Fourth Victim of Strasbourg Shooting Dies

French officials say a fourth victim of the Christmas market shooting in Strasbourg has died. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte Friday identified the victim as Italian journalist Antonio Megalizzi.

Police killed the alleged assailant in the market attack Thursday and searched for other potential suspects Friday. The Islamic State terror group, without providing evidence, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack that wounded more than a dozen people, and left a country on edge.

​Two-day manhunt

French public prosecutor Remy Heitz on Friday detailed the two-day manhunt that led to police shooting dead Cherif Chekatt, in the Strasbourg neighborhood where he grew up. He said two local witnesses tipped off police after seeing a man who matched a widely circulated description of Chekatt during a manhunt that included nearby Germany.

Chekatt noted that about 9 p.m. local time Thursday, a police patrol spotted a man trying to enter a building, and identified themselves. The man turned around and opened fire, at which point police responded, killing him.

Heitz says the terrorist investigation continues to identify possible suspects in Tuesday’s Christmas market shooting. They have detained more than a half-dozen people for questioning, including four members of Chekatt’s family.

The Islamic State terror group said Chekatt was one of its so-called “soldiers.” But visiting the newly reopened market Friday, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner dismissed the claim as totally opportunistic, saying Chekatt “nourished evil within himself.”

A Strasbourg native with Moroccan roots, Chekatt had an extensive criminal record that stretched to Germany and Switzerland, and multiple prison sentences. He had been on a French watchlist for suspected Islamist views.

Relief in Strasbourg

Strasbourg’s businesses have taken a major hit. Many locals said they were relieved Chekatt had been killed. One woman told French radio she had been haunted by fears of him still hiding and ready to strike, but that the burden has been lifted.

The police have been hailed as heroes for tracking down Chekatt as swiftly as they did; but, their representatives say officers are exhausted after also dealing with multiple French anti-government protests in recent weeks. Some of the demonstrators say they will be back on the streets to protest government reforms and the high cost of living.

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Kosovo Votes to Form Army, Angering Serbia

Kosovo’s parliament has voted to convert and expand its lightly armed security force into a standing army, a move backed by the United States but opposed by neighboring Serbia. 

 

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic responded by saying Belgrade would request an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting over the vote. He called it the “most direct threat to peace and stability in the region.” 

 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Thursday that Kosovo, a former Serbian province, did not have the right to form an army. Serbia’s government does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. 

Last week, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic suggested that Belgrade might respond to the vote with military intervention. On Friday, she told reporters that a Kosovar army would not contribute to regional stability.

“It is better to sit down and talk about how we can build a different future, rather than look at how we can raise barriers,” she said, according to CNN. 

 

The plan approved Friday would convert the 3,000-member security force to a 5,000-member army with 3,000 more troops in reserve. 

 

Kosovo’s lawmaking body voted Friday without the participation of 11 lawmakers from the Serb minority of the republic. 

Dominated by an ethnic Albanian majority, the Republic of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and formed an independent government that is not universally recognized. The United States, European Union, Britain, Canada and Australia are among the governments that recognize Kosovo as independent.

NATO has maintained a peacekeeping force in Kosovo since the bloody Kosovo War 20 years ago that led to independence. But on Friday, NATO head Jens Stoltenberg criticized the move to form an army. 

 

Stoltenberg tweeted after the vote that NATO had made clear its concerns. He added, “All sides must ensure that today’s decision will not further increase tensions in the region.” 

 

He added that NATO must now reassess its level of engagement with the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo known as KFOR. The 4,000-member force includes about 600 U.S. soldiers.

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China Denies Arrest of Two Canadians Is Tied to Meng Case

China has rallied the power of its one-party state behind tech giant Huawei to boost public support for the company’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. But the case is getting increasingly complex with the arrest of two Canadian citizens in apparent retaliation as Meng awaits possible extradition to the United States from Canada. VOA’s Bill Ide files from Beijing.

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Russian Orthodox Church Calls on UN for Help in Ukraine

The Russian Orthodox Church on Friday called on the United Nations, the leaders of Germany and France, the pope and other spiritual leaders to protect believers in Ukraine in the face of pressure on Moscow-affiliated clerics.

Ukraine’s Orthodox clerics will gather for a meeting Saturday that is expected to form a new, independent Ukrainian church, and Ukrainian authorities have ramped up pressure on priests to support the move. The Ukrainian church has been part of the Russian Church for centuries, while enjoying broad autonomy, but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has pushed for the creation of an independent church.

The newly formed community would then be expected to receive independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based institution considered the so-called “first among equals” of leaders of the world’s Orthodox Churches that has already drafted a charter for an independent Ukrainian church.

The Russian Church said on Friday that its Patriarch Kirill has sent a letter to the U.N. secretary-general, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other spiritual leaders, urging them to help protect the clerics, believers and their faith in Ukraine.

Merkel’s spokeswoman and the German foreign ministry spokesman said they didn’t immediately have any information on the letter.

As church tensions have grown, Ukraine’s Security Service has searched Russian Orthodox churches and the homes of Russian Orthodox priests in several cities. The agency also has summoned dozens of priests for questioning.

Ukrainian authorities have sought to portray Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine as supporting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, claims that the clerics have rejected.

Kirill’s letter accused the Ukrainian government of hate speech and pressuring the clerics to take part in the Saturday gathering.

“The numerous instances of discrimination against the Ukrainian Church (of the Moscow Patriarchate) give us the reason to fear far worse infringements of the rights and legitimate interests of Orthodox believers,” the letter said.

In Kiev, about 100 people led by a Moscow-affiliated cleric were holding prayers near the Ukrainian parliament Friday morning to protest the creation of a new church.

Some voiced fears that authorities will seize churches from the communities under the Moscow patriarchate and give them to the new church.

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Paris Police Bracing for More Violent Protests

Anticipating a fifth straight weekend of violent protests, Paris’ police chief said Friday that armored vehicles and thousands of officers will be deployed again in the French capital.

Michel Delpuech told RTL radio that security services intend to deploy the same numbers and strength as last weekend, with about 8,000 officers and 14 armored vehicles again in Paris.

Delpuech said the biggest difference will be the deployment of more groups of patrol officers to catch vandals, who last weekend roamed streets around the Champs Elysees, causing damage and looting. Police arrested more than 1,000 people in Paris last weekend and 135 people were injured, including 17 police officers

A sixth “yellow vest” protester was killed this week, hit by a truck at a protest roadblock. Despite calls from authorities urging protesters — who wear the fluorescent safety vests that France requires drivers to keep in their cars — to stop the protests, the movement rocking the country has showed no signs of abating.

“Last week, we pretty much handled the yellow vests but we also witnessed scenes of breakage and looting by criminals,” Delpuech said. “Our goal will be to better control this aspect.”

In an effort to defuse the tensions sweeping the country, French President Emmanuel Macron has acknowledged he’s partially responsible for the anger behind the anti-government protests. He has announced a series of measures aimed at improving French workers’ spending power but has refused to reinstate a wealth tax.

Many protesters have expressed disappointment at the measures and some trade unions are now calling for rolling strikes across the country.

“The best action is to go on strike,” said Philippe Martinez, the head of leftist trade union CGT. “There are inequalities in this country and we need to make big company bosses pay.”

French Interior minister Christophe Castaner urged protesters to express themselves peacefully in the wake of a two-day manhunt for a man suspected of killing three people in the eastern city of Strasbourg that mobilized hundreds of police.

“I can’t stand the idea that today people applaud police forces and that tomorrow some people will think it makes sense to throw stones at us,” Castaner said from Strasbourg, where the suspect was killed on Thursday.

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Russia: Allegations Against Butina Are ‘Unfounded’

The Kremlin said Friday that the allegations against the Russian woman who pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to being a spy are  “unfounded.”  

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday,”We consider the accusations against her as absolutely unfounded.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he believed Maria Butina’s guilty plea is part of a plea bargain “… the likes of which are common in the U.S. … part of a deal to get free and return home as soon as possible.”

Butina pleaded guilty, however, Thursday in Washington to acting as a Kremlin agent to conspire to build ties with the powerful National Rifle Association gun rights group in the U.S. and infiltrate Republican Party circles to pass information back to Moscow.

She was charged in July with acting illegally as an unregistered Russian agent and conspiracy. She initially entered a not-guilty plea.

But Butina admitted to U.S. Judge Tanya Chutkan that she had, in fact, been working for the Russian government.

As part of an agreement with prosecutors to change her plea to guilty, the 30-year-old Butina agreed to help them with insight into Russian meddling in U.S. political affairs. Her actions were directed by Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, who in April was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Butina faces up to five years’ imprisonment and remains jailed while awaiting sentencing Feb. 12. She could be deported to her homeland after serving any prison term.

Butina allegedly developed a personal relationship with an NRA-linked Republican activist, Paul Erickson, and lived with him. Butina also enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, where she earned a master’s degree in international relations earlier this year. She attended several political events in the U.S., posed with guns on social media sites and attended the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, an annual event often filled with prominent U.S. political figures.

The U.S. Justice Department alleged that Butina was a “covert Russian agent” who maintained connections with Russian spies in a mission aimed at penetrating “the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Putin said earlier this week he had never heard of Butina until her July arrest. The Russian leader said that when he asked Russian intelligence services for information about her, he was told that “no one knows anything about her.”

The Butina case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing, 19-month investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the presidency and whether, as president, Trump obstructed justice to try to thwart the probe.

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French Police Search for Suspect in Deadly Shooting at Strasbourg Christmas Market

French police have launched an operation in the Strasbourg neighborhood where a gunman killed three people late Tuesday at a Christmas market, according to multiple media reports.

Reports from AFP, Reuters and The Associated Press, citing on-scene journalists and an unnamed police official, said armed police cordoned off an area in the Neudorf district, a short drive from where the suspect exchanged gunfire with police.

The police official told AP that members of the elite RAID squad were also on the scene. They, along with other police officers, fanned out along one street, with some pointing their guns on houses in front of them.

It was not immediately clear if they located suspected shooter Cherif Chekkat or were executing a separate raid linked to the attack.

More than 700 police have been searching for Chekkat since the shooting, which also injured 13 people.

 

Authorities said the 29-year-old Chekatt was on a watch list of suspected extremists. The gunman’s motive is unknown.

France raised its security threat level to “emergency attack,” its highest level, adding tighter border controls and boosting security at other Christmas markets.

 

Germany’s Interior Ministry spokeswoman Eleonore Petermann said the suspect was convicted in Germany in 2016 and reportedly was deported to France last year.

Petermann said the German government has increased controls on its borders in response to the attack but did not raise the threat level in the country.

Strasbourg is headquarters of the European Parliament. The building was put on temporary lockdown after the shooting.

The market is set up around the Strasbourg cathedral and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.  Authorities say they have long been on the alert for an attack on the market since a foiled terror plot in Strasbourg on New Year’s Eve in 1999.

France is no stranger to extremist attacks.  Islamic State claimed responsibility for two nights of bombings and shootings in Paris in November 2015, killing 130, months after a deadly shooting at a French satirical magazine, and hostage-taking in a kosher supermarket.

A 2016 terrorist truck attack in Nice left 86 people dead.

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Report: Journalists Faced Intimidation, Prison in 2018

A multi-pronged crackdown on the press continued throughout 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists concludes in a report published Thursday.

Imprisonment, intimidation and allegations that journalists produce “fake news” surged in 2016, when U.S. President Donald Trump won the election, CPJ found.

Trump has been a vocal critic of the press, often chastising journalists as “very dishonest people.”

The number of journalists in jail dipped 8 percent, from 272 in 2017 to 251 this year. But that doesn’t mean the situation has improved, Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, told VOA.

 

The numbers fluctuate and may not reflect every imprisoned journalist. They also remain markedly higher than just a half decade ago.

More importantly, targeting a single journalist can have far-reaching repercussions.

“The effects are not only, obviously, [on] the journalists themselves and their families and their colleagues, but we really are talking about the effect on citizens as a whole,” Quintal said.

CPJ’s report highlighted several bright spots.

In Ethiopia, which has experienced dramatic reforms under new leader Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, no journalists are currently known to be imprisoned, for the first time in 14 years.

Improvements in some countries, however, don’t necessarily rub off on others.

“Unfortunately, neighboring Eritrea remains the highest jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, with 16 journalists behind bars as we speak,” Quintal said.

Worldwide, report author Elana Beiser, CPJ’s editorial director, singled out China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as troublespots, highlighting how wide-ranging efforts to silence journalists have become.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Quintal’s region of focus, Cameroon, where seven journalists are in jail, is a new country of concern. At least four of those journalists faced false news charges in what Quintal called “a huge, huge setback.”

Overall, more than two dozen journalists have been charged with publishing false news, mainly in Africa.

Accusations and imprisonments can propel self-censorship, with profound effects on citizens’ right to information.

“When you see your colleagues being jailed, when you see them accused of so-called fake news, when they’re being arrested on false news charges,” Quintal said, “it does, obviously, have a chilling effect.”

Quintal herself was targeted, along with colleague Muthoki Mumo, in Tanzania last month.

Despite having an invitation letter from the Media Council of Tanzania, the two, both former journalists, were detained and interrogated.

Quintal, from South Africa, and Mumo, from Kenya, were kept in custody for five hours.

“We were lucky because we were able to leave Tanzania,” Quintal said, contrasting her experience to journalists in the country who have gone missing or continue to face intimidation.

“The abusive nature of what happened to us showed the world the true nature of what is going on in Tanzania at the moment,” she added.

Quintal and Mumo’s case was unusual. Governments tend to target their own citizens, and journalists imprisoned by their governments make up 98 percent of cases, CPJ concluded. They also found that 13 percent of journalists in jail are women, an 8 percent increase from 2017.

Despite worrying signs, there is room for optimism, Quintal said.

When new leaders come to power, she said, human rights and press freedoms can improve very quickly.

Quintal pointed to The Gambia as one example, where the new president, Adama Barrow, has created space for journalists to work without fear of reprisal.

Tuesday, Time magazine selected journalists who have been targeted for doing their work, the “guardians” of truth, as their Person of the Year.

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UNAIDS Head to Quit Post Early Following Scathing Report

The head of the U.N. agency focusing on AIDS says he’ll leave his post in June, an early departure announced a week after independent experts looking into sexual harassment at UNAIDS blasted its “defective leadership.”

Executive director Michel Sidibe made the announcement during a UNAIDS board meeting Thursday in Geneva, said agency spokesman Mahesh Mahalingham. He did not elaborate.

Sidibe’s term was supposed to end in January 2020.

On Friday, a panel of experts released a report citing a culture of impunity and a toxic working environment at UNAIDS and said it could not be changed unless Sidibe resigned.Citing a “vacuum of accountability,” they said UNAIDS leaders had failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.

Sidibe, a native of Mali, has denied claims that he tried to force an employee to drop allegations that she was sexually assaulted by his former deputy. And despite the scathing report, Sidibe insisted Friday that he was the right man to turn around the organization.

UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom went public earlier this year with allegations originally laid out in a sexual harassment and assault complaint in 2016. In it, she alleged that Luiz Loures, once the agency’s deputy director for programs, had forcibly kissed and grabbed her in a Bangkok hotel in May 2015 — claims Loures denied. He left UNAIDS earlier this year.

The World Health Organization office that investigated the case concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support Brostrom’s claims.

Despite their critique, the four experts pointed to Sidibe’s “outstanding contribution” to UNAIDS’ work and called him a “passionate and effective advocate” for the world’s most vulnerable. It said he had “spoken bravely” about the risks of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and women.

A statement from the U.N. agency on Thursday made no reference to last week’s report, simply saying that Sidibe wants to “have an orderly transition of leadership at UNAIDS” and would resign the end of June.

Critics pounced. Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which works to end impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel, said Sidibe “doesn’t deserve to leave on his terms and on his timeline.”

“A leader of any other major institution who was accused of the wrongdoing described in … the report would have been summarily fired,” she said, criticizing a “failure of leadership” by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres — who can fire Sidibe — and the UNAIDS board.

“This is the culmination of the abuse of power and authority that has marked Sidibe’s tenure,” Donovan said. “The culture of impunity remains intact. Zero tolerance is … nothing more than empty slogan.”

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EU to Offer Ukraine Help Over Azov Sea at Summit 

European Union leaders will offer Ukraine help for its regions affected by Russia’s actions in the Azov Sea when they meet Thursday, according to a draft summit statement seen by Reuters on Wednesday. 

But there is no mention of consideration of further sanctions against Russia, reflecting division among member states. Diplomats expect a rollover of existing sanctions but no consensus on increases sought by more hawkish governments. 

Condemning Russia, the EU will reiterate its support for Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea’s 2014 annexation by Moscow and — referring to the capture of Ukrainian naval vessels off Crimea last month — said: “There is no justification for the use of military force by Russia.” 

The statement demanded the release of Ukrainian sailors seized during the incident, the return of their vessels and free passage to all ships passing through the Kerch Strait. 

It concluded with the offer of financial and other measures to help areas of eastern Ukraine whose maritime access was affected by Moscow’s action. 

“The EU stands ready to adopt measures to strengthen further its support in favor of the affected areas of Ukraine,” the statement said. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met summit chair Donald Tusk in Brussels on Wednesday and will hold talks at NATO headquarters in the city on Thursday. EU leaders will discuss Ukraine and Russia over a summit dinner later in the day.

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