US Won’t Hesitate to Impose Sanctions Over Fuel to N. Korea

The U.S. State Department said Saturday that Washington would not wait to impose sanctions on any shippers helping to get fuel to North Korea, in

an apparent warning to Russia days after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations accused Moscow of cheating on the measures.

North Korea continues to employ tactics to evade U.N. sanctions, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement, adding that U.N. member states are required to prohibit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum fuel to the country.

“The United States will not hesitate to impose sanctions on any individual, entity or vessel supporting North Korea’s illicit activities, regardless of nationality,” Nauert said.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

But the United States and Russia have recently shown cracks in the unity of the council over the sanctions.

Washington has “evidence of consistent and wide-ranging Russian violations” of the sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said Monday.

Russia was helping North Korea illegally obtain fuel through transfers at sea, had refused to expel a North Korean whom the Security Council blacklisted last year, and had pushed for changes to an independent U.N. report on sanctions violations to cover up breaches by Russians, she said.

Russia blames Haley

Russia said after Haley’s comments that Moscow had not pressured the authors of the U.N. report, and it blamed Haley for heightening tensions.

With the warning on fuel shipments, the Trump administration signaled it was keeping pressure on Pyongyang even after saying there has been progress.

President Donald Trump this week hailed a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and said there had been “tremendous progress” with North Korea on several fronts,

including Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

Washington has tracked 148 cases this year of tankers delivering fuel to North Korea in breach of a U.N. cap of 500,000 barrels a year. Haley has not said how many of those transfers may have involved Russia.

Both Russia and China have suggested the Security Council discuss easing sanctions after Trump and Kim met in June and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that the United States was working to set up another summit between Trump and Kim after their unprecedented meeting in Singapore, but that there was still work to do.

Comcast Outbids Fox With $40B Offer for Sky

Comcast beat Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox in the battle for Sky after offering 30.6 billion pounds ($40 billion) for the British broadcaster, in a dramatic auction to decide the fate of the pay-television group.

U.S. cable giant Comcast bid 17.28 pounds a share for control of London-listed Sky, bettering a 15.67 offer by Fox, the Takeover Panel said in a  statement shortly after final bids were made Saturday.

Comcast’s final offer was significantly higher than its bid going into the auction of 14.75 pounds, and compares with Sky’s closing share price of 15.85 pounds on Friday.

Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive of Comcast, coveted Sky to expand its international presence as growth slows in its core U.S. market.

Owning Sky will make Comcast the world’s largest pay-TV operator with around 52 million customers.

“This is a great day for Comcast,” Roberts said on Saturday. “This acquisition will allow us to quickly, efficiently and meaningfully increase our customer base and expand internationally.”

Comcast, which also owns the NBC network and movie studio Universal Pictures, encouraged Sky shareholders to accept its offer. It said it wanted to complete the deal by the end of October.

Comcast, which requires 50 percent plus one share of Sky’s equity to win control, said it was also seeking to buy Sky shares in the market.

A spokesman for Fox, which has a 39 percent holding in Sky, declined to comment.

The quick-fire auction marked a dramatic climax to a protracted transatlantic bidding battle waged since February, when Comcast gate-crashed Fox’s takeover of Sky.

It is a blow to media mogul Murdoch, 87, and the U.S. media and entertainment group that he controls, which had been trying to take full ownership of Sky since December 2016.

It is also a setback for U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney, which agreed on a separate $71 billion deal to buy the bulk of Fox’s film and TV assets, including the Sky stake, in June and would have taken ownership of the British broadcaster following a successful Fox takeover.

Tornado Cuts Power to Hundreds of Thousands in Ottawa

Hundreds of thousands of people were stranded without power in and around the Canadian capital of Ottawa on Saturday after a tornado touched down twice, destroying some houses and ripping the roofs off others.

High winds also battered the region, and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said it could be days before electricity was fully restored. At least six people were injured.

“It’s in the top two or three traumatic events that have affected our city,” Watson told reporters. “It looks like something from a movie scene or a war scene.”

The tornado hit on Friday evening, demolishing homes in the town of Dunrobin to the northwest of the city before crossing over to the town of Gatineau, which lies directly to the north of Ottawa in the province of Quebec.

High winds damaged part of Ottawa’s major electrical substations, and officials said around 200,000 people on both sides of the river were without power. Ottawa and Gatineau together have a population of around 1.3 million people.

“We have lost absolutely everything. I have got a beer fridge that’s sitting in my garage — that is the only thing that is untouched — but everything else has gone,” Ottawa resident Todd Nicholson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He was not home when the tornado struck.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard broke off campaigning ahead of an Oct. 1 provincial election to travel to Gatineau.

UK PM’s Team Makes Plans for Snap Election

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s aides have begun contingency planning for a snap election in November to save both Brexit and her job, the Sunday Times reported.

The newspaper said that two senior members of May’s Downing Street political team began “war-gaming” an autumn vote to win public backing for a new plan, after her Brexit proposals were criticized at a summit in Salzburg last week.

Downing Street was not immediately available to comment on the report.

Meanwhile, opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn said Saturday that his party would challenge May on any Brexit deal she could strike with Brussels, and he said there should be a national election if the deal fell short.

The British government said Saturday that it would not “capitulate” to European Union demands in Brexit talks and again urged the bloc to engage with its proposals after May said Brexit talks with the EU had hit an impasse.

“We will challenge this government on whatever deal it brings back on our six tests, on jobs, on living standards, on environmental protections,” Corbyn told a rally in Liverpool, northern England, on the eve of Labor’s annual conference.

“And if this government can’t deliver, then I simply say to Theresa May the best way to settle this is by having a general election.”

Labor’s six tests consist of whether a pact would provide for fair migration, a collaborative relationship with the EU, national security and cross-border crime safeguards, even treatment for all U.K. regions, protection of workers’ rights, and maintenance of single-market benefits.

Pope Begins Baltics Pilgrimage With Plea for Tolerance

Pope Francis on Saturday urged Lithuanians to use their experience enduring decades of Soviet and Nazi occupation to be a model of tolerance in an intolerant world as he began a three-nation tour of the Baltic region amid renewed alarm over Russia’s intentions there.

Francis was greeted by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite at the airport and immediately launched into a hectic schedule of political meetings, encounters with Lutheran and Russian Orthodox leaders, and the ordinary Catholic faithful who are a majority in Lithuania but minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

Speaking outside the presidential palace in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Francis recalled that until the arrival of “totalitarian ideologies” in the 20th century, Lithuania had been a peaceful home to a variety of ethnic and religious groups, including Christians, Jews and Muslims.

He said the world today is marked by political forces that exploit fear and conflict to justify violence and expulsions of others.

“More and more voices are sowing division and confrontation – often by exploiting insecurity or situations of conflict – and proclaiming that the only way possible to guarantee security and the continued existence of a culture is to try to eliminate, cancel or expel others,” Francis said.

He said Lithuania could be a model of openness, understanding, tolerance and solidarity.

“You have suffered `in the flesh’ those efforts to impose a single model that would annul differences under the pretense of believing that the privileges of a few are more important than the dignity of others or the common good,” he said.

Francis was traveling to the region to mark the 100th anniversaries of their independence and to encourage the faith in the Baltics, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism. During the 1940s Nazi occupation, Lithuania’s centuries-old Jewish community was nearly exterminated.

Scars of occupation

“Fifty years of occupation left their mark both on the church and on the people,” said Monsignor Gintaras Grusas, archbishop of Vilnius. “People have deep wounds from that period that take time to heal.”

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which each have ethnic Russian minorities, are also in lockstep in sounding alarms about Moscow’s military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea area following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine.

The Vatican, however, has been loath to openly criticize Moscow or its powerful Orthodox Church.

The Baltic countries declared their independence in 1918 but were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained part of it until the early 1990s, except for the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation during World War II. All three joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and are strong backers of the military alliance, which sees them as a bulwark against Russian incursions in Eastern Europe.

The trip, featuring Francis’ fondness for countries on the periphery, will be a welcome break for the Argentine pope. His credibility has taken a blow recently following missteps on the church’s priestly sex abuse scandal and recent allegations that he covered up for an American cardinal.

His visit to Vilnius coincides with the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the Vilnius Ghetto, on Sept. 23, 1943, when its remaining residents were executed or sent off to concentration camps by the Nazis.

Until Francis’ schedule was changed three weeks ago, there were no specific events for him to acknowledge the slaughter of some 90 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews at the hands of Nazi occupiers and complicit Lithuanian partisans — a significant oversight for the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

At the last minute, the Vatican added in a visit to the Ghetto, where Francis will pray quietly on the day when the names of Holocaust victims are read out at commemorations across the country.

Francis will also visit the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, located in a former gymnasium that served as the headquarters of the Gestapo during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation and later as the headquarters of the feared KGB spy agency when the Soviets recaptured the country.

The issue of Lithuanian complicity in Nazi war crimes is sensitive here, with the Jewish community campaigning to have street signs named for heroes who fought the Soviets removed because of their roles in the executions of Jews.

“I think the presence of the pope is showing attention to the Holocaust and to the Holocaust victims,” said Simonas Gurevichius, chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community. “However, it is not the pope who has to do the work, it is Lithuania as a country and as a society who needs to do the work.”

 

 

Brazil Arrests Lebanese Man Linked to Hezbollah

Brazilian police have arrested a Lebanese man whom the United States suspects is one of the major financial backers of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

Assad Ahmad Barakat was arrested Friday in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu. The town is situated in the so-called Tri-Border Area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge. The area has long been known as a haven for smugglers, traffickers and counterfeiters.

Barakat is wanted in Paraguay on identity theft accusations, and a warrant was issued for his arrest last month. He spent six years in prison in Paraguay for tax evasion, but was released in 2008.

“Members of the Barakat clan made purchases worth $10 million, without declaring their value, at a casino in the Argentine city of Iguazu with the view to laundering the organization’s money,” Brazilian police said.

Argentina has also accused Barakat of money-laundering on behalf of Hezbollah and has frozen Barakat’s funds and other assets, according to officials.

It was not immediately clear whether Barakat will face charges in Brazil or be extradited to Paraguay.

Shimon Samuels, the director of international relations at The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which researches and advocates against anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, said in a statement that he hoped Barakat’s arrest in the Tri-Border area was “a sign that the three countries will begin to drive Hezbollah out of Latin America.”

The U.S. has described Barakat as “a global terrorist.”

Path Partially Clears for Russia’s Return to International Sports

Russia cautiously celebrated a move by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to reinstate its own laboratory for testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs, a decision that has divided the sports world by clearing a path for Russian athletes to return to international competition following a three-year suspension over allegations of state-sponsored doping.

The decision by WADA marks the latest chapter in the long-running saga that has divided Russia and the West in recent years, including the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, meddling in the 2016 elections in the U.S., and intervention in Syria’s civil war.

In Russia, the move was heralded as largely overdue recognition of its progress on an issue Russian sports officials say goes beyond Russia.

“The most important thing is that during this time we managed to make big strides forward in the anti-doping culture in the country,” said Pavel Kolobkov, Russia’s Minister of Sport, in reaction to the decision.

Yet, from President Vladimir Putin on down, Russian officials have vehemently denied WADA’s charges of direct state involvement, saying the suspension is a politically-driven campaign to outlaw Russian athletes collectively for the sins of a few.

Roadmap to return

The vote by WADA’s board — in a split 9-2 to ruling with one abstention — amounts to a partial walk back of key demands of Russia’s so-called “roadmap to return” to competition.

The roadmap’s key provision: Russia formally acknowledge two WADA-triggered investigations that found widespread cheating by hundreds of Russian athletes in what the reports alleges was a massive state-sponsored doping program between 2011 and 2015. A related demand requires that RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, offer complete access to its store of past urine samples of Russia’s athletes.

Critics argue Russia has done neither.

Yet a majority of WADA officials said they were satisfied by Russian progress and promises by Kolobkov for future compliance, with the caveat of possible future suspensions, should policies not be implemented.

“Today, the great majority of the WADA Executive Committee (EXCO) decided to reinstate RUSADA as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code, subject to strict conditions,” said WADA’s President Craig Reedie said in a statement released to the media.

​Fair play?

The decision was widely condemned by sporting federations in the U.S. and Europe, who suggested the decision cast WADA’s role as an arbiter for fair competition in doubt.

Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of RUSADA-turned-whistleblower whose testimony provided key details about the doping effort, argued reinstatement amounted to a “catastrophe for Olympic sport ideals, the fight against doping and the protection of clean athletes.”

Richard McClaren, the Canadian lawyer whose initial report prompted the WADA ban, also condemned the move.

“Politics is dictating this decision,” McClaren said. “The Russians didn’t accept the conditions, so why will they accept the new ones?”

Yet independent Russian sports commentators noted that despite suggestions of a Russian diplomatic victory, not much had in fact changed for Russian athletes themselves.

Russia could now certify its own athletes for competition and host international events once again. They could also certify so-called “therapeutic use exemptions” granted — too often, Russian officials argue — to Western athletes.

Yet some observers noted that Russia’s banned track and field association must still be cleared independently by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which signaled it would set its own criteria for reinstatement.

The return of Russia’s Paralympic squad, banned from the last two Olympic Games, faces similar hurdles.

“Unfortunately, the return of RUSADA automatically doesn’t give them the flag to compete,” wrote Natalya Maryanchik in the daily Sport-Express newspaper. 

“For top sportsman from Russia almost nothing has changed,” agreed Alexei Advokhin in sports.ru, a popular Russian sports fan website. “Yes, their doping samples will again be tested in Russia.”

“If that’s a case for joy,” he added, “it means for three years we’ve understood nothing.”

Pompeo: U.S. Preparing ‘Actions’ Against Venezuela

The United States is preparing a “series of actions” in the coming days to increase pressure on the Venezuelan government, U.S. Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Friday.

“You’ll see in the coming days a series of actions that continue to increase the pressure level against the Venezuelan leadership folks, who are working directly against the best interest of the Venezuelan people,” Pompeo said. “We’re determined to ensure that the Venezuelan people get their say.”

He did not give further details on the nature of the planned actions.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration has steadily increased sanctions against officials in the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro, accusing it of stifling democracy by jailing opposition leaders.

Last year, Washington imposed sanctions prohibiting trading new debt and equity issued by the Venezuelan government and its state oil company, PDVSA. It has imposed several rounds of sanctions on government officials, including on Maduro.

Venezuela’s economy has collapsed under Maduro, with annual inflation running at 200,000 percent, and staple foods and basic medicine increasingly difficult to obtain, which has led to mass emigration.

Pompeo’s warning comes ahead of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York next week attended by heads of state from around the world. Maduro has not attended the meetings since 2015 and this week said he may not attend the gathering because of concerns about his safety.

In August, two drones exploded over an outdoor rally in Caracas where Maduro was giving a speech, injuring seven soldiers and leading to the arrests of over a dozen suspects, including several military officials. Maduro described it as an assassination attempt.

Macedonian PM Seeks US Support in Quest to Join NATO, EU

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says he expects his countrymen will vote for a deal that will rename the country to “North Macedonia” in exchange for Greece’s ending its objections to Macedonia’s eventual membership in NATO and the European Union.

In a VOA interview, he said, “There is no other alternative. I am an optimist primarily because I know my people. They have a history of making smart decisions and this one will be no different.”

Zaev said he wants Macedonia to soon become the 30th member of NATO in order to secure peace, economic prosperity and security for his country, and that Washington strongly supports Macedonia’s NATO aspirations.

“The message was sent yet again that America stands firmly beside Macedonia as an unwavering strategic partner,” Zaev told VOA Macedonian in an exclusive interview following his meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday.

Zaev was invited to the White House after working to secure the Prespa Agreement with Greece on the long-standing name issue between the two countries, according to a statement issued by the vice president’s office. 

“I am convinced that the United States will stay focused on a Southeast Europe benefiting all the citizens in the region, including the citizens of Macedonia,” said Zaev.

Renaming Macedonia is a key element of a deal with neighboring Greece to end a decades-old dispute. Greece says Macedonia’s current name implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, and on its ancient heritage.

Romanian Ruling Party Leader Defeats Dissenters Who Want Him Out

The leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats Liviu Dragnea retained control of the party Friday, defeating dissenters who said his criminal record had made him a liability, but his victory seems likely to heighten political infighting.

A past conviction in a vote-rigging case earned him a suspended jail term, which prevented him from being prime minister. And he is due next month to launch an appeal against a three-and-a-half year prison sentence passed in a separate abuse of office case.

He is also under investigation in a third case on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded.

But he emerged unscathed from an eight-hour meeting of the party’s executive committee on Friday at which he won a comfortable majority of support, beating off critics who wanted him out.

Analysts said his latest confrontation with internal party critics might also complicate Dragnea’s and his allies’ efforts to stall the fight against corruption in one of the European Union’s most graft-prone states.

Dragnea led the party to a sweeping victory in a December 2016 parliamentary election, but since then its attempts to weaken the judiciary have dominated the public agenda.

An attempt to decriminalize several corruption offences last year via emergency decrees triggered massive protests and was ultimately withdrawn. Changes to criminal codes this year invited comparisons with Poland and Hungary, which are embroiled in a standoff with Brussels over the rule of law.

Deputy Prime Minister Paul Stanescu, Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea and lawmaker Adrian Tutuianu — all vice-presidents of the party — called for his resignation, saying his management has hurt the party’s popularity.

Dragnea has previously argued in favor of an emergency decree that would grant amnesty for some corruption offenses — potentially affording him protection against prosecution — or retroactively scrap wiretap evidence collected by Romania’s intelligence service SRI on behalf of prosecutors.

After Friday’s executive meeting, Dragnea said Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, a close ally, had not supported the idea of an emergency decree on amnesty at this time.

But Dragnea vowed to continue fighting against what he calls a “parallel state” of prosecutors and secret services who want to bring the party down via corruption trials.

“I personally no longer care [about] an emergency decree regarding amnesty,” Dragnea said. “If the government wants to pass it, it’s up to them, whenever they want.”

“As long as I remain party president I will do all I can to bring down this heinous system that is ruining lives.”

Unlike bills passed through parliament, which can be challenged and take a long time, emergency decrees take effect immediately.

“He [Dragnea] might have broken them [his critics] today,” said Sergiu Miscoiu, political science professor at Babes-Bolyai University. “But he is gradually losing control, his enemies are consolidating, and the next round might be fatal.”