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European Union - POLSKA УКРАЇНА

Wildfire-plagued Portugal Declares Public Calamity as Braces for More

Parts of Portugal, beset by its deadliest summer of wildfires in living memory, were declared in a state of public calamity on Thursday as the government put emergency services on alert for further outbreaks.

It has borne the brunt of a heatwave that has settled over much of southern Europe, and more than three times as much forest has burned down in the country this summer as in an average year.

Since a single blaze killed 64 people in June, the government has been under pressure to come up with a strategic plan to limit the damage.

It said on Thursday the state of calamity would trigger “preventative effects” in the central and northern interior and parts of the southern Algarve region, while the meteorological office forecast temperatures would top 40 degrees centigrade in some places by Sunday.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa would also meet with military, police and rescue service commanders “for the maximum mobilization and pre-positioning of personnel in the areas of greatest risk,” the government said in a statement.

Since June’s tragedy, emergency services have made far greater efforts to evacuate villages and shut roads early in affected areas.

Still, nearly 80 people have been hurt in wildfires in the past week alone, according to the civil protection service.

Last Saturday, when a record 268 fires blazed countrywide, the government requested water planes and firemen from other European countries.

On Thursday, over 130 people were evacuated from villages in the Santarem district around 170 km (110 miles) northeast of Lisbon, where over 1,000 firefighters were battling flames.

With just over 2 percent of the EU landmass, Portugal accounts for almost a third of burnt areas in the union this year.

More than 163,000 hectares of forest have been lost there, more than three times higher than the average of the last 10 years, according to EU data.

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Timeline: Deadly Attacks in Western Europe

Following are some of the deadly attacks in Western Europe in recent years:

Aug. 17, 2017 — A van ploughs into crowds in the heart of Barcelona, killing at least 13 people, a regional official says, in what police say they are treating as a terrorist attack.

June 3, 2017 — Three attackers ram a van into pedestrians on London Bridge then stab revellers in nearby bars, killing eight people and injuring at least 48. Islamic State says its militants are responsible.

May 22, 2017 — A suicide bomber kills 22 children and adults and wounds 59 at a packed concert hall in the English city of Manchester, as crowds began leaving a concert by U.S. singer Ariana Grande.

April 7, 2017 — A truck drives into a crowd on a shopping street and crashes into a department store in central Stockholm, killing five people and wounding 15 in what police call a terrorist attack.

March 22, 2017 — An attacker stabs a policeman close to the British parliament in London after a car ploughs into pedestrians on nearby Westminster Bridge. Six people die, including the assailant and the policeman he stabbed, and at least 20 are injured in what police call a “marauding terrorist attack.”

Dec. 19, 2016 —  A truck ploughs into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 48. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says authorities are assuming it was a terrorist attack.

July 26, 2016 — Two attackers kill a priest with a blade and seriously wound another hostage in a church in northern France before being shot dead by French police. French President Francois Hollande says the two hostage-takers had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

July 24, 2016 — A Syrian man wounds 15 people when he blows himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach in southern Germany. Islamic State claims responsibility.

July 22, 2016 — An 18-year-old German-Iranian gunman apparently acting alone kills at least nine people in Munich. The teenager had no Islamist ties but was obsessed with mass killings. The attack was carried out on the fifth anniversary of twin attacks by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik that killed 77 people.

July 18, 2016 — A 17-year-old Afghan refugee wielding an axe and a knife attacks passengers on a train in southern Germany, severely wounding four, before being shot dead by police. Islamic State claims responsibility.

July 14, 2016 — A gunman drives a heavy truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice, killing 86 people and injuring scores more in an attack claimed by Islamic State. The attacker is identified as a Tunisian-born Frenchman.

June 14, 2016 — A Frenchman of Moroccan origin stabs a police commander to death outside his home in a Paris suburb and kills his partner, who also worked for the police. The attacker told police negotiators during a siege that he was answering an appeal by Islamic State.

March 22, 2016 — Three Islamic State suicide bombers, all Belgian nationals, blow themselves up at Brussels airport and in a metro train in the Belgian capital, killing 32 people. Police find links with attacks in Paris the previous November.

Nov. 13, 2015 — Paris is rocked by multiple, near simultaneous gun-and-bomb attacks on entertainment sites around the city, in which 130 people die and 368 are wounded. Islamic State claims responsibility. Two of the 10 known perpetrators were Belgian citizens and three others were French.

Jan. 7-9, 2015 — Two Islamist militants break into an editorial meeting of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7 and rake it with bullets, killing 17. Another militant kills a policewoman the next day and takes hostages at a supermarket on Jan. 9, killing four before police shoot him dead.

May 24, 2014 — Four people are killed in a shooting at the Jewish Museum in central Brussels. The attacker was French national Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, who was subsequently arrested in Marseille, France. Extradited, he is awaiting trial in Belgium.


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Britain ‘Confident’ of New Phase in Brexit Talks by October

Britain said on Thursday it was “confident” talks with the European Union would move toward discussing their future relationship by October, in contrast to warnings from the top EU negotiator that the target is receding.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government wants to push the discussion beyond the divorce settlement soon, to offer companies some assurance of what to expect after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.

But the bloc has repeated that until there is “sufficient progress” in the first stage of talks on the rights of expatriates, Britain’s border with EU member Ireland and a financial settlement, officials cannot consider future ties.

Last month, the EU’s top Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said talks on future relations had become less likely to start in October because of a lack of progress on the “divorce.”

“Government officials are working at pace and we are confident we will have made sufficient progress by October to advance the talks to the next phase,” a spokeswoman for Britain’s Department for Exiting the European Union said in a statement Thursday.

“As the Secretary of State [Brexit minister David Davis] has said, it is important that both sides demonstrate a dynamic and flexible approach to each round of the negotiations.”

A spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive, said the two sides had agreed on the talks’ structure: “The next round will be in the week of 28 August.”

On Wednesday, unidentified sources were quoted by Britain’s Sky News as saying the two sides might have to delay talks on their post-Brexit relationship until December because they would not make the progress required by the EU.

Future certainty

British businesses have demanded more certainty from the government over how a relationship with the EU will work after Brexit, saying they cannot make investment decisions otherwise.

According to a survey of 200 chief financial officers across Britain and other parts of Europe by Reuters, a majority of businesses are yet to change their strategic planning because of Brexit.

While 69 percent of businesses said they had not seen an impact from the vote on their strategic planning, 21 percent of the CFOs reported they had held off from expanding in Britain.

Confidence among CFOs in May’s ability to secure a positive deal for business is 3.5 out of 10, the survey showed.

Possibly responding to criticism that it is not prepared for the talks, May’s government this week published proposals for a future customs arrangement and for the border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

Both suggested that Britain wanted to mirror much of what is already in place, to reduce friction at borders, and said there should be no border posts or immigration checks between Ireland and the north.

But this would mean EU citizens wishing to enter Britain could do so by traveling to Ireland and crossing the border unchecked — something that is likely to antagonize many Britons who said that controlling immigration was a major reason for their referendum vote last year in favor of Brexit.

The EU is also likely to balk at the proposal, as it would be unlikely to accept the possibility of a free flow of non-EU standard goods into member state Ireland if Britain left the bloc’s customs union and single market.

An even more difficult part of the talks might be how much Britain should pay the EU when it leaves in March 2019. While saying it will meet its responsibilities on the “Brexit bill,” Britain has questioned suggestions from the EU that it must pay around 60 billion euros.

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Ukraine Scrambles to Quash Fallout From North Korea Allegations

Ukrainian officials and analysts were quick to deny allegations that the Soviet-era Yuzhmash arms factory was a likely source of engine technology used in North Korea’s missiles and to redirect suspicions to Russia.  

“It is a complex and bulky piece of equipment. It is simply not possible to supply it by bypassing export procedures,” said Mykola Sunhurovskyi, director of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank, to VOA’s Ukrainian Service. “What is possible, is for North Korea to obtain engines left behind after rocket dismantling in Russia. That could be possible. Meaning Russia could have kept the engines after it had taken apart the rockets, which had been slated for dismantling. Those could have been supplied.”

Michael Elleman, the author of a research report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Pyongyang probably got illicit help from inside Ukraine. But Elleman acknowledges that help also could have come from Russia.  

“There’s a lot of uncertainty as exactly how it could have been transferred. But, I think the likelihood is that the source is either in Russia or Ukraine,” Elleman told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.  

Elleman says he first became aware of the possibility of Ukrainian technology when he noticed similarities in photos of North Korea’s September 2016 ground test.

“Well, according to two sources that I’ve spoken with, the modifications that we’ve seen in North Korea – that modified engine has actually been seen in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean it was done by Yuzhnoye [Yuzhmash’s design bureau], it could have been done by others or simultaneously. This was a product that was made long ago and it’s just been leveraged by unsavory types who were able to extract it from either Ukraine or Russia.”

‘Completely untrue’

Yuzhmash, the Ukrainian factory, called the claims “completely untrue” and said it had not produced military-grade ballistic missiles since Ukraine’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union.  

“There is such a high level of confidentiality at the factory and in general it is ensured by a multi-level system of security, which includes not only Yuzhmash services, but also municipal and state services,” Yuzhmash Deputy Director Oleh Lebedev told Reuters TV.

Elleman was first quoted in The New York Times, which cited its own intelligence sources, saying that Ukraine was a likely source. 

But Elleman says that even if Ukraine was a source, he sees no indication Ukrainian authorities would have been involved.

“I don’t believe the Ukrainian government was responsible in any way,” he said. “And I suspect if it did occur in Ukraine, they may not have known. It’s likely they would not have known.”

Other analysts argue that North Korea can build its own engines and would not need help. But all agree it would be a good idea for Ukraine to allow an investigation.  

“I believe in this situation, the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] of Ukraine needs to invite the international community, with the first invitation to be extended to the USA, to conduct an investigation here in Ukraine, as well as globally to study exactly how North Korea was able to develop its missile program, whether there is a Chinese connection or a Russian connection,” said the director of Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies and former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Volodymyr Horbulin.  

“These are the two countries which maintain close relations with the DPRK [North Korea]. The proposal from Ukraine for such an investigation should put an end to constant attacks on our country by those who suggest that it is constantly trading in something banned by international accords or agreements,” said Horbulin.  

Possible implications for U.S.-Ukraine cooperation

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday ordered an official inquiry into whether any missile engine technology could have been supplied to North Korea. Some experts in Ukraine worry that the allegations could affect any U.S. decision on whether to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons to fend off Russia-backed separatists.

“There’s ongoing discussion about the possibility to transfer lethal weapons to Ukraine,” noted the Ukrainian Center for Army’s Ihor Fedyk. “This story may have a negative impact on the process,” he told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.  

There are concerns that other areas of bilateral cooperation, such as space programs, could be affected.  

“America is our strategic partner, a very serious strategic partner, in space programs,” said the acting head of Ukraine’s State Space Agency, Yurii Radchenko. “It is not in our interests to harm relations with U.S. official agencies.”

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert commented Tuesday, saying “We’re certainly aware of those reports that have come out. That’s an issue that we would take very seriously if that were to be the case.”  

“As a general matter, we don’t comment on intelligence reports. Ukraine, though, we have to say, has a very strong nonproliferation record. And that includes specifically with respect to the DPRK,” Nauert added.

The allegations surfaced as North Korea threatens to send missiles near the U.S. island territory of Guam.  

While Elleman’s allegations are investigated, the North Korean government appears to have stepped back from its threat to Guam, saying it will wait to see what further actions the United States takes.

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UK Vows Brexit Won’t Mean the Return of Irish Border Posts

The British government has vowed repeatedly to end the free movement of people from the European Union when the U.K. leaves the bloc in 2019. But on Wednesday it acknowledged that, in one area of the country, it won’t.

Britain said there must be no border posts or electronic checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic after Brexit, and it committed itself to maintaining the longstanding, border-free Common Travel Area covering the U.K. and Ireland.

“There should be no physical border infrastructure of any kind on either side of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” Conservative British Prime Minister Theresa May said.

That means free movement across the border for British, Irish — and EU —  citizens. After Britain leaves the bloc, EU nationals will be able to move without checks from Ireland to Northern Ireland, and onto other parts of the U.K.

Free movement among member states is a key EU principle, and has seen hundreds of thousands of people move to Britain and get jobs there since the bloc expanded into eastern Europe more than a decade ago.

Many Britons who voted last year to leave the EU cited a desire to regain control of immigration as a key reason.

In a paper outlining proposals for the Northern Ireland-Ireland border after Brexit, the British government insisted it will be able to control who can settle in the U.K. through work permits and other measures.

It said “immigration controls are not, and never have been, solely about the ability to prevent and control entry at the U.K.’s physical border.” Control of access to the labor market and social welfare are also “an integral part” of the immigration system, the paper added.

Northern Ireland is an especially thorny issue in Brexit talks, because it has the U.K.’s only land border with the EU — and because an open border has helped build the economic prosperity that underpins the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, British military checkpoints along the Ireland-Northern Ireland border have been dismantled, rendering it all but invisible. Thousands of people cross the 300-mile (500-kilometer) border every day.

Britain said it was determined that “nothing agreed as part of the U.K.’s exit in any way undermines” the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

The government’s Department for Exiting the European Union acknowledged that “unprecedented” solutions would be needed to preserve the peace process and maintain the benefits of an open border after Britain leaves the EU, its single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union.

It suggested a future “customs partnership” between Britain and the EU could eliminate the need for checks on goods crossing the border.

For agricultural and food products, Britain said one option could be “regulatory equivalence,” where the U.K. and EU agree to maintain the same standards. But it’s unclear what that would mean for Britain’s ability to trade with countries that do not always meet EU standards, such as the United States.

The Northern Ireland proposals came in a series of papers covering aspects of Brexit negotiations, which are due to resume in Brussels at the end of this month.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the document “brings some clarity and is certainly helpful to move this process forward.” But, he said, “there are still significant questions that are unanswered.”

European Commission spokeswoman Annika Breidthardt said Britain’s position papers — which come after allegations from EU officials that the U.K. is underprepared for the EU divorce negotiations — are “a positive step.”


“The clock is ticking and this will allow us to make progress,” she said.


Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.

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Plan to Silence Big Ben’s Beloved Bell Under Review

British Parliament officials said Wednesday they will review plans to silence Big Ben during four years of repairs after senior politicians criticized the lengthy muting of the beloved bell.

When the repairs were announced last year, officials said the massive bell in Parliament’s clock tower would be silenced for several months. But this week they said the ringing pause would last until 2021.

Prime Minister Theresa May said “it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.”

The 13.5 British ton (15.1 U.S. ton, 13.7 metric ton) bell has sounded the time almost uninterrupted since 1859, but it’s due to fall silent on Monday so repairs can be carried out on the Victorian clock and the Elizabeth Tower.

Officials say the silencing is needed to ensure the safety of workers.

Adam Watrobski, principal architect at the Houses of Parliament, rejected claims that the great bell that survived German bombing raids was the victim of overcautious health and safety regulations.

“It is quite simply that we can’t have the bells working with those people adjacent to it. It simply isn’t practical to do that,” he said.

In a statement Wednesday headlined “update on Big Ben’s bongs,” Parliament officials said that in light of the concerns expressed by lawmakers, authorities “will consider the length of time” Big Ben is stifled.

But they rejected calls to allow the bell to strike at night once workers have gone home. “Starting and stopping Big Ben is a complex and lengthy process,” they said.

The sound of Big Ben’s bongs became associated with Britain around the world during wartime BBC news broadcasts. It’s still heard live each day on BBC radio through a microphone in the belfry.

The BBC says it will use a recording during the renovation works.

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Iran’s Top General Makes Rare Visit to Ankara

In a rare visit, the head of Iran’s armed forces is in Turkey. The two neighbors have found themselves increasing rivals in Iraq and Syria, but both sides are trying to find common ground.

The chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Major General Mohammad-Hossein Baqeri, arrived in Ankara, leading a high-ranking military and political delegation, for three days of talks. It is the first visit by Iran’s chief of staff since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Regional rivalries

Former Turkish ambassador to Iraq Unal Cevikoz now heads the Ankara Policy Forum. He says conflicts in Iraq and Syria have exacerbated regional rivalries.

“Iran is becoming a very important actor in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “It seems Iran has certain intentions. And when we look at the Turkish Iranian relations pertaining to the situation in Iraq and Syria, it is obvious Turkey and Iran are not on the same page.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has positioned himself as an advocate of Sunni Muslim rights in the region and has been in the forefront of criticizing Tehran’s policy in Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan has strongly criticized the treatment of Sunnis by Iraqi militia backed by Tehran. Ankara is one of the main supporters of Syrian rebels fighting the Damascus government supported by Iran.

The Iranian general’s visit comes as Tehran, Ankara and Moscow are cooperating in what is called the Astana process to resolve the Syrian civil war. The conflict is expected to be discussed during the visit.

Idlib enclave

Political columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website says talks will include the Syrian enclave of Idlib, one of the last areas the rebel forces control.

“Idlib is a potential hornets nest. There is infighting there between two radical Islamist groups,” said Idiz. “One is considered nominally more moderate and supported by Turkey and the other one more close to ISIS in sentiment. It is not clear how that is going to play out in Idlib and [Syrian President] Assad is going to take advantage of that.”

Idlib borders Turkey, and there are growing concerns in Ankara that if it is overrun by Syrian government forces Turkey could experience a major refugee influx, which could include many radical jihadists. Last week Ankara closed its border crossing into Idlib due to security concerns.

The aspirations of the region’s Kurds is also expected to be on the Iranian general’s agenda in Ankara, with both countries having large and restive Kurdish minorities. Next month’s independence referendum by Iraqi Kurds will provide common ground, with Tehran and Ankara strongly opposing the vote.


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France’s Macron Accuses Photographer of Harassment While on Holiday

President Emmanuel Macron has filed a legal complaint against a photographer alleging harassment and invasion of privacy while on vacation in the southern French city of Marseille, a source in the president’s entourage said.

Macron and his wife Brigitte are staying in the private residence of the prefect of Marseille, French media have reported, which overlooks the Mediterranean and is shielded from the public eye by a high wall dotted with security cameras.

“A photographer followed him on several occasions… and there was an intrusion on the property, which led to the complaint for harassment and invasion of privacy being made,” the presidency source told Reuters.

The presidential couple had kept their holiday destination a closely guarded secret, but the location was revealed by the weekly Journal du Dimanche over the weekend.

Macron’s preference for staying silent over his holiday plans and avoiding the media in Marseille echoes his leadership style during his first 100 days in power.

The 39-year-old has exerted tight control over Elysee communications and sharply reduced his interactions with journalists compared to some previous presidents.

Macron’s immediate predecessor, Francois Hollande, who wanted to be seen as a “normal president” and held regular off-record media briefings, took the train to the Cote d’Azur on his first summer holiday as head of state, and invited the media to join him on walkabouts.

A police official in Marseille declined to comment on the legal complaint.

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