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Turkish Kurds gather to support anti-Isis fighters just inside Syria | #ISIS #US


Isis now controls a third of Kobani after tough close-quarter fighting, while US official admits that air strikes cannot save town.

Turkish tanks hold their position on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc on the Turkey-Syria border, following an air strike in Kobani.Turkish tanks hold their position on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc on the Turkey-Syria border, following an airstrike in Kobani. Photograph: Stringer/Getty images

Emma Graham-Harrison in Mursitpinar

A huge blast, a column of dust and smoke, and then a round of cheering from Kurds gathered on a hilltop near Kobani, watching a rare American intervention in the bitter battle for their home.

Within minutes though, gunfire had started up again, a reminder that while air strikes serve as a dramatic morale boost to spectators and anti-Isis forces inside the Syrian border town, they have done little to turn the tide of a ruthless campaign.

Crowds who were gathered on hilltops just a few hundred metres inside Turkey – near enough to hear the gun battles, but distant enough to feel safe – said they had watched the fight drift westwards over several days as militants took street after street.

“I just watch the fighting and feel pain,” said Ismail Usdamir, a 47-year-old farmer, as ambulances raced down the main road from the border, taking wounded fighters for treatment, and the unclaimed dead for burial in the nearby cemetery.

Black Isis flags can be seen from Turkey, flying over a strategic hill and on at least one building. The hardline group now controls more than a third of Kobani, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but commanders have reportedly rushed in extra troops, suggesting the strength of resistance had surprised them.

Isis had pledged to hold prayers for the Muslim holiday of Eid in the town’s mosques, but its fighters are still tied down in slow fighting through tightly packed homes and apartment buildings. “The clashes are ongoing – street battles,” militia chief Esmat al-Sheikh told Reuters by telephone from inside the city. He estimated that around a quarter of the town was now controlled by Isis.

They cannot be taken out by air strikes now though, because they are fighting at such close quarters. The town’s fate will be decided on the ground.

“Air strikes alone are not going to do this … they’re not going to save the town of Kobani,” Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, admitted in a news briefing. “We all need to prepare ourselves for the reality that other towns and villages, and perhaps Kobani, will be taken.”

The main group fighting Isis, the Kurdish YPG militia, are far less well armed and running low on supplies of ammunition, but are well trained and determined to hold on to the last Kurdish enclave on a long stretch of the border with Turkey.

“My children will stay there until the fighting ends. If they opened the border I would go and bomb them myself,” said 48-year-old Bediar Gulkus, standing within sight of the town where she believed her son and daughter were battling Isis. She had come to feel close to them – not to try and get them back, she added. “We would fight even if we have nothing left but stones. But we are asking the international community for help.”

That assistance is unlikely to come soon, say western leaders, who have pledged to keep their soldiers’ boots off Syrian soil.

“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani, it’s also important to remember that you have to step back and understand the strategic objective and where we have begun over the course of the last weeks,” the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said in a briefing.

Instead, the US has been leading a diplomatic push to win more Turkish support for the men and women defending Kobani. Retired US general John Allen, special envoy for the international coalition fighting Isis, arrived in Turkey on Thursday for talks.

Ankara wants a broader strategy aimed at toppling the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, while Washington is focused on Isis. Turkish leaders are also suspicious of links between the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani and Kurdish separatist groups fighting the Turkish state.

Turkish tanks are lined up along the border, and there is a heavy police and military presence, but for now most of it is directed at keeping Kurds who want to join the battle away from crossings, and others from gathering to watch or protest.

Even after stray mortar shells and bullets flew over the fence, not a shot has been fired into Syria. Instead, civilians on the Turkish side have been regularly teargassed and hit by water cannon, and one group of refugees even taken into detention.

For Kurds across the region, the fight for Kobani has become more than a battle for a town. They have come from towns around Turkey to join the militias fighting inside, or to protest against the Turkish government’s inaction, and demand more help.

“The fence is just a geographic obstacle, they can’t put a fence in my heart,” said Leila Salman, a 31-year-old who is running a protest camp just near the border where hundreds of Kurds have gathered from around Turkey in a show of solidarity with the besieged town.

“What is happening in Kobani is the most important thing in our life,” she said. “When it comes to the Kurds, everyone in the world just closes their eyes, but Kurds are not blind.”


The Guardian.

‘Same-Sex Adoption’ Killed U.S.-Russian FLEX Exchange Program | #Russia #US #FLEX


FLEX's stated goal was to teach students about democracy “firsthand through experiencing it,” according to the program's sponsor, former U.S. Senator William Bradley.FLEX’s stated goal was to teach students about democracy “firsthand through experiencing it,” according to the program’s sponsor, former U.S. Senator William Bradley. FLEX

Ivan Nechepurenko reporting,

David Petrosyan had hoped his 15-year-old sister would spend a year studying at a U.S. high school, something he had done years earlier that had a lasting impact on his ambitious academic pursuits.

“For me, doing a FLEX program proved that I can achieve something with my brain alone. It was very cool to feel like I could achieve something by myself at the young age of 16,” Petrosyan, a 21-year-old university student at Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics, told The Moscow Times.

But David’s hopes for his sister fizzled Tuesday, when news broke that the Russian government had decided to pull out of the exchange program due to an alleged same-sex adoption of a Russian teen.

End of an Era

FLEX — short for “Future Leaders Exchange” — was established in the direct aftermath of the Cold War with the aim of creating educational opportunities on U.S. soil for promising young students from 12 former Soviet republics.

Since 1992, the program has brought more than 8,000 Russian teenagers halfway around the globe to live with American families and attend local high schools across all 50 states.

FLEX’s stated goal was to teach students about democracy “firsthand through experiencing it,” according to the program’s sponsor, former U.S. Senator William Bradley.

Russia’s Reason

Russia’s child rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov initially said the U.S. had violated the terms of the program by allowing one of its young participants to stay in the country permanently following the end of the academic year.

“Guardianship was established over a Russian student who was sent to the U.S. as part of the FLEX program. As a consequence — contrary to the agreements and rules of the program — a Russian teenager has stayed in another country,” Astakhov said in a statement released Wednesday.

“There is nothing wrong with international exchange programs … until they violate the rules,” he said.

He then told Russian state news agency TASS that the student had been taken in by a homosexual couple in the U.S.

Astakhov did not identify the student by name, and was unavailable when contacted by The Moscow Times for a comment on Wednesday.

The Plot Thickens

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights commissioner, Konstantin Dolgov, echoed Astakhov’s claims on Wednesday, adding that the mysterious breach of the program’s terms “created conditions for circumventing Russian law — including a ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens, including those of non-traditional sexual orientation.”

After mentioning the hypothetical scenario of a non-traditional American couple adopting a Russian child, Dolgov said: “Such an incident, unfortunately, took place.”

A high-level employee with the American Councils for International Education, which administrates the FLEX program, corroborated Dolgov’s hint.

ACIE executive vice president David Patton told BuzzFeed on Wednesday that such an incident took place, saying that the student had not been placed with a same-sex couple, but that he did become friends with one during the program.

“There is certainly a grain of truth about everything that is said here,” Patton told BuzzFeed, referring to Russian officials’ allegations.

Patton also confirmed that FLEX participants can be placed with non-traditional families.

He did not return a request for comment from The Moscow Times.

Political Maneuvering?

According to Kirill Koktysh, a political analyst and associate professor at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the real reason for FLEX’s closure is political.

“This program definitely had a political component to it. Every country wants to project its value system as the best one worldwide. The U.S. is doing it more aggressively than some other countries,” Koktysh told The Moscow Times.

Nigora Kutbiddinova, 21, who spent her FLEX year in Falcon, Colorado, said she did not see any political component to the program.

“The program is essentially a cultural exchange. The student isn’t only there to learn about the U.S., but also to represent Russia,” said Kutbiddinova, a law student in her final year at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow.

Safeguards Against U.S. Immigration

Several FLEX alumni told The Moscow Times that participants in the program are prohibited from staying in the U.S. or from applying for residence visas within two years after returning home.

“For two years you can only come to the U.S. as a tourist, so the program does not provide options for immigration,” said Petrosyan, who spent his FLEX year in Louisville, Kentucky.

Eduard Khakimov, the administrator of an unofficial FLEX web community that publishes blogs of the program’s participants, said the selection process weeds out anyone deemed a risk of staying in the U.S. long term following completion of the academic year.

Astakhov’s explanation is absurd because one of the key rules is that the candidate cannot have any pre-existing connections in the U.S.,” he said on the phone from his native Naberezhniye Chelny.

Once back in Russia, FLEX alumni tend to remain a closely knit community that participates in a variety of volunteer projects.

Other Opportunities

At present, there are hundreds of other exchange programs available to Russian high school and university students. According to Koktysh, FLEX’s closure has had no impact on exchange programs at MGIMO.

“I don’t think that a decision to cancel many more programs will be made. This is not the forefront of confrontation, and the impact of such exchanges on society is negligible,” he said.

Late last year President Vladimir Putin passed a decree establishing a “global education” program that would grant funds to bright young Russians to study at universities among the 225 highest-ranked around the globe, including in the U.S.

But the program has not yet been launched, as the Education Ministry is still working on logistic issues.


The Moscow Times.

#Afghanistan, US sign long-awaited security pact


Afghanistan's national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, seated at right, and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, left, sign the documents of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) at presidential palace as Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center right, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, center left, watch, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan’s national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, seated at right, and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, left, sign the documents of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) at presidential palace as Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center right, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, center left, watch, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed a long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

Rahim Faiez reporting,

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan and the United States signed a security pact on Tuesday to allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year, ending a year of uncertainty over the fate of foreign troops supporting Afghans as they take over responsibility for the country’s security.

Afghan, American and NATO leaders welcomed the deal, which will allow about 10,000 American troops to stay in the country after the international combat mission ends Dec. 31. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had refused to sign it despite U.S. threats of a full withdrawal in the absence of legal protections for American forces. U.S. officials have said that the delay in the deal’s signing does not affect plans for next year.

President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who was sworn into office a day earlier, told a crowd assembled at the presidential palace in the capital Kabul for the signing ceremony that the agreement signaled a fundamental shift for the positive in the country’s relations with the world.

“This agreement is only for Afghan security and stability,” he said in comments broadcast live on state television. “These agreements are in our national interest. The Bilateral Security Agreement will pave the ground for Afghanistan to take control,” he added.

Afghanistan's national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, center right, and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, center left, hug after signing the Bilateral Security Agreement at the presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan’s national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, center right, and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, center left, hug after signing the Bilateral Security Agreement at the presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed the long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

President Barack Obama hailed what he called a “historic day in the U.S.-Afghan partnership that will help advance our shared interests and the long-term security of Afghanistan,” according to a White House statement.

“This agreement represents an invitation from the Afghan Government to strengthen the relationship we have built over the past 13 years and provides our military service members the necessary legal framework to carry out two critical missions after 2014: targeting the remnants of al-Qaida and training, advising, and assisting Afghan National Security Forces,” it said.

More than a decade after U.S. forces helped topple the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan is still at war with the Islamic militant group, which regularly carries out attacks, mainly targeting security forces.

Newly appointed Afghan national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham signed the actual document. A second agreement allowing NATO troops to stay in the country was signed during the same ceremony.

Government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has assumed a post akin to prime minister after signing a power-sharing agreement with Ghani Ahmadzai, also welcomed the security deal.

“It has been signed after very careful considerations,” he said, adding that “the BSA is not a threat to our neighbors. It will help strengthen peace and stability in the region.”

Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai struck the power-sharing agreement earlier this month after a prolonged dispute over alleged voting fraud in June’s presidential runoff. Karzai’s refusal to sign the security pact, and the prolonged uncertainty over who would succeed him, had delayed the signing.

Afghanistan's national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, second right, and NATO ambassador to Afghanistan Maurits Jochems, left, shake hands at the signing of the NATO-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement at the presidential palace, as Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, second left, attend in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014Afghanistan’s national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, second right, and NATO ambassador to Afghanistan Maurits Jochems, left, shake hands at the signing of the NATO-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement at the presidential palace, as Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, second left, attend in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed a long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the agreement, saying it outlined the group’s new mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.

“We remain committed to help finance the Afghan security forces through 2017, to help Afghanistan to further strengthen its institutions, and to further develop our political and practical cooperation with Afghanistan through our Enduring Partnership,” he said in a statement.


The Associated Press.

#Merkel Evokes Cold War in Warning of Long #Ukraine Crisis


German Chancellor Angela Merkel waits for Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb to arrive for talks at the chancellery in Berlin, on Sept. 29, 2014.German Chancellor Angela Merkel waits for Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb to arrive for talks at the chancellery in Berlin, on Sept. 29, 2014.

Arne Delfs and Brian Parkin reporting,

Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union and the U.S. may be facing a long confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, citing the 40 years it took East Germany to escape communist control.

Merkel, who grew up in former East Germany, signaled determination to uphold EU sanctions on Russia in comments in Berlin yesterday that underscored the fraught relationship with President Vladimir Putin, whose actions in the Ukrainian crisis she says are rooted in a Cold War mentality.

“I don’t see any change at the moment regarding Russia’s position,” Merkel said. “We needed 40 years to overcome East Germany. Sometimes in history one has to be prepared for the long haul, and not ask after four months if it still makes sense to keep up our demands.”

Merkel’s warning added to her comments to German industry leaders last week that an end to the ‘‘deep-rooted conflict’’ with Russia is far off as a cease-fire fails to halt fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

“Merkel lost faith in Putin a long time ago, but there’s now a realization in Germany and Europe that the Ukraine conflict is turning from hot-phase crisis management into a long game,” Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s office in Brussels, said by phone today.

Ukraine’s conflict, which the United Nations says has left more than 3,500 people dead, is forcing Merkel to take a stand as the country’s government seeks closer EU ties and accuses Putin of fomenting the pro-Russian rebellion in the east. Russia denies involvement in the conflict.

Permanent Confrontation

Nine Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the worst casualties since a Sept. 5 truce, the government said yesterday. President Petro Poroshenko said last week that the worst of the war is over as Ukraine focuses on elections next month, securing gas supplies and preparing a bid for EU membership.

“As long as the EU tries to prop up the Kiev government, there will be permanent confrontation with Moscow,” Techau said.

Merkel, 60, grew up as the daughter a Lutheran pastor in East Germany, the state founded in the Soviet-occupied part of Germany in 1949 after the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in World War II. Communist rule collapsed after the Berlin Wall was breached following mass protests in 1989, and East Germany ceased to exist with reunification on Oct. 3, 1990.

Finland Concern

“Nobody had anticipated that Putin would take such a momentous decision” to “take us back to a Europe before 1989,” Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., said at a Bloomberg Government lunch in Washington yesterday.

“A lot of trust was destroyed by Putin’s policy” in Ukraine, Wittig said. “And I think it’s a challenge to regain that trust.”

Merkel made her comments at a news conference after talks with Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, whose government has put fighter jets on alert after Russian planes repeatedly violated the northernmost euro-area country’s airspace.

Finland has the EU’s longest border with Russia and Stubb agreed that the Ukraine conflict isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. “We are looking at a long-term situation,” he said.

(To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at acrawford6@bloomberg.net Tony Czuczka, Chad Thomas).


Bloomberg.

Russia’s foreign minister calls for ‘reset 2.0′ in relations with US | #US #Russia #Ukraine #Reset2


Sergei Lavrov says situation in Ukraine is improving and recalls ‘reset’ phrase used by Washington at start of Obama presidency.

Reuters in Moscow.
Russian minister for foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, speaks at the UN general assembly.Russian minister for foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, speaks at the UN general assembly. Photograph: UPI /Landov / Barcroft Media/UPI /Landov / Barcroft Media.

Moscow called on Sunday for a new “reset 2.0” in relations with Washington, saying the situation in Ukraine that had led to western sanctions against Russia was improving thanks to Kremlin peace initiatives.

Washington and Brussels accuse Moscow of supporting a pro-Russia rebellion in east Ukraine and have imposed sanctions, which they have repeatedly tightened since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March.

The conflict has brought relations between Moscow and the west to their lowest level since the end of the cold war. President Barack Obama said last week that the sanctions could be lifted if Russia takes the path of peace and diplomacy.

In television interviews on Sunday Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who on Saturday made critical remarks about US, western and Nato attitudes to Russia in a speech at the United Nations in New York, said it was time to repeat the “reset”, a word Washington used to describe an attempt to mend ties early in Obama’s presidency.

But he also repeated criticisms of Nato’s “cold war mentality”, criticised Washington for excluding Russia’s ally Bashar al-Assad from its campaign against Islamic State fighters in Syria, and said Washington “can no longer act as the prosecutor, the judge, and the executioner in every part of the world”.

“We are absolutely interested in bringing the ties to normal but it was not us who destroyed them. Now they require what the American would probably call a ‘reset’,” Lavrov said, according to a transcript of one interview on his ministry’s website.

“The current US administration is destroying today much of the cooperation structure that it created itself along with us. Most likely, something more will come up – a reset No2 or a reset 2.0,” he told Russia’s Channel 5 television.

Shortly after Obama took office in 2009, his then secretary of state Hilary Clinton presented Lavrov with a red “reset” button that was intended to signal a fresh start to relations that had been strained under Obama’s predecessor George W Bush. In a diplomatic gaffe much mocked at the time, the button bore a Russian label that said “overload” instead of “reset”; the two words are similar in Russian.

Lavrov said that thanks to “initiatives of the Russian president”, the situation was improving on the ground in Ukraine, where a ceasefire has been in place for several weeks. The 5 September truce is largely holding, though some fighting has continued in places including the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

“The ceasefire is taking shape, though of course not without problems. Monitoring mechanisms have been introduced, talks between Russia, the European Union and Ukraine have started, gas talks have restarted,” Lavrov said.

Western countries say thousands of Russian troops have fought in Ukraine and accuse Moscow of sending weapons, including a surface-to-air missile used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner over rebel-held territory in July. Moscow denies participating in the conflict or arming the rebels.

Speaking to Russia’s state-funded international broadcaster, RT, Lavrov said “Nato still has the cold war mentality”, and said Moscow needed to modernise its conventional and nuclear arms, though he denied this would lead to “a new arms race”.

Lavrov also repeated Russian criticism of the US-led air campaign against Islamic State fighters in Syria, accusing Washington of a “double standard” for refusing to cooperate with Syrian president Assad. Washington has repeatedly called for Assad’s dismissal and backed some of the rebels fighting to topple him since early 2011.

“There’s no room for petty grievances in politics,” Lavrov told RT. “I very much hope that the United States will finally … realise that they can no longer act as the prosecutor, the judge, and the executioner in every part of the world and that they need to cooperate to resolve issues.”

Lavrov said that despite the Western sanctions, Russia did not feel isolated on the world stage. Moscow has responded to the sanctions by banning most Western food imports.

“We feel no isolation. But, having said that, I want to emphasise in particular that we do not want to go to extremes and abandon the European and American directions in our foreign economic cooperation,” Lavrov told Channel 5.

“We have no desire to continue a sanctions war, trading blows,” Lavrov also said. “First of all, it is important that our partners understand the futility of ultimatums and threats.”


The Guardian.

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