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Monthly Archives: May 2016

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NATO urged to ward off ‘serious’ Russian challenge

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AFP)    —-    NATO’s parliamentary assembly on Monday called on members of the Western military alliance to be ready to respond to the “potential threat” of Russian aggression against them.

The assembly issued a unanimous declaration of proposals after a three-day meeting in Tirana, ahead of a landmark NATO summit in Warsaw in July.

“The challenge from Russia is real and serious,” said Michael Turner, the US president of the assembly, which gathered around 250 lawmakers from the 28 member states.

The declaration expressed regret over “Russia’s use of force against its neighbours and attempted intimidation of (NATO) Allies”.

It said this had “left NATO no choice but to consider the prospect of aggressive Russian action against an Alliance member as a potential threat, and to adopt measured, proportionate responses”.

NATO cut all practical cooperation with Moscow following Russia’s Ukraine intervention and annexation of Crimea, but the US-led alliance has said it will hold formal talks with Moscow before the July 8-9 summit.

The declaration urged NATO allies to “provide reassurance” to members who feel their security is under threat, especially on NATO’s eastern and southern flanks.

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© Provided by AFP NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Michael Turner, pictured on May 17, 2015, said the challenge of Russian aggression is “real and serious”

In April, the NATO Russia Council (NRC) held its first meeting since June 2014 but the talks ended in “profound disagreements” over Ukraine and other issues, although alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said at the time it was a useful exchange.

NATO has been undertaking a major military revamp to ensure a much quicker response in the event of a repeat of the Ukraine crisis.

But Russia says moves to put more troops and equipment into eastern Europe threaten its security.

The assembly said NATO should explore ways to “reduce tensions” with Moscow, while “addressing Russia’s unacceptable violations of international norms”.

It also called on NATO to strengthen conventional and nuclear deterrence, and to increase cooperation with European Union border agency Frontex over the migration crisis.

Hiroshima trip by Obama stirs differing views across Pacific

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TOKYO (AP) — Two very different visions of the hell that is war are seared into the minds of World War II survivors on opposite sides of the Pacific.

Michiko Kodama saw a flash in the sky from her elementary school classroom on Aug. 6, 1945, before the ceiling fell and shards of glass from blown-out windows slashed her. Now 78, she has never forgotten the living hell she saw from the back of her father, who dug her out after a U.S. military plane dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.

People were walking like zombies, with their flesh scraped and severely burned, asking for help, for water. A little girl looked up, straight into Michiko’s eyes, and collapsed.

Lester Tenney saw Japanese soldiers killing fellow American captives on the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942. “If you didn’t walk fast enough, you were killed. If you didn’t say the right words you were killed, and if you were killed, you were either shot to death, bayonetted, or decapitated,” the 95-year-old veteran said. He still has the bamboo stick Japanese soldiers used to beat him across the face.

Different experiences, different memories are handed down, spread by the media and taught in school. Collectively, they shape the differing reactions in the United States and Japan to Barack Obama’s decision to become the first sitting American president to visit the memorial to atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima later this week.

The U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima, and Japan surrendered six days later, bringing to an end a bloody conflict that the U.S. was drawn into after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Japan identifies mostly as “a victim rather than a victimizer,” Stephen Nagy, an international relations professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, said. “I think that represents Japan’s regional role and its regional identity, whereas the United States has a global identity, a global agenda and global presence. So when it views the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, it’s in the terms of a global narrative, a global conflict the United States was fighting for freedom or to liberate countries from fascism or imperialism. To make these ends meet is very difficult.”

A poll last year by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans believe the use of nuclear weapons was justified, while 34 percent do not. In Japan, 79 percent said the bombs were unjustified, and only 14 percent said they were.

Terumi Tanaka, an 84-year-old survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, said of Obama: “I hope he will give an apology to the atomic bomb survivors, not necessarily to the general public. There are many who are still suffering. I would like him to meet them and tell them that he is sorry about the past action, and that he will do the best for them.”

The White House has clearly ruled out an apology, which would inflame many U.S. veterans and others, and said that Obama would not revisit the decision to drop the bombs.

“A lot of these people are telling us we shouldn’t have dropped the bomb — hey, what they talking about?” said Arthur Ishimoto, a veteran of the Military Intelligence Service, a U.S. Army unit made up of mostly Japanese-Americans who interrogated prisoners, translated intercepted messages and went behind enemy lines to gather intelligence.

Now 93, he said it’s good for Obama to visit Hiroshima to “bury the hatchet,” but there’s nothing to apologize for. Ishimoto, who was born in Honolulu and rose to be an Army major general and commander of the Hawaii National Guard, believes he would have been killed in an invasion of Japan if Japan had not surrendered.

“It would have been terrible,” he said. “There is going to be controversy about apologizing. I don’t think there should be any apology. … We helped that country. We helped them out of the pits all the way back to one of the most economically advanced. There’s no apology required.”

Beyond the deaths — the atomic bombs killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945 — the effects of radiation have lingered with survivors, both physically and mentally.

Kodama, the Hiroshima schoolgirl, faced discrimination in employment and marriage. After her first love failed because her boyfriend’s family said they didn’t want “radiated people’s blood in their family,” she married into a more understanding one.

The younger of her two daughters died of cancer in 2011. Some say she shouldn’t have given birth, even though multi-generational radiation effects have not been proven.

Obama doesn’t have to apologize, Kodama said, but he should take concrete actions to keep his promise to seek a nuclear-free world.

“For me, the war is not over until the day I see a world without nuclear weapons.” she said. “Mr. Obama’s Hiroshima visit is only a step in the process.”

Nagasaki survivor Tanaka views the atomic bombings as a crime against humanity. A promise by Obama to survivors to do all he can for nuclear disarmament “would mean an apology to us,” he said.

He added that his own government also should take some of the blame for the suffering of atomic bomb victims. “It was the Japanese government that started the war to begin with, and delayed the surrender,” he said, adding that Japan has not fully faced up to its role in the war.

Japan did issue apologies in various forms in the 1980s and 1990s, but some conservative politicians in recent years have raised questions about them, said Sven Saaler, a historian at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“In particular right now when Japan has a government that is … backpedaling in terms of apologizing for the war, if now the U.S. apologized, that also would be, I think, a weird signal in this current situation,” Saaler said.

Tenney, one of only three remaining POWs from the Bataan Death March, wants Obama in Hiroshima to remember all those who suffered in the war, not just the atomic bomb victims.

“From my point of view, the fact that the war ended when it did and the way it did, it saved my life and it saved the life of those Americans and other allied POWs that were in Japan at the time,” he said at his home in in Carlsbad, California. “I was in Japan, shoveling coal in a coal mine. No one ever apologized for that. … I end up with black lung disease because they didn’t take care of me in the coal mine, and yet there is no apology, no words of wisdom, no nothing.”

Obama’s visit is firmly supported by Earl Wineck, who scanned the skies over Alaska for Japanese warplanes during World War II.

“He’s not going there like some of them might, and keep reminding them of all their transgressions,” the 88-year-old veteran of the Alaska Territorial Guard said. “That should have ended after the war, and I think a lot of it did, but of course, there’s always people who feel resentment.”

Japan occupied two Alaskan islands during the war. The battle to retake one of them, Attu Island, cost about 3,000 lives on both sides.

“We hated them,” Wineck said “But things change, people change, and I think people in the world should be closer together.”

How so?

One Tokyo high school student has a suggestion. Mayu Uchida, who said she cried when she heard survivors recount their memories on a school trip to Hiroshima, wants Obama to bring home what he learns and tell any supporters of nuclear weapons how horrifying they are.

“He could also suggest, promoting opportunities for more Americans to visit Hiroshima, or to hear the story of Hiroshima,” the 18-year-old said. “It will be even better if those opportunities are available for younger generations like us.”

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Watson reported from Carlsbad, California. Associated Press writers Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo also contributed to this report. FILE – In this May 3, 2016 file photo, Arthur Ishimoto, 93, a Japanese-American and U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service veteran, poses with archival photographs of himself as he is interviewed in Honolulu. Ishimoto believes dropping the atomic bombs on Japan saved a million American lives – including his own – as well as at least 5 to 10 million Japanese lives. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)

Analysis: Nuclear-free aspirations of Obama, Abe conflict with reality

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TOBA, Japan (AP) — There is the soaring rhetoric. And then there’s the messy reality.

When U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe make a historic visit to Hiroshima on Friday — the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited the site of the first atomic bomb attack — their words advocating nuclear disarmament will clash with real-world security necessities.

Far from backing up the vision of a world without nuclear bombs that Obama laid out in a 2009 speech that helped secure a Nobel Peace Prize, his near-finished presidency has seen a multibillion-dollar modernization of the U.S. nuclear force.

Japan’s long postwar commitment to disarmament, meanwhile, is only possible because of its reliance on the so-called American “nuclear umbrella” that protects it from antagonistic North Korea and China. Tokyo, should it choose, could probably easily convert its advanced civilian nuclear program into a weapons program, and some conservatives in Abe’s ruling party have argued that the country’s pacifist constitution technically allows nuclear weapons.

In advance of flying to Hiroshima, Obama said Thursday that the dropping of the atomic bomb was an inflection point in modern history and something everybody must deal with.

“I do think that part of the reason I’m going is because I want to once again underscore the very real risks that are out there, and the sense of urgency that we all should have,” Obama told reporters in Shima, Japan, after meeting with leaders of major advanced economies. “It’s not only a reminder of the terrible toll of World War II and the death of innocents across continents, but it’s also to remind ourselves that the job’s not done.”

Despite his own mixed record on nukes, Obama likely sees his Hiroshima visit as a worthwhile expenditure of political capital in order to shore up a global nonproliferation effort that seems at times to be crumbling.

Before the most recent of a series of nuclear security summits meant to reduce and protect nuclear material, Obama wrote in March that eliminating all nuclear weapons may not happen in his lifetime. “But we have begun. As the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them. Still, no one nation can realize this vision alone. It must be the work of the world.”

Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons was challenged almost immediately.

His April 2009 speech in Prague happened within hours of North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket that outsiders, including the United Nations, called a cover for a test of banned missile technology. Pyongyang is still barreling ahead in its push for nuclear-armed missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland.

Obama secured a deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program, if it can be implemented amid mistrust on both sides. But Pakistan and India are still locked in a nuclear standoff. The United States and Russia, which have most of the world’s nuclear weapons, often see their geopolitical jockeying for position interfere with disarmament efforts. And there are growing worries about the security of nuclear fuel sites around the world.

Obama’s trip to Hiroshima also comes amid anxiety that North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities could lead to the top U.S. allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, starting their own nuclear weapons programs.

It is highly unlikely either country will go nuclear. It could cause huge political and economic damage — crippling sanctions, global condemnation — and jeopardize their alliances with the United States.

But a small group in South Korea, including some conservative members of the ruling party, and some in Japan see the North Korean danger as too grave to rely only on the protection of another country. They also question whether, despite rhetoric from U.S. officials about an “ironclad” alliance, Washington would really use nuclear weapons and risk the lives of thousands of American troops should a belligerent North Korea attack.

The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s top newspaper by circulation, said in an editorial weeks after North Korea’s nuclear test in January that discussions in Seoul on acquiring nuclear weapons were inevitable.

Judging by the level of American involvement in crises in Ukraine and Syria, for example, the newspaper said any U.S. help would come only after Seoul is turned into a “pile of ashes” by a North Korean nuclear attack.

This fear has been highlighted by Donald Trump, the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican party in the United States. He has questioned the amount of money the U.S. military is forced to spend to protect its allies, and has suggested that Japan and South Korea should be allowed to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Japan prides itself on its pacifism and disarmament, but it is only through U.S. nuclear deterrence that the country can live alongside nuclear-armed North Korea, China and Russia, without going nuclear itself.

“Some say this is hypocritical,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, “but I think it is just common sense and good national security policy. The Japanese would certainly be happier if no one had nuclear weapons, but as long as several of its neighbors have them, they welcome being under America’s nuclear umbrella.”

Yukio Okamoto, a former Japanese diplomat, said Tokyo “is in the most difficult position” because it is a nuclear bomb victim, surrounded by potentially hostile nuclear-armed states and dependent for its survival on U.S. nuclear deterrence.

“We have to walk through a very narrow passage of trying our sincere efforts toward total elimination in the long term, but at the same time trying to preserve the alliance with the United States and not to tarnish the security relationship, especially the nuclear deterrence,” Okamoto said.

Obama finds himself divided between his anti-nuclear vision and the realities of leading a global power.

Worries about Japan and South Korea producing nuclear weapons mean the United States must offer them nuclear protection, thereby “going against Obama’s own call for global denuclearization,” Charles Armstrong, an Asia expert at Columbia University, said. “At the same time, the U.S. is modernizing its own nuclear arsenal. Thus, U.S. actions and goals are not entirely consistent.”

Obama’s trip to Hiroshima will be filled with images of the horrors of nuclear war, and lofty statements about the need to eliminate those weapons. But some argue that for the visit to be successful, it must highlight Asia’s real nuclear dangers.

Michael Auslin, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, told The Japan Times: “Asia is concerned about how Washington will deal with a more assertive China and a nuclear North Korea, not with an unrealistic aspiration to rid the world of nuclear weapons.”

Obama may not be able to escape criticism from all sides.

Many conservatives in the United States believe a Hiroshima visit will be a failure because it will be seen as an apology. Nonproliferation activists believe he has not gone far enough in efforts to “earn” his Nobel Prize.

“I did think Obama was serious about his nuclear-free world, but that was six or seven years ago. We are no closer today than we were when he took office to achieving that end,” said Bruce Cumings, an Asia expert at the University of Chicago. “I’m sure he will bring up getting rid of nukes in his speech, but he’s in a much weaker position today, because of the ongoing upgrading of American nuclear weapons.”

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AP writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report from Tokyo. U.S. President Barack Obama, left, talks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Ujibashi bridge as they visit the Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, Mie prefecture, Japan Thursday, May 26, 2016 , ahead of the first session of the G-7 summit meetings. When Obama and Abe make a historic visit to Hiroshima – the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited the site of the first atomic bomb attack – their words advocating nuclear disarmament will clash with real-world security necessities. (Toru Hanai/Pool Photo via AP)

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Follow Foster Klug, AP’s bureau chief in Seoul, at www.twitter.com/apklug

Air strikes pummel rebel-held city of Idlib

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)   —-   BEIRUT — A wave of air strikes on a rebel-held stronghold in northwest Syria Monday night caused mass casualties and sparked fresh clashes. The flare up in violence came a day after the opposition’s chief negotiator resigned in frustration over the stalled Geneva peace talks with the government of Bashar Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group counted 10 air strikes on the city of Idlib in the evening, which it said killed at least 14 civilians, including three children. The group said it believed Russian jets were responsible.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said 10 people were killed when the city’s National Hospital was hit, but had no details about casualties elsewhere in the city.

The opposition Civil Defense, which carries out rescue operations, gave a much higher casualty figure, saying dozens were killed and hundreds wounded in the air strikes in which several hospitals were damaged. The group said it had deployed its entire Idlib corps to take part in rescue operations.

The Observatory said hospitals were not targeted, but suffered damage when bombs struck nearby.

Idlib is under the control of the newly resurrected Army of Conquest coalition, which is dominated by ultraconservative insurgent groups and rebel factions. Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, leads the coalition. The Nusra Front is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and U.N. and has been excluded from previous cease-fire agreements between government forces and rebels.

The Army of Conquest announced it had suspended its non-emergency civilian administration in Idlib after the air strikes, according to the Local Coordination Committees.

The group responded to the air strikes by shelling the nearby besieged towns of Foua and Kefraya, according to the Observatory. The two towns are seen as loyal to the government.

A day earlier, the opposition’s chief negotiator in the Geneva peace talks with the government announced he had resigned from his post, saying the international community was not “serious” about reaching a solution to the country’s five-year civil war.

Mohammed Alloush, in a statement released late Sunday, said that Syrian government forces continue attacking the opposition and besieging rebel-held areas, despite the three rounds of negotiations in Geneva.

The “proximity” talks that began in January have failed to make any progress amid contrary demands by the opposition team and the government delegation.

The Syrian opposition has insisted that political transition should come first while the government says fighting terrorism should be the priority. The last round was held in April and no date has been set for the next talks.

As evidence of the talks’ failure, Alloush said the U.N. has not been able to set up a transitional governing body for Syria or find a political solution to the crisis.

The opposition has been insisting that the President Bashar Assad and top official in his government have no role in Syria’s future — or even during the transitional period.

Alloush said he handed in his resignation to the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee and described his move as a “protest against the international community,” which he hoped would come to realize “the importance of the Syrian blood that is being shed by the (Damascus) regime and its allies.”

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told The Associated Press in Geneva that the resignation is an “internal matter for the HNC.”

“We look forward to continuing our work with all sides to ensure that the process moves forward,” she said.

Meanwhile, opposition activists reported intense government airstrikes in the northern province of Aleppo on Monday.

The province has witnesses some of the worst violence over the past months and has also seen clashes lately between rebels and members of the extremist Islamic State group, which captured several villages last week before losing two of them again on Sunday.

Also Monday, Syrian state media said the rebels shelled government-held parts of the provincial capital, Aleppo, inflicting casualties.

More than 160,000 civilians have been trapped by the fighting between IS and Syrian rebels and the aid group Doctors Without Borders last week evacuated one of the few remaining hospitals from the Aleppo area.

Meanwhile, the International Rescue Committee said that over the weekend, more than 8,000 people managed to escape villages and displacement camps to the east and south of the rebel-held town of Azaz.

IRC said that before the road, became too dangerous, some 6,000 people managed to flee the rebel stronghold of Marea to seek safety in Azaz. It added that more than 1,000 people managed to reach the Kurdish area of Afrin and more than 1,200 people have fled to a makeshift refugee camp on Yazibag mountain.

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Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

FILE – In this Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 file photo, Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush, gets in to a car heading to a meeting with the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, in Geneva, Switzerland. The Syrian opposition’s chief negotiator to the peace talks has resigned saying the international community is not “serious” about reaching a solution for the country’s five-year war.(AP Photo/Bassem Mroue, File)

Holder: Snowden did ‘service,’ but should still be punished

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Edward Snowden performed a “public service” in stoking a national debate about secret domestic surveillance programs, but he should still return to the U.S. to stand trial, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a podcast released on Monday.

As a National Security Agency contractor, Snowden leaked classified details in 2013 of the U.S. government’s warrantless surveillance of its citizens before fleeing the country. He now lives in Russia and faces U.S. charges that could land him in prison for up to 30 years.

In a podcast interview with CNN political commentator David Axelrod, Holder said that Snowden had grown concerned that the domestic spying programs weren’t providing a “substantial” return of useful intelligence even before even before he revealed the secrets.

Axelrod is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, while Holder served as attorney general from 2009 to 2015.

“We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate we engaged in and by the changes that we made,” Holder said. “Now, I would say doing what he did in the way he did it was inappropriate and illegal.”

Holder said Snowden’s leaks harmed American interests abroad and put intelligence assets at risk.

“He’s got to make a decision,” Holder said of Snowden. “He’s broken the law. In my view, he needs to get lawyers, come on back and decide what he wants to do — go to trial, try to cut a deal.”

He said Snowden should have to face consequences for his actions, including prison time.

“But in deciding what an appropriate sentence should be, a judge could take into account the usefulness of having that national debate,” Holder added.

Snowden has repeatedly said he would be willing to return to the United States if the federal government would provide him a fair trial. However, Snowden says he is concerned that under federal espionage laws he would not allow him to present a whistleblower defense, arguing in court he acted in the public interest.

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FILE – In this March 4, 2015, file photo, then-Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Justice Department in Washington. Holder says Edward Snowden performed a “public service” in stoking a national debate about secret domestic surveillance programs, but that he should still return to the U.S. to stand trial. Holder spoke with CNN political commentator David Axelrod in a podcast released May 30, 2016.

Follow Michael Biesecker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mbieseck

Iraqi forces in Fallujah repel IS attack in city’s south

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CAMP TARIQ, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces battling their way into Fallujah repelled a four-hour attack by the Islamic State group in the city’s south on Tuesday, a day after first moving into the southern edges of the militant-held city with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Also Tuesday, a leading aid group raised alarm over the unfolding “human catastrophe” in Fallujah, where an estimated 50,000 people remain trapped as the fight intensifies and renewed calls on warring parties to open up safe corridors for civilians to flee.

The attack started at dawn in Fallujah’s Nuaimiya area where Iraqi troops captured almost 85 percent of the ground the previous day, two officers with the special forces told The Associated Press.

IS militants used tunnels, deployed snipers and sent six explosives-laden cars to hit the troops but they were destroyed before reaching their targets, the officers said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing campaign.

Iraqi forces suffered casualties, but the officers didn’t give details.

Nuaimiya is a sprawling mainly agricultural area in Fallujah’s south and Monday’s push into it was the first attempt by Iraqi forces to enter the city after focusing on dislodging the militants from surrounding areas to tighten the siege.

Fallujah has been under Islamic State control for over two years and is the last major city in western Iraq still under control of the Sunni extremist group. The militants still control patches of territory in the country’s north and east as well as the country’s second largest city, Mosul.

The U.S. led coalition and Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary forces are helping the Iraqi army in the battle to retake Fallujah. But the fight is expected to be long and protracted, given that IS militants have had more than two years to dig in.

Tunnels — similar to those found in other territory long held by IS — have already been discovered in the northeastern outskirts of Fallujah.

The Iraqi counterterrorism forces are leading the assault on Fallujah, slowly moving up from the southern edge. Their advance is expected to be slow also because tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in Fallujah and hidden bombs are believed to be strewn throughout the city, according to special forces’ commanders at the scene.

A statement from Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned of the impeding humanitarian disaster inside Fallujah.

“A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah,” Egeland said, adding that only one family managed to escape from the town on Monday. Since the offensive began a week ago, 554 other families have escaped from areas surrounding Fallujah, which lies 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.

“Warring parties must guarantee civilians safe exit now, before it’s too late and more lives are lost,” Egeland added.

The NRC group, which is working with refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq, said lack of food, medicine, safe drinking water and electricity in the city “are pushing families to the brink of desperation.”

The extremist group is expected to increase attacks in major Iraqi cities in an attempt to distract the security forces’ attention away from the front lines. On Monday, IS claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings in and around the capital, Baghdad, that killed at least 24 people and wounded dozens.

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Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report. Iraqi military forces prepare for an offensive into Fallujah to retake the city from Islamic State militants in Iraq, Monday, May 30, 2016. A wave of bombings claimed by the Islamic State group targeted commercial areas in and around Baghdad on Monday, killing more than 20 people in attacks that came as Iraqi troops poised to recapture Fallujah, a city held by the extremists group west of Iraq’s capital. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Libyan forces advance in push on Islamic State strongholds

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CAIRO (AP) — Libyan forces loyal to the U.N.-brokered government advanced on Monday against two key Islamic State strongholds, with several officials saying the troops had taken a town from the extremists.

The forces entered Bin Jawad, 160 kilometers (99 miles) from the central city of Sirte, the main IS bastion in Libya. Salem Jedran, mayor of the nearby town of Ajdabiya, said troops with the so-called Petroleum Facilities Guards had advanced on Bin Jawad, which fell to IS in January.

The unit’s spokesman, Ali Alhassi, later said the troops had liberated the town after five were killed and 16 wounded. Saad Abu-Sharada, a representative from the area, confirmed the area was liberated Monday afternoon.

“I believe the IS presence was limited in that area, there were less than 10 vehicles and IS is not very good at confrontation as they lack the firepower,” he told The Associated Press.

A third official, Brig. Gen. Abdullah Nureldeen of the Libyan National Arm, which is loyal to authorities in the east, said his forces have been gathering intelligence in the area and confirmed the liberation.

Elsewhere, Libyan militiamen from the western city of Misrata — who are also loyal to the U.N. government — are pushing toward Sirte, the militant group’s main stronghold.

Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two parliaments and governments with each backed by a loose set of militias and tribes. The eastern government and parliament were formed after the last parliament elections, but the Tripoli parliament refused to hand over power to them.

Following a U.N. brokered a political deal between factions from each camp at the end of last year, the new unity government has tried to consolidate its grip in the capital, Tripoli, but has faced resistance from various political players and armed groups.

IS has managed to exploit the turmoil, seizing territory and triggering fears in Europe at the prospects of an expanding extremist-run bastion on its doorstep, just across the Mediterranean Sea.

South Korea says North Korea missile launch likely failed

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A North Korean missile launch likely failed on Tuesday, according to South Korea’s military, the latest in a string of high-profile failures that somewhat tempers recent worries that Pyongyang was pushing quickly toward its goal of a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach America’s mainland.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that the missile was a powerful mid-range Musudan. If true, that would make it the fourth failed attempt by the North to conduct a successful test launch of the new missile, which could potentially reach far-away U.S. military bases in Asia and the Pacific.

Yonhap, citing an unidentified government source, said the missile exploded at a mobile launch pad as soon as a launch button was pressed. The report, if confirmed, suggests the missile may have even failed to lift off. Yonhap did not say how its source obtained the information.

Seoul defense officials said they could not immediately confirm the report.

The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in statement that the North attempted to launch an unidentified missile early in the morning from the eastern coastal town of Wonsan, but that it likely failed. JCS officials said later Tuesday they were analyzing what happened but released no other details.

Despite recent failures, there have been growing worries about North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities this year, which includes a nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February that outsiders saw as a test of banned long-range missile technology.

The most recent launch follows Seoul’s rejection of recent Pyongyang overtures to talk, part of what some analysts see as an attempt by the North to win concessions from its rivals.

In April, North Korea attempted unsuccessfully to launch three suspected powerful intermediate-range Musudan missiles. All the missiles exploded in mid-air or crashed, according to South Korean defense officials.

South Korean officials believe the missile launches follow an order from the country’s leader Kim Jong Un in March to conduct tests of a nuclear warhead and ballistic missiles capable of carrying such warheads. That order was thought to be part of Pyongyang’s reaction to annual South Korea-U.S. military drills that it sees as an invasion rehearsal.

Musudan missiles have a potential range of about 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles), which would put U.S. military bases in Guam within their striking distance. South Korea believes the North does not have a functional long-range missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, but the North is working on that technology.

Before April’s suspected launches, North Korea had never flight-tested a Musudan missile, although one was displayed during a military parade in 2010 in Pyongyang.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report. A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea’s missiles at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 31, 2016. A North Korean missile launch likely failed on Tuesday, according to South Korea’s military, the latest in a string of high-profile failures that tempers somewhat recent worries that Pyongyang was pushing quickly toward its goal of a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach America’s mainland. The letters read on top left, “North Korean missile launch likely failed.” (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Business: Global shares mixed; Japan tax hike delay plan buoys Asia

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HONG KONG (AP) — Most Asian stock markets rose Tuesday on better-than-expected Japanese economic data and a weaker yen while European shares drifted as investors came back from a long weekend in the U.S. and Britain.

KEEPING SCORE: European stocks saw modest declines in early trading, with Britain’s FTSE 100 dipping 0.1 percent to 6,265.70 and France’s CAC 40 slipping 0.2 percent to 4,518.66. Germany’s DAX edged 0.2 percent lower to 10,309.17. U.S. stocks were poised to open modestly higher, with Dow futures up 0.1 percent to 17,868.00 and broader S&P 500 futures edging up less than 0.1 percent to 2,097.90.

GLOBAL OUTLOOK: Market sentiment was relatively upbeat as investors found some solace in the latest economic data from Japan, which showed factory output and consumer spending data improved in April from the previous month, though they remained weak. Other key events on investors’ radar this week as they as they seek to gauge the world economic outlook include the China’s manufacturing index due Wednesday, an OPEC meeting Thursday and U.S. jobs data on Friday.

ANALYST’S INSIGHT: “The focus will be on U.S. data tonight, as U.S. markets return from Memorial Day,” Bernard Aw of IG said in a commentary, noting concern over whether the Fed will push ahead with rate hikes as recently suggested by Fed chair Janet Yellen. “Investors will be keen to see if U.S. data this week will corroborate the Fed’s slightly optimistic tone.”

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 rose 1 percent to finish at 17,234.98 and South Korea’s Kospi added 0.8 percent to 1,983.40. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng climbed 0.9 percent to 20,815.09 and the Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China jumped 3.3 percent to 2,916.62. Sydney’s S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.5 percent to 5,378.60. Shares in Taiwan and Southeast Asia were mostly lower.

SHANGHAI SURGE: Chinese stocks jumped on speculation that global stock benchmark provider MSCI may include yuan-denominated shares in its Emerging Markets Index for the first time. Any changes would take effect in June. Inclusion of China’s so-called “A-shares” would attract more foreign investment as fund managers rebalance their portfolios.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil rose 22 cents to $49.54 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, used to price international oils, slipped 22 cents to $50.14 per barrel in London.

CURRENCY: The dollar strengthened to 111.07 yen from 110.95 yen in Monday’s trading. The euro edged lower to $1.1138 from $1.1146.

Memorial Day: Little-known facts

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —-   If your knowledge about Memorial Day does not go beyond the fact that it is celebrated on the last Monday of May and commemorates the war heroes who died serving the USA, click through the gallery to learn more.

*Memorial Day is observed as a response to casualties that happened during the American Civil War (1861-1865); it saw over 620,000 soldiers losing their lives on both sides. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led people to commemorate all those who faced the wrath of the war.

*In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their kin who died at the just-concluded Battle of Gettysburg. It was followed by a group of women decorating the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery the next year.

*In 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of soldiers. After a few days, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through the town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery. Union Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. It was the first ever community-wide Memorial Day observance.

*Waterloo, New York, began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. The town has the congressional recognition of being the birthplace of Memorial Day.

*Union Major General John A. Logan issued an order on May 5, 1868, to decorate the graves of soldiers on May 30, 1868. The orders hoped that the observance would be kept up from year to year.

*Since it was the usual practice to decorate the graves of war heroes with flowers, wreaths and flags, it was called Decoration Day. The name ‘Memorial Day’ came into existence in 1882, but the use of ‘Decoration Day’ was a common practice until the end of World War II. Federal law made Memorial Day an official name only in 1967.

*It is not actually a national holiday. There are 10 federal holidays created by the Congress, which apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans to honour their fallen comrades without being charged a day’s pay.

For the rest of the United States, holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday in 1873. Most Northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of May.

*Here goes another heartwarming story about Memorial Day: the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier were buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on November 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were dug up and the defense department sent them for DNA testing.

The remains were found to be of U.S. Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis in Missouri. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.

*On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2,500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or taken as prisoners of war. It was called the Rolling Thunder rally. The number swelled to 300,000 bikers in 2002—a lot of the bikers being war veterans. In 2005, the numbers were estimated to be about half a million. Organizers call it a demonstration, not a parade. The name ‘Rolling Thunder’ comes from the B-52 Stratofortress’ carpet-bombing runs during the Vietnam War.

*It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half-mast until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.

*Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union General Daniel Butterfield, together with the brigade bugler, made some changes to the ‘lights out’ call tune.

The melody was used at a burial for the first time when a battery commander ordered it to be played instead of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The proximity of the battery to the enemy lines could have led to renewed firing between the sides, if the shots were fired.

*The World War I poem, In Flanders Fields, by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. A Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker, Moina Michael, started a campaign in 1915 to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for “keeping the faith with all who died.” Since then, the sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

*Several Southern states continue to set aside a date to honor the Confederate dead. The day is marked as Confederate Memorial Day. It’s on the fourth Monday of April in Alabama; April 26 in Georgia; June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee; the last Monday of April in Mississippi; May 10 in North and South Carolina; January 19 in Texas; and the last Monday of May in Virginia.

*In 2000, the Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for a minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. “is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.”

*Memorial Day is an unofficial kickoff to the summer season, it also marks fun activities and barbecues.

*The Doylestown parade in Pennsylvania claims to be the oldest Memorial Day parade. It dates back to 1866.

*The first Indianapolis Sweepstakes race, now known as the Indianapolis 500, was held on Memorial Day in 1911, and the race has coincided with the holiday ever since. Over the years, it has often been advertised as the annual Memorial Day race.

Iraqi forces push into Fallujah as IS bombings kill 24

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces started pushing into the city of Fallujah on Monday as a wave of bombings claimed by the Islamic State group in Baghdad and near the Iraqi capital killed at least 24 people.

The advance is part of an offensive to rout militants from Fallujah and recapture the city west of Baghdad, which has been held by the Islamic State for over two years. The offensive on Fallujah, backed by paramilitary troops and aerial support from the U.S.-led coalition, was first launched about a week ago.

The battle for the strategic city is likely to be a protracted one, with Iraqi forces advancing slowly to minimize civilian casualties. Tens of thousands of civilians are believed to be still inside the city, trapped by the fighting.

Meanwhile, the bombings by the Islamic State, which has been behind several recent deadly attacks in Baghdad and beyond, are seen as an attempt by the militants to distract the security forces’ attention from the front lines.

The deadliest of Monday’s attacks took place in the northern, Shiite-dominated Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad where a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a checkpoint next to a commercial area, killing eight civilians and three soldiers. The explosion also wounded up to 14 people, a police officer said.

A suicide car bomber struck an outdoor market in the town of Tarmiyah, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing seven civilians and three policemen, another police officer said, adding that 24 people were wounded in that bombing.

And in Baghdad’s eastern Shiite Sadr City district, a bomb motorcycle went off at a market, killing three and wounding 10, police said. Medical officials confirmed casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.

In an online statement, IS claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they targeted members of the Shiite militias and a government office. The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity of the statement but it was posted on a militant website commonly used by extremists.

Since launching the Fallujah offensive and until Monday, Iraqi government troops have mostly been fighting IS in the outskirts of the city to tighten the siege ahead of a planned final push into its center. By Sunday, the troops had recaptured 80 percent of the territory around Fallujah, according to Iraqi Maj. Dhia Thamir.

At dawn Monday, Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces started pushing into Fallujah from its southern edge, said Brig. Haider al-Obeidi. He described the clashes as “fierce,” with IS deploying snipers and releasing a volley of mortar rounds on the Iraqi forces.

Fallujah, which is about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, is one of the last major IS strongholds in western Iraq. The extremist group still controls territory in the country’s north and west, as well as Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

In a televised speech Sunday to parliament, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on Fallujah residents to either leave the city or stay indoors. Government officials and aid groups estimate that more than 50,000 people remain inside the center of the Sunni majority city.

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Associated Press writers Murtada Faraj in Baghdad, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Camp Tariq near Fallujah, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report. Smoke rises as Iraqi military forces prepare for an offensive into Fallujah to retake the city from Islamic State militants in Iraq, Monday, May 30, 2016. An Iraqi special forces commander says they have started pushing into Fallujah as part of the ongoing operation to oust Islamic State militants from this city west of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Syria rebels attacked by IS militants, government troops

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BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants entered a major Syrian opposition stronghold in the country’s north on Saturday, clashing with rebels on the edges of the town as the extremist group builds on its most significant advance near the Turkish border in two years — even as it loses ground elsewhere in the country and in neighboring Iraq.

The town of Marea, just north of Aleppo city, has long been considered a bastion of relatively moderate Syrian revolutionary forces fighting to topple Assad. The IS assault underlined the weakness of the groups fighting under the loose banner of the so-called Free Syrian Army that have been struggling to survive.

More than 160,000 civilians have been trapped by the fighting, which also forced the evacuation of one of the few remaining hospitals in the area, run by the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders.

Map locates rebel strongholds in northern Syria where the Islamic State group has launched offensives in recent days; 2c x 3 inches; 96.3 mm x 76 mm;

On Saturday, IS fighters staged two suicide bombings targeting “opposition forces” near Marea, IS said via its news agency, Aamaq.

Following the suicide bombings, IS militants entered Marea and fighting began inside the town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition media outfit that tracks Syria’s civil war.

Dr. Abdel Rahman Alhafez, who heads one of the last remaining hospitals in Marea, said the town was encircled and his hospital under threat since Friday. “We need urgent protection for the hospital or a way out,” he said in an emailed statement.

Syrian army warplanes and helicopters, meanwhile, pounded other opposition-held towns in Aleppo province on Saturday, putting a further strain on embattled rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Islamic State’s territorial gains around Marea and Azaz, both critical rebel bastions north of the city of Aleppo, are a blow to the Turkey- and Saudi-backed opposition fighters who have been struggling to retain a foothold in the region while being squeezed by opponents from all sides. They also demonstrated the IS group’s ability to stage major offensives and capture new areas, despite a string of recent losses in Syria and Iraq.

American Special Operations forces and a coalition of Syrian and Arab fighters known as the Syria Democratic Forces have begun clearing areas north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, in preparation for an eventual assault on the city.

The IS offensive targeting Syrian opposition strongholds near the Turkish border began on Thursday night.

On Friday, militants of the group captured six villages near Azaz, triggering intense fighting that trapped tens of thousands of civilians unable to flee to safety while Turkey’s border remains closed. A few hundred fled west to the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin.

People are “terrified for their lives,” the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. The group said it has received confirmed reports that at least four entire families, including women and children, were killed Friday on the outskirts of Azaz.

The IRC runs centers for both children and women in Azaz and provides clean water and sanitation to a camp supporting 8,500 people. More than half the camp’s population has left to find safety elsewhere in the town, it said. The IRC also relocated its staff from the centers and the camp to safer areas of Azaz until the situation enables them to return.

The U.N. refugee agency said it was “deeply concerned” about the fighting affecting thousands of vulnerable civilians.

“Fleeing civilians are being caught in crossfire and are facing challenges to access medical services, food, water and safety,” it said in a statement Saturday.

The advances brought the militants to within a few kilometers (miles) of the rebel-held Azaz and cut off supplies to Marea further south.

World powers, including the United States and Russia which support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, are at a loss as to how to jumpstart peace talks which collapsed in Geneva earlier this year. The war, now in its sixth year, has killed more than a quarter of a million people and displaced half the country’s population.

Azaz, which hosts tens of thousands of internally displaced people, lies north of Aleppo city, which has been divided between a rebel-held east and government-held west.

A route known as the Azaz corridor links rebel-held eastern Aleppo with Turkey. That has been a lifeline for the rebels since 2012, but a government offensive backed by Russian air power and regional militias earlier this year dislodged rebels from parts of Azaz, narrowing the corridor between the Turkish border and Aleppo.

The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who are fighting for their autonomy in the multilayered conflict, also gained ground against the rebels.

In recent months, Syrian rebel factions in Azaz — which include mainstream opposition fighters known as the Free Syrian Army along with some ultraconservative Islamic insurgent factions — have been squeezed between IS to the east and predominantly Kurdish forces to the west and south, while Turkey restricts the flow of goods and people through the border.

“With all these actors positioned to make land grabs in the area, and rebels exhausted by months of fighting, the corridor is now on the verge of collapse,” wrote Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in an analysis for the center.

He said the loss of the Azaz corridor would be detrimental for Turkey, which would no longer have proxy capability in northern Syria’s most strategic province, and complicate U.S. efforts to fight IS in the area.

They Turkey-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group appealed to world powers to provide urgent and immediate protection to civilians and arm rebels to counter attacks by IS and the Syrian government.

“By tightening the siege on the town of Marea, ISIS is following in the footsteps of the Assad regime which uses sieges of towns and cities as a weapon of war,” it said in a statement, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

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FILE – In this Sunday Feb. 15, 2015 file photo and provided on by the Syrian anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels firing locally made shells against the Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria. Islamic State militants entered a Syrian opposition stronghold in the country’s north on Saturday, clashing with rebels on the edges of the town as the extremist group built on its most significant advance near the Turkish border in two years, Syrian opposition groups and IS media said. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC, File)

More than 700 feared dead in recent Mediterranean crossings

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POZZALLO, Sicily (AP) — Survivor accounts have pushed to more than 700 the number of migrants feared dead in Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks over three days in the past week, even as rescue ships saved thousands of others in daring operations.

The shipwrecks appear to account for the largest loss of life reported in the Mediterranean since April 2015, when a single ship sank with an estimated 800 people trapped inside. Humanitarian organizations say that many migrant boats sink without a trace, with the dead never found, and their fates only recounted by family members who report their failure to arrive in Europe.

“It really looks like that in the last period the situation is really worsening in the last week, if the news is confirmed,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a Save the Children spokeswoman in Italy.

Warmer waters and calmer weather of late have only increased the migrants’ attempts to reach Europe.

The largest number of missing and presumed dead was aboard a wooden fishing boat being towed by another smugglers’ boat from the Libyan port of Sabratha that sank Thursday. Estimates by police and humanitarian organizations, based on survivor accounts, range from around 400 to about 550 missing in that sinking alone.

One survivor from Eritrea, 21-year-old Filmon Selomon, told The Associated Press that water started seeping into the second boat after three hours of navigation, and that the migrants tried vainly to get the water out of the sinking boat.

“It was very hard because the water was coming from everywhere. We tried for six hours after which we said it was not possible anymore,” he said through an interpreter.

He jumped into the water and swam to the other boat before the tow line on the navigable boat was cut to prevent it from sinking when the other went down.

A 17-year-old Eritrean, Mohammed Ali Imam, who arrived five days ago in another rescue, said one of the survivors told him that the second boat started taking on water when the first boat ran out of fuel.

Police said the line, which was ordered cut by the commander when it was at full tension, whipped back, fatally slashing the neck of a female migrant.

According to Italian police, 300 people in the hold went down with the second boat when it sank, while around 200 on the upper deck jumped into the sea. Just 90 of those were saved, along with about 500 in the first boat.

Italian police said survivors identified the commander of the boat with the working engine as a 28-year-old Sudanese man, who has been arrested and faces possible charges for the deaths. Three other smugglers involved in other crossings also were arrested, police announced.

Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman in Italy for UNHCR, put the number of migrants and refugees missing in that incident at 550 based on a higher tally of 670 people on board. She said 15 bodies were recovered, while 70 survivors were plucked from the sea and 25 swam to the other boat.

Most of the people on board were Eritrean, according to Save the Children, including many women and children. One of the survivors included a 4-year-old girl whose mother had been killed in a traffic accident in Libya just days before embarking, Di Benedetto said.

The UNHCR’s Sami also said that estimated 100 people are missing from a smugglers’ boat that capsized Wednesday off the coast of Libya, captured in dramatic footage by Italian rescuers.

In a third shipwreck on Friday, Sami said 135 people were rescued, 45 bodies were recovered and an unknown numbers of migrants were still missing.

Because the bodies went missing in the open sea, it is impossible to verify the numbers who died. Humanitarian organizations and investigating authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together what happened, relying on overlapping accounts to establish a level of veracity.

Survivors of Thursday’s sinking were taken to the Italian ports of Taranto on the mainland and Pozzallo in Sicily. Sami says the U.N. agency is trying to gather information with sensitivity considering that most of the new arrivals are either shipwreck survivors or traumatized by what they saw.

Italy’s southern islands are the main destinations for countless numbers of smuggling boats launched from the shores of lawless Libya each week packed with people seeking jobs and safety in Europe. Hundreds of migrants drown each year attempting the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.

Habtom Tekle, a 27-year-old Eritrean who survived Thursday’s sinking, described people holding onto each other, some dragging others underwater, as the second boat was sinking.

“For me it was very shocking,” he said through an interpreter.

Tekle fled mandatory, open-ended conscription in Eritrea six years ago, spending time in Egypt, Israel, Uganda and Sudan before heading to Libya to take the risky, and ultimately deadly, sea journey to Italy.

“I want to tell the world this way is dangerous for us. Because my brother, sister, family will lose their lives in this channel,” Tekle said outside the hotspot where he was taken to have his arrival recorded. “Please help us to have freedom in our country. I don’t want to stay here or any place. I want my county with freedom.”

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Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report. People jump off a boat moments before it overturns off the Libyan coast, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. On Friday, the Italian navy says it has saved 135 migrants and recovered 45 bodies. (Marina Militare via AP)

German, French leaders mark 100 years since Battle of Verdun

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VERDUN, France (AP) — In solemn ceremonies Sunday in the forests of eastern France, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked 100 years since the Battle of Verdun, determined to show that, despite the bloodbath of World War I, their countries’ improbable friendship is now a source of hope for today’s fractured Europe.

The 10-month battle at Verdun — the longest in World War I — killed 163,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands of others.

Between February and December 1916, an estimated 60 million shells were fired in the battle. One out of four didn’t explode. The front line villages destroyed in the fighting were never rebuilt. The battlefield zone still holds millions of unexploded shells, making the area so dangerous that housing and farming are still forbidden.

With no survivors left to remember, Sunday’s commemorations were focused on educating youth about the horrors and consequences of the war.

The main ceremony took place at a mass grave where, in 1984, then-French President Francois Mitterrand took then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s hand in a breakthrough moment of friendship and trust by longtime enemy nations.

“This gesture said more than any words,” Merkel stressed in her speech at the Douaumont Ossuary, a memorial to 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.

She said the dead of Verdun were “victims of bigotry and nationalism, of blindness and political failure” and the best way to commemorate them is to bear in mind “the lessons that Europe drew from the catastrophes of the 20th century — the ability and willingness to recognize how necessary it is not to seal ourselves off but to be open to each other.”

Merkel added that “the common challenges of the 21st century can only be dealt with together.”

Hollande has called for the “protection of our common house, Europe.” He warned that the “time needed to destroy it would be much shorter than the long time it took to build it.”

Amid rising support for far right parties and divisions among European countries over how to handle refugees, he said Europe’s role is “to fight against terrorism, fanaticism, radicalization” and at the same time to “welcome populations who are fleeing massacres.”

About 4,000 French and German children re-enacted battlefield scenes to the sound of drums amid thousands of white crosses marking the graves —falling on the ground in a moving evocation of death, and getting back up as a symbol of hope, in a ceremony conceived by German filmmaker Volker Schloendorff.

Hollande and Merkel rekindled the flame of remembrance and gave each other a hug inside the Douaumont Ossuary.

They spent the entire day together. In the morning, he welcomed his German counterpart under heavy rain at the German cemetery of Consenvoye, near Verdun, where 11,148 German soldiers are buried. They laid a wreath, accompanied by four German and French children, and walked side by side for few minutes in the cemetery, sharing an umbrella.

After lunch, they were visiting the newly renovated Verdun Memorial. The museum, which reopened in February, immerses visitors in the “hell of Verdun” through soldiers’ belongings, documents and photos, and from its new rooftop, they can observe the battlefield.

“The visit follows the steps of the soldiers. First reaching the front, moving into shell holes, fighting, surviving on the front line, the daily life,” said historian Antoine Prost.

Verdun has become a common place of remembrance because “it’s a place of massive death equivalent for the French and the Germans,” Prost added.

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Associated Press writer Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin. French President Francois Hollande, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pay their respects after laying a wreath at a German cemetery in Consenvoye, northeastern France, Sunday May 29, 2016, during a remembrance ceremony to mark the centenary of the battle of Verdun. Hollande and Merkel are marking 100 years since the 10-month Battle of Verdun, which killed 163,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands. (Jean Christophe Verhaegen/Pool Photo via AP)

Business: Global stocks rise as UK, US markets remain shut for holiday

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BEIJING (AP) — Major stock markets edged up on Monday amid greater optimism about the global economy, but trading volumes were low in European trading as the U.K. and U.S. markets were closed for a holiday.

KEEPING SCORE: Germany’s DAX gained 0.3 percent to 10,315 while France’s CAC-40 was 0.1 percent higher at 4,518.

Earlier, Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 rose 1.4 percent to 17,068.02 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng added 0.3 percent to 20,629.39. India’s Sensex advanced 0.3 percent to 26,724.49 and the Shanghai Composite Index held steady at 2,822.45. Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 also was unchanged at 5,408.00 while Seoul’s Kospi shed 0.1 percent to 1,967.13.

GLOBAL OPTIMISM: Sentiment remained buoyed by gains last week, when U.S. stocks recorded their strongest week in almost three months. Banks gained after Janet Yellen said the U.S. Federal Reserve intends to keep raising interest rates provided the economy improves. Banks stand to make bigger profits on lending if interest rates rise, and Yellen’s comments were taken as a vote of confidence in the global economy.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Janet Yellen’s remarks on Friday confirm that at least one increase in the Fed rate is likely this year. Traders will take confidence from the fact that stock markets are firm in the face of this confirmation. As far as the markets are concerned, the timing of the next Fed increase now becomes the central issue,” Ric Spooner of CMC Markets said in a report.

EUROPEAN DATA: A rise in economic confidence in the 19-country eurozone also helped buoy markets in Europe. The Economic Sentiment Indicator, a monthly survey by the European Union’s executive Commission, rose to a four-month high of 104.7 points in May from 104.0 in April. It was supported by optimism among consumers, industry managers, expectations for stronger hiring as well as rising retail prices.

THE YUAN WEAKENS: In Asia, China’s yuan weakened after the central bank set the starting point for the day’s trading at its lowest level against the dollar in five years. The People’s Bank of China failed to factor a possible U.S. rate hike into its plans and had to change its stance following Yellen’s speech, according to Stephen Innes, a trader for OANDA. “I don’t think the bank is trying to drive down the yuan,” said Innes.

WEEK AHEAD: Investors were looking ahead to China’s May manufacturing index due Wednesday as well as OPEC’s meeting Thursday. The oil cartel is not expected to change its output levels as oil prices have recovered in recent weeks, but its views on the market will be scrutinized by investors. The European Central Bank will also hold a meeting on Thursday, and is likewise expected to take no action as it waits for past stimulus measures to have an effect on the economy.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude shed 9 cents to $49.24 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract shed 15 cents on Friday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, declined 19 cents to $49.76 per barrel in London. The contract fell 22 cents the previous session.

CURRENCY: The dollar gained to 111.09 yen from Friday’s 110.23. The euro edged up to $1.1141 from $1.1116.

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A man looks at an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Monday, May 30, 2016. Asian stocks rose Monday following Wall Street’s gains as investors looked ahead to economic data this week from China, Australia and Korea. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Memorial Day Weekend: Veterans troop to Arlington in quiet salute to a distant war

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(PhatzNewsRoom / WP)    —-   They entered Arlington National Cemetery at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, their motorcycles, and the noise of the holiday weekend, left outside.

Preceded by two bagpipers, they filed in quietly, many in black leather vests, sunglasses and ball caps.

Dan McLaughlin, 75, of Tionesta, Pa., whose son, Michael, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, was killed in Iraq, was among them.

So was Gina Townsend, 51, of Gainesville, Va., whose late father was given the Medal of Honor for gallantry in Vietnam.

About 200 men and women representing American Legion posts from across the country, and several modern wars, came to salute the fallen of a distant war.

They gathered at the cemetery’s Civil War Unknowns Monument, the original Tomb of the Unknowns, and the site of the first official Memorial Day commemoration in 1868.

Relatives of men who had died at places such as Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006, and Hue, Vietnam, in 1968, came to salute men who had been killed in places such as Manassas in 1861 and 1862.

They traveled from legion posts in Panama City, Fla.; Goose Creek, S.C.; and Glenarden, Md., wearing caps that said they had served on the USS Midway, or with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

As they walked to the tomb along the cemetery’s Meigs Avenue, they passed near the graves of Col. Edgar O’Connor, who died in 1862 at age 29 at the Civil War’s Battle of Groveton, and Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, who was killed at Chantilly the same year.

The tomb holds 2,111 unknown soldiers whose remains were gathered from battlefields around Manassas and elsewhere at the close of the war. Most of them had been unburied and left behind as the tide of the war ebbed and flowed.

They were laid to rest in a specially built mass tomb adjacent to the Arlington Mansion, which gave the cemetery its name. Almost half of the soldiers killed in the Civil War were never identified, according to the National Park Service.

The tomb was sealed in September 1866, and the first official Memorial Day ceremony was held there in May 1868, the Park Service said.

The keynote speaker that day was future president and then-Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield.

“Here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep in the nation’s heart,” he told the crowd.

“This will be forever the sacred mountain of our capital,” he said. “Here is our temple, its sacrament is the sarcophagus of the heroic hearts; its dome the bending of heavens; its altar candles the watching stars.”

“Hither our children’s children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage,” he said.

Today the site gets little attention from those eager to see Arlington’s better-known Tomb of the Unknowns, which dates to 1921, and the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Edward.

There are no crowds, no changing of the guard, no eternal flame.

But Saturday, the legionnaires and their comrades stood before the Civil War dead in the shadow of a great oak tree. As officials laid a wreath of remembrance and a bugler sounded taps, there was a sense of pride and sorrow that spanned 150 years.

“To know that people are remembering my son, that’s the important part,” Dan McLaughlin said as he stood by the tomb, wearing the Gold Star symbol of loss that goes back to World War I.

“They’re not forgetting him,” he said.

The younger McLaughlin was killed Jan. 5, 2006, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Ramadi. Michael McLaughlin had been working there to recruit Iraqis for a police force when the bomber approached.

An Army bomb dog smelled the explosives as the man neared and attacked him, but the bomber detonated his device before the soldiers could react, Dan McLaughlin said.

His son was struck at the base of the skull and went down. When others rushed to help him to safety, the younger McLaughlin said, “You take care of my guys; I’m okay,” his father said.

“He turned and dropped dead,” he said. “And that was the end of it.”

Gina Townsend’s father, Army Staff Sgt. Clifford C. Sims, was a 25-year-old squad leader engaged in heavy combat with the enemy near Hue on Feb. 21, 1968.

Fighting in dense woods, Sims and his men heard an explosive device being triggered, according to Sims’s Medal of Honor citation.

Sims shouted a warning to his men and threw himself on the device, which blew up, killing him.

“This is a first for me,” Townsend said as she stood by the tomb. “It is very eye-opening. For years, we didn’t talk about it in our family, because it was the Vietnam War, and it wasn’t a talked-about war.”

A sixth-grade teacher, she said she often takes students to visit the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. “We teach them all about what happened there,” she said. “And this [tomb] is right here. This was the original.”

Below the wreath of red and white flowers and blue ribbons that had been placed at the foot of the tomb, an inscription in the stone read:

Their remains could not be identified, but their names and deaths are recorded in the archives of their country: And its grateful citizens honor them as of their noble army of martyrs.

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© Linda Davidson/The Washington Post Gold Star father Dan McLaughlin, whose son was killed in Iraq, attends a ceremony honoring those at the Civil War Unknowns Monument at Arlington National Cemetery.

Analysis: Iran-Led Push to Retake Falluja From ISIS Worries U.S.

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-    BAGHDAD — American commandos are on the front lines in Syria in a new push toward the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, but in Iraq it is an entirely different story: Iran, not the United States, has become the face of an operation to retake the jihadist stronghold of Falluja from the militant group.

On the outskirts of Falluja, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police officers and Shiite militiamen backed by Iran are preparing for an assault on the Sunni city, raising fears of a sectarian blood bath. Iran has placed advisers, including its top spymaster, Qassim Suleimani, on the ground to assist in the operation.

The battle over Falluja has evolved into yet another example of how United States and Iranian interests seemingly converge and clash at the same time in Iraq. Both want to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the United States has long believed that Iran’s role, which relies on militias accused of sectarian abuses, can make matters worse by angering Sunnis and making them more sympathetic to the militants.

While the battle against the Islamic State straddles the borders of Iraq and Syria, the United States has approached it as two separate fights. In Syria, where the government of Bashar al-Assad is an enemy, America’s ally is the Kurds.

But in Iraq, where the United States backs the central government, and trains and advises the Iraqi Army, it has been limited by the role of Iran, the most powerful foreign power inside the country.

That United States dilemma is on full display in Falluja as the fighting intensifies.

Inside the city, tens of thousands of Sunni civilians are trapped, starving and lacking medicine, according to activists and interviews with residents. Some were shot dead by the Islamic State as they tried to flee, and others died under buildings that collapsed under heavy military and militia artillery bombardment in recent days, according to the United Nations.

The few civilians who have made it to safety have escaped at night, traveling through the irrigation pipes.

In an extraordinary statement on Wednesday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s pre-eminent Shiite religious leader, who lives in Najaf in southern Iraq and is said to be concerned by Iran’s growing role in Iraq, urged security forces and militia to restrain themselves and abide by “the standard behaviors of jihad.”

The grim sectarian tableau in Falluja — starving Sunni civilians trapped in a city surrounded by a mostly Shiite force — provides the backdrop to a final assault that Iraqi officials have promised will come soon.

The United States has thousands of military personnel in Iraq and has trained Iraqi security forces for nearly two years, yet is largely on the sidelines in the battle to retake Falluja. It says its air and artillery strikes have killed dozens of Islamic State fighter, including the group’s Falluja commander. But it worries that an assault on the city could backfire — inflaming the same sectarian sentiments that have allowed the Islamic State to flourish there.

A meeting in the operations command center outside Falluja on Friday. © Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press A meeting in the operations command center outside Falluja on Friday.

Already, as the army and militiamen battled this past week in outlying areas, taking some villages and the center of the city of Karma, to the northeast, the fight has taken on sectarian overtones.

Militiamen have plastered artillery shells with the name of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric close to Iran whose execution this year by Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, deepened the region’s sectarian divide, before firing them at Falluja.

A Shiite militia leader, in a widely circulated video, is seen rallying his men with a message of revenge against the people of Falluja, whom many Iraqi Shiites believe to be Islamic State sympathizers rather than innocent civilians. Falluja is also believed to be a staging ground for suicide bombers targeting the capital, Baghdad, about 40 miles to the east. The decision to move on the city was made after several recent attacks in Baghdad killed nearly 200 people.

“Falluja is a terrorism stronghold,” said the militia leader, Aws al-Khafaji, the head of the Abu Fadhil al-Abbas militia. “It’s been the stronghold since 2004 until today.”

He continued: “There are no patriots, no real religious people in Falluja. It’s our chance to clear Iraq by eradicating the cancer of Falluja.”

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has stressed that civilians must be protected in the operation and ordered that humanitarian corridors be opened to allow civilians to leave the city safely, disavowed the militia leader’s comments.

Reflecting these concerns of sectarianism, and the deep sense of foreboding surrounding a battle for the city, a chorus of voices in Iraq and abroad has urged restraint.

In his statement, Ayatollah Sistani said: “The Prophet Muhammad used to tell his companions before sending them to fight, to go forward in the name of Allah, with Allah and upon the religion of the messenger of Allah. Do not kill the elderly, children or women, do not steal the spoils but collect them, and do not cut down trees unless you are forced to do so.”

The concern was amplified in a second statement, released during Friday prayers by a representative for the ayatollah, saying that “saving an innocent human being from dangers around him is much more important than targeting and eliminating the enemy.”

Accounts of dire conditions in Falluja have emerged from the few residents who managed to escape in recent days, Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, told reporters in Geneva on Friday. She said that some residents had been killed for refusing to fight for the jihadists, and that those inside were surviving on old stacks of rice, a few dates and water from unsafe sources such as drainage ditches.

“The stories coming out of Falluja are horrifying,” Nasr Muflahi, the Iraq director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement. “People who managed to flee speak of extreme hunger and starvation.”

To allay fears that the battle for Falluja will heighten sectarian tensions, Iraqi officials, including Mr. Abadi, and militia leaders have said they will adhere to a battle plan that calls for the militias not to participate in the assault on the city.

If the militias do hold back as promised, then the United States is likely step up the tempo of the air campaign, as it did in the battle last year for Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. In that fight, Iran’s militias stayed on the sidelines.

The American military role in Iraq has been limited mostly to airstrikes and the training of the army. But, as in northern Syria, there are also Special Forces soldiers in Iraq, carrying out raids on Islamic State targets. In northern Iraq, where they work with Kurdish forces, two American Special Forces soldiers have been killed.

Iraq’s elite counterterror forces are preparing to lead the assault on Falluja; they have long worked closely with the United States and are considered among the few forces loyal to the country and not to a sect. A few thousand Sunni tribal fighters from the area are also involved in the operation.

The United States military estimates that between 500 and 1,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Falluja, and aid agencies have estimated the civilian population left in the city at 50,000 to 100,000.

A big question going into the battle is whether the Islamic State fighters will dig in and fight or, as they have in some other battles, throw away their weapons and try to melt into the civilian population.

“What we have seen is two flavors of Daesh,” said Col. Steven H. Warren, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. In Ramadi, he said, the Islamic State fortified the city and fought for it, while in other cities of Anbar, such as Hit and Rutba, the fighters largely fled in the face of government offensives.

For the United States, there is also the matter of history: Led by the Marines, its forces fought two bloody battles for Falluja in 2004. Mindful of this past, American officials would have preferred that the Iraqis left Falluja alone for now and focused on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul in the north.

But the battle is coming, and there are echoes of that history already. One rallying cry for the Iraqi forces is revenge for the killing, last year, of a Shiite soldier who was captured by the Islamic State, paraded through Falluja and hanged from a bridge.

If that sounds familiar, it is.

The American military’s assault on Falluja in April of 2004 was in retaliation for an episode that became an early symbol of a war spiraling out of control, the image of it as indelible as it was gruesome: the bodies of four Blackwater contractors dangling from the ironwork of a bridge.

Syria’s cease-fire strengthens al-Qaida branch

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BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria has recruited thousands of fighters, including teenagers, and taken territory from government forces in a successful offensive in the north, illustrating how the cease-fire put in place by Russia and the United States to weaken the militants has in many ways backfired.

The branch, known as the Nusra Front, has churned out a flood of videos — slickly produced in the style of its rival, the Islamic State group — that show off its recruitment drive. In one, young men line up for combat training. In another, a bearded al-Qaida fighter in a mosque urges a crowd of men to join jihad. A third shows an al-Qaida-linked cleric leading a graduation ceremony, handing out weapons to young men.

Since March, the group recruited 3,000 new fighters, including teenagers, in comparison to an average of 200 to 300 a month before, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group monitoring the conflict. He cited contacts within the Nusra Front. Other activists said hundreds living in camps for displaced people in the north have joined the al-Qaida branch.

But battlefield success and the push for new recruits have brought to the surface tensions within the Nusra Front over the group’s future path, observers say.

A hard-line faction within the group wants to emulate al-Qaida’s chief rival, the Islamic State group, and declare an Islamic caliphate in the areas under its control, a step al-Qaida has long rejected because it does not want to alienate its allies in the Syrian opposition. On the other end of the spectrum, a Syria-minded camp within the Nusra Front wants to focus entirely on the campaign to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and to break ties with al-Qaida.

“There are leaders in Nusra who are saying we are strongest, why are we not ruling and why don’t we declare a caliphate?” said Radwan Mortada, an expert on jihadi groups who writes for Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper. “There are others who say the world will not leave us alone so long as we are related to al-Qaida. So the least we can do … is declare our dissociation with al-Qaida.”

The Nusra Front has long been one of the strongest factions in Syria’s opposition. It and other Syrian rebels, including some allied to it, hold most of the northwestern province of Idlib and parts of neighboring Aleppo province. When Russia and the United States brokered a cease-fire between Assad and opposition forces in February, the Nusra Front and IS were excluded, allowing Assad’s troops and Russian and American airstrikes to continue to hit them. The hope in Washington and Moscow was that other rebel factions would shun both extremist groups.

Instead, the cease-fire faltered within weeks as Assad’s forces fought rebels around the opposition-held part of Aleppo, and peace talks in Geneva stalemated. That boosted the Nusra Front’s credibility as the force that kept up the fight against Assad and stood against any compromise leaving him in power.

Far from being shunned by other factions, the Nusra Front instead has attracted a coalition. Their alliance, known as the Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, has recently waged a counter-offensive around Aleppo, retaking ground from Assad’s military and its allies and inflicting heavy casualties, including killing more than a dozen members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and some 30 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, allied to Assad.

The alliance revives one that had successfully fought against government forces and seized control of Idlib but broke up last year. One faction, Jund al-Aqsa, has reportedly refused to join, and is suspected of having sided with IS. The alliance also is battling the Islamic State group, which has shown it can still make gains despite heavy losses under U.S. and Russian airstrikes. On Friday, IS militants succeeded in taking a string of villages from rebels, including some in Nusra’s alliance, near the Turkish border north of Aleppo.

Maj. Jamil Saleh, commander of Tajammu el-Ezzah, a U.S.-backed rebel group, said the Nusra Front is gaining recruits in part because the international community has not pressed for Assad’s removal at the peace talks, discrediting moderate factions that agreed to the negotiations.

“It is impossible for the rebel factions to enter into this battle (against the Nusra Front) so long as Bashar (Assad) remains in office,” Saleh said.

Because of the Nusra Front, Syria has become a critical hub for al-Qaida. Al-Qaida’s central leadership, believed based in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, has been sending prominent figures to aid the fight in Syria.

“Syria is right now the central front for al-Qaida’s jihad,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal and an al-Qaida watcher for The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a U.S.-based think tank. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how many resources al-Qaida has invested in Syria.”

The Pentagon’s $500 million effort to train and equip a force of Syrian rebels to take on extremists in Syria — mainly IS — has all but collapsed.

And the alliances that al-Qaida has built with other Syrian rebel factions have been key to its success. That’s in contrast to IS, which declared a caliphate in the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, and considers as infidels anyone who does not accept its rule. As a result, IS has battled Syrian rebel factions — and the Nusra Front — more than it has battled Assad’s forces.

Though hard-liners within the group are pressing for it, the Nusra Front is unlikely to declare a caliphate in areas it controls because that could bring even more airstrikes and alienate its allies, who might then unify against it, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who now heads the Soufan group, a private risk-assessment firm.

Instead, with the backing of al-Qaida’s leadership, Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani appears to be working to keep the group’s factions behind a more pragmatic policy focused on keeping allies by the group’s side, rather than pressing an ideological agenda. Al-Qaida’s traditional stance has always been that while an Islamic state is the ultimate goal, it must wait until regional leaders are overthrown and other Muslims rally around the cause.

The Nusra Front and al-Qaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri “are really fearful … that they will be stabbed in the back by people like Ahrar Sham or Islamic Army,” Soufan said, referring to some of the Nusra Front’s Islamic allies.

Al-Zawahri weighed in with an audio message this month calling for unity among fighters in Syria, followed a day later by a similar call for unity from the son of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, Hamza — a message Soufan said likely reflected their fears of a fallout with Syrian allies.

The stream of al-Qaida veterans joining the Nusra Front helps al-Golani — though it also exposes them to the dangers of the Syria conflict. Rifai Ahmad Taha, an Egyptian militant with decades of experience with the terror network, died in a U.S. strike in April.

But others still hold senior posts. Ahmed Salama Mabrouk, an Egyptian and longtime associate of al-Zawahri, appeared in a Nusra Front video from Syria in March and is believed to now be part of its central leadership. There have been suggestions from militant messages online that one of al-Qaida’s most significant and shadowy leaders, Saif al-Adel, has also relocated to Syria, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks militant groups.

Pragmatists among the Nusra Front’s leadership have been consolidating in the north, said a Syrian activist who reports from the front line and deals closely with most rebel groups, including the al-Qaida affiliate. A prominent hard-liner, known by the nom de guerre of Abu Julaybib, was recently sidelined from the Nusra Front’s leadership, he said.

But in some areas, the hard-liners have more sway, the activist said. He pointed to recent fighting in the northern opposition stronghold of Maaret al-Numan, where Nusra Front fighters drove out a U.S.-backed rebel faction called Division 13 and took its weapons. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating his contacts.

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This image posted on the Twitter page of Syria’s al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front on Thursday, May 5, 2016, shows a fighter from the Nusra Front firing a weapon during clashes against Syrian government forces and pro-government militiamen in the town of Khan Touman, near Aleppo province, Syria. Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria has recruited hundreds of new fighters, including teenagers, and taken territory from government forces in a successful offensive in the north, illustrating how the cease-fire put in place by Russia and the United State to weaken the militants has in many ways backfired. Arabic, bottom, reads “preparation for the attack with heavy machine gun fire in Khan Touman.” (Al-Nusra Front social media account via AP)

UN: 700 migrants feared dead in Mediterranean shipwrecks

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POZZALLO, Sicily (AP) — Over 700 migrants are feared dead in three Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks south of Italy in the last few days as they tried desperately to reach Europe in unseaworthy smuggling boats, the U.N. refugee agency said Sunday.

The shipwrecks over three days appear to account for the largest loss of life reported in the Mediterranean since April 2015, when a single ship sank with an estimated 800 people trapped inside.

Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for UNHCR, told The Associated Press by phone that an estimated 100 people are missing from a smugglers’ boat that capsized Wednesday off the coast of Libya. The Italian navy took horrific pictures of that capsizing even as it rushed to rescue as many people as possible from the sea.

Sami said about 550 other migrants and refugees are missing from a smuggling boat that capsized Thursday morning after leaving the western Libyan port of Sabratha a day earlier.

Refugees who saw that boat sink told her agency it was carrying about 670 people, didn’t have an engine and was being towed by another packed smuggling boat before it capsized. She said about 25 people from the capsized boat managed to reach the first boat and survive, 79 others were rescued by international patrol boats and 15 bodies were recovered.

Italian police said survivors identified the commander of the boat with the working engine as a 28-year-old Sudanese man, who has been arrested.

In a third shipwreck on Friday, Sami said 135 people were rescued, 45 bodies were recovered and an unknown numbers of migrants were still missing.

Because the bodies went missing in the open sea, it is impossible to verify the numbers who died. Humanitarian organizations and rescue authorities typically rely on survivors’ accounts to piece together what happened.

Italian police corroborated the UNHCR description of Thursday’s sinking in their own interviews with survivors, but came up with different numbers of possible missing.

They say, according to survivors, the boat being towed was carrying about 500 migrants when it starting taking on water after about eight hours at sea. Efforts to empty the water — with a line of migrants passing a few 5-liter bailing cans — were insufficient and the boat was completely under water after an hour and a half, police said. At that point, the commander of the first smuggling boat doing the towing ordered the tow rope to be cut.

The migrants on the top deck of the sinking boat jumped into the sea, while those below deck, estimated at 300, sank with the ship, police said. Of those who jumped into the water, just 90 were rescued.

Survivors were taken to the Italian ports of Taranto on the mainland and Pozzallo on the island of Sicily. Sami says the U.N. agency is trying to gather information with sensitivity considering that most of the new arrivals are either shipwreck survivors or traumatized by what they saw.

Italy’s southern islands are the main destinations for countless numbers of smuggling boats launched from the shores of lawless Libya each week packed with people seeking jobs and safety in Europe. Hundreds of migrants drown each year attempting the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing.

Warmer waters and calmer weather of late have only increased the migrants’ attempts to reach Europe. Last week, over 4,000 migrants were rescued at sea in one day alone by an Italian-led naval operation.

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Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report. In this photo taken in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan coast, Friday, May 27, 2016, rescuers help migrants to board rubber dinghies before towing them to the Italian Navy ship Vega, after the boat they were aboard sunk. The Italian navy says it has saved 135 migrants from a sinking boat and recovered 45 bodies in the Mediterranean. (Raffaele Martino/Marina Militare via AP Photo)

Judge orders release of documents in Trump University suit

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge is ordering the release of Trump University internal documents in a class-action lawsuit against the now-defunct real estate school owned by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The order by U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in San Diego, which came Friday in response to a request by The Washington Post, calls for the documents to be released by Thursday. The Post reported the order in a story on its website Saturday.

Trump University has been cited in anti-Trump political ads during the primary campaign as evidence that Trump doesn’t fulfill his promises. Trump’s lawyers deny any wrongdoing in the case before Curiel as well as another class-action suit in San Diego and a $40 million lawsuit filed in 2013 by the state of New York alleging that more than 5,000 people had been defrauded.

The New York real estate mogul, for his part, has claimed that Curiel is a “hater of Donald Trump” and should be ashamed of how he has handled the case. Trump also has questioned whether Curiel, who is Hispanic, is biased against him because of his call for deporting immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The lawsuit overseen by Curiel states that Trump University’s nationwide seminars and classes were like infomercials and pressured students to buy more but didn’t deliver as promised in spite of students paying as much as $35,000 for seminars. Curiel already has set a Nov. 28 trial date.

The Post reported that Curiel’s order to release an estimated 1,000 pages of documents cites heightened public interest in Trump and that he had “placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue.” The judge appeared to reject the argument by Trump attorneys that the information had commercial value, saying that there was no support for the assertion that Trump University may resume operations.

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In this May 23, 2005, file photo, real estate mogul and Reality TV star Donald Trump, left, listens as Michael Sexton introduces him at a news conference in New York where he announced the establishment of Trump University. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Ohio zoo closes gorilla exhibit for now after boy falls in

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CINCINNATI (AP) — The Cincinnati Zoo has temporarily closed its gorilla exhibit after a special zoo response team shot and killed a 17-year-old gorilla that grabbed and dragged a 4-year-old boy who fell into a moat.

Zoo officials said the boy fell after he climbed through a public barrier at the Gorilla World exhibit Saturday afternoon. He was picked up out of the moat and dragged by the gorilla for about 10 minutes.

Authorities said the child, who has not been identified, fell 10 to 12 feet. He was taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where he is expected to recover. Hospital officials said they couldn’t release any information on him.

Zoo Director Thane Maynard said the zoo’s dangerous animal response team decided the boy was in “a life-threatening situation” and that they needed to put down the 400-pound-plus male gorilla named Harambe.

“They made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy’s life,” Maynard said. “It could have been very bad.”

But he mourned the loss of the gorilla, which came to Cincinnati in 2015 from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.

“We are all devastated that this tragic accident resulted in the death of a critically endangered gorilla,” he said in a news release. “This is a huge loss for the zoo family and the gorilla population worldwide.”

Witness Kim O’Connor shared video she and her family recorded with WLWT-TV of the boy and Harambe. The two appear in a corner of the exhibit while a voice yells “Somebody call the zoo!” and “Mommy’s right here.” Later, the two are shown in the moat. At one point, Harambe touches the boy’s back and arms. A woman’s voice is heard saying “Be calm, be calm.”

The station reports more graphic parts of the video not shown include Harambe dragging the boy.

Two female gorillas also were in the enclosure when the boy fell in but zoo officials said only the male remained with the child.

Maynard said the gorilla didn’t appear to be attacking the child, but he said it was “an extremely strong” animal in an agitated situation. He said tranquilizing the gorilla wouldn’t have knocked it out immediately, leaving the boy in danger.

It was the first time that the team had killed a zoo animal in such an emergency situation, Maynard said. He called it “a very sad day” at the zoo.

The area around the gorilla exhibit was closed off Saturday afternoon as zoo visitors reported hearing screaming.

Maynard said the zoo believes the exhibit remains safe.

The zoo will be open on Sunday but officials said the gorilla exhibit has been closed until further notice.

The zoo prides itself for its work in protecting endangered species, and has been part of successful captive breeding efforts in recent years in the effort to save the endangered Sumatran rhino.

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File-This May 9, 2011, file photo shows Thane Maynard, executive director of The Cincinnati Zoo, speaking at a dedication ceremony for the zoo’s solar canopy parking lot cover. The Cincinnati Zoo’s director says zoo security officers killed a 17-year-old gorilla that had grabbed a small boy who fell into the gorilla exhibit moat. Director Maynard says the 3-year-old boy is expected to recover after being picked up and dragged by the gorilla Saturday, May 28, 2016, for about 10 minutes. He was taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

Follow Dan Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell

For some of his other recent stories: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-sewell

At Hiroshima Memorial, Obama Says Nuclear Arms Require ‘Moral Revolution’

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Such failures by the Japanese to acknowledge their own role in the bombings has long bothered the Chinese, Koreans and others who suffered under the empire’s rule. And with Mr. Abe as Mr. Obama’s host, those wounded feelings could fester. Mr. Abe has promoted a version of history that plays down Japan’s wartime transgressions, and he has moved to give the military limited powers to fight in foreign conflicts, shedding pacifist constraints in place since World War II.

The Chinese government suggested on Friday that the wartime atrocities committed by Japan on Chinese soil, notably in the city of Nanjing, deserved more attention than the bombing of Hiroshima. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has not commented on Mr. Obama’s visit and is on a tour of several African countries.

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IS grabs territory from Syrian rebels near Turkish border

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BEIRUT (AP) — Militants of the Islamic State group on Friday seized a string of villages from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border in rapid advances that forced the evacuation of a hospital and trapped tens of thousands of people amid heavy fighting, Syrian opposition activists and an international medical organization said.

The advances in the northern Aleppo province brought the militants to within three 3 kilometers (2 miles) of the rebel-held town of Azaz and cut off supplies to Marea further south, another rebel stronghold north of Aleppo city.

They also demonstrated the Islamic State group’s ability to stage major offensives and capture new areas, despite a string of recent losses in Syria and Iraq. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said Friday’s advance was the biggest by IS in Aleppo province in two years.

Human Rights Watch said around 165,000 civilians are trapped near the Turkish border as a result of the fighting. Turkey has closed its borders with Syria for the past 15 months, and HRW says Turkish border guards enforcing the closure have at times shot at and assaulted Syrian asylum seekers as they try to reach safety in Turkey — charges the Turkish government denies.

“While the world speaks about fighting ISIS, their silence is deafening when it comes to the basic rights of those fleeing ISIS,” Gerry Simpson, senior researcher with the group’s refugee program, wrote in a dispatch.

The IS offensive began Thursday night. By Friday, the group had captured six villages east of Azaz including Kaljibrin, cutting off rebels in Marea from the Azaz pocket.

The rebels in the area — which include mainstream opposition fighters known as the Free Syrian Army along with some ultraconservative Islamic insurgent factions — have been squeezed between IS to the east and predominantly Kurdish forces to the west and south, while Turkey restricts the flow of goods and people through the border.

The IS news agency, Aamaq, also reported the advance, saying the Islamic State group seized six villages from the rebels.

The humanitarian medical organization Doctors Without Borders said its team is currently evacuating patients and staff from the Al Salama hospital, which it runs in Azaz, after the frontline shifted to within three kilometers (2 miles) from the facility.

The group, known by its French acronym MSF, said a small skeleton team will remain behind to stabilize and refer patients to other health facilities in the area.

“MSF has had to evacuate most patients and staff from our hospital as front lines have come too close,” said Pablo Marco, MSF operations manager for the Middle East. “We are terribly concerned about the fate of our hospital and our patients, and about the estimated 100,000 people trapped between the Turkish border and active front lines.

“There is nowhere for people to flee to as the fighting gets closer,” he said.

Al Salama hospital is the largest of six medical facilities run by MSF in Syria.

Azaz, which hosts tens of thousands of internally displaced people, lies north of Aleppo city, which has been divided between a rebel-held east and government-held west.

A route known as the Azaz corridor links rebel-held eastern Aleppo with Turkey. That has been a lifeline for the rebels since 2012, but a government offensive backed by Russian air power and regional militias earlier this year dislodged rebels from parts of Azaz and severed their corridor between the Turkish border and Aleppo.

The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are fighting for their autonomy in the multilayered conflict, also gained ground against the rebels.

In recent months, Syrian rebel factions in Azaz have separately come under fire from the extremist IS group, pro-government forces and the SDF.

MSF and other aid organizations warned earlier this month that the humanitarian situation for over 100,000 people trapped in the Azaz rebel-held pocket was critical.

On Thursday, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, said he plans for a resumption of peace talks “as soon as feasible” between the government and opposition but that he set no new date and expects that it will “certainly not” come within the next two to three weeks, his office said.

The lack of a firm date for negotiations testifies to continued violence in Syria and difficulties for U.N. efforts to ship humanitarian aid to beleaguered Syrians as fighting rages between President Bashar Assad’s troops and their allies and rebel fighters. The talks were suspended last month with little to no progress.

Elsewhere in Aleppo, more than 30 people including 10 children were killed in airstrikes on the rebel-held towns of Anadan and Hraytan just north of Aleppo city, opposition activists said.

Also Friday, the U.N. refugee agency reported a “spike” in the number of Iraqis trying to flee into Syria to escape the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is controlled by the Islamic State group.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: “Just picture this: we have refugees fleeing to Syria” — now in its sixth year of civil war.

The agency says that nearly 4,300 people arrived at al-Hol camp in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah governorate in May.

UNHCR on Thursday began airlifting tents, blankets, mattresses and other items to the Hasakah city of Qamishli in hopes of helping up to 50,000 people.

The Iraqi government in March announced a highly publicized plan to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. But only a handful of nearby villages have been captured since then.

___

Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report. Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, speaks during a news conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, May 26, 2016. De Mistura says he’ll speak to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday and announce afterward plans for a resumption of stalled peace talks between the government and the opposition. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

IS militants fight rebels in north Syria strongholds

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BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants entered a Syrian opposition stronghold in the country’s north on Saturday, clashing with rebels on the edges of the town as the extremist group built on its most significant advance near the Turkish border in two years, Syrian opposition groups and IS media said.

More than 160,000 civilians are trapped in the fighting, which also forced the evacuation of one of the few remaining hospitals in the area, run by the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders.

On Saturday, IS fighters staged two suicide bombings targeting “opposition forces” near Marea, IS said via its news agency, Aamaq.

Following the suicide bombings, IS militants entered Marea and fighting began inside the town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition media outfit that tracks Syria’s civil war.

The territorial gains around the rebel strongholds of Marea and Azaz, north of Aleppo city, are a blow to the Turkey and Saudi-backed rebels, who have been struggling to retain a foothold in the region while being squeezed by opponents from all sides. They also demonstrated the Islamic State group’s ability to stage major offensives and capture new areas, despite a string of recent losses in Syria and Iraq.

The IS offensive targeting Syrian opposition strongholds near the Turkish border began Thursday night.

On Friday, militants of the group captured six villages near Azaz, triggering intense fighting that trapped tens of thousands of civilians unable to flee to safety while Turkey’s border remains closed. A few hundred fled west to the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin.

People are “terrified for their lives,” the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. The group said it has received confirmed reports that at least four entire families, including women and children, were killed Friday on the outskirts of the town of Azaz.

The IRC runs centers for both children and women in Azaz and provides clean water and sanitation to a camp supporting 8,500 people. More than half the camp’s population has left to find safety elsewhere in the town, it said. The IRC also relocated its staff from the centers and camp to shelter to safer areas of Azaz until the situation enables them to return.

The U.N. refugee agency said it was “deeply concerned” about the fighting affecting thousands of vulnerable civilians.

“Fleeing civilians are being caught in crossfire and are facing challenges to access medical services, food, water and safety,” it said in a statement Saturday.

The advances brought the militants to within few kilometers of the rebel-held town of Azaz and cut off supplies to Marea further south. Marea has long been considered a bastion of moderate Syrian revolutionary forces fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Azaz, which hosts tens of thousands of internally displaced people, lies north of Aleppo city, which has been divided between a rebel-held east and government-held west.

A route known as the Azaz corridor links rebel-held eastern Aleppo with Turkey. That has been a lifeline for the rebels since 2012, but a government offensive backed by Russian air power and regional militias earlier this year dislodged rebels from parts of Azaz and severed their corridor between the Turkish border and Aleppo.

The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are fighting for their autonomy in the multilayered conflict, also gained ground against the rebels.

In recent months, Syrian rebel factions in Azaz — which include mainstream opposition fighters known as the Free Syrian Army along with some ultraconservative Islamic insurgent factions — have been squeezed between IS to the east and predominantly Kurdish forces to the west and south, while Turkey restricts the flow of goods and people through the border.

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FILE – In this Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 file photo, smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. Islamic State militants entered a Syrian opposition stronghold in the country’s north on Saturday, clashing with rebels on the edges of the town as the extremist group built on its most significant advance near the Turkish border in two years, Syrian opposition groups and IS media said. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo, File)

Japan shares G-7 push for inclusive growth with Asia, Africa

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NAGOYA, Japan (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is sharing a push by the Group of Seven advanced industrial nations to promote inclusive growth across the globe in meetings with leaders of seven developing countries.

The bilateral summit meetings with leaders of Bangladesh, Chad, Indonesia, Laos, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Vietnam in this central Japanese city on Saturday followed a gathering with G-7 leaders after their annual summit, which was held in a nearby seaside resort. Chad’s President Idriss Deby was representing the African Union at the meetings in Japan.

At that session, the leaders agreed to promote infrastructure development to help boost growth, Japanese officials said. They also voiced their support for the G-7’s stance on the need for peacefully settling territorial disputes according to law — a reference to frustrations over China’s growing presence in areas of the South China Sea also claimed by its neighbors.

Laos, Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea are among the poorest nations in Asia. Vietnam and Indonesia are two of the fastest-growing developing economies. During the summit, Abe expressed strong concern over slowdowns in China and some other emerging economies that have sapped global growth at a time when Japan and European nations are struggling to keep their own recoveries on track.

A more than 50 percent plunge in commodity prices was a key signal of the risks to growth, Abe said.

“What we are concerned about the most is contraction of the world economy,” Abe said

Japan has pledged to increase its development assistance, help finance an insurance fund for health emergencies in the developing world and to offer training to thousands of people in the developing world as part of its own contribution to bridging economic disparities.

The G-7 meeting also endorsed an effort to help 500 million people in developing countries escape hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, poses with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc prior to their meeting at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo Saturday, May 28, 2016. The bilateral meeting followed a gathering with G-7 leaders after their annual summit in Shima, central Japan. (Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo via AP)

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