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.

 

Ecuador to Tighten Controls on Venezuelan Immigrants After Murder

Ecuador is setting up new units to check Venezuelan immigrants’ legal status and may tighten entry requirements after a Venezuelan man murdered his pregnant Ecuadorian girlfriend, President Lenin Moreno said on Sunday.

The killing in the northern city of Ibarra is the first reported murder perpetrated by a Venezuelan immigrant in Ecuador since hundreds of thousands have arrived there after fleeing an economic crisis in Venezuela.

“I have ordered the immediate setting up of units to control Venezuelan immigrants’ legal status in the streets, in the workplace, and at the border,” Moreno said on Twitter.

The government, he added, may create a new “special permit” for Venezuelans to enter the country. He did not give further details about the units or how they will operate.

“Ecuador is and will be a country of peace. I will not allow any criminal to take that away from us,” he said.

The Venezuelan man held his victim hostage on a busy street for about an hour on Saturday evening before stabbing her to death. He was then arrested by police.

Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo said she had fired Ibarra’s police chief for not preventing the murder, which she said officers could have used force to prevent.

Ecuador estimates that some 1.3 million Venezuelans entered the country last year via Colombia, though most continue to Peru, fleeing a hyperinflationary collapse back home that has left millions unable to obtain basic food or medicine.

Last year, Ecuador’s government said it was changing entry requirements to require that Venezuelans present a passport, but a judge blocked that change.

The president of the Association of Venezuelans in Ecuador, Daniel Regalado, said the murder risked demonizing Venezuelans just because they did not have legal status.

“These are isolated cases and they don’t involve the whole Venezuelan community in Ecuador,” Regalado said in an interview.

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.

 

 

Death Toll Reaches 79 in Mexico Fuel Pipeline Fire

They were warned to stay away from the geyser of gasoline gushing from the illegally tapped pipeline in central Mexico, but Gerardo Perez says he and his son joined others in bypassing the soldiers. As they neared the spurting fuel he was overcome with foreboding.

Perez recalls telling his son: “Let’s go … this thing is going to explode.”

 

And it did, with a fireball that engulfed locals scooping up the spilling gasoline and underscored the dangers of an epidemic of fuel theft from pipelines that Mexico’s new president has vowed to fight.

 

By Sunday morning the death toll from Friday’s blaze had risen to 79, with another 81 hospitalized in serious condition, according to federal Health Minister Jorge Alcocer. Dozens more were missing.

 

Perez and his son escaped the flames. On Saturday, he returned to the scorched field in the town of Tlahuelilpan in Hidalgo state to look for missing friends. It was a fruitless task. Only a handful of the remains still had skin. Dozens were burned to the bone or to ash when the gusher of gasoline exploded.

 

Just a few feet from where the pipeline passed through an alfalfa field, the dead seem to have fallen in heaps, perhaps as they stumbled over each other or tried to help one another as the geyser of gasoline turned to flames.

 

Several of the deceased lay on their backs, their arms stretched out in agony. Some seemed to have covered their chests in a last attempt to protect themselves from the blast. A few corpses seemed to embrace each other in death. Lost shoes were scattered around a space the size of a soccer field. Closer to the explosion, forensic workers marked mounds of ash with numbers.

 

On Friday, hundreds of people had gathered in an almost festive atmosphere in a field where the duct had been perforated by fuel thieves and gasoline spewed 20 feet into the air.

 

State oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said the pipeline, which supplies much of central Mexico with fuel, had just reopened after being shut since Dec. 23 and that it had been breached 10 times over three months.

 

The tragedy came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day. The crackdown has led to widespread fuel shortages at gas stations throughout the country as Pemex altered distribution, both licit and illicit.

 

Lopez Obrador vowed on Sunday to continue the fight against a practice that steals about $3 billion per year in fuel.

 

“Mexico needs to end corruption,” Lopez Obrador said. “This is not negotiable.”

 

He said he would offer financial aid to communities along pipelines that have become somewhat dependent on income from fuel theft rings.

 

Lopez Obrador faces an uphill fight against a practice that locals say is deeply rooted in the poor rural areas where pipelines pass, covered by only a foot or two of dirt. In some cases, locals support the fuel thieves.

 

Tlahuelilpan, population 20,000, is just 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Pemex’s Tula refinery. Pemex Chief Executive Octavio Romero said an estimated 10,000 barrels of premium gasoline were rushing through the pipeline with 20 kilograms of pressure when it was ruptured.

 

Locals on Saturday expressed both sympathy and consternation toward the president’s war on fuel gangs.

 

Arely Calva Martinez said the recent shortages at gas stations raised the temptation to salvage fuel from the gusher.

 

Her brother Marco Alfredo, a teacher, was desperate for gas to drive 90 minutes back and forth to work when word spread via Facebook that fuel spewing into the field. Marco Alfredo and another brother, Yonathan, were in the field when the fire erupted. They haven’t been seen since.

 

“I think if there had been gas in the gas stations, many of these people wouldn’t have been here,” Calva Martinez said while holding a picture of her brothers.

 

Tears streamed down Erica Bautista’s cheeks as she held up her cellphone with pictures of her brother, Valentin Hernandez Cornejo, 24, a taxi driver, and his wife, Yesica, both of whom are also missing. Valentin faced “enormous lines” for a limited ration of gas, she said. Then he received a phone call alerting him to the fuel spill.

 

“We want to at least find a cadaver,” she said while weeping.

 

Health officials were taking DNA samples from direct relatives at the local community center in Tlahuelilpan to aid in identification. Outside, a long, chilling list of the missing was taped to a window.

 

Wrapped in a blanket, Hugo Olvera Estrada said he had gone to six nearby hospitals looking for his 13-year-old son, who had joined the crowd at the fuel spill. He hasn’t been seen since.

 

“Ay, no, where is my son?” he wailed.

 

Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries. His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck.

 

Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio said there are 50 soldiers stationed every 12 miles along the pipelines, and that they patrol 24 hours a day. But the soldiers have been ordered not to engage with fuel thieves out of fear that an escalation could result in more shootings of unarmed civilians or more soldiers being beaten by a mob.

 

“We don’t want this sort of confrontation,” Cresencio said.

 

A second pipeline burst into flames Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. But in this fire there were no reported casualties.

 

In December 2010, authorities also blamed thieves for a pipeline explosion in a central Mexico near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children.

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.