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18 Mar

Russians vote for president with incumbent preparing to win

RUSSIA (WNF) - The Russian presidential campaign looms as an unequal contest between President Vladimir Putin and his rivals. If all goes according to plan, he will win a second 6-year term after being in power as either president or prime minister since his appointment by former president Boris Yeltsin in 1999.
Anti-Putin hacking appears bound to fail. Putin cohorts have all the state tools they need to cull the ballot of significant rivals and match the results to their expectations. Canada’s National Post reports that five people close to the process say Putin is setting up a team to ensure he wins a fourth term with a wide margin.

Putin shares the ballot with seven others, including television personality Ksenia Sobchak and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

His one significant opponent might have been anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. By staging significant protest actions, Navalny laid down a serious challenge to Putin. A conviction, recently upheld by a regional court, bars him from running for office.

Efforts to help an opponent by smirching Putin also have limited chance of success. The Kremlin has powerful means of preventing unfavorable commentary and revelations, and Putin’s popularity is said to be soaring. Despite Russians’ hardships, the result of low oil income and Western sanctions, Putin still enjoys an enviable approval rating at home. It is widely reported to have hit some 80 per cent in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and of his military invention in Syria.

Cyber-meddling in the 2016 United States election, allegedly by Russia, tainted the results and exacerbated divisiveness that threatens to roil the country for years. To continue working, according to the Christian Science Monitor, the Kremlin system requires public acceptance of election results, or at least apathy. While election meddling is unlikely to change the result of the March vote, it might be able to create post-election disruption for the Kremlin. The newspaper sees Navalny’s signature issue of corruption in high places as one that could bring tens of thousands of mostly youthful Russians onto the streets. #22203 Updated: 02/14/2018 UPDATED FEB 14 TO REFLECT ALEX NAVALNY ARREST

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18 Mar

War games after Paralympics to end Seoul-Pyongyang détente

SOUTH KOREA (WNF) - The Seoul-Pyongyang détente during the Winter Olympics can be expected to end just after the close of the Paralympics on Mar 18, when the United States and South Korea begin military exercises they delayed because of the Games. Pyongyang wants them canceled.
The 2018 drills will be the first to feature large-scale troop participation from both the United States and South Korea, answering North Korea’s recent tests of its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

North Korea agreed to participate in the Games as part of rare talks with the South, and it canceled its own annual military exercises. Washington’s refusal to cancel the joint U.S.-South Korea drills risks a resumption of the North’s missile and nuclear testing. The weeks of joint drills always infuriate the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.

The Foal Eagle exercise involves field training and the large-scale mobilization of troops from both South Korea and the United States. Key Resolve is a computerized command post-war game, allowing U.S. and South Korean forces to practice wartime command and control under a variety of scenarios on the Peninsula. More than 300,000 troops from both sides participate in the drills. #22498 Published: 02/01/2018

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19 Mar

UNIFIL turns 40 amid renewed attention on Israel’s border wall plans

LEBANON (WNF) - The United Nations launched its Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on Mar 19, 1978. The potential path of Israel’s wall and barriers is ramping-up tensions with Lebanon that could end a period of relative calm for the peacekeepers.
Some reports suggest Israel plans to use the so-called Blue Line for future sections. The United Nations drew the Line as a makeshift border in 2000 in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which followed an extended occupation. In common with the historic Lebanon-Israel border, some stretches are ill-defined, disputed and periodic flashpoints.

The Shebaa farms area, claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel since 1967, ranks as the most disputed stretch. Hezbollah says Israel must withdraw from the area – which it says lies on Lebanese territory – or face continued attacks. Israel insists that most of the area lies on the Syrian side of the Lebanon-Syria border and that it will only withdraw from the part marked as Lebanese territory on UN maps.

The UN launched UNIFIL during Israel’s 7-day invasion of Lebanon, which began on Mar 14, 1978. Known as the Litany Invasion, it was explained as a response to attacks by Palestinian guerrillas. UNIFIL’s presence has helped keep the peace in the border area since the war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, in 2006. UNIFIL’s mandate was renewed in Aug 2017.

Analysts cited by the Christian Science Monitor suggest that a diplomatic solution could eventually bolster stability along the Israel-Lebanese border by weakening Hezbollah’s justification for holding onto its weapons.

Lebanon’s Naharnet news publication reported in November that Speaker Nabih Berri, addressing the Lebanese parliament, described Israel’s border wall as violating Lebanon's sovereignty at several points. He plans to lodge a complaint at the United Nations. #22474 Published: 01/18/2018

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19 Mar

Saudi Crown Prince arrives in search of investors and nuclear deal

UNITED STATES (WNF) - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Washington and other U.S. cities in search of investors in Vision 2020, his economic transformation plan for the kingdom, and a nuclear deal.
An exclusive report from Middle East newspaper, The National, says the visit will happen Mar 19-22.

The Vision 2030 plan aims to help diversify the kingdom away from oil before it’s too late, according to Forbes magazine, with some US $500 billion of investments like a new high-tech city called Neom, a Red Sea luxury resort and a Six Flags theme park.

According to the Bloomberg news service, the U.S. administration is reportedly considering a deal that would allow Saudi Arabia to enrich and reprocess uranium while setting up American companies including Westinghouse Electric Co. to build nuclear reactors in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s arch rival in the region, Iran, with its own nuclear aspirations heavily constrained by a pact, will eye any deal with hostility.

The visit follows a sojourn in the United Kingdom and possibly France on the same missions, wooing western investors to inject capital into Saudi Arabia and bringing nuclear technology to the kingdom. #22531 Published: 02/28/2018

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Contested Jerusalem a unifying issue at Arab League summit

SAUDI ARABIA (WNF) - Riyadh hosts the 29th Arab Summit, a meeting that will expose Arab disunity on almost every subject except Jerusalem: in Dec 2017 the United States formally recognized the Holy City as the capital of Israel, a move condemned by League members. (March 2018
Israelis and Palestinians each claim Jerusalem as their capital.

In common with other regional blocs, the 22-nation Arab League encompasses competing political ideologies and rivalries that make concerted action elusive. The present dispute between Qatar and other League members, might lead to summit boycotts. Several countries severed diplomatic and transport links with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of backing extremist groups and of coziness with Iran. Doha denies the accusation. Saudi Arabia closed its only land border with Qatar in Dec 2017.

The U.S. Jerusalem decision brought to the fore one of the few unifying subjects for the bloc – Palestine. The League regards it as an independent state. Even that subject exposes rifts. An Al Jazeera analysis of attempts at Arab unity in 2016 pointed out that the Palestine conflict has been as divisive politically as it has been unifying emotionally. “While in theory subscribing to solidarity and unity with the Palestinians, many Arab states have either made false promises or else withheld aid for personal political gain.”

At an emergency meeting in Cairo following the Jerusalem announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump, Arab leaders resolved on a five-step strategy for Arabs to deal with his move, which will be followed by relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City. Details of the strategy, which is likely to include dissuading other leaders from announcing embassy moves to Jerusalem, can be expected after the March summit.

The summit agenda will also address the conflicts in member states Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, as well as Iran’s perceived role in the regional strife.

Commenting on the proceedings at the Mar 2017 League summit, Doha-based expert on Iranian affairs and a professor of contemporary Arab politics, Mahjoob Zweiri, said he “expects there will be strong criticism of Iran, of its intervention and activities in the region, but even then Arab countries are not unified in their perception of Iran.”

The Arab League groups: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen. #22517 Published: 02/15/2018

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20 Mar

NASA launches another planet hunter

UNITED STATES (WNF) - NASA launches its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, aiming to identify planets that are orbiting stars outside the solar system. NASA’s Kepler space observatory is also hunting planets, but it lacks the keen “eyes” and vast scope of TESS.
The aim is to identify extrasolar planets, ranging from Earth-sized bodies to gas giants, with particularly interest in the rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars.

Like the Kepler probe, TESS will look for planets as they pass in front of distant stars and slightly dim the stars’ light. But TESS will study stars throughout the entire night sky, expanding Kepler’s limited range. Each TESS camera has a field of view that is more than five times greater than Kepler’s camera.

“The instantaneous field of view of the TESS cameras, combined with their area and detector sensitivity, is unprecedented in a space mission,” according to TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker.

The satellite’s four cameras, developed by researchers at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, are equipped with large-aperture wide-angle lenses designed to survey the entire sky, but they have an innate limitation: the image sharpness varies over the field of view, and there is no single focus, as found in more conventional cameras. And in TESS cameras, the imaging properties change as the temperature of the cameras changes. The MIT TESS team and NASA have concluded independently that the limitation will not prevent the mission from achieving its scientific goals. #22457 Published: 01/05/2018

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20 Mar

Air India plans direct flights to Israel via Saudi airspace

INDIA (GN) - Air India plans to begin direct flights to Israel and has proposed they pass through Saudi airspace, a route so far off-limits to Israel-bound commercial aircraft.
Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel and lifting the 70-year-old airspace ban would reflect what appears to be thawing ties between Israel and the Kingdom. Both are both U.S. allies with a shared concern over Iranian influence in the region.

While a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation said the agency had not yet granted permission to Air India, the airline is optimistic that the deal will proceed.

Air India plans to operate three flights a week between New Delhi and Tel Aviv from March 20.

The Indian national carrier had been planning to launch the route last year but abandoned the idea as uneconomical after Saudi Arabia refused permission to fly over its territory, making a five hour flight into an eight hour flight.

However, the plan was revived after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India in January. Air India will receive a one-time grant of €750,000 from Israel’s Ministry of Tourism for opening the route.

At present, the only direct route operate between Israel and India is by Israel’s El Al Airlines, which flies from Tel Aviv to Mumbai.

Approval to use Saudi airspace will allow Air India to take a shorter route from Delhi to Tel Aviv by flying over Ahmedabad, Muscat, and Saudi Arabia, saving both flight time and fuel costs.

In the absence of clearance from Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations that do not recognise Israel, Air India pilots would have to take a circuitous route to avoid overflying countries that have such restrictions for Israel-bound planes. #22514 Published: 02/14/2018

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22 Mar

Bulgaria hosts first EU summit of 2018 with anti-sanctions agenda?

EUROPEAN UNION (WNF) - Bulgaria, European Union president for the first half of 2018, presides at the March and June summits of the bloc. The two meetings loom as the ones most likely to result in the softening – or even the lifting – of EU sanctions against Russia.
The sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for Ukrainian separatists, are due to come up for renewal during the Bulgarian presidency. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev campaigned on improving his country’s ties to Moscow, and the center-right party GERB party of the reelected and mainly pro-EU prime minister, Boyko Borissov, is seeking a pro-Russia coalition partner in order to form a government.

There’s speculation that some countries might break ranks and vote against the trade and financing restrictions. Newsweek noted in Oct 2017 that there are a number of member states who see the sanctions as a problem. The magazine listed Italy, Austria, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and several central and eastern European members.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office, under pressure from German business, is widely reported to be amenable to watering down the sanctions.

Leonid Bershidsky commented in Canada’s National Post in May 2016 that European figures and the Kremlin are looking for ways to defuse the Ukraine dispute without losing face. He adds that EU political leaders and officials have said many times that sanctions won’t be lifted until Russia fully adheres to the Minsk deal, but they never said the menu of sanctions couldn’t be changed. The 2014 Minsk deal was aimed at resolving the strife across eastern and southern Ukraine. #22375 Published: 11/28/2017

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23 Mar

Palestine Marathon turns five

WEST BANK (WNF) - Thousands of competitors will run along Israel’s 26-foot-high separation barrier and loop around the town of Bethlehem during the fifth Palestine Marathon. The race-cum-political statement, first run on Apr 21, 2013, is aimed at spotlighting Israel’s fragmentation of Palestinian lands.
The route of the 42 km (26.2 mile) race, named the Right to Movement: Palestine Marathon, loops four times through the city, down its main avenue and alongside the barrier. It was chosen to draw attention to the constraints Palestinians say they face in their daily lives – that there is no route that can be run continuously before hitting a border or roadblock.

A half marathon, 10K and 5K races are run in conjunction with the marathon.

The Palestine Olympic Committee (POC) sponsors the event, and it received recognition from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in Oct 2017.

Some 213 Palestinians and 218 foreigners from 21 countries participated in the first marathon, organized to protest against the checkpoints and call for the freedom of movement in the West Bank. Some 10,000 local and 6,200 foreign participants registered for the 2017 race, and the number is expected to increase for the 2018 race.

The Palestinians seek an independent state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Palestinians and their international supporters have turned toward sports in recent years to draw attention to their struggle for statehood.

The New York Times notes that much of the West Bank is under direct Israeli military rule, while tiny Gaza – just about the length of a marathon run in a straight line – is blockaded by Israel and Egypt. The newspaper adds that Palestinians are mostly severed from East Jerusalem, their hoped-for future capital. #22393 Published: 11/28/2017

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24 Mar

Survivors of Florida school shooting plan March for Our Lives

UNITED STATES (WNF) - Teen survivors of the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day at a Florida school and others outraged at political inaction on guns plan massive rallies in Washington DC and other U.S. cities. They blame the National Rifle Association (NRA) for the country’s gun culture.
The students want to make the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and teachers, a turning point in the national debate over gun control. The accused shooter is 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school.

Other groups also have announced protests in response to the Florida assault. Organizers of the Women's March held across the nation in Jan 2017 and 2018 called for a 17-minute walkout by teachers nationwide on Mar 14, the one-month anniversary of the high-school attack.

Counter rallies by gun rights supporters can be expected in the capital and elsewhere. President Donald Trump, a recipient of NRA support and a gun rights supporter, has not signaled if he will attend one or both of the rallies. He sees arming teachers as one of several solutions to school shootings, which have become almost commonplace.

The NRA, itself heavily-funded by gun makers, supports the campaigns of politicians who resist gun control legislation.

Actor George Clooney and his wife, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, have announced that they will walk with the students in the Washington march, and will donate US $500,000 to the rally.

The aim of the marches is to "create a new normal where there’s a badge of shame on any politician who's accepting money from the NRA,” Cameron Kasky, one of the organizers, explained to ABC. “Any politician on either side who is taking money from the NRA is responsible for events like this,” he explained to the broadcaster. “We are going to be marching together as students” in every single city, “begging for our lives.”

The march will also spotlight the spate of school shootings in the United States and the ease with which shooters can obtain the high-powered automatic firearms that have featured in recent mass shootings.

The march will also spotlight Florida’s resistance to gun controls. The biggest beneficiary of NRA support is Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, according to CNN. He has become a favorite of the Florida gun lobby during the past seven years, according to the broadcaster, by lifting restrictions on guns, preventing doctors from asking patients about their weapons, opposing stricter background checks and cutting the cost of getting a concealed weapon license. CNN reports that 14 Florida lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, all Republicans, accept funds from the NRA.

The Republican President, Donald Trump, also blames the FBI. Angering the organizers of the student march, he asserted in a tweet that the FBI might have been too distracted with a Russia probe to follow leads that could have prevented the massacre. #22526 Published: 02/23/2018

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