G7 or G5? Trump and Johnson add unpredictability to French summit

A view shows the beach and Le Bellevue summit venue ahead of the G7 Summit in the French coastal resort of Biarritz, France, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

By John Irish and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Brexit Britain’s overtures to U.S. President Donald Trump risk further complicating the search for common ground this weekend at a Group of Seven summit already clouded by transatlantic rifts over trade, Iran and climate change.

The summit host, President Emmanuel Macron of France, has set the bar low for Biarritz to avoid a repeat of the fiasco last year when Trump threw Canada’s G7 summit into disarray by leaving early, scotching the final communique.

Macron, an ardent europhile and staunch defender of multilateralism, will count on incremental advances in areas where a united front can be presented, with the meeting, which runs from Saturday to Monday, officially focusing on the broad theme of reducing inequality.

On hot-button issues, they will, when necessary, have to agree to disagree.

“We have to adapt formats. There will be no final communique, but coalitions, commitments and follow-ups,” Macron said. “We must assume that, on one subject or another, a member of the club might not sign up.”

The G7 groups the United States, France, Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy and Canada, and the European Union also attends. Macron has also invited the leaders of Australia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Egypt, India, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa, in order to widen the debate on inequality.

TOUGH TOPICS

But the tougher discussions lie elsewhere. The Sino-U.S. trade war has spurred fears of a global economic slump; European powers are struggling to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran; and Trump has shown little enthusiasm for France’s push for a universal tax on digital multinationals such as Google and Amazon, and turned his back on efforts in Europe and around the globe to limit carbon emissions to slow climate change.

The crisis in Kashmir and street protests in Hong Kong may also be touched on during the talks in France’s Atlantic coast surfing capital, where some 13,000 police will be drafted in to prevent any violent anti-globalization demonstrations.

“There’s no doubt that we will discuss how trade frictions could affect the global economy,” a Japanese government official said. “But it is difficult to deliver messages to the outside since a communique won’t be issued.”

Strained relations between the United States and its top allies mean that where once they were in agreement, they now seek the lowest common denominator.

“It won’t be productive to push something that someone — whether it’s America or some other country — would not agree to do,” the Japanese official added.

Moreover, Italy’s prime minister resigned on Tuesday, Canada is heading for an election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s influence on the world stage is waning ahead of her departure, and Britain is probably on the verge of either leaving the EU or a snap election.

POLITICAL NITROGLYCERINE

One unknown is where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will position himself, making his debut on the global stage at a summit that will lay bare new realities as Britain’s influence in Europe collapses and its dependency on the United States grows.

With less than three months to go before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU – with or without a divorce deal, according to Johnson – his government has sought to cozy up to Trump’s White House with a view to future trade deals.

Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the combination of two personalities “not well-known for their self-control” was “political nitroglycerine”.

He said it might be entertaining, “but if it actually gets in the way of more substantive proceedings, that would be another story”.

While Johnson will want to avoid crossing a volatile Trump and putting trade ties at risk, analysts say, he will also be wary of alienating himself from other leaders who have a more multilateral approach to world politics.

One French diplomat who declined to be named said Paris was curious to see how the Trump-Johnson dynamic played out in Biarritz:

“Even with Brexit in the background, we still have the sense that the British reflex when it comes to international crises is to turn to us and the Germans first.”

(Additional reporting by Lucien Libert in Paris and Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey)

Iran says meeting with parties to nuclear deal ‘constructive’

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi and EEAS Secretary General Helga Schmid attend a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kirsti Knolle

By Kirsti Knolle

VIENNA (Reuters) – An emergency meeting with parties to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal was constructive but there are unresolved issues and Tehran will continue to reduce its nuclear commitments if Europeans fail to salvage the pact, Iranian official Abbas Araqchi said on Sunday.

“The atmosphere was constructive. Discussions were good. I cannot say that we resolved everything, I can say there are lots of commitments,” Araqchi, the senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, told reporters after the meeting in Vienna.

Parties to the agreement – Britain, Germany and France plus Russia and China – met Iranian officials for talks called in response to an escalation in tensions between Iran and the West that included confrontations at sea and Tehran’s breaches of the nuclear accord.

“As we have said, we will continue to reduce our commitments to the deal until Europeans secure Iran’s interests under the deal,” Araqchi said.

The parties have been trying to salvage the pact since the United States withdrew from it in May 2018 and re-imposed and toughened sanctions on Iran, crippling an already weak economy.

The Europeans say further breaches of the agreement by Iran would escalate confrontation at a time when Tehran and Washington are at risk of a miscalculation that could lead to war.

However, their efforts to protect trade with Iran against the U.S. sanctions have yielded nothing concrete so far. Earlier this month, Tehran followed through on its threat to increase its nuclear activities in breach of the agreement.

Iran has said it will withdraw from the pact unless the Europeans find ways to shield its economy from the U.S. sanctions.

“All our steps taken so far are reversible if other parties to the deal fulfill their commitments,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters ahead of the meeting.

In response to the sanctions, Iran said in May it would decrease its commitments under the nuclear pact. Under the deal, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016, in exchange for limitations on its nuclear work.

So far, Iran has breached the limit of its enriched uranium stockpile as well as enriching uranium beyond a 3.67% purity limit set by its deal with major powers, defying a warning by Europeans to stick to the deal despite U.S. sanctions.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, policing the deal, has confirmed the measures announced by Tehran.

SANCTIONS

Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who leads the Chinese delegation, said: “All sides have expressed their commitment to safeguard the JCPOA (nuclear deal) and to continue to implement the JCPOA in a balanced manner.

“All sides have expressed their strong opposition against the U.S. unilateral imposition of sanctions.”

The meeting came after Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards seized a British-flagged oil tanker on July 19, two weeks after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar which it said was violating sanctions on Syria.

Araqchi said Britain’s seizure of the Iranian tanker was a violation of the nuclear pact.

“The countries who are part of (the nuclear deal) shouldn’t create obstacles for the export of Iranian oil,” Araqchi said.

Britain has called for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital international oil shipping route. An Iranian government spokesman said on Sunday such a mission would send a “hostile message”.

Britain said on Sunday Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan had arrived in the Gulf to join a British frigate escorting British-flagged ships through the Strait.

The seizure of the British tanker in the world’s most important waterway for the oil trade has deepened a crisis between Iran and the West. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Britain’s seizure of the Iranian oil tanker was illegal and would be detrimental for Britain.

After meeting Iranian officials in Tehran, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said all parties should maintain contact to avoid more incidents in the Strait.

Iran has threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the waterway if the United States tries to strangle its economy with sanctions on its vital oil exports.

Several oil tankers were attacked in waters near Iran’s southern coast in May and June, for which the United States blamed Iran. Tehran denied any involvement.

Iran in June shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone in the Gulf, which Tehran said had violated its air space. Washington said the drone was in international skies.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Lisa Barrington in Dubai and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Writing by Parisa Hafezi,; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Trump says U.S. may send 2,000 troops from Germany to Poland

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Poland's President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he is considering sending 2,000 U.S. troops from Germany to Poland, a step sought by Warsaw to deter potential aggression from Russia.

“We’re talking about it,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he met with visiting Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The United States already has troops in Poland as part of a 2016 agreement with the NATO military alliance in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Poland’s eastern neighbor Ukraine in 2014.

Trump said the United States has upwards of 50,000 troops in Germany and said 2,000 of them could be sent to Poland. He said Poland is going to be spending a lot of money on a military facility for the troops.

He also said he hopes Russia “will treat Poland with respect.”

“They get hurt unfortunately too often,” Trump said of the Poles. “They’re in the middle of everything. When bad things happen it seems like Poland is the first one…I hope that Russia and Poland and Germany are going to get along,” said Trump, who has often been criticized by Democrats for being too close to Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. president said he thought he would travel to Poland at some point, but no dates were set yet. Duda has said he would unveil a deal this week to bolster the U.S. security presence in Poland.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Trump, Macron honor D-Day veterans who fought through “fires of hell”

U.S. and French flags are seen in the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France, June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Marine Pennetier and Steve Holland

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France (Reuters) – France will never forget the sacrifice of the Allied troops who liberated it from Nazi Germany, President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day operation that helped bring World War Two to an end.

U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May joined Macron at separate ceremonies along a 80km (50 mile) stretch of Normandy coastline, where more than 150,000 soldiers landed on June 6, 1944, under a hail of German fire.

“We know what we owe to you, our veterans: our freedom. On behalf of my country, I want to say ‘thank you’,” Macron told several dozen American D-Day combatants at a U.S. war cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, one of five landing spots in Normandy.

“France will never forget.”

People take pictures in the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy ahead of the commemoration ceremony for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

People take pictures in the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy ahead of the commemoration ceremony for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Macron awarded the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest award for merit, to five U.S. veterans and embraced each man warmly.

The Normandy landings were months in the planning and were kept secret from Hitler and his forces despite a huge trans-Atlantic mobilization of industry and manpower.

Under the cover of darkness, thousands of Allied paratroopers jumped behind Germany’s coastal defenses. Then, as day broke, warships pounded German positions before hundreds of landing craft disgorged the infantry troops under a barrage of machine-gun fire and artillery.

Some veterans say the sea and sand turned red with blood during the operation. Dozens of U.S. Rangers were felled by German machine-guns as they scaled the cliffs rising up from Omaha Beach to Colleville-sur-Mer, where the U.S. cemetery lies.

“You are among the very greatest Americans who will ever live,” Trump said in his address, turning to the surviving veterans. “You are the pride of our nation, you are the glory of our republic and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

“These men moved through the fires of hell,” he said. “They came here and saved freedom, and then they went home and showed us all what freedom is about.”

People applauded as one of the veterans, 94-year-old Private Russell Pickett, rose shakily to his feet. “Tough guy,” Trump said, before Macron helped lower Pickett back into his seat.

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S President Donald Trump stand during a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S President Donald Trump stand during a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

“SPECIAL GENERATION”

The Normandy landings remain the largest ever amphibious invasion and paved the way for western Europe’s liberation.

Inaugurating a memorial to the 22,000 soldiers under British command who were killed on June 6, 1944, and in the ensuing battle for Normandy, British Prime Minister Theresa May saluted the bravery of the soldiers, many of whom were still boys when they waded ashore as shells screamed overhead.

“It’s almost impossible to grasp the raw courage it must have taken that day to leap from landing craft and into the surf despite the fury of battle,” May told a small gathering that included Macron and veterans, their uniforms laden with medals.

“These young men belonged to a very special generation … whose incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world,” she said.

The devastation wrought by two world wars in the first half of the 20th century fostered a decades-long era of cooperation between European capitals determined to protect their hard-fought peace, giving rise to what is now the European Union.

But even as Britain now tries to sever its ties with the bloc after four decades of membership, Macron told May some links between France and Britain were indestructible.

“Nothing will ever take away the links of spilled blood and shared values. The debates of the present in no way take away from the past.”

SACRIFICED LIVES

An hour after sunrise, under clear blue skies, a lone piper on the remnants of an artificial harbor played Highland Laddie to mark the hour the first British soldier set foot on French sand. The Mulberry Harbor was built to supply allied troops as they pushed the Germans back.

Restored wartime jeeps and amphibious vehicles lined the beach at Arromanches and in villages along the Normandy shore the flags of Britain, Canada and the United States, the main contributors to the Allied force, fluttered in the breeze.

The commemorations come against the backdrop of two years of forthright diplomacy and “America First” policymaking by Trump and his administration that have shaken the NATO alliance and tested relations with allies including Britain and France.

On the eve of the anniversary, France’s president evoked the spirit of D-Day, saying: “These allied forces that together freed us from the German yoke, and from tyranny, are the same ones that were able to build the existing multilateral structures after World War Two.

“We must not repeat history, and remind ourselves what was built on the basis of the war,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Caen and Paris bureau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry, Raissa Kasolowsky and Andrew Heavens)

Germany buries remains of Nazi-era prisoners used for research

A woman holds flowers during the burial of the remains of victims executed during the Nazi-era in Germany and used for research at Berlin's Charite university hospital during the Holocaust at Dorotheenstaedt cemetery in Berlin, Germany, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) – Human tissue from some 300 women dissidents whose bodies were used for medical research after they were executed by the Nazis was buried on Monday in a shared grave at a Berlin cemetery.

The grave will be marked by a plaque but will not name the identified victims at the request of their families.

Microscope slides holding tissue samples from the victims were handed over to the Brandenburg Medical School in 2016 by the heirs of an anatomy professor who had conducted research on the bodies of prisoners killed by the Nazis.

Hermann Stieve, who specialized in the female reproductive system while working at the Charite hospital in the 1930s and 40s, received the bodies of women executed at Ploetzensee prison in Berlin, sometimes just 30 minutes after their death. He used the bodies to research the effects of stress on women’s anatomy, historians say.

A man throws ashes during the burial of the remains of victims executed during the Nazi-era in Germany and used for research at Berlin's Charite university hospital during the Holocaust at Dorotheenstaedt cemetery in Berlin, Germany, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

A man throws ashes during the burial of the remains of victims executed during the Nazi-era in Germany and used for research at Berlin’s Charite university hospital during the Holocaust at Dorotheenstaedt cemetery in Berlin, Germany, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

At the burial ceremony on Monday, a pallbearer carried a wooden box containing the remains of the victims to a shared, unnamed grave at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery.

The box was buried near a memorial at the cemetery for other victims of the Nazi dictatorship.

“The decision was taken together with the relatives of the resistance fighters and I think it is important to bury them simply because at the time these people were denied a grave,” said Andreas Winkelmann of the Brandenburg Medical School.

“And that’s what Stieve took part in. He helped the murderous justice system to deny these people a grave … We decided to bury them even though you don’t usually bury microscopic slides,” he added.

More than 2,800 prisoners were executed at Ploetzensee prison between 1933 and 1945.

Stieve died of a stroke in 1952.

(Reporting by Tanya Wood; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

In a first, Trump makes surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Steve Holland

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – President Donald Trump made a surprise Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday, his first trip to a conflict zone nearly two years into his presidency and days after announcing a pullout of American troops from Syria.

Air Force One touched down at the Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad after an overnight flight from Washington with first lady Melania Trump, a small group of aides and Secret Service agents, and a pool of reporters. He was expected to stay for around three hours.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Trump has drawn fire from some in the U.S. military for not having visited U.S. troops in conflict zones since taking office in January 2017, particularly after he canceled a trip to a World War One cemetery in France last month due to rain.

While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since Islamic State suffered a series of defeats last year, U.S. troops train and advise Iraqi forces still waging a campaign against the militant group.

On his way home from Iraq, he will also stop to visit troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Trump was looking for some positive headlines after days of turmoil over his decisions to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, pull out half of the 14,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan, and push out Defense Secretary James Mattis two months earlier than planned for criticizing his policies.

Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have heaped scorn on Trump for his sudden order last week to withdraw from Syria.

On his stop in Iraq, he defended his decision to pull out the 2,000 troops from Syria, which he has said was made possible by the defeat of Islamic State militants.

His critics have said that fight is far from over and the withdrawal leaves allies in the lurch.

One of those critics was Mattis, who said in a candid resignation letter last week that his views did not align with the president’s, particularly in regard to the treatment of U.S. allies. Mattis had planned to leave at the end of February but Trump forced him to go on Jan. 1 after his resignation letter.

Trump has also faced negative headlines for wanting to pull troops from Afghanistan where they have been since 2001. Trump has questioned how long troops there should have to remain in what has become America’s longest war.

Trump’s unannounced visit to Iraq followed in the footsteps of two of his predecessors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama, who both made surprise trips to see troops.

The U.S. military says it has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, focused on training and advising Iraqi troops to ensure that Islamic State does not re-emerge.

NATO defense ministers agreed in February to a bigger “train-and-advise” mission in Iraq after a U.S. call for the alliance to help stabilize the country after three years of war against Islamic State.

Trump has had an uneven relationship with America’s military. He did not have to serve during the Vietnam War after being diagnosed with bone spurs in his heels.

As president-elect, Trump was drawn to the brawn of the armed forces and stacked his first Cabinet with generals, many of whom have since left his administration.

Trump has also wanted to end protracted U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts, and to force allies to pay more for the costs that he says fall disproportionately on American taxpayers.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

Police hunt through eastern France for Strasbourg Christmas market attacker

French soldiers patrol past the traditional Christmas market in Nice, France, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Vincent Kessler and John Irish

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Police searched through eastern France on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing at least two people in a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg and who was known to have been religiously radicalized while in jail.

Witnesses told investigators the assailant cried out “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) as he launched his attack on the market, the Paris prosecutor said.

The prosecutor, Remy Heitz, also suggested the suspect may have chosen his target for its religious symbolism.

“Considering the target, his way of operating, his profile and the testimonies of those who heard him yell ‘Allahu Akbar’, the anti-terrorist police has been called into action,” Heitz told a news conference.

Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who is on an intelligence services watch list as a potential security risk.

An investigation had been opened into alleged murder with terrorist intent and suspected ties to terrorist networks with intent to commit crimes, Heitz said.

Two people were killed and a third person was brain-dead and being kept alive on life support, he said. Six other victims were fighting for their lives.

France raised its security threat to the highest alert level, strengthening controls on its border with Germany as elite commandos backed by helicopters hunted for the suspect.

French and German agents checked vehicles and public transport crossing the Rhine river, along which the Franco-German frontier runs, backing up traffic in both directions. Hundreds of French troops and police were taking part in the manhunt.

Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said he could not rule out that the fugitive had already crossed the frontier.

SERIAL CONVICT

The gunman struck at about 1900 GMT on Tuesday, just as the picturesque Christmas market in the historic city was shutting down.

He engaged in two gunfights with security forces as he evaded a police dragnet and bragged about his acts to the driver of a taxi that he commandeered, prosecutor Heitz said.

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.

French and German security officials painted a portrait of Chekatt as a serial law-breaker who had racked up more than two dozen convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland and served time in prison.

“It was during these spells in jail that we detected a radicalization in his religious practices. But we there were never signs he was preparing an attack,” Minister Nunez said.

One German security source said the suspect was jailed in southern Germany from August 2016 to February 2017 for aggravated theft but was released before the end of his 27-month sentence so that he could be deported to France.

“He was banned from re-entering Germany at the same time”, the security source in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said. “We don’t have any knowledge of any kind of radicalization.”

BORDER CONTROLS

The attack took place at a testing time for President Emmanuel Macron, who is struggling to quell a month-long public revolt over high living costs that has spurred the worst public unrest in central Paris since the 1968 student riots.

The revelation that Chekatt was on a security watchlist will raise questions over possible intelligence failures, though some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the “S File” list.

Of these, about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalized, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist Muslim mosques, in jail or abroad.

Police had raided the suspect’s home early on Tuesday in connection with a homicide investigation. Five people were detained and under interrogation as part of that investigation.

At the Europa Bridge, the main border crossing in the region used by commuters traveling in both directions, armed police inspected vehicles. Police were also checking pedestrians and trains arriving in Germany from Strasbourg.

“We don’t know where the attacker is and we want to prevent him from entering Germany,” a spokeswoman for the German border police Bundespolizei said.

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said there was no need for the government to declare a state of emergency.

Secular France has for years grappled with how to respond to both homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond.

In 2016, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people. In November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives.

There have also been attacks in Paris on police on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the offices of satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.

A man drove a trunk into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, killing 12 people.

(Reporting by Vincent Kessler, Geert De Clercq, Sophie Louet, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Emmanuel Jarry and Richard Lough in Paris, Vincent Kessler and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Freed Pakistani Christian needs German passport to leave: lawyer

FILE PHOTO: Saiful Mulook, lawyer for Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, at a news conference in The Hague, the Netherlands, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier/File Photo

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The lawyer for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian acquitted of capital blasphemy charges, appealed on Tuesday to Germany to give her whole family citizenship to start a new life in Europe.

Saiful Mulook told a news conference in Frankfurt that Bibi was now free but she and her family needed a passport to leave the country.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

The Supreme Court acquitted her last month.

“The whole world is asking why she’s not coming,” Mulook told reporters. “The answer is first that to leave a country you need a visa or you require a passport of another country.”

“If the German chancellor directs her ambassador to give a passport to her, her husband and her two daughters conferring German nationality, nobody can stop her for one second because she is no longer Pakistani,” he added.

“So far, no government has come forward in such an open and free manner,” he said.

It was unclear why citizenship, rather than a visa, was necessary for her to leave Pakistan, though Mulook said pressure from religious extremists was making it harder for Islamabad to arrange her departure.

She and her family are staying at a safe house in Pakistan, despite offers of asylum from countries including Canada.

Mulook said the status of a friend of Bibi’s husband, who has a wife and five daughters, whom he would like to join them, was a sticking point. Another wife of Bibi’s husband and her three daughters were not seeking to leave Pakistan with Bibi, he added.

German officials have said that they and a number of other countries are in talks with Bibi’s family and the Pakistani government to find a way of rehousing her.

Mulook, who has himself sought refuge in the Netherlands after being threatened for taking on Bibi’s case, said Bibi had no preference as to which country she would travel to for asylum.

The German government had no immediate comment on the request for a passport.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Jordan says nearly 300 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ leave for West

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', are seen inspecting the damage at a Roman ruin site in Daraa, Syria December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – Nearly 300 Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families who fled Syria for Jordan three months ago have left for resettlement in Western countries under an U.N. sponsored agreement, Jordan said on Wednesday.

In July the rescue workers who had been operating in rebel-held areas fled advancing Russian-backed Syrian government troops and slipped over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he had helped the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders and that there had been fears that the rescue workers’ lives were at risk.

Jordan had accepted them on humanitarian grounds after getting written guarantees they would be given asylum in Canada, Germany and Britain, Jordanian officials said.

The “White Helmets”, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces in the country’s civil war.

Its members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said 279 of the 422 people who took sanctuary in the kingdom had left, with 93 others due to leave by Oct. 25, near the end of a three-month period the authorities had given them to stay.

Another group’s departure would be delayed for two weeks until mid-November as there were new-born babies and people receiving medical treatment among them, al-Qatarneh told Reuters.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)