Jerusalem, Jan 6 (AP/UNB)— President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said Sunday that the U.S. military withdrawal from northeastern Syria is conditioned on defeating the remnants of the Islamic State group, and on Turkey assuring the safety of Kurdish fighters allied with the United States.
Bolton, who traveled to Israel to reassure the U.S. ally of the Trump-ordered withdrawal, said there is no timetable for the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria, but insisted it's not an unlimited commitment.
"There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal," Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem. "The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement."
Those conditions, he said, included the defeat of remnants of IS in Syria, and protections for Kurdish militias who have fought alongside U.S. troops against the extremist group.
Bolton's comments mark the first public confirmation that the drawdown has been slowed, as Trump faced widespread criticism from allies and the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for a policy that was to have been conducted within weeks.
Trump announced in mid-December that the U.S. will withdraw all of its 2,000 forces in Syria. Trump's move has raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who fought alongside American troops against IS extremists. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Bolton, who is to travel on to Turkey on Monday, said the U.S. is insisting that its Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State group are protected from any planned Turkish offensive. He is to deliver a warning to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week.
"We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States," Bolton said. He said in meetings with Turkish counterparts, he will seek "to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain."
Trump has stated that he would not allow Turkey to kill the Kurds, Bolton said. "That's what the president said, the ones that fought with us."
Bolton said the U.S. has asked its Kurdish allies to "stand fast now" and refrain from seeking protection from Russia or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. "I think they know who their friends are," he added, speaking of the Kurds.
He said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford would continue negotiations with his Turkish counterparts this week to seek protection for America's Kurdish allies in Syria.
Additionally, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who has been serving since August as the special representative for Syrian engagement and was named last week as the American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, is to travel to Syria this week in an effort to reassure the U.S.'s Kurdish allies that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.
Bolton said U.S. troops would remain at the critical area of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region. He defended the legal basis for the deployment, saying it's justified by the president's Constitutional authority, adding "I'm a strong believer in Article II."
The U.S. is also seeking a "satisfactory disposition" for roughly 800 Islamic State prisoners held by the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, Bolton said, adding talks were ongoing with European and regional partners about the issue.
Bolton is to have dinner Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sunday evening to discuss the pace of the U.S. drawdown, American troop levels in the region, and the U.S. commitment to push back on Iranian regional expansionism. Bolton was expected to explain that some U.S. troops based in Syria to fight IS will shift to Iraq with the same mission and that the al-Tanf base would remain.
Bolton also was to convey the message that the United States is "very supportive" of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to a senior administration official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss Bolton's plans before the meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bolton on Sunday also toured the ancient tunnels beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. He watched a virtual reality tour of the historic site and dined there with his Israeli equivalent, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer.
Visiting American officials typically avoid holding official meetings in parts of east Jerusalem, which is contested between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump himself, however, also toured the area in a previous visit.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war, a move not recognized by most of the international community. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Kinshasa, Jan 6 (AP/UNB) — The announcement of the results of the Congo's presidential election has been postponed, the country's top electoral official said.
The winner of the Dec. 30 election will not be made public Sunday as expected, the head of the national electoral commission Corneille Nangaa told The Associated Press. The electoral commission will confirm the delay later Sunday.
The postponement in announcing the winner may increase tensions, as some Congolese see it as a way for President Joseph Kabila's ruling party to manipulate the results in order to cling to power.
The Catholic Church, an influential voice in this strongly Catholic nation, said that it already knows there is a clear victor, according to data reported by its 40,000 election observers deployed in polling stations. The church urged the electoral commission to announce accurate results.
As regulations say only the electoral commission can announce election results, the church did name the winner. The government has already cut internet access across the vast Central African country to prevent any speculation on social media about who might have won the election.
Congo faces what could be its first democratic, peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960. Election observers and the opposition have raised concerns about voting irregularities as the country chooses a successor to longtime ruler Kabila, although a landslide win by one of the opposition candidates could remove any doubts that the election was skewed to the ruling party's candidate.
The United States and the African Union, among others, have urged Congo to release results that reflect the true will of the people. The U.S. has threatened sanctions against those who undermine the democratic process. Western election observers were not invited to watch the vote.
While Congo has been largely calm on and after the Dec. 30 vote, President Donald Trump informed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that about 80 military personnel and "appropriate combat equipment" had been deployed to neighboring Gabon to support the security of U.S. citizens and staffers and diplomatic facilities. More will be deployed as needed to Gabon, Congo or neighboring Republic of Congo, he wrote.
Ahead of the vote, the U.S. ordered "non-emergency" government employees and family members to leave the country.
Congo's ruling party, which backs Kabila's preferred candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, has called the church's attitude "irresponsible and anarchist."
Leading opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker, has accused Congolese authorities of impeding his campaign. His campaign manager, Pierre Lumbi, on Saturday accused the electoral commission of being "in the process of postponing the publication of the results."
The delay is because of the slow compilation of the results by electoral officials. By Friday evening, the commission had compiled only 44 percent of results, said Jean-Pierre Kalamba, who said the process had been slowed by the requirement that only manually counted ballots could be used.
At stake is a vast country rich in the minerals that power the world's mobile phones and laptops, yet desperately underdeveloped. Some 40 million people were registered to vote, though at the last minute about 1 million voters were barred by the electoral commission which cited a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in eastern Congo. The eastern region is an opposition center and critics said the disenfranchisement of voters there undermines the election's credibility.
The presidential election took place more than two years behind schedule, while a court ruled that Kabila could stay in office until the vote was held. The delay led to sometimes deadly protests as authorities cracked down, and Shadary is now under European Union sanctions for his role in the crackdown as interior minister at the time.
Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father was assassinated, is barred from serving three consecutive terms but has hinted that he could run again in 2023. That has led many Congolese to suspect that he will rule from the shadows if Shadary takes office.
Internet and text messaging services were cut off the day after the election in an apparent effort by the government to prevent social media speculation about the results. The U.S. has urged the government to restore internet service, and a U.N. human rights spokeswoman has warned that "these efforts to silence dissent could backfire considerably when the results are announced."
Tehran, Jan 6 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Iran and Russia are planning to hold naval drills in the Caspian Sea, the commander of the Iranian navy said on Sunday.
"Tactical, rescue and anti-piracy war games between Iranian and Russian naval forces are being planned and will be implemented in the near future," Iranian news agency Mehr quoted Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi as saying.
Khanzadi said the joint exercise is part of an expansion of bilateral cooperation between the two countries and will "lead us eventually to strategic and tactical cooperation at a very high level at sea."
"We have established a very good and lasting relationship with the countries in the Caspian Sea region, which today has taken a traditional form, and the countries in the region understand each other well. The Caspian Sea is entirely enclosed by land and its security is provided by the countries bordering the region," Khanzadi added.
It is not the first time for the two countries to hold naval drills in the Caspian Sea together. They have held two joint naval exercises in 2015 and 2017.
Kuala Lumpur, Jan 6 (AP/UNB) — Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V abdicated on Sunday in an unexpected move, after just two years on the throne.
The palace said in a statement that the 49-year-old ruler had resigned as Malaysia's 15th king with immediate effect, cutting short his five-year term. No reason was given in the statement.
It marked the first abdication in the nation's history.
Sultan Muhammad V, ruler of northeast Kelantan state, took his oath of office in December 2016, becoming one of Malaysia's youngest constitutional monarchs.
He is said to have married a 25-year-old former Russian beauty queen in November while on a two-month medical leave. Reports in Russian and British media and on social media featured pictures of the wedding, which reportedly took place in Moscow. Neither the sultan, the palace nor the government had officially confirmed the wedding.
Speculation that Sultan Muhammad V would step down emerged this past week, shortly after he returned from his leave, but Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday that he was unaware of any abdication plans.
Under a unique system maintained since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957, nine hereditary state rulers take turns as the country's king for five-year terms.
The Council of Rulers is expected to meet soon to pick the next king.
The monarch's role is largely ceremonial, since administrative power is vested in the prime minister and parliament. But the monarch is highly regarded, particularly among the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, as the supreme upholder of Malay tradition.
Serbia, Jan 6 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of people have braved snow and freezing temperatures in Serbia's capital to turn up for the fifth week of street protests against populist President Aleksandar Vucic.
The demonstrators marched through downtown Belgrade blowing whistles and booing and jeering loudly as they passed the Serbian presidency building on Saturday. Some carried Serbian flags and banners reading "We are the people" or "Down with the thieves."
The demonstrations started after thugs beat up an opposition leader in November, putting pressure on Vucic.
Critics accuse the president of imposing an autocracy through strict control over the media and promoting hate speech against opponents.
Vucic rejects being labeled as domineering and has suggested he might call an early election this year. A former extreme nationalist, he has held office saying he favors Serbia joining the European Union.