TPM World News

LONDON (AP) — Britain will abide by some European Union rules for up to three years after it officially leaves the bloc in March 2019, the country’s Treasury chief said Friday.

Philip Hammond said a transition period is needed “to get from the status quo today to the new normal.” He said the transition should end before Britain’s next election, scheduled for 2022.

Many British businesses accuse the government of sending mixed signals about Brexit. Officials say Britain will leave the bloc’s single market and customs union, and end free movement from EU countries.

But officials also say the changes, which have huge economic implications, won’t happen overnight.

Hammond told Sky News that a transition period will let businesses “go on operating normally” while Britain works out its post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

His comments come amid conflict within the government between those, including Hammond, who want a compromise “soft Brexit” to ease the economic shock of leaving the EU, and those who want a clean, sharp break.

More than a year after Britons voted to leave the bloc, many aspects of the U.K.’s future relations with the EU remain unclear. That includes the nature of any trade relationship, and the status of some 3 million EU nationals who live in Britain.

Meanwhile, the prime minister of EU member Malta said he is starting to believe that Britain’s divorce from the European Union will not happen.

Joseph Muscat, whose country held the EU’s presidency for the first half of 2017, said he saw signs that British public opinion is turning.

In an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, he said he hopes a British politician will “stand up with the courage” to offer voters a new referendum on the final Brexit deal.

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Foreign Ministry ordered a reduction in the number of U.S. diplomats in Russia on Friday and said it was closing down a U.S. recreation retreat in response to fresh sanctions against Russia.

The U.S. Senate approved a new package of stiff financial sanctions Friday against Russia, Iran and North Korea and sent it to President Donald Trump to sign.

The legislation bars Trump from easing or waiving the penalties on Russia unless Congress agrees. It is aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed President Bashar Assad.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said, in response, it is ordering the U.S. Embassy in Russia to reduce the number of its diplomats by Sept. 1. Russia will also close down the embassy’s recreational retreat on the outskirts of Moscow as well as warehouse facilities.

The ministry said the number was being cut to 455 diplomats. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Maria Olson could not immediately say how many people had to leave to meet Russia’s new requirements.

Olson said Ambassador John Tefft “expressed his strong disappointment and protest” with the move and passed the Russian government’s notification to Washington for review.

Relations between Russia and the United States dropped to a post-Cold War low following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting since 2014 has left 10,000 people dead. Reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have put a damper on hopes for better ties that the Kremlin had pinned on Trump’s presidency.

The new package of sanctions aims to hit President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle by targeting allegedly corrupt officials, human rights abusers and crucial sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports.

The bill underwent revisions to address concerns voiced by American oil and natural gas companies that sanctions specific to Russia’s energy sector could backfire on them to Moscow’s benefit. Lawmakers said they also made adjustments so the sanctions on Russia’s energy sector didn’t undercut the ability of U.S. allies in Europe to get access to oil and gas resources outside of Russia.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the new sanctions as “creating unfair competitive advantages for the U.S. economy.”

“This kind of blackmail aimed at restricting the cooperation between Russia and other nations is a threat for many countries and global businesses,” the statement said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies later Friday that he would not rule out further steps, adding that Russia’s “toolbox” of how to react to the new sanctions “doesn’t come down to” cutting the embassy staff and seizing the recreational retreat.

Russia’s response mirrors moves by outgoing President Barack Obama last December to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian estates in the U.S.

Moscow said it would cut the U.S. diplomatic corps even further if the U.S. decides to expel more Russian diplomats.

The Kremlin had previously said it would not impose any sanctions on the U.S. until Trump signs the bill.

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Clashes have erupted between Israeli police and Palestinians worshippers at a contested Jerusalem shrine, shortly after the site reopened following an 11-day Muslim prayer boycott.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Thursday as Palestinians threw stones inside the walled compound that is holy to Muslims and Jews.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said 37 Palestinians were hurt, including some by rubber bullets and beatings. It said several people suffered broken bones.

Israeli police say the police responded after stones were thrown at officers at the gates to the site.

The Red Crescent said tensions arose when Israeli troops closed one of the gates to the compound as large numbers of worshippers tried to enter.

The shrine had been at the center of an Israeli-Palestinian standoff over recent Israeli security installations at the site. Israel has removed the devices.

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RAQQA, Syria (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian fighters have captured almost half of Raqqa from the Islamic State group, but the push into the northern city has slowed due to large amounts of explosives planted by the extremists and their counteroffensives, a spokeswoman for the fighters and a monitoring group said Thursday.

The assault on Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led fighting coalition, began June 6, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and U.S. troops advising the local forces. Since then, the SDF has made steady advances from the eastern and western sides of the city reaching the walled old quarter.

The capture of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed capital, would be a huge loss for the extremist group that earlier this month lost the Iraqi city of Mosul. But the liberation of Raqqa is still far off despite the progress.

Nisreen Abdullah, the Kurdish spokeswoman, told The Associated Press that the pace of the advance into Raqqa has slowed because of massive amounts of explosives laid by IS fighters. As the extremists become more surrounded, they have increased their suicide attacks against fighters of the SDF, she added.

“Raqqa has become a booby trapped city and this shows their (IS) weakness,” Abdullah, of the Women’s Protection Units, said speaking from northern Syria. “They are also using civilians as human shields and this is slowing the push as well.”

She said fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the YPJ, now controls 45 percent of Raqqa. She added that since the offensive in Raqqa began, SDF fighters have fully captured eight neighborhoods.

Plumes of smoke could be seen behind buildings in Raqqa a day earlier as the coalition pounded IS targets in the city. Syrian children looked on as U.S. armored vehicles drove by. One American soldier on a vehicle made the victory sign.

Mustafa Bali, who heads the SDF media center, confirmed Thursday that the group now has half of Raqqa and said the most important areas liberated in the past four days were the Nazlet Shehadeh and Panorama Square neighborhoods — both on the southwestern part of the city. But he said there are IS counterattacks, IS sleeper cells and tunnels in the area.

“It was not easy, we have casualties and martyrs,” he said, adding that the fighting was ongoing.

In the eastern front, where SDF forces breached IS defenses on the edge of the old city about a month ago, fighters have now reached the old citadel, an SDF commander in charge of one sector in the front told AP.

“As we move forward we find a tunnel every 100 meters,” Jihad Khabat said. He said the enemy, “besieged and in distress,” hides in deep and long tunnels spread all under the city, from where they would appear and harass Syrian fighters with frequent daily counterattacks.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said SDF fighters control half of Raqqa.

The attacks on the city have claimed many civilian casualties among the tens of thousands who are still trapped in areas controlled by IS.

The Observatory said 29 people, including eight children, were killed in airstrikes on the city on Wednesday. The activist-operated Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group said 36 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in airstrikes and shelling of Raqqa.

The reports could not be independently confirmed.

In central Syria, fighting edged closer to the IS stronghold of Sukhna, the last major town held by IS in the Homs province, according to the Observatory and the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media.

SCMM said Syrian troops killed and wounded a number of IS fighters in battles near a mountain that overlooks the area. The Observatory said troops are now about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Sukhna, which has been held by IS since the summer of 2015.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Qatar has hired a Washington influence firm founded by President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and another specialized in digging up dirt on U.S. politicians, signaling it wants to challenge Saudi Arabia’s massive lobbying efforts in America’s capital amid a diplomatic dispute among Arab nations.

The Gulf rift already has seen slogan-plastered taxicabs in London, television attack ads in the United States and competing messages flooding the internet and state-linked media on both sides since the crisis began on June 5.

Hiring a firm associated with former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski shows Qatar wants access to a White House with close ties to Saudi Arabia. Lewandowski left the firm in May.

But matching Saudi Arabia, which scored a diplomatic coup by hosting Trump’s first overseas trip, could be a tough battle for Qatar, even if it does boast the world’s highest per-capita income due to its natural gas deposits.

“The Qataris are belatedly working up to the scale of the challenge they face,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University who lives in Seattle. “This whole crisis, now that it’s kind of settled down into a prolonged confrontation or standoff, it’s become almost a struggle to win the hearts and minds in D.C.”

Qatar, in the midst of building stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, isn’t afraid to spend its money. Since the crisis began, Qatar paid $2.5 million to the law firm of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to audit its efforts at stopping terrorism funding — one of the allegations levied by the Saudi-led quartet of nations.

According to documents newly filed to the U.S. Justice Department, Qatar has hired Avenue Strategies Global for $150,000 a month to “provide research, government relations and strategic consulting services.” The contract also says that activity “may include communications with members of Congress and Congressional staff, executive branch officials, the media and other individuals.”

Lewandowski founded Avenue Strategies just after the November election that put Trump in the White House. Lewandowski resigned from the firm in May, saying he was troubled by a firm-related project he hadn’t sanctioned. Others tied to Avenue Strategies had started a firm of their own, pitching Eastern European clients with promises of access to Trump and high-ranking White House officials.

The firm, which includes a former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Qatar also signed a three-month, $1.1 million renewable contract with the opposition research firm Information Management Services, according to a Justice Department filing .

The firm, run by Jeff Klueter, a former researcher for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, did not respond to requests for comment. It advertises itself as doing so-called “oppo,” which includes digging into political opponents’ past and comments for incriminating or simply embarrassing material.

Qatar did not respond to a request for comment about the lobbying contracts. But it may serve as recognition that while Qatar has had success in speaking with the State Department and the Pentagon, it needs to make inroads to the Trump White House, Ulrichsen said.

Despite hosting a major U.S. military base, Qatar has been a target of Trump over its alleged funding of extremists, something Doha denies. Saudi Arabia enjoys close relations to Trump, as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

In Washington, Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars on lobbying, including a most-recent push to oppose a law allowing Sept. 11 victims’ families to sue the ultraconservative Muslim nation in U.S. courts . Its lobbying firms have been putting out memos on Qatar.

Meanwhile, an organization called the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee launched an online campaign called the Qatar Insider highlighting material critical of Doha. The committee also paid $138,000 to air an anti-Qatar attack ad on a local Washington television station, according to the Qatar-funded satellite news network Al-Jazeera.

“Our aim is to show the American people that Qatar has been employing a foreign policy that harms its neighbors and contributes to regional instability,” said Reem Daffa, the executive director of the committee, known by the acronym SAPRAC.

But while Daffa said SAPRAC does no lobbying, it has registered as a lobbying firm with Congress and tweeted a Qatar attack ad at Trump . It also has not filed paperwork with the Justice Department despite the committee being listed as entirely owned by a Saudi national .

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, first put in place over concerns about Nazi propagandists operating in the U.S. ahead of World War II, requires those working on behalf of other countries or their citizens to file regular reports to the Justice Department.

There are no similar rules in Britain, though the crisis recently could be seen on the streets of London. Pro-Qatar ads appeared on the city’s famous black taxis, bearing the message: “Lift the Blockade Against the People of Qatar.” Al-Jazeera Arabic even did a story about them.

But whether any of it will sway policy makers remains unclear.

“The prevailing view is that there are no perfect allies,” recently wrote Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “So whatever money the Gulf countries are spending in Washington, they should know it is not very well spent.”

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian semi-official media are reporting that Iran has successfully launched a rocket carrying a satellite into space.

The website YJC.ir, which is affiliated with Iranian state television, as well as the semi-official Fars news agency, reported the launch on Thursday and said it was successful.

The launch comes as the United States has criticized Iran’s ballistic missile tests.

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THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — A Russian man wanted in the United States on suspicion of masterminding a money laundering operation involving at least $4 billion through bitcoin transactions was ordered held in custody in Greece on Wednesday until a U.S. extradition request can be examined.

The 38-year-old, who has not been officially named, has denied any involvement. He was arrested Tuesday morning in northern Greece in cooperation with U.S. authorities, with police seizing electronic equipment, including mobile phones, two laptops and five tablets, from his hotel room.

The man has been accused of laundering an estimated $4 billion since 2011 by using the online bitcoin currency. Greek police said he had been directing a criminal organization that owns, operates and manages “one of the largest cybercrime websites in the world.”

The man appeared before a prosecutor in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, who ordered him held in custody pending the extradition request examination. Under Greek law, he can be held for up to two months until the request is examined.

A Greek police official said U.S. authorities accused the man and unnamed associates of running a website that carried out bitcoin conversions for proceeds from online hacking ransom, drug running, identity theft and tax violations. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the information was not yet officially disclosed.

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MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin on Wednesday refrained from discussing its possible response to a new package of U.S. sanctions against Russia before President Donald Trump signs them into law.

Eager to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Congress on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a new package of sanctions against Moscow that prohibits Trump from waiving the penalties without first getting permission from Congress.

Senior Russian officials and lawmakers said Russia was considering measures in response to the new round of sanctions, but Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said it was too early to speak about it.

Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the new sanctions, which he described as “lamentable,” have not been signed by Trump into law yet and that the Kremlin “needs to analyze it very carefully” before Putin makes a decision on how to respond.

When outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia last December, including expelling dozens of Russian diplomats and seizing two Russian recreational estates, Putin chose not to respond and said Russia would not expel U.S. diplomats despite the overwhelming expectations.

Russian officials welcomed Donald Trump’s presidential win last year, hoping to mend relations with the United States which reached a post-Cold War low under President Barack Obama. But six months into Trump’s presidency ties between the two countries remain tense, and the much-anticipated first meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin early this month did not seem to produce any tangible results.

Earlier on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov criticized the sanctions as “closing off the prospect for normalizing ties.” He told the Interfax news agency the new sanctions are pushing Russia and the U.S. “into uncharted territory both in political and diplomatic sense.”

Several Russian lawmakers said Moscow is considering how to respond to the new sanctions that aim to hit Putin and his inner circle by targeting alleged corrupt officials, human rights abusers, and crucial sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports. The Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russian parliament, is already discussing the response, the chairman of its foreign affairs committee Konstantin Kosachev told reporters in Moscow.

Frants Klintsevich, first deputy chairman of the defense committee at the upper chamber of Russian parliament, warned that the new sanctions could hurt Russia’s efforts to work with the U.S. in fighting terrorism. Cooperation on counter-terrorism between Russia and the U.S. “will be extremely problematic if at all possible,” Klintsevich said in comments carried by Russian news agencies on Wednesday.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The four Arab countries isolating Qatar over its alleged support for extremists has added 18 more people and organizations to a designated terrorist list.

The countries said Tuesday the designated individuals and groups have direct or indirect ties to Qatar, and include people who have raised funds for the Nusra Front in Syria— since renamed Fatah al-Sham Front — or supported al-Qaida in Yemen. They include Qatari, Kuwaiti, Yemeni and Libyan nationals and Yemeni and Libyan groups.

The quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain previously designated 59 people and 12 entities to a Qatar-linked terrorism list.

Qatar vehemently denies supporting extremists. It sees the isolation effort that began June 5 as a politically motivated smear campaign.

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BEIJING (AP) — China on Tuesday denied its fighter jet pilots operated dangerously during an encounter with a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace in which the American pilot took evasive action to avoid a possible collision.

Spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a statement on the defense ministry’s microblog that the performance of the pilots of the two J-10 fighters was “legal, necessary and professional.”

Ren criticized frequent close-in surveillance runs by U.S. planes as raising the chance of accidents, saying such missions “threatened China’s national security, harmed China-U.S. sea-air military safety, endangered the safety of pilots from the two sides and were the root cause of China-U.S. sea-air unexpected incidents.”

The U.S. should stop such “unsafe, unprofessional and unfriendly military activities,” Ren said, in a repetition of China’s standard policy toward U.S. surveillance missions intended at collecting Chinese computer and voice data in hopes of gaining insight into the workings of the People’s Liberation Army.

Asked about the incident at a daily briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing objected to such missions but remained “committed to building military mutual trust with other countries.”

U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the Chinese fighters intercepted the U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane Sunday in international airspace between the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, in an area he described as west of the Korean Peninsula.

Davis said one of the Chinese planes approached at a high rate of speed from beneath the American plane, then slowed and pulled up, prompting the EP-3 pilot to take evasive action. He called the Chinese pilot’s move unsafe.

China in 2013 declared an air defense identification zone over a partly contested portion of the East China Sea, demanding foreign aircraft declare their presence and follow Chinese orders. The U.S. and others swiftly dismissed the zone as invalid and have largely ignored it. It wasn’t clear if Sunday’s encounter took place inside the zone.

Such incidents continue to occur despite an agreement between the two sides to prevent them from sparking an international crisis, as happened in April 2001 when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3. That led to the death of the Chinese pilot and China’s detention of the U.S. air crew for 10 days after their crippled plane landed at a PLA Navy air base on the island province of Hainan.

While China has long chafed at U.S. surveillance operations targeting its military, the PLA itself has been conducting such missions further and further from its home ports.

Earlier this month, China sailed a spy ship through the narrow Tsugaru Strait separating the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, while another was spotted last week within Australia’s exclusive economic zone where allies Australia and U.S. were conducting major war games.

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