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February 22, 2019

Blasts kill four as Bangladesh commandos storm Islamist hideout

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Bangladeshi soldiers. AP

DHAKA:  Two explosions ripped through a crowd Saturday, killing four people and injuring more than 40 in Bangladesh’s northeastern city of Sylhet where army commandos stormed an Islamist extremist hideout, police said.

The “powerful” blasts went off some 400 yards (metres) from the hideout, targeting  police and hundreds of onlookers who were witnessing the commandos conducting an anti-militant operation at a five-storey apartment building, police said.

“At least four people including a policeman were killed,” Sylhet police spokesman Zedan Al Musa told AFP, adding 42 people including about a dozen police and security officers were injured.

“Conditions of several people are critical,” Atiqul Islam, an emergency doctor at Sylhet Medical College Hospital told AFP. 

Musa said police primarily suspect a new faction of the homegrown extremist group, Jamayetul ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which has been blamed for a wave of attacks in recent years, for the the blasts.

Police could not confirm whether whether it was a suicide blast. “It occurred in the dark when there was no electricity,” Musa said.   

The blasts occurred hours after the commandos rescued “78 civilian hostages” from the hideout where several Islamist militants were holed up in a ground-floor apartment.

“So far what we’ve done, our main task was to rescue the hostages, which we have done successfully. We were able to rescue all 78 people safely,” army spokesman Brigadier General Fakhrul Ahsan told reporters.

He said the extremists were still inside the apartment building where they “set up barricades” by “laying IEDs” in many rooms and stairs.

“As a result the whole operation is being conducted carefully,” he said.

30-hour standoff

The commandos backed by armoured personnel carriers launched the operation after a more than 30-hour standoff that began early Friday morning when police sealed off the building as militants detonated small bombs.

The spokesman could not say how many extremists were in the building, but police said there were at least two including a woman.

“They are Islamist extremists,” police spokesman Musa said, adding they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest).

Police used loudspeakers to ask the extremists to surrender, but they refused to give up, Musa said.

The raid came after a series of suicide attacks on security camps by Islamist extremists this month including one at a police checkpoint near the country’s main international airport on Friday night.

Two of the three attacks, including Friday’s blast in which the suicide attacker was killed, were claimed by Islamic State group.

This month a police elite unit also stormed a building outside the port city of Chittagong, killing four members of the homegrown extremist group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) including one woman.

IS has claimed responsibility for a wave of killings since 2015 including for a major attack on a Dhaka cafe last year in which 22 people, including 18 foreign hostages, were killed. 

The Bangladeshi government denies IS has any presence in the country, arguing instead that a new faction of JMB was behind that and other attacks.

UN Syria envoy urges foreign powers to help restore ceasefire

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GENEVA: The United Nations’ Syria envoy sent an urgent appeal Saturday to Russia, Iran and Turkey seeking help to restore a ceasefire, warning that escalating violence was threatening peace talks in Geneva. 

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura sent letters to Moscow and Tehran — which back the Damascus regime — as well as Ankara which supports the Syrian opposition, expressing concern over surging violence around the Syrian capital and central Hama province. 

“Growing violations in recent days are undermining the ceasefire”, agreed at separate negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana overseen by the three countries, de Mistura’s office said in a statement. 

The violence has had “significant negative consequences for the safety of Syrian civilians, humanitarian access and the momentum of the political process” in Geneva, it added. 

De Mistura asked the countries concerned “to undertake urgent efforts to uphold the ceasefire”, said the statement issued during a fifth round of UN-brokered talks in the Swiss city. 

Opposition and jihadist fighters have in the past week launched attacks on government positions around Damascus and Hama. The regime has responded with air strikes and other bombardments. 

Syrian government negotiators met the UN mediator earlier Saturday for a session focused on terrorism, which is one of four issues on the agenda this round. 

The others are governance, elections and drafting a new constitution. 

– Killing machine –

The main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) met later with de Mistura’s team, and the talks focused on forming a new government to replace President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — the rebel’s top priority.

Citing the recent violence, HNC delegation chief Nasr al-Hariri called the Assad government “a killing machine”, while characterising recent rebel attacks on regime positions as “a must for us to defend ourselves.”

Asked if rising violence could see the talks collapse, Hariri said: “if we don’t have that real ceasefire then things will deteriorate very badly.”

Hariri also fiercely condemned Saturday’s air strike on the opposition held town of Hammuriyeh that killed at least 16 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The latest round of talks wrapped up a second full day with little hope of a breakthrough and rivals still deadlocked on key issues. They have not yet met face-to-face. 

Years of diplomatic efforts have failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 320,000 people and displaced millions since it started in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s regime.

Erdogan says would be 'easier' if EU rejects Turkey bid

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

ANKARA:  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday lashed out again in the diplomatic row with the European Union saying it would be “easier” if the EU just rejected Turkey’s bid to join the bloc.

Turkey and Europe are locked in a bitter dispute after Germany and the Netherlands blocked Turkish ministers from campaigning in the local Turkish communities for a ‘yes’ vote on boosting Erdogan’s powers in next month’s referendum.

“What? If a ‘yes’ comes out on April 16, they would not take us into the European Union? Oh, If only they could give this decision! They would make our work easier,” Erdogan said at a rally in the southern city of Antalya.

Despite severely strained relations with Brussels, no EU leader has openly said a ‘yes’ vote would spell the end of Turkey’s already-embattled bid to join the bloc.

But Erdogan told the rally that “April 16 would be a breaking point,”  referring to EU-Turkey relations if the ‘yes’ vote wins.

“We will put this (EU-Turkey) business on the table because Turkey is no one’s whipping boy,” he added, indicating that Ankara could reconsider its relationship with Brussels.

And among some European politicians, there has been discussion over what the future of Turkey’s membership process would be.

Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s Rapporteur for Turkey, wrote for Politico Europe earlier this week that if a majority of voters approved the constitutional changes, “the European Parliament will have to assess whether the country’s new governance structure meets the EU’s Copenhagen accession criteria”.

In the referendum Turks will decide whether to approve constitutional changes that would create an executive presidency and would see the role of prime minister axed.

While the government argues it is necessary for political stability and would avoid fragile coalition governments, critics fear it will lead to one-man rule.

Erdogan has repeatedly accused European countries including Germany of using “Nazi measures” — comments that have been condemned by the bloc’s leaders.

“For as long as you continue to call me dictator, I will continue to call you fascist, Nazi,” Erdogan retorted.

Another contentious issue is the death penalty, which the Turkish president said again Saturday he would approve if it was passed by parliament and brought to him.

“What? If the death penalty is introduced for the 249 people killed, Turkey has no place in Europe. Oh, let it not be!” he said, referring to the number of people killed during last July’s failed coup.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 as part of its bid to join the EU.

But Brussels has repeatedly made clear that any move to bring it back would scupper Turkey’s efforts to join the bloc.

IS claims 'suicide' blast near Bangladesh airport: SITE

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Bangladeshi police officers stand guard after a bomber was killed in a blast in front of a police checkpoint at Dhaka’s international airport on March 24, 2017. AFP

DHAKA: The Islamic State group claimed responsibility late Friday for a suspected suicide bomb attack outside the Bangladeshi capital’s main international airport, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist communications.

A bomber was killed in the blast, police said, the third in a series of suspected attacks and the second claimed by the Islamic State group since last week.

The bomb, carried by a man on foot, exploded near a police checkpoint monitoring vehicles heading to Hazrat Shahjahal International Airport in Dhaka.

“The bomb carrier himself was killed,” a Dhaka police spokesman, Yusuf Ali, told AFP.

In an Arabic report, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to US-based monitoring agency SITE Intelligence Group.

“A martyrdom-seeking attack targeted a Bangladeshi police checkpoint near the international airport in the city of Dhaka,” the IS-linked Amaq news agency said.

Dhaka police chief Asaduzzaman Mia denied it was a suicide attack.

“He was carrying it (the bomb) but we can’t confirm yet whether he was trying to attack the check-post,” he said, adding that the bomb carrier was aged around 30.

However, a police officer, who cannot be named, told AFP that they suspected it was a “suicide blast” in which only the “suicide attacker” was killed.     

The suspected attack was the third since last Friday, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a camp for the country’s elite security force near the airport. 

The attacker was killed and two members of the Rapid Action Battalion, tasked with combating Islamist militancy, were injured. 

The Islamic State group claimed the attack but the Bangladeshi government deny the presence of IS in the country and rejected the jihadists’ claim.

IS has also claimed responsibility for a wave of killings since 2015 including for a major attack on a Dhaka cafe last year in which 22 people, including 18 foreign hostages, were killed.

The Bangladeshi government argues a new faction of homegrown extremist group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was behind that and other attacks.

Last Saturday a man on a motorbike tried to cross a RAB security roadblock in Dhaka carrying a bag with improvised explosive devices.

Bangladesh police shot the suspected militant dead.

The latest incident came as police in the northeastern city of Sylhet cordoned off a five-storey building early Friday morning where suspected extremists were holed up. 

Police have also been carrying out a series of raids in the southern Chittagong region and say they killed four suspected militants when they stormed an extremist hideout last Thursday.

Troubled EU renews vows on 60th anniversary

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gets ink on his hands as he signs a declaration (Photo | AP)

ROME:  European Union leaders renewed their vows at a special summit in Rome on Saturday, celebrating the troubled bloc’s 60th anniversary with a commitment to a common future without Britain.

With British Prime Minister Theresa May absent, the other 27 countries signed a new declaration on the Capitoline Hill where six founding states signed the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957.

Pro- and anti-EU protests took place in Rome, while in London tens of thousands of people marched against Brexit, which May will trigger on Wednesday.

With the EU facing a string of crises on top of Brexit including migration, a moribund economy, terrorism and populism, EU President Donald Tusk called for stronger leadership.

“Prove today that you are the leaders of Europe, that you can care for this great legacy we inherited from the heroes of European integration 60 years ago,” Tusk said.

After welcoming the leaders to the Renaissance-era Palazzo dei Conservatori, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said: “We have had 60 years of peace in Europe and we owe it to the courage of the founding fathers.”

The original Treaty of Rome was signed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and West Germany to create the European Economic Community (EEC).

‘Our common future’

The new Rome Declaration that the leaders signed, using the same pen that was used six decades ago, proclaims that “Europe is our common future” in a changing world.

But it also enshrines for the first time a so-called “multi-speed” Europe, in which some countries can push ahead on key issues while others sit out, an idea pushed by France and Germany but opposed by many eastern EU states.

French President Francois Hollande said the message from Rome was, “we’re stronger together,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “a Europe of different speeds does not mean at all that there is no common Europe”.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insisted the EU could ride out recent storms.

“Daunting as they are, the challenges we face today are in no way comparable to those faced by the founding fathers,” he said, recalling how the new Europe was built from the ashes of World War II.

The leaders met with the words of Pope Francis ringing in their ears — on the eve of the summit, the pontiff warned that without a new vision, the crisis-ridden bloc “risks dying”.

The White House meanwhile congratulated the EU on its 60th birthday in a notable shift in tone for President Donald Trump’s administration, whose deep scepticism about the bloc has alarmed Brussels.

But the British premier’s absence, four days before she launches the two-year Brexit process, and a row over the wording of the Rome declaration underscored the challenges facing the EU.

Greece, currently wrangling with the eurozone over getting more cash from its latest bailout, was the key country holding up approval of the document, by insisting on a mention of social benefits.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, fresh from a bitter row over former premier Tusk’s re-election as EU chief, only agreed to sign at the last minute due to objections over the reference to a “multi-speed” Europe.

Pro-EU rallies in UK, Poland

Symbolising the divisions, rival demonstrations for and against the EU took place in Rome, watched by a heavy police presence.

“I was a girl during the war and this grand European movement has become my political ideal,” Catherine Chastenet, a 74-year-old marcher from Paris, told AFP.

In London, around 80,000 people took to the streets to call for Britain to stay in the bloc with a sea of blue EU flags stretching out from Trafalgar Square.

“I was told I could settle down, marry a Brit and make my life here. Yet today I am told I’m a foreigner and should go back where I come from,” said Joan Pons, a Spanish nurse who has lived in Britain for 17 years.

In Poland, thousands of Poles sang the “Ode to Joy” European anthem as they waved Polish and EU flags at rallies organised by the liberal opposition in dozens of cities and towns nationwide.

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