Sanctions on Russia to Stay in Place, Germany’s Merkel Says

A cease-fire between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine isn’t being fully observed and thus European Union sanctions against Russia must remain in place, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters early Friday morning. Ms. Merkel is a decisive figure in European decisions on sanctions against Russia, in part because of Germany’s close economic ties with Europe’s giant eastern neighbor. Her remarks show that tensions over Ukraine are far from being defused, despite the cease-fire deal reached in Minsk at the beginning of September. “When you’ve had more than 200 people killed you cannot say the cease-fire has been accepted,” she said at a news conference after an EU summit here that began on Thursday evening. Ms. Merkel said she was particularly worried about upcoming local elections in the rebel-held provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. “That is something that would establish facts on the ground that would not comply with Ukrainian law,” she said (Source: The Washington Post).

Sweden's military calls off hunt for suspected Russian submarine

The Swedish military said on Friday that it had called of its search for a suspected foreign submarine in waters off Stockholm after a week-long hunt, ending the country’s biggest military mobilization since the Cold War. More than 200 troops, stealth ships and helicopters have scoured waters off Stockholm since last Friday after reports of foreign “underwater activity” – suspected to be a Russian sub. “This means the bulk of ships and amphibious forces have returned to port,” the armed forces said in a statement, adding that some smaller forces would remain in the area. The military had received what it described as credible reports of activity by foreign submarines or divers using an underwater vehicle. The vessels were unidentified, but during the 1980s the Swedish navy from time to time hunted suspected Soviet submarines in its waters. The incident heightened tensions in a region where governments are increasingly worried about Russian assertiveness since the Ukraine crisis. In another incident, NATO and Swedish fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian intelligence-gathering plane that briefly entered Estonian airspace on Tuesday. The Estonian Foreign Ministry formally protested to Russia (Source: The Globe & Mail).


Germany's Merkel criticises Putin for broken promise on Ukraine

Most EU leaders on Thursday (23 October) criticised Russia’s non-compliance with peace accords on Ukraine, but Italy caused surprise by calling for re-engagement with Moscow. German chancellor Angela Merkel told press after the summit in Brussels that pro-Russia rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine are making unwelcome “facts on the ground”. Russia and Ukraine in Minsk on 5 September agreed, as part of a ceasefire, that Ukrainian authorities would organise regional votes in the conflict zones in December in a concession on decentralising power. But the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics are preparing to hold their own elections in November amid ongoing claims to independence. Merkel blamed Russian leader Vladimir Putin, noting that he promised her in Milan last week to use his influence on the rebels to prevent the Minsk accord from creating a frozen conflict. She noted: “This [the November vote] is a contradiction to what Russia said: ‘No. We don’t want a frozen conflict, another Transniestria [a Russia-controlled de facto state in Moldova]. We will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine’.” The EU leaders agreed a joint statement which calls on Russia to honour its commitments. A draft of the communique – which is to be formalised on Friday – confirms the EU will uphold its Russia sanctions for now. “The European Council recalled previous EU decisions on restrictive measures … [and] will remain seized with the situation in Ukraine”, it says (Source: EUObserver).

Germany calls for end to Azerbaijan-Armenia bloodshed

Germany’s foreign minister Thursday urged an end to the festering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia amid a fresh international drive for peace. On a two-day trip to the neighbouring arch-enemies, Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Baku that Europe was throwing new energy into resolving the ongoing bloodshed in the Nagorny Karabakh region that has dragged on for more than two decades. “We in Europe have watched with some concern that there have been more and more incidents of late,” he said at a press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, after talks earlier with President Ilham Aliyev. Nagorny Karabakh, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, broke away from Azerbaijan with the help of Armenia in a war that claimed some 30,000 lives between 1991 and 1994. In August, more than 20 troops died on the two sides in the deadliest clashes since the 1994 ceasefire. French President Francois Hollande is to host talks in Paris next week with representatives of the Minsk group of mediators in the conflict appointed by the OSCE in 1992, which France co-chairs with Russia and the United States. Hollande will hold separate meetings Monday with Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, who could then meet face-to-face. Steinmeier said Germany hoped the Paris meeting would be used “to soften some of the positions that have hardened in the past”. The tensions between energy-rich Azerbaijan and Moscow-allied Armenia have flared as ex-Soviet republics nervously watch the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine, where government forces are battling Russian-backed separatists (Source: France24).

France moving troops toward Libya's border

France is moving troops toward the Libyan border within weeks and, along with U.S. intelligence, is monitoring al-Qaida arms shipments to Africa’s Sahel region, a top French military official said Thursday. A French base will go up within weeks in a desert outpost 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the lawless Libyan border region overrun by Islamic militants, the official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. U.S. intelligence is helping French troops “a lot,” he said. Earlier this month, French troops destroyed an arms convoy in northern Niger carrying three tons of weapons from Libya to Mali. A French drone had located and followed the convoy from southeast Libya, the top defense official said. About 50 French troops will be permanently based in northern Niger and they could be reinforced very quickly by the French and Niger military when necessary, in order to be “able to crisscross the zone up to the border and hamper as much as possible the traffic route”, he said. French and U.S. drones are already operating out of Niger’s capital, Niamey. France launched a military operation three months ago against Islamist groups, with troops and equipment sent to ex-colonies Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mali. Following France’s intervention to rout Islamic militants from Mali last year, the operation is aiming to counter al-Qaida-linked militants there, and their potential ties with Nigerian militant group Boko Haram. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned last month that Libya is a “hub for terrorists” (Source: Yahoo! News).

Putin meets Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, reveals concerns over Iraq, Libya

The situation in the Middle East remains complex, with events in Iraq and Libya raising the most concerns, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said as he met with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in Sochi. Putin said he welcomed the opportunity to discuss developments in the Middle East with General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who occupies the position of Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. According to the Russian president, the situation “remains complex, not only on Israeli-Palestinian track, but in other parts of the region as well. We are concerned by the state of things in Iraq and Libya.” For his part, Al Nahyan said that Moscow “plays a very important role in the Middle East.” Putin underlined the expanding investment cooperation between the two countries, adding that Russia“has great confidence in investment funds” from UAE. The Crown Prince replied that he had no doubts that his country and Russia “are bound by a privileged relationship.” According to the Russian side, the trade between Russia and UAE has increased four times during the last five years, reaching the mark of $2.5 billion last year. However, in the first half of 2014 the volume of trade decreased by 11.5 per cent to $ 1.3 billion. UAE’s accumulated investment into Russia in 2013 is estimated at $ 264 million, with another $48 million moving in the opposite direction (Source: Russia Today).

Ukraine's PM warns Russia may try to disrupt Sunday's election

Ukraine’s prime minister warned on Thursday of possible attempts by Russia to disrupt an election in Ukraine at the weekend, a vote being held against a background of Russian support for separatist rebels and an unresolved row over gas. Sunday’s poll is the first parliamentary election since street protests last winter drove Moscow-backed leader Victor Yanukovich from office and ushered in a pro-Western leadership. The results are expected to turn a political bloc supporting President Petro Poroshenko into the leading force in parliament, where pro-Russian influence will be greatly diminished. Poroshenko is seeking a mandate to press ahead with a plan for ending the conflict with separatists in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and establishing an understanding with Moscow while pursuing a course of European integration. Interfax news agency quoted him as saying on Thursday that he expected to be able to begin forming a new coalition by early next week that would be “pro-European, anti-corruption, without liars and populists.” Western governments supported the “Euromaidan” winter protests in Kiev that forced Yanukovich to flee to Russia, but Moscow denounced his overthrow as a coup. Russia went on to annex Crimea and back separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 3,700 people. With violence between government forces and separatists still simmering in eastern Ukraine despite a ceasefire, Prime Minister Arsenic Yatseniuk, a hawk in the Kiev leadership, ordered a full security mobilization for the weekend to prevent “terrorist acts” being carried out (Source: Reuters).

Iran-Turkey relations strained over Syria

In an Oct. 13 speech marking the new academic year at Marmara University, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked, “What kind of religious leader is this [who] says ‘Assad is the only one challenging Israel’? Assad didn’t shoot a bullet at Israel. Assad killed 250,000, and you’re still supporting him, sending him money and arms.” The religious leader in Erdogan’s crosshair was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While discussing Erdogan, an Iranian official told Al-Monitor by phone, “The death of 250,000 in Syria was caused by nations that back the terrorists in Syria. Turkey is one of those states, and it has full responsibility for the situation today. Mr. Erdogan personally knows that Iran is innocent. Iran is helping a legitimate government restore control over its land and fight terrorists coming from around the globe to kill and terrorize civilians.” The removal of President Bashar al-Assad is Turkey’s first priority. This need not be achieved directly, but Ankara believes it should be acknowledged as a necessity in solving the Syrian crisis. Full control by Turkey’s allies over northern Syria, from the border with Iraq to the Mediterranean, would ease Ankara’s concerns over the possible establishment of a Kurdish state on its border, in addition to being an essential element in defeating Assad’s regime and hastening its fall. Northern Syria would become a safe haven for the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition to establish their control and expand under coalition airstrikes. Therein lies Turkey’s problem with Iran (Source: Al-Monitor).

Kosovo minister Enver Hoxhaj makes historic Serbia visit

Enver Hoxhaj has become the first minister from Kosovo to officially visit Serbia since his country unilaterally seceded in 2008. The Kosovan foreign minister hailed warmer ties between the two sides, and urged his hosts to agree to a peace treaty that would recognise Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo has been recognised by more than 100 countries. But Serbia, backed by Russia and other states, has refused to do so. Kosovan Albanians waged a secessionist war against Serbia in the late 1990s, which responded with a military crackdown against the territory and its civilians. A Nato bombing campaign against Belgrade effectively forced Serbia to cede the territory, which was administered by the United Nations until 2008. Mr Hoxhaj was visiting Serbia to take part in a regional ministerial meeting in Belgrade. But he used the occasion to call for a peace treaty, and told reporters: “Wherever I go I embody Kosovo’s sovereignty as an independent state.” The visit has been seen as a chance to lower tensions between Serbia and Kosovo – which has a ruling ethnic Albanian majority and an ethnic Serbian minority. The Kosovo situation still sparks tension between Serbia and Albania, which backs Kosovo’s independence. Last week, a football match between Serbia and Albania was abandoned after a drone flew over the stadium in Belgrade carrying a flag emblazoned with a black eagle, the symbol of Greater Albania. It prompted scuffles among players and fans on the Partizan Stadium pitch. The two nations are due to find out their punishment for the violence later on Thursday following a disciplinary hearing by European football’s governing body Uefa (Source: BBC).

Ebola crisis: UK pledges extra £80m to fight disease

The UK is to give an extra £80m of aid towards the fight against the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The pledge was announced by Prime Minister David Cameron at a European Council summit in Brussels, and brings Britain’s total contribution to £205m. Further pledges were expected to take total EU contribution to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to above £552m. But Mr Cameron, who said Ebola and the economy were the big risks facing the EU, urged other leaders to give more. Last week he suggested the EU donate 1bn euros (£789m) in response to the disease, which has killed more than 4,800 people in West Africa. About £50m of the new UK money will go towards 200 Ebola care units across Sierra Leone; £20m will go into a UN trust fund, and £10m will provide support for burials in Sierra Leone. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso pledged 24m euros of new EU funding to speed up medical research into treatments and vaccines. However, as the 28 EU leaders discussed the outbreak over dinner, Mr Cameron told them: “We can all do more. We should all do more.” As he arrived at the summit, Mr Cameron warned that the virus could spread to Europe if it was not stopped. “It is very important we take action at source in West Africa,” he said. “Britain has been leading the way in terms of Sierra Leone… But we need other countries to do more.” The UK, US and France are respectively taking the lead in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – the three countries worst-affected by the current outbreak (Source: BBC).