Britain on Saturday said it had “anticipated” the tit-for-tat expulsion of its diplomats from Moscow over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil.
Moscow announced earlier Saturday it would expel 23 British diplomats and close a British consulate following London’s “provocative” measures over the March 4 incident in which Sergei Skripal and his daughter were exposed to a rare nerve agent in the English town of Salisbury.
“We anticipated a response of this kind and the National Security Council will meet early next week to consider next steps,” said Britain’s Foreign Office.
“This follows the action we have taken, alongside other measures, to dismantle the Russian espionage network operating in the UK as a consequence of the attempted assassination of two people here in Britain using a nerve agent.”
London has blamed Moscow and on Friday, even directly implicated Putin in the attack, prompting the Kremlin’s fury.
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and suspension of high-level contacts over the nerve agent attack.
And she also warned more measures could follow, noting that the US-led NATO alliance and the UN Security Council had discussed the attack.
“Russia’s response doesn’t change the facts of the matter,” said the Foreign Office.
“We have no disagreement with the people of Russia and we continue to believe it is not in our national interest to break off all dialogue between our countries but the onus remains on the Russian state to account for their actions.”
Russia insists it had no motive to target Skripal with what Britain says was a highly-potent Soviet-designed nerve agent called Novichok, in the first such attack in Europe since World War II.
Russia announced Saturday it will expel 23 British diplomats and halt the activities of the British Council in response to London’s “provocative” measures over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter.
“Twenty three diplomatic staff at the British embassy in Moscow are declared persona non grata and to be expelled within a week,” the foreign ministry said in a statement after summoning the British ambassador Laurie Bristow.
It said the move was a response to Britain’s “provocative actions” and “baseless accusations over the incident in Salisbury on March 4,” referring to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, which Britain has blamed on Russia.
Russia also said it was halting the activities of the British Council, Britain’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, across the country.
“Due to the unregulated status of the British Council in Russia, its activity is halted,” the foreign ministry said.
And the ministry had also warned Britain that “if further unfriendly actions are taken towards Russia, the Russian side retains the right to take other answering measures.”
Moscow has proposed a face-to-face meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while both are on Africa tours, a senior Russian diplomat said Monday.
“Issues we need to discuss are multiplying, so we have made a proposal (for a meeting) to the US side,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Russian agencies reported.
Both Lavrov and Tillerson will be visiting Ethiopia in the coming days.
“We don’t have any information about whether their schedules could be aligned. But we believe such contact would be useful,” Ryabkov said.
Lavrov began his five-day Africa tour on Monday with Angola and also plans to visit Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, where he will be in the capital Addis Ababa on March 8 and 9, according to the Russian embassy’s Twitter feed.
Tillerson is to visit African countries including Ethiopia between March 6 and 13, state department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced last week.
The two top diplomats last met in early December in Vienna and have since limited their contacts to telephone conversations, specifically on the Syrian conflict.
Russia has invested in resource extraction projects in Africa and is seeking to expand its trade with sub-Saharan countries, which in 2017 amounted to $3.6 billion (2.93 billion euros).
South Korean President Moon Jae-in Thursday told Donald Trump that he plans to send a special envoy to Pyongyang, his office said, the latest in the Olympic-driven detente between the two Koreas.
An intense rapprochement saw the two Koreas march into the Games opening ceremony together behind a unification flag, and Moon shared a historic handshake with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong.
“In response to the visit by North Korea’s special envoy Kim Yo Jong, … Moon conveyed to Trump his plans to dispatch a special envoy to the North soon,” Seoul’s presidential office said in a statement following their phone conversation.
The two presidents also “agreed to maintain the momentum in inter-Korean dialogue and to continue efforts so it leads to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” it said.
Moon has sought to use the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics that ended Sunday to open dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in the hopes of easing a nuclear standoff that has sparked global security fears.
Pyongyang mounted a charm offensive during the Games, sending athletes, cheerleaders and high-level delegations following months of tensions over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Moon, who advocates dialogue with the North to defuse tension, said on Monday that Washington needs to “lower the threshold for talks” with the North.
In a meeting with North Korean General Kim Yong Chol on Sunday, Moon also urged the North to open dialogue with the US as soon as possible — to which Kim responded by saying the North was “very willing” to hold talks.
But the US has ruled out any possibility of talks before Pyongyang — which last year staged multiple missile and nuclear tests — takes steps towards denuclearisation.
There was no known interaction between the North and the US during the Games and Washington last week imposed what Trump described as the “heaviest ever” sanctions on the isolated regime.
President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday said Iran is ready to discuss regional security issues with its Gulf Arab neighbours as long as foreign powers are kept out of any potential talks.
“We don’t need foreigners to guarantee the security of our region,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast on state television.
“When it comes to regional security arrangements, we are ready to talk to our neighbours and friends, without the presence of foreigners,” he added.
“We are, have been and always will be good neighbours,” Rouhani said, addressing Gulf Arab countries including Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani was speaking in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas overlooking the Gulf — a flashpoint of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The two powers, who severed diplomatic ties in January 2016, have taken opposing sides in wars in Syria and Yemen.
Shiite-dominated Iran is the main regional backer of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni rebels supported by Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing since 2015 Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels opposed to the internationally recognised government.
Western powers and their Gulf Arab allies say Iran is a destabilising influence in the Middle East.
Tehran, however, has regularly called for dialogue with its neighbours free of any foreign interference.
Rouhani’s comments came a day after the United States and three European allies condemned Iran after the United Nations found Tehran had violated the arms embargo on Yemen by failing to block supplies of missiles and drones to Huthi rebels.
The condemnation came after Russia vetoed a British-drafted resolution renewing sanctions on Yemen and citing “particular concern” about a report’s findings on Iran.
Rouhani paid tribute to “Russia’s just and intelligent stance”.
French President Emmanuel Macron will make his state visit to the United States on April 23-25, his office announced, the first by a foreign leader since Donald Trump assumed the presidency last year.
“This invitation reflects the long-standing historical friendship and alliance between our countries, and the strength of relations between the two presidents,” Macron’s office said late Monday.
Trump extended the invitation in January after he was hosted by Macron in July for the Bastille Day national holiday — when the US leader was impressed by the huge traditional military parade on the Champs-Elysees.
This month the White House said Trump is seeking a similar military parade, an unconventional move that would showcase American muscle and underscore his role as commander-in-chief.
Although Trump and Macron have professed good relations and met several times, they disagree on a range of fundamental issues, not least Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the 2015 Paris agreement on fighting climate change.
The programme for Macron’s visit has not yet been finalised, but will include a joint press conference and a state dinner, his office said.
Diplomatic sources said Macron may also use the occasion to visit New Orleans, which this year celebrates its 300th anniversary since its founding by the French in 1718.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Turkey on Thursday seeking to ease tensions with its NATO ally that have reached fresh heights over Ankara’s ongoing operation inside Syria.
During his two-day trip to the Turkish capital, Tillerson — who last visited in July 2017 — will hold talks with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey’s operation against a Kurdish militia in Syria has added a potentially insurmountable new problem to the litany of issues clouding the relationship between Washington and Ankara.
Analysts said the level of tension was similar to 2003 when Turkey refused to let US troops operate from its territory for the Iraq war, or even the aftermath of Ankara’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
Turkey’s operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara blacklists as a terror group, has seen troops fighting a militia which is closely allied with the US in the battle against jihadists.
And Erdogan has further upped the ante by warning US troops to steer clear of Manbij, a YPG-held town east of Afrin where the main operation is happening, raising fears of a clash.
“We are going to go to Manbij and if they are there, it’s too bad for them,” a senior Turkish official told AFP.
When a US commander told the New York Times it would respond “aggressively” to any attack by Turkey, Erdogan didn’t mince his words.
“It’s very clear that those who make such remarks have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” he said, using the term for a backhander which, according to legend, could kill an opponent in one stroke.
Weakening anti-IS efforts
For Ankara, the YPG is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is blacklisted as a terror outfit by the US and the EU.
But for Washington, the YPG is an ally.
On Tuesday, Tillerson said Turkey’s operation “detracted” from the fight against Islamic State jihadists, saying Kurdish fighters had been “diverted” from where they were really needed in order to fight in Afrin.
Former State Department official Amanda Sloat told AFP Washington did not appear to have “developed a clear way forward on Syria nor determined how its plans address Turkish security concerns”.
And if Ankara expected any clarity from US officials on the way forward in Syria, it would be “disappointed”, said Sloat, now a senior fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution.
Speaking ahead of the visit, a senior State Department official said “eyes had to be on” the defeat of IS.
“It’s complicated enough. Let’s not make it more so.”
But Cavusoglu warned Washington that ties were at a “critical point” where relations would “be fixed or… completely damaged.”
Ties were damaged after the failed coup of 2016 with Turkey stung by a perceived lack of US solidarity and angered by its intransigence over the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric blamed for ordering the putsch.
There is still no US ambassador to Turkey after the departure of John Bass last year, and it was only in December that the two sides ended a row following tit-for-tat suspensions of visa services.
‘Inflaming public anger’
Last month, Ankara reacted furiously to the conviction in New York of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla on charges of violating sanctions against Iran.
And Washington has expressed concern that several of its citizens, as well as Turkish employees of US missions, have been caught up in the post-coup crackdown.
Last week, NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for being a member of Gulen’s movement, with the State Department saying he had been convicted “without credible evidence”.
Another case is that of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in Izmir, who has been held on similar charges since October 2016.
Such tensions have affected the Turkish public with 83 percent holding unfavourable views of the US, a Center for American Progress (CAP) poll showed this week.
“The Turkish public has long been sceptical of the US, but Erdogan and the (ruling party) have chosen to inflame the public’s anger to score political points,” said CAP’s associate director Max Hoffman.
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu makes an emotional visit this week to a Jewish centre targeted in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in a trip that India’s tiny and shrinking Jewish community hopes will boost its profile.
Netanyahu will talk trade in New Delhi and marvel at the Taj Mahal before rounding off his visit in Mumbai, where the majority of India’s estimated 4,500 Jews live.
There he will accompany 11-year-old Moshe Holtzberg as the boy returns for the first time to the house where his parents were killed in the 26/11 terror attacks that left 166 people dead.
At Mumbai’s Magen David synagogue, worshippers are excited about the first visit to India by an Israeli leader in almost 15 years.
“It’s very good news for us. We’re very lucky to get to see the prime minister over here,” Joel Gershon Awaskar told AFP after concluding his morning prayers.
Netanyahu will be only the second Israeli PM to visit India and the first since Ariel Sharon in 2003. It comes six months after Indian leader Narendra Modi toured Israel.
For Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation, the reciprocal visits and warm ties between the two countries are of the “utmost importance” to Jews in India.
“The closer the co-operation, the closer the Jewish community in India feels to Israel. So we feel recognised and we feel secure,” he told AFP.
It is not just recognition from abroad that many Indian Jews crave.
Although historians believe Jews first arrived in India 2,000 years ago, their descendents today say they are virtually unknown in a country where they are hugely outnumbered by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians.
Nor are Jews officially recognised as a minority community by India’s government.
India is in fact home to several distinct Jewish groups.
These include Bene Israelis, who have the longest history in India, and Baghdadi Jews, who fled persecution in the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although there are no official figures, academics say India’s Jewish population peaked at around 20,000 in the mid 1940s.
Numbers have dwindled rapidly because of emigration since the creation of Israel in 1948.
“Many people here don’t know about the Jewish community, about our customs and festivals,” said Awaskar, who hopes Netanyahu’s visit will help increase awareness amongst Indians about the Jewish faith.
“It will be good for us, we’ll become well known,” he added, a black-and-white checked, round cloth “kippah” resting on the top of his head.
Magen David, light blue in colour and situated in Mumbai’s historic Byculla district, is one of eight synagogues in India’s financial capital and surrounding suburbs.
Every morning some 15 men — a few swaying back and forth — recite prayers there, in a space which could easily hold hundreds.
Afterwards they sit down for a breakfast consisting of bread, eggs and cheese, washed down with a cup of milky Indian tea.
More prayers are read and then bananas and slices of apple are served.
“This whole area used to be Jewish,” recalls Ellis Jacob David, an official at the synagogue. “But many migrated to Israel, UK, Canada, Australia and the USA.”
India’s Jewish community hasn’t experienced the discrimination seen in other countries, a fact that Jewish historian Leora Pezarkar partly attributes to its adoption of Indian customs, dress and language.
“The community has mixed really well with the local population while not deviating from who they are as Jews,” she told AFP.
David, whose parents fled persecution in Iraq to come to India 125 years ago, says he has never experienced or heard of anyone being a victim of anti-semitism in India.
“There was just one attack and that took place from outside the country, not internal, at all,” he told AFP, referring to November 2008.
Six people were killed at Chabad House, a Jewish centre in south Mumbai, when Pakistani militants carried out co-ordinated attacks across the city.
Moshe Holtzberg was just two years old when his parents, who ran the centre, were gunned down. He was saved by his nanny who managed to escape and now lives in Israel.
On Thursday, Moshe, along with Netanyahu, will visit his former home where a memorial to the victims is to be unveiled.
“His visit is going to be very emotional for us. This is the place where he got his last hug from his father and mother,” Israel Kozlovsky, the centre’s rabbi, told AFP.
Netanyahu will also travel to Modi’s home state of Gujarat and host a party for Bollywood producers where he will trumpet Israel as a filming location.
Jewish leaders hope the visit will help persuade India’s government to officially recognise them as a minority community, meaning they would be included in the census.
In 2016, Maharashtra state granted Jews minority status, making it easier to register marriages and acquire funding for institutions, but the central government is yet to follow suit.
“Although it is just a symb olic recognition it is important for the community,” said Solomon.
In a response to panda power, French President Emmanuel Macron is betting on equine diplomacy during his first state visit to China — presenting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping with a horse as a gift.
The animal, a retired Republican Guard horse named Vesuve de Brekka, is in quarantine. But Macron will show a photo of it to Xi when they meet later Monday in Beijing.
The French presidential office said Xi had been “fascinated” by their equestrian skills when he was escorted by the guard during his visit to Paris in 2014.
“Wishing to have friendly ties with foreign heads of state, Emmanuel Macron wants to make more than a gift — a diplomatic gesture,” the presidency said.
The eight-year-old dark brown horse took part in its last presidential escort on November 11 on the Champs-Elysees. The horses are ridden by sword-wielding guards on formal occasions.
Macron will also offer Xi a sabre engraved with the phrase “Mr. Emmanuel Macron – President of the French Republic – Beijing – January 2018”.
The gift is Macron’s answer to China’s panda diplomacy. And the French leader’s name in Mandarin is rendered “Ma-ke-long”, or “the horse vanquishes the dragon”.
The horse arrived in China on a special plane accompanied by the Republican Guard’s chief veterinarian and a member of the unit on January 4, four days before Macron.
He landed in the northern city of Xian early Monday.
The horse will remain in quarantine before joining Xi’s presidential stable.
“We appreciate and express our thanks for this move,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing, adding that Macron’s visit was of “great significance”.
“We believe this visit will further enhance the friendship between the two leaderships” and improve cooperation, Lu said.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Saturday hosts his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu for talks as Berlin and Ankara try to end a festering crisis.
Relations between the NATO partners have been badly strained, especially since Turkey’s 2016 failed coup and subsequent crackdown which saw tens of thousands arrested, including several German or dual citizens.
Germany, home to a three-million-strong ethnic Turkish community, last year advised its investors and holiday-makers to avoid Turkey and urged a cut in EU funding linked to its stalled membership talks.
However, Ankara has in recent weeks sent a flurry of signals that it wants a return to warmer relations with the EU and Germany, at a time it is on tense terms with the United States, Israel and some Gulf states.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having declared last month that Turkey “must reduce the number of enemies and increase the number of friends”, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris Friday.
Adding a personal touch to Saturday’s talks, Gabriel has invited Turkey’s foreign minister to his home town of Goslar, after the two had meet in November in Cavusoglu’s southern home region of Antalya.
Following press statements around 1000 GMT, Gabriel will take his guest on a stroll through the heritage-listed medieval old town of Goslar, situated near Brunswick on the slopes of the Harz mountains.
Cavusoglu in a newspaper commentary Friday urged an end to the “megaphone diplomacy” between Turkey and Germany and a “fresh start” based on friendship and cooperation between “equal partners”.
Germany also sought a “step by step” rapprochement and said Saturday’s talks would cover a full range of topics including the “difficult” ones, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
The main hurdle now is the detention of Die Welt daily’s German-Turkish correspondent Deniz Yucel on terror charges since last February, and of another six Germans Berlin says are jailed for “political reasons”.
Turkey has in recent weeks released several of the Germans whom Gabriel has labelled “hostages”, among them journalist Mesale Tolu.
Hopes grew that Yucel’s case too could be resolved after the Turkish government this week addressed it for the first time in 10 months with a submission to the constitutional court, which could soon rule on whether to release him from pre-trial detention.
Cavusoglu stressed the independence of Turkish courts but pledged that “we’re doing everything in our political power to speed up the judicial process”.
The bilateral crisis of recent years has been fuelled by other disputes — over a German TV comic harshly lampooning Erdogan, a 2016 German parliamentary resolution on the Armenian genocide, and Turkey denying military base visits to German MPs.
Ankara has accused Berlin of failing to pursue followers of US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom it blames for the 2016 coup attempt, and of failing to crack down on Kurdish militants.
When Germany last year repeatedly denied Turkish politicians’ requests to campaign for votes among the Turkish-German community, Ankara accused the government of “Nazi methods”.
But Gabriel recently suggested to news weekly Der Spiegel that Western countries should tone down lecturing Erdogan’s Turkey on democratic values because it could be counterproductive.
Calling for an “enlightened debate” on the issue, Gabriel said that “to constantly accuse each other of betraying values will neither get someone out of jail nor will it strengthen us”.
Turkey reacted furiously Thursday to the fraud conviction in New York of a Turkish banker which came after an explosive trial over Iran sanctions-busting that implicated ex-ministers and even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The conviction of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy chief executive of Turkish lender Halkbank, is set to further ratchet up strains between Washington and Ankara in an increasingly trouble-plagued relationship.
“The US court… has interfered in Turkey’s domestic affairs in an unprecedented way based on so-called evidence that is only fit for forgery and political abuse,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
A jury in New York found Atilla guilty on Wednesday of five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy.
The federal trial hinged on the testimony of well-connected Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who became a government witness after admitting his involvement in the multi-billion-dollar gold-for-oil scheme to subvert US economic sanctions against Iran.
His testimony implicated former Turkish ministers and Erdogan in the scheme, and identified 47-year-old Atilla as a key organiser.
Turkey’s foreign ministry branded the US ruling as “unfair and unfortunate,” and “a shame of law”.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin meanwhile described the conviction as a “scandalous decision in a scandalous case” and a “shameful scenario”.
Erdogan had repeatedly slammed the trial as a plot against Turkey and, according to American newspaper reports, had often raised the case in talks with US leaders.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, at that point part of Zarrab’s legal team, had even met Erdogan in Ankara in search of a solution to the case.
Zarrab, a prominent gold trader, agreed to testify after striking a deal to plead guilty to violating US sanctions in a switch that infuriated Ankara. His assets in Turkey were later seized.
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag blasted the case as a “political plot”, saying the jury’s conviction “doesn’t have any legal value from Turkey’s point of view.”
“This decision is against international law,” he wrote on Twitter.
Ties between Turkey and the US have been strained over a number of issues including Washington’s refusal so far to extradite the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for orchestrating the failed 2016 coup.
Only last week, the two sides resolved a months-long crisis that resulted in the suspension of visa services for Americans in Turkey and vice versa.
The foreign ministry statement said the court in the US was influenced by some Gulen group members who “made unrealistic allegations,” with the ministry saying that “destroyed the court process’s seriousness and credibility.”
Bozdag went even further, saying the case was “tangible proof” that the CIA and FBI were engaged in judicial cooperation with Gulen’s group.
Atilla is due to be sentenced on April 11. Zarrab’s sentencing date has not been scheduled.
‘Tens of millions of dollars’
Much of the case focused on Zarrab, 34, a key figure in a 2013 Turkish corruption scandal in which he allegedly bribed four ministers to facilitate sanctions-busting trade and other deals.
Those charges against Zarrab were ultimately dropped. But he was arrested in Miami in 2016 while seeking to take is family on a holiday to Florida, and eventually agreed to testify in the US case over violating Iran sanctions in a plea bargain.
In testimony in a New York court on November 30, he said he was told that Erdogan, as prime minister in 2012, and economy minister Ali Babacan had given “instructions” to two public banks to take part in the scheme.
Zarrab also said he paid tens of millions of dollars worth of bribes to then-economy minister, Zaref Caglayan, to facilitate illegal gold transactions with Iran.
Erdogan has rejected the allegations, saying Turkey did not violate the US embargo on Iran and that political rivals were behind the case.
Turkey’s Halkbank said in a statement that the court case was not yet finalised, adding that legal channels including an appeal were open.
It also noted that the bank was not a party to the case, and “nor is there administrative or financial decision taken against our bank by the court.”
Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, has emphasized the need for the country’s leadership to approach the agitations for Biafra in a more diplomatic way.
In an exclusive interview on our programme, Channels Book Club, the Nobel laureate said that every ethnic group should be made to feel like a part of the country and good old dialogue is the way to go.
“I wrote an article during the war that Biafra cannot be defeated. People misunderstood what I was saying.
“Once an idea has taken hold, you cannot destroy that idea. You may destroy the people, the carriers of that idea on the battle field but ultimately it’s not the end of the story.
“Let’s not take this position of ‘don’t even talk about it’, ‘under my watch this will never happen’, don’t say things like that. Go into that environment and ask ‘what is it that we can do to make you happy and feel part of this entity?’
“Listen to some other Biafrans and ask them why they want to stay (and say) ‘this is what we are ready to push as the overall authority in this area’.
“Don’t go around saying ‘the sovereignty of the country is indivisible, it’s non-negotiable’ all that kind of language will only make matters worse,” he said.