WASHINGTON,. European and US lawmakers united yesterday in condemnation of Turkey’s invasion of Syria and President Donald Trump’s troop withdrawal from the country, warning it would trigger a “resurgence of Islamic terrorism.”

The chairs of foreign affairs committees in the British, French, German, and European parliaments and the US House of Representatives assailed the Turkish operation as a “military aggression” and violation of international law.

“We… jointly condemn in the strongest terms the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria,” said the lawmakers who include Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British House of Commons, and Eliot Engel who heads the US House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Norbert Rottgen of the German Bundestag, Marielle de Sarnez of the French National Assembly, and the European Parliament’s David McAllister also signed on.

Representing voices across the political spectrum, they said they “unite across parties and nationalities to demonstrate our commitment to our common values.”

The lawmakers directly criticised Trump for his sudden withdrawal of US forces, saying they “deeply regret” the desertion of Kurdish forces who were partners in the fight against Islamic State extremists.

“We consider the abandonment of the Syrian Kurds to be wrong,” the lawmakers said, adding that such global coalition partners “massively contributed to the successful yet unfinished fight against (IS) in Syria and incurred heavy losses by doing so.”

The withdrawal “marks another landmark in the change of American foreign policy in the Near and Middle East,” they said, warning that the turmoil caused by Turkey’s offensive “may contribute to a resurgence of Islamic terrorism” and undermines peacekeeping efforts.

The lawmakers also called on the European Union to launch a conflict resolution effort.

The statement came as a US-brokered ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces appeared to crumble, with Turkish air strikes and mortar fire by its Syrian proxies killing 14 civilians, according to a war monitor. — AFP

LONDON,. The battle over Brexit spills onto the streets of London today when many thousands of people are expected to march through London to demand a new referendum just as parliament decides the fate of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

After more than three years of tortuous debate, it is still uncertain how, when or even if Brexit will happen as Prime Minister Boris Johnson tries to pass his new Brexit deal and plots a way out of the deepest political crisis in a generation.

The protesters, from around the United Kingdom, will gather at Park Lane near Hyde Park at midday and walk down to parliament as lawmakers prepare to vote in the first Saturday session since the 1982 Falklands war.

James McGrory, director of the People’s Vote campaign, which organised the march, said the government should heed the anger of pro-Europeans and hold another referendum on Brexit.

“This new deal bears no resemblance to what people were promised and so it is only right that the public deserve another chance to have their say,” he said.

“There can be no better demonstration of the changing will of the people than hundreds of thousands of people on the streets demanding they are listened to as politicians inside parliament take a decision that will affect us for generations.”

While Brexit has divided families, parties, parliament and the country, both sides agree that today could be one of the most important days in recent British history: a juncture that could shape the fate of the United Kingdom for generations.

Campaigners are confident that the number of people on the streets will rival a similar demonstration held in March, when organisers said 1 million people took to the streets.

A rally this size would be among the largest ever in Britain.

More than 170 coaches from around Britain are due to arrive in London to take people to the march. Nine coaches left Scotland yesterday evening and four left from Cornwall on England’s western tip in the early hours of Saturday.

Brexit reversed?

While such an explicit show of discontent is unlikely to change the course of Brexit, the protest frames the drama in parliament and shows there is still significant support for another EU referendum.

In 2016, 17.4 million voters, or 52 per cent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 per cent, backed staying in the bloc.

Some opinion polls have shown a slight shift in favour of remaining in the European Union, but there has yet to be a decisive change in attitudes and many voters say they have become increasingly bored by Brexit.

Since July 2017 there have been 226 polls asking people whether they support Leave or Remain, according to a poll of polls by YouGov published last week. Of those, 204 have put support for remaining in the EU ahead, seven have given a lead to leave and a few have been tied.

However, other evidence suggests most voters have not changed their mind: 50 per cent of the public want to respect the referendum result, 42 per cent want Britain to remain in the EU and 8 per centsaid they don’t know, the largest Brexit poll since 2016 carried out by Comres found.

Supporters of Brexit have repeatedly ruled out holding another referendum, saying it would deepen divisions and undermine support for democracy.

A group of lawmakers in the main opposition Labour Party have put forward an amendment calling for approval of any deal to be put to a second referendum, although this will only be debated if Johnson’s agreement is voted down.

The challenge for pro-referendum forces is finding enough support in parliament. In April, when the government held a series of votes on the various Brexit options, a second referendum was the most popular one, but fell short of a majority losing 292 to 280.

Even if another referendum were agreed, it would take months to organise, there would be disputes about the question — and the result would be impossible to predict. — Reuters

BARCELONA,. Violent clashes escalated in Barcelona late yesterday, as radical Catalan separatists hurled rocks and fireworks at police, who responded with teargas and rubber bullets, turning the city centre into a chaotic battleground.

The deterioration came on the fifth consecutive day of protests in the Catalan capital and elsewhere over a Spanish court’s jailing of nine separatist leaders on sedition charges over a failed independence bid two years ago.

Around half a million people rallied in Barcelona earlier yesterday in the biggest gathering since Monday’s court ruling as separatists also called a general strike in the major tourist destination.

But while most marchers appeared peaceful, hordes of young protesters went on the rampage near the police headquarters, igniting a huge blaze which sent plumes of black smoke into the air, as police fired teargas to disperse them, an AFP correspondent said.

Other fires raged near Plaza de Catalunya at the top of the tourist hotspot Las Ramblas, where hundreds of demonstrators rallied in defiance of the police, who tried to disperse them with water cannon.

“Anti-fascist Catalonia!” they roared. “The streets will always be ours!”

Scores of police vans could be seen fanning out around the streets, their sirens screaming as the regional police warned people in a message in English on Twitter “not to approach” the city centre.

Earlier, many thousands of “freedom marchers”, who had set out to walk from five regional towns on Wednesday, arrived in Barcelona wearing walking boots and carrying hiking poles.

The rally coincided with the general strike, prompting the cancellation of 57 flights, the closure of shops, business and several top tourist attractions, and slowing public transport to a trickle in a region that accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s economic output.

Activists also cut off Catalonia’s main cross-border highway with France.

‘Reaction to injustice’

In downtown Barcelona, many shops and luxury outlets were closed on the city’s Paseo de Gracia, with blackened, charred patches a testimony to the nightly clashes that have raged since Monday.

“With these demonstrations bringing this large city to a halt, we are using Barcelona like a microphone,” said 23-year-old engineering student Ramon Pararada.

“It’s all in reaction to the injustice,” he said.

Retired lawyer Jaume Enrich agreed, saying the court sentence was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Madrid is putting Spanish unity above everything, including basic rights,” he told AFP, wearing a badge saying “No surrender”.

Nearby a banner fluttered reading “There are not enough cages for this many birds.”

Clashes and closures

The huge turnout came after yet another night of violent clashes, which Catalan regional interior minister Miquel Buch said involved “fewer incidents, but more violent”.

And Barcelona city council said the first three days of clashes had cost an estimated €1.57 million (URM7.33 million) in damage, with more than 700 large wheelie bins torched and mob violence also damaging traffic lights, street signs, trees and the city’s bike-share service.

In Barcelona, Spain’s top tourist destination, the Sagrada Familia basilica closed as protesters massed outside, and the famous Liceu opera house cancelled yesterday night’s performance.

Barcelona’s huge wholesale market, which exports around a third of the region’s fresh produce, was barely trading yesterday, and at the city’s famed La Boqueria market, most of the stalls were closed.

At one stall, Barcelona-born Susana Medialdea, 53, was selling olives and pickles entirely dressed in yellow.

“I came in voluntarily to work but only as long as I could wear yellow to express my total disagreement with the sentence,” she told AFP, saying she felt “very angry” about it.

But another veteran stallholder took the opposite view.

“I am a real Catalan but I don’t support this independence project at all, people are letting themselves be used, above all the youth,” said 75-year-old Carmen Isern, accusing the secessionists of dishonesty.

“We’ve had seven years of lies. They only tell the teenagers bad things about Spain.”

Spain’s Clasico postponed

With the region mired in chaos, football authorities cancelled the Barcelona and Real Madrid Clasico set for October 26 at the Camp Nou stadium. Both clubs had reportedly refused an offer to hold the match in Madrid.

And Manchester City’s Catalan manager Pep Guardiola, an outspoken campaigner for the independence movement, urged European intervention to ease the crisis.

“The international community must help us to solve the conflict between Catalonia and Spain,” he said. “Some mediator from outside (must) help us sit (down) and talk.”

The Supreme Court’s explosive decision has thrust the Catalan dispute to the heart of the political debate as Spain heads towards a fourth election in as many years, which will be held on November 10. — AFP

NEW YORK,. The United Nations has received enough partial payments from some countries to be able to pay its staff next month, a UN spokesman said yesterday after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week of a cash shortfall.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq did not say which countries had paid or how much money the world body had received.

“We are getting some money in and at this stage our expectation is that we will be able now to meet our payroll for the month of November and we’ll see where we go from there,” Haq told reporters.

The United Nations said last week that total arrears are US$1.385 billion (RM5.79 billion), of which US$860 million is for the US$2.85 billion regular budget for 2019, which pays for work including political, humanitarian, disarmament, economic and social affairs and communications.

UN officials said seven countries make up 97 per cent of US$1.385 billion owed — the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Iran, Israel and Venezuela — while 58 states make up the rest.

The United States is the largest UN contributor — responsible for 22 per cent of the regular budget. Washington owes some US$381 million for prior regular budgets and US$674 million for the 2019 regular budget.

An official from the US mission said the United States has said Washington “will be providing the vast majority of what we owe to the regular budget this fall, as we have in past years.”

US President Donald Trump has said the United States is shouldering an unfair burden of the cost of the United Nations and has pushed for reforms of the world body. Guterres has been working to improve UN operations and cut costs.

Guterres said he introduced extraordinary measures last month to cope with the cash shortfall — vacant posts cannot be filled, only essential travel is allowed, and some meetings may have to be cancelled or deferred. — Reuters

BRUSSELS,. European Union leaders unanimously backed a new Brexit deal with Britain yesterday, leaving Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing a battle to secure the UK parliament’s backing for the agreement if he is to take Britain out of Europe on October 31.

Speaking after the EU’s 27 other leaders had endorsed the deal without Johnson in the room, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared himself pleased that an agreement had been reached but unhappy to see Britain go.

“All in all, I am happy, relieved that we reached a deal,” he said. “But I am sad because Brexit is happening.”

Those sentiments were echoed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, who has been a vocal opponent of Brexit.

“On a more personal note, what I feel today is sadness,” Tusk told reporters. “Because in my heart, I will always be a remainer. And I hope that if our British friends decide to return one day, our door will always be open.”

British and EU negotiators reached the agreement after successive days of late-night talks and nearly three years of heated discussions that have strained EU-UK ties at a time the bloc is facing a wave of euroscepticism, struggling to restart economic growth and take a stand against resurgent global powers China and Russia.

Johnson said he was confident that parliament, which will sit for an extraordinary session on Saturday to vote on the Brexit agreement, would approve the deal.

“When my colleagues in parliament study this agreement they will want to vote for it on Saturday and then in succeeding days,” he told reporters.

But the arithmetic in the vote is not simple.

The Northern Irish party that Johnson needs to help ratify any agreement, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has refused to support it, saying it is not in Northern Ireland’s interests.

The head of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said he was “unhappy” with the agreement and would vote against it. Labour has said it wants any deal to be subject to a public vote, but as yet has not indicated whether it will back any move for a second referendum on Saturday.

Johnson does not have a majority in the 650-seat parliament, and in practice needs at least 318 votes to get a deal ratified. The DUP have 10 votes. Parliament defeated a previous deal struck by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, three times.

Deutsche Bank estimated there was a 55 per cent chance parliament would reject Johnson’s deal, and other analysts thought similar.

Johnson appears intent on presenting parliament with a stark choice — the deal he has struck or no deal — in the hope of securing just enough votes, including perhaps from the opposition benches, to secure a knife-edge approval.

“The PM’s position is that it’s new deal or no deal but no delay,” said a senior British government official.

If the deal is approved, economists said Britain was likely headed for a “fairly hard” Brexit, certainly a harder one than would have been the case under May’s deal.

(Dis)unity

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said one positive with the Johnson deal was that it was clear Britain would become what the EU calls a “third country”, making it essential for the EU to work rapidly on reaching a free trade agreement with it.

“There is an essential difference compared with when Theresa May was prime minister,” said Merkel. “Then it was not clear how the future relations would look, whether membership of the customs union or not. Now it is quite clear.”

Johnson spoke to the other EU leaders for about 30 minutes during his first — and possibly last — summit in Brussels.

In a sign of the times for the bloc, which has never yet lost a member, he is expected to skip the second day of discussions on the EU’s future buzget and tackling climate change.

As Britain took a step closer to leaving the EU after more than four decades, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made a case for the union.

“As the leader of a small nation, I have felt enormous solidarity from our European partners,” he said, bidding farewell to Britain, “an old friend.”

“The unity that we have seen in the last few years is a lesson to us for the future… something we take forward for future negotiations. Not just with the UK, but the US and China and Turkey and others.”

‘Backstop’ gone

Negotiators worked frantically this week to agree a compromise on the question of the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, the most difficult part of Brexit.

The conundrum was how to prevent the frontier becoming a backdoor into the EU’s single market without erecting checkpoints that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict in the province.

The agreement reached will keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs area but EU tariffs will apply on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland if they are headed to Ireland and into the bloc’s single market.

The agreement scraps the “backstop”, a mechanism envisaged earlier that was designed to prevent a hard border being introduced on the island of Ireland, and would have bound at least parts of Britain to some EU rules.

However, the DUP, which supports Johnson’s government, said the new text was not acceptable — a step that could spur hardline Brexiteers in his Conservative party to vote it down.

“These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic wellbeing of Northern Ireland,” the party said.

The uncertainty over parliament’s approval means that, two weeks before Britain is due to leave the world’s largest trading bloc, the possible outcomes still range from an orderly departure to a chaotic exit or even another referendum that could reverse the entire endeavour. — Reuters

LONDON,. Oxford University said Wednesday it has launched an investigation into claims that one of its professors sold ancient Bible fragments to the controversial US company of a billionaire evangelical Christian.

The renowned British university confirmed it was seeking to establish if Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature, unilaterally sold about a dozen fragments to the US retailer Hobby Lobby.

The arts and crafts chain was founded by Steve Green, who is also chairman of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, and has courted controversy for supporting conservative causes.

The artefacts were part of the Oxyrhynchus collection owned by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which initiated its own probe earlier this year after it emerged its items may be held by the museum.

“We can confirm we are engaging with the Egypt Exploration Society with regard to the allegations concerning papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection,” an Oxford University spokesperson said.

“The University is conducting its own internal investigation to seek to establish the facts.”

Obbink did not respond to a request for comment from AFP.

In a statement, the EES said it had been working with the museum to clarify whether any texts from its collection had been sold or offered for sale to Hobby Lobby or its agents.

That followed the emergence of a copy of a redacted 2017 contract purportedly between Obbink and the retailer for the sale of six items, “including four New Testament fragments probably of EES provenance”.

The EES statement added the museum had subsequently provided photos identifying 13 texts from its collection which had been “taken without authorisation” and were now being returned.

“The (museum) has informed the EES that 11 of these pieces came into its care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor Obbink, most of them in two batches in 2010,” EES said.

Fake scroll fragments

The society noted it had not re-appointed Obbink in August 2016 as a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project partly due to concerns “about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts”.

It added he was then banned from any access to its collection “pending his satisfactory clarification of the 2013 contract” which he had yet to provide.

“We cannot comment here on any broader legal issues arising from these findings, except to note that they are under consideration by all the institutions concerned,” EES said.

It is not the first time both Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible have been caught up in an artifacts controversy.

The company was forced to pay a US$3 million (RM12.5 million) settlement in 2017 and give up 5,500 artefacts — including ancient clay cuneiform tablets from Iraq — that the US Justice Department said were illegally imported.

Meanwhile the museum last year announced that five items it had said were fragments of the ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were in fact fake, and would no longer be displayed. — AFP

NEW YORK,. Venezuela was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday with 105 votes and a round of applause, despite fierce lobbying against it by the United States and rights groups, and the late entry of Costa Rica as competition.

In a secret ballot by the 193-member UN General Assembly, Costa Rica garnered 96 votes despite only entering the race this month, when President Carlos Alvarado Quesada declared “the Venezuelan regime is not the suitable candidate”.

Along with Brazil, the three countries were competing for two seats on the 47-member Human Rights Council starting January 1. Brazil was re-elected for a second three-year term with 153 votes. Members can only serve two consecutive terms.

“Venezuela’s undeserved and narrow election to the UN Human Rights Council is a slap in the face to the country’s countless victims who have been tortured and murdered by government forces,” said Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch deputy director for global advocacy.

The United States has for months been trying to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse and is accused of corruption, human rights violations and rigging a 2018 presidential election.

“We will have to measure the impact of this victory in the coming days, but we think it is historic given that we were up against a ferocious campaign,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Venezuelan state television after the UN vote.

Washington backs Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked Venezuela’s constitution in January to assume an interim presidency. More than 50 countries have recognised Guaido as the rightful leader of OPEC-member Venezuela.

Maduro calls Guaido a US puppet seeking to oust him in a coup. In August, the United States froze assets of the Venezuelan government and banned any transactions with them.

US Vice President Mike Pence called on the United Nations in April to revoke the UN credentials of Maduro’s government, but Washington has taken no further action to push the measure and diplomats said it is unlikely to get the support needed in the General Assembly.

The United States withdrew from the Geneva-based council in 2018 — half-way through a three-year term — over what it called chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform.

The Human Rights Council, created by the General Assembly in 2006, is responsible for strengthening promotion and protection of human rights. It can mandate independent inquiries into specific situations.

The council agreed last month to set up an international fact-finding mission to document violations in Venezuela, including torture and thousands of summary executions.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a July report that Venezuelan security forces were sending death squads to kill young men, staging scenes to make it look like the victims resisted arrest.

The Maduro government has called the UN report a “selective and openly partial vision” of the situation.

The UN General Assembly elected a total 14 Human Rights Council members yesterday from five regional blocs. Germany, the Netherlands, Libya, Mauritania, Namibia and Sudan were elected uncontested but still needed to win a majority vote.

Armenia, Poland, Indonesia, Marshall Islands, South Korea and Japan beat competition in their regional blocs to win seats — Japan for a second term. Iraq and Moldova were unsuccessful. — Reuters