Israel launches U.S.-backed missile shield on Syria frontier, Russia sends envoys

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July 23, 2018

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel launched its newest air defense system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus’s Russian-backed forces have been routing rebels, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called “urgent” talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu planned to meet Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and its armed forces chief, General Valery Gerasimov, later in the day, a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regains ground from southern rebels, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which the Israeli military later said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel’s first published operational use of the mid-range missiles, which are jointly manufactured by U.S. firm Raytheon Co. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan.

The military did not immediately elaborate on whether the targets were shot down by David’s Sling. Israel deployed the system last year to complement its short-range Iron Dome and long-range Arrow interceptors.

Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarization deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Russia, whose foreign ministry confirmed Lavrov’s visit, has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister’s trip was “urgent and important”.

Netanyahu, in broadcast remarks, said he would tell the envoys that “Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honored, as they were honored for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out”.

He also reaffirmed “Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran and its proxies to entrench militarily in Syria”.

Syrian state television said on Sunday an Israeli air strike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria’s Hama province but caused only material damage. An Israeli military spokeswoman said it does not comment on foreign reports.

Also on Sunday, hundreds of Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families fled advancing government forces and slipped over the border into Jordan with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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Damascus criticizes White Helmet evacuation as ‘criminal operation’

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July 23, 2018

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government on Monday condemned the evacuation of hundreds of Syrian White Helmet rescue workers who fled the country with help from Israel into Jordan, calling it a “criminal operation” undertaken by “Israel and its tools”.

The rescue workers and their families crossed out of Syria into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights before arriving in Jordan. Israel said it had helped with the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders – and there had been fears that the workers’ lives were at risk.

The Syrian government has accused the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence, of being agents of foreign enemies and working with insurgents fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by John Stonestreet)

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Ozil departure puts focus on German relations with Turkish community

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July 23, 2018

BERLIN (Reuters) – German soccer player Mesut Ozil’s decision to quit the national team due to “racism and disrespect” he faced over his Turkish roots threw a spotlight on Monday on the country’s relations with its largest immigrant community.

The most prominent German politician of Turkish origin said it would be difficult for the head of the national soccer association to stay in the role, adding that Ozil’s departure would only be welcomed by those who opposed diversity.

Ozil’s announcement on social media late on Sunday lead national newspapers to clear their front pages for the midfielder, 29, a key member of Germany’s World Cup-winning side in 2014 – and also of the side eliminated at the group stage of the 2018 tournament in Russia.

The player, who faced a barrage of criticism for having his photograph taken with Turkey’s authoritarian President Tayyip Erdogan in May, was especially piqued by criticism from German Football Association (DFB) head Reinhard Grindel, who he said blamed him for Germany crashing out of this year’s tournament.

Cem Ozdemir, the former head of the Greens party and the most prominent politician of Turkish background, said it would be difficult for Grindel to do his job in future given the diverse reality of Germany and its soccer team.

“It will be very hard for Grindel after this,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio. “He doesn’t reflect the breadth of football in Germany and so it will be hard for German Turks, or indeed German Croats, to feel that the DFB is theirs.”

Former DFB President Theo Zwanziger was quoted in German media as saying the DFB had not done enough to solve conflicts ahead of the World Cup.

“Communication mistakes mean something happened that should never happen to migrants: They should never feel like second-class Germans,” he said, adding: “Ozil’s resignation is a major setback for integration efforts beyond football in our country.”

A spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that the majority of the roughly 3 million people with Turkish roots who live in Germany were well-integrated.

She also said people with migrant backgrounds were welcome in Germany and added that the German chancellor valued Ozil.

The row comes amid a political debate in Germany about an influx of 1.6 million migrants since mid-2014 that has seen a rise of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party at the expense of traditional parties.

It also exposed differences of opinion over the country’s large and well-established Turkish community.

Just as 2014’s victorious German side was celebrated for its diversity, so too was France’s World Cup-winning team in 2018 for having numerous key players with African ethnic roots.

CRITICISM AND PRAISE

But the mass-selling newspaper Bild accused Ozil of “pure self-pity” and its editor highlighted his decision to post in English, accusing him of trying to maximize his audience.

Ozdemir said that even if Ozil had been naive, however, his departure would be “good news for Erdogan, for the AfD, all those who are against diversity.”

Alice Weidel, leader of the AfD, wrote that: “The integration dream doesn’t work even with football millionaires,” describing Ozil’s “tirade” as a “typical example of failed integration”.

In Turkey, however, politicians heaped praise on the player and lashed out at those who had abused him.

“We support from the heart the honorable stance which our brother Mesut Ozil has displayed,” Turkish Sports Minister Mehmet Kasapoglu wrote on Twitter on Sunday night.

“What Mesut Özil went through and how he was treated is unforgivable. There is NO excuse for racism and discrimination,” Gulnur Aybet, a senior adviser to President Tayyip Erdogan wrote on her Twitter account.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin wrote on Twitter on Sunday after Ozil released his statement:

“An extremely accomplished footballer provides a perfectly reasonable explanation for meeting with President Erdogan. But imagine the pressure under which he felt compelled to make this statement. What a pity for those who claim to be tolerant and multiculturalist!”

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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Israeli forces kill Palestinian teen in West Bank raid: medics

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July 23, 2018

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian teenager during a raid in the occupied West Bank on Monday, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The Israeli military said its forces responded with live fire in Dheishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem, after Palestinians attacked them with rocks, fire-bombs and grenades. The military statement made no mention of any casualties among the troops.

The Palestinian health minister said the dead youth was 15 years old and suffered a chest wound. The Israeli military said that during the raid it detained two Palestinians suspected of attacks and uncovered a weapons manufacturing warehouse.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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German economy showed improved momentum in the second quarter: Bundesbank

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July 23, 2018

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The German economy likely regained some of its lost momentum in the second quarter, supported by private consumption, manufacturing and recovering exports, the Bundesbank said in a monthly economic report on Monday.

Economic growth unexpectedly halved to a quarterly rate of 0.3 percent in the first three months of the year and economists are still debating whether the slowdown was just a hiccup or signaled the end of a boom in Europe’s largest economy.

Fears that escalating trade tensions could also weigh on growth has also been impacting investor sentiment and the International Monetary Fund recently warned that the euro zone was facing ‘particularly serious’ risks that could lead to a hand landing for the economy after a five-year boom.

“The economy has likely showed better momentum in the spring than at the start of the year,” the Bundesbank said. “Although it is unlikely that the high growth rates of the past year will be repeated, manufacturing was once again the key economic driving force.”

Pharmaceutical output was particularly strong but car production also increased sharply, even as the output of intermediate goods remained weak, the bank added.

Part of the improvement in growth momentum was due to the expiration of one-off factors that held back growth, including an exceptionally disruptive flu season, the Bundesbank added.

Household consumption remained a cornerstone of growth while government consumption, which dipped in the early part of the year, also rebounded.

“Last but not least, activity in the booming construction sector likely increased significantly, despite capacity constraints,” the Bundesbank added.

(Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Hardline Islamists push religion to center of Pakistan election

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July 23, 2018

By Asif Shahzad and Kay Johnson

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani cleric Hafiz Saeed is one of the United States’ most-wanted terrorist suspects, accused over the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. At home, his charities are banned, as is a new Islamist political party launched by his followers.

None of that has stopped Saeed from hitting the campaign trail for Pakistan’s July 25 general election, denouncing the outgoing government as “traitors” and whipping up support for the more than 200 candidates he backs.

“The politics of the American servants is coming to an end!” Saeed thundered at a rally this month in the eastern city of Lahore, where supporters showered him with rose petals.

The main race in Wednesday’s vote is between the party of now-jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which is seeking a second consecutive term despite its leader’s downfall on corruption charges, and the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, perceived as the favorite of the powerful military.

But a bumper crop of ultra-Islamist groups are also contesting the poll, with the potential to reshape the political landscape of the nuclear-armed Muslim country of 208 million people with anti-Western rhetoric and calls for ever-stricter interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.

The proliferation of religious parties appears to be a fulfilment of a proposal made by Pakistan’s military to “mainstream” armed Islamists and other extremists into politics, though the parties and the army deny any links.

Even if, as expected, they win few seats, liberal and secular-minded Pakistanis say the sheer number of religious party candidates, combined with their ultra-conservative rhetoric, has already shifted the agenda in their direction.

With the new parties routinely accusing opponents of blasphemy or treason, mainstream parties have echoed their language in attacking Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

“The ostensible attempt to mainstream the religious right-wing is not making these parties take relatively moderate positions,” said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch. “But rather, it’s radicalizing the mainstream.”

VIOLENT RHETORIC

Religious parties – some new, others established – are fielding more than 1,500 candidates for national and provincial assemblies, compared with a few hundred in 2013.

While Pakistan has always had Islamist parties, the new entries are notable for their alleged links to militants and their rhetorical attacks on mainstream politicians’ piety or patriotism.

Pakistan’s three main parties all stress devotion to Islam, but the new religious parties portray them – especially the PML-N – as leading Pakistan down a Western-inspired path away from the country’s Islamic values.

One new party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, campaigns under the rallying cry “death to blasphemers” and is fielding 566 candidates.

Its candidates rail against the PML-N as blasphemers for a small abortive change last year to election law, which was quickly reversed after nationwide protests in which at least seven people were killed.

The change was to the swearing-in oath for candidates – from a religious vow to a simple declaration – stating the Prophet Mohammad was God’s last messenger, a central tenet of Islam.

In May, a man police identified as a Labaik supporter shot and wounded then-Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal as he left a meeting. He told interrogators Iqbal had to die because he was a blasphemer.

Tehreek-e-Labaik leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi condemned Iqbal’s shooting. But this month, he said the party could not be held responsible.

“We didn’t instigate anyone. These are the emotions of the nation,” Rizvi told Reuters, adding. “In a way, it rightly happened.”

Leaders of the mainstream opposition parties all condemned the attack on Iqbal.

Still, Imran Khan has also invoked the blasphemy controversy in campaign speeches, defending such language in a recent interview with Reuters.

“You cannot be a Muslim if you don’t believe that the Prophet, our Prophet, is the last prophet,” Khan said. “So to reiterate and support it is just standing with your faith.”

BANNED GROUPS

While Tehreek-e-Labaik is a legally registered party, other movements fielding candidates are officially banned in Pakistan but have bypassed the legal restrictions.

Pakistan’s Election Commission this year rejected Saeed’s Islamic charity’s application to register a political party, the Milli Muslim League, but the group later registered candidates under the name of an existing party, Allahu Akbar Tehreek, which now campaigns with Saeed’s image on its posters.

Saeed is accused of masterminding the 2008 attacks on India’s financial capital. The United States offers a $10 million reward for his conviction over the attacks, in which several Americans were killed. Saeed denies any involvement.

Another party, the Sunni extremist Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), is also fielding dozens of candidates under a different name, even though it is banned as the political wing of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has killed hundreds of minority Shi’ite Muslims. The party denies links with LeJ.

Last month, ASWJ leader Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi’s name was removed by a caretaker government from Pakistan’s terrorism watchlist, cementing his own candidacy.

A spokesman for the Election Commission of Pakistan, Altaf Khan, asked about the banned groups’ candidates, said no illegal group had been registered.

“If some political party is registered with us, and it has come through the (legal) process, what’s wrong in it?,” Khan said.

He added that the commission was investigating complaints of banned parties campaigning under different names.

A military spokesman declined to comment on religious parties. The army denies interfering in politics.

However, the military did propose “mainstreaming” militant-linked groups into politics in a 2016 National Security meeting, military and government sources have told Reuters. The plan was pitched as a way to reduce violence and extremism under the model of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Critics say the real goal is for new ultra-religious parties to cut into the conservative base of Sharif’s party and confer legitimacy to Islamist militants the army has long been accused of nurturing as proxies in its rivalry with India.

“They have to be taken care of,” political commentator Raza Rumi said of such groups. “So this election is a test case as to how far the goal of mainstreaming these groups can be achieved.”

Analysts say even with the increase in candidates, Islamists are unlikely to win more than a dozen or so seats in parliament.

But that might not be the point. Pakistani author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, a longtime critic of the military, believes the army, tired of civilian governments challenging its grip on foreign policy and large chunks of the economy, is seeking to weaken mainstream parties.

“The military wants to alter, engineer the national discourse,” Siddiqa said. “They want to build a new nationalism. They want a new identity, and that is Islamic identity.”

(Additional Reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Saad Sayeed in Islamabad; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Most Turks well integrated in Germany, government says after Ozil’s racism comments

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July 23, 2018

BERLIN (Reuters) – The majority of the roughly 3 million people with Turkish roots who live in Germany are well integrated, a spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday, after German soccer star Mesut Ozil quit the national team citing racism.

Merkel’s spokeswoman stressed that people with migrant backgrounds were welcome in Germany and added that the German chancellor valued Ozil.

The spokeswoman, who described Ozil as a great soccer player who had done a lot for the national team, said Merkel respected Ozil’s decision to quit.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin and Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Maria Sheahan)

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Trump Blasts Iran’s Rouhani: “Never, Ever Threaten The US Or Suffer Consequences”

President Donald Trump launched a new verbal attack against Iran’s president Rouhani, vowing “consequences the likes of which few have ever suffered before” if Hassan Rouhani continues threatening America in a late-night Sunday all caps tweet.

In the tweet, addressed to Rouhani, Trump said, “To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

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Trump’s threat was in response to the earlier warning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who on Sunday warned the US not to provoke Iran or halt Iranian oil exports, saying that “Americans must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars” adding that “it would only lead to regret.”

The head of Iran’s paramilitary Basij forces dismissed Trump’s words as part of a psychological war saying the U.S. “wouldn’t dare make the mistake of taking action against Iran,” Gholamhossein Gheybparvar was quoted as saying by the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Trump’s threat, similar to ones Trump issued last year in warning North Korea about its nuclear weapons program, risks leading to a speedy escalation if neither side backs down, and traders quickly took notice as brent oil traded up 1% to $73.78 a barrel.

The already tense relations between Washington and Tehran have been strained further by the US State Department’s campaign to subvert the Iranian government through propaganda. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Sunday that the US will be lending its support to dissidents in Iran with a new 24/7 Farsi-language channel and backing what he described as “the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people.”

“For 40 years the Iranian people have heard from their leaders that America is the Great Satan,” Pompeo said. “We do not believe they are interested in hearing the fake news any longer.”

Pompeo also accused the country’s leaders of corruption and urged European allies to join the pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. Pompeo said Iran’s leadership is made up of “hypocritical holy men” responsible for “crooked schemes” that have hurt the country’s economy and people, according to Bloomberg.

The US Secretary of State added that America stands in solidarity with Iranians and reiterated the November deadline for countries to get their imports of Iranian oil to “as close to zero as possible.” While the administration has said it doesn’t seek regime change, it has repeatedly said that Iran’s leaders don’t have their citizens’ interests at heart.

“While it is ultimately up to the Iranian people to determine the direction of their country, the United States, in the spirit of our own freedoms, will support the long-ignored voice of the Iranian people,” Pompeo said in the speech in Simi Valley, California. The audience included Iranian-Americans, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton — a leading Iran critic in Congress — and former California Governor Pete Wilson.

Citing his own travels to North Korea as an example, Pompeo said it’s still possible for the Trump administration to build a relationship with Tehran, but he didn’t seem optimistic that such an outcome was likely. He said Iran must make a series of changes to become a “normal” country. “That I don’t see happening today, but I live in hope,” he said.

As Bloomberg notes, Pompeo sought to portray his message Sunday in terms of good-versus-evil, as a major moment in history. He cited President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 Westminster Speech in which he challenged the Soviet Union and warned that its ideology would be left on the “ash heap of history.”

Tensions with Iran come as the U.S. moves closer to imposing sanctions on countries including key allies that don’t eliminate or significantly cut imports of Iranian oil by Nov. 4. Earlier this year, the Trump administration’s decision this year to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord, which eased economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic in return for restraints on its nuclear program.

The administration will have to decide how hard to enforce its sanctions. Previously both Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have told European leaders they won’t get waivers. But, as Bloomberg points out, other countries such as Iraq, are major importers of Iranian natural gas, and sanctions could strain alliances the U.S. seeks to maintain. As for China, which is a key Iran customer, it is unlikely that the US will have much sway if at all, and many have speculated that Beijing could purchase all of Iran’s excess output –  at deeply discounted prices – if only to spite Trump.


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Britain’s new foreign minister Hunt warns of no-deal Brexit risk

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July 23, 2018

BERLIN (Reuters) – Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday there was a risk of Britain crashing out of the European Union without a deal if EU negotiators waited too long for London to blink in Brexit negotiations.

On his first foreign visit after being appointed last week following his predecessor Boris Johnson’s resignation, Hunt said in Berlin that Germany was “one of Britain’s best friends in the world” and they shared a commitment to a “rules-based international order”.

He also said the British public would blame Brussels in the event of a chaotic EU exit, which would shape its attitudes towards the EU “for a generation”.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany wanted to see an orderly Brexit.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; editing by John Stonestreet)

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