10 Dead as Ships Catch Fire Off Crimea 

At least 10 people are dead after two Tanzanian-flagged ships caught fire Monday in the Kerch Strait off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea. 

Russian authorities said at least 12 people were rescued, but the rest are missing. 

The ships, the Kandy and the Maestro, had crews that were nationals from India and Turkey. Together, the two ships carried 31 crew members. 

Russia’s transport ministry said a rescue operation was under way to find sailors who jumped overboard to escape the blaze, which ignited when fuel was being transferred from one ship to another.

Ships in ‘neutral water’

The crew members were sailing in “neutral waters” in the Black Sea when the incident occurred, authorities said.

The Kerch Strait is a point of high tension between Russia and Ukraine. 

In November, Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy ships in the strait as they tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea. Russia continues to hold 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in the incident. They are accused of illegally crossing into Russian territory.

Ukraine has denied the accusation.

Greek Parliament Begins Debate on Deal with Macedonia

Greece’s parliament began to debate Monday a deal that would normalize Greek relations with Macedonia, a day after violent protests against the accord broke out in Athens.

Parliamentary officials have tentatively scheduled a vote for Thursday on the deal, which calls for Macedonia to change its name and for Greece to drop its objections to the Balkan country joining NATO and the European Union.

The deal was debated Monday in the Greek parliament’s committee on defense and foreign policy, while the house’s plenary session will take up debate Wednesday.

Greeks have been divided over the accord, in which Macedonia will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece has long protested the name Macedonia, adopted by its northern neighbor after it split from Yugoslavia. Some Greeks say the new name still represents an attempt to appropriate Greek identity and cultural heritage, because Macedonia is also the name of Greece’s northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Protests in Athens against the agreement turned violent Sunday, with demonstrators throwing rocks, firebombs and other items at police, who responded with numerous volleys of tear gas. At least 25 officers and dozens of people were injured in the clashes, officials said.

A nationwide poll in Greece this month found that 70 percent of respondents oppose the deal, AP reported.

The agreement has caused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to lose his four-year coalition in parliament after his nationalist allies defected to protest the deal. Following the upheaval, Tsipras narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament Wednesday.

The Greek prime minister and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, brokered the compromise in June to end the 27-year name dispute between the two neighbors.

Last week, Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name. The agreement has also caused protests in Macedonia, with critics there saying the government gave up too much in the deal.

Tsipras has argued the Macedonia deal will bolster stability in Europe’s Balkan region. EU countries have also strongly backed the deal.

Russia: 2 Ships Catch Fire in Black Sea, 10 Sailors Dead

Two Tanzanian-flagged commercial vessels caught fire in the Black Sea, leaving at least 10 sailors dead, Russian officials said Monday. Seven sailors were missing.

The Federal Agency for the Sea and River Transport said the fire erupted while fuel was being pumped from one tanker to another. The blaze also spread from one ship to the other, prompting the crews to jump overboard, according to Russian news agencies.

The news agencies quoted the federal maritime agency as saying the two vessels had 31 crew members combined who are citizens of Turkey and India.

Salvage teams have rescued 14 crew members and recovered 10 bodies, the maritime agency said, adding that a search for the seven missing sailors is underway.

The Russian navy has joined the rescue operation, deploying two of its ships.

The fire erupted while the two vessels, the Maestro and the Candy, were anchored near the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Erdogan: Turkey Ready to Take Over Security in Syria’s Manbij

Turkey is ready to take over security in the Kurdish-controlled Syrian city of Manbij, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday.

Erdogan’s office says the president spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump by telephone Sunday, days after an Islamic State attack in the city killed 19 people, including three U.S. service members and an American military contractor.

Erdogan told Trump the attack was a “provocation” aimed at affecting his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria.

The White House did not specifically mention Erdogan’s comments about Manbij other than saying the two presidents “agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns.”

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and its Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), control Manbij.

Turkey says the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a long separatist war for more Kurdish autonomy inside Turkey.

Turkey considers both the YPG and PKK terrorist groups. The Kurdish militia fears Turkey will carry out a military assault on it as soon as the U.S. pulls out.

Trump has proposed a safe zone in the region but has yet to provide any details.

Turkey does not want any Kurdish-controlled territory on its border and has said any safe zone must be cleared of Kurds.

White House bureau chief Steve Herman contributed to this report.

 

Pope Rolls Out Prayer App for Youth

Pope Francis introduced a digital application that enables the faithful to pray with him, swiping a tablet on Sunday, January 20, to showcase the “click to pray” app ahead of the World Youth Day 2019, which takes place in Panama January 22-27. The Vatican has launched the new multiplatform service on its website clicktopray.org that it says will enable the faithful to “accompany the pope in a mission of compassion for the world.” VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Moscow ‘Trump Tower’ Talks Lasted Through 2016, Lawyer Says

U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani says Trump’s discussions with Russian officials over construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow went on throughout the time he was campaigning for the White House in 2016, months longer than previously acknowledged.

“It’s our understanding that they went on throughout 2016,” Giuliani told NBC’s Meet the Press. Giuliani said there “weren’t a lot of them, but there were conversations.  Can’t be sure of the exact date.”

“Probably could be up to as far as October, November — our answers cover until the election,” Giuliani said, referring to written questions Trump has answered from special counsel Robert Mueller, who for 20 months has been investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.

“So anytime during that period they could’ve talked about it,” Giuliani said. “But the president’s recollection of it is that the thing had petered out (subsided) quite a bit,” and the construction project never materialized.  During the early stages of the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump often said he had no business ties to Russia.

Giuliani, a former New York mayor, said that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, “would have a much better recollection of [the Moscow negotiations] than the president. It was much more important to him. That was his sole mission. The president was running for president of the United States.  So you have to expect there’s not going to be a great deal of concentration on a project that never went anywhere.”

‘Big news’

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the lead Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee that has been investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia, said on the NBC show the length of Trump’s efforts to build a Moscow skyscraper, extending into the November 2016 national election, was “news to me, and that is big news.  Why, two years after the fact, are we just learning this fact now when there’s been this much inquiry?”

Warner added, “I would think most voters — Democrat, Republican, independent, you name it — that knowing the Republican nominee was actively trying to do business in Moscow, that the Republican nominee at least at one point had offered, if he built this building, Vladimir Putin, a free-penthouse apartment, and if those negotiations were ongoing up until the election, I think that’s a relevant fact for voters to know.  And I think it’s remarkable we are two years after the fact and just discovering it today.”

Cohen has pleaded guilty to, among other offenses, lying to Congress about the extent of Trump’s involvement with the Moscow project, telling a congressional panel that Trump’s efforts ended in January 2016, just as the Republican presidential nominating contests were starting three years ago.  He has said he lied to comport with Trump’s own public comments to voters, but more recently has said he recalls the Moscow discussions extending to June 2016, a shorter time frame than Giuliani acknowledged Sunday.

The online news site BuzzFeed said last week that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Moscow timeline, but Mueller’s office late Friday said the report was “not accurate.”  BuzzFeed said it continues to stand by the story.

In a separate interview on CNN, Giuliani said he had “no knowledge” of whether Trump talked to Cohen before his congressional testimony.

Mueller is believed to be writing a report on his findings from his lengthy investigation.  He and other federal prosecutors have secured convictions or guilty pleas from several key figures in Trump’s orbit, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign aide Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos and Cohen.

 

 

Greece Rally Over Macedonia Name Deal Turns Violent

Protests turned violent Sunday between Greek demonstrators and police as tens of thousands of people converged on Athens to oppose a name-change deal with Macedonia.

Greece has long protested the name Macedonia, adopted by its northern neighbor after it split from Yugoslavia.

Greeks say Macedonia’s new name — the Republic of North Macedonia — represents an attempt to appropriate Greek identity and cultural heritage, because Macedonia is also the name of Greece’s northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.

The protests Sunday started out peacefully but later in the day demonstrators threw rocks, firebombs and other items at police, who responded with numerous volleys of tear gas. At least 25 officers and dozens of people were injured in the clashes, officials said. Police said at least seven people had been arrested, according to the Associated Press.

The Greek parliament is expected to vote on the deal later this week, in which Macedonia will change its name and Greece will drop its objections to the Balkan country joining NATO and the European Union.

 

A nationwide poll in Greece this week found that 70 percent of respondents oppose the deal, AP reported.

The agreement has caused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to lose his four-year coalition in parliament after his nationalist allies defected to protest the deal. Following the upheaval, Tsipras narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday.

 

Tsipras has called for a televised debate on the planned name deal with Macedonia before parliament votes on the agreement.

 

The Greek prime minister and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, brokered the compromise in June to end a 27-year name dispute between the two neighbors.

 

Last week, Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name. The agreement has also caused protests in Macedonia, with critics there saying the government gave up too much in the deal.

 

Tsipras has argued the Macedonia deal will bolster stability in Europe’s Balkan region. EU countries have also strongly backed the deal.

Minister: UK Faces ‘Political Tsunami’ if Brexit Halted

Britain’s trade minister says the country will face a “political tsunami” if the government does not deliver on voters’ decision to leave the European Union.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that “failure to deliver Brexit would produce a yawning gap between Parliament and the people, a schism in our political system with unknowable consequences.”

 

The Brexit process has been deadlocked since Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU divorce deal was rejected by Parliament last week. Some lawmakers are pushing for the U.K. to delay its departure, scheduled for March 29, until politicians can agree on a way forward.

 

May is due to report to Parliament Monday on how she plans to alter the rejected deal. There are few signs she plans to make radical changes.

 

 

Car Bomb Blast in Northern Ireland; No Injuries Reported

Northern Ireland police and politicians have condemned a “reckless” car bombing outside a courthouse in the city of Londonderry.

The device was placed inside a hijacked delivery vehicle and exploded Saturday night as police, who had received a warning, were evacuating the area. There were no reports of injuries.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland posted a photograph of a vehicle in flames and urged the public to stay away.

Police and army bomb-disposal experts remained at the scene on Sunday.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton called the attack “incredibly reckless.”

“The people responsible for this attack have shown no regard for the community or local businesses,” he said. “They care little about the damage to the area and the disruption they have caused.”

More than 3,700 people died during decades of violence before Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord. Most militants have renounced violence, but some Irish Republican Army dissidents carry out occasional bombings and shootings.

Uncertainty about the future of the Irish border after Brexit is adding to tensions in Northern Ireland.

John Boyle, who is mayor of the city also known as Derry, said violence “is the past and it has to stay in the past.”

Humanitarian Issues to Figure Prominently at Davos Forum

Heads of U.N. and international aid agencies will use the World Economic Forum’s influential platform to present humanitarian and human rights issues on behalf of millions of people caught in conflict, poverty and natural disasters. The Forum begins its annual weeklong meeting in the plush Swiss Alpine resort of Davos on Monday.

The World Economic Forum is best known for the many high-powered government and business leaders who make the annual pilgrimage to Davos to acquire lucrative deals and shape geopolitical events.

But the annual event also presents a robust humanitarian agenda. This year, the Forum, World Bank and International Committee of the Red Cross will launch a Humanitarian Investing Initiative. The aim is to seek new solutions for protracted humanitarian crises by moving from short-term to long-term funding to support fragile communities.

United Nations aid agencies will feature prominently during the week-long meeting. The World Food Program’s executive director, David Beasley, will co-host events, such as ‘conflict and hunger’ and ‘the use of digital technology in the humanitarian sector.’

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel says the group will be seeking support for its operations. He says many of the companies attending Davos understand that investments in food security are fundamental to business success.

“It saves lives and builds stronger markets around the world. In fact, it can increase GDPs by up to 16.5 percent and a person’s lifetime earnings by 46 percent,” he said.

With more than 3,000 of the world’s movers and shakers from 110 countries present, aid agencies see the Forum as a valuable opportunity to strengthen relationships with world leaders and keep their life-saving missions on the world’s agenda.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet will be attending events on a wide range of topics. Her spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, says these include LGBTI or Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Intersex standards in businesses, and human rights and democracy in a changing world.

“A couple of events on women’s rights as human rights and female leadership. The importance of women playing a role in global affairs by creating a new architecture that allows them to fully participate as leaders and shapers,” she said.

The head of the U.N. Children’s Fund, Henrietta Fore will champion the needs of children and young people who are caught up in humanitarian crises or are being left behind because of extreme poverty and lack of development.

U.N. Development Program Administrator, Achim Steiner will seek to raise $100 million from Davos’ wealthy clientele to protect wild animals and their habitats.