Slain Journalist’s Investigative Report Published on Slovak Site

A Slovak website has published the unfinished investigative report on alleged government ties to the mafia written by slain journalist Jan Kuciak.

Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, were found dead Sunday in their home east of Bratislava. It was the first time a journalist’s death in Slovakia was linked to his or her work.

Kuciak’s story describes the alleged connection between a suspected member of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta organized crime family in Slovakia and two senior aides to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The two aides — security council secretary Viliam Jasan and chief state adviser Maria Troskova — say they are shocked by the murders but deny any connection to the killings. They say they are stepping down from their posts until the investigation is complete.

Fico called the shootings an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press and democracy in Slovakia. However, he warned newspapers against linking “innocent people” to a double slaying “without any evidence. Don’t do it.”

Slovak police chief Tibor Gaspar said Wednesday that Kuciak and Kusnirova were most likely killed because of Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist. He said both were killed with the same weapon, which is missing.

The shootings have outraged Slovaks. More than a thousand people turned out for an opposition-sponsored protest, and student marches are planned across the country Friday.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “shocked and saddened” by the murders, and calls for a “swift, determined investigation” to bring the killers to justice.

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Montenegrin Defense Chief Says NATO Contributions on Target for 2024

Montenegrin Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic says the country is on target to spend 2 percent of annual economic output on defense by 2024, in keeping with a promise to expand military budgets as the United States offers an increase in its own defense spending in Europe.

Boskovic met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Tuesday, his first visit to the Pentagon since Montenegro became the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in June 2017.

“Montenegro, as a new member, will reach that target by 2024,” Boskovic said in an interview with VOA’s Serbian Service, after meeting with Mattis. “We are spending 1.7 percent already this year, and I think we can reach 2 percent level without any great effort.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO allies for not spending enough on defense, claiming it is unfair to taxpayers in the United States. Earlier this month in Brussels, Mattis pressed European allies to stick to a promise to increase military budgets in lockstep with increased U.S. spending.

Fifteen of 28 NATO countries, excluding the United States, now have a strategy to meet a NATO benchmark first agreed to in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, following years of cuts to European defense budgets.

​Afghanistan, Kosovo

Boskovic also announced that his country is planning to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, where Montenegro currently has 18 soldiers participating in Operation Resolute Support, a NATO-led training and advisory mission with more than 13,000 soldiers.

The mission has been engaged in Afghanistan since 2015.

“We have already made a decision to increase the number of our soldiers in Afghanistan, which needs to be approved by the parliament, and I don’t doubt that by next rotation, we’ll have more troops in the country,” Boskovic told VOA.

Mattis, according to the readout of Tuesday’s meeting, praised the “significant contributions Montenegro has made to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and lauded the country’s plan to meet the Wales Summit defense spending pledge by 2024.”

Montenegro has also decided to send members of its armed forces to the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR. Montenegro’s plan to participate in the KFOR mission in Kosovo has been criticized by some officials in Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Two officers are expected to join KFOR by the end of the year, Boskovic told VOA.

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

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UN Aid Chief: Syria Cease-Fire Yet to Be Implemented

The U.N. humanitarian chief said Wednesday that a 30-day cease-fire across Syria had not been implemented, and he asked the Security Council when it would be put into effect.

The council unanimously adopted a resolution on Saturday demanding the monthlong cessation of hostilities to allow aid in and evacuate the critically sick and wounded, especially from rebel-held eastern Ghouta.

“So if there has been no humanitarian access since the resolution on Saturday, what has happened in the last few days?” U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock rhetorically asked. “More bombing. More fighting. More death. More destruction. More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same.”

Lowcock said the United Nations and its partners were ready with trucks full of humanitarian aid and medical evacuation plans and could begin work once the guns fall silent and access is granted in Syria.

He cited reports of government airstrikes, barrel bombs and shelling across eastern Ghouta and a dozen other districts two days after the cease-fire was adopted. Lowcock said shells fired from eastern Ghouta had also reportedly continued to fall in the Syrian capital.

“Over 580 people since 18 February are now reported to have been killed due to air- and ground-based strikes in eastern Ghouta, with well over 1,000 people injured,” he said. “At the same time, hundreds of rockets from eastern Ghouta into Damascus have reportedly killed 15 people, and injured over 200.”

Russian ‘pause’

Russia, which supported the cease-fire resolution, said it would implement a daily five-hour “humanitarian pause” in its military operations around eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 civilians are besieged.

Lowcock said that wouldn’t provide enough time for humanitarians to deliver aid and conduct medical evacuations. 

Several council members criticized the Russian proposal. 

“This is cynical, callous and in flagrant defiance of the demands of [Resolution] 2401,” said U.S. envoy Kelley Currie. “The cessation of hostilities is for at least 30 days, every day, all day. Russia does not get to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the resolution they negotiated and they sat here and voted for.”

The sentiment was shared by Britain’s U.N. ambassador.

“Humanitarian pauses of a few meager hours are no substitute for a sustained cease-fire, which is vital to ensure delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance and medical evacuations,” British envoy Jonathan Allen said. “If Russia is able to deliver a five-hour pause, let it deliver a 24-hour one, as they agreed on Saturday.”

Russia’s envoy responds

“Only our country is called upon to implement Resolution 2401,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said with visible irritation. “We are criticized for humanitarian pauses. There are assertions that there are insufficient numbers of them. There are demands, demands, demands. For some reason, someone is always demanding something in an authoritative tone from the Russian Federation.”

Nebenzia accused council members of misinterpreting the resolution, saying pauses must be preceded by an agreement of the parties on the ground for de-escalation.

Armed groups

The main armed groups in eastern Ghouta sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday saying they were ready to abide by the cease-fire and guarantee protection for aid convoys to their areas.

Representatives of Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham also agreed to expel, within 15 days of the truce going into effect, elements of banned groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Nusra Front and al-Qaida who have taken refuge in eastern Ghouta.

Several Security Council members welcomed this as a positive move.

Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more fighting Wednesday in eastern Ghouta.

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Facebook: No New Evidence Russia Interfered in Brexit Vote

Facebook Inc has told a British parliamentary committee that further investigations have found no new evidence that Russia used social media to interfere in the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Facebook UK policy director Simon Milner in a letter Wednesday told the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture Media and Sport that the latest investigation the company undertook in mid-January to try to “identify clusters of coordinated Russian activity around the Brexit referendum that were not identified previously” had been unproductive.

Using the same methodology that Facebook used to identify U.S. election-related social media activity conducted by a Russian propaganda outfit called the Internet Research Agency, Milner said the social network had reviewed both Facebook accounts and “the activity of many thousands of advertisers in the campaign period” leading up to the June 23, 2016 referendum.

He said they had “found no additional coordinated Russian-linked accounts or Pages delivering ads to the UK regarding the EU Referendum during the relevant period, beyond the minimal activity we previously disclosed.”

At a hearing on social media political activity that the parliamentary committee held in Washington earlier in February, Milner had promised the panel it would disclose more results of its latest investigation by the end of February.

At the same hearing, Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy, said that her company had “conducted a thorough investigation around the Brexit referendum and found no evidence of Russian interference.”

In his letter to the committee, Facebook’s Milner acknowledged that the minimal results in the company’s Brexit review contrasted with the results of Facebook inquiries into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. The company’s U.S. investigation results, Milner said, “comport with the recent indictments” Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller issued against Russian individuals and entities.

Following its Washington hearing, committee chairman Damian Collins MP said his committee expected to finish a report on its inquiry into Social Media and Fake News in late March and that the report is likely to include recommendations for new British laws or regulations regarding social media content.

These could include measures to clarify the companies’ legal liability for material they distribute and their obligations to address social problems the companies’ content could engender, he said.

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South Sudan Rebels: Government Forces Killed Rebel Base Commander

A commander allied to South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar was killed during clashes in Yei River state on Monday.

A rebel spokesman said Felix Likambu Faustino, the SPLA-IO base commander for Yankonye village, was killed when government forces attacked his troops.

 

Col. Lam Paul Gabriel, the deputy military spokesman of the Machar faction, said government forces attacked their positions along the Yei-Maridi road, leading to clashes that lasted several hours.

Government military spokesman Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang denied that government forces attacked the rebels’ positions, saying the clashes were between rival opposition forces operating in the area.

“There was no engagement between SPLA forces and different rebel groups. The reports we have been getting for the last three days indicated that the rebel groups loyal to [Thomas] Cirilo and Riek Machar have been fighting among themselves,” Koang told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

Bishop Hillary Adeba of Yei Diocese of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan confirmed fighting occurred on the outskirts of Yei town.

“We are very shocked and worried, because we have been hearing violations of the [recent cease-fire] through gunshots around Yei. The warring parties should observe the cessation of hostilities agreement because people in the rural areas are very tired throughout the four years [of war],” Adeba told South Sudan in Focus.

Adeba said the civilians need peace so they can begin rebuilding their lives.

Gabriel said the SPLA-IO is committed to adhering to the cessation of hostilities agreement signed in December at a conference aimed at reviving the collapsed 2015 peace agreement.

Kuong also said his forces are committed to the cessation agreement.

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Lion Kills Woman at Refuge of South African ‘Lion Whisperer’

A lion that mauled a young woman to death in South Africa was under the care of a man known as the “lion whisperer” for his close interactions with the predators.

Kevin Richardson, who keeps lions at his animal sanctuary in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, said on Facebook that he and an “experienced” colleague took three lions for a walk in the reserve on Tuesday and that one chased an impala, eventually encountering the 22-year-old woman at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

Richardson said he followed procedure before the weekly excursion by assessing the area for other “big five” animals, a designation that includes rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion, and sending out a “notification” that he was walking with lions.

The woman died at a tented camp run by Richardson, who said he was “devastated” by the killing. 

“The young woman was not a guest at the camp, but had accompanied her friend to conduct an interview for an assignment with the camp’s manager,” he said. “Before leaving the reserve, the two visitors were taking photographs outside the camp where the attack occurred.”

A police investigation was under way. The victim had joined a friend who went to the camp for a “school project,” said spokeswoman Constable Connie Moganedi. “When they were about to leave, the lioness attacked the young lady.”

The victim’s family is “traumatized,” said Moganedi, who declined to provide details about the victim.

The “intimate glam camp” with five tents is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg’s main international airport, according to Richardson’s website.

The management of the Dinokeng reserve said the woman was killed “within a conservation section that is not accessible to the general public” but lies within the reserve’s boundaries.

“The lion that was involved with this fatality was not one of the wild free-roaming lions of the Dinokeng Game Reserve,” the management said.

‘Canned hunting’

Some conservationists say captive-bred lions lose their fear of people and should not be released into the wild, partly because they pose a heightened threat to humans.

In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Richardson said he does not breed lions and that those on his 1,300-hectare (3,200-acre) property feed on donated carcasses of cattle and antelope. He said he hoped his hands-on interaction with lions, including caressing and cavorting, would help to highlight the plight of Africa’s wild lions. Their numbers have plummeted over several decades.

Richardson campaigns against the South African industry in which customers kill captive-bred lions in relatively confined areas, and told the AP that many of the lions in his care were rescued from being transferred to facilities where the practice labeled by critics as “canned hunting” occurs.

“I have been accepted as part of the pride,” he said in the interview. “But I have to be very careful. They are large animals and are very good at telling you how they feel.”

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Turkey Resists International Calls to Abide by UN Syria Cease-Fire

Turkey is pushing back against international calls for it to abide by a U.N.-backed cease-fire in Syria. The U.N. call for a truce comes as Ankara continues to escalate its offensive in the Syrian enclave of Afrin against the YPG Kurdish militia.

“Baseless,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamdi Aksoy called comments by U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who said that the U.N. cease-fire applies to Turkish forces.

“Turkey is more than welcome to go back and read the exact text of this U.N. Security Council resolution, and (I) would suggest that they do so,” Nauert said Tuesday.

“We urge the U.S. to focus on stopping the regime from attacking innocent civilians instead of making statements that help terrorists,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry shot back in a statement.

 

Equally strong language was aimed at Paris, with Ankara rejecting a French Foreign Ministry statement that President Emmanuel Macron had also called for Turkey to observe the U.N. cease-fire during a call to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Dishonest,” said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Aksoy of the Paris claims, adding the French readout of the presidential conversation was “giving false information to the public.”

‘Ankara has found itself alone’

“It’s not just Paris and Washington. Russia has made a statement on this (abiding by the U.N. cease-fire).  Iran could jump in. Ankara has found itself alone and they didn’t see this coming,” claims political columnist Semih Idiz, of the Al Monitor website.

“But Ankara will continue the [military] operation because it’s too far gone to declare a cease-fire. Because they (Ankara) also fear if they stop for 30 days, they may find it diplomatically difficult to restart. This operation is too important for Ankara. They believe they are facing an existential threat,” Idiz added.

Turkish-led forces in Operation Olive Branch are targeting the YPG Kurdish militia, which Turkey accuses of being linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. The YPG is a key ally of Washington in its war against Islamic State. Despite international calls for a cease-fire and de-escalation in fighting in Syria, Erdogan announced a ratcheting up of the offensive, claiming it was about to enter a new phase. “Let everyone be ready for conscription, though the need is not immediate. We are just before a new resurrection,” said Erdogan at a rally.

“It’s like in Vietnam (referring to the U.S. war in Vietnam),” says political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “This operation is prone for more escalation. There is no way the Turkish government can dare to lose Afrin. I think it will be an all-out war to ensure Afrin will be properly occupied.”

Ankara has announced the sending of special forces drawn from both the paramilitary police and army to Syria. Their deployment is part of preparations for an eventual assault on Afrin’s main city, also called Afrin. Turkish forces have experience in urban warfare, having spent months removing insurgents from towns and cities across Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast two years ago. The fighting claimed many civilian lives and caused major destruction and displacement of an estimated half-million people.

Turkish ministers claim the experience gained from the fighting means its forces are well prepared for any assault in Afrin. But urban operations inside Turkey were mainly against largely poorly trained and armed fighters, many of whom were teenagers.

‘Very messy situation’

Analysts warn any assault on Afrin, home to several hundred thousand people, is likely to be a very different proposition. “There will be significant defensive preparations. Of course Turkish special forces have some experience, but they will be facing very battle-hardened fighters, armed and backed by at least one superpower or possibly two superpowers,”  Idiz pointed out.

“Turkey will face a very messy situation,” Idiz warned.  “It will have street-to-street war. It’s a very dangerous situation, with the risk of high casualties and the risk of collateral damage. This will carry the conflict to a new level. Obviously, the international community will weigh in,” added Idiz.

Observers suggest the Turkish military buildup could be a ploy to force the YPG Kurdish militia to quit Afrin. But an expert on Kurdish affairs, speaking anonymously, warned the militia will likely fight to the end, due to the city’s important symbolism to the Kurdish movement. “It will be their Stalingrad,” the expert said, referring to the bitter World War II battle between Russian and German forces in which over 1 million people died.

 

The Turkish president, too, is drawing on history, equating the current Syrian operation to Turkey’s independence war. Analysts suggest Erdogan will likely remain impervious to international pressure, especially with general and presidential elections due within 18 months.

“Erdogan will dare to escalate the military operation in order to get a much better position domestically,” predicts international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “But at the end of day, Turkey will suffer financially, diplomatically and militarily. Turkey cannot win this war.”

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South Africa Explores Constitutional Change to Allow Land Seizures

South Africa’s parliament voted Tuesday to examine how to amend the constitution to allow land seizures without compensation, a move that resonates deeply in a nation where the white minority still controls much of the farmland.

But the strongest proponent of the motion immediately sought to reassure the nation that nothing too drastic would come of it.

“No one is going to lose his or her house, no one is going to lose his or her flat, no one is going to lose his or her factory or industry,” Julius Malema, who leads the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, said immediately following the vote. “All we are saying is they will not have the ownership of the land, they will have a lease, depending on what is the arrangement, particularly as it relates to the outcome of the Constitutional review process.”

​Another Zimbabwe?

There are fears the vote will put South Africa on the same path as neighboring Zimbabwe, where forceful, violent seizures of white-owned farms in the early 2000s were blamed for the nation’s economic freefall and political instability. 

The ruling African National Congress also supported Tuesday’s motion, but with the provision that land seizures cannot hurt agricultural production, economic stability or political stability — a fairly large and vague loophole, analysts say.

​The loudest group in support of land seizures, the Black First Land First Movement, has denounced the motion as nothing but an “electioneering gimmick” by the ANC.

“Black First Land First is concerned that the Economic Freedom Fighters and the African National Congress are not serious about land expropriation without compensation,” the group said in a statement.  

Painful history

But as Malema knows, South Africa’s soil is stained by hundreds of years of colonial exploitation, by the blood and sweat shed by underpaid, mostly black laborers working for white bosses. Today, black South Africans, who are the majority of the population, remain on average significantly poorer than white South Africans.

With a critical national election looming, Malema used this emotional pull to full effect when arguing in favor of the motion in parliament:

“The time for reconciliation is over,” he said. “Now is the time for justice. If the grandchildren of [early Dutch settler] Jan van Riebeeck have not understood that we need our land, that over and above it is about our humanity, then they have failed to receive the gift of humanity.”

The opposition Democratic Alliance voted against the measure, and blames the slow pace of land redistribution on the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, but now faces a tough election next year as it has slowly lost ground to the opposition. 

Democratic Alliance Shadow Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Ken Robertson, began his speech by exhorting in Zulu, “People are suffering.”

“The ANC government does not have a land problem, we have a problem with the way the ANC are handling land,” he said. “People were dispossessed of their land and their dignity by the discriminatory laws of the past, the painful past that can never be forgotten. The ANC’s call for expropriation without compensation is a lazy attempt to divert attention away from the real reasons that lie at the heart of the slow pace of meaningful land reform and restitution.”

​Missing facts

While this debate has no shortage of fiery rhetoric, what it lacks, says analyst Ebrahim Fakir, is any concrete details.

Because of a general lack of facts and an abundance of rhetoric, Fakir was one of several analysts who told VOA that recent developments have left them confused.

“At present, all bets are off,” he said. “No one knows how and what this could mean. Theoretically, it could even mean that it does actually end up denying a regime of protection of private property.”

No reliable figures on land ownership in South Africa exist, although a recent government study found that only a third of the nation’s land is privately owned.

Furthermore, it’s unclear how the constitution would be changed, if at all. Tuesday’s vote mobilized parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee to deliver a report on the topic by August 30. Any changes to the constitution require a 75 percent vote.

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