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People protest against the construction of a hydropower plant near Birkiani
Participants attack police officers during a rally held by residents of the Pankisi gorge, who protest against the planned construction of a hydropower plant, near the village of Birkiani, Georgia April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ekaterina Anchevskaya

April 21, 2019

TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgian police used tear gas and rubber bullets on Sunday to break up a protest by residents of a mountainous region against the construction of a hydropower plant, the independent Rustavi-2 TV station reported.

Around 300 residents of the Pankisi gorge gathered near the village of Birkiani to protest against the planned plant, saying it could damage the environment and force them to leave their homes. Some threw stones at the police, Rustavi-2 reported.

The TV station showed several residents with minor injuries from rubber bullets and said some police officers were also hurt.

Interior ministry officials and a spokeswoman were not immediately available to comment.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Mark Potter)

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Flowers and a candle are left at the exact spot where 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead, in Londonderry
Flowers and a candle are left at the exact spot where 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland April 20, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

April 21, 2019

BELFAST (Reuters) – Police in Northern Ireland on Sunday released without charge two teenagers arrested in relation to the killing of a journalist during a riot in Londonderry.

Lyra McKee, 29, an award-winning journalist who was writing a book on the disappearance of young people during decades of violence in Northern Ireland, was shot dead on Thursday as she watched Irish nationalist youths attack police following a raid.

“Two males, aged 18 and 19 … have been released without charge,” the Police Service of Northern Ireland said in a statement.

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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North Macedonia's presidential election
Ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia’s candidate Stevo Pendarovski talks to the media after casting his vote for the presidential elections in Skopje, North Macedonia April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

April 21, 2019

SKOPJE (Reuters) – Early results of a presidential election in North Macedonia showed pro-Western candidate Stevo Pendarovski in first place, with 45 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission website showed on Sunday.

His main rival, opposition candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, was in second place with 41 percent of the votes, preliminary results showed, based on 57 percent of ballots counted.

Blerim Reka, candidate of the second largest Albanian party Besa came third with 11.7 percent of the votes counted.

Pendarovski and Siljanovska-Davkova will face a run-off on May 5.

(Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; editing by Louise Heavens)

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Extinction Rebellion protest in London
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg speaks during the Extinction Rebellion protest at Marble Arch in London, Britain April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

April 21, 2019

LONDON (Reuters) – Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg on Sunday urged hundreds of climate-change protesters in London to never give up their campaign to save the planet as police arrests over disruptions to the city’s landmarks rose above 830.

Climate group Extinction Rebellion has targeted sites such as Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge in a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience with the aim of stopping what it calls a global climate crisis.

Police said the number of arrests in connection with the protests rose to 831 on Sunday, and 40 people had been charged with offences such as obstructing a highway and obstructing the police.

Thunberg, a 16-year-old student, spoke to hundreds of activists at Marble Arch, one of a number of London landmarks that have been brought to a standstill over seven days of direct action. Police were allowing the protest to continue at the site.

“We are the ones making a difference – we the people in Extinction Rebellion and the children’s School Strike for the Climate – we are the ones making a difference,” she told cheering crowds.

“And we will never stop fighting, we will never stop fighting for this planet, for ourselves, our futures and for the futures of our children and grandchildren.”

Thunberg inspired a movement of children against global warming when she took a stand in front of Stockholm’s Parliament House last August with her “school strike for climate” sign.

Thousands of students around the world have since copied her, and the schoolgirl took her campaign to European leaders in Strasbourg on Tuesday and to the Vatican, where she met Pope Francis, on Wednesday. [nL5N21Y566] [nL5N21Z31L]

London police said they had moved protesters from roads around Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Parliament Square, and they were working to re-open Waterloo Bridge.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said on Saturday that the protests had caused “miserable disruption”. She said there were now 1,500 police officers, up from 1,000 previously, working to clear the roads. [nL5N2220GH]

(Reporting by Hannah McKay, Writing by Paul Sandle; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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A Sudanese protester waves a national flag as he arrives a mass protest in front of the Defence Ministry in Khartoum
A Sudanese protester waves a national flag as he arrives a mass protest in front of the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan, April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

April 21, 2019

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese protest leaders on Sunday vowed to escalate demonstrations to confront the country’s military rulers, as part of a widening campaign to push for the transfer of power to civilians.

Addressing a rally outside the Defence Ministry in central Khartoum, a protest leader said that demonstrators no longer recognized the Transitional Military Council that assumed power after the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir last week.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by William Maclean)

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Members of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces take position during the fighting with the Eastern forces in Ain Zara, in Tripoli
Members of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces take position during the fighting with the Eastern forces in Ain Zara, in Tripoli, Libya April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

April 21, 2019

By Hani Amara and Ulf Laessing

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government have pushed their eastern opponents back on parts of the frontline south of Tripoli, despite the attackers flying overnight air strikes on the capital, witnesses said on Sunday.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) force loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar allied to a parallel government in the east started an offensive more two weeks ago but has been unable to breach the southern defenses of the Tripoli government.

The latest flare-up in the cycle of anarchy gripping Libya since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 threatens to disrupt oil flows, foment migration across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, and allow jihadists to exploit the chaos.

Forces loyal to Tripoli managed to push back the LNA several km (miles) in the southern Ain Zara suburb, Reuters reporters visiting the area said. They managed to go several km further south than when they visited the same frontline a few days ago.

Still, if a ceasefire was called as demanded by the United Nations, the LNA would have gained a considerable amount of territory, as they still control much of the area south of Tripoli including a forward base in Gharyan, a mountainous town some 80 km south of Tripoli.

LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari denied his forces had retreated, telling reporters they had actual gained territory after what he called a successful air strike.

The attackers had late on Saturday flown air strikes on southern areas of Tripoli, with residents blaming drones after listening for almost an hour the typical summing of an unmanned aircraft.

Reuters was unable to confirm whether an aircraft or unmanned drone was behind the strike which triggered heavy anti aircraft fire. Explosions heard in the city center this time were louder than in previous days.

If a drone strike was confirmed this would point to more sophisticated warfare. The LNA has so far mainly used aging Soviet-made jets from the air force of Gaddafi, lacking precision firepower and helicopters, according to residents and military sources.

In the past the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have supported Haftar with air strikes during campaigns to take eastern Libya. Both countries flew air strikes on Tripoli in 2014 during a different conflict to help a Haftar-allied force, U.S. officials said at the time.

Since 2014 the UAE and Egypt have also provided the LNA with military equipment such as aircraft and helicopters, helping Haftar to gain the upper hand in Libya’s eight-year conflict, past U.N. reports have established.

The UAE even built an air base in Al Khadim in eastern Libya, one such report said in 2017.

Fighting over Tripoli spiked after the White House said on Friday that President Donald Trump spoke to Haftar on Monday.

The disclosure of the call and a U.S. statement that it “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” has boosted the commander’s supporters and enraged his opponents.

Western powers and the Gulf have been divided over a push by Haftar’s forces to seize Tripoli, undermining calls by the United Nations for a ceasefire. On Thursday, both the United States and Russia said they could not support a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a Libya ceasefire at this time.

(Writing by Ulf Laessing, Editing by William Maclean)

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Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran
FILE PHOTO – Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran September 22, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

April 21, 2019

By Lesley Wroughton, Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has largely carved out exceptions so that foreign governments, firms and NGOs do not automatically face U.S. sanctions for dealing with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after the group’s designation by Washington as a foreign terrorist group, according to three current and three former U.S. officials.

The exemptions, granted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and described by a State Department spokesman in response to questions from Reuters, mean officials from countries such as Iraq who may have dealings with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, would not necessarily be denied U.S. visas. The IRGC is a powerful faction in Iran that controls a business empire as well as elite armed and intelligence forces.

The exceptions to U.S. sanctions would also permit foreign executives who do business in Iran, where the IRGC is a major economic force, as well as humanitarian groups working in regions such as northern Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to do so without fear they will automatically trigger U.S. laws on dealing with a foreign terrorist group.

However, the U.S. government also created an exception to the carve-out, retaining the right to sanction any individual in a foreign government, company or NGO who themselves provides “material support” to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

The move is the latest in which the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has staked out a hardline position on Iran, insisting for example that Iran’s oil customers cut their imports of Iranian petroleum to zero, only to grant waivers allowing them keep buying it.

‘WHY BE SO OPAQUE?’

Pompeo designated the IRGC as an FTO on April 15, creating a problem for foreigners who deal with it and its companies, and for U.S. diplomats and military officers in Iraq and Syria, whose interlocutors may work with the IRGC.

The move – the first time the United States had formally labeled part of another sovereign government as a terrorist group – created confusion among U.S. officials who initially had no guidance on how to proceed and on whether they were still allowed to deal with such interlocutors, three U.S. officials said.

American officials have long said they fear the designation could endanger U.S. forces in places such as Syria or Iraq, where they may operate in close proximity to IRGC-allied groups.

The State Department’s Near Eastern and South and Central Asian bureaus, wrote a rare joint memo to Pompeo before the designation expressing concerns about its potential impact, but were overruled, two U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity.

The action was also taken over the objections of the Defense and Homeland Security Departments, a congressional aide said.

“Simply engaging in conversations with IRGC officials generally does not constitute terrorist activity,” the State Department spokesman said when asked what repercussions U.S.-allied countries could face if they had contact with the IRGC.

“Our ultimate goal is to get other states and non-state entities to stop doing business the IRGC,” the State Department spokesman, who declined to be identified by name, added without specifying the countries or entities targeted.

Separately, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has replaced the head of the IRGC, Iranian state TV reported on Sunday, appointing Brigadier General Hossein Salami to replace Mohammad Ali Jafari.

Pompeo’s carve-outs appear designed to limit the potential liability for foreign governments, companies and NGOs, while leaving open the possibility that individuals within those groups could be punished for helping the IRGC.

“Under the first group exemption, the secretary determined that, generally – but with one important exception – a ministry, department, agency, division, or other group or sub-group of any foreign government will not be treated as a Tier III terrorist organization,” the State Department spokesman said.

A Tier III terrorist group is one that has not formally been designated as an FTO or a terrorist group under other laws, but that the U.S. government deems to have engaged in “terrorist activity,” and hence, its members may not enter the United States.

This exemption, a congressional aide and two former U.S. State Department lawyers said, appeared designed to ensure that the rest of the Iranian government, as well as officials from partner governments such as Iraq and Oman who may deal with the IRGC, would not automatically be tainted by its FTO designation.

Under U.S. law, someone who provides “material support” to terrorist groups is subject to extensive penalties. Material support is defined widely and can cover anything from providing funds, transportation or counterfeit documents to giving food, helping to set up tents or distributing literature, the Department of Homeland Security’s website shows.

A former State Department lawyer said the guidance quoted above seemed to signal visa officers should not reflexively deny applications from officials of foreign governments or businesses that might deal with the IRGC, but called the language unclear.

“Frankly, a lot of people are going to have questions about the impact of these exemptions. Why be so opaque about it?” asked the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The State Department declined requests to explain the guidance language.

A SPLASH, BUT NOT A POLICY CHANGE?

“Under the second group exemption, the secretary determined that, generally, a non-governmental business, organization, or group that provided material support to any sub-entity of a foreign government that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization … will not be treated as a Tier III terrorist organization,” the State Department spokesman said.

A congressional aide suggested the Trump administration wanted to signal it was ratcheting up pressure on Iran by targeting the IRGC, but not to disrupt diplomacy of U.S. allies.

“I got the sense that the administration was looking for a splash, but not a policy change,” said the congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are not necessarily looking to punish anyone. They are looking to scare people.”

However, the State Department also made clear it could go after individuals in exempted groups if they wished.

“The exemptions do not benefit members of an exempted group who themselves provided material support … or had other relevant ties to a non-exempt terrorist organization,” the agency spokesman said.

“This FTO designation, like other sanctions actions, has a number of unintended consequences that if left to play out in their natural way, would harm U.S. interests,” said former State Department lawyer Peter Harrell, alluding to the potential denial of U.S. visas to officials from partner countries.

“The State Department is trying to in a reasonable way limit those consequences,” he said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Arshad Mohammed, Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landayj; writing by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Mary Milliken and G Crosse)

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FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran
FILE PHOTO: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo

April 21, 2019

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has replaced the head of the influential Revolutionary Guards Corps, state TV reported on Sunday, days after the United States designated the elite group a foreign terrorist organization.

The TV station did not give a reason for the change when it announced the appointment of Brigadier General Hossein Salami to the position and his promotion to the rank of Major General. He

served as deputy commander of the Guards for years and is known for his hardline comments against Israel and the United States.

“The Supreme Leader has appointed Salami as the new commander-in-chief of the Guards, who will replace Mohammad Ali Jafari,” it said.

Major General Jafari had held the post since September 2007.

President Donald Trump on April 8 designated the Guards a terrorist organization, in an unprecedented step that drew Iranian condemnation and raised concerns about retaliatory attacks on U.S. forces. The designation took effect on April 15.

Tehran retaliated by naming the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organization and the U.S. government as a sponsor of terrorism.

On April 13, Salami was quoted by Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency as saying that he and the IRGC were proud of being designated a terrorist group by Washington.

POLITICAL CLOUT

The IRGC, created by late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, is more than a military force. It is also an industrial empire with political clout and is loyal to the supreme leader.

Comprising an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units, the Guards also command the Basij, a religious volunteer paramilitary force, and control Iran’s missile programs. The Guards’ overseas Quds forces have fought Iran’s proxy wars in the region.

The IRGC is in charge of Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Tehran has warned that it has missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kms (1,242 miles), putting Israel and U.S. military bases in the region within reach.

Salami, born in 1960, said in January that Iran’s strategy was to wipe “the Zionist regime” (Israel) off the political map, Iran’s state TV reported.

“We announce that if Israel takes any action to wage a war against us, it will definitely lead to its own elimination,” Salami said after an Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria in January, Iranian media reported.

Israel sees Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as a threat to its existence. Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes only.

Israel, which Islamic Iran refuses to recognize, backed Trump’s move in May to quit a 2015 international deal on Iran’s nuclear program and welcomed Washington’s reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by William Maclean and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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FILE PHOTO - Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans along the streets in Khartoum
FILE PHOTO – Demonstrators chant slogans along the streets after Sudan’s Defense Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf said that President Omar al-Bashir had been detained “in a safe place” and that a military council would run the country for a two-year transitional period in Khartoum, Sudan April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

April 21, 2019

By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said on Sunday they had agreed to send Sudan $3 billion worth of aid, throwing a lifeline to the country’s new military leaders after protests led to the ouster of president Omar al-Bashir.

The two Gulf Arab countries will deposit $500 million with the Sudanese central bank and send the rest in the form of food, medicine and petroleum products, their state news agencies said in parallel statements.

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) is under pressure from protesters who have kept up a sit-in outside the Defence Ministry since Bashir was ousted on April 11. They demonstrated in large numbers over the past three days, pressing for a rapid handover to civilian rule.

TMC head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan told state TV that the council had received many blueprints on how to manage the transitional period and that the formation of a joint military-civilian council – one of the demands put forward by Sudanese activists – was being considered.

“The issue has been put forward for discussion and a vision has yet to be reached,” he said.

“The role of the military council complements the uprising and the blessed revolution,” said Burhan, adding that the TMC was committed to handing power over to the people.

KOBAR PRISON

Burhan also confirmed for the first time that Bashir and a number of former officials, including presidential aide Nafie Ali Nafie, acting party head Ahmed Haroun and former first vice president Ali Osman Taha, are being held at a high-security prison in Khartoum North.

“All of them are at Kobar prison,” he said, adding that “a large number of symbols of the former regime suspected of corruption will stand trial”.

Burhan said authorities had found 7 million euros ($7.8 million) in Bashir’s home, along with $350,000, slightly more than previously reported.

A judicial source said on Saturday that Sudanese military intelligence officers had found suitcases of cash in foreign currency as well as Sudanese pounds when they searched Bashir’s house.

The aid from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is the first major publicly announced assistance to Sudan from Gulf states in several years.

“This is to strengthen its financial position, ease the pressure on the Sudanese pound and increase stability in the exchange rate,” the Saudi Press Agency said.

Sudan’s state news agency said the central bank strengthened the Sudanese pound to 45 pounds to the dollar from 47.5, in a measure that coincided with the sharp rise in the price of the pound against the dollar on the parallel market.

The two Gulf states have ties with Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, through their participation in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Sudan has been suffering from a deepening economic crisis that has caused cash shortages and long queues at bakeries and petrol stations.

Analysts have blamed the crisis on economic mismanagement, corruption, and the impact of U.S. sanctions, as well as the loss of oil revenue when South Sudan seceded in 2011.

In October 2017, the United States lifted some trade and economic sanctions on Sudan, but Sudan remained on the list of countries that the United States considers to be sponsors of terrorism.

Burhan said a committee could travel to the United States for discussions about lifting Sudan from the list by next week. Washington has said Sudan will not be removed from the list as long as the military is in power.

The designation makes Sudan ineligible for desperately needed debt relief and financing from international lenders.

The United States agreed in November to talks with Bashir’s government on how to get Sudan removed from the list, but no resolution was reached before his overthrow on April 11 following weeks of increasing public unrest.

Over the last few years, Sudan’s cash-short government expanded money supply to cover the cost of expensive subsidies on fuel, wheat and pharmaceuticals, causing annual inflation of 73 percent and the Sudanese pound to plunge against the dollar.

(Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan, Nafisa Eltahir, Omar Fahmy and Sami Aboudi, Writing by Aidan Lewis, Editing by Susan Fenton and Louise Heavens)

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FILE PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
FILE PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

April 21, 2019

DUBAI (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Iran on Sunday to discuss security and regional issues, Iranian state TV reported, a day after Islamabad urged Tehran to act against militants behind killings in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

A new umbrella group representing various insurgent groups operating in Baluchistan claimed responsibility for an attack on Thursday when 14 passengers were killed after being kidnapped from buses in the province, which borders Iran.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Saturday the training and logistical camps of the new alliance that carried out the attack were inside Iran and called for Iran to take action against the insurgents.

Iranian TV said that Khan began his two-day visit to Iran, the first since he took office last August, with a stop in the northeastern holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad.

Khan will meet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, as well as other officials, in Tehran on Monday.

“During the meetings, improving bilateral ties, border security, countering terrorism and regional issues will be discussed,” state TV said.

Relations between Iran and Pakistan have been strained in recent months, with both sides accusing each other of not doing enough to stamp out militants allegedly sheltering across the border.

Shi’ite Muslim Iran says militant groups operate from safe havens in Pakistan and has repeatedly called on Islamabad to crack down on them.

Tehran has stepped up security along its long border with Pakistan after a suicide bomber killed 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in mid-February in southeastern Iran, with Iranian officials saying the attackers were based inside Pakistan.

The Sunni group Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice), which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for the ethnic Baloch minority, claimed responsibility for that attack.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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