Pressure Mounts on Refugee Camps as Final Offensive Looms in Mosul

Displaced residents of Mosul say food, water and medicine in refugee camps are becoming increasingly scarce as fleeing civilians continue to join them daily due to a new push by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops against Islamic State in old Mosul. VOA’s Kawa Omar reports.

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Turkey-Israel Rapprochement Threat to Iranian Ambitions?

With Turkey facing strained relations with most of its neighbors and allies, Ankara is deepening ties with Israel in a rare bright spot.  Diplomatic relations collapsed in 2010 after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens on a boat seeking to break Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. A reconciliation deal reached last year has opened the door to a resumption in relations that could pose a threat to Iran’s regional aspirations.

“Almost every day there is a certain bilateral activity, either here or in Israel that has to do with the fruits of the reconciliation,” said Shai Cohen, the Israeli consul-general, speaking in Istanbul last week at a gathering aimed at enhancing ties. Cohen went further, eyeing regional turmoil as an impetus for further cooperation. “We share almost the same interests along our borders with Syria, Israel on one side and Turkey on the other. The main one is defeating jihadi terrorism Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic term for Islamic State. “But there is another one, with the expanding presence of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in that region.”

Israeli hopes of fostering a powerful alliance against Tehran have been boosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly fiery rhetoric against Iran. Last month, Erdogan labeled Shia paramilitary forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq “terrorists,” calling them part of Iran’s “Persian expansionism policy.” Erdogan has increasingly positioned himself as protector of Sunni Muslim interests in the region, accusing Tehran of pursuing sectarian policies.

Turkey-Israel cooperation on Iran, would, analysts suggest, mark a major step in enhancing relations, especially addressing the “trust deficit.”  

“Trust has to be rebuilt. Security is a crucial issue for both governments,” Cohen said. “We are working on that and maybe it’s a little bit too early to elaborate on that but I think in the near future we will know more.”



The warming in Israeli-Turkish relations has brought improvements in trade along with talks on energy cooperation and promising signs of a return to Turkey of lucrative Israeli tourism; but, relations are still far from their heyday of the late 1990’s, epitomized by close military cooperation that culminated in a deal that allowed Israeli jets to practice in Turkish airspace.

Bilateral cooperation against Iran could offer an opportunity in bridging the trust deficit.

“I think the current political setting in the Middle East provides a fertile ground for Turkey and Israel to restore their partnership. They have shared interests in terms of balancing Iran and combating terrorism in the region,” said Selin Nasi, journalist for Turkey’s Salom newspaper and a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News. Nasi, however, also voices caution. “On the other hand, they (Turkey and Israel) do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. For instance, Iran is a rival but not an enemy for Turkey. Turkey has to take into account the fact that she shares a border with Iran.”

Former Turkish ambassador Unal Cevikoz, now head of the Ankara Policy Center research organization, warns of risks of joining any anti-Iranian alliance. “If Turkey chooses to do that, then Turkey will be perceived if it’s pursuing some kind of sectarian policy just because of the emerging Sunni-Shia divide in the region.”

There are also domestic political risks for Erdogan, whose priority is his 2019 re-election bid. Much of the president’s electoral base is drawn from conservative Muslims, to whom anti-Israeli rhetoric often plays well. Some of the pro-government Turkish media are rampantly anti-Semitic, rarely missing an opportunity to fan anger over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“It is always better to maintain a cautious optimism when making an assessment on Turkish-Israeli relations, given the place of the Palestinian issue in bilateral ties as a derailing factor,” warns journalist Nasi; but, a Turkish presidential source maintains the Palestinian issue remains “compartmentalized” in relations with Israel.

“Cooperation and rivalry” is the traditional maxim in Turkish diplomacy in defining Iranian relations. Even in the current tensions, cooperation remains an important aspect of relations. “In the Astana Process, Russia, Iran and Turkey are at least trying to find a common understanding to guarantee the cease-fire and also deconfliction zones in Syria,” points out retired Turkish ambassador Cevikoz, citing peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

The complexity and sensitivity of attempting to lure Turkey into Israel’s fold in its struggle against Iran is acknowledged by Consul-General Cohen. For now it appears Israel is ready to play the long game. “Iran is a common denominator for Israel and Turkey because of its aspirations for regional hegemony; but, the Iranian issue is not right now, something we are putting up at the top of the priority list.  It’s a common interest; we talk about it,” he said.

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Syria Opens Its First Solar-Powered Hospital Aiming to Save More Lives

After months of testing, a hospital in Syria will have uninterrupted power from this week, charged by solar power in a project designers hope will save lives and can be repeated across the country.

Syria’s electrical grid has taken a big hit after six years of a volatile civil war with most the electrical infrastructure bombed, dismantled or destroyed, leaving hospitals relying on diesel generators but at the mercy of fuel shortages.

So the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), an international coalition of international medical organizations and NGOs, said it hoped creating the country’s first solar-power hospital would save lives.

“To have those active [hospitals] resilient and operational, it’s a matter of life [or death] for many, many people in the country,” said Tarek Makdissi, project director of UOSSM told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The France-based UOSSM launched the initiative, “Syria Solar”, with the aim of getting hospitals less dependent on diesel which the organization says is expensive and not reliable.

The first solar hospital – the name and location of which the UOSSM would not release for safety reasons – runs on mixture of a diesel generator and 480 solar panels built near the hospital that link to an energy storage system.

If there is a complete fuel outage the solar system can fully power the intensive care unit, operating rooms and emergency departments for up to 24 hours without diesel, which is 20 to 30 percent of the hospital’s energy cost.

Makdissi said the goal is to get five other medical facilities in Syria running like this by the end of spring 2018 with funding from places like institutions, foundations, government agencies, and philanthropists.

Beyond reducing operational costs Makdissi believes this initiative creates a more resilient electrical infrastructure.

“To be resilient is to be independent and to be independent you need to have control of your own resources,” said Makdissi. “This project is really increasing the independence and resilience of local communities.”

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Bahrain Court Orders Dissolution of Last Major Opposition Group

A court in Bahrain ordered the country’s last main opposition group dissolved and its property confiscated Wednesday in the latest blow to reformers and dissenting voices in the Middle Eastern island nation.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said the political society known as Waad planned to appeal the ruling. Waad confirmed the court order for its dissolution on its official Twitter account.

The Justice Ministry had launched proceedings to dissolve the 15-year-old group, alleging that Waad incited acts of terrorism, promoted the violent overthrow of the Sunni-led government and “glorified convicted terrorists and saboteurs.” The government used similarly broad wording to dissolve the country’s largest Shi’ite opposition group, al-Wefaq.

Bahrain is a majority Shi’ite nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which sent forces to help quell an Arab Spring-style uprising in 2011.

The government accuses Shi’ite-ruled Iran, which lies across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain, of arming and training some protesters to destabilize the country. Shi’ite militant groups have claimed responsibility for some deadly attacks on police, but Iran denies it has trained or assisted groups in Bahrain.

Waad’s dissolution came a week after five people died in a police raid on the hometown of a prominent Shi’ite cleric who was stripped of his nationality and faces possible deportation. Police arrested 286 people in the raid, adding to the hundreds more who have been jailed, forced into exile or stripped of their nationality in recent years.

Both Shi’ite, Sunni activists

Two smaller opposition groups remain active, but Waad was seen as the last major opposition group still functioning in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. The secular group included both Shi’ite and Sunni activists and political figures. Its offices were targeted by vandals and twice set ablaze.

“Today matters because it says the government won’t just not tolerate Shi’ite opposition, it won’t tolerate any opposition,” Brian Dooley, a senior adviser at Human Rights First, told The Associated Press.

Rights group Amnesty International said Bahrain “is now heading towards total suppression of human rights” with Wednesday’s court ruling.

The case stems from a statement Waad made in February on the anniversary of the country’s 2011 uprising in which the group criticized the Bahraini constitution.

“Their only so-called ‘crime’ is exercising their right to freedom of expression and association,” said Lynn Maalouf, director of research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office.

Separately, Amnesty International reports that human rights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh said she was tortured for seven hours in Bahrain during an interrogation last month. She said she was blindfolded, beaten, kicked and kept standing for most of the time, and that she was threatened with the rape of her daughter and the torture of her husband.

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IOM Head: People Smugglers Make $35 Billion a Year on Migrant Crisis

People smugglers make about $35 billion a year worldwide and they are driving the tragedy of migrants who die trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Reuters on Wednesday.

Increasing numbers of desperate migrants fleeing from Africa and elsewhere due to conflicts and humanitarian crises are dying as they attempt to reach Europe via Libya, coaxed to do so by smugglers as they wait in detention centers.

The death toll of people crossing the Mediterranean has reached 1,700 so far this year before the summer when many more often make the journey, compared to 3,700 for all of 2015 and 5,000 last year, said IOM head William Lacy Swing.

“Now, let’s be careful because those are the people we know who died, how many other bodies are submerged in the Mediterranean or buried in the sands of the Sahara?” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a conference on migration.

“That’s the tragedy and this is why we are so concerned to try to caution migrants about smugglers. The smugglers are really the big problem. It’s about $35 billion a year [that people smugglers make] and we know they’re making lots of money across the Mediterranean.”

People smuggling now represents the third-largest business for international criminals, after gun and drug trafficking, he said.

Libya has become a major point of departure for migrants from Africa, where lawlessness is spreading six years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi and migrants say conditions at government-run migrant centers are terrible.

After visiting Libya in March, Lacy Swing said his organization is “all ready to go” and return international staff to Libya to work at migrant centers but has so far not been allowed to do so by the United Nations.

On Tuesday, the IOM and U.N. refugee agency UNCHR presented plans in Geneva on boosting operations in Libya. Lacy Swing said the IOM was ready to help the government with Libya’s own internally displaced people and work in migration centers.

He said Europe’s migrant crisis has been aggravated by what he called “unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment, fueled now by suspicions that some of those fleeing terrorism might be terrorists themselves.”

But he urged governments to try to address the root causes of migration — conflicts, water shortages and big disparities between rich and poor countries.

“In my lifetime I have never known a situation quite like today, because you have nine armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies from West Africa to the Himalayas,” he said.

He said Europe needs to come up with a comprehensive plan on migration “but I don’t see it happening any time in the near future, but we’ll do everything we can to support them on it.”

Lacy Swing stressed that “migration is not an issue to be solved, it’s a human reality that has to be managed or governed.”

“We know that historically, migration has always been overwhelmingly positive.”

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Woman Thought Headed for Canada Found Dead in Minnesota

Authorities say a woman who may have been trying to reach Canada was found dead in northwestern Minnesota.

Kittson County Chief Deputy Matt Vig tells WDAZ-TV that the woman, 57-year-old Mavis Otuteye, is believed to be a citizen of Ghana. Her body was found Friday in a field a half-mile from the Canadian border near the tiny town of Noyes.

Otuteye was reported missing a day earlier. Vig says she was headed to Canada on foot to try to reunite with her daughter. Otuteye had been living in Delaware for the past several years.

Autopsy results are pending, but Vig says she apparently died of hypothermia. He says temperatures were in the 40s that night, and part of her body was in a shallow pool of water in a ditch.

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USS Vinson, USS Reagan Carrier Strike Groups Conduct Dual Exercises in Sea of Japan

Two U.S. aircraft carriers have started military exercises together in the Sea of Japan, U.S. Navy officials tell VOA.

“The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group and USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group are conducting routine operations in the Western Pacific,” Navy spokesman Lt. Loren Terry said.

Officials said the carriers, along with the ships and aircraft assigned to each, began dual operations in international waters within the sea on Wednesday.

The dual-carrier exercises come days after North Korea launched another missile into the Sea of Japan.

The multi-day, multi-carrier exercises provide “combatant commanders with significant operational flexibility should these forces be called upon in response to regional situations,” Terry told VOA.

“This unique capability is one of many ways the U.S. Navy promotes security, stability and prosperity throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” he added.

The dual-carrier operations mark the end of the USS Vinson strike group’s tour in the Western Pacific, according to a Navy official.

The USS Reagan strike group includes cruiser USS Shiloh and destroyers USS Barry and USS McCampbell.

The USS Vinson strike group includes destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy along with cruiser USS Lake Champlain.

American ships and aircraft routinely operate in international waters throughout the Western Pacific, which includes waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Pacific Command said the short-range ballistic missile North Korea launched on May 28 posed no threat to North America, adding that the U.S. military stands behind its “ironclad commitment to the security of our allies in the Republic of Korea and Japan.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to work with the United States to “take specific action to deter North Korea.”

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Court Rules Against Kremlin Critic, Orders Graft Allegation Video Deleted

A Russian court ruled on Wednesday against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in a defamation lawsuit brought by one of Russia’s richest businessmen, ordering

the removal of a popular video from the internet which details the offending allegations.

Navalny, who says he plans to run in next year’s presidential election, has emerged as a major irritant for the Kremlin after thousands of people across Russia attended anti-graft protests he organized in March.

A former lawyer, he has revived some Russians’ interest in politics by publicizing what he says are outrageous cases of top government officials and Kremlin-connected businessmen abusing the system to amass huge wealth.

Most of his targets merely deny such allegations, but businessman Alisher Usmanov, part-owner of British soccer club Arsenal, filed a lawsuit against Navalny alleging he had been defamed in a video about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev and Usmanov said corruption and other allegations leveled against them in the video were utterly false.

On Wednesday, a Moscow court agreed with Usmanov, saying the allegations had wrongly impugned his “honor and dignity.” The presiding judge ordered Navalny to delete all references to the allegations within 10 days and to publish a retraction within

three months.

Usmanov’s lawyer, Genrikh Padva, was cited by the TASS news agency as saying his client’s good name had been upheld.

“Our position – which is that there was no basis for the publication of these slanderous statements – was confirmed in court,” Padva said.

Navalny, who plans to appeal the ruling, said he would not delete the video and stood by the allegations. “The reality that we see around us somewhat contradicts the court’s decision,” said Navalny. “The investigation was based on facts.”

Opinion polls show Navalny would lose next year’s presidential election to the Kremlin candidate – widely expected to be incumbent Vladimir Putin – by a large margin.

The offending video has helped boost his campaign, garnering over 21 million online views, and Navalny successfully used it to get people to take to the streets in March to protest against official corruption.

On Wednesday, after his supporters began recirculating the contested video online, he said his court defeat underlined the need to step up the fight against corruption. He also predicted it would boost turnout at the next anti-government protest.

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