Tens of Thousands of Greeks March to Demand Sole Right to the Name of Macedonia

Tens of thousands of flag-waving Greeks rallied in Thessaloniki Sunday, demanding Greece never compromise on the name Macedonia for its northern province.

Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic that shares the same name have been feuding over who gets to use it since Macedonia became independent Yugoslavia in 1991.

Police put the turnout for Sunday’s march at 90,000 while organizers say it is much higher.

Some of the protesters wore costumes from the period when Macedonia was ruled by the ancient Greek King Alexander the Great.

They say allowing the neighboring country to use the name Macedonia insults Greek history and implies a claim on Greek territory.

Sunday’s march was largely peaceful. But police quickly intervened when scuffles broke out between far-right extremists and anarchists who held up banners denouncing nationalism.

Greece has blocked Macedonian efforts to join the European Union and NATO because of the name dispute.

But United Nations negotiator Matthew Nimetz said last week he is “very hopeful” a settlement is near.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tells the Ethnos newspaper “If there is an opportunity for a solution, it would be a national stupidity not to make good use of it.”

The country of Macedonia is officially known at the U.N. as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.


Spain to Seek Catalan Politician’s Arrest on Denmark Visit

The office of Spain’s state prosecutor said Sunday it will move to reissue a European arrest warrant for the fugitive former leader of Catalonia if he leaves Belgium and enters Denmark as planned.

The region’s ex-president, Carles Puigdemont, is scheduled to attend a debate Monday at the University of Copenhagen titled “Catalonia and Europe at a Crossroads for Democracy.”

The trip would be Puigdemont’s first outside Belgium since he fled there to avoid a court summons in Spain for his role in an illegal- and unsuccessful- secession bid led by his government in October.

If Puigdemont makes it to Denmark, the prosecutor’s office said it would immediately ask the Spain Supreme Court to approve a European warrant for his arrest by Danish authorities.

Spain issued a European warrant for Puigdemont’s arrest in November, but withdrew it after a month based on concerns that Brussels would send the Catalan politician back while restricting the crimes with which he could be charged.

Spain is investigating Puigdemont for possible rebellion, sedition and embezzlement linked to a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia’s parliament on Oct. 27.

His proposed appearance at the debate in the Danish capital comes while Puigdemont is trying to be reinstated as the regional president of Catalonia.

Spain’s prime minister removed Puigdemont and his Cabinet from office and dissolved Catalonia’s parliament as part of a crackdown on the separatist push. But pro-secession political parties won the most seats in the December election for a new parliament, which must form a government by the end of the month.

It remains unclear how Puigdemont could be sworn in again as regional president without returning to Spain and therefore putting himself open to likely arrest.

The Spanish government has vowed to impede Puigdemont’s reinstatement with court challenges, if necessary, and to keep direct control over the region until a new government takes over.


Mattis: Turkey Alerted US Before Striking Kurds in Syria

Turkey alerted the United States before striking a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in northern Syria, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“They warned us before they launched the aircraft that they were going to do it,” Mattis told reporters Sunday on a plane headed for Southeast Asia.

Turkey on Saturday began bombing the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin along the Turkish border in northern Syria, in an attempt to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from the area.

Mattis said the communication took the form of a telephone call between high level Turkish and U.S. military officials. But he declined to say whether U.S. officials cautioned Turkey against the strikes.

“We are very alert to it. Our top levels are engaged…and we’re working through it,” Mattis said. “We’ll work this out.”

The YPG is a key U.S. partner in the war against Islamic State, and makes up a large portion of the Syrian Democratic Forces  a coalition that has forced Islamic State from virtually its entire so-called caliphate.


But Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group, and says it is linked with Kurdish separatists within its own borders.

“They have proven their effectiveness,” said Mattis. “It has cost them thousands of casualties, but you have watched them, with coalition support, shred ISIS’ caliphate in Syria, and that’s a matter of arithmetic.”

Mattis acknowledged that the success against Islamic State “does not remove many of Turkey’s concerns,” adding that it is “easy to understand” why Ankara is worried the conflict will spill over the Syrian border.

“Turkey is a NATO ally. It’s the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its borders. And Turkey has legitimate security concerns,” Mattis said.

The U.S. and Turkey have worked together to fight Islamic State as part of an international coalition. Specifically, U.S. and other planes have used Turkey’s Incirlik military base to carry out strikes on IS.

The U.S. military currently has about 2,000 personnel in Syria. But no US forces are at risk because of the Turkish offensive “at this time,” Mattis said.


Migrants Stuck in Serbia Want to Move On

After traversing several countries en route to the rich West, Najibullah, a former policeman from the Afghan town of Kholm, his pregnant wife and four children, got stuck in Serbia.

Now they spend days of relative normalcy in a drab refugee camp in Krnjaca, an industrial area on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, hoping they will ultimately move to Germany where Najibullah, 30, has relatives.

If they get their wish, they would join more than a million other migrants who have arrived in Germany since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel offered sanctuary to those fleeing war and poverty.

Although lauded in some quarters, Merkel’s actions cost her politically in German elections in 2017, where the far right surged on anti-migrant sentiment. In that light, the challenges of migration remain high on the agendas of Western states, not least those gathering at Davos this month under the banner of “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.”

The path many took to Germany, the so-called “Balkan route,” was shut in 2016 when Turkey agreed to stem the flow of people in return for EU aid and a promise of visa-free travel for its own citizens.

But migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia continued to arrive in Serbia, mainly from Turkey, via neighboring Bulgaria, attempting to enter the EU through bloc members Hungary and Croatia.

According to officials there are as many as 4,500 migrants in government-operated camps in Serbia. Rights activists say that hundreds of others are scattered in Belgrade and towns along Croatian and Hungarian borders.

In Krnjaca, Najibullah’s daughter Sonya, 8, started attending school and soon excelled in Serbian, enough to serve as an interpreter with her father in an interview on Tuesday.

“It is not bad here. I am going to school. I have good friends there — they invite me to parties. … My father wants to go to Germany. He has friends, a sister there,” Sonya said, pointing to Najibullah.

Sonya is one of 95 children in the Krnjaca camp who are currently attending 11 elementary schools in Belgrade. Their numbers vary as some families leave camps to enter Hungary and proceed further into Europe while others arrive.

Of the migrants who arrived in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, since mid-2015, many have struggled to find their feet in the labor market because of a language barrier or vocational skills. Germany needs skilled labor, given its aging population.

Last October, Merkel agreed to cap the number of refugees the country accepts at 200,000 annually, and Najibullah said he was hoping his family would be accepted.

“I hope I will find a job in Germany,” Najibullah said, according to Sonya’s translation.

In another prefabricated hut, built by the communist Yugoslavia for single factory workers, Marwan Ahman, an ethnic Kurd from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, complained about the bland, canned food served to his family of four in camp’s kitchen.

Marwan, a civil engineer by education and a shopkeeper by trade, also said he had no plans to stay in Serbia, where living standards and wages lag far behind those in the EU, which it wants to join.

“I want to go to Germany to make a good future for my children and my family,” he said in Kurdish, through an interpreter.

“Look at this room — it has bunk beds and nothing else. This is not a good place for a family,” he said.


Turkey Aims Airstrikes at U.S.-backed Kurdish Group in Syria

Turkish warplanes have launched airstrikes against a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in the Syrian enclave of Afrin.

Turkey says the offensive, which was expected, struck more than 100 targets, including the city of Afrin itself. The city has several hundred thousand residents.

The airstrikes were aimed at positions occupied by the YPG Kurdish militia. Ankara accuses the militia of ties to the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the offensive before it began. He said it would “clear our land up to the Iraqi border” of what he called “terror filth that is trying to besiege our country.”

US forces

Erdogan warned that, after Afrin, the Turkish military would target the YPG in the Syrian city of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed.

The U.S. backs the YPG in its fight against Islamic State militants. Washington has announced the intention to create a security force in Syria in conjunction with the YPG. The announcement has provoked outrage in Turkey.

The Syrian government has condemned the Turkish airstrikes, calling them “aggression” and a “brutal attack.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Saturday. The State Department did not provide details on what was said.

Last week the U.S. government urged Turkey not to attack the YPG. Russia, too, has called for restraint. Moscow says it will defend Syria’s territorial integrity diplomatically.

Russia, UN also weigh in

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that it received the information about the airstrikes “with concern” and added it is closely monitoring the situation.

Russia repeated its position that the search for solutions be based on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, respect for its sovereignty, and pursuing a long-term political settlement.


On Friday, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the U.N. has seen the reports of shelling in Afrin and reiterates the call on all concerned parties to avoid further escalation and any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people.

“All parties must ensure protection of civilians at all times, under any circumstances,” he said.

Political solution in danger

Shahoz Hasan, head of Syria’s main Kurdish political party, told VOA Saturday that the Turkish operation could get in the way of a political solution in Syria.

He said the people of Afrin were among those who helped defeat Islamic State militants in Syria. He said the world now needs to look after the people of Afrin.

VOA’s Turkish service contributed to this report.


Russia Probe Dogs Trump’s First Year in Office

If there is one single word that has dogged and defined Donald Trump’s presidency, it is Russia. Several congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Trump campaign contacts with Moscow, focusing this week on former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. VOA White House correspondent Peter Heinlein has a look at how Trump’s relationship with Russia, and the Kremlin’s role in his election, has hung over every moment of his first year in office.


Pence Stops in Ireland, Greets Troops on Way to Middle East

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, are scheduled to land in Egypt on Saturday, the first stop of a four-day Middle Eastern tour that will also include visits to Jordan and Israel.

Early Saturday, Air Force Two stopped at Shannon Airport in Ireland for refueling.

Pence greeted U.S. troops inside the airport.

“We’ll get this thing figured out in Washington,” Pence told the service members, in reference to the government shutdown. “You guys stay focused on your mission.”

Earlier, the vice president issued a statement on the shutdown, saying “… rather than solve problems, Democratic leadership preferred a shutdown that has dangerous consequences for our national defense. Their actions tonight — or lack thereof — is (sic) unconscionable.”


In Cairo, Pence will have meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other officials before flying to Amman, Jordan, where he will overnight before meeting with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania. Sunday afternoon he flies to Israel.

Pence is the first senior administration official to visit the Middle East since U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move widely condemned by world leaders.


Trump has also announced that the U.S. will move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

The announcement was followed by a so-called Day of Rage, with demonstrations against Trump’s decision spanning the globe.

Pence is an evangelical Christian. The vice president’s tour of the region is expected to go over well with Evangelicals who hold Israel dear.

Pence is not expected to meet with Palestinian leaders.

He was originally scheduled to go to the region in December, but decided not to after the pushback from Trump’s Jerusalem recognition decision.


U.S. Condemns Sudan’s Arbitrary Detention of Journalists

The United States has condemned Sudan’s arbitrary detention of journalists after reporters from the French news agency (AFP) and Reuters were arrested covering a street protest Friday.

The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the detentions and was closely following the reports.

“We condemn the harassment, arbitrary detention, and attacks on journalists in Sudan who are doing their jobs and exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The U.S. is continuing to press Sudan to improve its performance regarding freedom of expression and overall human rights and “to ensure that those detained are treated humanely and fairly, in accordance with Sudanese law and international human rights standards, and that they are allowed access to legal counsel and their families,” Nauert said.

​Protests in Khartoum

Widespread protests and clashes with security forces erupted in Sudan this month after Khartoum imposed tough economic measures in line with recommendations by the International Monetary Fund.

Abdelmoneim Abu Idris Ali, 51, of AFP and at least two other journalists, one a Reuters Sudanese stringer, were taken away by authorities Wednesday as they reported on a demonstration against rising food prices.

They are being held in a detention center “for investigation” by Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Sudanese authorities are quoted by both news agencies as saying, and have not been allowed any contacts with their families or employers.

AFP said its management strongly condemned the arrest of Idris Ali and asked for his immediate release.

Reuters said it did not know the circumstances of the detention and was actively seeking additional information about the situation.

Journalists held

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement Thursday that a total of seven journalists working in Sudan had been arrested, and it called for the immediate release of all the reporters.

“By arresting and intimidating journalists, confiscating newspapers and attempting to censor news dissemination, the Sudanese authorities keep trying to get journalists to stick to the official narrative or pay the price,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator Sherif Mansour said.

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontières, RSF) ranked Sudan the 174th worst out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Critics have accused President Omar al-Bashir’s regime of cracking down on the media.


Thousands of Students Protest in Hungary for Education Reforms

Thousands of Hungarian schoolchildren and university students protested outside parliament on Friday to demand reform of an education system they say fails to prepare them for life in the 21st century.

The students say the system is too rigidly focused on rote-learning and blind memorization of facts and does not encourage critical thinking or creativity.

In freezing rain, they held banners emblazoned with angry emoticons and messages such as “I can feel I am getting dumber” and “My brain is shrinking.”

“This is fundamentally a reform protest, but we can also call it a protest against the government as it criticizes the government’s work in the field of education,” said 17-year-old Balazs Fuzfa.

“I have come as I totally agree that the system of public education is in a bad state,” added Flora Kokendi, 21, a university student.

Critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government say it has failed to reform big state-run systems such as education and healthcare, which are also suffering from a big brain-drain of smart young Hungarians to western Europe.

“A just, democratic and modern education for all students,” said one leaflet prepared by the protest organisers which demanded a free choice of textbooks, a bigger student say in educational matters and a reduction in mandatory school hours.

Orban’s Fidesz party, in power since 2010, is expected to win a third term in a row in an election set for April 8.

Orban has used his time in office to rewrite hundreds of laws, the constitution and to centralise power. His reforms, such as those affecting the judiciary and the media, have triggered conflicts with the European Union.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Gareth Jones.


Yoga on Ice: India to Offer Classes During Davos Summit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s delegation to the World Economic Forum at Davos will offer yoga classes on the icy slopes, the foreign ministry said Friday, the latest high-profile attempt to promote India’s traditions abroad.

India aims to showcase its potential as a driver of global economic growth, after China, as well as its soft power, reflected in the popularity of yoga as well as its cuisine.

Two yoga teachers from India will hold daily classes next week at the summit, which has attracted 70 heads of state and government, including U.S. President Donald Trump as well as celebrities, chief executives and top bankers.

Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to attend the WEF in 21 years, since when the economy has more than doubled to $2.3 trillion and become the world’s seventh largest.

“We are showcasing various achievements, we will also give a taste of Indian cuisine, a taste of culture and heritage,” Ramesh Abhishek, heads of the department of industrial policy and promotion, told reporters.

“Two yoga experts are going from here. We have arranged that. We are offering a facility for doing yoga in the Alps.”

Modi will be in Davos only for a day but will meet the heads and top officials of about 60 companies, Abhishek said, adding that these included Airbus, Hitachi, IBM, BAE Systems and the Carlyle Group.