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Snow, High Winds hit Europe; Croatia Faces Swollen River

Croatian emergency crews and soldiers are struggling to contain the swollen Sava River that has reached record levels southeast of the capital, Zagreb.

Authorities say water levels Monday by the town of Jasenovac exceeded the highest-ever recorded by some 10 centimeters (4 inches). About a dozen houses in a nearby village are cut off. The Croatian state TV channel HRT says residents have refused to evacuate so emergency crews are delivering food and water by boat.

Experts say the Sava is expected to rise further in the coming days due to fresh snow.

To the east, snow and freezing rain have delayed dozens of flights and some trains in Romania amid an unseasonal cold snap.

Valentin Iordache, the spokesman for Bucharest airports, reported 30 flight delays Monday morning due to the wintry weather. Temperatures were around minus 5 Celsius (23 Fahrenheit). Trains running from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta and the southern city of Craiova were also delayed.

Weather forecasters issued an amber warning Monday for Bucharest and seven counties in southern and eastern Romania for sleet, snow and black ice.

Winter snow has also hit Germany, Hungary and Britain, among other European nations.


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Johnson: Russia’s Denial About Poisoning ‘Increasingly Absurd’

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson told his European Union counterparts at a meeting in Brussels Monday that Russia’s denial of its involvement in the poisoning on British soil of a former Russian spy is “a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation.”

Johnson said Russia’s continued denial of its participation in the nerve-agent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, is “growing increasingly absurd.”

Johnson added that “technical experts” from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will be in Britain Monday to take samples of the poison.

As the dispute between Britain and Russia continues to mount over the poisoning of Skripal, the Kremlin announced the expulsion of 23 British diplomats and Russia’s foreign ministry came up with yet another theory about the origin of the toxin used.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry listed four European countries as the most likely source for the Novichok nerve agent British officials say was used. Topping the list was Britain itself — the other three, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Sweden.

In an interview with a Russian state broadcaster on the eve of Russia’s presidential election Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested all three states, along with Britain, had been “carrying out intense research” on Novichok, but she offered no evidence for her assertion.

Worsening rift

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said Monday the suggestion that Sweden has stockpiles of Novichok is “just ridiculous and totally unfounded.” She said, “I think that they are trying to make some kind of diversion from the real issues here.”

German Foreign Minister Heilo Mass said, “All the information we have suggests that there is no alternative plausible explanation to the Russian side bearing a share of the responsibility.”

Czech Foreign Minister Martin Stropnicky rejected Zakharova’s assessment, saying, “We reject such groundless statement on the origins of the Novichok.”

With the rupture worsening between Britain and Russia over the nerve-agent poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, who were found slumped and unconscious on March 4 in a sleepy English cathedral town, British Prime Minister Theresa May is being urged by British lawmakers and analysts not to hesitate to seize assets invested in Britain of Russian plutocrats tied to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Targeting assets

Among property that should be targeted, say lawmakers eager for an immediate response to the expulsion of British diplomats, is property owned by companies registered to Russia’s first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov and the London house worth more than $150 million of oligarch Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea soccer club.

The Kremlin’s announcement Saturday of the expulsion of British diplomats had been the expected like-for-like response to the British government’s expulsion earlier of the same number of Russian diplomats. Last week, the British Prime Minister unveiled a raft of reprisals for what London says was a Kremlin-approved assassination attempt on Skripal, a double agent Putin vowed publicly once to kill, and his daughter.

British officials say father and daughter remain in critical condition. A policemen who was among the first to try to help the pair is still in hospital but is now in stable condition.


British toxicologists say Novichok was used in the assassination attempt.


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EU Criticizes Turkey’s Offensive in Syrian Town of Afrin

The European Union’s top diplomat criticized Turkey on Monday over its military offensive in a northern Syrian town, calling on Ankara to ensure that fighting eases in the conflict-torn country.


The appeal came as looting was widely reported in the town captured a day earlier by Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters, according to residents and monitors. Meanwhile, Turkey’s state-run news agency said 11 people — seven civilians and four Turkish-backed Syrian fighters — were killed in an explosion in a building in Afrin town center as it was being cleared of booby traps. Anadolu News agency said the bomb was reportedly left by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

On Sunday, Turkish troops and Syrian opposition fighters allied with Ankara marched into Afrin, nearly two months after Turkey began its offensive on the enclave. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish militia in Afrin a “terrorist” group and an extension of its own Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“I am worried about this,” Mogherini told reporters in Brussels on Monday, in reference to Turkey’s offensive in Afrin. She said that international efforts in Syria are supposed to be “aiming at de-escalating the military activities and not escalating them.”


Turkey views the local Kurdish militia, the People’s Defense Units or YPG, as a threat to its national security and has vowed to push it out of the district and away from its borders. The YPG retreated amid the swift Turkish offensive on Afrin’s town center, and vowed to start a “new phase” of fighting against the Turkish troops and allied fighters.


Meanwhile, Afrin residents and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported widespread looting and pillaging soon after Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters marched into the town center. The Observatory said the pillaging began on Sunday.


Images have emerged of torched stores, men in uniforms and others in civilian clothes walking out of homes with full loads of bales, while others were seen driving away with tractors and agriculture supplies.


A Syrian commander with the Free Syrian Army, which captured the district along with Turkish forces, blamed “thieves” for the looting. Moataz Raslan, a commander with the FSA, said a unit for protection of property has been formed to prevent further theft.


Thousands of Afrin residents, many of whom had earlier fled from the villages near the border with Turkey to the town center, streamed out of Afrin before the Turkish troops entered. Lines of vehicles and civilians on foot headed toward Syrian government-controlled areas to the south or other Kurdish-controlled areas.


Jiwan Mohamed, a doctor who worked at Afrin hospital, said the news from inside Afrin and images of looting were disturbing. The central Afrin hospital was bombed before the town center was captured, he said. The doctor said learned from contacts with those still inside Afrin that that more buildings were being burned.


Azad Mohamed, an Afrin resident who arrived Sunday in a region in the east of Syria after two days on the road, said looting began even before they entered the town center, in adjacent villages.


“If they have not yet stolen my things, they will in an hour,” he said. “We knew they would only leave the walls.”


Mohamed blamed the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia for failing to help people evacuate the town earlier with their belongings.


Syrian Kurdish officials have said that more than 800 YPG fighters have been killed in the 58 days of fighting for Afrin, and estimated that 500 civilians were killed. The Observatory puts the number of casualties at over 280 civilians, adding that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters have been killed since Jan.20. Turkey says it has taken all measures to avoid civilian casualties. Turkey says 46 of its soldiers were killed in the offensive.



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Bundesbank’s Buch Adds to Calls for Cryptocurrency Regulation

Regulation of cryptocurrencies must be considered, Bundesbank vice president Claudia Buch told Reuters, even though she does not believe they pose a threat to financial stability.

Buch said that speculation on volatile virtual tokens does not pose a systemic threat because it is not financed through credit, but she said that regulators should look at introducing rules to protect consumers, given that such speculation could prove costly for investors.

“The role of crypto tokens in money laundering and criminal activity must also be closely examined,” Buch said.

“I don’t see a threat for financial stability at the moment as the speculations are generally not financed with loans and the relevant markets are rather small.”

The issue of how to regulate cryptocurrencies is likely to be high on the agenda at a March 19-20 meeting of Group of 20 finance leaders in Argentina.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christi ne Lagarde has urged governments and central banks to develop regulations for such assets to prevent them from becoming a newvehicle for money laundering and terrorist financing.

Japan has also urged its G20 partners to act on preventing cryptocurrencies from becoming a vehicle to finance criminal activities.

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From Paris with Love: Depardieu votes in Russian Election

One of Russia’s most famous citizens, French film star Gerard Depardieu, joined the millions who cast ballots in Sunday’s presidential election.

Depardieu, a friend of President Vladimir Putin who presented him with a Russian passport in 2013 during a tax row between the actor and French authorities, voted at the Russian Embassy in Paris.

The embassy tweeted a picture of the 69-year-old, wearing a coat with fur trim and sunglasses perched on his head, popping his ballot in the box.

“Gerard Depardieu voted in the Russian presidential election at a polling station at the Russian embassy in France. Come!,” it tweeted, urging other Russians in France to follow suit.

A video of the moment, tweeted by a reporter from Russian broadcaster RT, was widely circulated on French news sites, where it triggered a tide of mostly contemptuous responses.

“I don’t like insults but for me this man is a sellout,” one person tweeted in French. Another posted a GIF of a man vomiting.

Depardieu caused an uproar in 2012 when he declared he would hand back his French passport and move to Belgium to avoid a tax hike by the then Socialist government.

His popularity slumped further after he accepted a Russian passport — and a bear hug — from Putin.

The larger-than-life star of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and the Asterix & Obelix franchise, who is still a French citizen, has since become a staunch defender of the Kremlin’s policies, including its annexation of Crimea.

“I’m a citizen of the world,” he told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2016. “France is likely to become a Disneyland for foreigners, populated by imbeciles making wine and stinky cheese for tourists.”

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Lawmakers Say UK Should Consider Postponing Brexit

Britain should consider postponing Brexit because there may not be enough time to strike a deal with the European Union before the U.K. leaves the bloc a year from now, a key committee of British lawmakers said Sunday.


The House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee said if major aspects of the future relationship with the EU remain unsettled by October, Britain should seek a “limited extension” of its EU membership.


Britain and the EU want a deal on future relations settled by the fall so national parliaments can approve it before Britain officially leaves the 28-nation bloc on March 29, 2019.


In a report published Sunday, the lawmakers said a proposed transition period of about two years should be able to be extended if needed. The two sides have agreed in principle that Britain will continue to remain part of the bloc’s structures and rules until the end of 2020.


Seven pro-Brexit members of the 21-member, all-party committee refused to back the report, preparing an alternative version that took a more uncompromising tone toward the EU.


The majority-backed report said it is worrying that there has been “little progress” in solving the key issue of how to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.


Britain and the EU agree there must be no customs posts or other infrastructure along the all-but-invisible border, but the committee said Britain has yet to put forward credible proposals for how this could work.


“We know of no international border, other than the internal borders of the EU, that operates without checks and physical infrastructure,” said the committee’s chairman, Labour lawmaker Hilary Benn.


The pro-Brexit dissenters’ alternative document accused the EU of taking an unhelpful approach to the border issue. They suggested that new technology and “streamlined” customs arrangements can deliver a frictionless border.


Rather than having Britain seek to extend its EU membership, the minority group said the U.K should walk away without a deal if talks bog down.

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Albania Arrests 39 for Smuggling People Into Britain, US, Canada

Albanian police arrested 39 people on Saturday, including four police officers, on charges of having smuggled 1,000 Albanians to Britain, the United

States and Canada, and they were looking for a dozen others, including two Bulgarians.

Since Albania embraced democracy in 1990, many Albanians have chosen to migrate for a better life, even paying hefty sums to smugglers. Now they can travel freely in and out of the European Union’s Schengen zone, but still need visas for Britain and North America.

National police chief Ardi Veliu said seven criminal groups operating in Albania, Bulgaria, Spain, France, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Britain, Ireland, the United States and Canada had smuggled 1,000 people to Britain, the U.S. and Canada.

“Every person paid at least 7,000 pounds ($9,764) to get to the United Kingdom and from $24,000 to $30,000 to reach the U.S. and Canada,” Veliu told reporters.

He said the group had forged passports for those traveling and had helped them reach their destinations by traveling via other European countries, or through the Dominican Republic or other countries in South America.

Veliu said Albanian police had worked with U.S. colleagues and European agencies as well as with Interpol and EUROPOL. 

In a drive to convince the European Union to agree to start accession negotiations this June, Albania has stepped up its fight against crime and has lately seized 613 kilos of cocaine and busted a large cannabis smuggling group.

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Vatican Bows to Pressure, Releases Retired Pope’s Letter

Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican on Saturday released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.

The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation of why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.

In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” “anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume The Theology of Pope Francis.

“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

The Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications said Saturday that it was releasing the full text of the letter because of the controversy over the “presumed manipulation” of information when the volume was launched Monday with great fanfare on the eve of Francis’ anniversary.

No intent to censor

It said its decision to withhold part of the letter at the time was based on its desire for reserve, “not because of any desire to censor.”

The so-called “Lettergate” scandal has embarrassed the Vatican’s communications operations and fueled the growing chasm between supporters of Francis’ pastoral-focused papacy and conservatives who long for the doctrine-minded tenure of Benedict.

A Twitter hashtag of  #releasetheletter went viral among Catholic conservatives as the scandal widened.

The Secretariat for Communication, in particular, was accused of spreading “fake news” for having omitted key parts of Benedict’s letter and — as The Associated Press reported — digitally blurring a photograph of the document where Benedict started to explain why he wouldn’t comment on the book.

Photojournalism industry standards forbid such manipulation of a photo, especially if it alters the content and meaning of the image, as it did.

Many commentators noted the irony of accusations that the Vatican’s communications office was spreading “fake news,” since Francis dedicated his annual message for the church’s social communications day to fighting “fake news” and the distortion of information. Francis has frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.

Portion read aloud

The scandal began when the prefect of the communications office, Monsignor Dario Vigano, read part of Benedict’s letter aloud at the book presentation Monday. Vigano explained that he had sent Benedict the 11-volume set months ago in hopes of eliciting a theological commentary from the retired pope.

In the parts of Benedict’s letter that Vigano chose to read, Benedict confirmed that Francis has a solid theological and philosophical training and he praised the book initiative for showing the “interior continuity” between the two papacies. He wrote it was “foolish prejudice” to paint Francis as only a practical man devoid of theology and Benedict as a mere academic who knew nothing of the lives of ordinary faithful.

Vigano held up the letter as evidence of the theological continuity between the two papacies, an effort to blunt conservative critics of Francis’ mercy-over-morals priorities and emphasis on “discernment” over hard and fast doctrine.

But Benedict’s full caveat about his refusal to comment on the volume was never made public in Vigano’s presentation, press release or accompanying photo. That omission left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the volume and fully endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.

As a result, Vigano’s effort to show papal continuity effectively backfired. Benedict’s harsh criticism of German theologian Peter Huenermann, who penned one of the 11 books, laid bare the differences in theological approaches of the two popes.

The first hint there was more to the initial story came when a longtime Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister, published a transcript of what Vigano had read aloud at the presentation, which was more than what was included in the Vatican’s press release. Magister’s transcript of the letter contained Benedict’s initial explanation that he couldn’t read the 11 volumes because of  his age and other commitments, and therefore couldn’t comment on it.

Objection to Huenermann

Magister on Saturday reported that the omitted paragraph concerned Benedict’s objection to Huenermann, who has joined leading European progressive theologians since the 1980s in penning open letters attacking the policies of John Paul and Benedict.

Left unsaid is who was responsible for selecting Huenermann to write one of the 11 books in Francis’ anniversary anthology, given the author’s past attacks on the retired pope, who lives just across the Vatican gardens from Francis.

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