Iran Designates All US Troops in Middle East as Terrorists

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a bill into law on Tuesday declaring all U.S. forces in the Middle East terrorists and calling the U.S. government a sponsor of terrorism.

The bill was passed by parliament last week in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s decision this month to designate Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization.

It was not clear what the impact of the new Iranian law might have on U.S. forces or their Middle East operations.

Rouhani instructed the ministry of intelligence, ministry of foreign affairs, the armed forces, and Iran’s supreme national security council to implement the law, state media reported.

The law specifically labels as a terrorist organization the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

“These two forces (Guards and CENTCOM) that are designated as terrorist groups reciprocally might confront (each other) in the Persian Gulf or any other region. The United States will surely be responsible for such a situation,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA on Tuesday.

The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the Guards, but until Trump’s decision not the organization as a whole.

Comprising an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) also command the Basij, a religious volunteer paramilitary force, and control Iran’s ballistic missile programs. The Guards’ overseas Quds forces have fought Iran’s proxy wars in the region.

Long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse in May 2018 when Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions.

Revolutionary Guards commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. bases in the Middle East and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within range of Iranian missiles.

Rouhani said on Tuesday the Islamic Republic will continue to export oil despite U.S. sanctions aimed at reducing the country’s crude shipments to zero.

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Governments Prepare for May Day Protests Worldwide

Major cities around the world have ramped up security, increasing police presence and even using drones to monitor crowds expected at May Day rallies.

International Workers’ Day, which is commonly known as May Day, celebrates the international labor movement on the first day of May every year. It’s a national holiday in more than 80 countries around the world.

France, which has been recently rankled by violent anti-government yellow vest protests, plans to deploy more than 7,400 police and dozens of drones in Paris. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said there was a risk that “radical activists” could join anti-government yellow vest protesters and union workers Wednesday in the streets of Paris and across the country. He said the goal was to protect demonstrators with “legitimate aspirations” and defend Paris from calls on social media to make it “the capital of rioting.”

He said other cities around France were also on alert.

In Germany, more than 5,500 officers will be deployed in Berlin where protesters, led by the “1 May Revolutionaries,” have been for weeks calling on people to demonstrate. As many as 20,000 activists are expected to protest against gentrification in the eastern district of Friedrichshain.

Across the world in Jakarta, police spokesman Commander Argo Yuwono said there will be 1,500 personnel deployed for a protest in the Istora Senayan area and 25,000 for a protest near the State Palace. He said more than 40,000 protesters are expected to take to the streets of Indonesia’s capital.

Turkish police have barricaded Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where May Day demonstrations have been held for years. The square was blocked off even though city authorities denied permits for rallies there this year. Taksim Square gained notoriety on May Day in 1977, when 34 demonstrators were killed when shots were fired from a nearby building. Hundreds of others were injured, but no one has been brought to justice for the shooting. 

In Iran, 12 members of the Free Workers Trade Union of Iran have been arrested as they met to plan International Workers’ Day celebrations, local media reported. Iran does not recognize labor unions independent of government-sanctioned groups. 

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Democrats Vow to Enforce Subpoenas as Trump Resistance Grows

Democrats are steeling for a no-holds-barred fight with President Donald Trump as the White House ignores subpoenas, denies access to witnesses and otherwise stonewalls congressional oversight in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

In the latest case, Trump, his family and the Trump Organization have filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank and Capital One attempting to thwart congressional subpoenas into his financial and business dealings, asserting the requests are out of bounds.

That comes as Trump’s Treasury Secretary is declining to produce the president’s tax returns, Attorney General William Barr is threatening to back out of his agreement to appear this week before the Judiciary Committee and former White House Counsel Don McGahn and other officials are being told not to testify before Congress.

The standoff pits the legislative and executive branches in a constitutional showdown not seen since the Watergate era. Neither side is expected to back down. Trump says since Mueller finished his report of Russian interference into the election, there’s no further need to investigate. And while Democrats say it’s their duty to conduct oversight and are adamant that they will win in the end, they are also confronting the limits of their own enforcement powers.

“He’s prepared to fight us tooth and nail. And we’re prepared to fight him back,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Ca., the chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee. “He obviously has something to hide.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is urging the committee chairmen to push forward with their oversight agendas, shelving for now calls from the left flank to launch impeachment hearings against Trump.

Congress has a range of tools available to try to force compliance from the White House, either through civil lawsuits compelling administration officials to testify or produce documents, or by holding others in contempt of Congress with fines or even, in rare cases, jail time.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, made a criminal referral to the Justice Department about Erik Prince, the founder of the security firm Blackwater, alleging he lied to the committee in 2017.

Schiff said Tuesday there is strong evidence that Prince, a prominent supporter of Trump, “willingly misled” the intelligence committee as it probed connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

“The evidence is so weighty that the Justice Department needs to consider this,” Schiff said.

Congress is buckling in for several actions in the aftermath of Mueller’s report, which did not find that Trump or his campaign knowingly conspired with Russia in the 2016 election. But the report pointedly did not clear the president of obstruction of justice and, in fact, recounted 10 instances where Trump tried to interfere with the investigation.

For lawmakers, their ability to conduct oversight of the White House is a core responsibility that extends beyond investigating the president into agency actions that can touch the lives of Americans.

“If the executive branch can deny the legislative branch the ability to bring witnesses to testify under oath and for the production of documents, the executive branch will have essentially eliminated the oversight function of Congress,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Yet while Democrats have vowed to go to court, those proceedings could last years, possibly past Trump’s tenure. And if they chose to hold officials in criminal contempt, which would take a vote of the full House, it would be referred to Department of Justice officials unlikely to side with the Democrats.

 

Some Democrats have thrown out other options: daily fines for not showing up, for example, or cutting appropriations for an official’s agency. But those ideas might not be politically popular.

There’s also an option that would be even more contentious and hasn’t been used in decades — trial and even imprisonment by Congress. Called “inherent contempt,” this process was often used in the country’s early years but hasn’t been employed in almost a century. While Democrats have vowed to use all of the available legal tools, they have shown no interest in going that far.

Despite drawbacks, Democrats say they will have to fight on multiple fronts to get the witnesses and documents they need.

“If you let them get away with this, then what do you have?” said House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings on Monday. “If the president can get away with blocking any information and anybody from testifying before the Congress, what road are we going down?”

Schiff and Waters, whose committees subpoenaed Deutsche Bank and others in April over the president’s finances, said in a joint statement that Trump’s “unprecedented stonewalling will not work.”

Schiff said he wants to know whether Russians used laundered money for transactions with the Trump Organization. Trump’s businesses have benefited from Russian investment over the years.

Eric Trump, executive vice president of The Trump Organization, called Democrats “deranged” and the subpoenas a form of “presidential harassment.”

In the other incident stemming from Schiff’s committee, Prince testified to the panel that a meeting in the Seychelles islands with a Russian with ties to President Vladimir Putin was a chance encounter.

Mueller’s report said investigators couldn’t iron out the “conflicting accounts” about the meeting. Prince told Mueller’s investigators that he had briefed Bannon about it, but Bannon told them they never discussed it. Part of the problem is that text messages between them were missing.

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France Ramps up Security Measures for May Day Protests

French authorities announced tight security measures for May Day demonstrations, with the interior minister saying there was a risk that “radical activists” could join anti-government yellow vest protesters and union workers Wednesday in the streets of Paris and across the country.

More than 7,400 police will be deployed, aided by drones to give them an overview of the protests and a quicker way to head off potential violence.

“Tomorrow, there is a risk,” said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, adding that the goal is to protect demonstrators with “legitimate aspirations” and defend Paris from calls on social media to make it “the capital of rioting.”

Authorities fear that 1,000 to 2,000 “radical activists” could descend on the May Day marches, bolstered by people from outside France, he told a news conference. He said other cities around France were also on alert.

French police have banned demonstrations on the Champs-Elysees Avenue, around the presidential palace in Paris and near Notre Dame Cathedral, which was gutted by devastating fire on April 15.

Among a raft of other security measures, French police ordered over 580 shops, restaurants and cafes on the Paris protest route to close and plan to search demonstrators’ bags and carry out identity checks at departure points into Paris, including train and bus stations.

The main union protest on Wednesday runs from Montparnasse train station in Paris to the Place d’Italie station in southern Paris.

Castaner also told reporters that he had banned the arrival of several “foreigners identified as susceptible of coming to destroy.”

Paris has been scarred by looting, arson and violence during the past few months of yellow vest protests over economic grievances, and French authorities are haunted by the serious violence that has broken out at May Day demonstrations in the past two years.

Authorities are particularly wary of the black-clad, masked and hooded extremists who have joined recent protests with the express goal of attacking police and damaging property. They often target symbols of capitalism or globalization, and turned out in the hundreds at last year’s May Day protest.

French President Emmanuel Macron last week tried to address the complaints of the yellow vest movement by announcing tax cuts for middle-class workers and an increase in pensions.

But many yellow vests consider the government’s plans insufficient, and want to keep alive the movement that started in November to oppose a fuel tax and quickly expanded into broad public rejections of Macron’s economic policies.

The movement was named after the fluorescent jackets that French motorists are required to keep in their cars.

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Enigmatic Beluga Whale Off Norway Lets People Pet It

A beluga whale found in Arctic Norway wearing a harness that suggests links to a military facility in Russia is so tame that residents can pet the mammal on its nose.

The white whale found frolicking in the frigid harbor of Tufjord, a hamlet near Norway’s northernmost point, has become “a huge attraction” for locals, one resident said Tuesday. The whale is so comfortable with people that it swims to the dock and retrieves plastic rings thrown into the sea.

“The whale is so tame that when you call it, it comes to you,” said Linn Saether, adding the whale also reacts to yells and when humans splash their hands in the water.

She said when she throws out a plastic ring, the beluga whale brings it back to her as she sits on the dock.

“It is a fantastic experience, but we also see it as a tragedy. We can see that it has been trained to bring back stuff that is thrown at sea,” Saether, 37, told The Associated Press. 

 

The whale was found with a tight harness reading “Equipment St. Petersburg” in English. The hamlet has a dozen permanent residents and less than 100 people in the warmer season.

“The talk in this hamlet is that it could have escaped from a Russian military facility or even have swam from St. Petersburg, Florida, because of the English-language text,” Saether said.

It was not immediately known whether any of the dolphin and whale facilities in St. Petersburg, Florida, were missing a beluga whale. 

 

On Friday, a fisherman jumped into the frigid Arctic water to remove the harness, which has a mount for a camera, from the whale. It wasn’t clear why the strap was attached to the mammal.

Russian navy

Audun Rikardsen, a professor at the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe, northern Norway, said he believes “it is most likely that Russian Navy in Murmansk” was involved.

Murmansk is the headquarters for Russia’s Northern Fleet, the single most powerful fleet in the Russian navy. The city is located on the Kola Peninsula, in far northwestern Russia close to the Norwegian border.

Russian authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the whale.

But Mikhail Barabanov, a Russian naval analyst at the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies think tank, downplayed any links to the Russian military.

“Even if there are military programs for using marine animals for navy purposes, they are unlikely to belugas, and such animals are unlikely to be released into the open ocean,” he told AP in an email. 

 

“I think that these Norwegian idiots simply robbed certain Petersburg zoologists” who were trying to track whales, Barabanov said. 

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Police: Kidnapped Nigerian Government Official and Daughter Freed

A Nigerian government official and his daughter kidnapped by gunmen on the main highway from the capital Abuja were freed a day later, police said Tuesday.

Mohammed Mahmoud Abubakar, chairman of Nigeria’s Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) which works to improve the quality of school teaching, was seized Monday afternoon along with his daughter.

Gunmen ambushed their car and killed their driver. Two other people in a different car were injured in the attack.

“Mohammed Mahmoud Abubakar, the Chairman of UBEC and his daughter, Yesmin Mohammed, who were kidnapped yesterday along Abuja-Kaduna expressway, have been released,” police said in a statement.

A man was arrested and an AK-47 automatic rifle seized, but no further details of the release were given.

There have been several recent attacks on the busy 189-kilometer (117-mile) highway between Abuja and Kaduna.

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White House, Democrats Agree on Price Tag for Infrastructure

There has been a rare instance of agreement between opposition Democrat leaders in Congress and the administration of President Donald Trump. The two sides are pledging to work together on creating a huge infrastructure package.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, standing alongside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer outside the White House, told reporters they and the president on Tuesday agreed on a number — two trillion dollars in funding for infrastructure projects that will include fixing roads, bridges and waterways, as well as improving the power grid and broadband access.

“Building infrastructure of America has never been a bipartisan issue,” said Pelosi. “And we hope to go forward in a very non-partisan way for the future.”

The Democrats say they will meet again with the president in about three weeks to discuss how the infrastructure projects will be funded.

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Terror Attacks on the Rise in Burkina Faso

Violence fueled by extremists is on the rise in the West African nation of Burkina Faso and appears to be getting worse.

In April more than 65 people died in ethnic clashes inflamed by Islamist extremists seeking to gain a stronghold in the Sahel. On Sunday, four worshippers and a pastor were killed when gunmen targeted a church in the small northern town of Silgadji, local security sources said.

“What we fight against, what we see every day is like a toxin,” Lt. Col. Kanou Coulibaly of the Burkina Faso Armed Forces told VOA.

Use the arrows below to navigate to Carla Babb’s video reports from Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso has seen more than 230 attacks in just over three years, and the United States is hoping local forces can increase pressure on the militants, even as the U.S. military decreases its force numbers in the region.

The attacks began shortly after the country elected its first new leader in decades, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, in 2015. 

U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso Andrew Young tells VOA that the violence has quickly spread across a nation virtually untouched by terrorism just a few years ago. 

“They’re trying to target the resilience of this community, which has lived in harmony for thousands of years. There are Muslims and Christians who are in the same family, and those terrorist groups (are trying) to break down a stable society and attack a fragile democracy,” Young said. 

Now, just as instability provided terrorists an opening to infiltrate in Iraq and Syria, Islamist groups are planting their flags in West African nations like Burkina Faso.

“We know that al-Qaida considers the Sahel right here to be a very important area for them to deliberately and quietly build infrastructure. They’ve been doing this for a number of years, and they’ve been fairly successful,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, tells VOA.

Speaking on the sidelines of Flintlock, a major U.S.-led military exercise held in Burkina Faso involving more than 30 African and Western countries that ended in March, Hicks says, “At this time, we are not winning” the counterterrorism war in West Africa. 

Officials worry that if the terrorists win in Burkina Faso, the country could become a launchpad for terrorists to expand their influence to West Africa’s coast and beyond.

US, international training 

That’s why training exercises with Sahel nation forces are critical, Hicks says. African militaries learn skills ranging from how to plan operations to how to treat and evacuate the wounded.

Burkinabe Gendarmes First Lt. Robert Compaore says the newly honed skills make a big difference on the battlefield. 

In response to the uptick in violence, the U.S. embassy has tripled its funding to Burkina Faso for security assistance.

But instead of bringing in more troops, the U.S. is actually decreasing its numbers in West Africa. About 1,000 American troops will remain in the region, and Hicks says that’s still enough forces to help build local security partners. 

However, he does not recommend further cuts and has warned the terrorism threat will be “a long-term problem.”

The military is not the only security prong to receive U.S. and international training in Burkina Faso. The United States also funded training for law enforcement units who would likely serve as first responders to attacks in the capital, Ouagadougou.

“So we move from battlefield to custody, chain of custody, judicial process to accountability through the rule of law system. That’s the key to success in the long term,” Ambassador Young says.

But the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Security Officer Rosendo “Rosie” Cedeno says there is a major hitch in that system — terrorism cases are not going to trial. 

“So here in Burkina Faso, there are a lot of terrorism cases. And one of the challenges is that they haven’t been able to prosecute a case just yet,” Cedeno said.

Sources familiar with Burkinabe terrorism cases tell VOA there are about 400 cases involving nearly 200 terror suspects imprisoned in Burkina Faso with no trial date. 

The government of Burkina Faso has not replied to VOA requests for comment.

In response to the backlog, the U.S. embassy has sent a U.S. prosecutor from the Department of Justice to help build and try these cases. 

Education targeted in attacks 

The United Nations reports more than 100,000 people have been displaced this year in the Burkina Faso because of violence. The threat from jihadist violence is now so severe in Burkina Faso that is preventing about 5,000 teachers and 150,000 children from going to school.

“Any Burkinabe must be concerned because to destroy a country, you just need to destroy education,” education advocate Hawa Bissiri, of Burkina Faso’s IQRA Association, told VOA.

For displaced teacher Sia Michael, “It’s a matter of life and death.”

As he spoke to VOA at a local elementary school playground in the capital, he remembered the joy of his students before Islamic militants burned down his school and forced him to flee. 

“What are you going to do? You have to leave. Once they burn down the school, then your life is next,” he said.

The school closings have spread across the country’s east and north, where jihadists from neighboring Mali and Niger have spilled over the borders.

Opposed to Western education, the militants destroy some schools like Michael’s. Others are closed by teachers worried they’ll be targeted next.

Badina Joseph told VOA that Salafists showed up in December at his village near the country’s northern border with Mali and “warned teachers that if we did not move or start teaching in Arabic the following day, we better leave the village.”

He said the requirement was impossible since they didn’t speak the language, so teachers closed the schools and left before the holidays.

Officials are working to reopen some schools, but many fear children won’t attend as long as violence remains on the rise.

Mamadou Diop and Issa Napon contributed to this report.

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