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Bulgarian PM: Some 300 Migrants Arrested After Refugee Camp Riot

Bulgarian riot police stand near garbarge bins during clashes in the migrants reception centre in the town of Harmanli on November 24 where some 1,500 migrants started a riot in Bulgaria's largest refugee camp.

Bulgaria's prime minister says some 300 migrants have been arrested following a riot in the country's largest refugee camp that left two dozen police injured.

"Around 300 migrants, six of them considered a threat to national security, have been arrested," Prime Minister Boyko Borisov told BNR public radio in the early hours of November 25 after visiting the camp.

Bulgarian officials said between 1,500 and 2,000 migrants were involved in the November 24 clashes at the Harmanli migrant reception center, near the border with Turkey.

The crowd, primarily made up of refugees from Afghanistan, allegedly set car tires alight and hurled stones at more than 200 police and firefighters to protest newly imposed rule banning migrants from leaving the center as a medical precaution.

Tensions have run high in the area, with local residents protesting to demand that the refugee camp be closed.

Migrants fleeing violence in the Middle East have made their way into the Balkan country despite the fence Sofia has erected along the Turkish border amid the worst migration crisis to hit Europe since 1945.

Around 13,000 migrants, most of them from Afghanistan, are currently in Bulgaria, according to official statistics.

Based on reporting by dpa, AP, and AFP

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Bosnia Puts Off Closing Makeshift Migrant Camp 'Until Further Notice'

A migrant walks at the Vucjak refugee camp outside Bihac on December 3.

Bosnian authorities have indefinitely postponed the scheduled closing of a makeshift migrant tent camp in the northwest of the country.

The closing of the Vucjak camp had been scheduled for December 9, following harsh international criticism of the improper conditions hundreds of people are being housed in. The camp is hosting some 600 migrants, according to the Red Cross.

Rade Kovac, the director of the Bosnian Service for Foreigners' Affairs, visited the camp on December 9 and said that the authorities had postponed closing the camp until further notice.

Aid groups have repeatedly warned that the Vucjak camp is located on a former landfill and close to a mine field from Bosnia's 1992-95 war, and has no running water or toilets. Living conditions worsened further after snow started falling last week.

Kovac said the migrants will eventually be moved to one of the reception centers in the Sarajevo Canton. He gave no reason for the postponement, but media reports said the decision was prompted by a lack of proper accommodation at the reception centers.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's security minister, Dragan Mektic, last week announced that the occupants of the camp on the border with Croatia would be relocated to other camps outside the region.

"It was agreed that migrants would be moved early next week from this locality to other reception centers...and that this makeshift camp would be closed," Mektic said in a statement on December 6.

The decision to close the camp came after Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, visited Vucjak last week and warned that deaths would be imminent if the camp were not closed at once. "If we don't close the camp today, tomorrow people will start dying here," she told reporters while visiting the snow-covered camp.

On December 6, Mijatovic told a news conference in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, that it was now urgent to relocate the migrants and provide them with "decent accommodation."

"Many people lack adequate clothing and footwear,'' she said. "It is inhumane and unacceptable to keep people in such conditions.''

However, some migrants said that despite snow and freezing weather, they will refuse to be moved farther away from the border. Most of the migrants flocked to the northwestern part of Bosnia because they want to continue their journey to Western Europe's more prosperous countries by crossing the border into European Union member Croatia.

On December 7, migrants at Vucjak resumed accepting food distributed by the Bihac branch of the Red Cross, after refusing it for several days in protest at the announced relocation of the camp.

Bosnian authorities have struggled to accommodate thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Migrants enter Bosnia from neighboring Serbia or Montenegro.

NATO To Toast 70th Anniversary As Alliance Seeks To Assert Relevance

The 29 allies will have much to discuss on December 3-4, including NATO's political future amid signs of disunity ahead of talks. 

NATO, the most successful military alliance in history, is celebrating its 70th anniversary in London during a two-day summit of the alliance's leaders.

The 29 allies will have much to discuss on December 3-4, including NATO's political future amid signs of disunity ahead of talks.

France, Turkey, and the United States are arriving with differing visions for NATO.

U.S. President Donald Trump has questioned why Washington should defend the West and has called on NATO countries to increase defense spending.

That so far has been happening, according to Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said non-U.S. allies will have increased their defense spending by $130 billion since 2016.

Canada, Turkey, and Europe are expected to pledge $400 billion in defense spending by 2024 to further appease Trump.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been criticized for buying a sophisticated Russian air-defense system that are incompatible with NATO's systems and which prompted the United States to threaten sanctions and remove Ankara from its F-35 fighter jet program.

Washington, furthermore, has criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for pursuing a policy to defeat Kurdish fighters in Syria who are considered U.S. allies.

In disagreement with mounting criticism, Ankara has been withholding support for a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland that requires the approval of all 29 members.

"The message to Turkey...is we need to move forward on these response plans and it can't be held up by their own particular concerns," U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Reuters as he flew to London.

French President Emmanuel Macron last month questioned NATO's central tenet that an attack on one member is an attack against all while saying the alliance is "experiencing brain-death" over the lack of an overarching strategy.

Wariness of Russia's growing military might and expansion is on the agenda, as is a new strategy to monitor the rise in China's military activity.

NATO also will for the first time name space as a domain of warfare, in addition to air, land, sea, and cyberspace.

"We are faced with a paradox," Stoltenberg told Reuters. "Yes, we have some differences, but the reality is that we are doing more together than for many years."

With reporting by Defense News, AFP, and Reuters

Suspected Islamic State Recruiter Arrested In The Maldives

Up to 160 Maldivian militants are believed to be held in Syrian detention camps after Islamic State was defeated in the country. (file photo)

Police in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives have detained a local man who the United States says is a recruiter for the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Muhammad Ameen, 35, was arrested on October 23 on suspicion of spreading an "extremist ideology," Maldivian police said the following day.

He allegedly mobilized fighters for IS in Syria and Afghanistan.

No further details were provided about the suspect although U.S. authorities last month designated him as a foreign terrorist leader of IS-Khorasan, a group that is reportedly active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Citing local media, AFP reported that Ameen first sent fighters to Syria, but was now focused on recruiting Maldivians for combat in Afghanistan.

He is also suspected of involvement in an explosion at Sultan Park in the capital of Male in September 2007 in which a dozen tourists were hurt with minor injuries.

Up to 160 Maldivian militants are believed to be held in Syrian detention camps after IS was defeated in the country.

The country’s parliamentary speaker and former president, Muhammad Nasheed, said in June that he wants to rehabilitate the imprisoned Maldivians but not without an internationally supervised reintegration program.

The Maldives is a state of 340,000 mostly Sunni Muslims who practice a liberal form of Islam in a nation that relies heavily on luxury tourism for revenue.

Based on reporting by AFP

Disease Fighters To Mark Partial Victory In Polio Eradication Battle

A health worker administers polio vaccine to children during a three-day countrywide vaccination campaign in Peshawar on August 26.

LONDON, -- Global health officials will on October 24 announce a partial victory in the decades-long fight to end polio, with a second of three strains of the crippling virus certified as eradicated worldwide.

The ending of wild polio virus type 3, also known as WPV3, will be the third human disease-causing pathogen to be eradicated in history, after smallpox was declared wiped out in 1980 and wild polio virus type 2 (WPV2) in 2015.

Polio spreads in vulnerable populations in areas where there is no immunity and sanitation is poor. It invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours.

It cannot be cured, but infection can be prevented by vaccination, and a dramatic reduction in case numbers worldwide in recent decades has been largely due to intense national and regional immunization campaigns in babies and children.

The last case of polio type 3 was detected in northern Nigeria in 2012, and global health officials have since been conducting intense surveillance to ensure it has gone.

"With no wild poliovirus type 3 detected anywhere in the world since 2012, the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication is anticipated to officially declare this strain as globally eradicated," the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said in a statement.

The success in ending type 3 means that only type 1 of the wild virus is still circulating and causing infections.

Polio type 1 is endemic in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but efforts to wipe it out have faced setbacks in the past two years.

After reaching a historic low of only 22 cases of wild polio infection in 2017, the virus has caused 72 cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan already this year -- pushing back yet further the potential date for the world to wipe polio out altogether.

The first target date for ending polio was set in 1988 by the GPEI, a partnership of the World Health Organization, the health charity Rotary International and others, which had aimed to eradicate it by 2000.

GPEI said, however, that this week's declaration of the end of WPV3 was a "significant milestone," while Carol Pandak, director of Rotary's PolioPlus program, said it proves that a polio-free world is achievable. "Even as the polio program addresses major challenges, we're making important headway in other areas," she said.

At Least Two Dead At Greek Migrant Camp Of Mostly Afghans

A man holds a boy during clashes with police outside the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 29.

A riot broke out and at least two fires were set ablaze at an overcrowded refugee camp of mostly Afghan migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 29.

At least two people, a mother and child, were killed, the Athens News Agency reported quoting police sources.

The overpopulated Moira camp is designed to house 3,000 people while four times as many migrants live there either in UN-supplied tents or containers.

"The situation is tense," Lesbos Mayor Stratis Kytelis told AFP.

Local police said the two fires, one sparked outside the camp near an olive grove then inside the compound, broke out within 20 minutes of each other.

Riots ensued as migrants clashed with police in protest at the cramped conditions as they demanded access to the mainland.

"We learned with deep sadness that the lives of a woman and a child were lost in a fire on [Lesbos] today," the Greek unit of the UN’s refugee agency said on social media.

Greece admits that it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate so many migrants on the islands and its government has said it will discuss a new asylum law to deal with the migrant crisis.

The country hosts about 70,000 Syrian refugees and migrants who have fled their homeland since 2015.

Minister of State George Gerapetritis said on local television on September 29 that migrants should be sent to camps with humane conditions.

Ahead of the weekend, Citizen's Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis asked for regional governors to share the migrant burden of the country’s overcrowded islands.

Based on reporting by Al Jazeera, AP, AFP, and Athens News Agency

UNICEF Says More Than 29 Million Babies Born In Conflict Zones In 2018

Afghan women sit with their children after returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan in September 2016.|

More than 29 million babies were born last year into conflict-affected areas, including Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

A report published on September 20 said the statistics meant that more than one in five babies born last year spent their earliest moments in communities affected by "the chaos of conflict, often in deeply unsafe, and highly stressful environments."

"Every parent should be able to cherish their baby's first moments, but for the millions of families living through conflict, the reality is far bleaker," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.

She said that in many countries, violent conflict has severely limited access to essential services for parents and their babies.

A UNICEF worker in Afghanistan related the story "of my son, 5-year-old Heraab. [He] finds himself in a community where he is constantly exposed to the sounds of explosions, smell of smoke, accompanied by the regular shrieking of sirens, be it police or ambulance, or the persistent honking of cars and motorbikes rushing the injured to hospital."

"He shudders and wakes up at night if a truck passes by with speed, sometimes shaking the windows of our house, thinking it must be another attack," the worker related.

Afghanistan is embroiled in an 18-year civil war since the 2001 invasion by U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for launching the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

A UNICEF staffer in war-torn Yemen said that "some of the young children we see shake with fear, uncontrollably, for hours on end. They don't sleep. You can hear them whimpering, it's not a usual cry but a cold, weak whimper."

"Others are so malnourished and traumatized they detach emotionally from the world and people around them, causing them to become vacant and making it impossible for them to interact with their families."

Yemen's civil war has killed thousands of civilians and caused shortages of food and medical care that have affected millions in what international experts have called a "humanitarian disaster."

A Saudi-led Sunni Muslim coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government ousted from power in the capital, Sana'a, by the Iran-backed Shi'ite Huthis in late 2014.

The Huthis, who deny being a puppet of Iran and say they launched a revolution against corruption, hold Sana'a and most of the biggest urban centers of Yemen.

French Prosecutor Says Knife-Wielding Afghan Suspect In 'Psychotic State’

Migrants and refugees leave their camp as they are evacuated by French CRS riot police in Nantes, western France, on July 23.

An Afghan asylum-seeker who fatally stabbed one person and wounded eight others in France was under the influence of drugs and experiencing "paranoid delirium," a regional prosecutor said on September 1 as reported by the AP news agency.

He was in a "psychotic state" during the stabbing and reported hearing "voices" telling him to kill, prosecutor Nicolas Jacquet said.

The suspect started attacking people with a knife on August 31 outside a subway station in the Lyon suburb of Villeurbanne.

A group of passers-by apprehended him before the police arrived.

The 33-year-old suspect’s identity wasn’t made available to the public and isn't listed on any radicalism watch list. A police search of his residence found two knives and no radical literature.

He has been living at a French center for asylum-seekers and was in possession of a temporary French residency card.

French cities are on high alert following several deadly attacks blamed on Islamic extremists in 2015 and 2016.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Afghan Man Detained Following Mass Knife Attack In France

FILE: Policemen stand during the evacuation of a migrants and refugees camp in Franc.e

Police in France detained an Afghan asylum-seeker after one person was killed and nine others injured in a knife attack near a commuter train station outside Lyon.

Authorities on August 31 described the attacker as a 33-year-old Afghan citizen who had applied for asylum in France and was waiting for a response.

Police said a 19-year-old man was killed and three of the others were in critical condition following what was described as a “frenzied” attack.

"There was blood everywhere," said a woman who witnessed the attack in the town of Villeurbanne.

Authorities said the incident did not immediately appear to be terrorism-related and it was not known if the assailant knew the victims.

French cities are on high alert following several deadly attacks blamed on Islamic extremists in 2015 and 2016.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

G7 Leaders Gather In France To Discuss Iran, Russia, Amazon Rainforest

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech to business leaders on the eve of the G7 summit.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) top industrialized nations are gathering in southwest France for a potentially contentious summit, with Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of Russia's reentry into the group on the agenda.

U.S. President Donald Trump and new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are among the leaders scheduled for the two-day summit beginning on August 24 in the resort area of Biarritz, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Upon his departure from Washington, Trump told reporters that he expected "very productive" talks with his fellow G7 members. He also called on France to drop plans to impose sales taxes on U.S. tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

Along with the other leaders from the G7 nations -- Germany, Canada, Italy, and Japan -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend as a guest and will meet individually with many other participants, most likely to discuss the Kashmir crisis.

Macron said he will also look to press Trump to sign a charter protecting biodiversity amid the continuing fires that are devastating the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

All eyes will be on Trump and his relations with the rest of the grouping. The G7 meeting last year in Quebec, Canada, ended in disarray with the U.S. president accusing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of making "false statements" regarding a final communique, which the United States did not endorse.

This year, Washington has been pushing European allies to help put “maximum pressure" on Iran -- through sanctions and other means – to force Tehran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

A British diplomatic source in Biarritz told Reuters that "we are strong supporters" of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of in May 2018, when he claimed the terms were not strict enough.

"We think that it is very important that Iran doesn't get the nuclear weapons...It is important that it continues and I don't think you will find any change in the British government position," the source said.

The source added, though, that it was crucial for Iran to comply fully with the 2015 accord, sayng that, while Johnson would listen to the U.S. position, the British government was not planning to make any radical changes to its approach.

Trump is likely to face strong pushback if he continues to press his view that Russia should be readmitted to the grouping, which was called the G8 before Moscow was thrown out.

Russia was expelled from the G8 format after invading and annexing Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. Moscow is also backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

The G7 member states have imposed sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.

Macron said on August 23 that he wanted the leading industrialized nations to also address the "ecocide" that is going on in the Amazon rainforest, which has been struck by a massive number of fires. Experts say many of the fires have been caused by farmers setting the forest ablaze to clear more land for pasture.

His comments have angered Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who blasted what he called Macron’s "colonialist mentality."

Many of the leaders are also expected to discuss the crisis in Kashmir with India’s Modi.

Tensions have risen since Hindu-led India said on August 5 that it would strip the majority-Muslim region of its special status, which sparked resentment in Indian-administered Kashmir and across the border in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, as well as in Islamabad.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947, but both sides claim the territory in its entirety.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and AP

Trump Backs Off Plan To Slash Foreign Aid Amid Bipartisan Backlash

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the proposed cuts would have been "harmful to our national security." (file photo)

Facing criticism from Republicans and Democrats, U.S. President Donald Trump has backed off a plan to slash some $4 billion in foreign aid already approved by lawmakers.

U.S. news agencies on August 22 quoted unnamed senior administration officials and a Democratic congressional aide as confirming the White House had decided not to go forward with the planned cuts.

U.S. officials on August 7 said Trump had frozen foreign-aid funding until the White House Office of Management and Budget could review any money that hadn't been spent for the fiscal year ending September 30.

The freeze would have impacted 10 bank accounts overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department, a senior administration official told RFE/RL.

Funding for a Pakistani space initiative and Uzbek education program were among the projects funded by the 10 accounts.

AP quoted an administration official as saying it was clear that many lawmakers were not willing to join in "curbing wasteful spending."

Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly sought to cut foreign aid, but the proposals have been rejected by lawmakers from both parties.

Liz Schrayer, chief of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition -- a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for a strong international affairs budget -- applauded the move to maintain funding.

"Americans can be pleased that the administration recognized the importance of these vital foreign-assistance programs for keeping America safe and on the global playing field," she said.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the proposed cuts would have been "harmful to our national security" and violated good-faith negotiations that brought about the bipartisan budget deal.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Trump: Other Countries Should Fight Islamic State

Forces with Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) escort alleged Taliban and Islamic State fighters after they are presented to the media in Jalalabad on May 23.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that other countries must take up the battle against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, citing Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia as examples.

Asked by reporters whether he is concerned about the reemergence of the IS group in Iraq, Trump told reporters on August 21 that U.S. forces had “wiped out the caliphate 100 percent.”

Earlier this year, U.S.-backed forces reclaimed the last remaining territory once held by IS fighters in Syria.

The Trump administration has reduced the U.S. military presence in Syria and neighboring Iraq, and there have been concerns about the extremists gaining new strength in the region.

Meanwhile, U.S, and Taliban negotiators are reportedly nearing a deal to end the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan, which would allow the United States to withdraw its troops from the country.

"At a certain point, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, they are going to have to fight their battles too," Trump said at the White House.

"At a certain point, all of these other countries, where [IS] is around...are going to have to fight them. Because do we want to stay there another 19 years? I don't think so," he said.

Trump singled out India and Pakistan as frontline countries that are doing little to fight militant groups.

"Look, India's right there, they are not fighting it, we're fighting it. Pakistan is next door. They're fighting it, very little.... It's not fair. The United States is 7,000 miles [11,265 kilometers] away," he said.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Pilgrims At Hajj Gather At Mount Arafat

SAUDI ARABIA -- Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, August 8, 2019

An estimated 2 million Muslims have gathered at Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat as part of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Worshippers spent the night at a large encampment around the hill where Islam holds that God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail. It is also where Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon.

Saudi Arabia has said more than 2 million pilgrims, mostly from abroad, have arrived for the five-day ritual, a religious duty once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey.

The pilgrims will spend the day on Mount Arafat.

By sunset they will move to Muzdalifa to gather pebbles to throw at stone columns symbolizing the devil at Jamarat on August 11, which marks the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Bipartisan Group Of U.S. Lawmakers Oppose Plan To Freeze Foreign Aid

USAID is often directed toward economic development, such as this fruit-processing plant in Kyrgyzstan (file photo).

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined forces to oppose moves by the White House that critics fear could lead to sharp cuts in foreign aid for health, peacekeeping, narcotics control, and other programs.

Senior members of both parties sent a letter on August 9 to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) expressing “deep concern” after it instructed the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to freeze around $4 billion in their budgets until it reviews any money that hasn't yet been spent.

Critics have said the freeze could be the first step in making cuts to foreign aid.

In the letter, the lawmakers wrote that "these funds, which were appropriated by Congress and signed into law by the President following lengthy, bipartisan negotiations, are essential to promoting U.S. global leadership and protecting the security of the American people."

The freeze impacts 10 bank accounts overseen by USAID and the State Department, a senior administration official told RFE/RL.

The OMB made the request to USAID and State Department on August 3 and has yet to receive information about how much is currently in those accounts and how they plan to use the money.

The fiscal year ends on September 30.

Funding for a Pakistan space initiative and Uzbek education program are two of the projects funded by the 10 accounts under review.

The chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee urged the heads of the OMB to make money available right away.

Republicans in both houses of Congress have typically been extremely supportive of Trump’s policies, although many have spoken up against moves related to foreign affairs, including his close ties to Saudi Arabia, plans to withdraw troops from Syria, and reduction in aid to Central America.

The Trump administration has made repeated efforts to reduce the amount of money Washington spends on foreign aid.

In April, the administration unsuccessfully tried to cut the budget on foreign aid and diplomacy by 23 percent.

Trump’s ally, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, called the proposal “insane.”

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Muslims Begin Arriving In Saudi Arabia Ahead Of Annual Hajj

Muslim pilgrims congregate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, on August 8.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have begun arriving in Saudi Arabia for the upcoming annual hajj amid the blistering heat and rising political and military tensions in the region.

This year's hajj is expected to feature large numbers of pilgrims from Iran, whose government had boycotted the event after an estimated 2,300 pilgrims, many of them Iranians, were crushed to death in a ritual near Mecca in 2015.

The hajj this year will run from August 19 to August 24 and is expected to draw 2 million of the world's estimated 2 billion Muslims.

Every Muslim is required to complete the hajj -- considered one of the five pillars of Islam -- at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.

Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba, which is located in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and pilgrims walk around it seven times.

The Saudis stake their reputation on the guardianship of Islam's holiest sites and the conducting of a peaceful hajj.

Besides the 2015 tragedy, the event has been marred in the past by deadly fires and riots.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Millions Of Muslims Mark End Of Ramadan By Celebrating Eid Al-Fitr

Afghans celebrate Eid al-Fitr in Khost on June 5.

Muslims in Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and some parts of Pakistan marked on June 5 the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Special prayers were held in overcrowded mosques and the countries' leaders congratulated people on the holiday, known as Eid al-Fitr, which is celebrated for two or three days after the end of Ramadan -- the month during which Muslims do not eat or drink during the daytime.

Muslims follow a lunar calendar and a moon-sighting methodology that can lead to different countries declaring the start and end of Ramadan a day or two apart.

Therefore some countries, such as Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Russia's mostly Muslim-populated Volga and North Caucasus regions, some parts of Pakistan, and many other countries started marking the holiday on June 4.

During Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and sex from sunrise to sunset for the entire month.

The Ramadan fast is intended to bring the faithful closer to God and to remind them of the suffering of those less fortunate.

There are some 1.8 billion Muslims, making up about 24 percent of the world's population.

Greek Police Clash With Refugees At North Macedonia Border After False Reports

Greek police clash with migrant protesters near the North Macedonia border on April 6.

Greek police clashed for the third day in a row with hundreds of migrants at the border with North Macedonia who are seeking a route to Central Europe.

Police reported on April 6 that they fired tear gas and stun grenades at some of the migrants after many had thrown rocks at officers.

Authorities say the clashes have been triggered by false reports spreading on social media that restrictions on travel to Central Europe have been lifted.

The false reports said the border, which has been tightly sealed to migrants for three years, was open again and that nongovernmental organizations had chartered buses on the North Macedonian side of the border to take them northward.

Refugees arrived on April 4 and set up tents in a field next the Diavata migrant camp close to Greece's border with North Macedonia.

"We must constantly fight fake news," Nikos Ragos, the Migration Policy Ministry's coordinator for northern Greece, told AP.

Greek TV station Ant1 showed a screen shot of a message in Arabic sent from a purported organization called "Caravan of Hope" telling migrants that Greece would open the border with North Macedonia at midday on April 5.

The migrants are mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, officials said.

Yaser, a 36-year-old Syrian refugee, told Reuters that "we don't want to fight with the Greek police. We want to go to Europe. We don't want to stay in Greece."

In Turkey, some 1,200 migrants heading toward the Greek frontier following false reports that Ankara had opened its border were detained on April 5, Turkish media said.

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece after Balkan countries closed their borders in 2016, shutting off the main route to Central and Western Europe.

More than 1 million people used the route in 2015 and 2016 to travel to Germany.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters

Afghan-Born Australian Man Sentenced To Life For Running Down Pedestrians In 2017

Police sit in front of a crashed vehicle after Saeed Noori, the driver, was arrested after plowing into pedestrians at a crowded intersection in Melbourne in December 2017.

An Afghan-born Australian man was sentenced to life in prison for running down pedestrians in Melbourne in late 2017 and killing an elderly man.

The sentence handed out on March 28 by Supreme Court of Victoria Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth means that 37-year-old Saeed Noori must serve 30 years before being eligible for parole.

Upon his arrest, police found images of terrorist attacks abroad and videos about the extremist Islamic State group on Noori's computer and a USB stick.

Video from a security camera showed Noori driving an SUV onto tram tracks near the Flinders Street Station and then accelerating through the intersection as dozens of people crossed the road four days before Christmas 2017.

Noori, driving his mother’s car, plowed over dozens of pedestrians, injuring 21 people, including an 83-year old man who died a week later in a hospital.

The judge said it was "sheer good fortune" that more people were not killed or injured.

"Some victims have likened the scene to a horror movie -- one which keeps replaying in nightmares and flashbacks," she said.

Based on reporting by ABC, AAP, and dpa

United Nations Chief Warns Of Pushback On Women's Rights

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as he makes remarks at the opening meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women 63rd session, in New York City on March 11.

The head of the United Nations has warned of a "deep, pervasive and relentless" pushback on women's rights around the world.

Speaking at the opening of the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 11, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a fight to "push back against the pushback."

The commission has been charged with achieving "equality with men in all fields of human enterprise" since its founding in 1947.

Guterres pointed to increased violence against women, especially defenders of human rights and women running for political office.

He cited "online abuse of women who speak out," and said women were 26 percent less likely to be employed than men.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of the UN women's agency, said some countries don't want health-care facilities to provide "sexual and reproductive rights."

She said the latest data indicated 131 million girls worldwide aren't going to school and there had been a 6 percent increase in girls not attending elementary school.

Geraldine Nason, the Irish UN ambassador who presides over the Commission on the Status of Women, said less than 7 percent of heads of state and government were women. She said only one in four parliament members around the world were female.

She said the commission will be deliberating in the next two weeks about maternity, pensions, safe roads and transport.

The commission will also be focusing on schools that teach girls skills to succeed, women's access to vital health care, "and the fair distribution of care and the domestic work between men and women," she said.

Based on reporting by AP and UN News Service

RSF Marks International Women’s Day With Call To Release Detained Female Journalists

Iranian journalist Hengameh Shahidi

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for the immediate and unconditional release of 27 women journalists currently held in “appalling conditions” around the world.

According to the Paris-based media watchdog’s tally, of the 334 journalists in prison at the end of February, 27 of them were women.

These female journalists are being held by nine countries. Iran and China are the two largest jailers, with seven held in each country.

The 27 detained female journalists are deprived of their freedom “because of what they wrote or because they spoke out courageously,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement on March 6.

Deloire added that they are “often the victims of disproportionate and iniquitous sentences,” are “subjected to the most appalling prison conditions, like their male colleagues,” and they are “sometimes also tortured and harassed sexually.”

In Iran, where detainees are “constantly denied proper medical care,” women journalists detained there “often stage dangerous hunger strikes” in protest against prison conditions, RSF said.

It added that several UN reports have confirmed that Iranian female detainees "fall sick more often than male detainees."

“The situation of female detainees is aggravated by the segregation of men and women imposed by Iran’s ultra-conservative society and the traditional hatred toward intellectuals and the Islamic regime’s critics,” the watchdog said.

The seven Iranian female journalists currently detained in Iran include Narges Mohammadi, Hengameh Shahidi, Roya Saberi, Negad Nobakht, Sepideh Moradi, Avisha Jalaledin, and Shima Entesari, according to RSF.

It said besides Iran and China, Turkey continues to detain four women journalists, Saudi Arabia three, Vietnam two, while Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Nicaragua are each holding one.

U.S. Stops Reporting Civilian Deaths From Drone Strikes Outside War Zones

A U.S. Predator drone

President Donald Trump has revoked a policy requiring U.S. intelligence officials to report civilian deaths in drone strikes outside of war zones.

"This action eliminates superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission," an administration official said on March 7.

Lawmakers and rights groups criticized Trump's executive order, saying it could allow the CIA to conduct drone strikes without accountability.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, put the policy in place in 2016 as part of an effort to be more transparent about increasing drone strikes.

It required the CIA, which has carried out drone strikes in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia, to release annual summaries of U.S. drone strikes and assess how many died as a result.

Trump’s executive order does not overturn reporting requirements on civilian deaths set for the U.S. military by Congress.

Drone strikes have been increasingly used by the United States against terror and military targets since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Based on reporting by Reuters and the BBC

Passengers Stranded After Pakistan Closes Airspace To Commercial Traffic

Stranded passengers wait at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport on February 28 after Thai Airways canceled 11 European-bound flights.

Pakistan’s decision to close its airspace amid rising tensions and aerial dogfights with neighboring India has left many tourists stranded in Asian cities when airlines were forced to cancel flights.

Thai Airways, Emirates, and Qatar Airways were among the carriers forced to cancel their flights, many to and from Europe, on February 27 because the flights were scheduled to fly to Pakistan or over its airspace.

Etihad, flydubai, Gulf Air, SriLankan Airlines, and Air Canada also canceled flights.

Singapore Airlines and British Airways were among those forced to reroute flights.

Pakistan closed its airspace after Islamabad and New Delhi claimed to have shot down the other's fighter jets earlier in the day. Pakistan said it captured an Indian pilot after its air force shot down an Indian warplane.

The activity came after Indian jets on February 26 struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war, claiming to hit the training base used by a terror group that had killed at least 41 Indian paramilitary soldiers inside India-administered Kashmir on February 14.

The Thai flag carrier said 27 of its flights were canceled on February 27, with three passenger jets being forced to return to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport after having taken off earlier in the day.

The airline said some 5,000 passengers had been caught up in the cancellations.

"There are 4,000 from European flights and 700 to 800 from flights to Pakistan," a Thai Airways spokesperson said.

"We are waiting for permission to fly over other countries," she said, adding that Iran had rejected a request to allow flights over its airspace.

Pakistan aviation officials said the country's airspace would likely reopen as of midnight on February 28.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and The Express

Foreign Ministers, Diplomats To Meet In Washington For Talks On Islamic State

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is hosting diplomats from dozens of countries involved in the effort to defeat Islamic State militants.

Diplomats and foreign ministers from around the world are scheduled to meet in Washington for high-level talks on the fight against Islamic State militants.

The February 6 meeting, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, follows President Donald Trump's controversial decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

That decision was criticized by U.S. allies and sparked concern about a power vacuum in Syria, and the possibility that fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, could regroup.

The daylong meeting features officials from the 79-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, which the United States assembled in 2014 as the militant groups seized vast territories of Syria and Iraq.

Ahead of the meeting, U.S. officials said the meeting was focusing on what they said was Islamic State's imminent "territorial defeat."

"What we’re going to try to talk about in the ministerial [meeting] is the determination of this truly global coalition as we near the end of ISIS territorial defeat....That involves the liberation of 8 million people that were under [Islamic State’s] brutal rule, about 4 million who were displaced in Iraq, as well as hundreds of thousands in Syria," a State Department official told reporters February 4. "And they have safely returned to their homes, and we think that’s a success story.”

“Equally important is taking away [Islamic State's] oil and revenue from taxes and oil and natural gas proceeds," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In December, Trump announced he was withdrawing the 2,000-strong U.S. force from Syria and he declared the defeat of the Islamic State group.

Aides have since walked back the timeline but said that the pullout will happen.

The U.S. envoy spearheading the coalition, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest over Trump's decision and voiced fears for Syria's future.

Germany Detains Man Suspected Of Spying For Iran

FILE: German Police officers watch demonstrators gathering to protest against the German asylum policy at the Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees and Integration of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in Duesseldorf (July 2018).

German authorities say they have detained a 50-year old Afghan-German dual national suspected of passing data to an Iranian intelligence agency.

The suspect, identified only as 50-year-old Abdul Hamid S., worked as a “language expert and cultural adviser” for the German military, the federal prosecutor's office said on January 15.

“In this capacity, he is believed to have passed on information to an Iranian intelligence service," a statement said.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said it was aware of an espionage case involving a member of the Bundeswehr, but declined to give any further details.

The suspect, who was detained in the Rhineland in western Germany, was set to appear before a judge later in the day.

German news outlet Spiegel Online reported that the man had spied on the army for years and had access to highly classified material, including the German troops' mission in Afghanistan.

There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials on the case.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

New Acting Defense Chief Takes Over At Pentagon

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, sits next to Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on January 2.

Patrick Shanahan has taken over the helm of the Pentagon, as U.S. President Donald Trump attacked his Defense Department predecessor, pointing to what he said was a lack of success in Afghanistan.

Shanahan, who has been serving as deputy defense secretary, worked his first day in office as acting defense secretary on January 2 as the replacement for Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense chief on December 20, saying his policies were not fully “aligned” with the president.

Trump has not specified a time frame for choosing a permanent defense secretary or said whether Shanahan could potentially assume that role.

Mattis initially said he would be leaving the Pentagon at the end of February. But Trump later announced that Mattis, 68, would be leaving earlier after the defense secretary published a letter that directly criticized the president.

In televised remarks on January 2, Trump said he “essentially fired” Mattis. "I'm not happy with what [he has] done in Afghanistan -- and I shouldn't be happy," said Trump, as Shanahan sat by his side.

"I wish him well. I hope he does well. But as you know, President [Barack] Obama fired him, and essentially so did I. I want results."

A former Marine general, Mattis was fired by Obama in 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command over what the then-president said were too hawkish views toward Iran.

Shanahan, 56, meanwhile, said his priorities would include the impending U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and countering China’s military might.

"While we are focused on ongoing operations, Acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember: China, China, China," a Pentagon official said.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

U.S. To Sharply Cut Refugee Admissions

President Donald Trump (file photo)

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has proposed sharply cutting the number of refugees allowed into the United States next year to 30,000.

The announcement, made on September 17 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, came despite calls from humanitarian groups that the 2018 cap of 45,000 was already too low.

Trump's administration has consistently voiced opposition to accepting refugees and other immigrants, which has helped drive refugee admissions to their lowest level in a decade.

The new figure will go into effect October 1.

"The improved refugee policy of this administration serves the national interest of the United States and expands our ability to help those in need all around the world," Pompeo said in a statement.

By comparison, the administration of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, allowed in 85,000 refugees in its final year in office.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

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