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Image source: G7uk.org

China has accused the G7 of “political manipulation” after it criticized Beijing over a range of issues.

In a joint statement at the end of a three-day summit, G7 leaders urged China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Issues highlighted included abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority group and the crackdown on Hong Kong pro-democracy activists.

China’s embassy in the UK accused the G7 of “baseless accusations”.

The statement by the G7 – the world’s seven largest so-called advanced economies – included pledges on a number of issues, such as ending the coronavirus pandemic and steps to tackle climate change, as well as references to China.

G7: Russia faces further economic sanctions over Ukraine crisis

The G7 group, made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, called on China to respect human rights in Xinjiang, a north-western region that is home to the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

The G7 statement also called for rights and freedoms to be respected in Hong Kong. The leaders said Hong Kong should retain a “high degree of autonomy”, as established under agreements when it was handed back to China in 1997.

The statement underscored the “importance of peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait – a heavily-policed waterway that separates China and Taiwan. China sees democratic Taiwan as a breakaway province, but Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign state.

It also demanded a new investigation in China into the origins of Covid-19.

President Joe Biden said he was “satisfied” with the statement’s language on China.

A stronger message on China is expected to be issued by leaders of the NATO military alliance at a meeting on June 14.

“We know that China does not share our values… we need to respond together as an alliance,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said as he arrived at the one-day summit in Brussels.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the country would feature in NATO’s communiqué “in a more robust way than we’ve ever seen before”.

The US has given Turkey an ultimatum to choose between buying US fighter jets and Russian anti-aircraft missile systems by the end of July.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan set out the deadline in a letter to his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar.

Turkey, Patrick Shanahan said, could not have both America’s F-35 advanced fighter jets and Russia’s S-400 systems.

The two NATO allies have been locked in a row over the S-400 for months.

The US argues that the Russian systems are both incompatible with NATO defense systems and pose a security threat, and wants Turkey to buy its Patriot anti-aircraft systems instead.

Turkey, which has been pursuing an increasingly independent defense policy, has signed up to buying 100 F-35s, and has invested heavily in the F-35 program, with Turkish companies producing 937 of the plane’s parts.

Patrick Shanahan says in his letter that the US is “disappointed” to hear that Turkish personnel have been sent to Russia to train on the S-400.

“Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400,” he writes.

“You still have the option to change course on the S-400.”

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen

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Patrick Shanahan’s letter includes a schedule for winding down Turkish participation in F-35 pilot training.

The first four F-35s due to be delivered to Turkey have still not left the US, officially to allow Turkish pilots to train in them in America.

On June 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “determined” to proceed with the S-400 deal.

“Unfortunately we haven’t received a positive proposal from the American side on the subject of Patriots like the S-400s from Russia,” he said.

Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO, a 29-member military alliance set up to defend against what was at the time the Soviet Union.

The head of Russia’s state defense conglomerate Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, was quoted as saying on Friday that Russia would start delivering the S-400 to Turkey in “about two months”.

The S-400 “Triumf” is one of the most sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems in the world.

The Russian missile has a range of 400km (250 miles), and one S-400 integrated system can shoot down up to 80 targets simultaneously.

Russia says it can hit aerial targets ranging from low-flying drones to aircraft flying at various altitudes and long-range missiles.

Rex Tillerson has been narrowly approved as secretary of state, despite concerns about his business ties to Russia.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee split along party lines, with all 11 Republicans voting in favor and all 10 Democrats against. A full vote will now be held in the Republican-run Senate.

The move capped a busy day for Donald Trump’s administration.

Most notable was the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), fulfilling a campaign pledge.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order to pull out from the 12-nation trade deal that had been a linchpin of former President Barack Obama’s Asia policy.

He said: “Great thing for the American worker what we just did.”

Also on January 23, the Senate confirmed Mike Pompeo as Donald Trump’s CIA director.

Mike Pompeo’s immediate task, correspondents say, will be to establish an effective relationship between the spy agency and Donald Trump.

Image source Flickr

Donald Trump has been critical of the CIA for concluding that Russia had been actively working to influence the US presidential election in his favor.

In another development, new US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Washington had an “unshakeable commitment” to NATO, despite Donald Trump’s earlier description of the military alliance as “obsolete”.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Rex Tillerson after leading Republican Senator Marco Rubio dropped his opposition.

Marco Rubio sparred with Rex Tillerson during confirmation hearings earlier this month, accusing him of being soft on Russia.

The 64-year-old former head of Exxon Mobil knows Russian President Vladimir Putin through his business dealings.

However, Rex Tillerson has criticized Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula in 2014.

Marco Rubio said that although he had doubts over the choice, he believed a new president was entitled to deference in assembling his cabinet.

“Despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson’s nomination in committee and in the full Senate,” said Marco Rubio.

He had challenged Rex Tillerson over his refusal to call President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” over Russia’s air strikes in Syria and his failure to condemn strongly enough human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

Marco Rubio was among the candidates who fought Donald Trump in the battle for the Republican presidential ticket.

The partisan split in the voting is unusual. Traditionally, nominees for secretary of state have been approved by overwhelming votes from both parties.

Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s top Democrat, had said he would not vote for Rex Tillerson, also over his position on Russia as well as other issues.

He also suggested that Rex Tillerson’s “business orientation” could “compromise his ability as secretary of state to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined” America.

While critics raise concern about Rex Tillerson’s ability to trade in his corporate interest for a national one, some supporters suggest the former CEO’s background as a global dealmaker may bring fresh perspective to the nation’s top diplomatic post.

At a closed doors meeting on January 23, Donald Trump told congressional leaders he would have won the popular vote in the election if millions of undocumented immigrants had not voted illegally. He gave no evidence for the claim.

Hillary Clinton won nearly three million votes more than Donald Trump, who got more support in key swing states and won the Electoral College.

However, any notion of widespread voter fraud was widely rejected as untrue when Donald Trump made the same claim in November.


Donald Trump has said German Chancellor Angela Merkel made “one very catastrophic mistake” by admitting more than 1 million refugees.

The president-elect said Angela Merkel was by far Europe’s most important leader, and that the EU had become a vehicle for Germany.

Donald Trump was giving details of his foreign policy goals in an interview with British and German newspapers, Times and Bild.

He told the publications his priority was to create fairer trade deals for the US and have strong borders.

Donald Trump said the United States had to address its trade deficit with the rest of the world, particularly with China.

The emphasis for his administration should be smart trade, rather than free trade, the president-elect said.

The interview was conducted for the Times by UK’s lawmaker Michael Gove, who played a key role in the Vote Leave campaign that led to Brexit, and who also has a column in the newspaper.

An image of Michael Gove and Donald Trump giving a thumbs-up at New York’s Trump Tower, where they met, was shared on Twitter.

Image source Flickr

Asked about a possible deal with Russia, Donald Trump said nuclear weapons should be part of it and “reduced very substantially”, in return for lifting US sanctions.

Turning to the Middle East, Donald Trump condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq as possibly the worst decision ever made in the history of the country, and said safe zones should have been created within Syria and paid for by the United States’ Gulf allies.

In a separate interview with the Washington Post, Donald Trump said he was close to finalizing a replacement for President Barack Obama’s healthcare program, the Affordable Care Act.

Donald Trump gave few details, other than saying there would be healthcare for everybody and that costs would be lower.

The president-elect said he was waiting for his nominee for health secretary, Tom Price, to be confirmed, before unveiling the plan.

Donald Trump also spoke about the UK and Brexit, saying he thought the UK was “so smart in getting out” of the EU.

“Countries want their own identity and the UK wanted its own identity,” he said.

“I think you’re doing great, I think it’s going great.”

Donald Trump predicted that more countries would follow the same path.

“I think people want . . . their own identity, so if you ask me … I believe others will leave.”

During the interview, Donald Trump said he thought Angela Merkel was the “by far the most important European leader”.

“If you look at the European Union, it’s Germany – it’s basically a vehicle for Germany,” he said.

“I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals.”

Donald Trump linked the migrant issue with the UK referendum vote to leave the EU.

“I do believe this, if they [EU countries] hadn’t been forced to take in all of the refugees, so many, with all the problems that it . . . entails, I think that you wouldn’t have a Brexit.

“It probably could have worked out but this was the final straw, this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Donald Trump repeated his vow to be tough on immigration into the US.

“People don’t want to have other people coming in and destroying their country. In this country we are going to go very strong borders from the day I get in,” he said.

The president-elect also stressed that he would “start off trusting both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mrs. Merkel” on taking office, but would “see how long that lasts”.

Talking about international security, Donald Trump argued that he had said “a long time ago that NATO had problems”.

“One: that it was obsolete because it was designed many many years ago, and number two: that the countries weren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay.”

He said that only five countries were paying what they should into the NATO budget.

“Five. It’s not much… With that being said, NATO is very important to me.”

Donald Trump was also asked if he would continue to use Twitter after his inauguration, and said he would keep up his habit of publishing streams of messages on the social network.

“It’s working – and the tweeting, I thought I’d do less of it, but I’m covered so dishonestly by the press, so dishonestly,” he said.

“I can go bing bing bing . . . and they put it on and as soon as I tweet it out. This morning on television Fox: <<Donald Trump, we have breaking news>>.”

President Barack Obama is seeking to assure United States allies that President-elect Donald Trump will honor the country’s international alliances when he takes office in January.

He told reporters that Donald Trump had “expressed a great interest” in maintaining the US commitment to NATO.

During the campaign, Donald Trump said he might abandon a guarantee of protection for fellow NATO countries.

The Republican candidate’s statements alarmed the Baltic states, which fear Russian aggression.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty commits allies to come to the aid of a member state under attack.

In July, the Republican candidate said the US would only come to the aid of allies if they have “fulfilled their obligations to us”.

The US has long been pressing its European allies to spend more on defense.

President Obama was speaking hours before his arrival in Greece, on his final official overseas trip.Barack Obama blames media for Donald Trump coverage

He will later travel on to Germany and then to Peru.

Security has been stepped up in the Greek capital Athens, where anti-US protests are planned.

Barack Obama is expected to use his final foreign visit to calm nerves over the forthcoming administration of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump’s surprise election victory has raised concern among some world leaders after a string of controversial statements he made during his campaign.

At a White House news conference on November 14, President Obama said Donald Trump had “expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships”.

He said this included “strong and robust NATO” partnerships, which he said would convey “enormous continuity” to the world.

The president said that in last week’s White House meeting with his successor, he had urged Donald Trump to send “some signals of unity… and to reach out to minority groups or women or others that were concerned about the tenor of the campaign”.

President Obama said he “absolutely” had concerns about Donald Trump but urged his fellow Democrats to accept the result and “recognize that that is how democracy works”.

On November 15, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed confidence about the Western alliance’s future.

“President-elect Donald Trump stated during the election campaign that he is a big fan of NATO, and I am certain that he will be a president… who will live up to all the commitments of the United States in the alliance,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said on November 14 that President Vladimir Putin had spoken by phone to Donald Trump and agreed to work with him towards improving US-Russia relations.

Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, describing him as a stronger leader than Barack Obama.

Greek minister of state Nikos Pappas said there was surprise in Greece as elsewhere at the election result, but added: “Everybody would be expecting the US government to continue to be on our side.”

“The mood of Greek people for this political change is <<wait and see>>,” he said.

High on the agenda in talks between Barack Obama and PM Alexis Tsipras on November 15 will be Greece’s crippling debt problems.

The US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have urged restructuring of the debt but face resistance from EU states, particularly Germany.

As preparations for Barack Obama’s visit went ahead, Greek anarchist and left-wing groups announced they were planning protest marches “against the representative of imperialist powers”.

Police banned public gatherings in central Athens and near the city’s international airport until after Barack Obama’s departure. Extra officers are also being deployed.

The last official visit to Greece of a sitting US president – by Bill Clinton in 1999 – was marked by extensive violent protests.

Hillary Clinton rebuked Republicans and defended NATO in a counter-terrorism speech after March 22 deadly attacks in Brussels.

The Democratic frontrunner’s comments contrasted sharply with her Republican counterparts, namely Donald Trump, who has suggested scaling back US commitments to NATO.

Hillary Clinton said the US should consult more deeply with Arab partners and stand with Europe in its time of need.

“Our European allies stood with us on 9/11. It’s time to return the favor” she said.Hillary Clinton on Brussels attacks

“America should not turn its back on its allies,” Hillary Clinton said during remarks at Stanford University in California, and insulting them is not a good way to fight terrorism.

The former secretary of state addressed Donald Trump’s calls to reinstate the use of torture and water boarding to glean information from those accused of terrorism.

“I am proud to have been part of an administration that outlawed torture,” Hillary Clinton said.

The deadly attacks in Brussels that killed 34 people are the “latest brutal reminder” that more must be one to defeat to ISIS militant group, she said.

The US and Europe should take a “harder look” at airport security protocols, and other “soft targets” that ISIS may attack.

Hillary Clinton also said proposal in Congress to make a national commission on encryption could help fight online radicalization.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has suggested in the wake of Brussels attacks that police patrol Muslim neighborhoods to fight terrorism, and has also suggested “carpet-bombing” ISIS in Syria.

Hillary Clinton called his suggestion “wrong, counterproductive and dangerous,” and that it would be similar to “treating American Muslims like criminals”.

Donald Trump has said it is acceptable to kill terrorists’ families and that the US should not admit any Muslims into its borders.

Hillary Clinton said of Donald Trump’s foreign policy views: “If Mr. Trump gets his way, it will be like Christmas in the Kremlin.”

Montenegro has been invited to join NATO, in its first expansion for six years.

The decision, described by NATO head Jens Stoltenberg as “historic”, comes 16 years after the alliance bombed Montenegro during the Kosovo war, when it was still part of Yugoslavia.

Russia has reacted to the news. Montenegro’s accession would result in “retaliatory actions”, said a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Accession talks are expected to take about a year to complete.Montenegro NATO

The invitation to Montenegro is NATO’s first expansion into Eastern Europe since Albania and Croatia joined in 2009.

The mountainous Adriatic state of 650,000 people has a small military with about 2,000 active members.

NATO diplomats say it sends a message to Russia that it cannot veto the alliance’s expansion – but Russia has said it will retaliate.

“The continued eastward expansion of NATO and NATO’s military infrastructure cannot but result in retaliatory actions from the east, i.e. from the Russian side, in terms of ensuring security and supporting the parity of interests,” Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Dmitry Peskov added that it was too early to specify what the retaliatory actions would be.

Montenegrins themselves remain divided over joining.

Many remain angry that NATO bombed Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 as part of a strategy to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in Serbia’s then southern province of Kosovo.

Montenegro has also seen an influx of Russian money, homebuyers and tourists since splitting from Serbia in 2006.

Milo Djukanovic’s government – which is in favor of joining – has resisted calls from some opposition parties for a referendum on the issue.

However, NATO diplomats point to polls that suggest public opinion is narrowly in favor of joining.

Besides Montenegro and Georgia, the other current candidates for NATO membership are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.

Turkey has reportedly shot down a Russian warplane on the border with Syria.

According to Russia’s defense ministry, a Su-24 had crashed on Syrian territory after being hit by fire from the ground, and that its pilots had managed to eject.

However, Turkish military officials said Turkish F-16s had shot down the plane after repeatedly warning its pilots they were violating Turkish airspace.

Video showed the warplane crashing in a rebel-held area of Latakia province.

It is the first time a Russian military aircraft has crashed in Syria since Moscow launched airstrikes against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad in late September.

Photo Ap

Photo Ap

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the incident as “very serious”, but cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions.

The NATO military alliance, to which Turkey belongs, said it was following the situation “closely” and was in contact with the Turkish authorities.

The Russian defense ministry confirmed on November 24 that a Russian Su-24 had “crashed on Syrian territory, having been hit from the ground” while it was flying at an altitude of 6,000m [19,685ft].

“Efforts are being made to ascertain what happened to the pilots. According to preliminary reports, the pilots have managed to self-eject,” the ministry was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The ministry stressed that “throughout its flight, the aircraft remained exclusively above Syrian territory”, adding: “Objective monitoring data shows it.”

However, the Turkish military said two F-16s on patrol had fired on an unidentified aircraft at 09:24 local time after warning it 10 times over five minutes about violating Turkish airspace over the town of Yayladagi, in Hatay province.

It noted that the F-16s had intervened “in accordance with the rules of engagement”, which were changed after Syria shot down a Turkish plane in 2012.

According to th Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jet had crashed in the mountainous Jabal Turkmen area of Latakia, where air strikes and fighting between rebels and Syrian government forces had been reported earlier on Tuesday.

Russian military helicopters were searching for the pilots near the crash site in the predominantly Turkmen Bayir Bucak area, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV quoted an ethnic Turkmen rebel group as saying it had captured one of the Su-24’s two pilots and were “looking for the other”.

A video posted online by rebels meanwhile appeared to show a Russian pilot immobile on the ground, either badly wounded or dead.

Russian aircraft have flown hundreds of sorties over northern Syria since September. Moscow says they have targeted only “terrorists”, but activists say its strikes have mainly hit Western-backed rebel groups.

Turkey, a vehement opponent of Syria’s president, has warned against violations of its airspace by Russian and Syrian aircraft.

Last month, Ankara said Turkish F-16s had intercepted a Russian jet that crossed its border and two Turkish jets had been harassed by an unidentified Mig-29.

The Turkish foreign ministry also summoned the Russian ambassador last week to warn him that there would be “serious consequences” if the Russian air force did not immediately stop bombing “civilian Turkmen villages” in Bayir Bucak.


Vladimir Putin has dismissed the idea that Russia could attack NATO as “insane”.

In an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera, President Vladimir Putin says Russia is not a threat to NATO.

The Russian president told the publication: “Only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO.”

The Western alliance is bolstering its military presence in its eastern European members in response to their fears of Russian threat, following its involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

NATO says that Russia is backing rebels in Ukraine – a claim denied by Moscow.

Photo Kremlin.ru

Photo Kremlin.ru

Three Baltic countries are preparing to ask for a permanent presence of NATO troops on their soil to act as a deterrent to the Russian military.

Six NATO bases are being set up and a 5,000-strong “spearhead” force established.

In his interview with the Italian publication, Vladimir Putin said some countries were “simply taking advantage of people’s fears with regard to Russia” in order to receive “some supplementary military, economic, financial or some other aid”.

“There is no need to fear Russia,” he said.

“The world has changed so drastically that people with some common sense cannot even imagine such a large-scale military conflict today. We have other things to think about, I assure you.”

Heavy fighting has erupted in Ukraine this week, focusing on the towns of Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, west of rebel-held Donetsk.

The opposing sides have accused each other of shattering February’s Minsk ceasefire, requiring them to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko told a news conference on June 5 that Russia had massed troops on the border and in rebel-held areas “in unprecedented numbers” – but Russia again denied that its military was involved in Ukraine.

Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine has deployed 50,000 troops in the conflict zone to meet the threat.

More than 6,400 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since the conflict began in April 2014, when rebels seized large parts of two eastern regions, following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula.

The Ukraine crisis is on the agenda of talks of leaders of the most industrialized group of countries – the G7 – beginning on June 7, without Russia – usually its eight member.


Russian air forces have begun a large exercise involving around 250 aircraft and 12,000 service personnel.

The Russian defense ministry described the four-day drill as a “massive surprise inspection”, to check combat readiness.

The tests began on the same day as NATO and some of its partners started an Arctic training exercise.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and incursions into Western airspace have led to rising tensions with the West.

According to reports on the Russian agencies Interfax and Tass, the inspection of the aviation group and air defense forces in the central military district involves almost 700 weapons and pieces of military hardware.Russian air forces exercise

During the exercise, Russia’s long-range aircraft are due to carry out cruise missile strikes on practice targets in the Komi republic.

The current drills are in preparation for a larger exercise known as Center-2015 in the next few months.

Asked about Russia’s assertiveness in a TV interview, Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin joked that “tanks don’t need visas”.

Dmitry Rogozin is himself on EU and US blacklists as part of sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, limiting his travel options.

Russia has been heavily criticized in recent months over increased air activity around the Nordic countries, including several airspace violations by military aircraft.

NATO’s two-week training exercise in the region – which began on the same day as Russia’s tests – will be based in the north of Norway, Sweden and Finland.

It will involve 115 fighter planes and 3,600 troops from nine countries.

NATO’s Arctic Challenge Exercise will also involve troops and planes from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands as well as neutral Switzerland.

The exercise is the second of its kind, following similar tests in 2013.

Taavi Roivas’ ruling Reform Party won Estonia’s general elections overshadowed by security concerns sparked by Russia’s role in Ukraine.

PM Taavi Roivas, whose party has 30 seats, is set to form a coalition in the 101-member parliament.

The results are a blow to the Centre Party, which has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who were expected to do well in the poll.

Estonia was once part of the former Soviet Union but is now a NATO member.

“The Reform Party is the 2015 winner of the parliamentary elections,” Taavi Roivas declared on the ETV public television station.

Taavi Roivas’ party claimed 27.7% with most of the votes counted, down from 28.6% at the last parliamentary elections in 2011.Taavi Roivas party wins Estonia elections 2015

The pro-Russian Centre Party took 24.8% of the votes, winning one more seat to take them to 27 in total.

The Social Democrats, who have been Reform’s coalition partner, now hold 15 seats after losing four while the IRL party lost 9 seats to take them to 14.

Analysts said Reform Party could face some difficulty in forming a new coalition, with parliament now split between six parties rather than the previous four.

The two newcomers – a free-market liberal party and an anti-immigration conservative party – won 15 seats between them.

Asked whether he would contemplate forming a coalition with the Centre Party, Taavi Roivas said “definitely not”.

In the run up to the election, Taavi Roivas had called for an “Estonian-minded government”. At 35, he is the youngest prime minister in Europe.

Estonia’s political debate has been dominated by economic issues and fears over defense due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

One voter in the capital, Tallinn, told the AFP news agency: “If [the Russians] come in here, Estonia can’t do anything.”

“I’m not sure NATO will help us out, Let’s hope that it will not go that far,” he added.

Estonia has seen a number of airspace violations by Russia, and last year a security official was detained by Russia and accused of spying.

Taavi Roivas has voiced concerns that Russia could seek to destabilize other former Soviet states following the conflict in Ukraine.

The Centre Party leader, Edgar Saavisar, favors a friendlier approach to Moscow, and has previously suggested that Russia’s annexation of Crimea could be legitimate.

About a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million population are ethnic Russians, many of whom are Centre Party supporters.

Estonia is a pioneer of electronic voting, with a reported one in five casting their vote online.

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Ukraine will abandon its non-aligned status and work towards NATO membership after a vote in the country’s parliament.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the move “counterproductive” and said it would boost tensions.

It is not clear when Ukraine will apply for NATO membership and many officials see it as a distant prospect.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko pledged to seek NATO membership over Russian support for rebels in the east.

Russia, which annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, denies supplying the rebels with weapons. However, it is subject to EU and US sanctions over the crisis.

In a vote in Ukraine’s parliament on December 23, lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the move by 303 to eight.

Speaking before the vote, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Ukraine was determined to pivot towards Europe and the West.Ukraine parliament NATO

“This will lead to integration in the European and the Euro-Atlantic space,” he said.

The non-aligned status, which Ukraine adopted in 2010 under Russian pressure, prevents states from joining military alliances.

Addressing foreign ambassadors on Monday night, President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine’s “fight for its independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty has turned into a decisive factor in our relations with the world”.

Russia has made clear that it opposes Ukraine’s move towards NATO.

Andrei Kelin, Russia’s envoy to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said on Tuesday: “It’s an unfriendly step towards us. This political vector will only add to nuisances and acuteness in ties.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev warned that Ukraine’s rejection of neutrality would have “negative consequences”.

“In essence, an application for NATO membership will turn Ukraine into a potential military opponent for Russia,” he wrote.

A NATO spokesman in Brussels said on December 23 that any accession to the alliance would probably take years, Reuters reported.

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Russian military equipment and combat troops entered Ukraine this week, NATO top commander has said.

“Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops” were sighted, General Philip Breedlove said.

Russia’s defense ministry denied that its troops were in eastern Ukraine to help pro-Russian separatists there.

However, the rebels have admitted being helped by “volunteers” from Russia.

The UN Security Council is convening an emergency session later on November 12 to discuss the reported sightings.

Russian military equipment and combat troops entered Ukraine

Russian military equipment and combat troops entered Ukraine

Heavy artillery fire rocked the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the industrial hub held by pro-Russian separatist rebels, on Wednesday morning.

It was unclear whether the fire came from besieging government forces or the rebels themselves, or both.

There were also reports of fighting near the rebel-held city of Luhansk. One Ukrainian soldier was killed and another injured north of Luhansk, when rebels fired on government positions near the village of Schastya, Ukrainian security forces said.

Back in August, NATO was warning about the deployment of Russian artillery batteries inside Ukraine, the supply of Russian military equipment to the rebel forces and the build-up of further Russian combat units at the Ukrainian frontier.

Since then many of these units have been withdrawn.

Now with tensions renewed, Nato’s Supreme Commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove has confirmed that over the past two days, NATO has seen columns of Russian armor, artillery and crucially – combat troops – entering Ukraine.

The question now is whether this is just a re-run of events in the summer or does a more significant clash beckon, perhaps one where the Kremlin may decide – in its terms – to teach the Ukrainians a military lesson.

Gen. Philip Breedlove also confirmed that NATO believes Russia is deploying nuclear-capable weapons to Crimea – a reference to reports that Russia is deploying short-range Iskander ballistic missiles there that could potentially be equipped with nuclear warheads.

About 1,300 NATO troops from 15 countries have begun a military exercise near Lviv in western Ukraine.

The US says the drill had been planned before the current crisis in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been battling pro-Russian rebels.

Clashes have continued in eastern Ukraine, particularly around the city of Donetsk, despite a ceasefire deal.

Russia denies sending troops to aid the rebels, as alleged by Ukraine and NATO.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Heletey said NATO countries had begun arming his nation in the fight against the rebels.

Valery Heletey did not specify the type of weapons being delivered or name the countries involved.

Several NATO members have denied similar statements made in the past.

Officials from the alliance say they have no plans to send lethal assistance to non-NATO member Ukraine – but member states are free to do so on a bilateral basis.

About 1,300 NATO troops from 15 countries have begun a military exercise near Lviv in western Ukraine

About 1,300 NATO troops from 15 countries have begun a military exercise near Lviv in western Ukraine

Some 200 US troops are taking part in the military exercise, codenamed Rapid Trident, near Lviv, on the Polish-Ukrainian border, some 600 miles) from the fighting in the east.

The exercise will bring together troops from several NATO member states and from former Soviet-bloc countries that are part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

Pro-Russian rebels have been engaged in heavy fighting with government forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since April. Some 2,600 people have been killed over the past five months of conflict.

Shelling was reported over the weekend around Donetsk’s government-held airport, with both sides accusing each other of endangering the truce.

Six people were killed and 15 hurt in the violence, Donetsk’s city council said.

NATO says Russia still has about 1,000 heavily armed troops in eastern Ukraine and about 20,000 more near the border.

Russia denies sending direct military help to the rebels, insisting that any Russian soldiers there are “volunteers”.

NATO has announced the formation of a new “spearhead” force numbering several thousand troops, which can be deployed to protect member countries in a matter of days.

It followed growing concern from NATO member countries bordering Russia over its involvement in Ukraine.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeier has warned that the crisis in eastern Ukraine is “slipping out of control” and needs to be reined in to avoid a military clash with Russia.

Frank Steinmeier made the remarks on the eve of an EU summit which will consider further sanctions against the Russian government.

Russia has denied claims by NATO that its forces illegally crossed into Ukraine to support separatists there.

Some 2,600 people have died in fighting between rebels and Ukrainian troops.

The conflict erupted in April when Russia’s annexation of Crimea prompted rebels to take control of large parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed Ukraine for the crisis, comparing its siege of Donetsk and Luhansk to the siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Russia could face new restrictions after a summit of the European Union’s 28 heads of state in Brussels on Saturday.

The EU and the US have already imposed sanctions against dozens of senior Russian officials, separatist commanders and Russian firms accused of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.

Russia has denied claims by NATO that its forces illegally crossed into Ukraine to support separatists there

Russia has denied claims by NATO that its forces illegally crossed into Ukraine to support separatists there (photo Reuters)

In late July, the EU also blacklisted some key economic sectors, prompting Russia to retaliate by banning food imports.

Russia’s energy minister has warned that the Ukrainian crisis could lead to a disruption of gas supplies to European countries this winter.

Earlier on Friday, NATO held an emergency meeting after releasing satellite images it said showed columns of Russian armed forces inside Ukrainian territory.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Russia to “take immediate and verifiable steps towards de-escalation”.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen also indicated NATO could consider Ukraine’s application to join the alliance, shortly after PM Arseny Yatsenyuk announced he was putting Ukraine on course for NATO membership.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting has continued near the strategic port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea. Rebel forces are trying to capture the city but Ukrainian government troops are digging in.

On August 28, the separatists seized the nearby town of Novoazovsk.

The separatists’ advance toward Mariupol has raised fears that the Kremlin might seek to create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea.

Rebels are also reported to have surrounded government soldiers in several places further north, near Donetsk city.

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NATO is holding an emergency meeting over eastern Ukraine crisis, as the West steps up its accusations of direct Russian involvement in the conflict.

On August 28, NATO released satellite images it said showed Russian forces inside Ukraine and said more than 1,000 troops were operating there.

Russia denies sending troops to eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian rebels have gained ground recently. Nearly 2,600 people have been killed since April, the UN says.

Heavy fighting is continuing near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Rebel forces are trying to capture the city but Ukrainian government troops are digging in.

On August 28, the separatists seized the nearby town of Novoazovsk.

The advance has raised fears that the Kremlin might seek to create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea – a territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.

Rebels are also reported to have surrounded government soldiers in several places further north, near the city of Donetsk.

Ukraine forces near the town of Ilovaysk say they are cut off and have been urgently asking for supplies and reinforcements.

NATO said that more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine

NATO said that more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine

Overnight, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the rebels to open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow encircled Ukrainian troops to leave without unnecessary casualties, though he did not specify the location.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko later told Russian TV that his fighters had agreed to the request, on condition that the Ukrainians hand over heavy weapons and ammunition.

At least 2,593 people had been killed in the conflict between mid-April and August 27, the UN said in its latest report.

Human rights violations like abduction and torture were “committed primarily by the armed groups”, referring to the rebels, it said.

Separately, Human Rights Watch said in a report that the rebels were subjecting civilians to torture, degrading treatment and forced labor.

The reports of Russian troops fighting with rebels prompted renewed Western criticism of Moscow’s role in the conflict.

President Barack Obama blamed Russia for the escalation but stopped short of saying its troops had invaded Ukraine.

“There is no doubt that this is not a home-grown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine,” he said.

“The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia.”

Barack Obama is due to discuss the crisis with European leaders at a NATO summit in the UK next week.

NATO released satellite images it said showed columns of Russian armed forces inside Ukrainian territory.

NATO Brigadier General Niko Tak said more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine, both supporting the separatists and fighting on their side.

At Thursday’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Samantha Power said Russia had “outright lied” about its role.

Her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin did not respond directly to Western accusations, but said: “There are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No-one is hiding that.”

He hit out at the Ukrainian government, accusing it of “waging war against its own people”.

Vitaly Churkin also questioned the presence of Western advisers in Ukraine and asked where Ukrainian troops were getting their weapons from.

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During his visit to Poland, President Barack Obama has unveiled plans for a $1billion fund to increase US military deployments to Europe.

Barack Obama, who will meet NATO leaders amid concerns over the Ukraine crisis, said the security of America’s European allies was “sacrosanct”.

In April, 150 US soldiers were sent to Poland for military exercises amid growing tensions with Russia.

Barack Obama will also visit Belgium and France during his tour.

Meanwhile, NATO defense ministers are set to meet in Brussels to discuss the long-term security implications of Russian actions over Ukraine.

The Kremlin denies Western claims that it is supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.

During his visit to Poland, President Barack Obama has unveiled plans for a $1billion fund to increase US military deployments to Europe

During his visit to Poland, President Barack Obama has unveiled plans for a $1billion fund to increase US military deployments to Europe (photo Reuters)

“Our commitment to Poland’s security as well as the security of our allies in central and eastern Europe is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct,” Barack Obama said after inspecting a joint unit of US and Polish F-16 pilots.

Speaking at a news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Barack Obama warned Russia against provoking further tensions in Ukraine.

He said Moscow should use its influence to call off separatists in Ukraine’s east.

Barack Obama reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO’s principle of collective defense, announcing plans for a $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative.

The program, which will fund additional US military rotations to Europe, will need congressional approval.

The US would also “step up partnership” with countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, he added.

Bronislaw Komorowski said Poland would increase its military budget to 2% of its GDP, a move Barack Obama welcomed as a “reminder that every [NATO] ally needs to carry their share” in the alliance.

In a statement, the White House said the European Reassurance Initiative would not “come at the expense of other defense priorities, such as our commitment to the Asia Pacific rebalance”.

In France, Barack will take part in ceremonies to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also invited, but the White House has already made it clear that the American and Russian leaders will not hold formal bilateral talks.

Washington and its European allies have repeatedly urged Moscow to de-escalate tensions in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has continued between separatists and government troops.

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NATO has decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region was the gravest threat to European security for a generation.

There could be no business as usual, he added.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen had earlier categorically denied reports that Russia was pulling its forces back from its border with Ukraine.

Moscow is believed to have massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in recent days, causing alarm in Kiev and the West.

Foreign ministers from the 28-member NATO bloc, gathering in Brussels for their first meeting since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, issued a strongly worded statement in which they condemned Russia’s “illegal” annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

NATO has decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia

NATO has decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia

They agreed to suspend NATO co-operation with Russia in a number of bodies but added that dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council could continue, as necessary, at ambassadorial level and above “to allow us to exchange views, first and foremost on this crisis. We will review Nato’s relations with Russia at our next meeting in June”.

They are also looking at options including situating permanent military bases in the Baltic states to reassure members in Eastern Europe. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused concern in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

NATO jets will take part in air patrols in the region later in a routine exercise that analysts say has taken on added significance due to the crisis. Several NATO countries, including the UK, US and France, have offered additional military aircraft.

Announcing the formal suspension of ties, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO’s message was clear: it stood by its allies, it stood by Ukraine and it stood by the international system of rules that had developed in recent decades. He urged Russia to be part of a solution “respecting international law and Ukraine’s borders”.

He also said NATO would offer Ukraine greater access to alliance exercises and support the development of its military.

Answering questions from reporters, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected NATO-Russia co-operation over Afghanistan – including counter-narcotics operations – to continue.

Ukrainian ministers were also in Brussels to meet their NATO counterparts. A joint NATO-Ukraine statement issued after their meeting announced that they would intensify co-operation and promote defense reforms in Ukraine through training and other programs.

In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry warned Kiev against any attempts to join NATO, saying such efforts in the past had “led to a freezing of Russian-Ukrainian political contacts, a <<headache>> in NATO-Russia relations and… a deepening split within Ukrainian society”.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel he had ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the border with eastern Ukraine.

However, Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters: “Unfortunately, I cannot confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops. This is not what we are seeing.”

Meanwhile, Russian energy firm Gazprom has announced an increase of the price it charges Ukraine for gas from Tuesday.

Gazprom’s chief executive Alexei Miller said the price of Russian gas for Ukraine had gone up to $385.5 per 1,000 cubic metres in the second quarter of 2014 from the previous rate of $268.5.

Alexei Miller added that Ukraine’s unpaid gas bills to Russia stood at $1.7 billion.

Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove has issued a warning about the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border.

US Air Force General Philip Breedlove said NATO was in particular concerned about the threat to Moldova’s Trans-Dniester region.

Russia said its forces east of Ukraine complied with international agreements.

The build-up has been allied with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, following the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president.

Moscow formally annexed Crimea after the predominantly ethnic-Russian region held a referendum which backed joining the Russian Federation.

Kiev and the West have condemned the vote as “illegal”.

Russian flags have now been hoisted at 189 Ukrainian military units and facilities in Crimea, the Interfax news agency reports.

Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove has issued a warning about the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine's border

Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove has issued a warning about the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border

On Sunday, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council chief Andriy Parubiy told a big rally in Kiev: “The aim of [President Vladimir] Putin is not Crimea, but all of Ukraine… His troops massed at the border are ready to attack at any moment.”

The comments by Gen. Philip Breedlove came at an event held by the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Brussels.

He said: “The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready.”

He added: “There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome.

“Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner.”

Trans-Dniester is a narrow strip of land between Dniester River and Ukraine’s south-western border and it proclaimed independence from Moldova in 1990.

The international community has not recognized its self-declared statehood.

As Crimea was annexed, the Trans-Dniester Supreme Soviet sent a request asking to join the Russian Federation.

On Sunday, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told the Itar-Tass agency: “The Russian Defense Ministry is in compliance with all international agreements limiting the number of troops in the border areas with Ukraine.”

Russia’s ambassador to the EU warned the US against sending troops or military aid to Ukraine, saying it would be a “grave mistake”.

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NATO has decided to deploy reconnaissance planes in Poland and Romania to monitor the Ukrainian crisis.

It gave the go-ahead for the flights on Monday, a Nato spokesman said.

“All AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System] reconnaissance flights will take place solely over alliance territory,” the official said.

The NATO move comes as Russia cements its control of Ukraine’s Crimea ahead of Sunday’s referendum to join Russia. Ukraine and the West say this is illegal.

In the latest move on Monday, armed men – said to be Russian troops and local militias – seized a military hospital in Crimea.

NATO will deploy reconnaissance planes in Poland and Romania to monitor the Ukrainian crisis

NATO will deploy reconnaissance planes in Poland and Romania to monitor the Ukrainian crisis

The attackers marched into the hospital in the regional capital Simferopol, threatening staff and some 30 patients.

Pro-Russian troops are also blockading Ukrainian troops across Crimea, which is an autonomous region.

Moscow has officially denied that its troops are taking part in the blockades, describing the armed men with no insignia as Crimea’s “self-defense” forces.

The new government in Kiev – as well as the US and EU – accuse Russia of invading Ukraine, in violation of international law.

NATO said the surveillance flights would “enhance the alliance’s situational awareness”.

Last week, the organization said it was reviewing all co-operation with Russia and stepping up its engagement with the government in Kiev.

NATO’s announcement on Monday came hours after men in military uniforms broke into the Simferopol hospital, where Ukrainian soldiers and veterans were being treated.

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Barack Obama has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year’s end.

President Obama conveyed the message in a phone call to Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a security agreement.

The US insists this agreement must be in place before it commits to leaving some troops behind for counter-insurgent operations and training.

The US has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001 when it toppled the Taliban.

Its forces went into the country following the 9/11 attacks on the US. With Afghan and Western allies, they quickly overthrew the Taliban authorities, but have faced insurgent attacks since then.

Correspondents say the disagreement over the bilateral security agreement (BSA) is the latest step in the long and deteriorating relationship between Washington and Hamid Karzai, who was once seen as a key US ally.

Barack Obama has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year's end

Barack Obama has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year’s end

The BSA, which offers legal protection for US troops and defines a post-2014 NATO training and anti-insurgent mission, was agreed by the two countries last year after months of negotiation.

It was endorsed at a national gathering (Loya Jirga) of Afghan elders in Kabul in November.

But Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the deal until a peace process is under way with the Taliban, adding that if he were to sign it, he would become responsible if Afghans were killed by US bombs.

“President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement], the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning,” the White House said in a statement.

“Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

“Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 US mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”

While Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the BSA, some candidates in April’s Afghan presidential elections have indicated they would.

Hamid Karzai, who has served two terms as Afghanistan’s first and only president since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, is obliged by law to stand down after the next election.

Analysts say the US statement clearly implies that Hamid Karzai’s stance will harm Afghanistan’s security long after he leaves office.

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Lithuania and Poland, the EU countries bordering Russia’s territory of Kaliningrad, say they are worried at reports that Moscow has deployed nuclear-capable missiles there.

Both countries issued statements of concern.

Russia has not confirmed the report but insists it has every right to station missiles in its western-most region.

Moscow has long threatened to move Iskander short-range missile systems to Kaliningrad in response to the United States’ own European missile shield.

Russia sees the missile shield as a threat to its nuclear deterrent.

It was one of the biggest sources of confrontation between Moscow and Washington during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama tried to “reset” relations with Russia, and the shield system was revised – but it survived in a different form and continued to antagonize Russia.

Lithuania and Poland are worried at reports that Moscow has deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad

Lithuania and Poland are worried at reports that Moscow has deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad

The US insists that the missile shield is not aimed at Russia but designed to defend Europe from attack from “rogue states” – assumed to include Iran.

A Russian defense ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, did not confirm the report – in the German newspaper Bild – that the Iskander system had been deployed to Kaliningrad.

But he did say: “Iskander operational-tactical missile systems have indeed been commissioned by the Western Military District’s missile and artillery forces,” adding that Russia’s deployment “does not violate any international treaties or agreements”.

The Western Military District includes parts of western and north-western Russia, including the Kaliningrad exclave, which is separated from Russia proper and wedged between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported on Monday that the missiles had already been stationed in the area for more than a year.

Lithuania’s Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said: “I am worried about signals that Russia is about to modernise missile systems it has deployed in Kaliningrad.

“Further militarization of this region, bordering the Baltic states and NATO, creates further anxiety, and we will be watching the situation there closely.”

The Polish foreign ministry said: “Plans to deploy new Iskander-M rockets in [Kaliningrad] are worrying.”

It added that such a deployment “would contradict effective Polish-Russian co-operation, in particular with respect to this region, and undermine constructive dialogue between NATO and Russia. We will raise this topic in our bilateral contacts with the Russian side.”

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NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

At a ceremony in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that from Wednesday “our own security and military forces will lead all the security activities”.

Observers say the best soldiers in the Afghan army are up to the task but there are lingering doubts about some.

International troops will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, providing military back-up when needed.

The ceremony came shortly after a suicide bomb attack in western Kabul killed three employees of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and wounded more than 20.

The attacker was believed to be targeting the convoy of prominent politician and Hazara leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, who escaped with light injuries.

Meanwhile, sources close to Taliban representatives have confirmed to the BBC that they are opening an office in the Qatari capital Doha, possibly as early as Tuesday. It is seen as an important stage in establishing a political face for the movement.

The Taliban has in the past refused talks with Hamid Karzai’s government, calling it a puppet of the US. But the Afghan president said on Tuesday he is sending representatives to Qatar to discuss peace talks with the movement.

Hamid Karzai has been outspoken about his upset at previous US and Qatari efforts to kick-start the peace process without properly consulting his government.

There is also concern within the presidential palace that the Taliban will use the political office in Qatar to raise funds.

NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001

NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001

Tuesday’s ceremony saw the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) hand over control of the last 95 districts in a transition process that began in 2011.

The last remaining districts included 13 in Kandahar province – the birthplace of the Taliban – and 12 each in Nangarhar, Khost and Paktika, all bastions of insurgent activity along the border with Pakistan.

Hamid Karzai called it an historic day and a moment of personal pride.

“This has been one of my greatest desires and pursuits, and I am glad that I, as an Afghan citizen and an Afghan president, have reached this objective today,” he said.

He reiterated a shift in military strategy, ruling out the future use of air strikes on what he called Afghan homes and villages; the issue of NATO air strikes and civilian casualties has long been a sensitive one.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghan forces were taking up the role with “remarkable resolve” but said there was still 18 months of hard work ahead for ISAF troops.

“We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed, but we will no longer plan, execute or lead those operations, and by the end of 2014 our combat mission will be completed,” he said.

The number of Afghan security forces has been gradually increasing from fewer than 40,000 six years ago to nearly 350,000 today.

However, as it has taken over more responsibility for security, the Afghan army has suffered a sharp rise in casualties.

By comparison, international coalition casualties have been steadily falling since 2010.

A high desertion rate among Afghan forces has also meant that thousands of new recruits are needed each month to fill its ranks.

In recent Taliban attacks on the capital Kabul, Afghan rapid reaction police tackled the insurgents without having to call in ISAF forces.

The number of ISAF forces in Afghanistan peaked in 2011 at about 140,000, which included about 101,000 US troops.

ISAF currently has about 97,000 troops in the country from 50 contributing nations, the bulk of whom – some 68,000 – are from the US.

By the end of 2014 all combat troops should have left to be replaced – if approved by the Afghan government – by a smaller force that will only train and advise.

The pressure on contributing nations to withdraw their troops has been exacerbated by a series of “green-on-blue” attacks in which members of the Afghan security forces have killed coalition troops.

At least 60 NATO personnel died in such attacks in 2012. Many more Afghan security force members have died at the hands of their colleagues, in so-called “green-on-green” attacks.

US President Barack Obama has not yet said how many troops he will leave in Afghanistan along with other NATO forces at the end of 2014.

Washington has said that the Afghan government will get the weapons it needs to fight the insurgency including a fleet of MI-17 transport helicopters, cargo planes and ground support airplanes.

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Up to 12 Afghan civilians, 10 children and two women, have been killed in a NATO air strike in Shigal district.

A further six women are believed to have been injured in the incident in Shigal district from Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.

NATO confirmed that “fire support” was used in Shigal after a US civilian adviser died in a militant attack, but said it had no reports of deaths.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings.

Up to 12 Afghan civilians, 10 children and two women, have been killed in a NATO air strike in Shigal district

Up to 12 Afghan civilians, 10 children and two women, have been killed in a NATO air strike in Shigal district

A statement issued by Hamid Karzai’s office said the president had already issued a decree banning aerial attacks on civilian areas.

Villagers and local officials said the casualties were inside their homes when they died.

Photographs apparently sent from the scene to international news agencies appeared to show the bodies of several dead young children, surrounded by Afghan villagers.

A local official said eight Taliban insurgents had also died in the air strike on Saturday, which is reported to have caused the roofs of several houses in three villages to collapse.

He said the strikes were called in to support a major operation by US and Afghan government forces targeting senior Taliban commanders and a local weapons cache.

Tribal elder Haji Malika Jan said: “The fighting started yesterday morning [Saturday] and continued for at least seven hours. There were heavy exchanges between both sides.

“The area is very close to the Pakistani border and there are hundreds of local and foreign fighters, mostly Pakistanis, in the area.”

In a statement, the NATO-led International Security Assistant Force (Isaf) said: “We are aware of an incident yesterday in Kunar province in which insurgents engaged an Afghan and coalition force.

“No Isaf personnel were involved on the ground, but Isaf provided fire support from the air, killing several insurgents. We are also aware of reports of several civilians injured from the engagement, but no reports of civilian deaths. Isaf takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and we are currently assessing the incident.

“The air support was called in by coalition forces – not Afghans – and was used to engage insurgent forces in areas away from structures, according to our reporting.”

A statement issued on behalf of President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the NATO attack, and “military operations in residential areas that cause civilian deaths”.

“The president also strongly condemns the Taliban’s tactic of using civilians and their homes as their shields,” it said.

International forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Civilian deaths in Western military operations have been a source of tension between the Afghan government led President Hamid Karzai and the US and its NATO allies.

In February 2012, at least 10 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a NATO air strike in the same area.

In February this year, President Hamid Karzai ordered a complete ban on Afghan security forces calling in air strikes in residential areas.

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Branislav Milinkovic, Serbian ambassador to NATO, has died after jumping from a multi-storey car park in Brussels airport.

The Serbian government confirmed that Branislav Milinkovic, 52, had died on Tuesday, but did not give details. It paid tribute to his work.

Emergency services were called to the scene, but were not able to revive him, sources at Brussels airport said.

Prosecutors in Brussels say they are treating Branislav Milinkovic’s death as a suicide.

He is thought to have been at the airport on Tuesday evening to meet Serbia’s deputy foreign minister and other officials who had arrived in Brussels for diplomatic talks.

The incident happened at around 18:00 local time.

After talking with colleagues, Branislav Milinkovic suddenly strolled to a barrier, climbed over and flung himself to the ground below, a diplomat told the Associated Press.

Branislav Milinkovic, Serbian ambassador to NATO, has died after jumping from a multi-storey car park in Brussels airport

Branislav Milinkovic, Serbian ambassador to NATO, has died after jumping from a multi-storey car park in Brussels airport

Earlier on Tuesday, Branislav Milinkovic had seemed “completely normal, talking to journalists in the corridors of NATO”, a Serbian journalist in Brussels told the AFP news agency.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

“Ambassador Branislav Milinkovic was a highly respected representative of his country and will be missed at NATO headquarters,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

Serbia is not a member of NATO but it does have a mission at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels because it belongs to the Partnership for Peace programme, which helps countries co-ordinate on defence and security issues.

Branislav Milinkovic had been an ambassador since 2009.

He had previously worked as a journalist and was an active opponent of Serbia’s former leader Slobodan Milosevic. Branislav Milinkovic leaves behind a wife and a six-year-old son.

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