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Erdogan threatens to open Europe gates for refugees

BUDAPEST: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a visit to EU member Hungary repeated his threat Thursday to “open the gates” for millions of refugees eager to flee to Europe unless more international support was provided.

Erdogan held talks with Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a rare EU ally — in Budapest where several hundred people demonstrated over Ankara’s deadly military offensive in Syria, with placards calling the Turkish leader a “genocidal dictator”.

Ankara launched the military operation last month to push Syrian Kurdish forces back from its border and create a “safe zone” to take in some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Erdogan has called on EU countries to provide more financial support for his plan to create the “safe zone”.

“Whether or not support comes, we will continue to host our guests, but only up to a point,” Erdogan said at a news conference alongside Orban.

“If we see that this does not work, just like I said before, we will have no option left but to open the gates. If we open the gates, it is obvious where they will go,” Erdogan added.

Orban, an anti-immigration figurehead for nationalists in Europe and beyond, said Hungary stood ready to help Turkey however it could to create the “safe zone”.

“Without Turkey, you cannot stop migration headed for Europe… As a consequence of this, Hungary is a strategic partner of Turkey in security and migration questions,” he said.

“We have to do everything to avoid masses of migrants arriving at Hungary’s southern border, and for that we need Turkey’s help.”

‘Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul triangle’

Erdogan’s visit comes just a week after Orban hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, stoking concerns in the European Union that the self-styled “illiberal” Hungarian is cosying up to autocrats.

Speaking alongside Putin, also a regular visitor to the EU and NATO member state, Orban defended his foreign policy of “eastern opening”, saying Hungary was in a “Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul triangle”.

Accusing his Western critics of turning a blind eye to their own countries’ trade and political engagements with eastern countries, Orban has repeatedly defended Ankara.

Hungary delayed an EU resolution condemning Turkey’s action, with Orban insisting that the offensive was in “Hungary’s national interest” because it would help stop refugees coming to the EU.

At a meeting in Kazakhstan last month, Erdogan personally thanked Orban for his “support” for Ankara’s Syrian operation.

Orban was also one of the few European leaders to attend Erdogan’s July 2018 inauguration ceremony for his second term in office, while the Turkish leader visited Hungary in October last year.

“(Orban’s) Turkey policy fits in with his strategy toward the east, trying to give political favours for economic ones,” Daniel Bartha, director of the think tank Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, told AFP.

Orban said Thursday that Hungary would be able to get natural gas from the TurkStream pipeline — which will supply Russian gas to Turkey via the Black Sea — by the end of 2021.

Hungary’s partly state-owned energy giant MOL also bought last week a stake in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that transports crude oil to the Mediterranean through Turkey.

The Hungarian army also plans to buy Turkish armoured vehicles, according to media reports, while a Budapest-based Turkish business magnate is close to both Orban’s family and to Erdogan.

“The Hungarian government appears to perceive Turkey as an emerging, key geopolitical player, not only in Syria but also in southeastern Europe and the broader Middle East,” said Daniel Hegedus, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“It seems ready to accept significant conflicts within the EU to please Ankara, and acts according to the interests of Turkey and Russia rather than the Western alliances Budapest belongs to,” Hegedus told AFP.

Passport requirement waived for Sikh pilgrims visiting Kartarpur: FO

Islamabad on Thursday clarified that Pakistan has waived the passport requirement for Sikh pilgrims entering the country on the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak.

Kartarpur coridor

During the weekly press briefing, FO Spokesperson Dr Muhammad Faisal said the government has waived off three requirements for Sikh pilgrims coming to Kartarpur on Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

The pilgrims will no longer have to carry their passports or convey their information to the government and register 10 days in advance.

The FO further said that the $20 service charge per pilgrim per visit on November 9 and 12 will also be waived, adding that this information has been formally conveyed to the Indian government.

However, DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor on Wednesday had said pilgrims would require a ‘permit-based entry’ to the Kartarpur Corridor and no compromise would be made on the security of the region.

Earlier this month, the premier had said members of the Sikh community coming to Kartapur from India will not need a passport. “They will be able to travel with a valid identity card.”

The FO spokesperson further said that the Kartarpur Corridor was solely Pakistan’s initiative.

“Not to rub it in, but this was solely Pakistan’s initiative. This was Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initiative which India then agreed to,” he said.

Referring to a terrorism report issued by the US State Department, the spokesperson reiterated that Islamabad is ‘disappointed’ that the sacrifices and contributions made over the last two decades were overlooked.

“It completely overlooks factual information and contribution made by Pakistan over the last two decades. We hope Pakistan’s contributions and sacrifices will be fully recognized,” he said.

Fazlur Rehman demand PM resignation

Fazulur Rehman

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman came out all guns blazing against Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday, saying there is no need for talks with the government’s negotiating team if the demand of the prime minister’s resignation is off the table.

A fiery address by Fazlur Rehman to the participants of the ‘Azadi March’ in the federal capital appeared to pour cold water on the optimism about a deal with the JUI-F chief, which surfaced after PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi met Fazlur Rehman at his residence.

“I have already said that we are optimistic,” Pervaiz Elahi, also a member of the government’s negotiating team, told reporters after meeting Fazlur Rehman.

“We will give you the good news, when all is agreed. There are many proposals under consideration,” he added.

But later, Fazlur Rehman adopted a different tone, telling the government not to “bother with negotiations” if the prime minister’s resignation demand was off the table. “Then there is no need to come to us. Next time when you come, bring the resignation of the prime minister with you.”

Fazlur Rehman fired a broadside at the prime minister and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), saying that the prime minister’s amnesty scheme earlier this year was meant for his sister Aleema Khan. He alleged that Imran’s sister owned assets worth billions of rupees in Dubai.

He charged that Prime Minister Imran hid the money laundering committed by his sister through the amnesty scheme and now he speaks of an NRO – the Musharraf-era National Reconciliation Ordinance. “The opposition leaders do not want NRO from Imran Khan, instead they will not give him one,” he said.

“When the entire party is a gang of robbers, why it is being allowed to continue,” he asked. He then directly addressed the prime minister, saying: “You are at a dead end now. Now you must decide whether you want to continue to remain there or come out and give back the people their right.”

Fazlur Rehman also came down hard on the “delaying tactics” adopted by the PTI in the foreign funding case, which was pending with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for the past five years. “Why has the Election Commission not been able to decide the matter?” he asked.

“Your own [PTI’s] senior leadership has gone to the commission and said that funding came from India, Europe and many other places. You submitted 60 petitions in the court to delay the case. Though every petition of the government has been rejected.”

The JUI-F chief repeated the allegations that the 2018 general election was “rigged to favour” the PTI. “When the whole nation is witness to this theft, you don’t need any investigation. Answer to that theft is the resignation [of the prime minister],” he added.

He praised the participants of the march, saying that they had removed misconceptions about the religious segment. “Our workers have displayed discipline, and respected the rule of law, which are acknowledged by the western media as well,” he added.

He accused the government of placing containers in the capital, which caused losses of millions of rupees. “No citizen is disturbed by this Azadi March,” he said. “They [government] must be held accountable for this.”

Fazl welcomed the recent statement of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor that the army was an impartial institution. “I want to say this to state institutions that consider them [JUI-F workers] your own people and they will always be with you,” he said.

Thousands of protesters have converged on the federal capital under the banner of the ‘Azadi March’, seeking the removal of Prime Minister Imran. The march set off from Sindh on October 27, left Lahore on October 30 and reached Islamabad on October 31.

On Friday, the opposition gave the prime minister a 48-hour ultimatum to resign. The deadline was later extended after the JUI-F chief said the opposition’s Rahbar Committee would decide after talks with the government’s negotiating committee.

Before Fazl’s address on Thursday, the Rahbar Committee of the joint opposition decided to continue putting pressure on the government, announcing that the ‘Azadi March’ would continue despite an inclement weather in Islamabad.

Rahbar Committee convener Akram Durrani told reporters that the decision to continue ‘Azadi March’ sit-in was unanimous. “The next plan will be announced after the 12th of Rabiul Awwal Sunday,” he said. The (JUI-F) workers are determined to stay here for months.”

Durrani’s press conference came after Elahi’s meeting with Fazlur Rehman. Talking to the reporters after the talks, the Punjab Assembly speaker said that their efforts for a political solution would continue.

When prodded if there was agreement on any points, he said that he would not give any good news in bits and pieces.

“We will give you the good news when all the issues are settled. We are optimistic. Things are moving in the right direction,” he added

To a question about the demand for the prime minister’s resignation, Fazlur Rehman said, “We will give you good news soon.”

When asked if the JUI-F chief would agree to holding investigation into the rigging allegations, he said: “Whatever Maulana agrees to, will be done.”

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Pervez Khattak said that Elahi was holding talks with the opposition, however, the final decision would be taken by the government’s negotiating committee.

Khattak, who heads the government’s committee, said that they had established contacts with other opposition leaders. “Our committee members are in contact with Shehbaz Sharif [President of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)] and others,” he said.

“Talks had not been snapped,” he told reporters outside the Parliament House. “There is a deadlock only on the issues of the prime minister’s resignation and investigation into the rigging allegations.

“It seems that Maulana Fazlur Rehman is here until 12th Rabiul Awwal. We are in contact with the heads of other parties and there will be a positive outcome of the meetings.”

He demanded of the opposition to provide proofs of rigging in the 2018 elections. “You cannot say anything without proof.”

The defence minister said if the prime minister resigned on opposition’s demand it would set a bad precedent as everyone tomorrow would stand up, asking the prime minister to resign. However, he added that the opposition might bring no-confidence motion against Imran and “we are ready for that”.

Kurdish fighters leave besieged Syria town

RAS AL-AIN, SYRIA: Dozens of Kurdish fighters left a Turkish-besieged town in northern Syria Sunday, in what appeared to be the start of a wider withdrawal under a ceasefire deal.

Ankara launched a cross-border attack against Syria’s Kurds on October 9 after the United States announced a military pullout from the north of the war-torn country.

A US-brokered ceasefire was announced late Thursday, giving Kurdish forces until Tuesday evening to withdraw from a “safe zone” Ankara wants to create along its southern frontier.

A Kurdish source said there was a “plan to withdraw” from Ras al-Ain, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, later said Kurdish forces had fully withdrawn from the border town.

Turkey’s defence ministry confirmed that Kurdish fighters were leaving the town.

In a statement, it said 55 vehicles had entered Ras al-Ain and 86 had left “in the direction of Tal Tamr” to the south.

It also said one of its troops was killed by Kurdish forces near the town of Tal Abyad.

In Ras al-Ain, at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.

Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.

In the town of Tal Tamr, a woman ululated as a crowd gathered to receive the convoy from Ras al-Ain, another correspondent said.

The departure from Ras al-Ain came a day after a medical convoy managed to evacuate wounded from the hospital.

Thursday’s deal gives the SDF — the de facto army of Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria — until Tuesday evening to pull out of a 120-kilometre (70-mile) long area from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ain along Syria’s northern border.

That strip of land is to run around 30 kilometres (20 miles) deep into Syrian territory.

On Saturday, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said Kurdish forces would withdraw from the desired buffer region as soon as they were allowed out of Ras al-Ain.

The Kurds have been a key ally to Washington in the US-backed fight against Islamic State group jihadists in Syria, but Turkey views them as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump said US special forces would be withdrawn from northern Syria, in what was widely seen as betrayal of the Kurds and a green light for a Turkish attack.

A week ago, the Pentagon said Trump had ordered the withdrawal of up to 1,000 troops from northern Syria as Turkish troops advanced into Syrian territory.

Earlier Sunday, US forces withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria, the Observatory said.

The correspondent in Tal Tamr saw more than 70 US armoured vehicles escorted by helicopters drive past the town carrying military equipment.

Some flew the American stars-and-stripes flag as they made their way eastwards along a highway crossing the town, he said.

The Observatory said the convoy was evacuating the Sarrin military base on the edge of the planned buffer zone, south of the border town of Kobane.

The vehicles appeared to be heading to the town of Hassakeh, further east, it said.

Sunday’s pullout was the fourth such withdrawal of American forces in a week and left Syria’s northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqa devoid of US troops, Abdel Rahman said.

Turkey and the Kurds have traded accusations the other was not abiding by the ceasefire deal brokered by US Vice President Mike Pence.

On Twitter, Trump cited Defence Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday as saying the ceasefire was “holding up very nicely”.

“There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds,” he said.