Comcast Outbids Fox With $40B Offer for Sky

Comcast beat Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox in the battle for Sky after offering 30.6 billion pounds ($40 billion) for the British broadcaster, in a dramatic auction to decide the fate of the pay-television group.

U.S. cable giant Comcast bid 17.28 pounds a share for control of London-listed Sky, bettering a 15.67 offer by Fox, the Takeover Panel said in a  statement shortly after final bids were made Saturday.

Comcast’s final offer was significantly higher than its bid going into the auction of 14.75 pounds, and compares with Sky’s closing share price of 15.85 pounds on Friday.

Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive of Comcast, coveted Sky to expand its international presence as growth slows in its core U.S. market.

Owning Sky will make Comcast the world’s largest pay-TV operator with around 52 million customers.

“This is a great day for Comcast,” Roberts said on Saturday. “This acquisition will allow us to quickly, efficiently and meaningfully increase our customer base and expand internationally.”

Comcast, which also owns the NBC network and movie studio Universal Pictures, encouraged Sky shareholders to accept its offer. It said it wanted to complete the deal by the end of October.

Comcast, which requires 50 percent plus one share of Sky’s equity to win control, said it was also seeking to buy Sky shares in the market.

A spokesman for Fox, which has a 39 percent holding in Sky, declined to comment.

The quick-fire auction marked a dramatic climax to a protracted transatlantic bidding battle waged since February, when Comcast gate-crashed Fox’s takeover of Sky.

It is a blow to media mogul Murdoch, 87, and the U.S. media and entertainment group that he controls, which had been trying to take full ownership of Sky since December 2016.

It is also a setback for U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney, which agreed on a separate $71 billion deal to buy the bulk of Fox’s film and TV assets, including the Sky stake, in June and would have taken ownership of the British broadcaster following a successful Fox takeover.

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UK PM’s Team Make Plans for Snap Election

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s aides have begun contingency planning for a snap election in November to save both Brexit and her job, the Sunday Times reported.

The newspaper said that two senior members of May’s Downing Street political team began “war-gaming” an autumn vote to win public backing for a new plan, after her Brexit proposals were criticized at a summit in Salzburg last week.

Downing Street was not immediately available to comment on the report.

Meanwhile, opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn said Saturday that his party would challenge May on any Brexit deal she could strike with Brussels, and he said there should be a national election if the deal fell short.

The British government said Saturday that it would not “capitulate” to European Union demands in Brexit talks and again urged the bloc to engage with its proposals after May said Brexit talks with the EU had hit an impasse.

“We will challenge this government on whatever deal it brings back on our six tests, on jobs, on living standards, on environmental protections,” Corbyn told a rally in Liverpool, northern England, on the eve of Labor’s annual conference.

“And if this government can’t deliver, then I simply say to Theresa May the best way to settle this is by having a general election.”

Labor’s six tests consist of whether a pact would provide for fair migration, a collaborative relationship with the EU, national security and cross-border crime safeguards, even treatment for all U.K. regions, protection of workers’ rights, and maintenance of single-market benefits.

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Pope Begins Baltics Pilgrimage With Plea for Tolerance

Pope Francis on Saturday urged Lithuanians to use their experience enduring decades of Soviet and Nazi occupation to be a model of tolerance in an intolerant world as he began a three-nation tour of the Baltic region amid renewed alarm over Russia’s intentions there.

Francis was greeted by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite at the airport and immediately launched into a hectic schedule of political meetings, encounters with Lutheran and Russian Orthodox leaders, and the ordinary Catholic faithful who are a majority in Lithuania but minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

Speaking outside the presidential palace in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Francis recalled that until the arrival of “totalitarian ideologies” in the 20th century, Lithuania had been a peaceful home to a variety of ethnic and religious groups, including Christians, Jews and Muslims.

He said the world today is marked by political forces that exploit fear and conflict to justify violence and expulsions of others.

“More and more voices are sowing division and confrontation – often by exploiting insecurity or situations of conflict – and proclaiming that the only way possible to guarantee security and the continued existence of a culture is to try to eliminate, cancel or expel others,” Francis said.

He said Lithuania could be a model of openness, understanding, tolerance and solidarity.

“You have suffered `in the flesh’ those efforts to impose a single model that would annul differences under the pretense of believing that the privileges of a few are more important than the dignity of others or the common good,” he said.

Francis was traveling to the region to mark the 100th anniversaries of their independence and to encourage the faith in the Baltics, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism. During the 1940s Nazi occupation, Lithuania’s centuries-old Jewish community was nearly exterminated.

Scars of occupation

“Fifty years of occupation left their mark both on the church and on the people,” said Monsignor Gintaras Grusas, archbishop of Vilnius. “People have deep wounds from that period that take time to heal.”

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which each have ethnic Russian minorities, are also in lockstep in sounding alarms about Moscow’s military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea area following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine.

The Vatican, however, has been loath to openly criticize Moscow or its powerful Orthodox Church.

The Baltic countries declared their independence in 1918 but were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained part of it until the early 1990s, except for the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation during World War II. All three joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and are strong backers of the military alliance, which sees them as a bulwark against Russian incursions in Eastern Europe.

The trip, featuring Francis’ fondness for countries on the periphery, will be a welcome break for the Argentine pope. His credibility has taken a blow recently following missteps on the church’s priestly sex abuse scandal and recent allegations that he covered up for an American cardinal.

His visit to Vilnius coincides with the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the Vilnius Ghetto, on Sept. 23, 1943, when its remaining residents were executed or sent off to concentration camps by the Nazis.

Until Francis’ schedule was changed three weeks ago, there were no specific events for him to acknowledge the slaughter of some 90 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews at the hands of Nazi occupiers and complicit Lithuanian partisans — a significant oversight for the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

At the last minute, the Vatican added in a visit to the Ghetto, where Francis will pray quietly on the day when the names of Holocaust victims are read out at commemorations across the country.

Francis will also visit the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, located in a former gymnasium that served as the headquarters of the Gestapo during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation and later as the headquarters of the feared KGB spy agency when the Soviets recaptured the country.

The issue of Lithuanian complicity in Nazi war crimes is sensitive here, with the Jewish community campaigning to have street signs named for heroes who fought the Soviets removed because of their roles in the executions of Jews.

“I think the presence of the pope is showing attention to the Holocaust and to the Holocaust victims,” said Simonas Gurevichius, chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community. “However, it is not the pope who has to do the work, it is Lithuania as a country and as a society who needs to do the work.”



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Path Partially Clears for Russia’s Return to International Sports

Russia cautiously celebrated a move by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to reinstate its own laboratory for testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs, a decision that has divided the sports world by clearing a path for Russian athletes to return to international competition following a three-year suspension over allegations of state-sponsored doping.

The decision by WADA marks the latest chapter in the long-running saga that has divided Russia and the West in recent years, including the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, meddling in the 2016 elections in the U.S., and intervention in Syria’s civil war.

In Russia, the move was heralded as largely overdue recognition of its progress on an issue Russian sports officials say goes beyond Russia.

“The most important thing is that during this time we managed to make big strides forward in the anti-doping culture in the country,” said Pavel Kolobkov, Russia’s Minister of Sport, in reaction to the decision.

Yet, from President Vladimir Putin on down, Russian officials have vehemently denied WADA’s charges of direct state involvement, saying the suspension is a politically-driven campaign to outlaw Russian athletes collectively for the sins of a few.

Roadmap to return

The vote by WADA’s board — in a split 9-2 to ruling with one abstention — amounts to a partial walk back of key demands of Russia’s so-called “roadmap to return” to competition.

The roadmap’s key provision: Russia formally acknowledge two WADA-triggered investigations that found widespread cheating by hundreds of Russian athletes in what the reports alleges was a massive state-sponsored doping program between 2011 and 2015. A related demand requires that RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, offer complete access to its store of past urine samples of Russia’s athletes.

Critics argue Russia has done neither.

Yet a majority of WADA officials said they were satisfied by Russian progress and promises by Kolobkov for future compliance, with the caveat of possible future suspensions, should policies not be implemented.

“Today, the great majority of the WADA Executive Committee (EXCO) decided to reinstate RUSADA as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code, subject to strict conditions,” said WADA’s President Craig Reedie said in a statement released to the media.

​Fair play?

The decision was widely condemned by sporting federations in the U.S. and Europe, who suggested the decision cast WADA’s role as an arbiter for fair competition in doubt.

Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of RUSADA-turned-whistleblower whose testimony provided key details about the doping effort, argued reinstatement amounted to a “catastrophe for Olympic sport ideals, the fight against doping and the protection of clean athletes.”

Richard McClaren, the Canadian lawyer whose initial report prompted the WADA ban, also condemned the move.

“Politics is dictating this decision,” McClaren said. “The Russians didn’t accept the conditions, so why will they accept the new ones?”

Yet independent Russian sports commentators noted that despite suggestions of a Russian diplomatic victory, not much had in fact changed for Russian athletes themselves.

Russia could now certify its own athletes for competition and host international events once again. They could also certify so-called “therapeutic use exemptions” granted — too often, Russian officials argue — to Western athletes.

Yet some observers noted that Russia’s banned track and field association must still be cleared independently by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which signaled it would set its own criteria for reinstatement.

The return of Russia’s Paralympic squad, banned from the last two Olympic Games, faces similar hurdles.

“Unfortunately, the return of RUSADA automatically doesn’t give them the flag to compete,” wrote Natalya Maryanchik in the daily Sport-Express newspaper. 

“For top sportsman from Russia almost nothing has changed,” agreed Alexei Advokhin in, a popular Russian sports fan website. “Yes, their doping samples will again be tested in Russia.”

“If that’s a case for joy,” he added, “it means for three years we’ve understood nothing.”

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Macedonian PM Seeks US Support in Quest to Join NATO, EU

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says he expects his countrymen will vote for a deal that will rename the country to “North Macedonia” in exchange for Greece’s ending its objections to Macedonia’s eventual membership in NATO and the European Union.

In a VOA interview, he said, “There is no other alternative. I am an optimist primarily because I know my people. They have a history of making smart decisions and this one will be no different.”

Zaev said he wants Macedonia to soon become the 30th member of NATO in order to secure peace, economic prosperity and security for his country, and that Washington strongly supports Macedonia’s NATO aspirations.

“The message was sent yet again that America stands firmly beside Macedonia as an unwavering strategic partner,” Zaev told VOA Macedonian in an exclusive interview following his meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday.

Zaev was invited to the White House after working to secure the Prespa Agreement with Greece on the long-standing name issue between the two countries, according to a statement issued by the vice president’s office. 

“I am convinced that the United States will stay focused on a Southeast Europe benefiting all the citizens in the region, including the citizens of Macedonia,” said Zaev.

Renaming Macedonia is a key element of a deal with neighboring Greece to end a decades-old dispute. Greece says Macedonia’s current name implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, and on its ancient heritage.

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Romanian Ruling Party Leader Defeats Dissenters Who Want Him Out

The leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats Liviu Dragnea retained control of the party Friday, defeating dissenters who said his criminal record had made him a liability, but his victory seems likely to heighten political infighting.

A past conviction in a vote-rigging case earned him a suspended jail term, which prevented him from being prime minister. And he is due next month to launch an appeal against a three-and-a-half year prison sentence passed in a separate abuse of office case.

He is also under investigation in a third case on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded.

But he emerged unscathed from an eight-hour meeting of the party’s executive committee on Friday at which he won a comfortable majority of support, beating off critics who wanted him out.

Analysts said his latest confrontation with internal party critics might also complicate Dragnea’s and his allies’ efforts to stall the fight against corruption in one of the European Union’s most graft-prone states.

Dragnea led the party to a sweeping victory in a December 2016 parliamentary election, but since then its attempts to weaken the judiciary have dominated the public agenda.

An attempt to decriminalize several corruption offences last year via emergency decrees triggered massive protests and was ultimately withdrawn. Changes to criminal codes this year invited comparisons with Poland and Hungary, which are embroiled in a standoff with Brussels over the rule of law.

Deputy Prime Minister Paul Stanescu, Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea and lawmaker Adrian Tutuianu — all vice-presidents of the party — called for his resignation, saying his management has hurt the party’s popularity.

Dragnea has previously argued in favor of an emergency decree that would grant amnesty for some corruption offenses — potentially affording him protection against prosecution — or retroactively scrap wiretap evidence collected by Romania’s intelligence service SRI on behalf of prosecutors.

After Friday’s executive meeting, Dragnea said Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, a close ally, had not supported the idea of an emergency decree on amnesty at this time.

But Dragnea vowed to continue fighting against what he calls a “parallel state” of prosecutors and secret services who want to bring the party down via corruption trials.

“I personally no longer care [about] an emergency decree regarding amnesty,” Dragnea said. “If the government wants to pass it, it’s up to them, whenever they want.”

“As long as I remain party president I will do all I can to bring down this heinous system that is ruining lives.”

Unlike bills passed through parliament, which can be challenged and take a long time, emergency decrees take effect immediately.

“He [Dragnea] might have broken them [his critics] today,” said Sergiu Miscoiu, political science professor at Babes-Bolyai University. “But he is gradually losing control, his enemies are consolidating, and the next round might be fatal.”

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EU States Divided Over How National Governments Should Exercise Power

European Union leaders increasingly are at cross-purposes with agreement elusive on the big issues facing the bloc — as witnessed midweek at a summit in the Austrian city of Salzburg, where over a four-hour dinner they aired deep divisions over migration.

But they are not only divided on the headline issues of migration, Brexit and economic governance, say analysts and EU officials. 

Expectations about how national governments exercise power and observe EU rules are diverging, too. And some national leaders worry that the liberal democratic values the bloc was founded on are now being eroded by some of their counterparts. 

“It is not clear that we have shared expectations,” says a senior EU official, who sees the primary fault line running between the more traditional states of Western Europe on one side and new nativist and populist governments in Central and southern Europe on the other.

Clashes are coming fast and furious and more often than not focus on rule-of-law issues and arguments about democratic checks and balances. One of the latest flash-points has come over the Schengen system of borderless travel. 

The system, which is observed by 26 member states, has already been coming under pressure from the migration crisis roiling the continent. Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have all temporarily re-imposed border controls at some or all of their borders after citing security threats. But they are within Schengen rules when doing so and have been careful not to break them.

Activist blacklisted

But Poland has been accused of flagrantly abusing the system by blacklisting a rights activist and trying to limit her freedom of movement within the Schengen area.

Last month, the Polish government of the populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) deported Crimean-born rights activist Lyudmyla Kozlovska. Married to a Pole, the 33-year-old had been living in Warsaw for many years and applied for permanent residency only to find herself expelled after the application was declined. Kozlovska runs a high-profile rights foundation focusing on democracy issues in former Communist countries, and was active in the Maidan protests that led to the ouster of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych.

After deporting Kozlovska, the Poles added her name to a Schengen-wide blacklist — in effect preventing her from entering any of the 26 Schengen-member states. Polish officials claim the non-governmental organization she runs, Open Dialog Foundation, has funding irregularities and is involved in “subversive activities.”

Kozlovska told VOA she believes she’s been targeted because “the PiS is afraid of popular protests like Maidan developing” and is fearful of ODF’s contacts with European politicians in Brussels.

Her blacklisting has prompted the anger of German lawmakers, straining already tense relations between Berlin and Warsaw. German parliamentarians argue Schengen blacklisting is meant to be reserved for people who are convicted or suspected terrorists or for criminals, and that critics or dissidents, however inconvenient they might be, shouldn’t be listed. 

Kozlovska, a critic of the PiS, spoke this week at an event in the German parliament after the German embassy in Kyiv issued her a temporary entry permit, despite the Schengen ban. Frank Schwabe of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the lawmakers who invited her, says, “the Polish government has a problem with accepting criticism” and he dubs as “scandalous” the blacklisting of her.

Kozlovska’s case is just one of a series of growing disputes between member states over rule-of-law issues and the interpretation of EU regulations, reflecting how different expectations are in the Western EU states compared to Central and southern Europe, ruled now by new nativist governments.

EU officials say Western states tend to be more punctilious in the observance of EU-wide laws and regulations. While their counterparts in the east and the south are less legalistic and more pragmatic in their compliance when it suits their domestic political purposes, breaching fiscal rules, banking transparency and money-laundering regulations more often, and increasingly flouting continent-wide human rights protections, from freedom of expression to the rights of civil society. 

“The Kozlovska case is just one example of an increasing split between states who are wedded to classical liberal ideals and those who are not,” says a senior EU policy-maker. “Freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, legal certainty are democratic achievements that bind us together as a community — or they did once. Now they are being challenged,” he added.

Both Poland and Hungary have clashed with Brussels and Western EU states over their efforts to reshape civil society and to curtail the activities of NGOs.

Midweek, Hungarian officials vowed they won’t withdraw a package of laws passed earlier this year that criminalize any individual or group offering to help illegal immigrants claim asylum. The legislation, which was passed in defiance of the EU, restricts the ability of NGOs to act in asylum cases. Under the law, individuals or groups that help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

The measures are called officially the “Stop Soros” laws, named after Hungarian-American billionaire NGO philanthropist George Soros. Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have criticized the measures as “arbitrary” and vague, arguing they are incompatible with EU law.

Hungarian state secretary Pál Völner told a midweek news conference that Budapest finds it objectionable that the European Commission, which has started infringement proceedings against Hungary, is getting involved in domestic political activities.

That’s also Poland’s position when it comes to rule-of-law issues.

Poland was banned Monday from an EU body representing member states’ judicial institutions for the perceived erosion of the independence of country’s judiciary following changes introduced by the PiS government. Polish ministers say their reforms are popular and are in line with their electoral mandate. Polish President Andrzej Duda has rebuffed EU threats telling supporters earlier this week at a rally in the south of Poland, “they should leave us in peace and let us fix Poland.”

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Britain’s Brexit Proposal Dead, May Humiliated, Press Says

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposals were declared dead by the British media Friday after what they cast as a humiliation at the hands of European Union leaders at an informal summit in Salzburg.

EU leaders said they will push for a Brexit deal next month but warned May that if she will not give ground on trade and the Irish border by November they are ready to cope with Britain crashing out.

For the British media, the message was clear. “Your Brexit’s broken,” the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page.

British newspapers led their front pages with a Reuters picture showing May, attired in a red jacket, standing apparently aloof and alone from a mass of suited male EU leaders.

Two hedgehogs

The negative headlines indicate the extent of the divergence in perceptions between London and the capitals of the EU’s other 27 members on the future of Brexit.

French President Emmanuel Macron bluntly said May’s Brexit proposals, known as Chequers after the country house where they were agreed by the British Cabinet in July, were “unacceptable.”

European Council President Donald Tusk was criticized for posting a picture of him offering May a choice of delicate cakes beside a message: “Sorry, no cherries.” That is a reference to what EU leaders cast as British attempts to cherry pick elements of EU membership.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sought to calm any hurt feelings but called for caution, comparing Britain and the EU to two loving hedgehogs.

“When two hedgehogs hug each other, you have to be careful that there will be no scratches,” he told Austrian newspapers.

Deadline March 29

Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, yet little is clear: There is, so far, no divorce deal, rivals to May are circling and some rebels have vowed to vote against a possible Brexit deal.

Both London and Brussels say they want a divorce deal, though there is limited time if the British and EU parliaments are to ratify a deal by March 29. Any deal must be approved by British lawmakers.

May on Thursday promised new proposals to reassure Dublin that it would not get a “hard border” with Northern Ireland but said that she too could live with a no-deal outcome.

Opposition from Conservatives

May’s former Brexit minister David Davis has said up to 40 lawmakers from the Conservative Party will vote against her Brexit plans.

Davis told Huffington Post there was a “rock-solid” core of party lawmakers who belonged to the European Research Group (ERG), a grouping which wants a sharper break with the EU and were willing to vote down her plans.

If a possible deal were rejected by the British parliament, Britain would face leaving the EU without an agreement, delaying Brexit or calling another referendum.

If Britain left without a deal, the country would move from seamless trade with the EU to customs arrangements set by the World Trade Organization for external states.

Many business chiefs and investors say a “no-deal” Brexit would weaken the West, panic financial markets and block the arteries of trade. Brexit supporters say such fears are exaggerated and Britain would thrive in the long term.

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US Demands Freedom for NASA Scientist Imprisoned in Turkey

The Trump administration on Thursday thanked Turkey for its reduced sentence for an imprisoned U.S. scientist but continued to demand his immediate release.

The State Department said there was no “credible evidence” in Turkey’s case against NASA scientist Serkan Golge.

Turkey sentenced Golge to 7½ years in prison in February on charges of belonging to an outlawed group that Turkey blames for attempting a coup that failed in 2016. The verdict was appealed. A court in Adana threw out the conviction, ruled instead that Golge had aided the group, and reduced the sentence to five years.

Golge’s lawyers said they would appeal his case again to a higher court.

Golge is a research scientist with the U.S. space agency. He and his family were visiting his native Turkey in 2016 when the coup attempt was carried out.

He was swept up in the mass arrests of tens of thousands of people suspected of playing a part in trying to overthrow the Turkish government.

Golge insists he is innocent. His wife says that he was arrested because he is an American citizen and that Turkey is holding him hostage.

The Golge case and that of another jailed U.S. citizen accused of participating in the failed coup, clergyman Andrew Brunson, have caused tension between the United States and Turkey.

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UN Official: Buffer Zone in Syria’s Idlib Province Averts War for Now

A Russian-Turkish agreement to create a demilitarized buffer zone between the Syrian army and rebels inside Syria’s northern Idlib province has averted a war for now, according to a senior United Nations official.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to set aside a large area along the border between Turkey and Idlib to potentially protect some 3 million civilians from attack. Turkey already shelters more than 3 million Syrian refugees and fears a massive exodus into its territory if Idlib were under attack.

Jan Egeland, a senior adviser of the U.N. special envoy for Syria, says he was informed of the agreement’s details during a meeting of a U.N.-backed task force on humanitarian access in Syria. Egeland says he feels relieved the countdown to war was stopped at the “11th hour.”

Egeland says the threatened military onslaught by Syrian and Russian forces to retake Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave in Syria, would have risked the lives of the civilians, including one million children. 

He says the Russian-Turkish agreement bought more time for diplomats and politicians to protect civilians inside the buffer zone and avert a catastrophic humanitarian disaster.

“What I understand is that the so-called war on terror is not called off,” Egeland said. “On the contrary, there will be in the future, air raids against the listed organizations. There will also be fighting between armed groups, armed actors and the so-called terrorists, the so-called radicals.” 

Under the deal, Egeland says only al-Nusra and other U.N.-listed terrorist groups can be attacked. These groups, which number about 10,000, will be moved outside the buffer zone, he says, adding that other “more moderate fighters” supported by Turkey will not be attacked.

Egeland warns that the terrorist groups will be scattered in different parts of Idlib, which is cause for alarm. Many of the groups vow to fight to the end, he says, but efforts will be made to reach out to them to try to get them not to fight to the last fighter and not to fight to the last civilian in their areas.

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