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Turkey curbs flights to Belarus to ease migrant crisis

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November 12, 2021

By Robin Emmott and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BRUSSELS/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey banned Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi citizens from flights to Minsk on Friday, potentially closing off one of the main routes that the EU says Belarus has used to fly in migrants by the thousand to engineer a humanitarian crisis on its frontier.

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are sheltering in freezing conditions in the woods on the border between Belarus and the EU states Poland and Lithuania, which are refusing to let them cross. Some have already died and there are fears for the safety of the rest as bitter winter conditions settle in.

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The EU accuses Belarus of creating the crisis as part of a “hybrid attack” on the bloc – distributing Belarusian visas in the Middle East, flying in the migrants and pushing them to cross the border illegally. Brussels may impose new sanctions on Belarus and airlines it blames for ferrying the migrants, as soon as Monday.

EU officials welcomed Friday’s announcement by Turkey’s Civil Aviation General Directorate that Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis would not be permitted to buy tickets to Belarus or board flights there from Turkish territory.

Turkey has denied playing a direct role by allowing its territory to be used to ferry in migrants. But Minsk airport’s website listed six commercial flights arriving from Istanbul on Friday, the most from any city outside the former Soviet Union.

European officials have repeatedly said their best hope of resolving the crisis is to stop would-be migrants in the Middle East from boarding flights for Belarus at the source, and that diplomats were negotiating in the region to achieve this.

“These contacts are already showing fruit,” a European Commission spokesperson said.

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The EU spokesperson said Iraqi Airways had also agreed to halt flights to Belarus. A spokesperson for the airline said all airlines in Iraq had already suspended flights to Belarus several months ago at the request of the Iraqi government.

Belarus denies that it has fomented the crisis, but has also said it cannot help resolve it unless Europe lifts existing sanctions. The EU imposed several rounds of measures in response to President Alexander Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on mass street protests against his rule in 2020.

Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, threatened this week to cut off Russian gas supplies delivered to Europe through Belarusian territory. On Friday, the Kremlin appeared to distance itself from that threat, saying it was not consulted in advance of Lukashenko’s remarks and it would fulfil its gas delivery contracts.

But Moscow shows no sign of leaning on Lukashenko to resolve the border crisis, and has made a number of demonstrations of its military support for him in recent days. Russian and Belarusian paratroopers held joint drills near the border on Friday, and the Russian air force has sent planes this week to patrol the frontier.

“From our point of view, the Russian president has the possibility to influence the situation and we expect him to take appropriate steps,” a German government spokesperson said.

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At the border, Polish authorities said they had foiled 223 attempts to cross the border illegally from Belarus overnight, including two large groups. They estimate the number of migrants trapped along the border at 3,000-4,000.

Neighbouring Lithuania reported 110 crossing attempts overnight and said it would be finishing a 100-km razor wire barrier along the border by Dec. 10, three weeks ahead of schedule.

FREEZING CONDITIONS

The EU has so far fully backed Poland and Lithuania in taking a hard line on banning illegal crossings from Belarus, for fear that allowing even a small number to enter would encourage huge numbers to follow them.

But charities and advocates say the freezing conditions have created a humanitarian emergency, and that European states have an obligation to allow access to provide food and shelter. The media has also been kept away, which critics say is concealing the extent of the crisis.

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“Access for independent observers and the media is essential,” said Iwo Los, from Grupa Granica (Border Group), a Polish organisation. “These people…have to receive humanitarian aid, medical aid and this aid must be provided to them on both sides of the border.”

The Baltic nations bordering Belarus have warned that the crisis could escalate into a military confrontation. The Presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will meet on Monday in Vilnius to discuss the crisis and be joined by video link by Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, the Lithuanian president’s office said on Friday.

Interior ministers of the four countries are also due to call on international organizations to help avert a humanitarian crisis by engaging directly with Minsk.

“We call upon you to engage with Belarusian authorities and other relevant stakeholders in order to organize humanitarian and medical assistance for the people whose arrival to their territory they have organised themselves,” they will say according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

(Reporting Robin Emmott and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Pawel Florkiewicz and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrius Sytas in Kapciamietsis, Lithuania, Dmitry Antonov and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Jan Lopatka and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Germany’s Free Democrats back coalition agreement

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December 5, 2021

BERLIN (Reuters) – Members of Germany’s pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) voted on Sunday by a large majority to back a coalition agreement with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, paving the way for the three-way alliance to form a new government next week.

The coalition, the first at federal level between the environmentalist Greens, the FDP and Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD, will end 16 years of conservative governments led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The SPD approved the agreement on Saturday and the Greens are due to announce the outcome of a member survey on the deal on Monday. The three parties hope the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, will vote Scholz in as chancellor on Wednesday.

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The “traffic light” alliance, named after the parties’respective colours, will usher in a new era of relations with Europe, and plans to speed up digitalisation of the continent’sbiggest economy and put a focus on fighting climate change.

(Reporting by Alexander Ratz; Writing by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Gambian President Barrow on course for resounding election win

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December 5, 2021

By Bate Felix

BANJUL (Reuters) – Gambia’s incumbent president, Adama Barrow, was on course for a resounding election win on Sunday, partial results indicated, that could help to draw a line under recent political turmoil.

Saturday’s vote was the first in 27 years without disgraced former president Yahya Jammeh, who lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea after refusing to accept defeat to Barrow in 2016.

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Jammeh, whose 22-year rule over the tiny nation of 2.5 million people was characterised by killings and torture of political opponents, had tried to persuade supporters to vote for an opposition coalition in telephoned speeches that were relayed to campaign rallies.

But his lingering influence was not enough to dent Barrow’s showing. The president, who only needs to win more votes than the second-placed candidate, won 36 of the first 41 constituencies announced, taking 315,547 votes.

His nearest rival, political veteran Ousainou Darboe, had 133,177 votes, with four other candidates far behind.

Only 12 constituencies remained to be announced.

The election was seen as a test of Gambia’s democratic progress and its ability to leave the Jammeh era behind.

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Barrow’s first term was marked by the coronavirus pandemic, which damaged an economy that relies heavily on tourism, as well as exports of peanuts and fish.

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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S.Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

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December 5, 2021

By Siyabonga Sishi

PORT EDWARD, South Africa (Reuters) – South Africans took to their beaches on Sunday to protest against plans by Royal Dutch Shell to do seimsic oil exploration they say will threaten marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seals and penguins on a pristine coastal stretch.

A South African court on Friday struck down https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/shell-wins-court-case-start-seismic-surveys-offshore-south-africa-2021-12-03 an application brought by environmentalists to stop the oil major exploring in the eastern seaboard’s Wild Coast, rejecting as unproven their argument that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, especially migrating hump-back whales.

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The Wild Coast is home of some of the country’s most undisturbed wildlife refuges, and it’s stunning coastal wildernesses are also a major tourist draw.

At least 1,000 demonstrators gathered on a beach near Port Edward, a Reuters TV correspondent saw.

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you?” said demonstrator Kas Wilson, indicating an unspoilt stretch of beach. “It’s unacceptable and … we will stop it.”

Shell officials were not immediately available for comment, but the company said on Friday that its planned exploration has regulatory approval, and it will significantly contribute to South Africa’s energy security if resources are found.

But local people fear the seismic blasting conducted over 6,000 square kilometres will kill or scare away the fish they depend on to live.

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“I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said 62-year-old free dive fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe, after pulling a wild lobster from the ground. “What are we going to eat?”

Environmentalists are urging Shell and other oil companies to stop prospecting for oil, arguing that the world has no chance of reaching net zero carbon by 2050 if existing oil deposits are burned, let alone if new ones are found.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its planet warming carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels, a decision it plans to appeal.

South Africa’s environment ministry referred Reuters to a statement late last month that “the Minister responsible for environmental affairs is … not mandated to consider the application or to make a decision on the authorisation of the seismic survey.”

(Writing by Tim Cocks;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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