Posts Tagged ‘France’

Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

February 18, 2018

Reuters

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would act against Iran, not just its allies in the Middle East, if needed, reiterating his country’s position that Tehran was the world’s greatest threat.

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, delivers a speech during the International Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (Sven Hoppe-dpa via AP)

As tensions increase in the Middle East over Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen and as U.S. President Donald Trump presses for a tougher approach on Tehran, Israel is seeking wider support to contain its regional nemesis.

Holding a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone after its incursion into Israeli airspace earlier this month, Netanyahu told the Munich Security Conference: ”Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.

“We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself,” he said.

In his first address to the annual Munich event, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu urged his audience to counter Iran immediately, displaying a map showing what he said was Iran’s growing presence in the Middle East.

For its part, Iran pushed back. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who also addressed the conference, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

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Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Munich, meeting with UK Labour MP Catherine Ashton

Zarif accused the United States of using the conference to “revive hysteria” against Iran, and denied that Tehran was seeking “hegemony” in the Middle East.

But Netanyahu said Iran was increasing its power as a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was regaining territory from militants.

“The unfortunate thing is that as ISIS compresses and Iran moves in, it is trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza,” Netanyahu said.

“This is a very dangerous development for our region.”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi‘ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased, including over a maritime border dispute.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, said: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

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Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf

Tensions in the region surged on Feb. 10 when anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“PUT OUT THE FIRE”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said, without specifying any military action. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord cannot be reopened, that it is working and that Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said that scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace, while John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

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John Kerry, former U.S. secretary of state

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

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European Diplomats Aim to Curb Iran Actions, Save Nuclear Deal

February 18, 2018

Talks intended to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal

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MUNICH—European diplomats met with a senior Iranian official Saturday in a bid to curtail Iran’s regional muscle-flexing and meet a key Trump administration demand.

The push by the European diplomats to check Iranian meddling in Yemen, Syria and other parts of the Middle East is aimed at persuading U.S. President Donald Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal and show the U.S. that there are other ways to check Iranian aggression.

Mr. Trump has threatened to kill the Iranian nuclear deal in May, when he must decide whether to keep in place sanctions waivers required under the 2015 agreement. He has made Iran’s regional actions a focus of his foreign policy, committing the U.S. to pushing back Tehran’s regional role.

Saturday’s meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference is a new channel of discussions intended to address Iran’s activity.

Chaired by the European Union, it brings together senior diplomats from Italy, Germany, Britain and France—the E4—and Iran, represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. The focus of Saturday’s discussions was the conflict in Yemen.

The meeting comes as concerns rise about Iran’s role in southern Syria and the possibility of direct conflict there between Iran and Israel.

In Munich on Saturday, U.S. national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said Iran is building a network of proxy forces, like Hezbollah, throughout the region and arming them with increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

“So the time is now…to act against Iran,” Gen. McMaster said.

H. R. McMaster, National security adviser to the US President, delivers his speech on day two of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on Feb. 17, 2018. (AFP)

European governments, who have strongly supported the Iranian nuclear agreement, have pledged to work with Washington to address nonnuclear concerns, such as Iran’s missile program and its regional activities. The U.K., France, Germany and the U.S. set up working groups last month to discuss this although people close to the talks say work is at a very early stage.

At the same time, the Europeans agreed in a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that they would open a channel for discussion of regional issues. Saturday’s meeting was the first one.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

According to officials, European governments are looking to broaden the talks over coming months to cover the conflict in Syria, where Iranian forces and proxies have helped give the Assad regime the upper hand.

Those discussions could include the situation in southern Syria, one of the officials said.

Last weekend, Israel launched attacks on Syrian air defenses and Iranian fighters in Syria after Israel intercepted an Iranian drone fired from Syria. An Israeli jet was shot down during the attacks.

Iran Recruits Afghan and Pakistani Shiites to Fight in Syria

Israel has warned repeatedly it won’t accept an Iranian presence close to its border in southern Syria and said it would strike Iranian built precision missile factories for Hezbollah and other military infrastructure.

On Saturday morning, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned that while the EU would maintain its support for the Iranian nuclear deal, Europe was ready to work with the U.S. against “the destabilizing influence of Iranian policies in the region and to push them back.”

A senior German diplomat said Berlin had warned Tehran after last weekend’s events in southern Syria that Europe could step up pressure if Iran seeks to entrench its presence there.

Most European sanctions against Iran were lifted after the nuclear deal was concluded. France has said Iranian firms or people could be targeted with sanctions over Iran’s missile program.

Iran has refused to enter discussions on ballistic missiles, saying it won’t compromise on its national defense. Iranian officials have said Tehran can’t rein in its missile program when the U.S. is selling arms to regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Trump has also pressed European countries to agree to a follow-up agreement to the nuclear deal that would threaten action if Tehran ramps up its nuclear activities once the original limits start to expire. Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear program under the deal.

European governments have said they won’t renegotiate the nuclear deal. Officials warn that they want firm commitments from Washington that if they address their concerns, Mr. Trump will stand by the deal. There is still uncertainty among European governments about precisely what commitments Washington is demanding to stand by the deal.

In Munich on Saturday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said Washington was seeking “a commitment that we can credibly show to the president (that) we’re making progress to address” flaws in the nuclear deal and to counter Iran’s nonnuclear activities.

He said that could eventually lead to direct talks between the U.S. and Iran but “there will need to be significant progress” in Iranian discussions with Europe first.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/european-diplomats-aim-to-curb-iran-actions-save-nuclear-deal-1518899767

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Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (AP-Hussein Malla)
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US National Security Adviser McMaster says now is the time to act against Iran

February 17, 2018

 

Herbert Raymond McMaster, National security adviser to the US President, delivers his speech on day two of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on Feb. 17, 2018. (AFP)
MUNICH: Iran is building and arming an increasingly powerful network of proxies in countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq that can turn against the governments of those states, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on Saturday.
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“What’s particularly concerning is that this network of proxies is becoming more and more capable, as Iran seeds more and more …destructive weapons into these networks,” McMaster told the annual Munich Security Conference.
“So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran,” he said.
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With regards to Syria, McMaster told the Conference that, despite denials, public reports showed that Syrian President Bashar Assad was using chemical weapons, and added that it was time for the international community to hold the Syrian government accountable.
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“Public accounts and photos clearly show that Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing,” McMaster said at the major international security conference taking place in Munich.
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“It is time for all nations to hold the Syrian regime and its sponsors accountable for their actions and support the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” he said.
McMaster did not specify which public accounts or pictures he was referring to.
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French President Emmanuel Macron has said that “France will strike” if chemical weapons are used against civilians in the Syrian conflict in violation of international treaties, but that he had not yet seen proof this was the case.
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The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and said it targets only armed rebels and militants.
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In recent weeks, rescue workers, aid groups and the United States have accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon against civilians in Ghouta and Idlib.
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Earlier this month, Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded the areas, two of the last major rebel-held parts of Syria.
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Diplomatic efforts have made scant progress toward ending a war now approaching its eighth year, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes.

 

Public reports ‘clearly show’ Assad’s use of chemical weapons: McMaster

February 17, 2018

Reuters

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U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster talks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski Reuters

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on Saturday that, despite denials, public reports showed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons, and added that it was time for the international community to hold the Syrian government to account.

“Public accounts and photos clearly show that Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing,” McMaster said at a major international security conference taking place in Munich.

“It is time for all nations to hold the Syrian regime and its sponsors accountable for their actions and support the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” he said.

McMaster did not specify which public accounts or pictures he was referring to.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine gas, but stressed that the U.S. did not have evidence of sarin gas use.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that “France will strike” if chemical weapons are used against civilians in the Syrian conflict in violation of international treaties, but that he had not yet seen proof this is the case.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

In recent weeks, rescue workers, aid groups and the United States have accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon against civilians in Ghouta and Idlib.

Earlier this month, Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded the areas, two of the last major rebel-held parts of Syria.

Diplomatic efforts have made scant progress towards ending a war now approaching its eighth year, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes.

NORTH KOREA

McMaster called on the international community to do more on North Korea.

“We must pressure the Kim regime, using all available tools, to ensure that this cruel dictatorship cannot threaten the world with the most destructive weapons on earth,” he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The United States has appeared to endorse closer post-Olympics engagement between North and South Korea with an eye to eventual U.S.-North Korean talks, but has agreed with Seoul that sanctions must be intensified to push Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program.

The prospect of negotiations comes after months of tension over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader traded insults and threats, while the U.N. tightened sanctions.

“Nations that evade full enforcement and fail to take these steps are acting irresponsibly, now is the time to do more,” McMaster said, calling on countries to cut off military and commercial ties with Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrea Shalal and Andrew Bolton)

Russians charged over US 2016 election tampering

February 16, 2018

BBC News

 Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Russians used ‘information warfare’ against the US election process

Thirteen Russians have been charged with interfering in the US 2016 election, in a major development in the FBI investigation.

Three of those named have been accused of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and five have been accused of aggravated identity theft.

The announcement was made by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling.

Three Russian companies are also named in the indictment.

One of them is the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, which the 37-page indictment said “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election”.

Speaking at a news conference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there was no allegation that any American was “a knowing participant in this illegal activity” nor was it alleged that the meddling altered the election outcome.

What does the indictment say?

It says a group of Russians:

  • Posed as Americans, and opened financial accounts in their name
  • Spent thousands of dollars a month buying political advertising
  • Purchased US server space in an effort to hide their Russian affiliation
  • Organised and promoted political rallies within the United States
  • Posted political messages on social media accounts that impersonated real US citizens
  • Promoted information that disparaged Hillary Clinton
  • Received money from clients to post on US social media sites
  • Created themed groups on social media on hot-button issues, particularly on Facebook and Instagram
  • Operated with a monthly budget of as much as $1.25m (£890,000)

The indictment says those involved systematically measured how well their internet posts were doing and adjusted their strategies to maximise effectiveness.

It also says those named in the indictment began discussing how to affect the election as early as 2014.

“By 2016, defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online persons to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election,” the indictment continues.

“They engaged in operations primarily to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

President Trump was briefed on the indictment earlier on Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

How has Russia reacted?

“There were 13 of them, according to the US Department of Justice. Thirteen people interfered with the US elections?” said Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said. “Thirteen against the billion-dollar budgets of the security services? Against espionage and counter-espionage, against new systems and technologies? Absurd? Yes.”

One of the men named in the indictment – Evgeny Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” denied election tampering.

“The Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agency Ria Novosti on Friday.

“I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

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Heat of investigation is increasing

Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington

On Friday, Robert Mueller’s team released a slate of indictments that lays bare what it asserts is the full shape of the Russian meddling apparatus.

And what an apparatus it was. In the run-up to the US presidential election “Project Lakhta”, as it was called, had an operating budget of more than $1m a month.

Russians associated with the organisation travelled to the US, posed as Americans and gathered information on where best to target its attempts to “sow discord” in the US political process. Swing states were identified and efforts, according to the indictment, were made to boost the prospects of Republican Donald Trump and undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Although the indictment does not suggest collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it says the meddling effort may have been aided by “unwitting individuals” associated with the Republican nominee.

The White House may breathe a sigh of relief with that particular revelation. But the heat is increasing, and the investigation isn’t over yet. At the very least, if Mr Mueller’s allegations hold up in court, it will become increasingly difficult for the president to argue that Russian meddling on his behalf is an unsubstantiated hoax.

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What is the investigation about?

US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway the 2016 presidential election in favour of Republican candidate Donald Trump.

In May last year, Mr Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate whether anyone from his campaign colluded in the effort.

As part of the inquiry, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been charged with conspiring to defraud the US in his dealings with Ukraine, and conspiracy to launder money.

A business associate of his, Rick Gates, was also charged with conspiracy to launder money. A third adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

This week President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was interviewed by Mr Mueller.

Mr Trump has been accused by opponents of trying to interfere with the investigation. The president denies this – as well as any allegation of collusion with Russia during the campaign.

Includes video:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43092085

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Europe must be able to stand alone on defence: Paris/Berlin

February 16, 2018

AFP

© AFP/File | France has announced plans to bolster its defence spending, earmarking nearly 300 billion euros ($370 billion) of investments by 2025

MUNICH (GERMANY) (AFP) – EU countries need to ensure they have the “strategic autonomy” to respond to security threats, even while bolstering commitments to the NATO pact, the French and German defence ministers said Friday.

“When we are threatened in our own neighbourhood, particularly to the south, we have to be able to respond, even when the United States or the (NATO) alliance would like to be less implicated,” French defence chief Florence Parly said in Munich.

“To achieve that, we need strategic autonomy,” Parly told the Munich Security Conference, alongside her German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen.

The EU announced in December a permanent structured cooperation on defence agreement, known as PESCO, aimed at developing new military equipment and improving cooperation and decision-making.

And French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a European Intervention Initiative (EII) that would let individual nations band together for operations outside of existing EU or NATO structures.

In particular, Paris feels it is bearing the brunt of efforts to stabilise Mali, Niger and other Sahel nations in Africa from jihadist groups that could attempt to strike Europe.

That has prompted warnings from NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg that the EU must not undermine the alliance.

But Parly said EU nations must be ready to act “without asking the United States to come to our aid, without asking them to divert their ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities or their supply craft from other missions.”

“Forget about the routine worries of those who try to say it’s either the EU or NATO: It’s a false debate,” she said.

Von der Leyen agreed that building up Europe’s military autonomy was compatible with shoring up the NATO alliance, adding that the goal was “to stay trans-Atlantic”.

“It is about a Europe that can also add more weight militarily so that it can be more autonomous and carry more responsibility — also within NATO,” she said.

France in particular has announced plans to bolster its defence spending, earmarking nearly 300 billion euros ($370 billion) of investments by 2025.

That would take the defence budget to the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP — a target that few alliance members currently meet — compared with about 1.8 percent.

Stoltenberg gave a cautious welcome Friday to the EU’s stepped-up defence measures, “as long as they are done in a way which do not compete (with) but complement the efforts of NATO, that will strengthen NATO.”

“The EU cannot protect Europe by itself,” he said.

Speaking to reporters earlier on the sidelines of the conference, Stoltenberg cited a “more assertive Russia” in particular as a common challenge for NATO and the EU.

“We are responding in a proportionate, measured way to prevent a new arms race, a new Cold War,” Stoltenberg said, adding that he would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is also attending the conference.

“Dialogue is always important especially when tensions are high, as they are now,” he said.

Fast Europe Open: UK retail sales, Czech Republic GDP

February 16, 2018

View From Hong kong

Financial Times (FT)

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Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong — 0800 GMT, February 16, 2018

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Beware the pollutants in your bathroom cabinet.

Volatile chemicals from everyday consumer items such as cleaning products, aerosols and even perfumes now rival vehicle emissions as a cause of air pollution.

A research team led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reached the surprising conclusion after assessing the source of chemicals that reacted in the air to form fine particles and other lung-damaging pollutants in the US city of Los Angeles.

“As transportation gets cleaner, those other sources become more and more important,” said Brian McDonald, the project leader. “The stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution.”

In markets, Japanese stocks rallied as the rebound in global equities showed little sign of slowing following the sharp sell off last week. The Topix was 1.2 per cent higher although Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 dipped 0.1 per cent. Markets in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam were closed for the lunar new year.

Meanwhile, the dollar resumed its downward trajectory with the dollar index, a measure of the greenback against a basket of peers, falling 0.3 per cent to 88.305, a three-year low. The yen strengthened further to ¥105.75, a 15-month high.

Futures tip the FTSE 100 to open 0.5 per cent higher, while the S&P 500 is set to open up 0.2 per cent.

Corporate earnings and updates for Friday include Air France, EDF, Danone, Renault and Allianz. The economic calendar believes three is the magic number (all times London):

08.00: Czech Republic Q4 gross domestic product
08.20: European Central Bank’s Benoit Coeure speaks in Macedonia
09.30: UK retail sales

https://www.ft.com/content/ef966116-12d8-11e8-8cb6-b9ccc4c4dbbb

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Czech Republic

The economy had a strong showing in 2017: Growth picked up pace in three consecutive quarters, and indicators suggest the momentum carried over into the final quarter. Industrial production and retail trade turned in positive results again in November, albeit moderating from the prior month. Furthermore, the manufacturing PMI continued climbing throughout the quarter, clocking a multi-year high in January. However, while consumer confidence improved in January, business confidence slipped. Politically, the sailing is less smooth. President Milos Zeman, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, won a second term on 27 January; he is one of the few allies of Andrej Babiš, who has been prime minister since December. Babiš, who lost a no-confidence vote on 10 January, has been unable to garner majority backing to form a government. However, the Communist Party agreed to restart talks over possible support of a Babiš-government. The combination of Zeman and Babiš could, however, strain relations with the EU further as both men oppose further EU integration.

See more:

https://www.focus-economics.com/countries/czech-republic

French raid in Mali leaves at least 10 jihadists dead

February 15, 2018

AFP

© AFP | File photo of a French army Rafale warplane on its way to Gao, northern Mali

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2018-02-15

French air power on Wednesday killed at least 10 jihadists in northeast Mali near the border with Algeria, local and foreign military sources said.

French forces on Wednesday led at least one raid near Tinzaouatene, at the Algerian border, against the terrorists,” a local Malian military source told AFP.

Image result for Tinzaouatene, mali, map

“There were at least 10 deaths and two vehicles were destroyed.”

An ex colonel in the Malian army who had defected, who is close to the jihadists’ leader, was killed in the raid, according to an army statement.

“This was the base of the head of the network, Iyad Ag Ghaly, at Tinzaouatene, which was the main target of the operation,” a foreign security source in Mali told AFP.

The offensive was part of France’s Operation Barkhane, active in Mali as well as four other former French colonies in west Africa Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.

These countries form the so-called G5 Sahel, a French-supported group that launched a joint military force to combat jihadists last year.

The Malian source said the French force had been conducting operations in northeastern Mali for several days.

A foreign military source confirmed that “several” raids had been carried out in the region on Wednesday, killing at least 10 jihadists.

Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali in early 2012, but were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

However large tracts of the country remain lawless despite a peace accord signed with ethnic Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.

On Tuesday in neighbouring Burkina Faso meanwhile, a policeman was killed and two were injured in an attack at a village near the eastern town of Fada N’Gourma, in a region that has largely escaped Islamist unrest.

The assailants’ identity was unknown.

Northern Burkina Faso has seen frequent attacks by suspected jihadists, with two police killed late last month in the town of Baraboule.

(AFP)

Syria denies having chemical weapons after Macron threat

February 14, 2018

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DAMASCUS: The Syrian government on Wednesday denied it possessed chemical weapons and branded the use of such arms “immoral and unacceptable,” following a French warning of punitive strikes.
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As Damascus dismissed suspicions of chlorine attacks on rebel-held areas including besieged Eastern Ghouta, the first aid convoy since November entered the battered enclave near the capital.
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“Syria’s government categorically denies possessing… chemical weapons,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, quoted by state news agency SANA.
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“We consider the use of such arms as immoral and unacceptable, whatever the context.”
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On Tuesday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron warned his country would launch strikes if proof emerged that the Syrian regime had used banned chemical weapons against its civilians.
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According to Washington, at least six chlorine attacks have been reported since early January in rebel-held areas, resulting in dozens of injuries.
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Damascus last month also denied carrying out chemical attacks and its ally Moscow denounced such charges as a “propaganda campaign,” stressing the perpetrators had not been identified.
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France, like the United States, suspects the Syrian regime but says it does not yet have concrete evidence on the nature and origin of the attacks.
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Damascus has repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 deal between the United States and Russia for Syria to destroy its stockpiles.
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The United Nations was among those who blamed government forces for an April 2017 sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun that left scores dead.
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In retaliation for that alleged attack, the United States carried out cruise missile strikes on a Syrian regime air base.
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As Assad’s opponents ratcheted up pressure, there was some respite with the arrival of the first aid convoy in months in rebel Eastern Ghouta after intensive bombardments last week killed 250 civilians.
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“First UN and Syrian Red Crescent inter-agency convoy this year crossed conflict lines to Nashabieh in Eastern Ghouta to deliver food, health and nutrition supplies for 7,200 people in the besieged enclave,” the UN humanitarian affairs office said.
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Some 400,000 people live in the enclave outside Damascus where they have been under siege by the army since 2013, facing severe food and medicine shortages.
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The UN Security Council is considering a draft resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire in Syria to allow for urgent deliveries of humanitarian aid.
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Sweden and Kuwait presented the draft, which would also demands an immediate end to sieges, including on Eastern Ghouta, after regime ally Russia last week rejected as “not realistic” a similar appeal by UN aid officials.
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The United Nations has said that violence in Syria has only worsened since it first called for a truce last week, with “some of the worst fighting of the entire conflict” being witnessed.
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President Bashar Assad’s forces have bludgeoned their way ahead with the help of Russian air power in the war that has claimed more than 340,000 lives since 2011.
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Beyond pounding Eastern Ghouta, the regime is conducting an offensive in the northwestern Idlib province, the only one that had remained completely out of its grip.
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Further to the north, Turkey is also carrying out a major operation in the Afrin region against Kurdish miltia that have received backing from the US.
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