Salzburg, Sep 20 (AP/UNB) — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday appealed to the European Union to soften its stance in Brexit negotiations, saying that only her government has a workable plan to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland in the U.K. and EU member state Ireland.
But despite May's appeal at an EU summit in Austria, EU Council President Donald Tusk insisted that parts of her offer are still not satisfactory more than 18 months into the negotiations and must change to keep alive hopes of concluding a Brexit deal in coming weeks.
Britain leaves the EU at midnight on March 29 — the first time a country has ever left the world's biggest trading bloc — but solutions to outstanding Brexit issues must be found by November so parliaments have time to ratify any accord.
May told reporters that her offer to solve the border riddle — the biggest obstacle to a deal — was "the only credible and negotiable plan on the table that delivers no hard border in Northern Ireland and also delivers on the vote of the British people" to leave the EU.
"If we are going to achieve a successful conclusion then, just as the U.K. has evolved its position, the EU will need to evolve its position too," she said.
Tusk, though, highlighted shortfalls in Britain's position on avoiding a hard border, as well as on economic cooperation, saying that "the U.K.'s proposals will need to be reworked and further negotiated."
He ramped up pressure on May — already struggling to keep her job and control in-fighting within her Conservative Party — by saying that time was fast running out. "Every day that is left we must use for talks," Tusk said. He said he wants a deal finalized this autumn, and urged leaders to hold another summit in mid-November as part of a roadmap to get the job done.
Right from the start, both sides pledged to ensure there's no hard border around Northern Ireland but they disagree on how to get there.
The EU has offered to effectively keep Northern Ireland in its customs union. EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says that could be done by checking goods destined for Northern Ireland at companies and markets within the U.K.
But London says this would undermine the U.K. by treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the country. May's latest plan — the so-called Chequers proposals — envisions the whole U.K., including Northern Ireland, remaining in the European single market for goods only, thereby eliminating the need for a hard border.
"We have always recognized that there are unique circumstances that apply in Northern Ireland," May said. "But what we cannot accept is seeing Northern Ireland carved away from the U.K. customs territory because regardless of where the checks would be, what that would mean would be that it would be a challenge to our constitutional and economic integrity."
Earlier this week, Barnier warned that an EU leaders' summit on Oct. 18 in Brussels would be "the moment of truth" for Brexit.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the host of the Salzburg summit, backed May in saying that "both sides need to compromise." However, he said he hoped she would offer "a step forward" during the informal dinner talks Wednesday.
"We have to do everything to avoid a hard Brexit," he said.
As the pressure mounts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that Brexit negotiations are "entering the crucial phase."
She said Britain's 27 EU partners would discuss May's concerns without her present on Thursday, and Merkel expressed hopes for "an exit that takes place in a good atmosphere, in great respect for each other and that — in certain areas — very, very close cooperation is possible."
London, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — British police are investigating a possible hate crime after a car hit pedestrians near a Muslim community center, injuring three people.
Police were called early Wednesday morning to a location in northwest London. They say the injuries are not life threatening although two people needed hospital treatment.
London police say a confrontation developed between four people in a car and a large group of people visiting the Muslim community center.
Officials say some anti-Muslim comments were made and the car reportedly sustained minor damage from some of the people from the center.
Police say it then sped off, hitting three people without stopping.
Moscow, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli airstrike, killing all 15 people aboard, in what President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday was "a chain of tragic accidental circumstances."
The downing of the Il-20 highlighted the dangers posed by the conflicting interests of various powers in the crowded skies over Syria and threatened the close security ties between Russia and Israel.
In an effort to maintain that relationship, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called Putin to express sorrow over the death of the plane's crew, blamed the plane's loss squarely on Syria and offered to send Israel's air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident.
The Russian military said the plane was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday night as it was returning to the Russian air base in Syria.
The incident triggered testy exchanges of blame between Israel and Russia.
The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran's proxy Hezbollah militia, noting that it warned Russia of the coming raid in line with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the plane when the Israeli jets were already inside Israeli airspace.
But the Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It pointedly accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge the Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.
"The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defense," said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to declare that "the Israeli side bears full responsibility" for the plane's downing and to warn that Russia "reserves the right to retaliate."
But Putin took a more cautious tone, describing the incident as "a chain of tragic accidental circumstances." At the same time, he said Russia will respond by "taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria."
"It will be the steps that everyone will notice," he said without elaboration.
Netanyahu, who has maintained warm personal ties with Putin and frequently traveled to Russia for Syria-focused talks, noted the need for Russia and Israel to continue coordinating their action in Syria. At the same time, he emphasized Israel would not tolerate the Iranian military presence in Syria.
Putin told Netanyahu that the Israeli raid violated Syria's sovereignty and breached the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. He urged the Israeli side "not to allow such situations to happen again," according to the Kremlin.
Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war, but it has carried out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah.
Israel has acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times, and Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent clashes between their forces in Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.
"Until now, Russia's armed forces have granted Israeli jets the freedom to strike targets in Syria at will, on the condition that a sufficiently early warning is provided to Russia," said Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "The glue binding this gentleman's agreement — the Putin-Netanyahu personal relationship — will likely tide this issue over for the time being."
Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly relations with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow said that it struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.
In response to Israeli worries, Russia also has shelved plans to arm Syria with sophisticated air defense assets, such as the long-range S-300 systems that could pose a significant threat to Israeli aircraft.
The downing of the plane could change that.
Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel's Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel Army Radio that the incident could have "strategic implications" for Israel's freedom of action in Syria.
"I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel's freedom of activity," she said.
Some Russian lawmakers and retired military officers called for a forceful response, saying Russia should provide Syria with the S-300 air defense systems and other sophisticated weapons to prevent any further strikes.
Shoigu, the defense minister, warned his Israeli counterpart that "we won't leave such action without response."
Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support Syrian President Bashar Assad after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies against the Islamic State group increased the possibility of dangerous confrontations over Syria.
The downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet in November 2015 put Moscow and Ankara on the verge of military confrontation, but they later negotiated a series of de-escalation agreements for Syria together with Iran.
"The implementation of de-escalation across Syria a year ago introduced a new reality to Syria, in which foreign states are now actively competing to assert their own influence over overlapping territorial space," Lister said. "Though appropriate measures have been put in place to manage this, the risk of state-on-state conflagrations like we saw overnight has never been higher. With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come."
The U.S. also expressed sorrow over the Russian deaths, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying it was a reminder of the need to find "permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria's crowded theater of operations."
President Donald Trump, appearing at a White House news conference with Poland's president, called it a "very sad thing" and said it was "not a good situation."
But Trump also said that the United States has done a "tremendous job" battling the Islamic State group in Syria. He went on to suggest that the nation's mission there was "very close to being finished."
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the shootdown complicates relations between Assad and the Russian government but has "no effect whatever" on the U.S. campaign to defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Before the latest incident, Russia had lost at least seven warplanes and seven combat helicopters in Syria and also had seen dozens of troops killed in ground combat.
And there have been other Syria-related deaths of Russians.
A Russian passenger plane carrying tourists from Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resort crashed over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people aboard. The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group said it blew up the plane with a bomb smuggled on board.
And in December 2016, a passenger jet carrying members of the Red Army Choir to a New Year's concert at a Russian military base in Syria crashed in the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi in southern Russia, killing all 92 people aboard. The investigation of that crash is continuing, but officials have indicated that pilot error was the likely cause.
Moscow, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) —Russia's Defense Ministry says one of its reconnaissance aircraft with 15 people on board has been brought down by a Syrian surface-to-air missile over the Mediterranean Sea. Rescuers are searching for wreckage but do not expect survivors.
The Russian military said on Tuesday that the plane was hit by accident by one of the missiles, which were aimed at four Israeli fighter jets that were attacking targets in the coastal province of Latakia late on Monday.
Russia said the Israeli aircraft "pushed" the Russian plane into the line of fire. The ministry accused the Israeli army of "intentional provocation" and said Israel did not warn Russia of its operation in the area until one minute before the strike.
Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast.
Russia's military says one of its aircraft with 14 people on board has disappeared over Syria's Mediterranean Sea coast.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that the Il-20 jet went off radar 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from the coast late Monday as it was returning to the Russian base near the city of Lattakia. The military said the plane disappeared as four Israeli fighter jets were attacking targets in the area.
Officials did not immediately say if the plane was shot down.
United Nations, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — The United States and Russia clashed Monday over enforcing U.N. sanctions against North Korea, with the U.S. ambassador accusing Moscow of "cheating" and Russia's envoy accusing Washington of "political ill-intent."
The acrimonious meeting of the Security Council was called by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who accused Russia of pressuring independent U.N. experts to alter a report on implementation of sanctions against North Korea that she said contained "evidence of multiple Russian sanctions violations."
The sharp disagreement marked a rare break in what has been a united response by the U.N.'s most powerful body to North Korea's escalating nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
It has unanimously imposed increasingly tough sanctions on Pyongyang that have cut off all North Korean exports, 90 percent of its trade, and disbanded its pool of workers send abroad to earn hard currency.
Haley said Russia's violations are "systematic," including ship-to-ship transfers of banned items, mainly oil but increasingly coal and other goods. She identified the Russian ship Patriot filmed transferring refined petroleum to a North Korean vessel and accused Moscow of trying to cover up violations "whether they're committed by Russia or citizens of other states."
Haley said the United States prevented publication of the "tainted" report that removed allegations against the Russians and demanded the release of the initial version.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia countered that the work of the panel of experts "became increasingly politicized, then became ultimately the hostages to the vision of Washington" and didn't take into account Russia's views.
"Unsurprisingly, therefore, we insisted on having our position reflected in the document," he said, and a compromise on the report was reached among all 15 council members — including the "American delegation" and U.S. "experts."
But Nebenzia said Haley put a hold on the report the following day, so it is the United States that is blocking release of the report and "the ball now is in your court."
The U.S. Mission said later in a statement: "Certainly no U.S. expert agreed - at any point in the process - to Russia's tainted version of the report."
Behind the U.S.-Russia squabble over implementing sanctions are the broader issues of how to achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and when sanctions should be lifted.
The United States has kept up sanctions pressure on the North despite the historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June that dialed down nuclear tensions between the adversaries. That first-ever meeting of leaders from the two countries has been followed by a diplomatic impasse over how to achieve the agreed-upon goal of denuclearization.
The U.S. has said sanctions won't be lifted until that goal is met. South Korean officials who recently met with Kim said he still has faith in Trump's commitment to ending their nations' hostile relations, but is frustrated by questions about his willingness to denuclearize and wants his "goodwill measures" to be met in kind.
Haley told the council that "the difficult, sensitive talks with North Korea are ongoing."
"The Trump-Kim summit has set us on the path toward complete denuclearization," she said. "But we are not there yet. And until we get there, we must not ease the powerful worldwide sanctions that are in place."
Nebenzia countered that "resolving the nuclear issue of the peninsula through just sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang is impossible." He charged that the U.S. is using the Security Council committee monitoring implementation of sanctions "as a sledgehammer to punish (North Korea) for their intransigence."
He cited welcome developments, including the North's suspension of missile and nuclear tests, dismantling of a missile engine test site, opening of a liaison office, and agreeing to a third summit of Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in starting Tuesday.
Noting difficulties in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, Nebenzia stressed that negotiations are "a two-way street."
"It is difficult to come to agreement if you offer nothing in return for your demands," he said.
"What can we expect when Pyongyang is being called upon to unconditionally agree to comply with all of the conditions against a guarantee of empty promises," Nebenzia asked, saying the U.S. has broken promises to Tehran and pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
He called for "confidence-building measures," citing as a possibility the signing of a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. Nebenzia said the Security Council also could consider creating temporary exemptions from sanctions to carry out projects promoting inter-Korean cooperation.
Chinese Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu said Beijing remains committed to implementing both sanctions and dialogue.
"Confrontation is a dead end," he said. "Resorting to force will bring nothing but disastrous consequences to the peninsula."
China, which is North Korea's closest ally and is responsible for 90 percent of its trade, believes the Security Council should take action to reverse sanctions "at the appropriate time" in light of Pyongyang's progress to denuclearization.
"This council should stay united, honor its responsibility entrusted by history and push for the denuclearization and lasting peace in northeast Asia," Ma said.