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EPP final campaign event ahead of the EU election, in Munich
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during Manfred Weber’s, candidate of the European People’s Party (EPP) for the next European Commission President, final campaign event ahead of the EU election in Munich, Germany, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

May 26, 2019

By Madeline Chambers

BERLIN (Reuters) – Voters in the northern state of Bremen look set to inflict a humiliating blow on Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) in an election on Sunday that could hasten the end of their loveless federal coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

Polls in Germany’s smallest state, focused on the port city of the same name, are tight but indicate the SPD risks losing a stronghold it has ruled for 73 years. No other German state has been ruled by the same party for so long.

Elections to the European Parliament on the same day as Bremen’s parliamentary vote could pile further pressure on Merkel’s “grand coalition”, with both conservatives and SPD likely to suffer heavy losses.

First projections for both are due at 1800 CET (1600 GMT).

If the SPD loses Bremen to the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), pressure will mount on party leader Andrea Nahles to stand down or break with the federal coalition.

In a sign of growing unrest inside the SPD, German weekly Bild am Sonntag reported that former party leader Martin Schulz wants to replace Nahles as chief.

An SPD spokeswoman said that Nahles and Schulz were in regular discussions, declining to comment on the content of confidential talks.

Bremen has the highest jobless level of any German state. Most recent polls suggest there is scope for three outcomes in Bremen: a grand coalition of the SPD and CDU; a coalition of the CDU, Greens and the business-friendly FDP; or a coalition of SPD with the far-left Die Linke party and the Greens.

REVIEWING COALITION

Many among the SPD’s rank and file are fed up with serving as Merkel’s allies, a thankless role the party has fulfilled in 10 of the last 14 years and which has left the chancellor to steal the limelight, especially on the international stage.

The party reluctantly re-entered a Merkel-led coalition last year after slumping to its weakest level since 1933 in the 2017 federal election. It has since sunk even lower, polling at about 17 percent, more than 10 points behind the conservatives.

The party is due to review the coalition by the end of the year and pressure from members could grow to ditch it and instead reinvigorate its leftist roots in opposition.

Such a move could force a snap federal election, an unappealing option for both the SPD and conservative bloc, or possibly the formation of a different coalition which would be a tricky task.

Either of those scenarios could hasten Merkel’s exit, a subject of increasing speculation since she handed the CDU leadership to her protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer last year.

In Bremen, a new face for the CDU, IT businessman Carsten Meyer-Heder, senses a “mood for change”. Polls put him one point ahead of experienced SPD mayor Carsten Sieling, who is hoping voters will opt for a “safe pair of hands”.

(Additional reporting by Markus Wacket, Andreas Rinke and Christoph Steitz; Editing by David Holmes/Keith Weir)

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NATO helicopters land at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan
NATO helicopters land at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

May 26, 2019

By Rupam Jain and Sabine Siebold

KABUL/BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany, a leading donor and member of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, has been talking with the Taliban and the Afghan government in an effort to restart peace talks to end 18 years of conflict, officials said.

While the Taliban have been talking with U.S. officials since October about a withdrawal of international troops, they have so far refused formal talks with the Western-backed government, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime.

Berlin’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Markus Potzel, has visited Kabul for talks with the Afghan government and met Taliban officials in Doha at least twice this month.

“The current chance for a process towards a more peaceful Afghanistan should not be missed. If the friends of Afghanistan – and Germany is one of them – together can help in this effort, then we should do it,” Potzel said.

“In the end only the Afghans themselves, including the Taliban, can decide upon the future of their country.”

The chief U.S. negotiator in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, in March said that a draft agreement had been reached on a withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for a commitment by the Taliban to cut ties with militant groups such as Al Qaeda.

But there has been no agreement yet on a ceasefire or a start to talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, both seen as key conditions for a settlement.

An Afghan delegation had been due to meet Taliban officials in the Qatari capital Doha last month to build the basis for possible negotiations, but the meeting was canceled at the last minute after a dispute over the number of participants.

“We realize that U.S.-Taliban talks will gain momentum only if the insurgent leaders start engaging with the Afghan representatives,” a senior German official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sohail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said that Germany was one among several countries to have offered help to seek a peaceful resolutions. The European Union and Indonesia are among those to have offered help, another Taliban official said, declining to be named.

Discussions were held with Germany about an Afghan-Taliban meeting in Germany but no decision has been made, Shaheen told Reuters.

The moves come at a time when the Taliban controls or exercises influence over more than half of Afghanistan.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to a United Nations report, plus thousands of soldiers, police and Taliban militants.

The involvement of Germany, the second-largest donor and an influential member of the 39-member NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, follows concern among several U.S. allies at being excluded from the talks.

Germany, which last year spent 23 billion euros ($25.76 billion) in integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, also has pressing domestic reasons for promoting peace. Next year, parliament will have to approve the continued presence of 1,200 German troops in Afghanistan.

“Lawmakers will ask why they should extend the mandate again if there is no progress there whatsoever,” said Conrad Schetter, an Afghanistan at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, an independent think-tank.

($1 = 0.8927 euros)

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by David Goodman)

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Philip Hammond MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer appears on BBC TV's The Andrew Marr Show in London
Philip Hammond MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer appears on BBC TV’s The Andrew Marr Show in London, Britain, May 26, 2019. Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. NOT FOR USE MORE THAN 21 DAYS AFTER ISSUE.

May 26, 2019

LONDON (Reuters) – British finance minister Philip Hammond said on Sunday it would be very difficult for Prime Minister Theresa May’s successor to bypass the will of parliament and seek to take Britain out of the European Union without a deal.

Several of the candidates vying to take over from May have said Britain must leave on Oct. 31, without or without a deal. Parliament has repeatedly voted against a no-deal Brexit and Hammond said he did not believe Britain was likely to be heading towards leaving without an agreement.

Hammond said parliament would be “vehemently opposed” to a strategy of leaving without a deal.

“It would be very difficult for a prime minister who adopted no deal as a policy … to retain the confidence of the House of Commons,” Hammond told BBC TV, adding that he could not personally support a no-deal strategy.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and David Milliken; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Dominic Raab attends
Dominic Raab, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union attends “A Better Deal” event in London, Britain, January 15, 2018. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

May 26, 2019

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain must be ready to leave the European Union without an exit deal on Oct. 31, former Brexit minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday, as he set out his pitch to succeed Theresa May as prime minister.

“If you’re not willing to walk away from a negotiation, it doesn’t focus the mind of the other side,” Raab told the BBC. “If you do that you can be really credible in Brussels.”

Raab said he would prefer Britain left with a deal but that he did not want to delay the planned Oct. 31 departure date. He also said he believed Britain would only be legally obliged to pay about 14 billion pounds ($18 billion) of the current 39 billion pound exit bill if there was a no-deal Brexit.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, writing by David Milliken)

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Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi
FILE PHOTO: Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

May 26, 2019

PARIS (Reuters) – Libyan eastern commander Khalifa Haftar has ruled out a ceasefire in the battle for Tripoli and accused the United Nations of seeking to partition Libya, according to an interview published by French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) began an offensive in early April to take Tripoli from fighters loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) which has the backing of the United Nations.

The LNA, which is allied to a parallel government in the east, has not been able to breach the southern defenses of Tripoli. The fighting has killed at least 510 people, forced 75,000 out of their homes and trapped thousands of migrants in detention centers.

“Of course, the political solution is still the goal. But to get back to politics, we must first finish with militias,” Haftar told the newspaper.

Haftar also said the head of U.N. mission to Libya, Ghassan Salame, was no longer impartial.

“Partition of Libya is maybe what our adversaries want. This is maybe what Ghassan Salame also wants.”

The flare-up in the conflict in Libya – which has been gripped by anarchy since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 – began in early April, when the LNA advanced on the capital.

Even though France and other Western countries officially back the Libyan government, some have supported Haftar as they see him as a bulwark against Islamist militias in the country.

Macron had asked Haftar in a meeting held in Paris this week to make a public step toward a ceasefire, without much luck, a French official told Reuters.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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People attend a prayer meet to pay tribute to the victims of a fire that broke out in a commercial building in the western city of Surat on Friday, inside a library in Ahmedabad
FILE PHOTO: People attend a prayer meet to pay tribute to the victims of a fire that broke out in a commercial building in the western city of Surat on Friday, inside a library in Ahmedabad, India, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

May 26, 2019

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Indian authorities said on Sunday two fire department officials had been suspended over a fire at a coaching center that killed 21 students and one teacher in the western Gujarat state, renewing questions about building safety standards.

Surat Commissioner of Police Satish Sharma said the owners of the Takshashila Arcade building, where the shoddy coaching center was built on the four-storey building’s terrace, were absconding.

The coaching center was made of combustible material like Styrofoam and tires were used as seats for students prepping for architecture or commerce exams, according to Sharma.

The manager of the coaching center, Bhargav Bhutani, has been arrested.

“We are examining … whether any proper permission was taken for construction. And, if permissions were not given, who was responsible for this,” Sharma told Reuters, adding preliminary investigations suggest a short-circuit caused the blaze.

Amid criticism from victims’ relatives that fire officials took up to 45 minutes to arrive on the scene on Friday, deputy chief fire officer S.K. Acharya and fire officer Kirti Mod were suspended, chief fire officer for Surat, B.K. Pareek told Reuters.

Pareek, who said he was not aware of the precise reason behind their suspensions, added that a fire brigade was on site within minutes though it took roughly 15 minutes for a hydraulic platform to arrive because there are only three of them in Surat.

An official at the Surat Municipal Corporation said no one was available for comment on the suspensions of the fire officials.

Television footage showed students desperately trying to escape by jumping off the building as smoke billowed from the top floor.

Footage also showed a man, identified by the Indian Express as 22 year-old Ketan Chodvadiya, perched on the facade of the burning building helping children jump down.

“When I reached there, I saw smoke and fire. Around 300 people had gathered there but the fire brigade was yet to arrive,” Chodvadiya told the Indian Express.

Chodvadiya, who said he was used to scaling buildings to escape his father’s 10:30 pm curfew, used a ladder to pull down students, estimating he had helped save up to 10 of them.

“One student fell down. I couldn’t catch her,” he said

“I could see her lying dead and I can’t forget the sight. I will always regret that I couldn’t save her.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Mumbai)

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Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim in Baghdad
Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim in Baghdad, Iraq May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

May 26, 2019

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian will defend itself against any military or economic aggression, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday, calling on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear agreement his country signed.

Speaking in a news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed al-Hakim, Zarif said his country wanted to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbours and that it had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.

“We will defend against any war efforts against Iran, whether it be an economic war or a military one, and we will face these efforts with strength,” he said.

Strains have increased between Iran and the United States, which is a firm backer of Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, after this month’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf region that Washington has blamed on Iran.

Tehran has distanced itself from the bombings, but the United States has sent an aircraft carrier and an extra 1,500 troops to the Gulf, sparking concerns about the risks of conflict in a volatile region.

Iraq stands with Iran and is willing to act as an intermediary between its neighbour and the United States, Hakim said, adding that Baghdad does not believe an “economic blockade” is fruitful, a reference to U.S. sanctions.

“We are saying very clearly and honestly that we oppose the unilateral actions taken by the United States. We stand with the Islamic Republic of Iran in its position,” said Hakim. The United States and Iran are Iraq’s two main allies.

NUCLEAR REFERENDUM?

Washington has been seeking to tighten sanctions against Iran, as relations worsen under President Donald Trump, who last year pulled out of a nuclear agreement his predecessor Barack Obama had signed with Iran alongside other world powers in 2015.

In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani floated the idea of holding a referendum over Iran’s nuclear programme, Iranian media reported.

A referendum over the controversial nuclear programme could give Iran’s leaders space to manoeuvre and a chance to resolve the standoff with the United States.

Top Iranian leaders have said they are not seeking war with the United States and officials speaking to Reuters from Tehran said last week that despite the sharpened rhetoric with Washington, authorities are trying to avoid an open conflict.

“Article 59 of the Constitution (referendum ) is a deadlock breaker … and could be a problem-solver at any junction,” the semi-official news agency ILNA quoted Rouhani as saying late on Saturday.

Rouhani said that, when he was a top nuclear negotiator in 2004, he had proposed holding a referendum on the nuclear issue to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran has only held three referendums since its 1979 Islamic revolution — to approve the setting up of an Islamic Republic and then to approve and amend the constitution.

Washington says it has built up the U.S. military presence in the region, accusing Tehran of threats to U.S. troops and interests. Tehran has described U.S. moves as “psychological warfare” and a “political game”.

Separately, a deputy commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the U.S. military presence in the Middle East was at its “weakest in history” despite the talk of a build-up.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Dubai newsroom ; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Keith Weir)

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Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim in Baghdad
Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim in Baghdad, Iraq May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

May 26, 2019

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian will defend itself against any military or economic aggression, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday, calling on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear agreement his country signed.

Speaking in a news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed al-Hakim, Zarif said his country wanted to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbours and that it had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.

“We will defend against any war efforts against Iran, whether it be an economic war or a military one, and we will face these efforts with strength,” he said.

Strains have increased between Iran and the United States, which is a firm backer of Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, after this month’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf region that Washington has blamed on Iran.

Tehran has distanced itself from the bombings, but the United States has sent an aircraft carrier and an extra 1,500 troops to the Gulf, sparking concerns about the risks of conflict in a volatile region.

Iraq stands with Iran and is willing to act as an intermediary between its neighbour and the United States, Hakim said, adding that Baghdad does not believe an “economic blockade” is fruitful, a reference to U.S. sanctions.

“We are saying very clearly and honestly that we oppose the unilateral actions taken by the United States. We stand with the Islamic Republic of Iran in its position,” said Hakim. The United States and Iran are Iraq’s two main allies.

NUCLEAR REFERENDUM?

Washington has been seeking to tighten sanctions against Iran, as relations worsen under President Donald Trump, who last year pulled out of a nuclear agreement his predecessor Barack Obama had signed with Iran alongside other world powers in 2015.

In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani floated the idea of holding a referendum over Iran’s nuclear programme, Iranian media reported.

A referendum over the controversial nuclear programme could give Iran’s leaders space to manoeuvre and a chance to resolve the standoff with the United States.

Top Iranian leaders have said they are not seeking war with the United States and officials speaking to Reuters from Tehran said last week that despite the sharpened rhetoric with Washington, authorities are trying to avoid an open conflict.

“Article 59 of the Constitution (referendum ) is a deadlock breaker … and could be a problem-solver at any junction,” the semi-official news agency ILNA quoted Rouhani as saying late on Saturday.

Rouhani said that, when he was a top nuclear negotiator in 2004, he had proposed holding a referendum on the nuclear issue to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran has only held three referendums since its 1979 Islamic revolution — to approve the setting up of an Islamic Republic and then to approve and amend the constitution.

Washington says it has built up the U.S. military presence in the region, accusing Tehran of threats to U.S. troops and interests. Tehran has described U.S. moves as “psychological warfare” and a “political game”.

Separately, a deputy commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the U.S. military presence in the Middle East was at its “weakest in history” despite the talk of a build-up.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Dubai newsroom ; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Keith Weir)

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Britain's Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell arrives at Cabinet Office in London
FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell of the Labour Party, arrives for cross party Brexit talks at Cabinet Office in London, Britain May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

May 26, 2019

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s opposition Labour Party will seek to prevent Prime Minister Theresa May’s successor taking the country out of the European Union without a deal, its finance spokesman John McDonnell said on Sunday.

May said on Friday she would step down next month, and several of those vying to replace her have said Britain must leave the EU on its Oct. 31 deadline even if that means quitting without a deal.

“There is real threat now of an extremist Brexiteer becoming the leader of the Conservative Party and taking us over the cliff edge of a no deal,” McDonnell told Sky News, saying Labour was seeking to work with other opposition parties.

“We have got to move forward now, bring people together and block a no deal and if that means going back to the people (for a second referendum), so be it.”

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Keith Weir)

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Britain's Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove is seen outside the Cabinet Office in London
FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove is seen outside the Cabinet Office in London, Britain May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

May 26, 2019

LONDON (Reuters) – Environment minister and prominent pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove said on Sunday he would be running to replace Theresa May as British prime minister, Sky News reported.

“I can confirm that I will be putting my name forward to be prime minister of this country,” Sky News quoted Gove as telling reporters outside his house.

“I believe that I’m ready to unite the Conservative and Unionist Party, ready to deliver Brexit, and ready to lead this great country.”

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Keith Weir)

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