TPM World News

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 20 people in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, including a Taliban commander, while in southern Helmand province a government commando unit freed 54 people from a Taliban jail, according to officials.

The stepped up activity in Afghanistan comes as Washington considers a Taliban demand for direct talks in hopes of jump-starting a negotiated end to what is now the longest military engagement by U.S. forces.

A Taliban official in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar where the Islamic insurgency maintains an unofficial office told The Associated Press they wanted direct talks and were ready to put troop withdrawal as well as any outstanding concerns the U.S. might have on the table but so far no official request to open negotiations has come from Washington.

Speaking on condition he not be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, he said de-listing Taliban leaders from U.S and U.N. watch lists and recognizing their office in Doha, the Qatar capital, would aid progress in talks should they begin.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan’s Sar-i-Pul province, Abdul Qayuom Baqizoi, provincial police chief, said Tuesday’s attack by IS took place as village elders met with Taliban officials. He said 15 of the 20 killed were local elders and five were Taliban, including a Taliban commander.

The Taliban and the Islamic State group have been waging bitter battles in recent days in northern Afghanistan. As many as 100 insurgents from both the Taliban and Islamic State group have perished in recent battles, said Baqizoi.

Provincial council chief Mohammed Noor Rahman, however, said the explosion occurred in a mosque as a funeral was taking place.

The area is remote and it was impossible to reconcile the differing accounts.
Elsewhere, in southern Helmand’s Musa Qala district, a commando unit stormed into a jail late Monday that Taliban insurgents had been operating. There they found 32 civilians, 16 police, four soldiers and two military doctors, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor.

The Taliban did not immediately comment on the raid, but the insurgents are in control of the majority of the districts in Helmand, where they have increased their attacks against provincial officials and security forces.

The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with the U.S. The militants maintained that position despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral extension of a holiday cease-fire last month in hopes of encouraging the militants to come to the bargaining table. When the Taliban continued to mount deadly attacks, Ghani ordered government forces to resume military operations this month.

Trump administration officials said Monday for the first time that the U.S. would be open to holding direct talks with the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government to end 17 years of war. They said that Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations remain the goal of any engagement with the militants, however.

That marks a tactical shift by the administration, which previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban if those talks also involved the Afghan government. The officials were not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity.

The unprecedented, three-day cease-fire by both sides had offered a rare glimpse of peace for Afghans during which militants fraternized with security force members.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and ousted the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaida. It still has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly for training government forces.

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Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Syrians marched toward the frontier with the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday fleeing the Syrian government offensive in southwestern Syria. The displaced waved white flags at the Israeli soldiers before they turned back, according to activists.

The brief protest on the frontier comes as Syrian and Russian airstrikes intensified in the Quneitra countryside and western Daraa province.

Earlier on Tuesday, at least 10 civilians were killed when a suspected Russian airstrike hit a school that serves as a shelter in the village of Ain el-Tineh in Quneitra countryside, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Israeli frontier, according to a Syrian search and rescue team.

Moaz al-Assaad, a photographer in Quneitra, said by the time he made it to the frontier the protesters had dispersed. Israeli media reported that Israeli soldiers shouted through loudspeakers asking the crowd to turn back.

The International Rescue Committee said the government’s advance has trapped tens of thousands of displaced Syrians along the frontier with the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967. The aid group said there are urgent concerns for the safety of around 160,000 who fled to the area earlier this month and are now caught between the frontier and the advancing Syrian army.

The IRC estimated that around 5 percent of the displaced people are living out in the open with only trees to provide shelter.

“There really is nowhere else for these people to go and seek safety. They can hear the fighting getting closer and worry it’s only a matter of time before the front line reaches them,” said the IRC’s Mark Schnellbaecher.

The United Nations said last week that over 230,000 people have been displaced since June 17 in southwestern Syria, which borders Jordan and the Golan Heights. Jordan has said it will not open its borders to the newly displaced Syrians.

Since June, Syrian troops and allied forces have seized control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital which was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad seven years ago. Hundreds of fighters and their families were evacuated to northern Syria after a deal with the government.

With control Daraa in its hands, government forces have turned their focus to the area near the frontier with Israel to clear the last pockets of the opposition. A group affiliated with the Islamic State group holds a sliver of territory on the southern tip of the region.

On Tuesday, Khaled Solh of the Syrian Civil Defense said a school building in the village of Ain el-Tineh, used to shelter families who have been forced to flee their homes, was hit by a suspected Russian airstrike. Russia is supporting Assad’s forces in its military campaigns around Syria.

Al-Assaad, the photographer, said he counted at least 20 wounded at the scene of the strike, including children.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is open to holding direct talks with the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government to end 17 years of war, U.S. officials said.

That marks a tactical shift by the Trump administration, which has previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban if those talks also involve the Afghan government. The U.S. officials said Monday that Afghan-to-Afghan negotiation remains the goal of any engagement with the militants.

The officials were not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity.

The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with Washington. The militants have persisted in that stance despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral extension of a holiday cease-fire last month in hopes of encouraging the militants to come to the bargaining table. With the Taliban continuing to mount deadly attacks, Ghani ordered government forces to resume military operations this month.

The unprecedented, three-day cease-fire by both sides had offered a rare glimpse of peace for Afghans during which militants fraternized with security force members.

A Taliban official in the small Gulf Arab nation of Qatar told The Associated Press on Monday that no American official or intermediary has been in touch with them to start direct talks, and it had only heard of it in the media. The administration’s willingness to hold direct talks with the Taliban was first reported by The New York Times on Sunday.

The Taliban official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was authorized to speak to journalists, said, “We wait for them to officially inform us.” But he added that if the U.S. is interested in talks, it should take steps to get Taliban leaders off a sanctions blacklist and support the formal opening of the Taliban office in Qatar where its political representatives reside. The official reiterated the Taliban’s call for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Asked if the U.S. was willing to hold direct talks with the Taliban, the State Department said Monday, the United States “is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government.”

The department added that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government.”

Last August, President Donald Trump launched an Afghanistan strategy that centered on boosting the capabilities of Afghan security forces and aiming — with help from Pakistan and other interested nations — to compel the militants to negotiate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan last week to reinforce its support for talks.

“The United States will support, facilitate, and participate in these peace discussions, but peace must be decided by the Afghans and settled among them. We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said after meeting Ghani in Kabul on July 9.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and ousted the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaida. It has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly for training government forces.

The conflict appears stalemated, with insurgents controlling or contesting more than 40 percent of the country. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said Sunday that 1,692 civilians were killed in violence in the first six months of this year, the highest six-month death toll since the systematic documentation of civilian casualties started in 2009.

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran said Monday that if President Donald Trump wants to negotiate after pulling the United States out of the international deal meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, he’ll have to initiate the call.

The remarks by Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi came after Trump last week said that with the U.S. increasing sanctions on Iran, “at a certain point they’re going to call me and say ‘let’s make a deal,’ and we’ll make a deal.”

Ghasemi said, however, “maybe someday he will call Tehran and ask for negotiations — this is more likely.”

If Trump calls, it’s not clear whether anyone will answer, with Iran’s top leadership rejecting talks with the U.S.

Trump in May said he was unilaterally pulling out of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, because he felt it wasn’t strong enough and didn’t cover other issues of concern to the U.S. and its allies, such as Iran’s military influence in the Middle East and a ballistic missile program.

The five other world powers in the agreement, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China, as well as the European Union, have been negotiating with Iran over how to keep it in the deal, which provides incentives in exchange for not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Iran’s economy is already suffering from the sanctions that Washington re-imposed after walking away from the nuclear agreement, and the U.S. has threatened to punish companies from other nations that continue doing business with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday on Twitter that Tehran had filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice to “hold US accountable for its unlawful re-imposition of unilateral sanctions.”

“Iran is committed to the rule of law in the face of US contempt for diplomacy & legal obligations. It’s imperative to counter its habit of violating int’l law,” he posted.

Zarif did not elaborate but Iranian officials have repeatedly accused the U.S. of imposing illegal sanctions on Iran after pulling out of the nuclear deal as well as breaching the deal before the pullout.

The ICJ did not immediately respond to a request for information on the Iranian complaint.

On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for “timely, strong and incisive” action as a show of strength to the rest of the world, “particularly Americans.”

Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, did not mention anything specifically.

He also said the country “should not tie” its economy with European nations’ promises for keeping the nuclear deal in force.

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BEIJING (AP) — A senior European official on Monday urged U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China to work with Europe to avoid trade wars and prevent conflict and chaos.

Speaking before Trump and Putin were due to meet in Helsinki, European Council President Donald Tusk appealed for leaders to avoid wrecking a political and economic order that nurtured a peaceful Europe and developing China.

Tusk spoke at a news conference with China’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, following an annual EU-Chinese economic summit also attended by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. They met amid mounting acrimony over Trump’s tariff hikes on goods from China, Europe and other trading partners.

“It is the common duty of Europe and China, America and Russia, not to destroy this order but to improve it, not to start trade wars which turn into hot conflict so often in our history,” said Tusk, a former Polish prime minister.

Tusk appealed to governments to “bravely and responsibly” reform the World Trade Organization, the global trade regulator, by updating its rules to address technology policy and state-owned industries — areas in which Beijing has conflicts with its trading partners. Trump has criticized the WTO as outdated and has gone outside the body to impose import controls, prompting warnings he was undermining the global system.

“There is still time to prevent conflict and chaos,” said Tusk. “Today, we are facing a dilemma — whether to play a tough game such as tariff wars and conflict in places like Ukraine and Syria, or to look for common solutions based on fair rules.”

Last week, Tusk lambasted Trump’s criticism of European allies and urged him to remember who his friends are when he met Putin.

Other governments have criticized Trump for going outside the WTO when he imposed 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese goods. That was in response to complaints Beijing is hurting American companies by stealing or pressuring enterprises to hand over technology.

Trump strained relations with allies by imposing tariff hikes on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. The 28-country European trade bloc responded with import taxes on $3.25 billion of U.S. goods.

Li, the premier, said China and the EU agreed to take steps to “safeguard free trade” and the global multilateral regulatory system.

“Given the complicated and fluid international landscape, it is important for China and the EU to uphold multilateralism,” said Li.

The premier repeated official promises to open China’s markets wider but didn’t directly address complaints about industrial policy or investment barriers the United States, EU and other trading partners say violate its free-trade commitments.

Beijing has tried, so far without success, to recruit European support in its dispute with Washington. European leaders have criticized Trump’s tactics but share U.S. criticism of China’s industrial policy and market barriers.

Asked whether China used Monday’s meeting to try to form an alliance with the EU against Washington, Li said the dispute was a bilateral matter for Beijing and the United States to solve.

“Our summit is not directed at any third party,” said Li.

The EU and China announced plans June 25 to form a group to work on updating WTO rules.

They gave no time line and private sector analysts expressed skepticism Beijing would agree to rules that might hamper its plans to develop Chinese champions in technology and other industries.

Li has appealed to visiting European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May by saying their companies were welcome to invest.

An EU report last month said Beijing imposed more new import and investment barriers in 2017 than any other government.

Chinese leaders have tried to defuse foreign pressure by promising foreign companies better treatment without changing their industrial development strategies.

On Monday, reporters were invited to watch part of a meeting between Li, the premier, and executives of European companies including Airbus and BMW AG in an apparent show of openness.

Li assured the companies Beijing would protect patents and copyrights. When a BMW executive said joint a German-Chinese agreement this month to cooperate in developing intelligent vehicles would benefit from the early release of standards by Beijing for the technology, Li asked whether he was concerned joint formulation of those standards would undermine his company’s intellectual property. The executive said no.

“I want to hear if any big company here would like to make a complaint here on the theft of intellectual property,” said the premier. “I don’t know where my measure should target at if you don’t let me know.”

None of the executives raised concerns about intellectual property during the portion of the meeting reporters were allowed to see.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. lobbying firm sought to recruit the ambassadors of France, Germany and several other countries to demonstrate international support for severing Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s control of Rusal, the aluminum manufacturing giant sanctioned by Washington.

Documents made public by the Justice Department show that Mercury LLC drafted messages for at least six envoys to send to senior U.S. government officials that expressed support for a plan to eliminate Deripaska’s majority stake in the EN+ Group, the holding company that owns nearly 50 percent of Rusal.

The records are the latest installment in a drama full of international intrigue.

Deripaska’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin are under a microscope while unintended targets of the U.S. penalties struggle with the punishment’s impact.

Leading the way, in an odd twist, is a conservative member of Britain’s House of Lords, Gregory Barker, who hired Mercury to salvage Rusal and EN+ by casting Deripaska as the heavy.

It’s unclear how many of the ambassadors sent the messages. But Jamaica’s envoy did, underscoring concerns about the future of a Rusal-owned factory on the Caribbean island.

When the Treasury imposed sanctions on Deripaska a few months ago, EN+ and Rusal were blacklisted too because of the cascading nature of the penalties. It fell to Barker, who was installed less than a year ago as chairman of EN+’s board, to persuade the Trump administration to lift the sanctions against both companies. To do that, he will have to assure the U.S. that Deripaska is no longer calling the shots at EN+ or Rusal.

Barker, a former British energy minister, signed a contract with Mercury in early May — a month after the Treasury Department announced the sanctions. Mercury is to earn $108,500 every four weeks, according to the contract, to support Barker’s efforts to negotiate Deripaska’s exit from the EN+ board and “the reduction of his ownership interest in the company.”

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert on Russia’s economic policy, said there can be only two possible owners of Rusal: the Russian government or Deripaska. That’s because the aluminum company’s main assets are giant smelters in east Siberia, a reality he said Treasury officials failed to grasp.

“It appears to me that both parties play the game now: Deripaska reduces his public exposure and the Treasury (Department) pretends that it is satisfied, gradually easing the sanctions,” Aslund said.

The letters prepared for the envoys said Deripaska, not the companies, is the “true target” of the U.S. sanctions. He’s already resigned from the EN+ board. The Treasury Department has set a late October deadline for his 70 percent stake in EN+ to be cut back to less than 50 percent. The “path for the United States to provide sanctions relief,” the department said, is through Deripaska’s divestment and relinquishment of control.

The draft messages, along with background material prepared by Mercury, warned that each country would be damaged economically if the sanctions aren’t eased. France and Germany rely on Rusal’s aluminum in their automotive, telecommunications and aerospace industries. And Rusal is a full or part owner of factories that employ hundreds of people in Ireland, Sweden, Australia and Jamaica.

The ambassadors of France and Sweden did not send the messages, according to representatives from each embassy. The embassies of Germany, Ireland and Australia wouldn’t say.

The Treasury Department announced sanctions against Deripaska in early April as part of an array of measures that targeted tycoons close to the Kremlin, cutting Rusal off from international financial institutions. In spelling out the penalties, the department said Deripaska had been accused of illegal wiretaps, extortion, racketeering, money laundering and even death threats against business rivals.

Deripaska also has figured into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into links between the Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia due to Deripaska’s connection to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who once worked as a consultant to the billionaire businessman. Prosecutors recently disclosed that Deripaska provided a Manafort company with $10 million around 2010, a transaction described as a loan on U.S. income tax forms.

Neither Deripaska nor Manafort has been formally accused of taking part in Russian election-meddling; both have denied any involvement.

The push to curb Deripaska’s influence is playing out as Trump readies for a summit with Putin on Monday in Helsinki. Putin may try to call for Washington to relax the sanctions, which were triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, interference in eastern Ukraine’s separatist fighting and meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

The draft messages say that Barker’s approach is supported by other board members and EN+’s minority shareholders. The Trump administration is urged to extend any “relevant deadlines” to allow the plan to be fully implemented, according to the messages. There’s no indication, however, of who or what EN+’s new majority shareholder would be.

The Treasury Department and the State Department declined to comment on Mercury’s lobbying effort.

The letter dated June 14 that Jamaica’s ambassador, Audrey Marks, sent to Treasury Department officials is nearly identical to the one Mercury prepared. Rusal owns the West Indies Alumina Company and “continued sanctions will impact our economy and jobs, with the attendant impact on workers and their dependents,” Marks wrote.

Lillian Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Irish Embassy, said Ireland is “gravely concerned” over the impact the sanctions will have on the Rusal-owned factory in Limerick. The embassy “is in ongoing contact with the U.S. authorities” over the plant’s future, she said. The embassy has had discussions “with interested third parties” but the content of those conversations is confidential, Farrell said.

The letter Mercury prepared for Sweden’s ambassador, Karin Olofsdotter, described the Rusal-owned Kubikenborg Aluminum as the country’s largest industrial facility.

Officials from the Swedish Embassy met with Mercury representatives, according to Gunnar Vrang, a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs in Stockholm, but no one in Sweden’s government sent a message. He said Sweden and the U.S. have a shared interest in avoiding “unintended negative consequences of the sanctions in question.”

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LONDON (AP) — President Donald Trump has told a British TV interviewer that Queen Elizabeth II told him Brexit is “complex.”

Trump’s interview with Good Morning Britain was broadcast Monday. The president spoke to Piers Morgan on Air Force One Friday evening.

Asked the queen’s view on Brexit, Trump said: “She said it’s a very complex problem.”

Trump’s comments were unusual because most heads of state do not discuss their private conversations with the queen. Trump met the queen Friday at Windsor Castle.

The queen does not comment on political matters and has never indicated whether she favors having Britain leave the European Union. She remained scrupulously silent during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, which saw Britain vote to exit the EU.

Trump declined to say what he believes her view is on that important question.

Britain’s plans to leave the EU bloc have been slowed by difficulty reaching an exit deal with EU leaders.

Trump did say he admires the queen and found her to be “incredible”, “sharp” and “beautiful.”

“When I say beautiful, inside and out,” Trump said.

He said he doesn’t know if the queen liked him, but that he liked her.

The president said he was thinking of his late mother, who was born in Scotland, when he and his wife Melania had tea with the queen. He said his mother was a great admirer of the queen.

“My mother felt she was a great woman,” Trump said.

Elizabeth is the longest reigning monarch in British history and has met with every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower with the exception of Lyndon Johnson.

She has not shared her thoughts about them with the public, just as she has not commented on the dozens of heads of state she has entertained at her various palaces.

The president’s meeting with her seemed to go well, but some in the British press criticized Trump for briefly walking in front of the 92-year-old queen while they were reviewing an honor guard on the castle grounds.

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HELSINKI (AP) — President Donald Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election meddling or the country’s annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations hours before a summit with Vladimir Putin that played out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow’s aggression may go unchallenged.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” Trump tweeted from Helsinki Monday morning, blaming “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

Monday’s meeting, which was being closely watched by rattled world capitals, was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the U.S. indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump’s presidential campaign. Undeterred, the American president was set to go face-to-face with Putin, the authoritarian leader for whom he has expressed admiration.

Trump, who has been trying to lower expectations about what the meeting will achieve, told reporters during a breakfast Monday morning with Finland’s president that he thought the summit would go “fine.”

The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompting a special counsel probe that Trump has repeatedly labeled a witch hunt.

In his tweets, Trump continued to undermine the investigation, and blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to stop Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. He claimed Obama “was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it.”

The Obama administration did, in fact, take action, including confronting Putin in person as well as expelling nearly three dozen Russian diplomats the U.S. said were actually intelligence operatives and imposing new sanctions.

While Trump was eager for a made-for-TV moment that will dominate headlines like his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month, the Kremlin’s primary mission was simply to have the summit happen. Putin hopes the meeting, mere hours after he presided over the World Cup finals, will help him forge good personal ties with Trump and focus on areas where Moscow and Washington may be able to find common ground, such as Syria.

The two leaders first meet one-on-one in the Finnish presidential palace’s opulent Gothic Hall, then continue their discussions with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor’s throne room. The leaders will then take questions at a press conference before going their separate ways.

Putin will likely not be shooting for official recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea or easing of the crippling U.S. sanctions, aware that the U.S. Congress would never allow such action. But he would welcome a symbolic end to Western protests over Crimea and Moscow’s attempts to destabilize elections and traditional Western alliances and norms.

Trump unleashed his own attacks on those very institutions before arriving in Finland.
In an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, Trump described the European Union, a bloc of nations that includes many of America’s closest allies, as a “foe.”

That attack on the alliance came on the heels of Trump’s jarring appearance at a NATO summit in Brussels, where he harshly criticized traditional allies over “delinquent” defense spending only to later confirm his commitment to the military alliance that has long been a bulwark against Russian aggression.

“NATO is now strong & rich!” Trump wrote in a celebratory tweet Monday morning. During his breakfast, he said NATO had “never been more together” and said the summit had been “a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love.”

Ahead of his sit-down with with Putin, who has cracked down on the free press, Trump has continued to unleash a series of attacks on the media, including as Air Force One descended into Helsinki.

“Unfortunately, no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!” Trump tweeted. “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems know how to do is resist and obstruct!”

“Russia has done nothing to deserve us meeting them in this way,” said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute who specializes in Russia, Ukraine and disinformation. For Putin, she added, “not only is this a P.R. coup no matter what happens, Trump could say nothing and it would help to legitimize his regime.”

Hovering over Helsinki is the specter of the 2016 election interference and ongoing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia.

Trump said in Britain last week — another chaotic stop on his European tour — that he would raise the issue of election meddling with Putin even as he played down its impact.

“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,'” said Trump, invoking a television detective. “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”

Trump also said in the CBS interview that he had given no thought to asking Putin to extradite the dozen Russian military intelligence officers indicted this past week in on charges related to the hacking of Democratic targets.

But after being asked about that by his interviewer, Trump said “certainly I’ll be asking about it” although extradition is highly unlikely. The U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Moscow and can’t force the Russians to hand over citizens. Russia’s constitution also prohibits turning over citizens to foreign governments.

Putin is likely to strongly reaffirm his denial of any meddling and cast the U.S. charges as unfounded.

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected last week’s indictment as part of a “shameful comedy” staged by those in the U.S. who try to prevent the normalization of Russia-U.S. ties, arguing that it doesn’t contain evidence to back the accusations.

On Syria, a possible deal could see Moscow helping mediate the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their Hezbollah proxies from the areas alongside Syria’s border with Israel — a diplomatic coup that would reflect Russia’s carefully cultivated ties with both Israel and Iran.

While both Putin and Trump spoke about the need to discuss arms control issues, they are unlikely to make any quick deals. They may underline the importance of continuing the discussions, setting the stage for discussions on expert level.

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MOSCOW (AP) — Protest group Pussy Riot, long a thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side, claimed responsibility Sunday for four people who brought the World Cup final to a brief halt by running onto the field dressed in police uniforms as the Russian president and a global audience watched.

Stewards tackled the three women and one man who charged onto the field simultaneously in the 52nd minute of one of the world’s most viewed sporting events. Croatia defender Dejan Lovren pushed the man, helping a steward to detain him.

Before being hauled away, one of the women reached the center of the field and shared a double high-five with France forward Kylian Mbappe.

“Hello everyone from the Luzhniki field, it’s great here,” the heavily political punk performance group said on Twitter, and released a statement calling for the freeing of political prisoners, an end to “illegal arrests” of protesters and to “allow political competition” in Russia.

The statement also referenced the case of Oleg Sentsov, a vocal opponent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, who was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years for conspiracy to commit terror acts. He denies the charges and has been on a hunger strike since mid-May.

The group said the police uniforms symbolized how Russian police’s actions fall short of their “heavenly” depiction in literature and called for reforms. It wasn’t clear if they used the uniforms as a ruse to enter Luzhniki Stadium amid tight security, and the group couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“The citizens in question were taken to the local police station,” the Moscow branch of the Russian Interior Ministry said, without providing further details.

A video circulated on Russian social media after the match appeared to show two of the protesters, still in police uniforms, being harshly interrogated at a police station. The Internet TV channel Dozhd identified one of them as Pyotr Verzilov, one of the group’s most prominent members.

Under barking queries from a man off camera, Verzilov says, “I am for Russia, just like you — if you are for Russia.”

“I sometimes wish it was 1937,” the man off screen says, referring to the year in which Stalinist purges were at their height.

Pussy Riot rose to global prominence after several balaclava-covered female members sang a raucous song denouncing Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral. Two of them, including Verzilov’s wife, served nearly two years in prison for the protest.

Putin was watching the game alongside his French and Croatian counterparts and FIFA President Gianni Infantino, among other dignitaries.

The group was previously known for wearing brightly colored balaclavas, though those who protested Sunday did so with their faces uncovered.

FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The event’s local organizing committee said it did not have further information.

The protest was briefly shown on international TV broadcasts, even though FIFA policy is usually to cut away when fans and others run onto the field.

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CHIANG RAI, Thailand (AP) — The boys meant to explore the cave for just an hour, a casual jaunt to relax after soccer practice, but the waters rose. The teammates climbed higher, using their hands to feel the walls for a crawl space that would lead to safer, higher ground. Those handprints were among the first signs of where the boys were, what they had done to escape the floods, and what dangers rescuers would face in their mission to save the boys and their coach.

The boys now recuperating and the rescuers who brought them to safety are starting to share stories of the dangers and their survival. The hospital in northern Thailand where the 12 boys and their soccer coach are quarantined said Friday they are basically healthy, aside from some minor infections. A psychiatrist said their mental state seems fine.

Family members, first able to reunite with them only through a glass window, now can meet face-to-face though still not touch, to ensure any illnesses don’t spread.

Banphot Konkum, father of 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep, told The Associated Press his son — better known by his nickname, Dom — said the team members didn’t know rain had started falling after they had entered the cave on June 23. But the rain caused flooding in the cave, blocking them from exiting.

“After an hour when they wanted to leave, the water level was rising. They ran further inside the cave to escape from the water. The water flow was strong,” said Banphot.

In their search for a safe haven, the boys were reported to have used their hands to feel the walls for an opening to take them to a higher, safer spot. Searchers later found what they thought were the boys’ handprints, giving them confidence the boys were alive and that the searchers were on the right path.

“They, all 13 of them, saw a small passage or a crawl space, so they all dug the hole to get through to another spot, until they found Nen Nom Sao,” Banphot said, referring to the sandy slope on which they ended up sheltering. There was nowhere else to go.

Dom’s grandmother, Kameay Promthep , said she would tell Dom never to go near the cave or water again because she doesn’t want anything to happen to him or for him to cause trouble to others again.

“I will tell Dom that he has to thank all the Thai people from all over the country and people from all over the world who were kind enough to come and help Dom. Without the (Thai navy) SEALs, the officials, and everyone who came and helped, Dom wouldn’t be here today. He would not be seeing his Grandma, and Grandma wouldn’t see his face again. From now on, Dom will have to be a good person.”

Banphot said all 13 rescued team members will enter the monkhood to pay tribute to Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy SEAL who died while diving to place essential supplies along the rescue route. Becoming a monk at a temple for at least a short period is a way of making merit in Thai Buddhist tradition.

“We are planning the date and will do it whenever all the families are all ready,” said Banphot

The mother of the youngest Wild Boar teammate, 11-year old Chanin Wiboonrungruang, told a Bangkok newspaper that her son told her the team did not make a special point of bringing along food since they were only planning a short trek into the cave.

“After the first three nights with no food in the cave, my son felt extreme hunger and cried,” Aikhan told the Bangkok Post. “He had to rely only on water dripping from the rock. It was very cold at night and pitch dark. They had to lie huddled together.

She said her son, nicknamed Tun, said the boys’ 25-year-old soccer coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong, told them to meditate to ease their hunger and save their energy.

One of the two British divers who found the group said the rescue operation was “completely uncharted, unprecedented territory,” and that he had not been certain the boys would be found alive.

“Nothing like this has been done,” Rick Stanton said at a news conference Friday at London’s Heathrow airport after returning from Thailand.

Recalling the moment on July 2 when he and his diving partner John Volanthen found the boys on their 10th day inside the cave, he said his initial reaction was “of course, excitement, relief that they were still alive.”

“As they were coming down the slope we were counting them till we got to 13. Unbelievable,” he said. “They looked in good health, but of course when we departed all we could think about was how we were going to get them out. And so there was relief tempered with uncertainty.”

Thai authorities had contacted the British Cave Rescue Council for help when the boys disappeared. The British divers left London on June 26 with special rescue equipment, including radios designed to work in caves.

An international team of cave divers and Thai navy SEALs extracted the 12 boys and coach in a high-risk, three-day mission that concluded Tuesday.

“None of the tasks were easy,” Thai navy SEAL commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said Thursday after his men flew back to their base at Sattahip on the Gulf of Thailand.

“We were working on many tasks and we had to plan well. Our troops were taking risks, working in dangerous conditions and risking their lives. Many had to go to hospitals after the dives and many were sick. But we didn’t mention it because it could affect morale.”

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Associated Press journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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