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Obama Honors Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ Victims; Faults U.S. On Human Rights

BARILOCHE, Argentina (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said the United States was too slow to condemn human rights atrocities during Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship as he honored victims of the “Dirty War” on Thursday, but he stopped short of apologizing for Washington’s early support for the military junta.

Obama’s state visit to Argentina coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup that began a seven-year crackdown on Marxist rebels, labor unions and leftist opponents, during which security forces killed 30,000 people.

“There has been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days,” Obama said while visiting a memorial park in Buenos Aires dedicated to victims of the dictatorship.

“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for. And we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights and that was the case here,” he said.

Obama’s trip, winding up later on Thursday, is part of a wider effort to deepen ties and bolster U.S. influence with Latin America after years of frosty relations with left-leaning governments in the region.

With South America’s leftist block now in disarray amid graft scandals and economic recession, Argentina’s new center-right leader, Mauricio Macri, offers Obama a new ally in one of the Americas’ biggest economies.

Obama traveled to Argentina from Cuba, where he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit in 88 years and opened a new chapter in engagement with the Communist-ruled island after decades of hostilities.

That policy shift has boosted Washington’s standing in a region long wary of being treated as the U.S. “backyard”, although U.S. foreign policy under Obama has still been dominated by the Middle East.


Death Flights

At the memorial by La Plata River, Obama and Macri walked along a stark wall that is known as the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism and is inscribed with 20,000 names.

On a pier overlooking the river, they dropped white roses into the water to commemorate the dead. Obama bowed his head and stood with Macri in silence.

Survivors of the crackdown say one of the military rulers’ tactics was so-called “death flights”, where political opponents were tossed into aircraft, stripped and then thrown alive into the river and the Atlantic Ocean to drown.

Washington’s early support for the military rulers reflected Cold War thinking, which sometimes put the United States on the side of brutal right-wing governments in Latin America. In a gesture toward Argentines still angry over that legacy, Obama has promised to declassify U.S. military and intelligence records related to the dictatorship-era.

But the U.S. leader was criticized by some rights activists. One group of victims’ relatives said the timing of his visit was a provocation.

“We will not allow the power that orchestrated dictatorships in Latin America and oppresses people across the world to cleanse itself and use the memory of our 30,000 murdered compatriots to strengthen its imperialist agenda,” the Buenos Aires-based Center for Human Rights Advocates said in a statement.

Some Argentines welcomed Obama’s gestures. “Obama is not going to say outright ‘forgive us’, but he’s saying it through his actions,” said Daniel Slutzky, a 75-year-old college professor.

Obama praised Argentina for taking on its past. “Confronting crimes committed by your own leaders, by your own people – that can be divisive and frustrating, but it is essential to moving forward,” he said.

Speaking after Obama, Macri said: “We have to reaffirm our commitment to the defense of democracy and human rights. Every day, somewhere in the world they are jeopardized.”

Thousands later gathered at the Casa Rosada presidential palace to honor the victims of the junta. The rally and others around the country are held every March 24, a national holiday.

Obama’s visit to Argentina is a show of support for Macri’s sharp turn away from the nationalist policies of his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez, who frequently railed against the United States and Wall Street. Obama praised Macri on Wednesday for his rapid economic reforms.

The U.S. president was due to head back to Washington on Thursday night. Before setting out, he and his family flew to the Patagonian city of Bariloche for some sightseeing and hiking.

Thousands of people lined the route from the airport through the lakeside mountain city, waving as the motorcade sped by. Several hundred people gathered for a protest near the city center, holding signs and making obscene gestures.

One sign depicted the national flag and the phrase “For Sale” crossed out, a rallying cry of Fernandez supporters who believe Macri is selling out the country with his market-friendly policies.

During his trip to Cuba, the U.S. president challenged President Raul Castro on human rights and political freedoms even as the two men sought to move on from more than half a century of animosity that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution.


(Writing by Richard Lough and Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama throws flowers in the River Plate while visiting with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri (R) the Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park) where they honored victims of Argentina’s Dirty War on the 40th anniversary of the 1976 coup that initiated that period of military rule, in Buenos Aires, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Iraq Kurd Fighters Leave Base For Syria Deployment

Arbil (Iraq) — Dozens of Kurdish peshmerga fighters left a base in northern Iraq on Tuesday headed for the battleground Syrian town of Kobane, an AFP journalist reported.

The town on the Turkish border has become a crucial front in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, which overran large parts of Iraq in June and also holds significant territory in Syria.

The AFP journalist saw dozens of military trucks leaving the base northeast of Kurdish regional capital Arbil from which officers said fighters bound for Kobane would depart.

The convoy included two towed artillery pieces and a number of covered trucks, some of them carrying rocket launchers.

Earlier, the fighters loaded machineguns and mortars into the trucks and packed bags for the trip.

“Forty vehicles carrying machineguns and weapons and artillery with 80 of the peshmerga forces will head to Dohuk (province) and then cross the border today,” a Kurdish officer told AFP.

A further 72 will fly to Turkey early on Wednesday, the officer said.

Halgord Hekmat, the spokesman of the Kurdish ministry responsible for the peshmerga, had said the fighters are “support forces” and will be armed with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket launchers.

The deployment will be open-ended, with peshmerga minister Mustafa Qader saying that: “They will remain there until they are no longer needed.”

Last week, under heavy U.S. pressure, Turkey unexpectedly announced it would allow the peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to join the fight for Kobane.

The main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in the town, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has close links with the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Ankara had previously resisted calls to allow in reinforcements.

The deployment, which comes at a time when Kurdish forces are still engaged in heavy fighting against IS militants in Iraq, stretches the bounds of regional autonomy, and had previously drawn flak from some federal lawmakers.

But the Iraqi premier and other senior federal officials have been publicly silent on the issue, indicating their at least tacit acceptance of the deployment.

Lawmaker Samira al-Mussawi, a member of the national parliament’s foreign relations committee, said it is “illegal and unconstitutional”.

And MP Alia Nsayif said in an email that the deployment violates several articles of Iraq’s constitution.

She cited articles naming the prime minister as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and outlining powers reserved for the central government, including formulating foreign and national security policy.

But a Kurdish member of parliament earlier defended the deployment as justified.

“For us, it is a humanitarian matter — there are people besieged by barbaric forces and it is up to all communities and people to defend” them, MP Shirko Mohammed said.

And MP Hakim al-Zamili, a senior leader of one of the country’s largest Shiite militias, said the deployment is “natural” and “in the interest of the Iraqi people, because the Iraqi and Syrian arenas are one.”

AFP Photo/Safin Hamed

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Ten Killed In Ukraine’s Donetsk On Back-To-School Day

Kiev (AFP) — Ukraine’s largest rebel-controlled city of Donetsk was rocked by shelling Wednesday as 10 people were killed, some of them teachers and parents showing up for the first day of school.

Terrified children were forced to shelter in the basement as the attacks yielded the highest daily civilian toll since a tenuous ceasefire was struck between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists last month.

Since then there have been clashes at several flashpoints around the region, with both sides blaming the other for violating the agreement that commits both to withdrawing weapons and establishing a buffer zone.

The United States has decried the violence while the European Union decided Tuesday to keep Russian sanctions in place, maintaining pressure on Moscow in what has become the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso also warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against introducing any new trade barriers against Kiev in a letter to the Russian leader.

The pro-Kiev regional government of Donetsk, which is now based in the government-controlled city of Mariupol, accused pro-Russian separatists of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” of shelling the school.

“The Donetsk People’s Republic used rocket launchers to shoot at a school… the shell exploded five meters away from the building,” the regional administration said in a statement.

Four adults were killed, it said.

Russian media and separatist websites showed footage of rebels launching attacks from positions in apartment buildings near Donetsk airport, which is still controlled by government troops. It lies about four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the school.

A source in Donetsk city hall told AFP that the strike happened right after the school’s 70 pupils lined up for an assembly to mark the first day of class — held nationally on September 1 but pushed back by rebel authorities because of the conflict.

“The children were taken to the basement, they are still there,” the source said.

Six more people died when another shell struck a public minibus in Donetsk, the regional authorities said.

– Border patrols start –

The United States earlier decried the “intensifying violence” in eastern Ukraine and called on Russia and the rebels to hold fire.

“Since the ceasefire was signed… attacks on Ukrainian positions and towns, including around the Donetsk airport… have killed and wounded scores of Ukrainian armed forces and civilians,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“We call on Russia and the separatists it backs to immediately end these attacks.”

She also called on Russia, which Kiev and the West blame for stirring the conflict, to withdraw all forces and equipment from the country.

Some Russian officers have however been working with Kiev since the weekend as part of a monitoring group.

Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that monitors, comprised of representatives from the Russian and Ukrainian militaries as well as the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, have begun to patrol regions most frequently hit by ceasefire violations.

“Today the monitoring mission has begun work,” he said of several groups consisting of six Russian officers, six Ukrainians, and three to four representatives of the OSCE.

“They have begun patrols,” he told journalists.

A delegation of about 70 Russian military officers arrived in the region at the weekend to discuss with both the rebels and the Ukrainians how to implement a lasting ceasefire.

– Election season kicks off –

With the toll climbing to 68 since the truce deal was struck on September 5, Ukraine on Wednesday officially started its election season ahead of snap parliamentary polls on October 26.

Ukraine’s central election commission said that nearly 3,500 candidates have registered for the election, more than a third of them as independents.

The commission has also registered 29 parties, it said in a statement after the registration deadline passed at midnight.

Kiev is keen on also holding the vote in the regions to build legitimacy and regain the trust of Russian-speaking territories.

However the separatists of Lugansk and Donetsk have vowed to boycott the polls and hold a vote of their own on November 2 for the regional leaders and legislative bodies.

AFP Photo/John MacDougall

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Ukraine And Pro-Russian Rebels Agree Ceasefire

By Tatiana Kalinovskaya and Amelie Herenstein

Minsk (AFP) — Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels signed a ceasefire Friday in their five month conflict, which has plunged relations between Russia and the West into their worst crisis since the Cold War.

“A preliminary protocol to the ceasefire agreement has been signed in Minsk. This protocol should enter into force on Friday,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his official Twitter account.

OSCE representatives mediating the talks in the Belarussian capital said the deal would take effect at 1500 GMT. Rebels confirmed this.

The deal hammered out in Minsk, Belarus, followed a lightning rebel counter-offensive in southeastern Ukraine that Western powers say was spearheaded by regular Russian troops, raising fears of a wider confrontation on Europe’s eastern flank.

It was not immediately clear whether the truce would be enough to stave off a threatened new round of Western sanctions against Russia over claims — which Moscow denies — that it is stirring up war in the former Soviet state.

In the tense hours leading up to the deal, fighting raged on the edge of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the latest flashpoint in a conflict that has claimed around 2,600 lives since mid-April and driven more than half a million people from their homes.

There are also numerous questions that remain unanswered over the longterm viability of a peace deal.

The ceasefire could leave the political status of Ukraine’s economically-vital east uncertain and expose Poroshenko to charges from some in Ukraine that he has surrendered to Russian pressure.

Rebel leaders who have been battling Kiev’s rule since April — soon after Russian troops seized control of the Crimea region in Ukraine — also say they remain set on their goal of splitting from Kiev’s rule.

Another stumbling block to resolving the conflict is that Kiev insists on Russian troops withdrawing from Ukrainian territory, while Moscow denies it has any troops in the country.

“The peace plan must include a ceasefire, the withdrawal of the Russian army, bandits and terrorists, and the re-establishment of the border,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a cabinet meeting.

Yatsenyuk also said the deal would have to be supported by the United States and European Union as Kiev could “not manage with Russia on our own.”

– Rapid reaction force –

According to a seven-point ceasefire plan unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week after telephone talks with Poroshenko, both sides must halt “offensive operations,” while government troops must retreat from much of the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The deal came as NATO leaders reaffirmed unanimous backing for Ukraine at a two-day summit which has focused largely on Russia’s new expansionist threat.

They agreed to set up a rapid reaction force as part of efforts to reassure allies rattled by the Ukrainian crisis and rising Islamic extremism.

EU and U.S. officials had earlier said that further sanctions would be announced in response to a major escalation of Moscow’s military support for the rebels.

But British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that the West could “look at lifting sanctions off” if the truce is sustained.

Poroshenko had vowed after his May election to crush the rebellion. That plan appeared to be on the brink of success until late last month when rebels — or what NATO reports were at least 1,000 Russian soldiers with tanks — began to deal a series of bloody defeats to Ukrainian forces.

The Kremlin accuses the Western military alliance of concocting the evidence of Russian troop movements in order to expand its own presence along Russia’s western frontier.

On the ground, “the situation is quite tense,” said a fighter with the pro-Kiev volunteer Azov Battalion who identified himself only as “Zhivchick.” He said there had been attacks by rebels on several checkpoints early Friday.

– ‘Safe zone’ –

AFP correspondents also reported overnight shelling that killed five civilians in the main rebel bastion of Donetsk, a city that government forces had all but encircled until being beaten back by separatists last week

The deal could leave the rebels — fighting what they claim is anti-Russian discrimination by Poroshenko and his more nationalist government — in effective control of an economically important region that accounts for one-sixth of Ukraine’s population and a whopping quarter percent of its exports.

The Kremlin account of the ceasefire plan said it requires both sides to halt offensive actions and for “Ukrainian armed forces units to withdraw to a distance that would make it impossible to fire on populated areas.”

The blueprint also establishes a “safe zone” that one rebel negotiator said should enable the militias to hold on to territories stretching to the very edges of the two separatist districts.

It also calls for a prisoner swap and for observers from the OSCE European security group to monitor the porous border.

This story has been updated.

AFP Photo/Francisco Leong

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