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Muslim mob attacks Christian homes in Egyptian province

HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — A Muslim mob ransacked and torched seven Christian homes in a province south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, after rumors spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman, according to a statement by the local Orthodox Coptic church.

Released late Wednesday, it said that during the May 20 attack, the mother of the Christian man, who had fled the village, was publicly stripped of her clothes by the mob to humiliate her.

Security officials said the woman was beaten and insulted while being paraded by the mob through the village. They said the mob was made of about 300 men.

The officials spoke on Thursday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Ex-marital affairs or sex between unmarried couples are a taboo among both Muslims and Christians in conservative Egypt. They often attract violent reactions in rural areas, where questions of honor could lead to deadly family feuds that endure for years or the ostracization of the perpetrators.

Police arrived at the scene nearly two hours after the attacks began and arrested six people, according to the statement by Minya’s top cleric, Anba Makarios. He said the family of the Christian man had notified the police of threats against them by Muslim villagers the day before the attack.

“No one did anything and the police took no pre-emptive or security measures in anticipation of the attacks,” he told a television interviewer Wednesday night. “We are not living in a jungle or a tribal society. It’s incorrect for anyone to declare himself judge, police and ruler.”

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, have long complained of discrimination in the mostly Muslim nation. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in office since 2014, has sought to address some of their grievances, changing election laws to allow more Christians into the national legislature and easing restrictions on building new churches and renovating old ones.

But many Christians say they are still consistently victimized when in dispute with Muslims.

Criminal gangs have often targeted wealthy Christian families south of Cairo in recent years, kidnapping their children for ransom. There have also been scores of cases in recent years of underage Christian girls lured away from their families by Muslim men who force them to convert and keep them in hiding until they reach adulthood. Christians often complain that police don’t do enough to pursue the Muslim perpetrators.

Makarios also told the television interviewer Wednesday night that the late arrival of the police gave the attackers “ample time” to do what they had set out to do. With uncharacteristic candor, he said that the crisis in the village will most likely be handled through a government-sponsored meeting of the two sides in which the Christians will be forced to accept “humiliating” conditions for reconciliation.

He said there would have hardly been a reaction were it a case of a Muslim man having an affair with a Christian woman. “If that was the case, the Christian response would not have been anything like what happened,” he explained.

“It is a disgrace for honest men to remain silent while accepting, seeing or hearing this.”

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French dock workers throw smoke bombs as protests escalate

RAPHAEL SATTER, Associated Press
ANGELA CHARLTON, Associated Press

LE HAVRE, France (AP) — Thousands of dock workers poured into a public square in the French port city of Le Havre on Thursday, setting off smoke bombs as part of escalating nationwide protests against a labor bill that would loosen protections for French workers.

As union activists disrupted fuel supplies, trains and nuclear plants during a day of demonstrations around the country, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls opened the door to possible changes but said the government would not abandon the bill, which would make the country’s 35-hour work week more flexible, among other provisions.

The draft law, aimed at boosting hiring after a decade of nearly 10 percent unemployment and slow but corrosive economic decline, has escalated into the toughest challenge yet to President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government.

“There could be improvements and modifications” in the bill, Valls said on BFM television Thursday. He didn’t elaborate on what might be changed, and insisted that the “heart” of the bill — a measure weakening the power of unions over workplace rules — should remain.

Withdrawing the bill “is not possible,” he said.

Union activists and ordinary workers reacted with derision.

Members of the CGT union, leading the protests, said it’s too late to compromise. Many remain angry that the government forced the bill through the lower house of parliament without a vote because of division in the Socialist majority.

“Valls is hardening his tone? Well were hardening our tone too!” an organizer shouted into a loudspeaker at the Normandy Bridge, where some 200 to 300 trade unionists and other protesters gathered to block traffic in one of many disruptions to roads around the country Thursday.

After vacating the bridge, which typically carries about 12 million vehicles a year, union activists spread the disruption to Le Havre, driving slowly through town or briefly blocking roads on foot as cars around them honked repeatedly.

Then the dock workers stormed the main square in front of City Hall, setting off multicolor smoke bombs and throwing some in fountains, kicking up plumes of water. The sounds of sirens and the smoke bomb explosions reverberated around the area.

Fabien Gloaguen, an activist with the militant Worker’s Forcemovement, said the government would have to back down. “He’s going to withdraw it,” Gloaguen said.

Valls insisted the bill is “good for workers” and small businesses, and argued that many of its critics are ill-informed of its contents.

In addition to loosening rules about the 35-hour work week, the bill makes it easier to fire workers in times of economic downturn, and weakens the power of unions to set working conditions across an entire sector.

Two months of protests escalated over the past week as unions targeted the sensitive oil industry, blocking fuel depots and refineries.

The government has started using its strategic fuel reserves and forcing depots to reopen, but supplies remained spotty Thursday, with long lines and caps on purchases.

Drivers endured long waits to reach gas pumps, railing at the strikes, the government and the overall funk in France.

Gas station manager Bernard Ballaux has limited customers to 50 euros ($56) worth of diesel after a week of panic buying. Customers “fear that they won’t have gas anymore so they are irritated, tense.”

Prices have risen noticeably at gas pumps.

But at the blocked Normandy Bridge, at least one pair of travelers said they didn’t mind.

“It’s for us that they’re doing this,” said Jean-Luc Geraert, whose battered white van was caught behind the makeshift barricade. Geraert, a 55-year-old industrial painter, said if the government doesn’t back down soon, “it’s going to get worse.”

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Japan urges G-7 to avert another economic crisis

ELAINE KURTENBACH, Associated Press
MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press

ISE, Japan (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is urging fellow leaders of the Group of Seven advanced economies to avert another global crisis by acting to rescue the faltering global recovery.

Abe and his counterparts got down to business Thursday after strolling through the grounds of Ise (Ee-say) Shrine, a tranquil, densely forested landmark that is considered the holiest site in Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, and then joining a group of children in a tree planting ceremony.

After the first few sessions of summit meetings, U.S. President Barack Obama backed Abe’s call.

“We’ve all got a lot of work to do and we agreed to continue to focus on making sure that each country, based on its particular needs and capacities, is taking steps to accelerate growth,” Obama said.

He said it was crucial not just to put people back to work but also raise wages and maintain the momentum of the recovery.

During the talks, Abe compared the current global economic situation to conditions just before the 2008 financial crisis.

A G-7 summit held in northern Japan paid little attention to the trouble that was brewing, Abe said.

Reporters were shown charts Abe had on hand to illustrate the severity of the recent slump in commodity prices and the economic slowdown in China.

“We learned a lesson that we failed to respond properly because we did not have a firm recognition of the risks,” Abe told reporters. “This time, we had a thorough discussion and recognized the major risks facing the global economy.”

The G-7 gathering dovetails in many ways with Abe’s long-term diplomatic, political and economic agenda. A dramatic statement about global economic risks and a strong show of support for public spending to help spur growth could help Abe justify extra stimulus and possibly provide political cover for postponing an unpopular but badly needed increase in Japan’s sales tax next April.

The leaders were expected to turn their attention to trade, politics and diplomacy, and to climate change and energy during talks later Thursday.

The annual summit brings together the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. It is taking place amid extraordinarily tight security around the remote summit venue, with uniformed police standing guard at close intervals on both sides of roads and randomly in forests, rice fields, soccer fields and other locations.

Protesters were kept far away. A group of several dozen gathered in a nearby city where they were far outnumbered by police and journalists.

Many of the issues to be discussed during the two days of talks are linked to other Abe policy priorities. They include maritime security, code for concerns over China’s expanding presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea; initiatives on global health, including funding for fighting terrorism and pandemics; and a focus on women’s empowerment, which Abe has promoted as “womenomics.”

Japanese officials have also highlighted joint efforts on corruption, terrorism, global health and migration — which has become a huge headache especially for European nations — as other top priorities.

“Those who criticize us should rather think how to increase their assistance because what Europe provides is already massive,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, calling for G-7 support and leadership. “And honestly speaking, if they (the G-7) don’t take the lead in managing this crisis, nobody else will. I will appeal to G-7 leaders to take up this challenge.”

Tusk said the EU is seeking more support for refugees and creation of resettlement schemes and other forms of legal migration around the world.

A possible exit from the European Union by Britain, depending on a June 23 vote, is also hanging over the talks.

Obama arrived in Japan on Wednesday and had an evening meeting with Abe. After the summit ends on Friday, he plans to visit the peace park in Hiroshima, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city on which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in 1945 in the closing days of World War II.

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Group of 7 seeks way forward for aging, faltering economies

ELAINE KURTENBACH, Associated Press
PAUL WISEMAN, Associated Press

ISE, Japan (AP) — Leaders of the Group of Seven rich nations plan to voice unity over fighting terrorism, pandemics and tax evasion at their summit in Japan this week. Finding a consensus on how to breathe life into their sluggish economies is proving more elusive.

Aging workforces, sagging productivity and lingering damage from the 2008 financial crisis are complicating efforts to spur growth while the effects of the slowdown in China and the other big developing economies ripple across the globe.

Ahead of the summit meetings that begin Thursday, finance ministers and central bank governors of the G-7 meeting in northern Japan failed to concur on a coordinated approach to fighting what Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz calls the “Great Malaise.”

They did agree the world’s growth engine is running on fumes: “We as the G-7 believe the biggest economic problem is demand. Demand — there is no demand — and that is the biggest problem around the world,” said Japan’s finance minister, Taro Aso.

The reluctance of consumers to buy and businesses to invest, despite rock-bottom interest rates, has caught economists by surprise and policymakers flatfooted, as the IMF, World Bank and governments repeatedly have had to downgrade overly rosy forecasts.

That stagnation is evident in the run-down business districts of Ise and many other places in Japan.

Last month, the IMF lowered the economic growth projection for 2016 and 2017 for the world’s advanced economies, including Europe, the United States and Japan, where collectively growth has remained below 2 percent since 2010.

“It’s a difficult environment indeed,” PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said last month. “Most of the developed world outside the United States is grappling with slow growth.”

When G-7 meetings began in the 1970s, Japan was in the midst of its post-World War II industrial boom. Growth peaked in the late 1980s, and has mostly stagnated since a massive stock market and lending bubble imploded in the early 1990s. It has continued to limp and languish despite massive public works spending and, more recently, a barrage of monetary stimulus.

In Sendai, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and other officials said coordinating growth strategies was difficult given the varied challenges and resource constraints of each country.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Lew said. Nonetheless, he made a point of urging Japan not to derail its faltering recovery with a sales tax hike planned for next year and cautioned Tokyo against intervening to drive the yen weaker for the sake of its exporters.

The IMF says advanced economies could get a healthy economic payoff by investing in research and development, roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and to rewrite tax codes that discourage people from working.

Instead, governments have tended to rely on central banks to keep interest rates low, or — in Japan and Europe — even negative.

Meanwhile, some economists, notably Robert Gordon at Northwestern University, worry the world lacks the kinds of technological advances needed to drive up productivity and growth.

Japan’s population is shrinking and aging the fastest among G-7 countries, and its predicament is deepened by productivity that lags behind its G-7 peers.

The country appeared poised for a revival, emerging from recession as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in late 2012, promising to “bring Japan back” with share price-plumping plans to fire up growth through government spending and a flood of stimulus from the central bank.

The “Abenomics” three-pronged combination of monetary easing, government spending and structural reforms was supposed to end deflation and get households and businesses to spend more in the sort of “virtuous” cycle all major economies have been striving for ever since the global financial crisis.

The Bank of Japan’s “big bazooka” of monetary easing pumped trillions of dollars into the economy, helping to weaken the yen against the U.S. dollar as profits of big exporters like Toyota Motor Corp. soared.

But Japan is still dipping in and out of recession, and a 2 percent inflation target remains far beyond reach. Recent data show the outlook deteriorating, despite a 1.6 percent uptick in annual growth in January-March.

After more than three years, Abenomics is viewed mainly as a “marketing slogan,” said Kenneth S. Courtis, chairman of Starfort Holdings and a former Asia vice chairman at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Japan needs to “take a blowtorch” to regulations and red tape that discourage competition, he says.

“There’s a much more critical view of the Abe regime today than in the past,” he said.

Most Japanese companies simply are not investing in their shrinking domestic market, even after the Bank of Japan pushed interest rates on some bank deposits it is holding below zero.

The G-7 summit venue of Ise once was a center for silk and cotton processing and shipbuilding. Today, its main industries are pearls, “Matsuzaka” fat-marbled beef and tourism.

The region is picturesque but sparsely populated: Villages have been emptying out for decades as businesses, mines and entire communities were abandoned.

Some were casualties of earlier shifts in the global market, as factories migrated to China and other developing countries.

Stalling growth is not unique to rural Japan: Long-term economic growth in each of the G-7 countries is the worst it has been since the annual summits began 42 years ago, says Howard Rosen, an independent economist based in Washington.

In the advanced economies, automation and online commerce have meant the disappearance of many skilled, high-wage jobs. To a growing extent, the meager or unpredictable pay of service-sector and contract or part-time work is sapping consumers’ purchasing power.

As the usual policy tools fail, for the G-7 as a whole what prevails is uncertainty, said Dave Tilstone, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association.

His group’s members are showing “a lot more hesitation, more than before, to make long-term commitments. Their customers just aren’t getting those long-term contracts either,” he said.

Looming unknowns include the ups and downs of oil prices; whether the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates again, possibly slowing the U.S. economy; whether Britain will opt to leave the European Union in a June 23 vote; and the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, which could put Donald Trump in the White House.

Europe is struggling with floods of refugees, as its banks, still holding bad debts left over from the financial crisis, remain wary of lending.

“There are deep holes in the banking system, and there is no appetite to deal with it,” said Ashoka Mody, visiting professor at Princeton University. “Someone has to bear the losses and no one wants to deal with the losses.”

Though Germany alone has kept its conservative stance toward spending, the other G-7 members have been constrained in varying degrees by law, politics and financial limitations from pursuing needed spending increases.

“Years ago, they came out with a coordinated growth plan and everyone kicked into gear,” said Courtis. “Now there are very different views and that’s what’s paralyzed the G-7.”

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Official: Ukrainian pilot released in Russia, returning home

EFREM LUKATSKY, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Wednesday released Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko as part of a swap for two Russian servicemen jailed in Ukraine, an official in the Ukrainian presidential administration said.

Savchenko was being flown to Kiev aboard Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s plane, according to the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Kremlin-funded television station RT, citing unidentified sources, reported that the two Russians also were released and were being flown to Moscow.

Savchenko was certain to be greeted by crowds of supporters in Ukraine, where her refusal to bend after nearly two years in Russian custody has made her a national hero. Poroshenko was to meet her at the Kiev airport and accompany her into the city, the official said.

Savchenko was captured by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and sentenced in March to 22 years in prison for her alleged role in the deaths of two Russian journalists in the conflict zone.

The two Russians, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were captured last year. They acknowledged being Russian officers, but the Russian Defense Ministry claimed they had resigned from active duty.

They were tried in a Kiev court, which sentenced them to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine.

Both of the Russians submitted a petition to Poroshenko for a pardon, Alexandrov’s lawyer Valentin Rybin told the state news agency Tass on Wednesday morning. He said the same procedure was underway in Russia and indicated that the swap was in the works.

One of Savchenko’s lawyers, Mark Feygin, said Tuesday that he was trying to persuade Savchenko to file a petition for pardon. Another lawyer, Ilya Novikov, would not comment Wednesday on whether Savchenko has signed the pardon papers.

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Israel expands government, Lieberman to be defense minister

ARON HELLER, Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a deal to expand his coalition government on Wednesday by bringing in the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and appointing its leader Avigdor Lieberman as his new defense minister.

The development caps a tumultuous political week that began with Netanyahu negotiating with the moderate Labor Party against a backdrop of international pressure to relaunch peace efforts with the Palestinians, before choosing Lieberman’s hawkish party instead.

Lieberman is one of Israel’s most polarizing politicians and has a reputation for making inflammatory statements. The Palestinian president’s adviser promptly denounced the appointment, saying Lieberman was a “fascist minister” who will promote settlements.

In a joint signing ceremony in Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Lieberman insisted they have put their past differences behind them and sought to soothe fears over their new alliance by making calming statements in both Hebrew and, with an eye toward the world, in English as well.

“I am committed to promoting the peace process. I am committed to make every effort to reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said, noting that developments in the region have created new opportunities for peace.

“I intend to seize those opportunities. A broader government, a more stable government will make it easier to do so,” he added.

With the deal, Netanyahu expands his coalition to 66 of parliament’s 120 members. He previously only had 61, the slimmest of majorities, which made it difficult to govern and legislate and opened him to potential extortion of any single lawmaker.

Netanyahu also made another feeble plea for Labor to join his government. But it will almost certainly be rejected by a party that is deeply distrustful of Netanyahu’s motives and currently engaged in bitter infighting over even negotiating with him in the first place.

Lieberman will take over as defense chief in place for former military chief Moshe Yaalon, who resigned earlier this week following the political shakeup.

Yaalon, like Netanyahu, is a security hawk who was deeply skeptical of peace prospects with the Palestinians and led the military through a 50-day war against Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip in 2014. At times, he angered the U.S. by criticizing American peace initiatives in the region as naive or messianic. But he was one of the Cabinet’s more moderate voices and was fiercely protective of the military when it came under fire from ideologically-driven hardliners.

His departure leaves the Cabinet dominated by religious and ultranationalist ministers who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state and have close ties to the West Bank settler movement. Lieberman himself is a West Bank settler.

In a three-decade political career, Lieberman has at times been Netanyahu’s closest ally and at other times a fierce rival. While he is an experienced politician who has been foreign minister and held other top jobs, his security experience is limited.

Over the years, Lieberman has made headlines for a series of incendiary comments. At one point, he called for bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam and suggested toppling the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Just a few weeks ago, he threatened to kill a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. He has repeatedly voiced skepticism about pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Those close to Lieberman, though, say he is far more pragmatic and level-headed in person than he appears in public and he seemed to be trying to convey that Wednesday.

“My commitment first of all is to responsible, reasonable policy,” Lieberman said in English. “All of us have commitments to peace, to the final status agreement, to understanding between us and our neighbors.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers, said all Israelis leaders are “criminals and killers” and that appointing Lieberman signaled “the increasing extremism and racism in the Israeli occupation.”

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, encouraged all other Palestinian faction to reject any “illusion” of normalization with Israel.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, a political adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Lieberman’s addition to the government reflected an overall rightward tilt in Israeli society.

“I think that bringing a fascist minister who lives in a settlement, this is actually a manifestation of the settlement program,” he said.

“All what this Israeli government is interested in is to have more settlers, more settlements and totally shun away from the international effort to end occupation and conflict in the Palestinian territory,” Shtayyeh added.

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German Cabinet finalizing details on migrant integration

DAVID RISING, Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a raft of new measures combining “opportunities and obligations” designed to help Germany deal with the influx of some 1.1 million asylum-seekers registered as entering the country last year and help those who stay become “good neighbors and citizens.”

The package seeks to provide migrants with better access to the German job market and also foresees the creation of some 100,000 government-funded “job opportunities” for migrants. At the same time, migrants will be expected to participate in expanded orientation and language courses, which will also be made available more quickly and to more people than before.

“Learning the German language quickly, rapid integration in training, studies and the labor market, and an understanding of and compliance with the principles of living together in our society and compliance with our laws are essential for successful integration,” the Cabinet said in a statement after the meeting. “The newcomers are to become good neighbors and citizens, which will enable us to strengthen social cohesion and prevent parallel structures in our country.”

In a provision designed to prevent the development of migrant ghettos in big cities, the measures, which still need Parliamentary approval, would mandate newcomers to stay where they have been officially placed for a minimum of three years unless a job is found that takes them elsewhere.

Merkel told reporters that Germany has “learned from the past,” when immigrants were frequently thought of as guest workers or otherwise temporary residents and integration measures were not offered. Now that they are, “we expect people to take up these offers so that integration can work better.”

“I think it’s a milestone that the federal government is passing an integration law that’s based upon the principle of opportunities and obligations, obligations and opportunities,” she said.

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Afghan Taliban appoint new leader after Mansour’s death

LYNNE O’DONNELL, Associated Press
MIRWAIS KHAN, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan Taliban confirmed on Wednesday that their leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week and that they have appointed a successor — a scholar known for extremist views who is unlikely to back a peace process with Kabul.

The announcement came as a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying court employees in the Afghan capital, killing at least 11 people, an official said. The Taliban promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a statement sent to the media, the Taliban said their new leader is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, one of Mansour’s two deputies. The insurgent group said he was chosen at a meeting of Taliban leaders, which is believed to have taken place in Pakistan, but offered no other details.

Mansour was killed in Pakistan on Saturday when his vehicle was struck by a U.S. drone plane, an attack believed to be the first time a Taliban leader was killed in such a way inside Pakistani territory.

Pakistani authorities have been accused both by Kabul and the West of giving shelter and support to some Taliban leaders — an accusation that Islamabad denies. The insurgents have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government since 2001, when their own Islamist regime was overthrown by the U.S. invasion.

The United States and the Afghan government have said that Mansour had been an obstacle to a peace process, which ground to a halt when he refused to participate in talks with the Afghan government earlier this year. Instead, he intensified the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year.

Mansour had officially led the Taliban since last summer, when the death of the movement’s founder, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar became public. But he is believed to have run the movement in Mullah Omar’s name for more than two years. The revelation of Mullah Omar’s death and Mansour’s deception led to widespread mistrust, with some senior Taliban leaders leaving the group to set up their own factions.

Some of these rivals fought Mansour’s men for land, mostly in the opium poppy-growing southern Taliban heartland.

Senior Taliban figures have said Mansour’s death could strengthen and unify the movement, as he was in some ways a divisive figure. The identity of his successor was expected to be an indication of the direction the insurgency would take, either toward peace or continued war.

Akhundzada is a religious scholar who served as the Taliban’s chief justice before his appointment as a deputy to Mansour. He is known for issuing public statements justifying the existence of the extremist Taliban, their war against the Afghan government and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. His views are regarded as hawkish, and he could be expected to continue in the aggressive footsteps of Mansour, at least in the early days of his leadership.

He was close to Mullah Omar, who consulted with him on religious matters. A convincing orator, Akhunzada was born in Kandahar — the capital during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime.

A member of the Noorzai tribe, he is said to be aged around 50 years, and comes from a line of religious scholars. He leads a string of madrassas, or religious schools — figures in the Taliban say up to 10 — across Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.

A former foreign minister under the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Ghous, told The Associated Press that the choice of Akhundzada was “a very wise decision.” Akhundzada was well respected among Taliban of all ranks, and could be a unifying force for the fractured movement, Ghous said.

But hopes that the new leader would be a unifying figure dimmed within hours of the announcement Wednesday, with some dissident Taliban figures rejecting Akhundzada as leader.

A breakaway Taliban faction led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, which has for months battled Mansour’s men for control of drug smuggling routes in the south, said it would not accept the new leader for the same reason it rejected Mansour — Akhundzada was chosen by the same small clique of leaders rather than by the wide rank and file.

“We will not accept him as a new leader until and unless all religious scholars and tribal elders sit together and appoint new leader,” said the faction’s spokesman, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, speaking of Akhundzada.

However, President Ashraf Ghani’s office said the appointment brought the insurgents “yet another opportunity to end and renounce violence, lay down their arms, and resume a normal and peaceful life.”

Ghani, who took office in 2014, assiduously courted Pakistan in an effort to bring the Taliban into a dialogue that would lead to peace talks. Mansour, however, refused, choosing instead to intensify the war once the international combat mission drew down to a training and support role in 2015.

Deputy presidential spokesman Zafar Hashemi said that if the Taliban decided against joining the peace process, “they will face the fate of their leadership.”

Wednesday’s Taliban statement also said two new deputies to Akhundzada have been appointed — both of whom had earlier been thought to be the main contenders for the top job.

One of them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was also one of Mansour’s deputies and who leads the notorious Haqqani network — the faction behind some of the most ferocious attacks in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The other is the son of Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoub, who controls the Taliban military commissions for 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Akhundzada’s appointment came as a surprise to some, including Ghous, who said that despite not being a top contender but a “third candidate,” the new leader would rise above any personal animosity or conflict that might have arisen should either Haqqani or Yaqoub have been chosen.

The Taliban statement called on all Muslims to mourn Mansour for three days, starting from Wednesday. It also attempted to calm any qualms among the rank and file by calling for unity and obedience to the new leader.

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Greek police evacuate hundreds from Idomeni refugee camp

COSTAS KANTOURIS, Associated Press

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities sent hundreds of police into the country’s largest informal refugee camp Tuesday to support the gradual evacuation of the Idomeni site on the Macedonian border.

The left-led government has pledged that police will not use force, and says the operation is expected to last about a week to 10 days. Journalists were blocked from covering inside the camp

By about midday 23 buses carrying a total 1,110 people had left Idomeni, heading to new refugee camps in northern Greece, police said, while earth-moving machinery was used to clear abandoned tents. No violence was reported.

Vicky Markolefa, a representative of the Doctors Without Borders charity, said the operation was proceeding “very smoothly” and without incident. “We hope it will continue like that,” she said.

The camp, which sprang up at an informal pedestrian border crossing for refugees and migrants heading north to wealthier European nations, was home to an estimated 8,400 people — including hundreds of children — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

At its peak, when Macedonia shut its border in March, the camp housed more than 14,000, but numbers have declined as people began accepting authorities’ offers of alternative places to stay.

In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the evacuation appeared to be taking place “calmly,” and the U.N. refugee agency was sending more staffers to Idomeni.

“As long as the movement of people from Idomeni is … voluntary in nature (and) that we’re not seeing use of force, then we don’t have particular concerns about that,” he said.

“It often does help move people into more organized sites, when they’re willing to move to those places,” he added.

In Idomeni, most have been living in small camping tents pitched in fields and along railroad tracks, while aid agencies have set up large marquee-style tents to help house people. Greek authorities have sent in cleaning crews regularly and have provided portable toilets, but conditions have been precarious at best, with heavy rain creating muddy ponds.

Recently the camp had begun taking on an image of semi-permanence, with refugees setting up small makeshift shops selling everything from cooking utensils to falafel and bread.

More than 54,000 refugees and migrants have been trapped in financially struggling Greece since countries further north shut their land borders to a massive flow of people escaping war and poverty at home. Nearly a million people have passed through Greece, the vast majority arriving on islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

In March, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey meant to stem the flow and reduce the number of people undertaking the perilous sea crossing to Greece, where many have died when their overcrowded, unseaworthy boats sank. Under the deal, anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 18 faces deportation to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

But few want to request asylum in the country, which has been struggling with a deep, six-year financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering at around 24 percent.

Journalists were barred from the camp during the evacuation operation. An estimated 700 police were participating in the operation.

Greek authorities are also eager to reopen a railway line — the country’s main freight train line to the Balkans — that runs through the camp and has been blocked by protesting camp residents since March 20.

Anastassios Saxpelidis, a spokesman for Greek transport companies, said Tuesday that the 66-day closure has cost transporters about 6 million euros.

Giorgos Kyritsis, a government spokesman on immigration, said the line should open “in coming days.”

The government has been trying for months to persuade people to leave Idomeni and go to organized camps. This week it said its campaign of voluntary evacuations was already working, with police reporting that eight buses carrying about 400 people left Idomeni Sunday. Others took taxis heading to Thessaloniki or a nearby town of Polycastro.

On the eve of the evacuation operation, few at the camp appeared to welcome the news.

“It’s not good … because we’ve already been here for three months and we’ll have to spend at least another six in the camps before relocation,” said Hind Al Mkawi, a 38-year-old refugee from Damascus, told The Associated Press on Monday evening.

Abdo Rajab, a 22-year-old refugee from Raqqa in Syria, has spent the past three months in Idomeni, and is considering paying smugglers to be sneaked into Germany.

“We hear that tomorrow we will all go to camps,” he said. “I don’t mind, but my aim is not reach the camps but to go Germany.”

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International Headlines

Obama pushes for better rights in Vietnam after arms deal

FOSTER KLUG, Associated Press
NANCY BENAC, Associated Press

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — President Barack Obama on Tuesday pressed Vietnam to allow greater freedoms for its citizens, arguing that better human rights would improve the communist country’s economy, stability and regional power.

On his second full day in the southeast Asian nation, Obama also met with activists and entrepreneurs as part of a push for closer ties with the fast-growing, strategically crucial country. The visit included the lifting of one of the last vestiges of Vietnam War-era antagonism: a five-decades-old arms sale embargo.

In a speech at the National Convention Center, Obama sought to balance a desire for a stronger relationship with Vietnam with efforts to hold its leadership to account over what activists call an abysmal treatment of government critics.

Nations are more successful when people can freely express themselves, assemble without harassment and access the internet and social media, Obama said.

“Upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress,” Obama told the audience of more than 2,000, including government officials and students from five universities across the Hanoi area. “Vietnam will do it differently than the United States does … But there are these basic principles that I think we all have to try to work on and improve.”

Freedom of expression is where new ideas happen, Obama said. “That’s how a Facebook starts. That’s how some of our greatest companies began.”

Journalists and bloggers can “shine a light on injustice or abuse” when they are allowed to operate free of government interference or intimidation, he added. And, stability is encouraged when voters get to choose their leaders in free and fair elections “because citizens know that their voices count and that peaceful change is possible. And it brings new people into the system,” Obama said.

Obama also traced the transformation of the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship, from wartime enemies to cooperation. He said the governments are working more closely together than ever before on a range of issues.

“Now we can say something that was once unimaginable: Today, Vietnam and the Unites States are partners,” he said, adding that their experience was teaching the world that “hearts can change.”

Earlier Tuesday, Obama met with six activists, including a pastor and advocates for the disabled and sexual minorities. He said several others were prevented from coming. “Vietnam has made remarkable strides in many ways,” Obama said, but “there are still areas of significant concern.”

Obama also referred in the speech to China’s growing aggression in the region, something that worries many in Vietnam, which has territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Beijing.

Obama got a round of applause when he declared that “big nations should not bully smaller ones,” an allusion to China’s attempt to push its rivals out of disputed territory. Obama said the United States will continue to freely navigate the region and support the right of other countries to do the same.

After Hanoi, Obama flew to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. He visited the Jade Emperor Pagoda, considered one of the most beautiful pagodas in southern Vietnam and a repository of religious documents that includes more than 300 statues and other relics. A strong smell of incense hung in the air as visitors frequently burn incense outside the main temple to announce to the heavens their arrival.

As Obama paused before one statue, a guide explained that if he wanted to have a son, he should pray to her.

“I like daughters,” Obama replied.

Shifting from the historical to the modern, Obama also stopped by the Dreamplex business complex in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, a space for startup entrepreneurs that fits with Obama’s message about the potential benefits of closer ties to Vietnam’s growing economy and its burgeoning middle class.

Obama visited with several entrepreneurs at the modern Dreamplex, learning about a virtual game that helps people recover from nerve injuries and a smart phone that can serve as a laser cutter. But Obama cautioned that you have to “be careful where you point it.”

The meeting gave him another chance to promote the benefits of what he says will be enhanced trade under a 12-nation trade deal that is stalled in Congress and opposed by the leading U.S. presidential candidates. He said the pact, if approved, will accelerate economic reforms in Vietnam, boost its economic competitiveness, open up new markets and improve labor and environmental standards.

During his address, he said the agreement would give Vietnamese workers the right to form labor unions and would prohibit forced and child labor. He also predicted it would lead to greater regional cooperation.

“Vietnam will be less dependent on any one trading partner and enjoy broader ties with more partners, including the United States,” Obama said.