by a military offensive in the south, where Haftar has challenged the government in Tripoli by taking control of the region’s main city and biggest oilfield.
    Some say the 75-year-old general should order his troops to head for Tripoli without waiting for an election.,br>     “The army has secured the east and, thank God, with the southern offensive now also the south,” said Fawzeia al-Furjani, a business leader who is from Haftar’s tribe.    “How can you hold elections in the west when you have militias in control?
    But a push to the west by Haftar seems unlikely for now as his forces are already stretched in the south.    They would in any case face resistance in Tripoli and other cities in western Libya, where many are suspicious of Haftar as a new Gaddafi.
    When asked about a possible offensive towards Tripoli, LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said only: “The army (LNA) is charge of protecting the whole of Libya.”    He said the force supported the idea of elections but saw no chance of reconciliation with former anti-LNA fighters.
SPLIT
    Benghazi was the first Libyan city to rise up, in February 2011, because Gaddafi had punished the east for disloyalty by essentially neglecting it during his 42 years in power.
    While Tripoli saw two years of relative stability once Gaddafi was killed, things went downhill within months in Benghazi as rival camps began to fight.
    By 2012, much of the city was a no-go zone with al Qaeda flags at checkpoints.    The U.S ambassador was killed by Islamist militants.
    Haftar assembled his old army comrades and declared war on the Islamists, a conflict he won only in November 2017.
    Since then, life in Benghazi has improved.    Critics say Haftar has resurrected the old police state and his supporters have seized the property of opponents who fled to western Libya, charges denied by officials.    But residents enjoy late-night shopping, theaters have reopened, and fuel shortages are a thing of the past.
    Benghazi is however divided over how much power should go to Haftar.
    His supporters refer to him as “mushir,” or field marshal, a title granted by the eastern parliament.    He is seen as a candidate for eventual presidential elections.
    “I can only see Khalifa Haftar as president.    He has built the state,” said Atluba, the cafe owner.
    But some activists who welcomed Haftar’s military victory now want a civilian leader.    They are careful to express support for the “jeish” (army), as the LNA is called, rather than for him.
    “I am not ready to give up a civil state,” said a lawyer who gave his name as Essam.    “For this we need an army like in any state.    But it won’t have a political role.”
THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE
    Residents meanwhile are testing the limits of how far they can go.
    At one theater, actors tackled corruption and the decline of state services by playing Libyans who need to go to Tunisia for medical treatment but can’t get tickets as officials have bribed airport staff to board overbooked flights.
    They steered clear of the military, but took a swipe at conservatives who have been backing the LNA.
    When one Libyan, having finally arrived in more liberal Tunis, is chided by a fellow countryman for drinking beer, he retorts to a roar of approval from the audience: “In Tunisia, you don’t need security approval to have a drink.”
    Haftar benefits from historic divisions between east and west – separate regions before Libya’s independence in 1951 – which have sharpened in recent years.
    His forces depend on tribal alliances in eastern Libya.    They have put out feelers to the west, where some have voiced support for Haftar, but their power base is in the east.
    The LNA has also attracted supporters of a “federalist” movement, campaigning since 2011 for more power for the east, which sits on much of Libya’s oil.
    The war’s destruction has created a sense of neglect in Benghazi as there is no money to rebuild.    At least 10,000 apartments and other sites such as the port and university campus were damaged or destroyed, officials say.
    The Tripoli-based central bank had almost $75 billion in foreign reserves but sends little cash to the eastern government, working only with the internationally recognized administration in Tripoli.
    Many Benghazi residents have lost patience with politicians and look to the military to get things done.
    “I refurbished my shop, which had been heavily damaged, without any help from the government,” said Anis Tajouri, who had just reopened a one-room store selling wedding dresses in Benghazi’s old market, formerly a combat zone.
    He called for a strong national leader: “The democracy we’ve had since 2011 hasn’t worked out.    We are a tribal society.”
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
[By the way if you did not know all the above problems were caused by Obama and Hillary's policies, which they have covered up or denied it.].

2/21/2019 Turkey condemns European parliament committee call to suspend accession
European Union (R) and Turkish flags fly at the business and financial
district of Levent in Istanbul, Turkey September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey criticized on Thursday as “unacceptable” a vote by the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee calling for the suspension of EU accession negotiations with it.
    The Foreign Affairs Committee called on the European Commission and member states on Wednesday to formally suspend EU accession negotiations with Turkey, citing disregard for human rights and civil liberties, influence on the judiciary, and disputes over territory with Cyprus and other neighbors.
    “It is absolutely unacceptable that the non-binding, advisory draft report is calling for a total suspension of our accession talks to the EU,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement.
    “We expect the necessary corrections to be made and the final report to be more realistic, impartial and encouraging. Only such a report will be taken into consideration by our country.”
    Turkey says EU membership remains one of its top strategic goals even though the accession talks, formally launched in 2004, have been stalled for years.    Some EU leaders and officials have called for them to be ended.
    “My expectation is that in two weeks a large majority of the EP will vote for the suspension of accession talks with Turkey, as EP Foreign Affairs (committee) did today,” Kati Piri, EU Rapporteur on Turkey, said in a tweet on Wednesday, referring to the European Parliament.
    In October, President Tayyip Erdogan said he would consider putting Turkey’s long-stalled bid to join the European Union to a referendum, signaling exasperation with a process he says has been waylaid by prejudice against Muslims.
    “Human rights violations and arrests of journalists occur on an almost daily basis while democracy and the rule of law in the country are undermined further,” European Parliament member Marietje Schaake said in a statement.
    “This, in combination with the constitutional changes has made Turkey’s accession to the European Union impossible at this stage.    The message of the Parliament today is crystal clear.    We attach consequences to Erdogan’s authoritarian grip on power.”
(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Additional Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans, Robert Birsel)

2/21/2019 Turkey’s Erdogan, Trump discussed U.S. withdrawal from Syria in phone call: state media
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President
Vladimir Putin, during their meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 14 February 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed in a phone call on Thursday to carry out the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria in line with their mutual interests, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said.
    In December, Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring that Islamic State had been defeated there.
    Erdogan previously said that uncertainty remained over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, adding there was talk of the pullout taking place in April or May.
    During their phone call, Erdogan and Trump agreed that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria should not damage the mutual goals of Ankara and Washington, Anadolu said.
        Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked with Kurdish militants on its own soil.
    Erdogan and Trump also discussed bilateral relations and the latest developments in Syria, Anadolu said, adding that the two agreed to support a political resolution to the Syria conflict.
    Erdogan reaffirmed Turkey’s desire to maintain close ties with the United States in the phone call and the two leaders agreed to improve bilateral economic ties, Anadolu said.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)

2/21/2019 Eastern Libyan military forces claim control of El Feel oilfield
A view shows El Feel oil field near Murzuq, Libya, July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Aidan Lewis/File Photo
    BENGHAZI, Libya/TUNIS (Reuters) – Eastern-based Libyan military forces took control on Thursday of the southwestern El Feel oilfield, their spokesman and a field engineer said.
    Production was unaffected and continuing in the range of 75,000 barrels a day, the usual level, the engineer said, asking not to be named.    He denied local media reports that there had been fighting inside the field located deep in Libya’s south.
    State oil firm National Oil Corp (NOC), which operates the field in a joint venture with Italy’s Eni, “is concerned about the developments near El Feel oilfield and is monitoring the situation closely to ensure the safety of its staff,” an NOC representative said.
    Forces loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar have waged an offensive in Libya’s south since last month.    Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) posted a video purporting to show their vehicles driving into El Feel.    Reuters was unable to confirm its authenticity.
    Separately, LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said his forces had allowed planes of oil firms bound for El Feel and the nearby El Sharara oilfield to resume flights.
    The LNA this month imposed a ban on any flights without its permission and carried out air strikes near El Feel after a plane arrived carrying a rival commander from Tripoli, home to the U.N.-recognized government.    Haftar backs a rival administration based in the east.
    The LNA last week secured the El Sharara oilfield located also in the south by cooperating with state guards which had occupied it in December to press officials into financial demands.
    NOC has not reopened El Sharara yet, demanding guarantees for its workers.    This week it sent an inspection team by road to assess the security, but no results have been made public yet.    El Sharara produced around 315,000 barrels per day until it got closed.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli, Ulf Laessing and Hesham Hajali; Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by David Evans and Leslie Adler)

2/22/2019 Israel’s first lunar lander launched into space from Florida by Joey Roulette
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Israel's first spacecraft designed to land on the moon is prepared for launch on the first privately-funded
lunar mission at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Thursday night carrying Israel’s first lunar lander on a mission that if successful will make the Jewish state only the fourth nation to achieve a controlled touchdown on the moon’s surface.
    The unmanned robotic lander dubbed Beresheet – Hebrew for the biblical phrase “in the beginning – soared into space from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at about 8:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT Friday) atop the 23-story-tall rocket.
    Beresheet, about the size of a dish-washing machine, was one of three sets of cargo carried aloft by the Falcon 9, part of the private rocket fleet of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s California-based company SpaceX.
    The rocket’s two other payloads were a telecommunications satellite for Indonesia and an experimental satellite for the U.S. Air Force.
    Beresheet was jettisoned into Earth orbit about 34 minutes after launch, followed 15 minutes later by the release of the two satellites, according to a SpaceX webcast of the event.
    In addition to a textbook launch and payload deployments, SpaceX scored yet another success in its pioneering technology for recycling its own rockets.
    Just minutes after blastoff, the Falcon 9’s nine-engine suborbital main-stage booster separated from the upper stage, flew back to Earth and landed safely on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean more than 300 miles (483 km) off the Florida coast.
    As seen from the launch site, the distant glow of the returning booster rocket was visible in the sky just as the moon appeared over the horizon.    The spectacle drew cheers from mission control engineers.
    The encouraging moment came on the eve of a key hurdle for SpaceX to clear in the company’s quest to help NASA revive its human spaceflight program.
    On Friday, NASA is expected to decide whether to give its final go-ahead to SpaceX for a first, unmanned test flight on March 2 of a new capsule the company designed for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
FROM EARTH TO THE MOON
    Beresheet is slated to reach its destination on the near-side of the moon in mid-April following a two-month journey through 4 million miles (6.5 million km) of space.
    A flight path directly from Earth to the moon would cover roughly 240,000 miles (386,242 km), but Beresheet will follow a more circuitous route.
    If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft’s gradually widening Earth orbit will eventually bring the probe within the moon’s gravitational pull, setting the stage for a series of additional maneuvers leading to an automated touchdown.
    So far, only three other nations have carried out controlled “soft” landings on the moon – the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.
    Spacecraft from several countries, including India’s Moon Impact Probe, Japan’s SELENE orbiter and a European Space Agency orbital probe called SMART 1, have intentionally crashed on the lunar surface.
    The U.S. Apollo program tallied six manned missions to the moon – the only ones yet achieved – between 1969 and 1972, with about a dozen more robotic landings combined by the Americans and Soviets.    China made history in January with its Chang’e 4, the first to touch down on the dark side of the moon.
    Beresheet would mark the first non-government lunar landing.    The 1,290-pound (585-kg) spacecraft was built by Israeli nonprofit space venture SpaceIL and state-owned defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) with $100 million furnished almost entirely by private donors.
    Beresheet is designed to spend just two to three days using on-board instruments to photograph its landing site and measure the moon’s magnetic field.    Data will be relayed via the U.S. space agency NASA’s Deep Space Network to SpaceIL’s Israel-based ground station Yehud.
    At the end of its brief mission, mission controllers plan to simply shut down the spacecraft, according to SpaceIL officials, leaving Beresheet as the latest piece of human hardware to litter the lunar landscape.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)

2/22/2019 Explainer: How Sisi’s backers are planning to change Egypt’s constitution
FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Russian
President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes that could allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2034 and tighten his control over the judiciary.
    The proposals, submitted by Sisi supporters in parliament, have divided the country of nearly 100 million people, the most populous in the Arab world.
    Supporters say the changes will allow the president to finalize economic reforms and major development projects.
    Opponents argue they will entrench authoritarian rule and further empower Egypt’s military.
WHAT ARE THE KEY CHANGES BEING CONSIDERED?
    One central proposal would amend article 140 of the constitution to extend the presidential term to six years from four.    It retains a two-term limit but includes a clause that would allow Sisi, whose second term expires in 2022, to seek two new six-year terms.
    The president would have more control over the appointment of judges and the public prosecutor.
    Lawmakers have also proposed introducing the post of vice president, allowing the head of state to appoint one or more deputies.
    A second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators would be added. The president would appoint one-third of its members.
    Article 200 of the constitution would be amended to give the military a duty to protect “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature.”
WHO IS BEHIND THE CHANGES?
    The amendments were initiated by the pro-government parliamentary bloc Support Egypt.    Under the current constitution, which was approved by referendum in 2014, amendments may be introduced to parliament at the request of a fifth of the assembly’s 596 members, or by the president.
    Parliament speaker Ali Abdelaal has sought to distance Sisi from the plan, saying it was purely a parliamentary initiative and that Sisi may choose not to run in 2022.
    But the proposed changes are widely seen as driven by Sisi, his close entourage, and security and intelligence agencies who hold real power in Egypt.    They follow months of speculation that the presidency was preparing to push constitutional changes through a pliant parliament.
WHAT DO SUPPORTERS OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES SAY?
    Supporters argue that Sisi came to power with a huge mandate after mass protests against Islamist President Mohamed Mursi’s one year in office.
    They say Sisi helped stabilize the country after three years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising, and has presided over economic reforms that put the country on the mend.
    With macro economic indicators improving, Sisi supporters say he deserves more time to build on the reforms.
WHO OPPOSES THE CHANGES AND WHY?
    A handful of leftist and liberal members of parliament in the so-called 25-30 opposition bloc oppose the changes.    But thousands of ordinary Egyptians, including lawyers, judges, actors, engineers, doctors and journalists have also signed a petition against them circulating on social media.    As of Feb. 18, organizers said more than 21,500 had signed.
    Critics say that while article 226 of the constitution stipulates that article 140 can be amended, it clearly states that such changes can only be made to reinforce civic rights rather than weakening them, as critics contend these proposals would.
    “This assembly has no right to amend articles related to the presidential election or rights, freedoms and equality except to provide more guarantees,” Ahmed al-Tantawi, a member of the 25-30 bloc, said.
    Opponents argue that a central promise of the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising, when mass protests prompted former President Hosni Mubarak to step down, is at risk: the principle of the peaceful handover of power.
    Ahmed Galal, a former finance minister, said the amendments represented a return to the system that kept Mubarak in power for three decades.
    “Isn’t the principle of the transfer of power a precious goal in itself?” Galal wrote in a column published in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
    Many Egyptians also worry that the amendments give the president powers to appoint judges and the public prosecutor, thrust the armed forces into political life by formally assigning them a role in protecting democracy, and establish further curbs on freedom of expression.
    Opponents say Sisi, first elected president in 2014 and reelected last year in a vote in which the only other candidate was an ardent Sisi supporter, has overseen the worst period of political repression in Egypt’s modern history and that his economic reforms are not benefiting average Egyptians.
HOW DO WESTERN POWERS VIEW THE CHANGES?
    The United States and its Western allies have not publicly commented on the changes, which they see as an internal Egyptian matter.    But they maintain that the stability of Egypt is crucial for the security and stability of the Middle East.
    During a regional tour last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showered Sisi with praise as a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
    French President Emmanuel Macron said in Cairo last month that “things haven’t gone in the right direction since 2017,” pointing out that bloggers, journalists were in prison.
    “Because of that, Egypt’s image can find itself suffering,” he said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
    After two days of heated discussions on Feb. 14, parliament passed the amendments in principle by an overwhelming majority of 485 votes against 14. Nearly 100 MPs were absent.
    The head of parliament’s legislative and constitution committee, Bahaa Abu Shaqqa, said proposals and suggestions from outside parliament would be collected for one month, with two weeks of parliamentary discussions to follow, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm.
    Then parliament will hold a second, final vote.
    If approved, the proposals will be put to a referendum expected by the middle of this year, possibly before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that starts in May.
(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Robin Pomeroy)

2/22/2019 Northern Syria administration says U.S. troop decision will protect area
FILE PHOTO: Abdulkarim Omar, head of the foreign relations commission in the autonomous
administration speaks during a news conference in Qamishli, Syria September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Kurdish-led administration that runs much of northern Syria welcomed a U.S. decision to keep 200 American troops in Syria after a U.S. pullout, saying it would protect their region and may encourage European states to keep forces there too.
    “We evaluate the White House decision … positively,” Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the region held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told Reuters.
    “This decision may encourage other European states, particularly our partners in the international coalition against terrorism, to keep forces in the region,” he added.
    “I believe that keeping a number of American troops and a larger number of (other) coalition troops, with air protection, will play a role in securing stability and protecting the region too,” he said.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry)

2/22/2019 U.S. to leave 200 American peacekeepers in Syria after pullout by Steve Holland and Idrees Ali
FILE PHOTO: Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border
in Hasakah, Syria Nov. 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will leave “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.
    Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops in Syria, saying they had defeated Islamic State militants there, even as U.S.-backed Syrian forces continued a final push against the group’s last outpost.
    But Trump has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy to ensure the protection of Kurdish forces, who supported the fight against Islamic State and who might now be threatened by Turkey, and to serve as a bulwark against Iran’s influence.
    “A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
    The decision was announced after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.    A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone.”
    A senior administration official said Trump’s decision had been in the works for some time.    It was unclear how long the 200 troops would be expected to remain in the area or where exactly they would be deployed.
    Leaving even a small group of U.S. troops in Syria could pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.
    The commander of U.S.-backed Syrian forces has called for 1,000 to 1,500 international troops to remain in the country to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.
‘CLEAR DIRECTION’
    The decision to retain peacekeepers could help Trump overcome criticism that he had ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria that could lead to Islamic State regaining strength.
    “This is a clear direction to our allies and coalition members that we will be on the ground in some capacity,” the senior U.S. administration official said.
    Until now, European allies have balked at providing troops unless they received a firm commitment that Washington was still committed to the region.
    Belgian Defense Minister Didier Reynders told reporters on Thursday before a meeting with acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan that the issue of keeping troops in Syria in the future would be a matter for discussion with U.S. officials.
    Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
    The White House did not say where exactly its troops would be based.    In addition to northeast Syria, officials have talked about the importance of keeping some troops at the strategic Tanf garrison on the Iraq-Jordan border.
    A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the initial plan was to have some troops in northeastern Syria and some at Tanf. The official said planning was ongoing and could change.
    The Tanf garrison was set up when Islamic State fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq.    But since the militants were driven out, Tanf has assumed a role as part of a U.S. strategy to contain Iran’s military buildup.
    U.S. officials have told Reuters that while in Munich last week, Shanahan held a meeting on Syria with a small group of defense ministers.    They talked about needing some sort of security arrangement in northeast Syria after the United States left.    Shanahan will meet his Turkish counterpart on Friday.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham issued a statement applauding Trump’s decision to keep a small contingent of U.S. troops in Syria as part of an international stabilizing force, saying the president had followed sound military advice that would help avoid the problems the United States faced in Iraq.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Idrees Ali; Editing by Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler)

2/22/2019 Syria Kurds evacuate civilians from IS redoubt, hail Trump troop reversal by Rodi Said and Ellen Francis
Trucks loaded with civilians ride near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Kurdish-led forces in Syria said they would complete the evacuation of thousands of civilians from Islamic State’s last redoubt in the area on Friday, and welcomed a White House reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out all U.S. troops.
    With Washington’s allies poised for victory against Islamic State fighters making a final stand in a pocket near the Iraqi border, the White House announced plans on Thursday to keep “a small peacekeeping force,” of 200 troops in Syria.
    The announcement partially reversed Trump’s abrupt decision in December to withdraw the entire 2,000-strong U.S. contingent, which had alarmed Washington’s Kurdish allies and prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to quit.
    An administration official later put the total number of troops to stay at 400, split between a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria and a U.S. military base at Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan.
    Although the U.S. contingent would now be small, the official indicated that the 200 troops in the northwest would be part of a wider commitment of about 800-1,500 troops also drawn from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone.
    Kurdish leaders suggested the U.S. troop decision could have a large impact on the fate of the area, preventing a security vacuum.    Washington could keep control of the air space and European allies could complement the force with more troops.
    The planned assault on the final Islamic State redoubt in the area, Baghouz, would effectively end the territorial rule of the jihadist group, which ruled around a third of both Iraq and Syria at its self-proclaimed Caliphate’s height four years ago.
    Reporters near the front line at Baghouz saw dozens of trucks leaving loaded with civilians, and empty ones driving inside accompanied by fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia.
    Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, said the evacuation would be completed on Friday, with thousands of civilians still inside the pocket from an estimated 7,000 at the start of the day, though by nightfall it was unclear if it had been completed.    More than 20,000 civilians have left Baghouz in recent weeks, according to previous SDF estimates.
    The U.S.-led coalition which supports the SDF has said Islamic State’s “most hardened fighters” are holed up inside.
    “If we succeed in evacuating all the civilians, at any moment we will take the decision to storm Baghouz or force the terrorists to surrender,” said Bali.
    Though the fall of Baghouz would mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the militant group is still seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and still holding some territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.
REVERSAL WELCOMED
    The battle against Islamic State in the area has taken place since December in the shadow of Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw all U.S. troops, which raised doubt about the future of the fighters that had served as U.S. allies on the ground.
    The Kurdish-led authorities in the north welcomed the White House reversal.    They had feared that a total U.S. withdrawal would leave their area exposed to attack by Turkey, which sees the main Kurdish militia as a national security threat.
    “We evaluate the White House decision … positively,” Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the region held by the U.S.-backed SDF told Reuters.
    “This decision may encourage other European states, particularly our partners in the international coalition against terrorism, to keep forces in the region,” Omar added.    “I believe that keeping a number of American troops and a larger number of (other) coalition troops, with air protection, will play a role in securing stability and protecting the region too.”
    The SDF’s top commander earlier this week called for 1,000 to 1,500 international troops to remain in Syria to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope Washington would halt Trump’s plans for a total pullout.
    A Western diplomat said it remained to be seen whether European allies would contribute troops, or whether the force would be able to secure the area.
    “Even if 200 troops remain and the U.S. decides to continue claiming the airspace, it’s not clear whether that would convince Britain, France and other partners to stay — and whether that could keep the Syrian regime out of the northeast for now, or Turkey, or an IS resurgence.”
    The Kurds, who want to preserve the autonomy they have carved out, have made overtures to President Bashar al-Assad, urging government forces to deploy at the borders as Washington withdraws.    The U.S. decision may strengthen the Kurds’ hand.
    “I believe that these forces in this region … will be a motivation, an incentive and also a means of pressure on Damascus to try seriously to have a dialogue to resolve the Syrian crisis,” Omar said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Tom PerryEditing by Peter Graff, William Maclean)

2/22/2019 Top U.S. general confident allies will step up in Syria
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford attends a meeting of the National Space Council
in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. military officer said on Friday he was confident that U.S. allies would step up in Syria, after Washington announced it would be leaving hundreds of troops in Syria.
    In addition, Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “There is no change in the basic campaign (in Syria).    The resourcing is being adjusted because the threat has been changed.”
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Leslie Adler)

2/22/2019 Israeli gunfire kills Gaza teenager during border protests
A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence,
east of Gaza City February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
    GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager and wounded around 40 others at a protest attended by thousands on the Gaza Strip border on Friday, Gaza health officials said.
    Israel’s military said it was acting against rioters, some of whom tried throwing grenades and explosive devices into Israel from the Gaza Strip, a territory controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.
    More than 220 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops since weekly border demonstrations began in March 2018, and thousands wounded.    One Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
    Dubbed The Great March of Return, the protests call for the right to return to lands from which their ancestors fled or were forced to flee in 1948 during Israel’s founding.
    Protesters are also calling for an end to a grinding Israeli-led blockade of Gaza, an enclave home to two million people.
    Gaza’s health ministry said a 15-year-old boy died after being shot by Israeli gunfire.    An Israeli army spokeswoman said soldiers had used “riot dispersal means” and opened fire “in accordance with standard operating procedures.”
(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/22/2019 High turnout, low expectations for first EU-Arab summit by Aidan Lewis and Gabriela Baczynska
FILE PHOTO: Tourists enjoy the water on a beach at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh,
south of Cairo, Egypt December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/File Photo
    CAIRO/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Egypt will host the first joint summit of Arab League and European Union leaders starting on Sunday, a gathering overshadowed by internal divisions in both alliances and last-minute talks on Brexit.
    The two-day summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is billed as a starting point for the two regional bodies to boost cooperation on shared strategic priorities including migration, security and climate change.
    Economic development, the Palestinian question, and the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen are also up for discussion.
    But after a build-up in which officials struggled to settle on an agenda or final declaration, expectations for concrete action on any of those subjects are modest at best.
    “We don’t see on all these issues eye-to-eye with the Arab world,” said a senior EU official.    “But interdependence calls for dialogue and mutual engagement.    Whatever happens there is very relevant to us and vice versa.”
    More than 20 European heads of state or government will be at the summit, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
    But many confirmed their attendance only after it became clear that neither Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir nor Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would show up.
    The Saudi de facto ruler has been shunned since U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, and the Saudi delegation is expected to be led by King Salman.    Bashir is subject to an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court and facing protests in which dozens have been killed.
‘STRONGER GLOBAL ROLE’
    EU officials stress longer-term engagement with its southern neighborhood.    A German government source said the EU wanted to “demonstrate its aim to play a stronger global role.”
    “The goal is to start a dialogue with other world regions.    By that the EU aims to counter Russia’s and China’s growing influence in these regions,” the source said.
    But Brexit will consume time on the sidelines, with London hoping May will have a chance in bilateral meetings to lobby for concessions that would unlock approval for a withdrawal deal in Britain’s divided parliament.
    Egypt, which hosts the Arab League headquarters and is one of the body’s two heavy weights along with Saudi Arabia, has dominated preparations for the summit on the Arab side.
    It is being rewarded for its role in shutting off migrant crossings from its northern coast – a role for which it has sought more recognition, Western diplomats say, as the EU has turned increasingly hawkish on immigration since a dramatic rise in arrivals in 2015 caught the bloc unprepared.
    The League is also expecting a good turnout of heads of state, but disunity is close to the surface.    Qatar said its invitation came not to its permanent representative but in a memo sent to the Greek embassy in Doha – which now represents Egyptian interests in the Gulf state because of a Saudi-led boycott – a method it considered a breach of protocol.
    However, Qatar’s “policy when it comes to such unprofessional behavior has always been and will always be taking the higher road,” a foreign ministry official said.    “Therefore we will participate in the summit.”
    European countries are often semi-unified, putting them at an advantage over more divided Arab states, and may steer the focus to blocking migration and counter-terrorism, said Bashir Abdel Fattah, an analyst at Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
    Former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Arab nations needed to assert themselves.
    “If the Arab side weakens itself, Europe will impose its agenda,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad, Liz Piper, Hans Edzard Busemann and Eric Knecht; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/22/2019 Hundreds protest in Sudan after Friday prayers
FILE PHOTO: Sudanese demonstrators run from a teargas canister fired by riot policemen to disperse them as they
participate in anti-government protests in Omdurman, Khartoum, Sudan January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Security forces fired teargas to disperse hundreds of protesters who marched and chanted anti-government slogans following Friday prayers at a major mosque near the Sudanese capital, eyewitnesses said.
    The demonstration in the city of Omdurman outside Al-Sayed Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi mosque, which has ties to the opposition Umma party, was the latest in what have become near-daily protests in Sudan since Dec. 19.
    Protesters chanted “the revolution is the choice of the people” and “fall, that’s it,” to express that their only demand is the end of President Omar al-Bashir’s rule.
    The demonstrations were triggered by price increases and cash shortages but have developed into the most sustained challenge to Bashir since he took power three decades ago.
    Activists say nearly 60 people have been killed during two months of protests, while authorities put the death toll at 32, including three security personnel.
    Security forces have used tear gas and live bullets to disperse protesters, and have arrested people including opposition party members, activists and journalists.
    Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region, which he denies.    He has been lobbying for Sudan to be removed from a list of countries Washington deems state sponsors of terrorism.
    The listing has blocked the investment and financial aid that Sudan was hoping for when the United States lifted sanctions in 2017, economists say.
    Sudan has been rapidly expanding its money supply in an attempt to finance its budget deficit, causing spiraling inflation and a steep decline in the value of its currency.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Lena Masri; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/22/2019 Sudan’s Bashir tells parliament to postpone constitutional amendments
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir addresses his supporters during a rally at the
Green Square in Khartoum, Sudan January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on Friday called on parliament to postpone constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for another term in a presidential election in 2020.
    Facing the biggest popular protests since he came to power 30 years ago, Bashir also declared a state of emergency for one year and said he would dissolve the central government and state governments.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, writing by Lena Masri, Editing by William Maclean)

2/22/2019 Prayers at Jerusalem mosque end peacefully after days of tension
Palestinian Muslims enter the Golden Gate near Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prayers at the compound of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque passed off peacefully on Friday despite a week of tension over access to a corner of the compound.
    Israeli police had increased their presence over concerns of violence as thousands of Muslim worshippers gathered at the holy site, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
    Before the prayer session, police arrested 60 people they suspected would incite violence, a police spokesman said.
    The dispute focused on a passageway of gates and a stairway leading to a hall that had been closed by Israeli authorities for years and was reopened on Friday by Muslim religious officials.    The hall is located a short distance from Al-Aqsa mosque itself.
    Israeli police had heightened their presence throughout Jerusalem’s walled old city to prevent any clashes from breaking out, the police spokesman said.
    The old city was among areas Israel captured in a 1967 war with Jordan, which retains a stewardship role at the mosque.
(Reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/22/2019 Thousands of Algerians protest against Bouteflika’s re-election bid
A protester confronts police, who used tear gas to disperse crowds as people marched to protest against
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to seek a fifth term, in Algiers, Algeria, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
    ALGIERS (Reuters) – Thousands of people in cities across Algeria marched on Friday to protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term and police used tear gas to disperse crowds in the capital.
    The 81-year-old Bouteflika, in office since 1999, will contest the April 18 presidential election despite concerns over his health.    He has been seen in public only a handful of times since suffering a stroke in 2013.
    “No to Bouteflika and no to Said,” a crowd chanted while marching through the center of Algiers.    The president’s youngest brother Said Bouteflika is a presidential adviser.
    Reuters journalists filmed riot police firing tear gas over a crowd that ran to escape.
    Publicized on social media, the demonstrations went ahead despite mosque preachers warning of possible violence.
    “We and the security (forces) are brothers,” some protesters called in the capital.
    Protests were held in at least five other cities, including Oran, Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia, Annaba and Setif, news website TSA said, citing witnesses and posting videos.
    Bouteflika’s re-election bid comes after the ruling FLN party picked him as its official presidential candidate.
    Several political parties, trade unions and business organizations have already said they would back him, and he is expected to win easily as the opposition remains weak and divided.
    Strikes and protests over social and economic grievances are frequent in Algeria, but are generally localized and do not touch on national politics.
    More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed, according to official figures, and many feel disconnected from a ruling elite made up of veteran fighters from Algeria’s 1954-1962 independence war with France.
    While the “Arab Spring” protests of 2011 toppled leaders in fellow North African countries Tunisia and Egypt, Algerian security forces managed to contain those mass demonstrations.
    The government was able to further calm tensions by increasing spending as oil and gas revenues, the country’s lifeline, flowed freely from crude sold at $100 a barrel.
    Bouteflika’s office said late on Thursday that he would travel to Switzerland on Sunday for “routine medical checks,” without giving further details. He has traveled before to Geneva for medical tests.
    Bouteflika remains popular with many Algerians, who credit him with ending a long civil war by offering an amnesty to former Islamist militant fighters.
    His re-election would provide short-term stability for the FLN, the army and business tycoons, and postpone a potentially difficult succession.
    Algeria is a key gas supplier to Europe and an ally of the United States in the fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel region of North Africa.
(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/23/2019 Erdogan says safe zone on Syria border must be under Turkey’s control
FILE PHOTO - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured)
in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia February 14, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Any safe zone along Turkey’s border with Syria must be under Turkish control, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday in an interview with broadcaster CNN Turk.
    He was speaking after a senior U.S. administration official said on Friday Washington would leave about 400 U.S. troops in Syria, a reversal by President Donald Trump that could pave the way for U.S. allies to keep troops there.
    “If there is to be a safe zone along our border then it must be under our control.    Because that is my border,” Erdogan said.
    Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria in December after saying they had defeated Islamic State, a decision criticized by allies and U.S. lawmakers.
    He was persuaded on Thursday that about 200 U.S. troops should join what is expected to be a total commitment of some 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies to set up a safe zone in northeastern Syria, a U.S. administration official said.
    Ankara regards the Kurdish YPG militia, which controls that region and has been a key U.S. ally against Islamic State, as a terrorist group.    Turkey has repeatedly threatened to intervene militarily against the YPG east of the Euphrates river where the safe zone is planned.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

2/23/2019 Sudan’s Bashir names VP, prime minister as protests continue by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir waves to his supporters during a rally at the
Green Square in Khartoum, Sudan January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese police fired teargas at demonstrators on Saturday as fresh protests broke out against the rule of President Omar al-Bashir, after he appointed a new prime minister and first vice president a day after declaring a state of emergency.
    Police confronted dozens of protesters in the Shambat neighborhood of Khartoum North, and similarly sized crowds in the Wad Nubawi and Abbasiya neighborhoods of Omdurman, witnesses said.
    Protesters in Shambat blocked a road and burned car tires, witnesses said.    Demonstrators chanted “Revolution is the people’s choice,” and other slogans, in Wad Nubawi.    In Abbasiya chants included “Down, that’s it,” a rallying call that underlines their main demand for Bashir to go.
    A statement from the president’s office said Mohamed Tahir Ayala, the governor of Gezira state who was previously touted by Bashir as a potential successor as president, was appointed prime minister.
    Defence Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, an ex-military intelligence chief, became first vice president, while retaining his defense portfolio.
    Bashir had declared a one-year nationwide state of emergency on Friday and set up a caretaker administration.    He replaced all state governors with military officials.
    In a televised speech he urged his opponents to join a “path of national reconciliation” and dialogue.    He called on parliament to postpone constitutional amendments that would allow him to seek another term in 2020, but stopped short of saying explicitly he would not run.
    There was no sign Friday’s speech had calmed the streets. Protests continued late into the night across the capital Khartoum. Stones and debris from burned tires and branches littered many streets on Saturday.
    The National Consensus Forces, one of the main opposition groups, said the state of emergency was aimed at countering a “popular revolution” and vowed to push ahead until Bashir is toppled.
CURRENT CRISIS
    The National Umma Party, headed by Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, who was toppled by Bashir in a 1989 military coup, sharply criticized the speech in a statement on Saturday.
    “It was a contradictory speech and does not relate to the reality of the current crisis in our country in any way,” National Umma, one of the main opposition parties, said.    “It does not fulfill the least of the Sudanese street’s demands.”
    Activists say nearly 60 people have been killed since protests began more than two months ago, while authorities put the death toll at 32, including three security personnel.
    Sudan last had a nationwide state of emergency in 1999.    States of emergency have been declared in several states as protests intensified.
    Security forces arrested Osman Mirghani, editor-in-chief of prominent independent newspaper Al-Tayyar, late on Friday, his family told Reuters.
    Mirghani appeared on regional broadcaster Al Arabiya Al Hadath and criticized Bashir’s Friday speech.    He then returned to Al-Tayyar’s offices where security forces detained him, his family said.
    Facing mounting unrest at home, Bashir has sought support abroad from fellow Arab leaders.    Bashir and Defence Minister Ibn Auf met on Saturday with the emir of Qatar’s envoy Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah.
    Earlier this month, he struck a conciliatory tone toward the protests, saying young people caught up in the recent turmoil had “reasonable ambition.”
    Bashir, an Islamist and former military officer, is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague over charges of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region, which he denies.    He has been lobbying for Sudan to be removed from a list of countries which Washington deems state sponsors of terrorism.
    The listing has blocked the investment and financial aid that Sudan was hoping for when the United States lifted sanctions in 2017, economists say.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Yousef Saba; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and David Holmes)

2/23/2019 U.S. ‘gravely concerned’ about reports of civil society indictments in Turkey: State Department
An AK Party supporter waves a Turkish flag outside the Tarabya mansion in Istanbul, Turkey June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is “gravely concerned” by reports that prosecutors in Turkey have moved to indict 16 civil society, media and business leaders, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday.
    “The ability to exercise the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association is fundamental to any healthy democracy,” Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.    “We urge Turkey to respect these freedoms and to release all those held arbitrarily.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; editing by Grant McCool)

2/24/2019 Tunnels, civilians slow capture of Islamic State’s last Syria pocket by Ellen Francis and Rodi Said
FILE PHOTO: A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gives bread to children near
the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo
    DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – More than a thousand foreign jihadists could still be sheltering among civilians in Islamic State’s final stronghold in east Syria, a shred of land riddled with defensive tunnels, an official with the U.S.-backed force trying to defeat them said on Sunday.
    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia has surrounded the militants at the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border and is trying to complete an evacuation of civilians from the tiny area before storming it or forcing a surrender.
    Throughout its steady advance across the Syrian stretch of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, the SDF has been slowed by the group’s extensive use of tunnels and human shields – tactics it says are still being deployed in Baghouz.
    “,” said Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman.    “This creates a military problem for us.”
    The capture of Baghouz will end a campaign of conventional warfare which began in the ruins of Kobani on Syria’s border with Turkey in late 2014, when the SDF’s strongest component, the Kurdish YPG militia, halted the jihadist advance.
    It was the high water mark for the caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared earlier that year from a medieval mosque in Mosul, northern Iraq, followed by years of steady jihadist defeats that now culminate in the steppe of eastern Syria.
    Despite the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria, however, local and Western officials warn the group will still pose a threat there, going underground and using guerrilla tactics.
SURRENDER OR WAR
    On the long road through SDF territory to Baghouz, there are numerous checkpoints run by the Kurdish Asayish security force, and SDF officials warned of ambushes and bomb-rigged motorcycles.
    On the walls of a military base not far from the front line are SDF murals, as well as some vaunting the military feats of the YPG and its all-women counterpart, the YPJ.
    Bali said around 6,000 civilians have come out of Baghouz in recent days, many of them jihadists’ wives and children.    Some 20,000 had already left over the preceding weeks before the final phase of the siege began.
    Some of the fighters have attempted to slip out with them, and the SDF has set up screening points to vet everybody leaving the enclave.
    However, Bali said it was hard to predict how many non-combatants remain inside the pocket and that although sources inside Baghouz have said there may be 5,000 civilians, previous estimates have turned out to be wrong.
    As for the number of Islamic State fighters, “there could be more than 1,000.    They are all foreigners,” he said.
    “They are very fierce and professional, with high levels of experience.    These are the elite fighters of Daesh who have gathered here from all over the world,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
    The operation to pull out remaining civilians in trucks and buses over poor roads was delayed on Sunday because of bad weather, but Bali said it would continue.
    “We will not end our moral victory over Daesh with a massacre,” he said.    “Whatever the price and whatever we can do we will work to evacuate the civilians.    After that, the attack.    There are two options: surrender or war.”
(Reporting By Ellen Francis and Rodi Said; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

2/24/2019 At home and abroad, Netanyahu faces backlash for far-right alliance by Maayan Lubell
FILE PHOTO : Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media
in Tel Aviv, Israel February 21, 2019 REUTERS/ Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has touched off rare criticism from AIPAC, the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby, over an election alliance with a far-right party loyal to the policies of the late anti-Arab rabbi, Meir Kahane.
    Faced with a new merger of centrist parties that opinion polls show might defeat him, Netanyahu engineered the deal between Jewish Power and another ultranationalist faction, Jewish Home, on Wednesday.
    Polls suggest that without the alliance one or both of the far right parties might fail to reach the 3.25 percent threshold needed to win any seats in the 120-member parliament.    With the merger they could win as many as five.
    Netanyahu has defended the merger as a way to improve his chances of forming a right-wing governing coalition led by his Likud Party, to serve for a fifth term after the April 9 vote.
    Such a bloc, he said, would best protect Israel’s security.
    But criticism leveled by AIPAC and another major U.S. Jewish group, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), against Jewish Power dominated coverage in Israel on Sunday of the closely-contested race.
    “AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party,” the lobbying group said, echoing comments tweeted by the AJC.
    AIPAC has generally provided unflinching backing for Netanyahu’s policies during his 13 years in power, even as some U.S. Jewish organizations have expressed reservations over Israel’s lurch to the right.
    Netanyahu’s leading opponent, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, a leader of the new centrist Blue and White alliance, said the prime minister had crossed an ethical line and was damaging “our important relationship with U.S. Jews.”
    On the heels of its criticism, AIPAC announced on Twitter on Sunday that Netanyahu has confirmed he will address its annual policy conference in Washington late next month.
    Jewish Power’s leaders have described themselves as successors to Kahane, a U.S.-born rabbi who served one term in parliament in the 1980s before his Kach party was banned by Israel as racist.
    Kahane, assassinated in New York in 1990 by an Egyptian-born American gunman, advocated the “transfer” of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries and a ban on intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
    “We usually do not interfere in elections.    However, in this case, our voice needs to be heard,” Avital Leibovich, director of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Congress, told Reuters on Sunday.
    Asked on Army Radio on Sunday about AIPAC’s criticism, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Jewish Power leader, said: “They aren’t based here, they don’t see the terrorist attacks or experience firsthand the blood that is spilled here.”
    Jewish Power’s Baruch Marzel, who along with Ben-Gvir is a settler in the occupied West Bank, told Reuters the party gets “a lot of support from Jews and non-Jews” in the United States who believe God promised the biblical land of Israel to the Jewish people.
    Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, also condemned AIPAC, accusing it in a banner headline of “playing into the hands of media and politicians out to slam the right-wing.”
(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Rami Amichay and Dedi Hayun; editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

2/24/2019 Israel releases Muslim cleric arrested after Jerusalem holy site unrest
Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, looks on after he was released by Israeli police at a police station in Jerusalem February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police on Sunday arrested and later released a senior Muslim cleric who helps administrate a sacred compound in the Old City, two days after he re-opened a mosque sealed by Israel during a Palestinian uprising in 2003.
    Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, who sits on the religious council appointed by Jordan to oversee the Islamic sites at the compound, personally reopened the gate leading into the Bab al-Rahmeh mosque on Friday, and hundreds of Muslims went inside to pray for the first time in years.
    It followed days of tension between Israeli police and the Muslim religious authorities over access to a corner of the 35-acre sacred compound known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary.
    In the build up to Friday prayers police arrested 60 people they suspected would incite violence, and boosted the security presence in the Old City.    But the day passed without serious incident.
    Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told Reuters Salhab and another person were arrested on Sunday morning, two days after the incident, for breaching an order, and that they were being held for questioning.
    Salhab’s lawyer said that Israeli police had banned him from accessing the compound for a week, but there was no immediate comment from the police on whether they had issued such an order.
    The small Bab al-Rahmeh mosque that Salhab opened lies on the eastern side of the compound, which is revered by Jews as the site of the Jewish temples of antiquity.
    Muslims regard it as the third holiest site in Islam.    Its present-day skyline is dominated by two Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
    Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, denounced the arrests “in the strongest terms” and demanded their immediate release.
    Jordan’s minister in charge of the Waqf and Islamic affairs, Abdul Nasser Moussa Abu al-Basal, called it “an unacceptable and dangerous escalation that impacts Jordan’s role as a caretaker of Jerusalem’s holy sites.”
    Because of the religious sensitivities over the site the king of Jordan retains a role in ensuring the upkeep of the Muslim holy places in the city and Jordan appoints the Waqf Council which oversees compound.
    Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.    The United Nations regards East Jerusalem as occupied, and the city’s status as disputed until resolved by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
(Reporting by Ali Sawafta, Rami Ayyub and Maayan Lubell; editing by Stephen Farrell and Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/24/2019 Sudanese protesters confronted by security forces as Bashir swears in officials by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace
in Khartoum, Sudan, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    Khartoum (Reuters) – Sudanese security forces fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters in the capital Khartoum and across the river Nile in Omdurman on Sunday, a Reuters witness said.
    About a thousand protesters were confronted by forces in military uniform in Omdurman as President Omar al-Bashir swore in new officials after he dissolved the central and state governments on Friday.
    Hundreds demonstrated in the Burri neighborhood of Khartoum, where they blocked a main road, set fire to car tires and chanted “Freedom! Freedom!.”
    Pillars of smoke could be seen rising over the area, where police fired heavy volumes of tear gas, the Reuters witness said.
    Bashir appointed Mustafa Youssef to replace Moatazz Moussa as finance minister on Sunday, a presidential statement said.
    Bashir, facing the country’s biggest protests since he came to power 30 years ago, wore military uniform as he swore in a new first vice president, prime minister and governors of Sudanese states.
    Mustafa Youssef was appointed to replace Moatazz Moussa as finance minister on Sunday, a presidential statement said.
    Moussa had been both prime minister and finance minister, but has lost both positions within two days.    Bashir on Saturday appointed Mohamed Tahir Ayala as prime minister.
    Ayala, the governor of Gezira state, has been touted by Bashir as a potential successor as president.
    Defence Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, an ex-military intelligence chief, became first vice president, while retaining his defense portfolio. Bashir also kept in place his justice and foreign ministers.
    Bashir had declared a one-year nationwide state of emergency on Friday and replaced all state governors with military officials.    At their swearing in on Sunday, the new governors and Ibn Auf also wore military uniform.
    Bashir on Friday also called on parliament to postpone constitutional amendments that would allow him to seek another term in a 2020 presidential election.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Amina Ismail and Yousef Saba; Editing by David Goodman)

2/24/2019 Egypt denounces U.N. over executions criticism
FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with
Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s foreign ministry on Sunday condemned the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for criticizing trials that led to the execution of nine people last week.
    Nine men were executed on Wednesday over the 2015 killing of the country’s chief prosecutor amid a surge in the number of death sentences carried out this month.
    The OHCHR voiced concern on Friday that trials that led to the executions of 15 people in Egypt this month may have been unfair amid allegations that torture was used to obtain confessions.
    “Egypt rejects any reference to allegations that confessions were extracted,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that it “rejects any infringement upon the Egyptian judiciary.”
    Since 2013, when the military under then-army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, Egyptian courts have issued hundreds of death sentences.    Only a small proportion have been carried out, though the rate of executions has risen since 2015, rights activists say.
(Reporting by Amina Ismail; editing by Jason Neely)

2/24/2019 Yemen’s Houthis to quit two ports Monday under peace deal: sources by Aziz El Yaakoubi
FILE PHOTO - Armed Houthi followers carry their rifles as they attend a gathering to show support
for the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Yemen December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian-aligned Houthi forces have agreed to draw back from two Yemeni ports on Monday while withdrawal from the main Hodeidah port will occur later alongside a retreat by coalition-backed forces massed outside the city, U.N. and Yemeni sources said.
    Houthi forces will withdraw 5 km (3 miles) from the ports of Saleef, used for grain, and Ras Isa, an oil terminal, as a first step agreed with the internationally recognized government, three sources said.
    The Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah port and the pull-back by coalition forces 1 km away from the city’s “Kilo 7” eastern suburb would take place as a second step, they said.
    An orderly troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, now a focus of an almost four-year war, is key to U.N.-led efforts to avert a full-scale assault on the port and pave the way for political negotiations.
    The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
    The United Nations has been trying to salvage a truce deal agreed at peace talks in December between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government.    That process has stalled over who would control of Hodeidah, a Red Sea port used to feed Yemen’s 30 million people.
    Hodeidah is held by the Houthis while other Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition loyal to ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are positioned on the edges of the city.
    Hadi’s top negotiator, Foreign Minister Khalid al-Yamani, said the initial Houthi redeployment must be verified before further progress can be made and humanitarian corridors reopened.
    “This is what was agreed by the Yemeni government: we verify the first step before implementing the second,” he told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in remarks published on Sunday.
    A small team of U.N. observers arrived in Hodeidah after the ceasefire went into effect on Dec. 18 to oversee troop redeployments by both sides.
    The deal calls for local authorities to assume control of Hodeidah but did not detail the process, leaving it open to interpretation.
    The Western-backed Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014.
    The conflict, widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been locked in military stalemate.
    The Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption, control most urban centers including Sanaa.    Hadi’s government holds the southern port of Aden and a string of coastal towns.
(Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir; editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Jason Neely)

2/25/2019 African Union observers say Nigeria’s election generally peaceful
Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials collate results from various polling units
at the INEC Yola North Local Government Area Office in Adamawa State, as the country awaits the results of the
Presidential election, in Yola, Nigeria February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Nyancho NwaNri
    ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigeria’s election took place in a generally peaceful environment, the head of the African Union observer mission said on Monday, in his first public comments about the delayed presidential poll on Saturday.
    Analysts say the presidential election pitting President Muhammadu Buhari against businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar will be Nigeria’s tightest since the end of military rule in 1999.
    At stake is the leadership of Africa’s top oil producer, a country with the continent’s biggest economy whose decade-long battle with Islamist militants concentrated in the northeast makes it central to regional stability.
    Early results were expected to trickle in on Monday, but it was unclear when a winner would be declared.
    A credible and relatively calm poll would open a new chapter in the chequered political history of Nigeria, where nearly six decades of independence have been tarnished by military coups, endemic corruption and secessionist movements.
    “The 2019 elections took place in a generally peaceful environment,” said AU observer mission head Hailemariam Desalegn, the former prime minister of Ethiopia.
    As many as 39 people have been killed in election violence, civil society groups said on Sunday.
    The Situation Room – which represents more than 70 civil society groups – reported 39 deaths after Saturday’s vote.
    In previous elections, the death toll has been higher, but most unrest typically occurs after results are announced.
    “Since beginning of campaigns in Oct 2018, more than 260 politically motivated deaths,” Clement Nwankwo, convener of the Situation Room, which had 9,000 observers, told reporters.
(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Paul Carsten; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

2/25/2019 Senegal president’s camp claims re-election victory but opposition cries foul by Sofia Christensen, Juliette Jabkhiro and Diadie Ba
Senegal's President and candidate for the presidential elections Macky Sall speaks after casting his vote
at a polling station in Fatick, Senegal February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
    DAKAR/FATICK, Senegal (Reuters) – Senegal President Macky Sall’s team claimed he won re-election in the first-round of voting on Sunday, but the opposition said preliminary election results showed a run-off was unavoidable.
    Sall, whom rights groups have criticized for squeezing out rivals, was favored to win after boosting economic growth in his first term, but he had to win a majority of votes to avoid a second round of voting on March 24.
    The West African nation has long been viewed as the region’s most stable democracy, with peaceful transitions of power since independence in 1960.
    Prime Minister Mahammed Dionne, a Sall ally and appointee, said early results showed Sall had won 13 out of 14 regions, securing 57 percent of the vote.
    “We must congratulate the president for his re-election in the first round,” Dionne told journalists.
    His comments were at odds with earlier statements from main opposition candidates Ousmane Sonko, a former tax inspector popular with youth, and Idrissa Seck, a third-time contender and former prime minister.    They said a second round of voting was on the cards.
    “The results compiled so far allow us to say this,” Seck said at a press conference with Sonko.    “We will not allow the outgoing president to suppress the will of the people.”
    The official results were due by Friday at the latest.
    Sall has won support by launching an ambitious reform and infrastructure program that helped Senegal’s small fish-exporting economy expand more than 6 percent last year, one of the highest rates in Africa.
    The 57-year-old president has also promised to deliver universal healthcare and better access to education.
    After voting in Fatick, pensioner Adama Sakho, 81, said he believed Sall would win in the first round, praising his social spending policies.
    “I’m retired, and now in one month I receive the same amount of money I used to make in three months,” he said.
FIVE CANDIDATES
    Opinion polls were banned in the run-up to the vote, but a survey by a Senegalese data company in November gave Sall 45 percent support.    Of his four rivals in the smallest field of candidates since 1988, none had more than 16 percent.
    Despite Sall’s popularity, some Senegalese question whether a high-speed train, new motorways and a swanky conference center will benefit average citizens in the former French colony of 15 million people where the average income is less than $200 a month.
    Many people do not have reliable water or power supplies.
    University professor Bakary Manga, 43, said he would vote for Sonko as he was disappointed in Sall’s first term.
    “It was a big nonsense with him. The cost of his projects is excessive; we can do much better with much less,” he said as he queued at a polling station in Dakar.
    Rights groups have criticized the exclusion of two popular candidates.
    Former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade who was in power from 2000 to 2012, were barred from running due to corruption convictions.
    The former president said the vote was being rigged and told supporters of his son to boycott the poll.
    The government dismissed the criticism, promising a free and fair vote.
    Sonko told supporters at his final rally on Thursday he would congratulate Sall if the vote was fair.    “But if he steals the victory, I ask the youth to walk to the presidential palace and chase him out,” he said.
(Writing by Sofia Christensen and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Edward McAllister, Robin Pomeroy and Cynthia Osterman)

2/25/2019 Senior adviser Kushner to present peace proposal to Middle East by OAN Newsroom
    Senior adviser Jared Kushner is embarking on a five country tour this week to present a much-anticipated U.S. peace proposal for the Middle East.
    Kushner reportedly left the United Stated over the weekend along with State Department envoy Brian Hook and Kushner aide Avi Berkowitz.    The three are not expected to brief diplomats on the political aspects of the plan, rather they will focus on the economic benefits.
    This proposal, which is being dubbed as the deal of the century,” aims to bring peace between Israel and Palestine.    It’s expected to include a combination of aid and investment to help the Palestinian people as well as international funding proposals for the highly impoverished Gaza Strip.
FILE – In this Aug. 29, 2018 photo, White House adviser Jared Kushner waves as he arrives at the Office of the
United States Trade Representative for talks on trade with Canada, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
    This peace plan, which has been in the works for two-years, has been a major talking point for the president.    He has made achieving a resolution one of his major goals for 2019.
    “When they talk about tough deals, they always say Israel and the Palestinians — that’s the toughest of all deals,” stated the president.    “It is a dream of mine to be able to get that done prior to the end of my first term.”     Kushner’s tour is set to last for two-weeks.    In that time he will travel to Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia where he is set to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
    Despite many benefits for the Palestinian people, they — along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — have preemptively rejected the plan, following President Trump’s 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.    They have said they they will not negotiate with the United States because of this.    However, U.S. officials are hopping Abbas can read the deal and judge it on merit.
    Kushner is expected to publicly unveil the peace proposal after Israel holds elections on April 9, 2019.
[We all know the story that an entity will make a peace plan for 7 years and will break it after 3 and half years.
    So I am unsure if Trump's version of a “peace plan” or deal-making is as mentioned above and we do not know what it is yet.    Some think it is Israel to give up four communities in East Jerusalem in order to establish the Palestinian capital alongside the Israeli capital.    Israelis gave up their rights to their Holy Temple Mount immediately after it was given to them in the Six Day War in 1967, for the sake of “middle east peace.”    “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” again, and they handed it back?    For whatever reason, it was returned on some level to Jordanian control.
    After the Six Day War, Judea and Samaria – along with the Golan Heights – were looked at as significantly important to the security of Israel.    Obviously, giving those who hate you the high ground overlooking your most populated areas would not make any sense.    But many Jews began re-settling then Mountains of Israel because they heard the call to return and build the ancient ruins, as the prophets had dreamed in Isaiah 61:4, Jeremiah 31:4, and Ezekiel 28:25,26.    “I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” Amos :15.
    As it says in Jeremiah 31:6, "For there shall be a day, that the watchmen upon the mount Ephraim shall cry, Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God."    So I do not think Trump's plan is the one.
    I like Trump but he does not seem to be one yet seen in Daniel 9:27a reads, “Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week.”    Daniel prophesies a “he” who confirms a covenant or treaty, depending on the translation, with the many that will last for one week.    And yet, prophecy teachers conclude from this verse that the Antichrist will make a seven-year peace treaty with Israel.
    Daniel 9:27 (KJV): "And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate."    one week = 7 years.
]

2/25/2019 Assad meets Khamenei in first Iran visit since Syrian war began by Suleiman Al-Khalidi
FILE PHOTO: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with heads of local councils,
in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on February 17, 2019. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
    AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al Assad made his first public visit to his closest regional ally Iran since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Monday and championing their alliance, state media reported.
    Syrian and Iranian state television showed Assad and Khamenei smiling and embracing.    Syrian television said the two leaders agreed “to continue cooperation at all levels for the interests of the two friendly nations
    Khamenei was quoted as saying the two countries’ military victories in Syria had dealt “a harsh blow” to U.S plans in the region.
    Assad regained the upper hand in Syria’s war with the help of Russian air power and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, retaking all main cities from rebels and militants backed variously by Western powers and Gulf Arabs.
    Sitting next to Assad was Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force – an overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).    He has appeared on frontlines across Syria, where his presence has infuriated Sunni-led insurgents who oppose what they view as Shi’ite Iran’s expansion in the region.
    It was Assad’s first known foreign visit other than to Russia since the war began and his first to Tehran since 2010 Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have expanded their control over mainly Sunni areas around Damascus, southern and eastern Syria that bore the brunt of the heaviest bombardment and led to mass displacement or emigration to neighboring countries.
    Iran’s growing influence in Syria, where it has struck economic and trade deals, has also raised the prospect of a military confrontation with its arch-enemy Israel.
    Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to escalate its fight against Iranian aligned forces in Syria after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
    Assad was quoted by Syrian state television as saying that any escalation by Western powers would not stop Iran and Syria from defending their own interests.
    Iranian state media said Khamenei praised Assad as a hero who had strengthened the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
    “The Islamic Republic of Iran sees helping Syria’s government and nation as support for the resistance movement (against Israel) and is deeply proud of doing it,” Khamenei said.
    Assad was also briefed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about efforts by Russia, Iran and Turkey – supporters of the main sides in the Syrian civil war – to end the conflict.
    Syria wants Turkey, which has backed Sunni rebels and carved a sphere of influence in the northwest of the country, to remove its troops from Syrian territory and end its support for rebels.
    Efforts have so far failed to make progress toward a political settlement to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced about half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi.; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

2/25/2019 Street unrest breaks down taboo in Algeria: talk is of politics at last by Lamine Chikhi
Demonstrators gather around the Monument to the Republic during a protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeking a
fifth term in a presidential election set for April 18, in Paris, France, February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
    ALGIERS (Reuters) – Until last week the number one topic that Algerian engineer Mohamed Aissiou and his mates would discuss over coffee was soccer.    Specifically, local star Riyad Mahrez and his English club Manchester City.
    Now it’s all about whether President Abdelaziz Bouteflika should go.
    Many Algerians have for years avoided politics in public, fearing trouble from the ubiquitous security services, or having simply stopped caring as the country has been run by the same group of men since the 1954-1962 independence war with France.
    Bouteflika himself has ruled since 1999 and is credited with ending a decade-long Islamist insurgency early in his rule.    Many Algerians have long tolerated a political system with little space for dissent as a price to pay for peace.
    But since protests erupted in the capital and some 40 other towns on Friday against ruling party plans for the 81-year old leader to stand for a fifth term, a decades-old taboo on public discussion of politics appears to have evaporated overnight.
    “We watch Manchester City matches at the coffee shop then we’ll discuss the game,” Aissiou said, while sipping coffee in the “Le Circuit” cafe in downtown Algiers.
    “But since the demonstration on Friday, our number one topic is Bouteflika.    Mahrez is number two.    We want Bouteflika to go, enough, we want change and we want change peacefully.”
    Almost 70 percent of Algerians are under 30 years old and most know their leader only from still pictures on the evening television news.    He has been seen only a handful of times in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 and has not given a public speech in years.
    His opponents believe it has been years since Bouteflika was in any fit state to run the country, and say it is being ruled in his name by advisers.    The authorities say he still has a firm grip.
    But whatever the state of his health, Bouteflika’s remoteness was hammered home by the contrast when French President Emmanuel Macron came for a day visit in 2017.    Macron strolled through the capital chatting to passersby, behavior Algerians view as unthinkable for their own president.
    Monday saw a pause in the capital after three days of street battles between police and demonstrators.    Shops reopened in the center of Algiers, with owners lifting shutters they had hurriedly closed on previous days when police fired tear gas at crowds.
    But there were more signs of dissent. Lawyers staged a protest at an Algiers court chanting: “Enough is enough.”
    Thousands also protested in the eastern city of Batna, residents said, a symbolic place because it is home to Bouteflika’s predecessor Liamine Zéroual. He remains popular because he quit voluntarily.
    Reporters at state media who have been barred by their bosses from reporting on the demonstrations have called for a sit-in on Friday.    Some private channels, such as Ennahar TV which is close to Bouteflika’s circle, have started reporting about the protests, albeit cautiously.
    “Bouteflika should leave with honor.    He is sick and unable to talk, he must leave,” said 38-year old Nabil Rahmoun, another cafe-goer who owns a small grocery.
    Bouteflika has not addressed the protests directly. As is often the case, even his precise whereabouts are a mystery.    The authorities said last week he was due to undergo unspecified medical checks in Switzerland, but there has been no sighting of his departure or arrival.
FEARS
    The ruling elite, made up of members of Bouteflika’s FLN party, the military and business tycoons, has dug in its heels, warning of the prospect of unrest.
    Algerians have dark memories of the civil war triggered after the army canceled an election that Islamists were poised to win in 1991.    Two hundred thousand people are believed to have died in a near-decade of fighting.     Algeria saw major street unrest during the 2011 “Arab Spring” that brought down the rulers of North African neighbors Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.    But police managed to contain it without Bouteflika’s grip on power loosening.     Officials then also calmed dissent by increasing spending.    But with prices for Algeria’s oil and gas exports having fallen in recent years, such resources have been more limited.
    More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed, according to official data.    The economy is dominated by state-owned firms controlled by the elite, under a system that dates to an era of close ties to the Soviet Union.
    Because of Bouteflika’s age and health, there has been speculation even among government circles that the president might yield to successor.    The name of a former foreign minister recently appointed as a diplomatic adviser, Ramtane Lamamra, has been discussed.
    Lamamra is a comparatively spry 66 years old and is on Twitter, the main news source for young people largely ignored by the elite.    Bouteflika has no account.
    Such an appointment might appease protesters for now while keeping the power system in place, analysts say.
    “Bouteflika’s medical leave in Geneva will be decisive,” Hasni Abidi, a Swiss-based Algerian who heads a think tank, said on Twitter.    “It will be the last before a permanent retirement or the first before a big nightmare.”
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/26/2019 Kushner, in Gulf, says U.S. Mideast peace plan addresses borders issue
FILE PHOTO - White House adviser Jared Kushner looks on during the Middle East
summit in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
    ABU DHABI (Reuters) – White House adviser Jared Kushner, giving a broad outline of a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East, said it will address final-status issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including establishing borders.
    In an interview broadcast on Monday on Sky News Arabia during a visit to U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states, Kushner made no specific mention of a Palestinian state, whose creation had been at the foundation of Washington’s peace efforts for two decades.
    But he said the long-awaited peace proposal would build on “a lot of the efforts in the past,” including the 1990s Oslo accords that provided a foundation for Palestinian statehood, and would require concessions from both sides.
    U.S. officials said that Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is expected to focus on the economic component of the plan during the week-long trip.
    But in the interview, Kushner said the proposal also contained a “political plan, which is very detailed” and “really about establishing borders and resolving final-status issues.”
    Kushner was given responsibility over Washington’s Israel-Palestinian policy, along with other top postings, after his father-in-law was inaugurated in January 2017.
    Kushner’s reference to borders heated up Israel’s election campaign on Tuesday.    Far-right politicians portrayed his comments as a harbinger to a Palestinian state they oppose.
    Kushner said Washington would present the plan only after the April 9 vote.
    Palestinians, who have refused to discuss any peace blueprint with the United States in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, also viewed Kushner’s comments with suspicion.
    Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in talks that collapsed in 2014, said on Twitter that “Trump’s map” envisaged “isolated territories for the Palestinians.”
REGIONAL TOUR
    Israel has long rejected any return to what it has described as indefensible boundaries that existed before it captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.
    Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.    Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, now controlled by Hamas Islamists, in 2005.
    Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, and Brian Hook, the State Department envoy for Iran, are due in Bahrain on Tuesday and will make stops in Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.    They are not expected to visit Israel.
    The countries are the focus of U.S. efforts to widen the scope of its peace plan to include an economic element in which Gulf states could help the Palestinian economy.
    Saudi Arabia’s King Salman last year provided private assurances to Palestinian President Mohammed Abbas that Riyadh would not endorse any peace plan that fails to address Jerusalem’s status or refugees’ right of return, diplomats said.
    On the first leg of their regional tour, the U.S. officials held talks on Monday in the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the U.S. Embassy said.
    “We want to get advice from them (countries in the region) on what is the best way to proceed and share with them some of the details of what we will be pursuing, especially on the economic vision for all the opportunity that exists if there is peace,” Kushner told Sky News Arabia in Abu Dhabi.
    In Israel, Naftali Bennett, leader of the New Right party, said Kushner remarks on borders proved “what we already know” – that Washington would press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should he win the ballot, to “allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
    Responding to Bennett, a spokesman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said the prime minister protected Israel and the “Land of Israel” – a reference to the occupied West Bank – “from the hostile Obama administration and will continue to do so with the friendly Trump administration.”
(Reporting by Stanley Carvalho; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/26/2019 Nigeria’s Buhari wins second term as president: electoral commission results by Paul Carsten and Alexis Akwagyiram
FILE PHOTO: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari gestures as he arrives to cast a vote in Nigeria's presidential election
at a polling station in Daura, Katsina State, Nigeria, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo
    ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday won a second term at the helm of Africa’s largest economy and top oil producer, a tally by Reuters based on electoral commission results showed.
    Buhari faces a daunting to-do list, including reviving an economy still struggling to recover from a 2016 recession and quelling a decade-old Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands of people in the northeast, many of them civilians.
    Buhari of the All Progressive Congress party proved wrong those who doubted he could survive the blows of recession, militant attacks on oilfields, and Islamist insurgency that blighted his first term.
    He won by 56 percent compared with 41 percent for the other candidate, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party.
    The president won by 3.9 million votes, having garnered 15.2 million to Atiku’s 11.3 million.
    The turnout, based on valid votes, was 33.2 percent. In the 2015 presidential election, turnout was 44 percent.
    A message posted on Buhari’s Twitter feed late on Tuesday showed him smiling and surrounded by applauding staff at his campaign office.
    “I met the very hardworking members of our team, many of them young people, and was briefed on the performance of our party so far in the Presidential Elections.    I am very proud of what has been accomplished,” he said on Twitter.
    Garba Shehu, Buhari’s spokesman, said the president’s office would have no comment until the electoral commission announces the winner.
    Earlier, Atiku’s party demanded an immediate halt to the release of results by the Independent National Electoral Commission until turnout figures are provided to the competing parties.
    Atiku’s party has rejected the tallies announced so far as “incorrect and unacceptable.”    Buhari’s party has said the opposition was trying to discredit the returns from Saturday’s election.
    The accusations have ratcheted up tensions in a vote marred by delays, logistical glitches and outbreaks of violence.
    Nigeria’s six decades of independence have been marked by long periods of military rule, coups and secessionist wars.
    Observers from the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations appealed to all parties to await the official results, expected later this week, before filing complaints.
    The candidate with the most votes nationwide is declared winner as long as they have at least one-quarter of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states and the capital, Abuja.    Otherwise there is a second-round run-off.
    Buhari secured enough votes to meet both requirements.
EX-MILITARY RULER
    Buhari, 76, is a former military ruler who took office in 2015 and sought a second term with pledges to fight corruption and overhaul Nigeria’s creaking road and rail network.
    Atiku, 72, had said he would aim to double the size of the economy to $900 billion by 2025, privatize the state oil company and expand the role of the private sector if voted into office.
    Voting took place on Saturday after a week-long delay which the election commission said was due to its inability to get ballots and results sheets to all parts of the country.
    The event – Africa’s largest democratic exercise – has also been marred by violence in which at least 47 people have been killed since Saturday, according to the Situation Room, a monitoring organization linking various civil society groups.
    Some of the deaths took place after gangs allied to the leading parties clashed with each other as well as the police over the theft of ballot boxes and allegations of vote fraud.
    Police have not yet provided official casualty figures.
    More than 260 people have been killed since the start of the election campaign in October.    The toll so far is lower than in earlier elections, but the worst violence occurred previously only after results were announced.
(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah; writing by James Macharia and Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Grant McCool)

2/26/2019 Iraq PM says country could take non-Iraqi IS detainees from Syria
FILE PHOTO: Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi speaks during the opening of
Baghdad International Fair, Iraq November 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani /File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq could help transfer non-Iraqi Islamic State detainees held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday.
    Iraq will either help repatriate those citizens to their home countries, or prosecute on its own those suspected of having committed crimes, he said at his weekly news conference.
    “Some countries could ask Iraq to help to transfer some of her Daesh citizens to the other country, like France for example,” Abdul Mahdi said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.    “Iraq might help, would help, helped to transfer those people to their country.    It is one battle and Iraq should fulfill its duties and obligations.”
    “Fighters belonging to Daesh from other countries that their states, their countries refuse to receive – how should we deal with that?” he asked.
    “Each case we should study the names, whether they participated in terrorist acts in Iraq.    Then they could be judged by Iraqi tribunals.”
    Earlier in the press conference, the prime minister specified that Iraq would not receive from Syria foreign fighters whose home countries refused to take back from Iraq.
    The comments came one day after Iraqi President Barham Salih said that 13 Islamic State detainees who were transferred to Iraq last week from the Syrian Democratic Forces would be tried in Iraq. [nL5N20K52I]
    Two Iraqi military sources told Reuters on Sunday that the U.S.-backed SDF handed over 14 French and six non-Iraqi Arab Islamic detainees last week. [nL5N20J11D]
    The fate of foreign detainees in SDF custody has become more pressing in recent weeks as U.S.-backed fighters planned an assault to capture the last remnants of the group’s self-styled caliphate. [nL5N20L5KE]
    The militant group still poses a threat in Iraq and some western officials believe that Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may still be hiding in the area.
    “We will deal with the case because if we don’t, then they can use a 600 km (372.82 miles)border with Syria and infiltrate once again in Iraq.    So it’s a case that really concerns us, worries us and we have to deal with it,” Abdul Mahdi said.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Richard Chang)

2/26/2019 Turkey’s Erdogan does not believe United States will retrieve arms from Kurdish groups
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the
upcoming local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he does not believe the United States will take back weapons from Kurdish militias in Syria.
    In an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV, Erdogan stressed the need for the United States to take back weapons from Kurdish groups in Manbij.
    Earlier this month, a senior U.S. Army general said the United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
    In December, President Donald Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring that Islamic State had been defeated there.
    Turkey has long stressed the importance of the United States retrieving the weapons Washington has given the YPG, the United States’ main partner against Islamic State in Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
    “The generals with him said that they have the serial numbers, and they will collect the weapons when all is done. I do not find this sincere,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.
    “If this withdrawal becomes a stalling method, our approach will be different,” he said, adding that 200 to 400 soldiers may stay, and 500 may stay from other U.S.-led coalition forces.
    Last week, the United States said it would leave a small peacekeeping group of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout.    A commander of U.S.-backed Syrian forces called for 1,000 to 1,500 international troops to remain in the country to help fight Islamic State, and expressed hope the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.
    The decision to withdraw was announced after Trump spoke by phone to Erdogan.    A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone.”
    “What is important to us is that Turkey will control the secure zone,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.    “We cannot leave the control to neither Germany nor France or America.    I clearly told this to them.”
    Erdogan said he might meet with White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, in Turkey on Wednesday alongside Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, and the meetings would cover economic and regional issues.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Sarah Dadouch; editing by Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

2/27/2019 Saudi’s Falih tells Trump ‘we are taking it easy’: CNBC
Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih speaks during the Saudi-India Forum
in New Delhi, India, February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
    LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Wednesday that OPEC and its partners were “taking it easy” in response to a tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump requesting oil producers ease their efforts to boost oil prices.
    “We are taking it easy. The 25 countries are taking a very slow and measured approach. Just as the second half last year proved, we are interested in market stability first and foremost,” Falih said in Riyadh when asked to comment on Trump’s tweet this week, CNBC reported.
    Falih said current analysis indicated OPEC and its allies, known as OPEC+, may need to extend their agreement to curb output until the end of 2019.
    “All the outlooks that we have seen tell us that we will need to continue to moderate production in the second half of this year but you never know, those forecasts are based on certain assumptions,” Falih said.
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Jason Neely)

2/27/2019 Kushner makes little headway on Mideast peace plan in Gulf by Stephen Kalin and Ghaida Ghantous
FILE PHOTO: White House advisers Jared Kushner looks on during the Middle East summit
in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo
    BEIRUT/DUBAI (Reuters) – White House adviser Jared Kushner made a whirlwind visit this week to rally U.S.-allied Gulf Arab allies to support his still- unannounced Middle East peace plan, the leaked contours of which suggest little has been done to address Arab demands.
    Kushner’s approach to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not appear to have progressed since his last regional tour in June, focusing largely on economic initiatives at the expense of a land-for-peace deal long central to the official Arab position, two sources in the Gulf told Reuters on Wednesday.
    Palestinians have refused to discuss any peace blueprint with the United States in the wake of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, while some Arab leaders have publicly rejected any deal that fails to address Jerusalem’s status or refugees’ right of return.
    Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, met with leaders in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman this week.    He arrived in Turkey on Wednesday.
    Three sources said Kushner had gone to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday although there was no official statement on the visit or his meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.    The Saudi media office did not respond to a request for comment.
    One of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the plan presented this week did not appear to take into consideration previously stated Arab demands on the status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return and Israeli settlements in occupied territory.
    Under the Arab Peace Initiative drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, Arab nations offered Israel normal ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in 1967.
    The source said Kushner, a real estate developer with little experience of international diplomacy or political negotiation, wanted to make a deal first and then agree on details.
    The source added that the plan envisages a “substantial” financial contribution from Gulf states, but did not provide details.
ARAB CONCERNS
    King Salman has dismissed Arab concerns that Saudi Arabia might back a U.S. deal that aligns with Israel on key issues, after the crown prince, who is close to Kushner, reportedly pressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to support the administration’s efforts.
    Kushner’s meeting with Prince Mohammed on Tuesday was the first since the murder of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October sparked an outcry and tarnished the prince’s image.
    Jordan, a U.S. ally where a majority of the population are descendants of Palestinians who fled during or after the creation of Israel in 1948, insists that no peace can be achieved without dealing with Jerusalem, where it serves as custodian of Muslim holy sites.
    “The Americans are still in the process of presenting various ideas and scenarios but don’t appear to have arrived at final parameters of a plan,” said a second source in the Gulf region.
    “They know that there are final-status issues that are non-starters for regional allies and the Palestinians alike,” the source added, referring to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
    Kushner was given responsibility for Israel-Palestinian policy two years ago, but has still not provided concrete details of U.S. efforts, which Trump has dubbed “the deal of the century.”
    Kushner said in an interview on Monday that Washington would present the peace plan only after Israel’s election on April 9, though previous targets have passed without any announcement.
    He said it would build on past efforts — including the 1990s Oslo accords that provided a foundation for Palestinian statehood — and resolve borders and final-status issues.    But he made no specific mention of a Palestinian state.
    Israel has long rejected any return to what it has described as indefensible boundaries that existed before it captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.
(Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

2/27/2019 ‘This isn’t over’: Islamic State loyalties linger despite defeat by Ellen Francis
Women walk with their belongings near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having joined Islamic State in Syria four years ago, the Algerian woman only abandoned the jihadists’ last scrap of besieged territory when her daughter was shot in the leg.
    “I don’t regret it, even now … If my daughter was not injured, I would have stayed,” said the woman, speaking behind a full face veil as her 19-year-old daughter lay on a mattress nearby unable to walk.
    At a checkpoint operated by U.S.-backed forces some 30 km (20 miles) from Islamic State’s last enclave at Baghouz, a village on the Euphrates, she described her faith in a movement that once held and terrorised large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
    “Even if I’m here because I have no choice, I still believe, and I know this isn’t over,” added the woman, who finally joined the exodus from Baghouz on Monday evening.
    The pro-Islamic State loyalties among evacuees showed the potential risk it still poses despite territorial defeat.
    The militants once redrew the map of the region with a cross-border “caliphate” amounting to roughly a third of Iraq and Syria.    But this has shrunk to Baghouz – a collection of hamlets and farmland – since they lost the bulk of their territory in 2017.
    The group has been adapting for some time and has mounted a spate of guerrilla-style attacks in Syria of late.
    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria, says it wants to be certain all civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz before it launches a final assault to capture the area.
    Numbers of evacuees have surpassed initial SDF estimates, and there was no sign of the evacuation ending on Tuesday when dozens of trucks ferried more out along dirt track roads.
    People coming from Baghouz in recent days have shown more open loyalty to Islamic State than those who left earlier on, according to a volunteer medic at the checkpoint where they are subjected to preliminary security screening.
    “Now they are more hardcore,” the medic said.
GUNSHOTS AND MORTARS
    All the women at the checkpoint on Tuesday were dressed head-to-toe in black including the full face veil, or niqab.
    A handful of tents on the desert ground were not enough to accommodate all gathered there. Warplanes with the U.S.-led coalition could be seen overhead.
    Some children, their faces covered in dirt, cried.
    The Algerian woman said there had there had been more gun-battles and mortar shelling than air strikes of late.
    Her husband and two other children had been killed by shelling earlier in the war.
    She had no desire to return to Algeria, where the government fought a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.
    “I can’t return to people who do not like me and who I don’t like,” said the woman, who lived in France for a time.
    Asked why she went to Syria, she said: “This is what I believe in … the laws of God.”
    Islamic State used its ultra-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam to justify atrocities including enslavement, mass killings, and draconian punishments including crucifixion.
    The evacuees from Baghouz were being taken to a camp for internally displaced people at al-Hol, a town near the Iraqi border.    The SDF wants foreign governments to help repatriate Islamic State activists, saying the burden and risk of holding them is growing.
    Adnan Afrin, an SDF official, said the civilian convoys from Baghouz have included a growing number of surrendering militants.    They are searched for bombs and mines before being allowed to go any further, he said.
    The SDF estimates about 30,000 people have left Baghouz.    It aims to eliminate or force the surrender of remaining fighters, who, according to the SDF, have dug defensive tunnels.
    Many fighters remain, according to Afrin.
    “We know from the civilians who came out that there are a big number, mostly European and Asian jihadists.”
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

2/28/2019 Israel security forces should face justice for Gaza killings: U.N. by Stephanie Nebehay
FILE PHOTO: Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops toward Palestinians during a protest at the Israel-Gaza
border fence, in the southern Gaza Strip February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – United Nations investigators said on Thursday Israeli security forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in killing 189 Palestinians and wounding more than 6,100 at weekly protests in Gaza last year.
    The independent panel said it had confidential information about those it believes to be responsible for the killings, including snipers and commanders.
    “The Israeli security forces killed and maimed Palestinian demonstrators who did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot, nor were they directly participating in hostilities,” it said in its report.
    Israel rejected the report as a “theater of the absurd.”
    In a statement, acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz called it “another hostile, mendacious and slanted report against the State of Israel … No one can deny Israel the right of self-defense and the obligation to defend its citizens and borders from violent attacks.”
    Protests have been held at the frontier between Israel and the Gaza Strip since last year, calling for the easing of an Israeli blockade of the territory and recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees there to return to homes in Israel.
    Israel has said its forces opened fire to protect the frontier from incursions and attacks by armed militants.
    The latest report, covering the period from March 30-December 31 2018, to the U.N. Human Rights Council was based on hundreds of interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as medical records, video and drone footage, and photographs.
    U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet should share the findings with the International Criminal Court (ICC), it said.    The Hague-based court opened a preliminary investigation into allegations of Israeli human rights abuses on Palestinian territory in 2015.
    The Gaza Strip is home to 2 million Palestinians, the majority of them stateless descendants of people who fled or were driven out of Israel on its founding in 1948.
    The panel, led by Argentine legal expert Santiago Canton, said individual members of the Israeli security forces killed and gravely injured civilians who were “neither directly participating in hostilities nor posing an imminent threat.”
    “Some of these violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity and must be immediately investigated by Israel,” Canton said.
    Thirty-five children, two journalists and three “clearly-marked” paramedics were among those killed by Israeli forces, in violation of international humanitarian law, it said.
    In the ongoing border protests dubbed ‘The Great March of Return’, Gazans are calling for the right to return to lands from which their ancestors fled or were forced to flee.
    Protesters are also calling for an end to a grinding Israeli-led blockade of Gaza which the World Bank says has reduced the territory to a state of economic collapse.
    The coastal enclave is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the West and has fought three wars with Israel.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff and Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/28/2019 ISIS supporters, victims evacuate last Islamic State enclave in Syria by OAN Newsroom
    Hundreds of civilians are continuing to stream out of the Islamic State’s last enclave in Syria.
    At least 15 trucks departed Baghouz on Wednesday as hundreds of families and women were escorted out of what remains of the Islamic State caliphate.    However, many of those emerging from Baghouz still say they don’t regret joining the terrorist group.
Women and children sit in the back of a truck as they wait to be screened by
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in the
desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
    “I do not regret joining Islamic State.    If my husband hadn’t insisted for the kids, I wouldn’t have come out.    He insisted, so he can get treatment.    It’s the same death if I die here or in Baghouz.” — Um Hisham, evacuated Syrian woman from Baghouz
    These groups are expected to be screened by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
    This comes as at least 40,000 people have been evacuated in the last three months from this final piece of land held by ISIS in Syria.

2/28/2019 Israeli attorney-general plans to charge Netanyahu in corruption cases by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media in
Tel Aviv, Israel February 21, 2019 REUTERS/ Ammar Awad/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s attorney-general said on Thursday he intends to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, a decision coming just six weeks before a closely contested national election.
    The dramatic move, the first time a serving Israeli prime minister has been put on official notice of planned prosecution, deepened uncertainty over the right-wing leader’s re-election prospects.
    Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing in the three long-running corruption investigations against him, was due to deliver a televised statement later in the day.
    He has already said he has no intention of resigning. Netanyahu’s Likud party described the looming indictment as “political persecution.”
    The actual filing of charges, which include bribery, fraud and breach of trust, will depend on the outcome of a required hearing, the Justice Ministry said in a statement.
    At that hearing – which could take place after the April 9 election – Netanyahu can try to persuade the attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, not to indict him.
    Netanyahu, 69 and seeking a fourth consecutive term, is set to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister this summer if he wins the election.
    He is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000-worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from wealthy businessmen and dispensing favors in alleged bids for favorable coverage by a newspaper and a website.
    He could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
    Israel’s shekel weakened against the dollar on the news.    It was trading at 3.63 per dollar at 1620 GMT, from 3.6240 before the announcement and down 0.4 percent versus the U.S. currency from Wednesday.
POLLS SHOW TIGHT RACE
    In December, Israeli police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and fraud and breach of trust, with Mandelblit left to make a final decision on whether to press charges.
    Opinion polls have shown a tight race for Netanyahu, with sharp gains for a center-left alliance that could score an upset over Likud.
    Anshel Pfeffer, author of a recent Netanyahu biography, said on Twitter that Israel was entering “uncharted waters” in which “no one has any idea how being a prime minister under notice of indictment will effect Netanyahu and his government.”
    U.S. President Donald Trump, asked at a news conference in Hanoi about Netanyahu’s legal troubles, voiced support for the right-wing leader.    Trump and Netanyahu have been in lockstep over policy towards Iran and the Palestinians.
    “Well, I just think he has been a great prime minister,” said Trump, who held a summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Frances Kerry)
[Netanyahu we understand what you are going through since President Trump has been accused of everything they can throw at him, but he now has the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob looking out for him, and you only need to pray to him for help and it will happen.].

2/28/2019 Sudanese protesters decry emergency courts, police fire tear gas by Khalid Abdelaziz
FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace
in Khartoum, Sudan February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
    KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Thousands of Sudanese rallied on Thursday in some of the most widespread protests of a two-month revolt against President Omar al-Bashir, witnesses said, fired up by the creation of emergency courts intended to quell the unrest.
    Crowds gathered in and around the capital Khartoum in the first protests since Bashir set up special tribunals this week under a state of emergency declared to combat the unprecedented wave of protests threatening his three-decade rule.
    Security forces fired tear gas at about 400 protesters at Omdurman grand market, in Khartoum’s twin city across the Nile.    The protesters chanted an anti-Bashir slogan: “Down, that’s it.”
    Police also confronted hundreds more with tear gas in the Wad Nubawi neighborhood of Omdurman, witnesses said.
    The protests, initially over high bread prices, have taken place nearly every day since Dec. 19 and developed into the most sustained challenge that Bashir has faced.
    As well as tear gas, security forces have sometimes used live fire.    At least 33 people have been killed, according to official statistics, including three security personnel.
    Protesters believe the true toll is significantly higher.
    Bashir, who came to power in a 1989 Islamist-backed military coup, declared a state of emergency last Friday and sacked state governors, replacing them with military and security officials.
    On Monday, he issued a raft of edicts banning unlicensed public gatherings and awarding tough new powers to police.    The new courts, as well as emergency prosecutors, were established across every Sudanese state on Tuesday.
    Security forces can now search any building, restrict movement of people and public transport, arrest individuals suspected of a crime related to the state of emergency and seize assets or property during investigations.
‘REGIME OF TYRANNY’
    “Tomorrow is the day we deliver our voice clearly to the regime of corruption and tyranny, that the will of the people will not break before any measures,” the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, which has emerged as the main protests organizer, said on the eve of Thursday’s rallies.
    About 250 people protested on Sahafa Zalat Street, one of the capital’s main arteries.    Police fired tear gas after several demonstrators tried to block off side streets using stones and burning tyres to prevent security forces from chasing them.
    The protesters chanted “Revolution is the people’s choice” and other slogans, and some carried Sudanese flags.    Women ululated as some passing cars honked at them in support.
    In the east of the capital, police fired tear gas at some 250 protesters on Sitteen Street, an upscale area, witnesses said.
    Police also confronted dozens of protesters in Khartoum’s low-income area of Al-Daim and the Shambat neighborhood of Khartoum North with tear gas, witnesses said.    In Shambat, people stood for a moment of silence for the victims of Wednesday’s train crash in Cairo that killed at least 22.
    Hundreds of protesters also gathered in several other parts of the capital as the geographic spread widens.
    Bashir has blamed the protests on foreign “agents” and challenged his rivals to seek power through elections.
    On Friday, the day the state of emergency was declared, Bashir called on parliament to postpone constitutional amendments that would let him seek another term in a 2020 vote.    But he stopped short of saying he would not stand.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Yousef Saba; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Andrew Cawthorne)

2/28/2019 U.S., Saudi Arabia and UK back ‘global coalition’ for Jordan
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin speaks at the Jordan Growth and Opportunity
Conference in London, Britain February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool
    LONDON (Reuters) – There should be no confusion over the United States’ support for key Middle East allies such as Jordan, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday, as Saudi Arabia’s finance minister also pledged more of its support.
    Jordan’s government fell last year after spending cuts and tax rises imposed under an IMF program caused rare public protests.    The country, which sits between Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, is traditionally a regional diplomatic hub.
    “I don’t think there is any confusion over U.S. support,” Mnuchin told a panel discussion at an investment conference.
    Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said his country will continue to provide financial aid and support, including through its $500 billion mega project, known as NEOM, which extends across Saudi’s border into Jordan and Egypt.
    Saudi alongside Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates put together a $2.5 billion package in June to help shore up Jordan’s struggling economy.
    “We are Jordan and I mean that, I seriously mean that,” Jadaan said.
    Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, whose government was hosting the event, said the international community needed to form “a global coalition to back Jordan.”
(Reporting by Marc Jones and Tom Arnold)

2/28/2019 Libyan PM, eastern commander agree national election needed: U.N. by Ulf Laessing and Ayman al-Warfalli
FILE PHOTO: Libyan President Faiez Mustafa Serraj addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at
U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo
    TUNIS (Reuters) – Libya’s internationally recognized prime minister, Serraj al-Fayez, and the military commander of its eastern half, Khalifa Haftar, have met and agreed that national elections are necessary, the United Nations said on Thursday.
    While both were meeting in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday in their first confirmed encounter since November, Haftar’s forces took more land in southern Libya, tilting the power balance toward him at the expense of Serraj’s weak Tripoli administration.
    The two men agreed “on the need to end the transitional stages in Libya through holding general elections,” the U.N. Libya mission (UNSMIL) said in a Tweet.
    “They also agreed on ways to maintain stability in the country and unify its institutions.”
    The two last met in Palermo, Sicily, at a Libya conference hosted by Italy.
    The U.N., supported by Western powers, has sought for almost two years to organize elections as a way of ending eight years of conflict.    A proposed date of Dec 10 came and went due to a lack of progress in resolving differences between rival groups.
NO ELECTION DATE
    Serraj’s spokesman confirmed the meeting with Haftar but said no date for elections had been set.    There was no immediate comment from Haftar’s office.
    Serraj heads Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli while Haftar is based in the east and allied to a parallel administration.
    The U.N. gave no further details about the Abu Dhabi meeting.    After similar encounters it has engineered it often releases pictures showing hand-shakes between the participants.    It made no such picture available on Thursday.
    The United Arab Emirates has emerged as a key player in Libya, whose economy and political institutions have been in turmoil since veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011.
    The U.N. Tweet made no mention of an UNSMIL plan for a national conference to decide on the type of elections.    Many in the east see such a conference as a waste of time.
    Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) began its offensive in southern Libya last month, capturing the main city in the region and two oil fields, El Sharara and El Feel.
    In the past week, the LNA has taken the city of Murzuq, strategically located between the main city of Sabha and the oilfields, after days of fighting, residents said.
    They have reached Awinat, near the Algerian border, without meeting resistance, an LNA official said.    Awinat is on the road to Ghat, one of the last southern cities still outside LNA control.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Ayman al-Warfalli and Maha El Dahan; editing by John Stonestreet and Gareth Jones)

2/28/2019 Algerian police disperse journalists protesting in capital
Journalists protest calling for the right to cover rarely seen anti-government demonstrations,
which began a week ago, in Algiers, Algeria February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
    ALGIERS (Reuters) – Police in Algeria arrested several journalists at a protest in the capital on Thursday calling for the right to cover rarely seen anti-government demonstrations which began a week ago, according to witnesses and Reuters television footage.
    Dozens of journalists gathered in the city center chanting “Democracy!” before being dispersed by police.    Since Friday thousands of Algerians have taken part in protests against the ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term in April 18 presidential elections.
    Witnesses said they saw police lead away several reporters at the protest.    There was no immediate government comment.    State media only started covering the protests on Tuesday after journalist employees publicly complained they were being prevented from doing so.
    His opponents say Bouteflika, 81, is not fit to lead and that Algeria is ruled in his name by advisers.    Authorities say he retains a firm grip on public affairs despite appearing only a handful of times and giving no public speeches since he suffered stroke in 2013.
    He has not directly addressed the demonstrations, some of which led to clashes between protesters and riot police.    Addressing parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia sought to play down concerns over Bouteflika’s ill health.
    “Bouteflika was sick when he sought a fourth term in 2014 but the results for the past five years were good,” he said.
    Ouyahia, a member of Bouteflika’s ruling FLN (National Liberation Front) party, also said the April vote would be supervised by 400 international election monitors.
    Many Algerians for years avoided politics in public fearing trouble from the omnipresent security services or disillusioned as the country has been run by the same group of veterans since the 1954-1962 independence war with France.
    Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999, is credited with helping to bring about the end in 2002 of a decade-long civil war which pitted the government against Islamist militants and in which around 200,000 people were killed.
    The extreme brutality of that conflict meant many Algerians have long tolerated a restrictive political system in return for peace and stability. But the new protests appear to have broken the taboo on public dissent.
    A weak and divided opposition faces high hurdles in mounting an electoral challenge.    Since the FLN again picked     Bouteflika as its presidential candidate, several parties, trade unions and business groups have endorsed him.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, Ulf Laessing and Hamid Ould Ahmed; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

2/28/2019 Turkish economic woes seen weighing on Erdogan party in elections by Orhan Coskun and Tulay Karadeniz
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the
upcoming local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – With Turkey’s local elections a month away, support for President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party is being eroded by a deterioration in the economy, according to opinion polls and political party sources.
    Erdogan’s electoral success over the last 16 years of AK Party (AKP) rule has been driven by solid economic growth that raised living standards for the major emerging economy’s population of 82 million.
    But the currency crisis that wiped some 30 percent off the value of the lira last year has led to economic hardship for many voters and fueled disenchantment.
    AKP officials said polls carried out for the party show its support at 36.8-38 percent, with its nationalist MHP allies on 10.5-11 percent.    In parliamentary elections last year, Erdogan’s party won 42.6 percent of votes with the MHP on 11.1 percent.
    Opinion polls put opposition candidate for mayor of the capital Ankara Mansur Yavas 3 percentage points ahead of his AKP rival, while in Istanbul the opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu has narrowed the lead of the AKP’s Binali Yildirim to 1.5 points.
    “Economic developments have had an impact in the two cities,” said one source close to the AKP.    “Rising unemployment, inflation, company bankruptcies, the fear of a weakening currency and related news have had a negative (impact).”
    With annual inflation around 20 percent, the government this month launched the sale of cheap vegetables in state-run markets in Istanbul and Ankara to bring prices down.    For many, however, that reinforced the impression of economic deterioration.
    “The (state) regulated sales actually gave the impression of things going backwards after 16 years of progress.    There was also criticism that these (sales) did not happen in other cities,” the source said.
    Gross domestic product growth slowed sharply to 1.6 percent in the third quarter and leading indicators point to a further worsening since then.    Unemployment rose to 12.3 percent — or nearly 4 million people — in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 10.3 percent a year earlier.
    “Various steps must be taken on the economy.    Voters must be given confidence and a sense of prosperity again, but indicators are not very solid,” one AK Party official said.
    “This is our weakest side.    The situation emerging in polls is largely a reflection of this,” he said.
    The source close to the AKP said the “worrying situation” in Istanbul and Ankara was also reflected in some other provinces, such as Antalya in the south and Bursa in the west.
    Murat Sari, head of the Konsensus polling agency, said the election battle was on a knife edge in both Istanbul and Ankara, which have been under AKP control throughout Erdogan’s time in power.    Erdogan himself was mayor of Istanbul between 1994 and 1998.
    “Three out of four voters say they are having trouble getting by,” said Sari, adding there was dissatisfaction with municipal services in Istanbul.    “Aside from satisfaction on services, the people want new faces, new names.”
    An official from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said his party would in all likelihood win in Ankara and also expected to clinch the mayoral race in Istanbul.
(Additional reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Catherine Evans)

2/28/2019 As Assad holds on in Syria, EU’s ‘strategic patience’ tested by Robin Emmott and Gabriela Baczynska
FILE PHOTO: People walk in front of a bilboard with a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
in Homs, Syria, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica/File Photo
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – After eight years of civil war from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is emerging victorious, the European Union is divided over how to deal with a man accused of using chemical weapons on his own people.
    Next month the bloc hosts an international conference in Brussels to raise billions in aid for displaced Syrians, a moment of reckoning for Europe’s efforts to isolate Assad as the United States pulls back its troops, diplomats say.
    The EU, the world’s biggest aid donor, has repeatedly made its reconstruction support conditional on a U.N.-led peace process to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of Syria’s pre-war 22 million population.
    But with the U.N. process stuck, Russia’s 2015 intervention proving decisive for Assad, and Arab neighbors considering re-establishing diplomatic ties, the EU’s divisions risk eroding what little power it has.
    “The pressure on us to rebuild Syria is increasing, particularly from the Russians,” said one senior EU diplomat.
    Italy, Austria and Hungary, all fierce critics of European immigration policy and closer to Moscow, favor talking to Syrian authorities to allow millions of refugees to go home.
    Italy’s foreign minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, said in November that Assad, whom the West accuses of using banned chemical weapons, “could still be an interlocutor” and has mused about re-opening Italy’s embassy in Damascus.
    Assad is pushing EU states do that by suspending visas used by diplomats in Beirut to enter Syria, EU officials say.
POLITICAL PROBLEM
    Poland’s nationalist ruling party says it is ready to finance homes and schools to help Syrians return, although it will not break with the EU’s official position not to rebuild Syria until a political transition is underway.
    “We show solidarity (with the EU), however this is a very important political problem,” Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz told Reuters.
    France, Germany and Britain say there can be no money for Syria while Assad – who is under EU sanctions – remains in power and no suggestion of renewing diplomatic contact.
    They have called on governments to consider even tighter rules on aid, echoing humanitarian agencies who say Assad tries to channel aid to loyalists.
    “Big countries speak of strategic patience,” a second senior diplomat said.
    Others such as Sweden, Spain and Ireland say it makes no sense to talk about sending Syrians back to homes destroyed by war.
    “The geopolitical situation is not right for us to take out our cheque books.    It’s a matter of leverage and we can’t just give away the only leverage we have,” another EU envoy said.
    A U.N. agency estimates the war has cost Syria $388 billion in economic damage.
MORE VOCAL ON ACCESS
    EU leaders glossed over Syria at their summit with Arab leaders in Egypt in February, relieved the meeting came before any possible decision to re-admit Assad to the Arab League.
    In an attempt to find a middle way, rights campaigners say EU governments should be more vocal in pushing Assad and his Russian backers to allow aid to reach all Syrians.
    The European Commission has put aside 1.1 billion euros ($1.25 billion) in assistance to civilians in Syria, but not all of that has been spent because of access problems.    The Brussels conference is likely to raise more such funds.
    It must benefit all civilians, rights groups say.
    “If countries want to engage in reconstruction … it should be done in a non-discriminatory manner, based on need, that they reach the most vulnerable, it shouldn’t benefit the government that is responsible for war crimes,” said Diana Semaan, a Beirut-based Amnesty International researcher who documents Syrian rights violations.
    Other possible conditions tied to aid include access to political prisoners, and an end to forced conscription, arbitrary arrests and the seizure of property, although Semaan said these were unrealistic given Assad’s record.
(Additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Aidan Lewis in Tripoli and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Giles Elgood)

3/1/2019 U.S.-backed SDF expects fierce battle in final IS enclave by Ellen Francis and Rodi Said
A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits on a vehicle near the village of
Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said
    DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) expect a fierce battle with Islamic State militants who are still holed up in the group’s last enclave in eastern Syria, Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office, told Reuters on Friday.
    The SDF has been poised for several weeks to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State’s territorial rule at the besieged village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border, but the operation has been held up by efforts to evacuate thousands of civilians.
    U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the SDF had retaken 100 percent of the territory once held by Islamic State.
    But Bali said Islamic State militants were still holed up in Baghouz, a village on the Iraqi border, and had not surrendered, and there were still civilians in the enclave.    The SDF would evacuate another large group of civilians on Friday, he said.
    “We won’t storm the village and declare it liberated unless we have completely confirmed the departure of civilians,” he said.    “We expect a fierce battle.”
    Speaking to American troops on Thursday, Trump said: “We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria.    Now it’s 100 percent we just took over, 100 percent caliphate.”
    The Islamic State enclave at Baghouz, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.
    Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the group is still seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and still holding some territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.
    Some 40,000 people have crossed out of the jihadists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the U.S.-backed SDF sought to drive it from the remaining territory.
    The numbers of evacuees pouring out of Baghouz have surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside.
    An SDF commander told Reuters on Thursday that many of the people coming out of Baghouz had been underground in caves and tunnels.
    A spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition which supports the SDF said the Kurdish-led Syrian group had adopted a “slow and deliberate” approach to Baghouz.
    “They are dealing with multiple dilemmas and trying to stabilize the area,” Colonel Sean Ryan said.
    The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria mainly to support the SDF in fighting against Islamic State.
    Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them because Islamic State had already been defeated, a decision that shocked allies and top aides and prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to quit.    Earlier this month the White House partially reversed itself and said around 200 U.S. troops would stay.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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