Serbia, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — Several thousand people have turned out in Belgrade for the sixth week of street protests against populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his government.
Demonstrations first started after thugs beat up an opposition politician in November, prompting calls for more democracy and an end to political violence in Serbia.
Critics say Vucic has fostered an atmosphere of fear and hate speech against opponents in the Balkan nation while seeking to tighten his rule. He has denied the allegations.
Whistle-blowing crowds on Saturday marched through central Belgrade despite freezing temperatures and icy streets. Some carried banners reading "Rise Serbia" or "It's started."
Smaller protests have been held in other towns in Serbia. Local media say Vucic plans to get his supporters out during next week's visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Toronto, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — Tired but smiling, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she feared death if deported back home arrived Saturday in Canada, which offered her asylum in a case that attracted global attention after she mounted a social media campaign.
"This is Rahaf Alqunun, a very brave new Canadian," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said arm-in-arm with the Saudi woman in Toronto's airport.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun smiled broadly as she exited an airport arrival door sporting a Canada zipper hoodie and a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees hat, capping a dramatic week that saw her flee her family while visiting Kuwait and before flying to Bangkok. Once there, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would accept Alqunun as a refugee. Her situation has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home.
Freeland said Alqunun preferred not to take questions Saturday.
"She is obviously very tired after a long journey and she preferred to go and get settled," Freeland said. "But it was Rahaf's choice to come out and say hello to Canadians. She wanted Canadians to see that she's here, that she's well and that she's very happy to be in her new home."
After arriving she was off to get winter clothes, said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, which is helping her settle in temporary housing and applying for a health card.
Calla said Alqunun has friends in Toronto who she would be meeting up with this weekend.
"She did comment to me about the cold," Freeland said.
"It does get warmer," Freeland said she told her.
Alqunun flew to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn. Alqunun tweeted two pictures from her plane seat — one with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hashtag "I did it" and the emojis showing a plane, hearts and a wine glass.
Canada's decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country's relations with Saudi Arabia.
In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada's Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women's right activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.
Freeland avoided an answer when asked what Alqunun's case would mean to Saudi relations.
There was no immediate Saudi government reaction, nor any mention of her arrival in state media.
Freeland said that the U.N. refugee agency found she was in danger in Thailand and that Canada's government is glad it was able to act quickly to offer her refuge.
Alqunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him.
Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the U.N.'s refugee agency to accept Alqunun, Surachate said.
"She chose Canada. It's her personal decision," he said.
Australian media reported that UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Alqunun to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.
"When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases," a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok told The Associated Press in an email reply on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the case publicly.
"Why did Rahaf go to Canada instead of her preferred choice of Australia where she had friends?" Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a tweet. "Because she needed safety from her Saudi pursuers fast, and Canada expedited her case while Australia (under Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton) slow-walked it."
Canada's ambassador saw her off at the airport, where Alqunun thanked everyone for helping her. She plans to start learning more English, though she already speaks it more than passably.
Alqunun was stopped Jan. 5 at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.
She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room where her social media campaign got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials, who granted her refugee status Wednesday.
Surachate said her father — whose name has not been released — denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight. He said Alqunun's father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.
"He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes," Surachate said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lauren La Rose the fact she was processed so quickly is a credit to those that made it happen.
"This is someone who was clearly in harm's way, who clearly felt her life with her threatened, and my colleagues in concert with governments in Thailand and Canada recognized that need," she said
St. Louis, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — A massive winter snowstorm that blanketed several Midwest states was a factor in at least five road deaths on Saturday and forced the grounds crew to scramble to clear snow from Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City ahead of the NFL divisional playoff game.
The storm moved into Kansas and Nebraska from the Rockies on Friday, then east into Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, covering roads and making driving dangerous. Part of Interstate 44 near St. Louis was blocked for several hours Saturday, and at one point the Missouri State Highway Patrol warned of traffic delays as long as eight hours.
In Indiana, the northbound lanes of Interstate 65 were closed for hours Saturday after a semitruck jackknifed along the snow-covered highway near Lafayette, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Indianapolis.
The storm began to spread east into the Mid-Atlantic region, with between 5 and 10 inches (13 to 25 centimeters) of snow expected in the Washington area, including parts of northern and central Maryland, by Sunday. Forecasters said heavy snow could fall in mountain areas north of Interstate 64, such as Charlottesville and Staunton, Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency Saturday night to help the state of Virginia prepare.
Missouri had gotten the worst of the storm by Saturday, with the National Weather Service reporting more than a foot (30.48 centimeters) of snow Saturday morning in some places around St. Louis and Jefferson City, and more than 18 inches (45 centimeters) in Columbia.
In Kansas City, where the Chiefs were hosting the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, about 8 inches of snow had fallen by early afternoon. The snow had tapered off by the time the game started midafternoon, but stadium crews worked for hours before the game to clear the stadium's lot, field and seats in anticipation of a full house for the playoff game.
At least five people were killed in crashes on slick roadways in Kansas and Missouri. They included a woman and her 14-year-old stepdaughter whose car slid into the path of a semitrailer in Clinton, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southeast of Kansas City, on Friday, the Missouri State Highway Patrol said. Another woman died when her car slid on U.S. 24 in northern Missouri and was hit by an oncoming SUV.
In Kansas, a 62-year-old man died after his pickup truck skidded on the Kansas Turnpike and hit a concrete barrier, according to the patrol. Another crash involving two semitrailers in snowy conditions killed a 41-year-old driver from Mexico, the patrol said.
"We're anticipating still more snow through today, so we're asking motorists to stay home until the roads are cleared," said Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Collin Stosberg, stationed in suburban Kansas City. "If you do have to get out on the road, we're asking you to do three things: Have your cellphone fully charged, wear your seat belt and slow your speed for the conditions."
Missouri troopers responded to more than 3,000 calls for help through early Saturday afternoon, including more than 700 crashes and 1,300 stranded vehicles. Illinois State Police said troopers along the Mississippi River across from St. Louis have responded to more than 100 crashes during the storm.
At Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, most flights were canceled or delayed.
In central Missouri, officials said about 12,000 households and businesses were without power in Columbia and the surrounding area at one point.
Venezuela, Jan 11 (AP/UNB) — President Nicolas Maduro celebrated the start to a second term as Venezuela's leader Thursday, but his world got smaller as countries seized upon the inauguration to cut back diplomatic ties, reject his legitimacy and label him a dictator.
Once among Latin America's wealthiest countries, Venezuela is enduring a historic crisis following two decades of socialist rule, with residents struggling to afford basic goods as inflation soars, driving mass migration.
Maduro's second six-year term extends the country's socialist revolution amid widespread complaints that he has stripped the country of its last vestiges of democracy.
Seventeen Latin American countries, the United States and Canada denounced Maduro's government as illegitimate in a measure adopted Thursday.
Maduro rejected the accusation, vowing to continue the legacy of the late President Hugo Chavez and accused the United States of trying to ignite unrest through its increasing economic sanctions.
"Venezuela is the center of a world war led by the North American imperialists and its allies," he declared in a speech after his swearing-in. "They have tried to convert a normal inauguration into a world war."
Maduro, a 56-year-old former bus driver and Chavez's hand-picked successor, took the helm of government after narrowly winning election following Chavez's 2013 death. He denies being a dictator and often accuses President Donald Trump of leading an economic war against Venezuela that is destroying the country.
In May, Maduro declared victory following an election that his political opponents and many foreign nations consider illegitimate because popular opponents were banned from running and the largest anti-government parties boycotted the race.
On Thursday, the Organization of American States voted not to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro's second term, adopting a resolution presented by Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, the United States, Paraguay and Peru. Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, Samuel Moncada, denounced the move as "a hostile act ... against the will of our nation."
Paraguay went a step further, severing diplomatic ties. Peru also called home its top diplomat from Caracas in protest and banned 100 members of Maduro's administration from entering the country. Argentina suspended Venezuelan diplomatic and official passports for banned high-ranking members of Maduro's administration from entering.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the United States would keep up pressure in support of the Venezuelan people.
"It is time for Venezuelan leaders to make a choice," Pompeo said. "Now is the time to convince the Maduro dictatorship that the moment has arrived for democracy to return to Venezuela."
Argentine President Mauricio Macri also denounced Maduro, saying he lacks the authenticity won through honest elections despite the elaborate inauguration ceremony.
"Nicolas Maduro today is making a mockery of democracy," Macri said on Twitter. "Venezuelans know it, the world knows it. Venezuela lives under a dictatorship."
Most countries from Europe and Latin American didn't send representatives to the swearing-in.
Presidents Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Anatoli Bibilov of a breakaway province of Georgia were among the few foreign leaders who attended the ceremony at the country's Supreme Court.
Venezuela, which sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, produced 3.5 million barrels of crude daily when Chavez took power. Output has plummeted to less than a third of that. Critics blame years of rampant corruption and mismanagement of the state-run oil company PDVSA.
The economic collapse has thrown the nation of 30 million people into turmoil.
The economy in 2019 will continue to contract and inflation will skyrocket at a staggering 23 million percent, forecasts Francisco Rodriguez, a former Venezuelan official who is now chief economist at New York-based Torino Capital.
An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled, according to the United Nations. Those remaining live on a monthly minimum wage equal to less than $5 and falling daily.
Venezuela's splintered opposition movement has failed to counter the socialist party's dominance as Maduro's government has jailed or driven into exile its most popular leaders.
The opposition-led Congress opened its session for the year, led by 35-year-old Juan Guaido, who accused Maduro of "usurping the presidency."
"Today there is no head of state. Today there is no commander-in-chief," Guaido said.
The Trump administration has increased pressure on Maduro through financial sanctions, targeting dozens in Maduro's government. U.S. banks are also banned from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial strangle-hold on the cash-strapped country.
David Smilde, a Tulane University professor and expert on Venezuela, said that sanctions aren't likely to create change. Ultimately, Maduro's government isn't worried about its international reputation, he said.
"He still has control of the institutions," Smilde said. "He has the guns. He has the money."
While Maduro's popularity has plunged amid scarcities, hyperinflation and rising authoritarianism that have sparked a mass emigration, supporters who receive government subsidies in shantytowns continue to back him.
"It's not the president's fault," said Frances Velazquez, a 43-year-old mother of two who survives with the help of government-subsidized boxes of rice, flour and cooking oil. Velazquez blamed opportunists who drive up the prices of scarce items for making life difficult for families like hers.
Others, like 52-year-old construction worker Ramon Bermudez, have lost hope of escaping Maduro's rule.
He pointed out the irony of living in a nation with the world's most abundant oil reserves yet having to wait in line overnight to fill three small canisters of natural gas to cook at home.
"All that's left to do is raise your hand to heaven and ask God to help us," said Bermudez, camped out on a Caracas sidewalk with hundreds of others waiting for gas. "There's nothing more."
Beirut, Jan 11 (Xinhua/UNB) -The chief of United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on Thursday urged Lebanon and Israel to refrain from any sudden activities near the Blue Line separating the two countries.
"The UNIFIL must be notified of any activities near the Blue Line in order to ... put in place coordinated security arrangements to avoid any possible incidents or violations," said Stefano Del Col.
He made the remarks after a tripartite meeting with senior officers from the Lebanese and Israeli armies at the Ras Al Naqoura crossing on the Lebanese-Israeli border.
On Dec. 4, 2018, the Israeli army launched a military operation on the northern border with Lebanon in search of "offensive" cross-border tunnels suspected of being dug by Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah.