Russia says NATO turning Ukraine into ‘frontline of confrontation’ By Thomas Grove16 hours agoAn Ukrainian serviceman guards at a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve in Donetsk By Thomas Grove MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday NATO was turning Ukraine into a „frontline of confrontation” and threatened to sever remaining ties with the Atlantic military alliance if Ukraine’s hopes of joining it were realized.The Kiev parliament’s renunciation of Ukraine’s neutral status on Tuesday in pursuit of NATO membership has outraged Moscow and deepened the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.”NATO countries pushed Kiev to this counterproductive decision, trying to turn Ukraine into a front line of confrontation with Russia,” Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov told the Russian news agency Interfax.”If this decision in the future takes on a military character (accession to NATO), then we will respond appropriately. Then there will be a complete severing of ties with NATO, which will be practically impossible to repair,” Antonov said.It is likely to take years for Ukraine to meet the technical criteria for accession to NATO and, even then, there is no certainty that the alliance is ready to take on such a political hot potato.A bridge, which was destroyed during the early hours on Tuesday by an unknown group, is pictured on …Yet Russia has made clear it would see the NATO membership of such a strategic former Soviet republic with a long common border as a direct military threat.A NATO official, who asked not to be named, said it was solely up to Kiev to decide on its foreign policy.”Should Ukraine decide to apply for NATO membership, NATO will assess its readiness to join the alliance in the same way as with any candidate. This is an issue between NATO and the individual countries aspiring to membership,” the official said.NATO has already boosted its military presence in eastern Europe this year, saying it has evidence that Russia orchestrated and armed a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine that followed the overthrow of a Kremlin-backed president in Kiev.Moscow denies supporting the rebellion, and is currently trying, along with Kiev and the rebels, to renew efforts to find a political solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine.A so-called „contact group” is expected to meet in Minsk on Wednesday to try to reinforce a shaky ceasefire and de-escalate the conflict, in which more than 4,700 people have been killed.A truce agreed in September has been regularly flouted by both sides, but violence has lessened significantly in December.The rebellion began shortly after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in March.(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels; Editing by Lidia Kelly and Kevin Liffey)
Obama tees off in Hawaii with Malaysian leader By JOSH LEDERMAN and CATHY BUSSEWITZ1 hour ago KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii (AP) — What do two world leaders do when they find themselves on the same Hawaiian island on Christmas Eve? If you’re President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, you round up a few aides and make common cause on the golf course.Both vacationing this week in Oahu, Obama and Najib teed off Wednesday on a cloudy but balmy afternoon at a Marine Corps base, not far from where Obama is renting a home for his two-week stay. The two leaders seemed at ease together, smiling and laughing in casual clothes as they sized up their shots.Although Obama plays golf nearly every day while on vacation, he typically restricts his foursome to a small circle of longtime friends and advisers. But in recent years, his annual trip to Hawaii has allowed Obama to mix in a little diplomacy. Last year, he hit the links with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who owns a home in Hawaii.Media access to Obama’s golf games is typically restricted, but reporters and photographers were permitted to briefly watch the two leaders Wednesday about halfway through their game. Neither leader was having particularly good luck with their short game.Up first to finish the hole, Najib came up short with his putt. Obama crouched low to line up his shot, but the ball tilted left and evaded the hole. After another failed attempt, he picked up the ball and called it quits. Najib, too, missed his next shot, but a gracious Obama gave him a pat on the shoulder and praised his golf game just the same.”Merry Christmas,” Obama said as he waved to the media.President Barack Obama, right, with White House aide Mike Brush at back left, walks away from the 18 …Then he added a note of caution for reporters covering his Hawaiian getaway.”Be careful about those fruity drinks,” he said. „You never know – they might have a little kick to them.”Ever the statesmen, Obama and Najib also used their time on the course to discuss world affairs, including Malaysia’s rotating leadership next year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. „The two leaders took the opportunity to discuss the growing and warming relationship between the United States and Malaysia,” the White House said in a statement.Najib has served as Malaysia’s prime minister since 2009. In April, Obama paid the first presidential visit to Malaysia in nearly half a century, when Lyndon B. Johnson visited the Southeast Asian nation. During that visit, Obama met with Najib and pressed his government to improve its human rights and political freedoms.Obama is no stranger to Hawaii’s picturesque golf courses, and this year’s vacation has been par for the course. The president has played a round four out of the five days he’s been on the island so far._Lederman reported from Honolulu.
‘Difficult’ Ukraine talks end without new date agreement By Tatiana Kalinovskaya7 hours ago Minsk (AFP) – Ukranian and rebel envoys concluded „difficult” marathon talks on Wednesday without agreeing the date of a new round aimed at ending the pro-Russian uprising devastating the ex-Soviet state’s industrial east.The five-hour preliminary discussion in the Belarussian capital Minsk had been tentatively due to be followed by a second meeting on Friday at which a final accord was to be signed.But rebel representatives stressed that they could not yet promise whether the negotiations would resume as planned.”We had a difficult preliminary meeting,” Donetsk separatist region mediator Denis Pushilin told a pro-rebel news site.”The date and time of the next meeting is still up in the air. It is under discussion,” Pushilin said.The self-declared Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko later added vaguely that „a second round is still ahead.”News cameramen wait outside the presidential residence in Minsk on December 24, 2014, as fresh round …Neither Ukrainian officials nor the Russian and European envoys spoke to reporters waiting outside the gated Belarussian state mansion that hosted the talks.Sharply contrasting visions of Ukraine’s place in Europe and its system of government have been persistently blocking a solution to the eight-month-old war.The two Russian-border provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk rose up against the historic shift toward Europe that Kiev made in the wake of last winter’s ouster of an unpopular Moscow-backed president.The separatist commanders have since declared their own republics and will settle for no less than Ukraine becoming a loose federation in which they manage most of their own affairs.This option is backed firmly by Russia but rejected by Ukrainian nationalists who make up an important part of President Petro Poroshenko’s government.Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, meets with fami …Ukraine has remained tightly centralised since independence and is only now considering easing its hold over the country’s regions in order to stem public resentment over the relative prosperity enjoyed in Kiev.Such problems helped undermine two deals reached in Minsk in September that Poroshenko was forced into following a surprise rebel counteroffensive that NATO believes was backed by crack Russian forces and tanks.Russian President Vladimir Putin flatly calls soldiers who crossed into the Ukrainian war zone volunteers who are „answering the call of the heart”.A UN count puts the number of deaths following an initial September 5 truce deal at more than 1,300.The overall toll since last winter from Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the 1990s is more than 4,700 and has caused friction between many of the country’s Ukrainian and Russian speakers that may take generations to heal.Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (R) speaks as his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev liste …- Money at stake -The most important immediate issue for the rebels will be to make sure that Kiev resumes the social payments it suspended last month out of fear that they were being used to fund the revolt.Russia’s Kiev ambassador Mikhail Zurabov — Moscow’s envoy at the talks who defends the insurgents’ stance — said „economic” issues were one of the four main points on the agenda.But a Kiev-based OSCE negotiator said the sides planned to steer clear of the payments debate.The OSCE’s Heidi Tagliavini added that also up for debate were the details of a mutual troop withdrawal and a prisoner swap.Ukrainian soldiers stand close to the frontline in the eastern city of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, o …Both Kiev and Moscow tried to talk up the prospects of a breakthrough being reached this week.Poroshenko’s top foreign policy adviser said the very fact that the sides had managed to arrange such a meeting was a promising sign.”The work begins today, and by some point around Friday we should be able to achieve concrete results,” Valeriy Chaly told reporters in Kiev.And Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konstantin Dolgov said the consultations presented a „real chance” for peace.- Ukraine looks to NATO -Adding to the tensions was the Ukrainian parliament’s decision on Tuesday to officially drop the neutrality the country adopted under Russian pressure in 2010.The ceremonial shift in Kiev’s diplomatic allegiance was in line with Poroshenko’s vow to put Ukraine under Western military protection in the face of Russian threats.Ukraine sought NATO membership in the early post-Soviet era but, with its once-mighty army in ruins and riven by corruption, it was never viewed as a serious candidate.The February change of regime in Kiev upset Putin’s plans to get Ukraine to join a new bloc that Moscow hopes will counterbalance NATO and the European Union.Moscow had also set Kiev’s exclusion from all military unions as a condition for any Minsk deal.Russia’s defence ministry warned on Wednesday that NATO would break off all contacts with NATO should Ukraine ever become part of the Cold War-era bloc.
Expats eyeing the exits after Russian ruble plunges By Anais Llobet2 hours agoMoscow (AFP) – The plunge of the ruble hasn’t left only Russians shell shocked — foreign workers from traders to maids are considering bailing out as Moscow turns from an El Dorado into a financial black hole.The phenomenon is not quantifiable nor is there anything to indicate an exodus of expatriates is under way, but many admit to considering whether it is time to leave Russia after the ruble shed a quarter of its value in a couple of days last week.While the ruble has recovered somewhat, it is still down some 40 percent against the dollar and euro this year, leaving many in a precarious financial position.Joy left her three young children in Manila earlier this year to cash in on the high wages offered by well-to-do Muscovites to clean their apartments.”When I arrived in April, I was paid 1,500 rubles, or 42 dollars (30 euros), for four hours of housecleaning,” said the 28-year-old. „Today, for the same work, it comes out to just 20 dollars (16 euros).”She had been lured here from the Philippines by friends who had been working in Moscow.”They told me the ruble was very stable and there wasn’t as much competition as in other cities,” said Joy.She had been sending home up to two-thirds of her earnings to support her family in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries.- ‘Marooned in Moscow’ –Employees work in an office in Moscow on December 15, 2014 (AFP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev)”My goal was to have saved up enough to pay for my oldest son to continue his studies and buy a moto-taxi for my husband so he would have a job,” said Joy.”I also wanted to repair the roof of my parents’ house … but today I realise that is impossible.”Now, she said, „I don’t earn enough to send home for them to survive. My parents don’t understand, they think I’m working less, and I feel guilty.”Joy is comparatively lucky to be getting paid at all as many migrant labourers, particularly those from former Soviet republics who work on construction sites, are not.”Employers have now stopped paying altogether, referring to the crisis,” said Anara Beisheyeva, a lawyer for Migration and Law, an organisation that works with migrant labourers in Russia.”They tell them: ‘there is no money, we are closing’,” said Beisheyeva. „People are being left with nothing.”She said for the moment most migrant labourers were sticking around, hoping for a quick end to the crisis rather than returning home with empty pockets.But even buying the ticket home could soon be out of reach for some, as the prices of plane tickets are set in dollars.”They are becoming more and more expensive while I am earning less and less money,” said Joy. „I’ll have to decide quick or I might end up being marooned in Moscow.- ‘Black Monday every day’ -At the other end of the social ladder, a French trader in his 30s regrets having taken up a job in Moscow with a Russian bank at the end of September.”They offered me a good salary and big bonus,” said Olivier. „I told myself this was the opportunity to work in a dynamic market that has been growing for four years and that it is a good idea to leave Europe which is stagnating.”But just two weeks after his arrival, Olivier was disillusioned with his ruble salary that was quickly losing value in euro terms.If the trader thought he’d see „double-digit inflation quickly compensated with regular raises” to his salary, Olivier said he „never expected a Black Monday every day.”The term is shorthand for a market crash, and traders in Moscow have taken to using Black Tuesday for the day last week when the ruble shed 20 percent of its value, shooting to over 80 to the dollar and 100 to the euro.”It’s clear, the Russians are selling all of their rubles, and when locals abandon their currency it is time for foreigners to leave,” said Olivier, adding he was ready to buy his plane ticket home.”I will be the first to leave because I am single and have no children, but the others won’t be far behind.”
Russia Signals More Military To Belarus as Ukraine Briefly Cuts Power To Crimea Reuters/Pavel Rebrov Peace negotiations commenced Wednesday in Kiev aimed at quelling a war between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels, but recent moves by Ukraine and Russia cast a shadow on the prospects for a resolution emerging from the talks.On Wednesday, Ukraine briefly cut off power to Crimea, its former territory that Russia annexed earlier this year, while Russia reportedly plans a new air base in Belarus, north of Ukraine.The Ukrainian parliament voted on Tuesday to remove its country’s non-aligned status in order to apply for NATO membership – a move that would put Western Europe’s sphere of control at Russia’s doorstep andelicited irate responses from Moscow.Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev added to the fury on Wednesday by saying if Ukraine applied for NATO membership it would “turn Ukraine into a potential military opponent for Russia.”Hours after Russia’s response to the pro-NATO vote, Ukraine temporarily cut off power to the southern Crimean peninsula that Russia annexed in March, reminding the region of how dependent it is on Ukraine’s energy grid.The New York Time described stoplights and telephone services suddenly going dark Wednesday morning. Power was later restored after a spokesman for Ukraine’s energy ministry told Reuters the outage was routine.Meanwhile, Russian state media reported Wednesday that Russia is sending planes and helicopters to Belarus, which borders Ukraine in the north. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said Belarus has agreed to a Russian air base in the city of Babrujsk that will be fully operational by 2016.Shoygu met Tuesday with Belarus Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov to discuss increasing the number of Russian aircraft and helicopters in Belarus “to ensure security of shared air space,” the Russian defense chiefsaid in a statement.Russia wants to establish S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles batteries in Belarus. If Ukraine fell under the umbrella of NATO, Belarus would become more important to Russia’s national security.on December 24 2014 4:18 PM
Pope, on Christmas Eve, urges world to be open to God By Philip Pullella5 hours agoPope Francis kneels as he leads the Christmas night mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican …By Philip Pullella Related Stories
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis ushered the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics into Christmas on Wednesday, urging them to allow God to enter their lives to help combat darkness and corruption.The 78-year-old Argentine pope led a solemn Christmas Eve Mass for thousands of people in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the second Christmas season for the pope, who was elected last year as the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years.He has brought an air of simplicity to the Vatican, refusing many of the trappings of office, and has made plain his determination to reform the Vatican and bring the Church’s hierarchy closer to rank-and-file Catholics.In his homily, Francis, wearing white vestments, said Christmas is a time to remember that God’s message of peace „is stronger than darkness and corruption””The question put to us simply by the infant’s presence is, ‘Do I allow God to love me?'” he said. „Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us …?””How much the world needs tenderness today!” he said.Hours before the service, the pope made a surprise telephone call to comfort Christian refugees in a camp in Ankawa, Iraq, who were about to celebrate their own Christmas Eve Mass.”You are like Jesus on Christmas night. There was no room for him either, and he had to flee to Egypt later to save himself,” Pope Francis told them in the call arranged by the Italian Catholic television station Sat2000.The refugees fled Islamic State fighters who have persecuted Shi’ite Muslims, Christians and others in Syria and Iraq who do not share the group’s ideologies.The pope has several times condemned the „barbaric violence” of Islamic State fighters, most recently during his trip to Turkey last month.On Thursday morning, the pope will deliver his traditional Christmas Day „Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square to tens of thousands of people.The pope has a busy year ahead of him. He has a number of international trips planned, including to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January. He is also due to visit Africa, the United States and Latin America.Next month Pope Francis is due to announce the names of a new batch of cardinals, the elite princes of the Church who are eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect a new pope after his death or resignation.Another key project due to take shape in 2015 is the reform of the Curia, the Vatican’s central administration.In Christmas greetings on Monday to the Vatican’s top administrators, Pope Francis delivered a stinging critique of Vatican bureaucracy and outlined 15 illnesses plaguing the Curia, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Toni Reinhold)
Baghdad’s Christians gather defiantly for Christmas Eve mass By Saif Hameed7 hours agoIraqi Christians light candles during a mass on Christmas eve at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baghdad, December 24, 2014. REUTERS/ Thaier Al-Sudani (IRAQ – Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY)By Saif Hameed BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Baghdad’s embattled Christian community worshipped defiantly Wednesday night at Christmas Eve mass.The pews filled at Baghdad’s Sacred Heart church, as people remembered the darkest year in memory.Blast walls shielded the church and seven policeman flanked the outside of the house of worship, in an indication of the government’s fear of an attack on the religious groups by jihadists who consider them non-believers.The congregation sang in unison: “Praise Jesus, our Lord. Oh praise him” as incense burnt in the darkened church.The worshippers paid tribute to the thousands of Christians displaced this summer in northern Iraq when Islamic State seized the city of Mosul in June and in August pushed on toward Iraqi Kurdistan, over-running Christian towns on the Nineveh plain.“The recent conditions have left us with a bit of sadness for our brethren, be they Christian or non-Christian, those who were displaced and harmed,” Father Thair Abdul Masih told Reuters.”Christianity is the religion of peace and we pray for these people to return to their homes. We pray for all evil to vanish,” he said.Some had personal stories of those displaced this summer in northern Iraq, who have scattered to Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Lebanon.“They live in misery… yet we still exchange blessings and congratulations of Christmas and the New Year,” said Fadi Rafaat, 27, an assistant to the priest. „We celebrate the happiness of Christmas, but deep inside we carry the sadness of Iraq.”The holiday season weighed heavily on some. Earlier in the day, a mother and daughter on a busy street in the neighborhood of Karrada, argued about whether they should stay in Iraq or give up on the country.The mother insisted she would die in Iraq unafraid, but her daughter longed to escape. Last year her son was robbed at gunpoint working in a jewelry shop.“I wish to leave this country as soon as possible because we, Christians, have been hunted down by extremists and reduced into a very small minority,” the woman said, who declined to give her name. “Life is not very kind to us these days.”Iraq’s Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now believed to be less than 500,000 out of a population estimated at 32 million, according to the US State Department’s 2013 International Religious Freedom Report.(Reporting By Ned Parker)
Israel strikes Gaza, killing militant after soldier shot 12 hours agoGaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Israel launched an air strike in southern Gaza on Wednesday and killed a Hamas militant after a sniper attack on a patrol seriously wounded a soldier, the army and medics said.Related Stories
It was only the second time Israel had struck Gaza since a 50-day war ended with a truce on August 26, after witnesses reported a first strike early on Saturday.The Israeli military said it acted after its troops came under fire from a sniper while they were on the Israeli side of the border fence.As a result of the attack, an IDF combat soldier from the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion suffered a severe chest injury,” an army statement said.”In response to the firing at our forces, who were east of the fence in the southern Gaza Strip, we carried out immediate attacks against the relevant targets. There was an air strike and one by a tank,” it said.Palestinian medical sources said Tayseer al-Ismary, 33, was killed „as a result of gunfire and shrapnel from a tank shell” in the incident east of the southern city of Khan Yunis.A Palestinian supporter of the Hamas Islamist movement holds a mock rocket during a rally following …Hamas sources said he was a member of its military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner denounced the attack.”Hamas sniper attack is an outrageous act of aggression. IDF will continue to protect its forces and the border area,” he wrote on Twitter, noting the military had instructed Gazan farmers to keep away from the border area „for their own safety”.Hamas blamed Israel.”The Israeli occupation is responsible for the tension east of Khan Yunis. They tried to cross the border, provoking a response from Hamas,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel would „react firmly to any attempt to call into question calm in the south (of Israel) following Operation Protective Edge”, referring to the July-August military offensive against rocket-firing militants in the Gaza Strip.On Saturday, after a rocket struck southern Israel, the air force hit Gaza for the first time since the truce took hold. Since then, three rockets have hit the Israeli south.A month ago Israeli troops killed a Palestinian near the border fence in northern Gaza in the first deadly shooting since the truce. Wednesday’s shooting was the second such fatal incident.The exchanges have raised concerns there could be a new flare up of violence in and around the tiny Palestinian enclave, which is home to 1.8 million people.Nearly 2,200 Palestinians were killed during the July-August war, mostly civilians, and 73 on the Israeli side, most of them soldiers.
International ‘tragedy’ on Europe’s brutal African borders By Roland Lloyd Parry, Ingrid Bazinet1 hour ago Melilla (Spain) (AFP) – Just across the sea from the sunny tourist beaches of southern Spain where many Europeans spend their Christmas holidays, a violent crisis is intensifying on Europe’s borders with Africa.Every week, hundreds of Africans try to scramble over the high fences that encircle Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish-ruled enclaves on the northern tip of Morocco.Countless migrants and security officers are injured as the Moroccan military, on one side, and a few hundred Spanish police on the other, chase Africans seeking to cross.Spain has ruled the two tiny territories — barely 12 square miles (30 square kilometres) of land between them — for hundreds of years, defying Morocco’s claims to them.Spain insists it has the right to defend the territories and the 170,000 Spaniards living in them — notably against the threat of Islamic extremists crossing the border from Morocco.But it is feeling the strain of doing so.Nearly 4,700 undocumented migrants have infiltrated Melilla thus far this year, the interior ministry said — up from 3,000 in 2013.”It is a situation of maximum pressure,” said the Spanish government’s delegate in Melilla, Abdelmalik El Barkani.File picture taken on August 14, 2014 shows members of the Spanish Guardia Civil looking on as two m …”Melilla’s immigration problem affects not only Spain and Morocco. It is a problem for the whole European Union.”- ‘The lion’ -Ceuta sits in a strategic spot 15 miles from Gibraltar across the mouth of the Mediterranean, with Melilla 140 miles to the east. To guard their fences, 600 Civil Guards are stationed in each of the territories.The Spanish government says nearly 20,000 migrants have tried to storm the six-metre (23-foot), triple layer fence at Melilla this year alone.”You have to be strong and very fit. You have to be a lion!” said Abou Diarrisso, a lean 22-year-old from Ivory Coast who clambered over into Melilla.”There were 200 of us to start with. I was the only one to get over the fences.”Videos filmed by Spain’s Civil Guard police and non-government groups show what happens to the less fortunate climbers, as well to some of the officers who intercept them.File picture taken on August 13, 2014 shows Spanish Guardia Civil watching as would be immigrants fr …Some migrants sit atop the fence for hours before falling off exhausted, getting dragged down by Spanish guards or knocked off by blows from their batons.Officers also fall, or trade blows with migrants.”We are totally overwhelmed,” said one police source.”It is a tragedy” for the migrants, said another. „But it is a tragedy for us too.”- ‘Illegal’ deportations -A video filmed by rights group Prodein in October showed Spanish guards beating a migrant on the fence and carrying him apparently unconscious back to the Moroccan side.The Spanish government has since announced a reform that would formally authorise border guards to drive migrants off who try to climb the fence.File picture taken on April 3, 2014 shows a would-be immigrant helping a commrade as others sit atop …Commissioner Nils Muiznieks of the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights authority, branded that plan „unjust and illegal under international law”.Spain complains that it is guarding the 18 kilometres (11 miles) of borders around Ceuta and Melilla for the whole European Union.”People in offices in northern Europe, where they do not have this problem, give us lessons in humanitarianism,” said Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.”Let them give me their address and we’ll send these immigrants to them, if they promise to look after them and give them a job.”The new head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has called for EU countries to jointly spend more money on securing their borders. The annual budget of the bloc’s border agency is currently about 90 million euros ($110 million).- ‘Brutal’ attacks -Spain blames human-trafficking networks that it says bring the migrants to its borders from poverty-stricken African countries and war zones in north Africa and the Middle East.Spanish police say they have identified two main African people-trafficking routes towards Ceuta and Melilla, a security official who asked not to be named told AFP.One is a network of contacts guiding migrants who willingly make the journey up from western Africa.The other is a racket run by Nigerian drug gangs and pimps that make migrants pay off their debts to the traffickers by working after they get to Europe.Once close to Ceuta and Melilla, the migrants have a range of dangerous ways to try and cross the borders or the Mediterranean, aided by local traffickers.Some pay up to 3,000 euros ($3,700) to traffickers who hide them in the bodywork of cars, the motors of boats and tankers of cement.Immigrants arriving in Melilla have also reported suffering „brutal” attacks in Morroco on their way to the fence, said Manuel Soria, a local rights activist in Melilla.”This problem must not be hidden from the rest of Europe,” he said.
Christmas banned by Chinese university, says it is ‘kitsch’ 1 hour agoSanta Claus is seen in a window display of Macy’s in New York City on Dec. 24, 2014. (Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)BEIJING (Reuters) – A university in northwestern China has banned Christmas, calling it a „kitsch” foreign celebration unbefitting of the country’s own traditions and making its students watch propaganda films instead, media said on Thursday.The state-run Beijing News said that the Modern College of Northwest University, located in Xian, had strung up banners around the campus reading „Strive to be outstanding sons and daughters of China, oppose kitsch Western holidays” and „Resist the expansion of Western culture”.A student told the newspaper that they would be punished if they did not attend a mandatory three-hour screening of propaganda films, which other students said included one about Confucius, with teachers standing guard to stop people leaving.”There’s nothing we can do about it, we can’t escape,” the student was quoted as saying.An official microblog belonging to one of the university’s Communist Party’s committees posted comments calling for students not to „fawn on foreigners” and pay more attention to China’s holidays, like Spring Festival.”In recent years, more and more Chinese have started to attach importance to Western festivals,” it wrote.”In their eyes, the West is more developed than China, and they think that their holidays are more elegant than ours, even that Western festivals are very fashionable and China’s traditional festivals are old fashioned.”Christmas is not a traditional festival in officially atheist China but is growing in popularity, especially in more metropolitan areas where young people go out to celebrate, give gifts and decorate their homes.Western culture, particularly in the form of U.S. pop culture, is wildly popular with young, educated Chinese, which occasionally causes discomfort for the generally quite conservative ruling Communist Party.(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, 90, remained hospitalized near his home in Houston on Wednesday as a precaution after experiencing shortness of breath, a spokesman for the 41st president said.”President Bush had a good day and his prognosis remains positive,” spokesman Jim McGrath said in a brief statement issued Wednesday evening, a day after Bush was admitted to Houston Methodist Hospital.McGrath added that Bush would remain at the hospital for another night „as a precaution.”Bush was admitted to the same hospital in November 2012 for treatment of bronchitis and related ailments before his discharge seven weeks later in mid-January of 2013.His latest health scare unfolded on Tuesday evening, when the former president suffered shortness of breath and was taken by ambulance to Houston Methodist to be held for observation, McGrath said.Bush, a Republican, grew so ill during his previous hospitalization that he was believed at one point to be near death, and members of his family gathered around him.He marked his 90th birthday this year by taking a tandem parachute jump near Kennebunkport, Maine. His eldest son, former President George W. Bush, this year published a best-selling book about his father, titled „41 – A Portrait of My Father.”(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)
Saudi issues ‘final warning’ on high-speed rail project 8 hours agoJeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) – Saudi Arabia has given a „final warning” to avoid delays on an $8.2 billion high-speed rail project which Spanish and Saudi firms are helping to build.The Haramain High Speed Rail system is to transport Muslim pilgrims, as well as regular travellers, 450 kilometres (280 miles) between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina via the Red Sea port of Jeddah.Saudi Arabia signed a deal three years ago for a Spanish consortium to build the rail track, supply 35 high-speed trains and handle a 12-year maintenance contract.The Saudi Bin Laden Consortium and Saudi Oger Joint Venture received contracts for four stations, while Al-Rajhi Alliance in 2009 won the bid to construct bridges, culverts and similar work.But during a two-day inspection tour last week, the kingdom’s new Transport Minister Abdullah bin Abdulrahman al-Muqbel warned that time was running out, his ministry said in a statement obtained on Wednesday.After visiting the Mecca station and bridges along the route, Muqbel told the contractor — which was not named — „to present an urgent plan to avoid delays within the next two months,” by increasing the workforce and supplies.A unit of the new high-speed train is loaded onto a freighter in Barcelona on December 12, 2014, bou …”This is also considered a final warning either to commit and improve performance or face the consequences,” the ministry said.Jeddah station was „in its final stages” and Muqbel ordered that it be delivered immediately, while „qualified contractors” should be hired for the nearby bridges in order to avoid holdups.Work at another station, King Abdullah Economic City, was complete.Muqbel also met with the Spanish consortium „and discussed with them the delays in some of the sites… and the delays in the supply of necessary equipment and trains,” stressing every effort must be made to complete the work on time.The Spanish consortium includes state rail network Adif, train manufacturer Talgo, technology company Indra and rail builders OHL.Spain has become a world leader in high-speed rail networks and now has the longest such system in Europe, ahead of France, which pioneered the technology.Saudi Arabia is expanding its railways, including with a $22.5 billion metro system under construction in the capital Riyadh.A consortium involving Spain’s FCC is part of that project.The annual hajj, which is to be held in September next year, attracts about two million Muslim pilgrims to the Mecca region.
China tightens church control ahead of Christmas By DIDI TANG55 minutes agoIn this photo taken July 16, 2014, a man stands near the razed remains of a Catholic church in a village in Pingyang county of Wenzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Like many Christians in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, will worship this Christmas under a cross-less roof. Provincial authorities have toppled crosses from more than 400 churches, and even razed some worship halls in a province-wide crackdown on building code violations. (AP Photo/Didi Tang)BEIJING (AP) — Two days before Christmas, members of a rural Christian congregation in the eastern city of Wenzhou welded some pieces of metal into a cross and hoisted it onto the top of their worship hall to replace one that was forcibly removed in October.Within an hour, township officials and uniformed men barged onto the church ground and tore down the cross.”They keep a very close watch on us, and there is nothing we can do,” said a church official, who spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because of fear of government retaliation. „The situation is not good, as any attempt to re-erect the cross will be stopped.”That means that the worshippers in Wenzhou, like many Christians in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, will worship this Christmas under a cross-less roof. Provincial authorities have toppled crosses from more than 400 churches, and even razed some worship halls in a province-wide crackdown on building code violations.Many Christians say their faith has been singled out because authorities, wary of its rapid growth, are seeking to curb its spread in a campaign that has targeted China’s most thriving Christian communities.Estimates for the number of Christians in China range from the conservative official figure of 23 million to as many as 100 million by independent scholars, raising the possibility that Christians may rival in size the 85 million members of the ruling Communist Party.In August, Beijing rounded up Christian pastors and religious scholars in a national seminar with the edict that the Christian faith must be free of foreign influence but „adapt to China,” a euphemism for obeying the Communist Party’s rule.This week, authorities in Wenzhou — known as China’s Jerusalem because it has half of the province’s 4,000 churches — have banned all Christmas celebrations or related activities in the city’s kindergartens and grade schools.”We had guidance on foreign holidays such as Christmas in the past, but this year marks the first time we issued a clearer notice,” an education official was quoted as saying in a local, government-run newspaper on Wednesday.Churches in Wenzhou and elsewhere in Zhejiang were first told last year to turn off any spotlights shining on their crosses at night. A few months later, the congregations were ordered to remove the crosses or face forced demolitions.Resistance by local Christians has led to violent protests, bloody clashes and arrests of pastors and churchgoers. At least two people — one pastor and one churchgoer — remain in police custody for their acts to defend the cross, said Zhang Kai, a Christian rights lawyer.When one rural village re-erected a cross in the summer, authorities put it under a 24-hour watch, which has now gone on for nearly five months.”This year’s Christmas has been exceptional, as a group of uniformed men have been helping us move tables, direct traffic, and guard holiday decorations as well as the front door, the back door, the warehouse and the sanctuary,” church pastor Tao Chongyin wrote on a social media site.
Nicaragua moves to break highway blockade By LUIS MANUEL GALEANO2 hours ago MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — National police special forces and soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Wednesday to clear a roadblock erected by residents in southern Nicaragua to protest a proposed transoceanic canal.National police commissioner Aminta Granera said 30 people were arrested and 20 people were injured in the confrontation, including 15 police officers.Granera said authorities had to use force after a week of trying to negotiate an end to the blockade on the Pan American Highway near El Tule, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Managua.”The special forces called for the roads to be cleared, but they did not listen. We have acted with patience and tolerance,” she said.Protest leader Arnulfo Sequeira said the skirmish began at dawn and confirmed there were injuries.”This is the way the government resolves things. This is the Christmas that it gives us, sending soldiers and police to kill us, because dead is the only way they will take us from our property,” Sequeira said. Granera said there were no deaths.Thousands had maintained the roadblock since workers broke ground Monday for the $50 billion canal, which will require the expropriation of land. President Daniel Ortega said property owners will receive a just price for their land. The Nicaraguan government has partnered with a Chinese company to build what could rival the Panama Canal.Officials have said the 173-mile (278-kilometer) canal connecting the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean will be operational by 2019.Environmental lawyer Monica Lopez Baltodano, a member of Grupo Cocibolca, which opposes the canal project, said Wednesday’s events could lead to more violence and loss of life.