Venezuela, Feb 15(AP/UNB) — A month into Venezuela's high-stakes political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an AP interview that his government held secret talks with the Trump administration and predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation.
While harshly criticizing President Donald Trump's confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said Thursday that he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president soon to resolve a crisis triggered by America's recognition of opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader.
Maduro said that during two hushed meetings in New York, his foreign minister invited the Washington-based special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, to come to visit "privately, publicly or secretly."
"If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I'll be there," Maduro said without providing more details. He said both New York meetings lasted several hours.
A senior administration official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly said U.S. officials were willing to meet with "former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans."
Venezuela is plunging deeper into a political chaos triggered by the U.S. demand that Maduro step down a month into a second presidential term that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America consider illegitimate. His opponent, the 35-year-old Guaido, burst onto the political stage in January in the first viable challenge in years to Maduro's hold on power.
As head of Congress, Guaido declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, saying he had a constitutional right to assume presidential powers from the "tyrant" Maduro. He has since garnered broad support, calling massive street protests and winning recognition from the U.S. and dozens of nations in Latin America and Europe who share his goal of removing Maduro.
The escalating crisis is taking place against a backdrop of economic and social turmoil that has led to severe shortages of food and medicine that have forced millions to flee the once-prosperous OPEC nation.
Abrams' appointment as special envoy last month signaled the Trump administration's determination to take a tougher line on Venezuela.
The hawkish former Republican diplomat was a major voice pushing for the ouster of Manuel Noriega in Panama in the 1980s and also was convicted for withholding information from the U.S. Congress during the infamous Iran-Contra affair. He also played a leading role in managing the U.S.'s tepid response to a brief coup that toppled Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.
Two senior Venezuelan officials who were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly said the two encounters between Abrams and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza came at the request of the U.S.
The first one on Jan. 26 they described as hostile, with the U.S. envoy threatening Venezuela with the deployment of troops and chastising the Venezuelan government for allegedly being in league with Cuba, Russia and Hezbollah.
When they met again this week, the atmosphere was less tense, even though the Feb. 11 encounter came four days after Abrams said the "time for dialogue with Maduro had long passed." During that meeting, Abrams insisted that severe U.S. sanctions would oust Maduro even if Venezuela's military stuck by him.
Abrams gave no indication the U.S. was prepared to ease demands Maduro step down. Still, the Venezuelans saw the meetings as a sign there is room for discussion with the Americans despite the tough public rhetoric coming from Washington.
At turns conciliatory and combative, Maduro said all Venezuela needs to rebound is for Trump to remove his "infected hand" from the country that sits atop the world's largest petroleum reserves.
He said U.S. sanctions on the oil industry are to blame for mounting hardships even though shortages and hyperinflation that economists say topped 1 million percent long predates Trump's recent action.
"The infected hand of Donald Trump is hurting Venezuela," Maduro said.
The sanctions effectively ban all oil purchases by the U.S., which had been Venezuela's biggest oil buyer until now. Maduro said he will make up for the sudden drop in revenue by targeting markets in Asia, especially India, where the head of state-run oil giant PDVSA was this week negotiating new oil sales.
"We've been building a path to Asia for many years," he said. "It's a successful route, every year they are buying larger volumes and amounts of oil."
At a petroleum conference in New Delhi, Venezuela's oil minister Manuel Quevedo suggested the country was open to a barter system with India to get around U.S. sanctions.
"We do not have any barter system with Venezuela. Commercial considerations and related factors will determine the value of trade," India's Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in response to the Venezuelan officials' comments.
Maduro also cited the continued support of China and especially Russia, which has been a major supplier of loans, weapons and oil investment over the years. He said that the antagonistic views taken by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin runs the risk of converting the current crisis into a high-risk geopolitical fight between the U.S. and Russia that recalls some of the most-dangerous brinkmanship of the Cold War.
Amid the mounting pressure at home and abroad, Maduro said he won't give up power as a way to defuse the standoff.
He also reiterated a refusal to allow humanitarian aid, calling boxes of U.S.-donated food and pediatric supplies sitting in a warehouse on the border in Colombia mere "crumbs" after the U.S. administration froze billions of dollars in the nation's oil revenue and overseas assets.
"They hang us, steal our money and then say 'here, grab these crumbs' and make a global show out of it," said Maduro.
His comments came hours after British billionaire Richard Branson announced in a video that he'll be hosting a concert in the Colombian border town of Cucuta in hopes of raising $100 million to buy humanitarian supplies for Venezuelans.
"With dignity we say 'No to the global show,'" said Maduro. "Whoever wants to help Venezuela is welcome, but we have enough capacity to pay for everything that we need."
Opponents say the 56-year-old former bus driver has lost touch with his working-class roots, accusing him of ordering mass arrests and starving Venezuelans while he and regime insiders — including the top military brass — line their pockets through corruption.
But Maduro shrugged off the label of "dictator," attributing it to an ideologically driven media campaign by the West to undermine the socialist revolution started by Chavez.
He said he won't resign, seeing his place in history alongside other Latin American leftists from Salvador Allende in Chile to Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala who in decades past had been the target of U.S.-backed coups.
"I'm not afraid," he said, adding that even last year's attack on him with explosives-laden drones during a military ceremony didn't shake his resolve. "I'm only worried about the destiny of the fatherland and of our people, our boys and girls....this is what gives me energy."
United Nations, Feb 14 (Xinhua/UNB) - UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has welcomed the settlement of a dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the constitutional name of the latter.
Guterres on Tuesday received official notification of the entry into force of the Prespa Agreement, which, among other things, expresses the agreement by the parties to the name "Republic of North Macedonia," said Guterres's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, in a statement on Wednesday.
"He (Guterres) welcomes this development, which settles the long-standing dispute between Athens and Skopje and demonstrates that even seemingly intractable issues can be resolved through dialogue and political will," said the statement.
The UN chief congratulated the two countries and Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia on their determination in creating a forward-looking vision for relations between their two countries and reconciliation in the Balkan region and beyond, it said.
Guterres was deeply grateful to his personal envoy, Matthew Nimetz, for his unwavering commitment and dedication in facilitating the negotiations, said the statement.
The UN chief called on member states, regional organizations and all international partners to support the historical steps that the parties have taken, it said.
Greece and Macedonia have been in dispute since 1991, when the former Yugoslav republic gained independence. Greece has objected to its neighbor's constitutional name of the Republic of Macedonia, fearing that the name indicates territorial ambitions over the northern Greek province of Macedonia. Greece's objection has impeded Skopje's bids to join NATO and the European Union.
Under the UN-brokered Prespa Agreement in June 2018, Macedonia's constitutional name would become "the Republic of North Macedonia." The parliaments of the two countries have since ratified the agreement.
Iran, Feb 14 (AP/UNB) — A suicide car bomber claimed by an al-Qaida-linked group attacked a bus carrying members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard paramilitary force Wednesday, killing at least 27 people and wounding 13 others, state media reported.
Tehran immediately linked the attack in Iran's restive southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province to an ongoing U.S.-led conference in Warsaw largely focused on Iran, just two days after the nation marked the 40th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The bombing also raised the specter of possible Iranian retaliation targeting a Sunni militant group called Jaish al-Adl that claimed the attack, which largely operates across the border in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Recent militant assaults inside Iran have sparked retaliatory ballistic missile strikes in Iraq and Syria.
The bombing Wednesday night struck the bus traveling on a road between the cities of Khash and Zahedan, a mountainous region along the Pakistani border that is also near Afghanistan. Images after the blast published by semi-official news agencies showed the explosion tore the bus apart, as passers-by used the light of their cellphones to illuminate the debris.
The state-run IRNA news agency, citing what it described as an "informed source," offered initial casualty figures of 20 dead and 20 wounded. The Revolutionary Guard later reported on its website that 27 were killed and 13 wounded.
The Guard, which answers only to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement saying a vehicle loaded with explosives targeted a bus carrying border guards affiliated with its force.
Sistan and Baluchistan province, which lies on a major opium trafficking route, has seen occasional clashes between Iranian forces and Baluch separatists, as well as drug traffickers.
However, in recent months, there's been an uptick in assaults by the Sunni extremist group Jaish al-Adl, or the "Army of Justice." Since its founding in 2012, it has abducted or killed border guards in hit-and-run assaults from its havens in Pakistan. It kidnapped 11 Iranian border guards in October. Five later were returned to Iran and six remained held.
Jaish al-Adl claimed Wednesday's bombing in a statement online. Iranian state-run and semi-official media also blamed the group for the attack.
While Iran has been enmeshed in the wars engulfing Syria and neighboring Iraq, it largely has avoided the bloodshed plaguing the region. However, attacks have happened.
In 2009, more than 40 people, including six Guard commanders, were killed in a suicide attack by Sunni extremists in Sistan and Baluchistan province. Jundallah, a Sunni extremist group whose members have joined Jaish al-Adl, claimed responsibility for that attack.
In the case of Jundallah, Pakistan assisted Iran in apprehending its leader, whom Tehran executed in 2010. Iran has sought the cooperation of Pakistan in recent cases involving Jaish al-Adl as well.
However, a bombing like this inside of Iran likely will draw an immediate reaction from the Guard, a massive paramilitary organization that both controls Iran's ballistic missile program and vast chunks of its economy.
Iran fired ballistic missiles into Syria over a bloody Islamic State attack on Tehran targeting parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 2017 that killed at least 18 people. In September, Iran fired missiles into Iraq targeting a base of an Iranian Kurdish separatist group after an attack on a border post.
The Revolutionary Guard also launched six ballistic missiles as well as drone bombers in October toward eastern Syria, targeting militants it blamed for an attack on a military parade that killed at least 24 people.
Iran increasingly has blamed the militant attacks targeting it on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for instance in a 2017 interview suggested the kingdom knew it was a "main target of Iran."
"We are not waiting until there becomes a battle in Saudi Arabia, so we will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia," he said then. Prince Mohammed is due in Pakistan, a major recepient of the kingdom's largess, in the coming days.
The U.S.-led conference in Warsaw is the work of President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise of tearing up Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord last May. Since then, the United Nations says Iran has kept up its side of the bargain, though Iranian officials have increasingly threatened to resume higher enrichment.
Amid the new tensions, Iran's already-weakened economy has been further challenged. There have been sporadic protests in the country as well, incidents applauded by Trump amid Washington's maximalist approach to Tehran.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif directly linked the meeting to the attack Wednesday.
"Is it no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror on the very day that (hashtag)WarsawCircus begins?" Zarif wrote on Twitter. "Especially when cohorts of same terrorists cheer it from Warsaw streets & support it with (Twitter) bots?"
Khamenei, who earlier approved President Hassan Rouhani's outreach to the West during the nuclear deal negotiations, dismissed any future dealings with the U.S.
"About the United States, the resolution of any issues is not imaginable and negotiations with it will bring nothing but material and spiritual harm," Khamenei said in a statement.
Zarif earlier predicted the Warsaw summit would not be productive for the U.S.
"I believe it's dead on arrival or dead before arrival," he said at a news conference before the bombing.
North Macedonia, Feb 14 (AP/UNB) — A bus carrying workers in North Macedonia crashed into a ravine outside the capital of Skopje Wednesday, killing 14 people and injuring about 30, officials said.
Venko Filipce, the newly renamed European nation's health minister, said seven people were pronounced dead at the scene and the rest died after being taken to a hospital. Six of those injured had life-threatening conditions.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev declared two days of national mourning.
The bus was carrying about 50 people when it veered off a highway linking Skopje with the western town of Tetovo and plunged 10 meters (30 feet) into a small ravine, landing upside down. The cause of the crash, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Skopje, wasn't yet known.
Firefighters and residents of a nearby village rushed to the scene of the crash to help pull survivors, including the driver, from the wreckage.
Witness Samet Musliu told private Telma TV that rescuers had to cut open the bus to reach the injured.
"There was a strong smell of gasoline and we were afraid the bus would explode," he said.
The bus had been carrying workers back from Skopje to the town of Gostivar, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the capital, where most of them lived, said Gostivar Mayor Arben Taravari.
United Nations, Feb 14 (AP/UNB) — The new U.N. envoy for Iraq called Wednesday for an end to political infighting so the formation of a government can be completed, warning that further delay could lead to "significant repercussions" on the country's stability.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert told the U.N. Security Council that the Iraqi people "are bearing the brunt of the political stalemate" at a time when it is critical to meet their demands for better services, with water and electricity at the top of the list.
Four ministerial posts are still vacant and there are "fierce disagreements" about three of them — defense, interior and justice, she said, urging the political actors to compromise.
"It is high time for Iraqi leaders to shift focus from factional politics, and to invest efforts in addressing the immediate needs of the Iraqi citizens as further delays could give space to significant repercussions on the stability of the country," she said.
Hennis-Plasschaert reminded Iraqi political leaders that there are well-qualified women whose participation in senior decision-making positions "remains very limited." She said she launched a Women's Advisory Group on Reconciliation and Politics on Jan. 24, which will provide independent expert advice to the U.N.'s political mission in Iraq as well as others.
Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Bahr Aluloom said that the country's "parties and blocs are working to overcome every obstacle so they can reach agreement and a government," adding that its establishment will "contribute to the stability of the whole region."
The Security Council said in a press statement that it looks forward to Iraq completing the formation of its government "with the aim of further strengthening and reaffirming Iraq's sovereignty, national unity, independence, and regional integration ... and of answering the needs of all Iraqis, including maintaining security and combatting terrorism."
Iraq is still recovering from its bloody fight against the Islamic State extremist group, and riots have repeatedly broken out in the south over authorities' failure to provide basic services.
The council called on Iraqi parties and groups to keep prioritizing political, economic and social reforms, to fight corruption, and to "promote reconstruction, economic development, accountability, stability and prosperity."
Hennis-Plasschaert told the council that "corruption is vast and pervasive at all levels in Iraq." During a meeting last week, she said, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, "underlined the urgent need to show progress in fighting corruption."
The envoy welcomed the government's steps to combat corruption, saying that "it is a much-needed fight in order to revive public trust and to facilitate the provision of basic services."
As for security, she said that although terrorist attacks have decreased, the Islamic State group "continues to pose a security threat to Iraq and the region."
Bahr Aluloom, the Iraqi ambassador, said that following the liberation of all Iraqi cities from IS fighters, the country is now turning to rooting out "residual terrorism," eradicating "the breeding grounds for terrorism," and tackling "extremist thinking."
He reiterated Iraq's condemnation of Turkish attacks on the Iraqi side of the border in the north as "a blatant violation of Iraq's sovereignty." Turkey says its airstrikes have targeted the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a far-left group considered a terror organization by Turkey and its NATO allies.