Erdogan says world cares more about Syria’s oil than its children

Erdogan says world cares more about Syria’s oil than its children
By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged world powers on Tuesday to help it resettle 1 million Syrian refugees very soon, accusing governments of moving more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children.

Erdogan, whose country hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population worldwide, said more than 600,000 should voluntarily join around 371,000 already in a “peace zone” in northern Syria from which Turkey drove Kurdish militia.

“I think the resettlement can easily reach 1 million in a very short period of time,” Erdogan told the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva.

The plan met with scepticism from Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who said that while Turkey was far ahead in terms of hosting refugees, resettling Arab refugees in areas previously populated by Kurds was wrong.

“I hope this will not happen, really. It shouldn’t happen,” Egeland told Reuters.

Turkey has said it expected the Syrian Kurdish refugees it hosts, who number around 300,000, to be the first to return to the area between the border towns of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad.

Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said returns must be voluntary, refugees should be given support and property and other legal issues must be addressed.

“We are also urging the Syrian authorities to allow us a presence in the areas where people return because this could be a confidence-building measure,” Grandi told a news conference.

HIGH COST

Erdogan said Turkey had spent more than $40 billion hosting the refugees and criticized the European Union, which had pledged nearly 6 billion euros ($6.61 billion), for failing to deliver around half of that sum.

The European Commission has said it is committed to delivering the aid.

Two months ago, Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies launched a third cross-border offensive into northern Syria against the YPG, which had spearheaded the fight against Islamic State.

After seizing a 120-km (75 mile) strip of land from Ras al Ain to Tel Abyad in northeastern Syria, Ankara signed deals with Washington and Moscow to halt its assault.

Erdogan, taking a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, which moved quickly to guard Syrian oil fields after the retreat of Islamic State, said: “Unfortunately the efforts that were spared to protect the oil fields were not mobilized for the safety and security of the children in Syria.”

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil and has said the U.S.-led NATO alliance should be supporting its fellow member Turkey instead.

Turkey had said it could settle 2 million Syrian refugees in a planned “safe zone” stretching 444 km (275 miles) in northern Syria and has repeatedly urged NATO allies to help fund the plans. Last week, Erdogan said Turkey may settle 1 million refugees between Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad alone.

On Tuesday, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey could build housing and schools in the zone as it has in other parts of northern Syria after driving out the YPG.

Around 150 Kurds demonstrated outside the U.N. European headquarters during his speech. Ramazan Baytar, head of the Kurdish Democratic Society Center in Switzerland, said Erdogan was using the refugee issue to enact demographic change. Turkey has blamed changing regional demographics on the YPG.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey and by Cecile Mantovani in Geneva; writing by Stephanie Nebehay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis
By Ellen Francis and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s highest Christian authority called on Wednesday for a change in government to include qualified technocrats and urged the president to begin talks to address demands of demonstrators in the streets for a seventh day.

Throwing his weight behind demands for at least some change in government, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai was the first major religious figure to wade into the crisis.

With a population of 6 million people including around 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has been swept by unprecedented protests against a political elite blamed for a deep economic crisis.

Flag-waving protesters kept roads blocked around the country with vehicles and makeshift barricades on Wednesday, while banks and schools remained shut.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday, to try to defuse the anger of protesters demanding his government resigns and also to steer the heavily indebted state away from a looming financial crisis.

Rai said the measures were welcome but also required replacing current ministers with technocrats.

He did not demand Hariri’s resignation.

Hariri’s government, which took office at the start of the year, groups nearly all of the main parties in the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system.

“The list of reforms is a positive first step but it requires amending the ministers and renewing the administrative team with national, qualified figures,” Rai said in a televised speech.

“We call on the president of the republic … to immediately begin consultations with the political leadership and the heads of the sects to take the necessary decisions regarding the people’s demands,” Rai said.

The president is drawn from his Christian Maronite community.

Political sources said a reshuffle was being discussed. One told Reuters the idea of a change in government was “starting to mature”. “But it is not there yet. Not everyone is at the same state of emergency,” the source said.

“The street is imposing its rhythm on the political class, the political class has to be dynamic with it. It is a standoff – who will concede first?” the source said.

GLOBAL UNREST

Lebanon’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of political protests around the world – from Hong Kong and Barcelona to Quito and Santiago – each having its own trigger but sharing some underlying frustrations.

Lebanese army troops scuffled with demonstrators on Wednesday as they struggled to unblock main roads.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, said Lebanon could not remain in such chaos and said he feared any power vacuum.

“Everything the political class is doing now is clearly to buy time … the reform list is a lie. Today the demand is for the government to fall,” said Manal Ghanem, a protester at a barricade in Beirut.

“We want to get an interim government that holds early elections … We need to stay strong, to stay in the streets,” said Ghanem, a university graduate who works in a coffee shop.

Lebanon’s economy, whose mainstays include construction and tourism, has suffered years of low growth linked to regional turmoil. Capital inflows from abroad, critical to financing the state deficit, have ebbed.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of public debt compared to the size of its economy at around 150%.

The powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and heavily armed, said on Saturday it was against the government resigning and the country did not have enough time for such a move given the acute financial crisis.

The moves announced by Hariri on Monday included the halving of salaries of ministers and lawmakers, as well as steps toward implementing long-delayed measures vital to fixing state finances.

Under pressure to convince foreign donors he can slash next year’s budget deficit, Hariri has said the central bank and commercial banks would contribute 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion) to help plug the gap, including through an increase in taxes on bank profits.

Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on Wednesday following his return from Washington, where the governor attended International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings. He also met a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Eric Knecht, Tom Perry and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

Stay or go? Syrian refugees face a life-changing choice

A Syrian refugee girl stands near luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – As the bus pulled out of a Beirut car park heading for Damascus, Ahmed Sheikh waved from the window, excited, he said, to be returning home to Syria after years as a refugee in Lebanon.

Sheikh and his two sons are part of a steady trickle of refugees going back as the Syrian government tightens its grip on areas it controls and the prospect of new fighting recedes.

But not everyone wants to go home just yet. While Beirut says 90,000 Syrians have returned this year, more than a million remain in Lebanon, including many who fear reprisals or army conscription, or whose homes were destroyed in the war.

In a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Abu Ibrahim recalled how government shellfire had obliterated his hometown, saying it was too dangerous to return to Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains president.

Whether the millions of refugees outside Syria, like Sheikh and Abu Ibrahim, will return to areas where fighting has ended is becoming a pressing issue in the country and abroad.

Assad now controls most of Syria and the front lines appear stable for now between government territory and two big enclaves in the north and east still outside Damascus’ control.

The refugees’ fate is important to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which have each buckled under the strain of hosting so many, but also to Europe, where the refugee crisis has caused political ructions. It will play a critical role in shaping Syria’s own gradual economic recovery too.

About half Syria’s pre-war population fled after war broke out in 2011, 6.3 million of them as refugees abroad and 6 million displaced in their own country. Many were forced to flee numerous times.

About a million remain in Lebanon, 3.6 million in Turkey and nearly 700,000 in Jordan, the UNHCR said. One million Syrian children have been born in exile as refugees since the crisis began.

The agency said on Tuesday that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees were expected to go home next year, while around 37,000 returned in 2018, a figure its officials say may not be complete.

GOING HOME

For Sheikh, 46, the decision to return came after a legal problem in Lebanon. His residency permit had expired and he faced a large fine. Police told him he would not have to pay if he agreed to return to Syria.

Still, with the war calmer, he was happy to be going. “There is security here, but living conditions are hard. There is not much work and everything is very expensive,” he said.

He had fled Aleppo with his family in late 2012 after rebels there threatened him, accusing him of links with the government.

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In Syria, he owned a bakery and later worked in Lebanon as a baker after making the long, circuitous journey through war-ravaged Syria with his wife and five children.

But he will not go back to his old Aleppo district, ruined in the fighting. He and his sons will stay with his sister in Manbij, which is controlled by local U.S.-backed forces.

His wife and three daughters will not return to Syria yet. The young women have married and had children while in Lebanon.

Returning is complicated. Syrian security checks on those who seek to come back can take weeks. Not all are approved. Important documents may have been lost. Young children may have no passport at all.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments have organized numerous returns for groups of refugees who register to go back. Sheikh’s return was one of these.

As he got on his bus, another family group hugged and cried – some staying, some going. A father looked through the window at his wife and disconsolate child who were returning to Syria while he stayed on to work in Lebanon.

STAYING ON

Abu Ibrahim, by contrast, swears he will not take his wife and three children back. He is haunted by the carnage of an early battle that destroyed Baba Amr, their neighborhood of Homs, which they fled by night as bullets sang overhead.

He had a workshop there, repairing televisions. His parents lived nearby, as did his 11 siblings with their families. People in Baba Amr were close-knit. “Everyone used to know each other,” he said.

When protesters marched in 2011, he joined them, though he did not take up arms, and by early 2012, protests had given way to war.

In a fierce assault on Baba Amr, the army shelled his street, which faced the front line. His building took a direct hit, wounding him and his son. A nephew disappeared, presumed among the hundreds killed.

When the bombardment abated, they left by night, braving sniper fire to cross the fields. “The children couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.

In a new neighborhood, as the army advanced again, he witnessed summary shootings. The family kept on moving, before paying money to cross into Lebanon.

Abu Ibrahim’s old house and his neighborhood are now rubble – a military zone controlled by army checkpoints. His siblings scattered during the fighting. None stayed in Syria.

In Lebanon, he still fixes electrical goods, going house to house on a motorbike with his toolkit. He makes little money and sees no future there.

But he is alarmed by rumors among the refugees in Lebanon that some who have returned were abused or killed, which Damascus denies. In Syria, his oldest boy, now 16, would soon face conscription. His two-year-old daughter lacks a proper birth certificate or passport.

“I will never go back unless the regime is changed, and especially Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

He wants to go to the West, a journey few manage. Of the million Syrians in Lebanon, only a small number have gained permission to relocate there as refugees.

Others attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Cyprus. In September a boat sank, drowning a child whose family could not face a return to their homeland.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Several hundred Syrian refugees in Lebanon return to Syria

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Tom Perry

ARSAL, Lebanon (Reuters) – Nearly 400 refugees began leaving the Lebanese border town of Arsal to cross into Syria on Thursday, a rare case of returns which Lebanon’s government wants to encourage.

The convoy made up a very small fraction of the one million registered Syrian war refugees across Lebanon – about a quarter of its population – and of the 50,000 which local officials estimate live in Arsal.

People gathered in minivans and tractors in the morning, loading them with mattresses, water tanks and furniture. Lebanese security personnel recorded the names of Syrians as they passed through a checkpoint on the way out of Arsal.

The refugees were headed for Qalamoun across the border, a region cleared of insurgents by Syrian army offensives in which Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement played a leading role.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Those leaving said they had submitted their names to Lebanese authorities, who in turn sent the names to Syria for approval from the state.

Syrian state TV said hundreds of people arrived past a border crossing in the Damascus countryside.

Many said they were happy to be returning to Syria, and while some said their houses were fit to live in, others had heard their homes were destroyed.

“We have been planning to go back for a long time; we are glad things have calmed down,” said Ali Abdullah, 34, leaving with his wife and two young sons. One of the boys was born in Lebanon and had never been to Syria.

“I want to take him back because that is your country, your (home is) not a tent,” Abdullah told his son. He spoke from the same truck he said he drove across the border in four years ago.

Abdullah told Reuters he had heard from relatives in Syria that his house there was fine.

But Murshid Darwish, 55, said she had decided to stay in her tent in Arsal instead of leaving for Syria with her cousin.

“The house needs work, there are no windows, no doors…We cannot live there,” she said. “I cannot carry rocks…Once my room is fixed, I will go back.”

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was not involved in organizing the returns, and its team in Syria had so far not been able to access the villages where people were headed.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

“FIRST PHASE”

About 140 people received polio vaccines, and the Lebanese Red Cross diagnosed 43 people who received medication for acute cases, it said.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, has said Beirut is working with the Syrian state for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go home.

Ibrahim told Reuters Thursday’s return marked the “first phase out of thousands…We have not received any guarantee that they will not serve in the Syrian army. We have nothing to do with this.”

As Syrian troops and allied forces retake more territory, Lebanese officials have stepped up calls for refugees to go back to parts of Syria where violence has died down.

U.N. officials and foreign donor states have said it is not yet safe for refugees to go back to Syria, where a political deal to end the multi-sided war remains elusive.

The seven-year conflict has driven 11 million Syrians from their homes. More than 1 million have fled to Lebanon, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says. The Lebanese government puts the number at 1.5 million, a quarter of the population.

They are scattered across Lebanon, often in makeshift camps and severe poverty, facing the risk of arrest because of restrictions on legal residence and work.

Lebanese Foreign minister Gebran Bassil visited Arsal this month to press for more returns. He froze residency visa applications for UNHCR staff, accusing the agency of preventing Syrian refugees from going back.

UNHCR denies this, saying it supports return when it is safe, and major international donors have voiced dismay at what they called “false accusations”.

“We are working in various ways for the gradual removal of the obstacles that refugees see to their return, including through advocating with the concerned authorities inside Syria,” UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told Reuters by email on Thursday.

“We fully respect individual decisions to return when a refugee decides that the time is ripe for him or her.”

(Reporting by Tom Perry with additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Assad’s property law hits hope of return for Syrian refugees in Germany

People wait at the Syrian embassy in Berlin, Germany, June 7, 2018. Picture taken June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) – Husam Idris dreams of returning to his bakery in the Syrian city of Aleppo. But three years after escaping the war, he worries that a new law allowing the Syrian government to seize homes for redevelopment will scupper his plans.

“I grew up in the bakery. I can’t imagine losing it,” said Idris, a 37-year-old father of three who now lives in Germany.

While Syria’s Law 10, or Decree 10, has yet to be applied, rights groups and governments hosting Syrian refugees say they risk becoming permanent exiles if they lose their properties because it would remove a major incentive to return one day.

Idris is at the Syrian embassy in Berlin trying to arrange power of attorney for his mother back home so she can stake a claim to his bakery and apartment in the Kallaseh neighborhood of Aleppo, recaptured from rebels two years ago.

He is not alone. The new law has prompted a rush of visitors to the embassy.

One worker at the mission, who declined to give his name, said that since the law came into effect in April, 10 to 15 Syrians had come each day to request power of attorney for relatives at home, up from a handful beforehand.

According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, 6 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and there are nearly 5.5 million refugees outside Syria.

Germany hosts some 650,000 Syrians, the most of any Western country, and it is particularly worried about the law.

Berlin’s fear is that President Bashar al-Assad could use Law 10 to bulldozer former opposition bastions seized by the government and replace them with new property developments populated by government supporters.

“Decree 10 is designed to expropriate refugees,” a senior German government official said.

“It is pretty clear that Assad’s goal is to replace the old population with a new one,” said the official, who was briefed on talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue.

The Syrian government has dismissed concerns about the law as a “disinformation campaign”. It says it needs to rebuild areas destroyed in the war and regulate illegal settlements.

“This law comes within the framework of the Reconstruction Program, and has an organizational character aimed at regulating slum areas in Syria, especially in light of the destruction of many of the areas that were controlled by terrorists,” Syria’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva said last month.

SECURITY COUNCIL

What started out as protests against Assad in 2011 turned into a civil war that has often pitted the country’s Sunni majority against Assad’s minority Alawites and Shi’ite allies. Russia intervened militarily in 2015 to help swing the conflict in favor of Assad.

Within the region, Turkey is home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees and there are nearly 1 million living in Lebanon, which has also expressed concern Law 10 could discourage the mainly Sunni refugees there from returning.

Law 10 originally gave proprietors 30 days to prove ownership or lose their rights. The Syrian government extended the period to one year earlier this month to allay fears refugees and the displaced could lose their homes.

Besides Russia, Germany has raised concerns about the Syrian legislation with its European Union partners and has managed to get the issue onto the U.N. Security Council’s agenda.

“The fact that the U.N. Security Council has taken note of the decree is a good starting point,” said a second German official. “But clearly effective pressure on Assad not to implement the decree has to come from Russia.”

While Law 10 says relatives in Syria can stake claims, Syrian lawyers say in practice power of attorney still needs to be given to an individual so the authorities know which relative is the chosen legal agent. Lawyers and rights groups also say anyone making a property claim needs to have security clearance.

They say this could lead to Syrians who fled former opposition strongholds being disenfranchised.

“The regime has a history of arbitrary expropriations to serve its economic and security interests and unfair land expropriations was one of the triggers of the rebellion,” Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said.

“Who is going to dare claim property in an opposition area that the regime turned into rubble because it views its inhabitants as Sunni terrorists? Even if they dared, they will not get clearance if the regime wants the land,” he said.

 

LAW 66

Human rights groups, Syrian lawyers and refugees said a previous law pitched by the government as necessary for redevelopment had been applied in opposition areas to force out inhabitants perceived as dissenters.

They said Law 66, approved by Assad in 2012 to redevelop slums in Damascus, was applied in neighborhoods southwest of the capital where anti-Assad protests erupted at the start of the rebellion in 2011, including in Basateen al-Razi.

Local authorities used land there expropriated under Law 66 for a luxury residential project of 12,000 housing units which Assad inaugurated in 2016. Now, some Syrian refugees fear Law 10 will be used in a similar way nationwide.

“The problem is not in the law itself. The problem is how and where it’s going to be implemented,” said Sinan Hatahet, a Syria expert at Al Sharq Forum think-tank.

“If you lived in a bombed-out opposition area you’re most likely not going to get security clearance so your right to ownership is automatically gone,” he said.

France said the law was a serious obstacle to a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict as it allowed refugees’ property to be plundered.

“This is a new stage in the brutal strategy of crowding out entire sections of the Syrian population that the Damascus regime has been implementing for several years,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Von der Muhll said in response to Reuters’ questions.

 

‘FORGET THE PAST’

At the Syrian embassy in Berlin, refugees queue in a room with three counters for consular services, a picture of Assad over the middle counter looking out on about 50 people waiting their turn.

Of the handful of Syrians who agreed to talk to Reuters about Law 10 most asked to be identified by nicknames, saying they feared for their safety and that of loved ones in Syria.

One man who goes by the nickname Abu Ahmed was at the embassy to give power of attorney to his brother, so he can stake a claim to Abu Ahmed’s depot in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus established as a Palestinian refugee camp in 1957.

Like many of the buildings in Yarmouk, Abu Ahmed’s depot used for storing and selling light bulbs was built illegally. The only proof of ownership he has are certificates from a notary.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy to obsess about the depot. The whole camp has been turned into rubble and we are lucky to be alive,” said the 47-year-old trader.

He has little hope the government will grant his brother security clearance should Yarmouk be redeveloped.

“We are marked because we lived in Yarmouk. The moukhabarat (secret police) will never give us security clearance but I have to try,” said Abu Ahmed, who now lives in Berlin.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that about half of Syrian’s pre-war population of 22 million lived in urban areas with about a third of those in slums.

“They don’t need laws to steal our properties. They do as they please and no one can stop them,” said Um Ahmed, standing by her husband. “I keep telling Abu Ahmed, ‘forget the past,’ but he can’t. He still dreams of a return.”

Outside the embassy in Berlin, Idris wonders if asking his mother to act as agent for his Aleppo bakery was the right decision.

“She is old, ill and probably won’t live much longer,” he said. “My brothers and sisters are in Turkey so my cousins are the only other option. But they’ve lost everything and have no income. They’ve been selling land they own outside Aleppo for peanuts to survive. They’ll probably sell my property too.”

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by David Clarke)

Jailed U.S. pastor denies terrorism charges in Turkish court

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson's wife Norine Brunson arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A U.S. pastor denied terrorism and spying charges in a Turkish court on Monday and called them “shameful and disgusting”, in a prosecution that has been condemned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Andrew Brunson, who could face up to 35 years in jail, denied links to a network led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016, and the outlawed Kurdish PKK militant group.

The Christian pastor from North Carolina has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and has been jailed pending trial since 2016.

“I am helping Syrian refugees, they say that I am aiding the PKK. I am setting up a church, they say I got help from Gulen’s network,” Brunson said, referring to the testimonies of anonymous witnesses in court.

One of the secret witnesses accused Brunson of trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state, and providing coordinates to U.S. forces in the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish YPG militia, active in northern Syria.

“My service that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” Brunson told the court in the Aegean town of Aliaga, north of Izmir.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.

TURKEY WANTS GULEN EXTRADITED

Brunson’s legal case is among several roiling U.S.-Turkish relations, including one in New York against a former executive of Turkish state lender Halkbank. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Erdogan suggested last year Brunson’s fate could be linked to that of Gulen, whom Turkey wants extradited.

Gulen denies any association with the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with it.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted after Brunson’s first court appearance last month that the pastor was on trial for “no reason”.

“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” Trump said.

Outside the court on Monday, Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called for the clergyman’s release.

“Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here in prison is another day that the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world,” she told reporters.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is expected to meet with U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington this week or next, said on Saturday any decision was up to the court.

“They say that the government should release him,” he said. “Is it in my power? This is a decision the judiciary will make.”

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; editing by Andrew Roche)

Remove barriers to membership talks, Turkey tells EU before summit

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Minister of European Union Affairs Omer Celik, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, Turkey March 26, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

By Alissa de Carbonnel and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA/VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said he will seek the removal at a summit with the EU on Monday of all obstacles to a stalled membership bid, which the bloc however believes are of Ankara’s own making.

Criticism from European Union governments of what many view as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism at home and his intervention in Syria’s war has created an uneasy backdrop to the gathering in the Black Sea port of Varna.

Some countries had called for an end to long-stalled accession talks and had hesitated to agree to meet him.

But Erdogan said it was time for the EU to “keep its promises” to Turkey, which started formal membership negotiations in 2005 that stalled five years and have now effectively collapsed.

“EU membership continues to be our strategic goal,” Erdogan told reporters before departing for the summit. “In today’s EU summit, we will convey our expectations about the lifting of the obstacles our country has faced.”

Erdogan, who has alarmed the West with a massive purge since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, remains an important ally in the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the fight against Islamic militants, and the destination for many Syrians fleeing war.

Turkey shares a border with Iraq, Syria and with Russia in the Black Sea, and the EU is its biggest foreign investor and trading partner.

CASH ONLY

EU leaders are likely to provide Erdogan with 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) in fresh cash to extend a 2016 deal on Turkey taking in Syrian refugees.

They will go no further than that, as Brussels considers the EU membership bid a separate process focused on rule of law, press freedoms and economic reforms.

But Erdogan on Monday appeared to conflate the two.

“Our country has fulfilled all responsibilities as part of the 2016 migrant deal, but the EU has not shown the same sincerity in keeping its promises and still does not do so,” Erdogan said.

“In terms of counter-terrorism, we will convey that we expect unconditional support and cooperation from the EU.”

EU officials say Turkey’s post-coup crackdown on civil rights has taken it further from complying with EU membership criteria.

“The differences in views between the EU and Turkey are many,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will represent the bloc along with European Council President Donald Tusk.

“(Varna)…will be a frank and open debate, where we will not hide our differences but will seek to improve our cooperation,” Juncker said after a two-day EU summit that condemned what they said were Turkey’s illegal actions in a standoff over Mediterranean gas with Greece and Cyprus.

DIALOGUE OR CONDEMNATION?

Turkey’s EU membership process is not formally frozen, but talks have not taken place for over a year.

Host Bulgaria, which also shares a border with Turkey holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is eager to keep ties as positive as possible.

“The meeting in Varna is likely to be one of the last opportunities to maintain dialogue,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said.

Meanwhile Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, the country the most opposed to Turkey’s EU membership aspirations, called in an interview in Die Welt newspaper for the EU to condemn Ankara for escalating the seven-year-long war in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels and Tulay Karadeniz in Varna; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel @AdeCar and Robin Emmott; editing by John Stonestreet)

European Union leaders to host Turkey’s Erdogan, the estranged uncle they can’t shut out

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a meeting of the ruling AK Party in Corum, Turkey January 28, 2018.

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders are so discomfited by their relationship with Turkey these days that they relegated their summit next month to Varna, a Bulgarian Black Sea port, rather than hold it in Brussels.

But despite their wariness over President Tayyip Erdogan, who has cracked down hard on critics at home and lashed out at the West, they need him too much to turn their backs.

Turkish and European Union officials both expect an uneasy atmosphere at the summit on March 26. But the European hosts will have little choice but to hear Erdogan out as he asks for more money for Syrian refugees, a deeper customs union and progress in talks on letting Turks visit Europe without visas.

On the one hand, European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially during a crackdown in the wake of a failed coup in 2016. Some of Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric toward Europe last year, including comparing the Dutch and German governments to Nazis, has been, for EU leaders, beyond the pale.

But on the other hand, European countries still rely on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank. And an EU deal with Erdogan that halted the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc means the Turkish leader is like an estranged relative that you can’t disinvite from a family dinner, no matter how badly you think he has behaved.

“You intensely dislike the person you have in front of you, but you just cannot do without him,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now an analyst at Carnegie Europe think-tank.

Turkey says it is in Europe’s interest to be warm.

“If the EU gives positive signals to Turkey, the more Turkey will do in terms of reforms,” said Ankara’s envoy to the European Union, Faruk Kaymakci.

“But the more the EU isolates Turkey, the more inward-looking and nationalist it will turn,” he told reporters, calling for more “trust and confidence at the top level”.

A senior EU official said Turkey had sought to have the summit in Brussels, but the bloc decided to hold it in Varna instead to lower its profile. Bulgaria, Turkey’s neighbor, has better relations with Ankara than some other EU states and holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2018.

“INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE”

The senior EU official described European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will chair the Varna meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, as furious over Erdogan’s crackdown. Some 50,000 people, including journalists, have been arrested and 150,000, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked or suspended from their jobs.

“For the EU, this is incredibly uncomfortable. They are backsliding on everything,” the senior EU official said.

Juncker has warned Turkey that it cannot count on any significant rapprochement with the EU as long as it keeps journalists in jail.

The Netherlands formally withdrew its ambassador to Ankara this month, after 2017 was marked by Erdogan calling German and Dutch officials “fascists” for stopping rallies in support of a referendum in Turkey to grant Erdogan broader powers. Germany is particularly angry that some German citizens are among those arrested in Erdogan’s purge.

Turkey is still a candidate to join the EU, having applied decades ago. But after years of on-and-off progress, including under Erdogan who first took power in 2003, the EU froze the accession talks over the crackdown since the botched coup.

Brussels is deeply skeptical that Ankara would reverse the crackdown to deliver the democratic and judicial reforms that would be required to restart those negotiations.

But Kaymakci, the Turkish envoy, said he still hoped the bloc would commit another 3 billion euros ($3.7 bln) for Syrian refugees in Turkey at the Varna summit, and move forward with talks on letting Turks enter Europe without visas.

EU officials say Turkey does not meet criteria for visa-free travel. When it comes to money for refugees, the bloc is looking at how to accommodate Turkey, acknowledging its role in hosting them and committing to look into funding.

Turkey’s request to deepen its customs union, which already allows tariff-free trade with the EU for most goods, is also likely to be politely rebuffed. Germany in particular has opposed further talks on customs for now.

The price Erdogan will have to pay for being invited to Varna, EU officials say, will be listening to his hosts speak frankly. Just weeks after the summit, the European Commission will release what is certain to be a damning report on the situation in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff)

Hezbollah says Saudi declares war on Lebanon, detains Hariri

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is seen on a video screen as he addresses his supporters in Beirut, Lebanon November 10,

By Tom Perry and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s leader said on Friday that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and his Iran-backed group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Saad al-Hariri and forcing him to resign as Lebanon’s prime minister to destabilize the country.

Hariri’s resignation has plunged Lebanon into crisis, thrusting the small Arab country back to the forefront of regional rivalry between the Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite revolutionary Islamist Iran.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia’s detention of Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally who declared his resignation while in Riyadh last Saturday, was an insult to all Lebanese and he must return to Lebanon.

“Let us say things as they are: the man is detained in Saudi Arabia and forbidden until this moment from returning to Lebanon,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

“It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he said. His comments mirror an accusation by Riyadh on Monday that Lebanon and Hezbollah had declared war on the conservative Gulf Arab kingdom.

Riyadh says Hariri is a free man and he decided to resign because Hezbollah was calling the shots in his government. Saudi Arabia considers Hezbollah to be its enemy in conflicts across the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.

Western countries have looked on with alarm at the rising regional tension.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy fight in the Middle East, saying Washington strongly backed Lebanon’s independence and respected Hariri as a strong partner of the United States, referring to him as prime minister.

“There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state,” Tillerson said in a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

The French foreign ministry said it wanted Hariri to be fully able to play what it called his essential role in Lebanon.

Hariri has made no public remarks since announcing his resignation in a speech televised from Saudi Arabia, saying he feared assassination and accusing Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

Two top Lebanese government officials, a senior politician close to Hariri and a fourth source told Reuters on Thursday that the Lebanese authorities believe Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia.

Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was encouraging Israel to attack Lebanon. While an Israeli attack could not be ruled out entirely, he said, it was unlikely partly because Israel knew it would pay a very high price. “I warn them against any miscalculation or any step to exploit the situation,” he said.

“Saudi will fail in Lebanon as it has failed on all fronts,” Nasrallah said.

Riyadh has advised Saudi citizens not to travel to Lebanon, or if already there to leave as soon as possible. Other Gulf states have also issued travel warnings. Those steps have raised concern that Riyadh could take measures against the tiny Arab state, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

 

AOUN TELLS SAUDI ENVOY HARIRI MUST RETURN

Hariri’s resignation unraveled a political deal among rival factions that made him prime minister and President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, head of state last year.

The coalition government included Hezbollah, a heavily armed military and political organization.

Hariri’s resignation is being widely seen as part of a Saudi attempt to counter Iran as its influence deepens in Syria and Iraq and as Riyadh and its allies battle Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Aoun told Saudi Arabia’s envoy on Friday that Hariri must return to Lebanon and the circumstances surrounding his resignation as prime minister while in Saudi Arabia were unacceptable, presidential sources said.

An “international support group” of countries concerned about Lebanon, which includes the United States, Russia and France, appealed for Lebanon “to continue to be shielded from tensions in the region”. In a statement, they also welcomed Aoun’s call for Hariri to return.

In the first direct Western comment on Hariri’s status, France and Germany both said on Friday they did not believe Hariri was being held against his will.

“Our concern is the stability of Lebanon and that a political solution can be put in place rapidly,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.

“As far as we know, yes: we think (Hariri) is free of his movements and it’s important he makes his own choices,” he said.

Tillerson told reporters on Friday there was no indication that Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will but that the United States was monitoring the situation.

Posters depicting Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, are seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2017.

Posters depicting Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, are seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

STUCK BETWEEN ANTAGONISTIC INTERESTS

On Thursday, Hariri’s Future Movement political party said his return home was necessary to uphold the Lebanese system, describing him as prime minister and a national leader.

Aoun has refused to accept the resignation until Hariri returns to Lebanon to deliver it to him in person and explain his reasons.

Top Druze politician Walid Jumblatt said it was time Hariri came back after a week of absence “be it forced or voluntary”.

Jumblatt said on Twitter there was no alternative to Hariri.

In comments to Reuters, Jumblatt said Lebanon did not deserve to be accused of declaring war on Saudi Arabia. “For decades we’ve been friends,” he said.

“We are a country that is squeezed between two antagonistic interests, between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he said. “The majority of Lebanese are just paying the price … Lebanon can not afford to declare a war against anybody.”

The Saudi foreign minister accused Hezbollah of a role in the launching of a ballistic missile at Riyadh from Yemen on Saturday. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iran’s supply of rockets to militias in Yemen was an act of “direct military aggression” that could be an act of war.

Nasrallah mocked the Saudi accusation that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the firing of the missile from Yemen, saying Yemenis were capable of building their own missiles.

 

(Reporting by Dominiqu Vidalon and John Irish in Paris, Sarah Dadouch, Lisa Barrington, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

 

Refugees in Greece demand transfer to Germany, start hunger strike

A girl holds a placard reading, "where is my Mother, where is my Father", as refugees protest, some announcing a hunger strike, as they seek reunification with family members in Germany, near the parliament building in Athens, Greece, November 1, 2017.

By Karolina Tagaris and Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS (Reuters) – A group of mainly Syrian women and children who have been stranded in Greece pitched tents opposite parliament in Athens on Wednesday in a protest against delays in reuniting with relatives in Germany.

Some of the refugees, who say they have been in Greece for over a year, said they had begun a hunger strike.

“Our family ties our stronger than your illegal agreements,” read a banner held up by one woman, referring to deals on refugees between European Union nations.

Refugees, some announcing a hunger strike, hold placards during a protest as they seek reunification with family members in Germany, near the parliament building in Athens, Greece, November 1, 2017.

Refugees, some announcing a hunger strike, hold placards during a protest as they seek reunification with family members in Germany, near the parliament building in Athens, Greece, November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Greek media have reported that Greece and Germany informally agreed in May to slow down refugee reunification, stranding families in Greece for months after they fled Syria’s civil war. Greece denies this.

“What we’ve managed to do on family reunification is to have an increase of about 27 percent this year compared with last year, even though we’re accused of cutting back family reunification and doing deals to cut back family reunification,” Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told reporters.

Mouzalas said Greece had assurances from Germany that refugees whose applications have been accepted will eventually go to Germany even if there are delays. He denied that refugees had to pay for their flights.

Applications for asylum, reunification and relocation to other European countries can take months to be processed.

“I have not seen my husband, my child, for more than one year and nine months,” said 32-year-old Syrian Dalal Rashou, who has five children, one of whom is in Germany with her husband.

“I miss him and every day I am here in Greece I cry. I don’t want to stay here, I want to go to my husband” she said.

About 60,000 refugees and migrants, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, have become stranded in Greece after border closures in the Balkans halted the onward journey many planned to take to central and western Europe.

Nearly 148,084 refugees and migrants have crossed to Greece from Turkey this year – a fraction of the nearly 1 million arrivals in 2015 – but arrivals have picked up in recent months.

An average of 214 people arrived each day in September, up from 156 in August, 87 in July and 56 in March, Mouzalas said.

The rise has stretched Greek island camps, which are struggling to cope with numbers two to three times their capacity. Most new arrivals are women and children, according to United Nations data.

Mouzalas said the government was in talks with local authorities to move refugees and migrants to local accommodation, including hotels, and it also planned to increase the capacity of some facilities.

 

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Deborah Kyvrikossaios)