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EU Executive Body To Debate Controversial New Polish Media Law

The European Union’s executive body will take up the issue of controversial new amendments to Poland’s media law when it meets later this month.

The decision by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to schedule a January 13 debate signaled growing concern about the newly passed changes pushed by Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party.

The changes give the government authority to appoint managers of state-run radio and television stations.

Meanwhile, Gunther Oettinger, who is the EU commissioner for the digital economy and society, threatened to put Poland on notice for infringing on common European values for the legislation.

"Many reasons exist for us to activate the 'Rule of Law mechanism' and for us to place Warsaw under monitoring," he was quoted as saying in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The move would start a series of steps that could eventually see Warsaw lose its voting rights at the European Council, the organization that groups the leaders of all 28 EU countries.

A spokesman for Polish President Andrzej Duda said the changes in the legislation were necessary, because, he said, for eight years under the previous pro-EU government, state broadcasters were "deeply one-party media."

The broadcasters had "not a penny's worth of pluralism," spokesman Marek Magierowski said, and "not a single EU commissioner or EU lawmaker expressed any concern over the fact."

Four directors of state TV channels and programs resigned last week in protest of the new law, while state radio is airing the EU and Polish national anthems before news broadcasts to stress attachment to EU values.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Reports: Indian Consulate In Afghan City Attacked

Gunmen have reportedly attacked the Indian Consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, attempting to enter the compound.

A spokesman for the regional governor said two explosions on January 3 were followed by gunfire outside the diplomatic mission.

An Indian consular official also confirmed the attack, telling the AFP news agency by telephone: "We are being attacked. Fighting is going on.”

No details were immediately available on casualties or damage.

Located about 400 kilometers north of Kabul, near the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Mazar-e Sharif is a major hub for northern Afghanistan.

The attack came as Indian security forces continued their effort to repel an assault on an air base near the border with Pakistan.

At least seven military personnel have been killed and 20 others wounded.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Turkish Coast Guard, Fishermen Rescue 57 Stranded Migrants From Island

Turkey's coast guard and Turkish fishermen have rescued 57 migrants who were stranded on a small island off the Turkish coastal resort of Dikili while they tried to reach Greece.

Twelve people in the group, including three children, were airlifted off the island in a helicopter on January 3.

The remainder were rescued with fishing boats because the larger coast-guard ships were unable to maneuver along the rocky shoreline.

Turkey has promised the European Union that it will exercise tighter controls on its sea borders after hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from war-ravaged Syria, made the journey from Turkey to Greece in 2015.

Despite Ankara's promises, refugees are still making the treacherous sea crossing every day.

Based on reporting by AFP, AP, and Anadolu

Afghan Ministry Warns Against Celebratory Gunfire After Soccer Final

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry has warned against celebratory gunfire after the upcoming South Asia soccer final against India, hoping to avoid a repeat of the dangerous celebrations that followed the Afghan national team's victory in 2013.

Afghanistan is defending its title against India on January 3 in an eagerly awaited match that is seen as a point of pride in the country.

Afghanistan defeated Sri Lanka 5-0 to advance to the final match and is expected to defeat India, which beat Maldives 4-1.

The match is being played at Trivandrum International Stadium in Kerala, India.

But Afghans can watch on a number of large screens that have been set up around Kabul and in other cities.

The championship is held every two years.

India defeated Afghanistan in 2011.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Kyrgyzstan Detains Briton Who Insulted National Food

A British man who works at a foreign-owned gold mine in Kyrgyzstan has been detained for questioning after he compared a local delicacy to a horse penis.

Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry on January 3 confirmed that Briton Michael Mcfeat, an employee of the Canadian firm Centerra Gold, was detained for questioning in the city of Karakol after posting the comment on Facebook.

Authorities in Bishkek said Mcfeat's remark was included with photos of Centerra Gold's workplace New Year's celebrations.

Mcfeat allegedly wrote that Kyrgyz employees who were lining up to be served a national dish, "chuchuk," were preparing for their "special delicacy, the horse's penis."

Chuchuk is a sausage made from horse meat and intestines.

The remark prompted a strike on January 2 by Kyrgyz employees at the Kumtor mine, which is at the center of a dispute between Kyrgyzstan's government and the Canadian mining company.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Afghan Army Helicopter Crashes South Of Kabul, Killing Three

The U.S. government has been buying Mi-17 helicopters from Russia and refurbishing them to supply the Afghan National Army.

Officials in Kabul say an Afghan National Army helicopter has crashed in the province of Logar to the south of Kabul, killing three Afghan soldiers.

Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said the Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter crashed on January 3 as a result of technical problems.

He said two other Afghan soldiers were wounded in the crash, which happened at about 1:30 p.m. Kabul time.

The U.S. government has been buying Mi-17 helicopters from Russia and refurbishing them to supply the Afghan National Army.

Afghan officials say the choice of the Russian-built helicopter over the U.S. Chinook cargo helicopter was due to the familiarity of Afghanistan's technical crews and pilots with the Russian aircraft.

The Mi-17, which serves as a cargo ship that is fitted with guns, also is more suitable than a Chinook helicopter for operations in Afghanistan's mountain regions.

With reporting by AP

Fresh Gunfire At Indian Base After Battle

Fresh gunfire has erupted at an Indian Air Force base in the northern city of Pathankot, a day after 11 people were killed during an attack by suspected Islamic militants.

Authorities said on January 3 that at least two gunmen involved in the fresh violence had been hiding inside the base since attackers stormed the facility on January 2.

Shortly before sundown on January 3, Indian officials said two gunmen had been killed in the second day of fighting.

But they said security forces were continuing to battle at least two more gunmen inside the facility.

Seven Indian troops and four gunmen were killed in the January 2 gunbattle at the air base, which is on the highway that leads to the Indian-administered region of Jammu and Kashmir.

The base also is near India's border with Pakistan.

New Delhi has blamed Pakistan for previous militant attacks linked to the divided and disputed Kashmir region, alleging that Islamabad supports Islamic extremists in the area.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Fire Kills Six, Including Four Children, In Russia's Yaroslavl

Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations says six people -- including four children aged three or younger -- have been killed in a fire in the Yaroslavl region northeast of Moscow.

The fire broke out on the evening of January 2 in a 100-year-old building in the village of Pesochnoye.

More than 20 people who were living in the building were left homeless by the blaze.

Authorities said they were investigating two possible causes of the fire -- either carelessness or a short circuit in the building's electrical system.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

IS Claims Suicide Bombings At Iraqi Military Base

Attacks by five suicide bombers on an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad have killed at least 15 Iraqi security forces and wounded 22 others.

Iraqi security officials said two of the bombers detonated their vehicle-borne explosives on January 3 at the western gate of Camp Speicher, a former U.S. base outside the city of Tikrit.

Three others detonated explosives after entering the section of the base where Iraqi police are being trained.

The Islamic State (IS) militant group, which controls swathes of Iraq's north and west, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted on the Internet by supporters.

The statement said IS militants targeted "trainers from the rejectionist army," a term used by the Sunni insurgents to describe Shi'ite Muslims.

The attack comes days after Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, announced they had recaptured the city of Ramadi -- which was seized by IS militants during the summer of 2015.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Ukraine To Ban Russian Food Imports

Ukraine has announced it will ban food products from Russia starting on January 10, a response to a similar ban by Moscow.

The sanctions, published on Ukraine's government website on January 2, include meat, fish, and dairy products as well as vegetables and fruit.

A similar Russian ban came into effect on January 1.

The tit-for-tat moves come in the wake of Ukraine's decision to implement a free-trade pact with the European Union despite Russian opposition.

Russian officials said that the ban on Ukrainian food imports was necessary to protect its internal market, claiming that European products could reach Russia by way of Ukraine without paying import duty.

An initial attempt to finalize the pact had failed in 2013, sparking protests in Kyiv that led to the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, followed by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea, and a Russian-backed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

U.S. Says More To Do Before Announcing New Iran Sanctions

The White House has said it needs to do more diplomatic and technical work before it will announce any sanctions in response to ballistic missile launches by Iran.

President Barack Obama's administration is considering a number of additional targets for sanctions related to Iran's ballistic missile program.

The U.S. Congress has been notified of those deliberations.

Some lawmakers have criticized the administration for what they describe as delayed punitive action in response to Iran's recent missile tests.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said the pact that the United States and five other world powers negotiated with Iran last year to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon will not impede future sanctions.

Rhodes said Iran had no say on who the United States targets with sanctions designations. He said Washington expected protests from Iran, but added that won't affect the final decision.

Rhodes spoke in Hawaii on January 2 as President Barack Obama wraps up his Christmas vacation.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties Amid Iranian Anger Over Cleric’s Execution

Iranian riot police block a street leading to the Saudi Embassy as protesters hold portraits of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Tehran on January 3 against his execution by Saudi authorities.

Saudi Arabia has said it's cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, in the latest fallout to erupt after Riyadh’s execution of an opposition Shi'ite cleric prompted outraged protesters to storm the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the decision to sever ties with Tehran on January 3, saying that all Iranian diplomats must leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours.

The move came amid increasingly harsh rhetoric between Riyadh and Tehran, with Iran's supreme leader warning of "divine vengeance” for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. It also came almost a day after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof.

Saudi Arabia, ruled by a Sunni-led royal dynasty, is engaged in a tug of war with Shi’ite-led Iran throughout the Middle East. Both sides have used proxy forces to struggle for or maintain influence in places like Yemen, as well as Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria.

The execution of Nimr, announced on January 2 by Saudi Arabia, was expected to fuel further outbreaks of proxy violence.

Nimr was a central figure in protests by Saudi Arabia's marginalized Shi'ite minority until his arrest in 2012 and later conviction on terrorism charges. His execution drew condemnation from Shi'a across the region.

In addition to Nimr, 46 others, including three Shi'ite dissidents and several Al-Qaeda militants, were put to death.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman warned that Nimr's execution could worsen sectarian strife at a time when tensions needed to be reduced.

A day after protesters stormed and looted part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Iranian authorities said on January 3 that 44 demonstrators had been arrested, but hard-liners also called for another demonstration later in the day.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement on January 3 that Nimr "neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots. The only thing he did was public criticism."

In a sign that Iranian authorities may be seeking to keep the reaction from spiraling out of control, Iranian President Hassan Rohani on January 3 condemned Nimr's execution but also denounced attacks on the Saudi Embassy and Consulate as "totally unjustifiable."

Rohani said that "the buildings should be legally and religiously protected in the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Sectarian Tensions

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism."

It accused Tehran of "blind sectarianism" and said that "by its defense of terrorist acts" Iran was a "partner in their crimes in the entire region."

Earlier, Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guards had promised "harsh revenge" against the Saudi Sunni royal dynasty for his execution.

Iran previously warned that executing the cleric would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly."

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday Prayer leader, denounced the execution as a "crime" by Saudi Arabia's "infamous regime."

"This...blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history," Khatami was quoted as saying on January 2.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said in a statement that the Saudi government would pay a "heavy price" for “this shameful act,” which it said was a sign of the “decay” of the Saudi rulers.

“The criminal act of execution of Sheikh Nimr the leader of Shia in Saudi Arabia is part of a Zionist conspiracy to sow discord among the world Muslims which will be aborted by the Heavenly blessings coming down to us by the pure blood of these martyrs,” the statement published by Iranian media said.

Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.

In Iraq, whose Shi'ite-led government is close to Iran, prominent religious and political figures demanded that ties with Riyadh be severed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi warned that Nimr’s execution would have repercussions on regional security.

He wrote on his verified Facebook account that muffling voices and executing opponents "would lead to nothing but more destruction," expressing "intense shock" upon hearing the news of the execution.

Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Nimr's execution would "topple the Saudi regime".

Iraqi lawmaker Muhammad al-Sayhud warned that Nimr's execution was intended to fuel sectarian strife in the region.

"This measure taken by the ruling family [of Saudi Arabia] aims at reigniting the region, provoking sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi'a," he told Al-Sumaria TV.

Prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for demonstrations in Persian Gulf countries and in Iraq to protest the execution of Nimr by Saudi Arabia.

"I ask that the Shi'a of Saudi Arabia...show courage in responding even through peaceful demonstrations, and the same for the Shi' in the Gulf, so as to deter injustice and government terrorism in the future," Sadr said on his website.

In Bahrain, police used tear gas against several dozen people protesting Nimr’s execution while carrying his pictures.

'Foreign Meddling'

Meanwhile, Nimr's brother said the family was shocked by news of the execution but hoped that any reaction would be peaceful:

"We hope that any reactions would be confined to a peaceful framework. No one should have any reaction outside this peaceful framework. Enough bloodshed," Muhammad al-Nimr told Reuters.

He said the cleric was found guilty of seeking "foreign meddling" in the kingdom, "disobeying" the country's rulers, and taking up arms against the security forces.

Nimr’s brother was later quoted as saying that Saudi authorities told the family that the cleric had already been buried without informing them at which cemetery.

Hundreds of members of its Shi'ite minority were arrested after the protests during which several policemen were killed in shooting and firebomb attacks.

The kingdom also detained thousands of militant Islamists after a series of Al-Qaeda attacks from 2003-06 that killed hundreds, and has convicted hundreds of them.

The ministry said the executions were carried out on January 2 in 12 different areas of the kingdom.

The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP, the BBC, IRNA, Fars, and Mehr

Afghan Forces Free Dozens Of Prisoners From Taliban Jail

Afghan special forces have freed 59 prisoners from a Taliban jail in southern Helmand Province, officials said on January 2.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said 37 of the captives were soldiers, another seven were policemen, and the rest were civilians.

An operation to free the captives from the jail -- located just to the north of provincial capital, Lashkar Gah -- unfolded in the night on January 1, Waziri said.

In recent months, the Taliban has seized several district centers in Helmand, which borders Pakistan and sits on transport routes for lucrative drugs and weapons contraband.

Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Waziri dismissed suggestions that Helmand could fall to the Taliban entirely, but he said government forces faced a serious battle against insurgents there.

In an unusual appeal via Facebook on December 19, Helmand's deputy governor pleaded for urgent reinforcement and assistance from Kabul.

The worsening situation in Helmand prompted Britain to deploy a small unit of military personnel in the province in an advisory role last month.

Based on reporting by Reuters and khaama.com

Moderate Earthquake Felt In Afghanistan, Pakistan

A 5.3-magnitude earthquake was felt in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan on January 2, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the epicenter of the quake was some 69 kilometers south-southeast of the city of Faizabad, the capital of Afghanistan's northern province of Badakhshan.

A 7.5-magnitude quake hit the same region on October 26, killing around 400 people and causing extensive damage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Based on reporting by AP, dpa, and khaama.com

Iran Accuses Saudi Arabia Of Supporting Terrorism After Shi'ite Cleric's Execution

The executions were reportedly held in 12 parts of the country. (file photo)

Iran has accused regional rival Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism after the kingdom said it had executed a top Shi'ite cleric on terrorism charges.

Nimr al-Nimr, 56, was among 47 people executed in Saudi Arabia on January 2, the kingdom's Interior Ministry said.

"The Saudi government supports terrorists and [radical Sunni] extremists, while executing and suppressing critics inside the country," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari was quoted as saying by Iranian state media.

Ansari warned Saudi Arabia "will pay a high price for following these policies." The Foreign Ministry also summoned Saudi Arabia's charge d'affaires in Tehran to protest Nimr’s execution, Iranian state television said.

The 47 were convicted of involvement in terrorist acts and inciting violence, the ministry said in a statement.

Nimr was a central figure in Shi'ite protests that erupted in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shi'ite minority complains of marginalization.

Iran previously warned that executing the cleric would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly."

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday prayer leader, denounced the execution as a "crime" by Saudi Arabia's "infamous regime."

"This…blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history," Khatami was quoted as saying on January 2.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said in a statement that the Saudi government will pay for “this shameful act,” which it said was a sign of decay of Saudi rulers.

The Twitter account of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei paid tribute to Nimr calling him a “martyr.”

"Awakening is not suppressible," read the tweet on Khamenei's English-language Twitter account, next to a photograph of Nimr.

A small group of seminary students protested the cleric's execution in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran on January 2, Iranian domestic media reported.

'Foreign Meddling'

The cleric's execution also prompted angry reactions in other countries in the region, including in Shi'ite majority Iraq and in Bahrain.

Iraqi lawmaker Muhammad al-Sayhud warned that Nimr's execution was intended to fuel sectarian strife in the region.

"This measure taken by the ruling family [of Saudi Arabia] aims at reigniting the region, provoking sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi'a," he told Al-Sumaria TV.

Prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for demonstrations in Persian Gulf countries and in Iraq to protest the execution of Nimr.

"I ask that the Shi'a of Saudi Arabia...show courage in responding even through peaceful demonstrations, and the same for the Shi'a in the Gulf, so as to deter injustice and government terrorism in the future," Sadr said on his website.

In Bahrain, police used teargas against several dozen people protesting Nimr’s execution while carrying his pictures.

Meanwhile, Nimr's brother said the family was shocked by news of the execution but hoped that any reaction would be peaceful.

"We hope that any reactions would be confined to a peaceful framework. No one should have any reaction outside this peaceful framework. Enough bloodshed," Muhammad al-Nimr told Reuters.

He said the cleric was found guilty of seeking "foreign meddling" in the kingdom, "disobeying" the country's rulers, and taking up arms against the security forces.

Hundreds of members of its Shi'ite minority were arrested after the protests during which several policemen were killed in shooting and petrol bomb attacks.

The kingdom also detained thousands of militant Islamists after a series of Al-Qaeda attacks from 2003-06 that killed hundreds, and has convicted hundreds of them.

The ministry said the executions were carried out on January 2 in 12 different areas of the kingdom.

The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP, and the BBC

Talks Aimed At Jump-Starting Afghan Peace Set For January 11

Afghanistan and Pakistan are renewing efforts to forge peace in the new year, scheduling a round of talks in Pakistan for January 11.

The move comes amid renewed attacks in Kabul by the Taliban, which so far has shunned any new peace negotiations. A previous peace effort by Afghanistan and Pakistan last summer collapsed after the Taliban opted out and instead waged a series of bloody attacks around the country.

The latest talks were launched by Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif, who visited Kabul last week.

After his visit, Kabul announced a new round of dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China on January 11 to lay out a comprehensive roadmap for peace.

Afghanistan sees the support of Pakistan, the Taliban's historic backer, as vital to bring the insurgent group to the negotiating table.

But despite improving relations with Islamabad, the Taliban has vowed not to take part in peace talks as long as foreign forces remain in Afghanistan. Moreover, the group has been riven by internal fighting over who should lead.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa

Gas Pipeline Springs Leak In Ukraine, But No Supplies Disrupted

A gas pipeline leaked in the Zakarpattia region of western Ukraine, but the leak is not affecting consumers, Ukrainian gas transmission system operator Ukrtransgaz reported January 1.

Ukrtransgaz said the leak has not affected supplies to the European Union and repairs are underway.

The incident, which occurred on the Soyuz pipeline near the village of Gorodilovo or Horodylove, led to a gas flare to prevent a dangerous buildup of leaked gas. But it did not result in any injuries or gas cutoffs, the gas company said.

Based on reporting by Interfax and RT.com

Saudi Arabia Reopens Embassy In Baghdad After 25 Years

Saudi Arabia has reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a 25-year shutdown, in a sign of thawing relations between the two countries.

The kingdom closed its embassy in Baghdad in 1990, after Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of Kuwait.

The embassy's reopening will allow the two countries to cooperate on security and the fight against extremism, the new Saudi ambassador to Iraq, Thamer al-Sabhan, told Al-Arabiya TV.

A thaw in relations between Sunni Muslim-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite-led Iraq could help strengthen a regional alliance against Islamic State militants who have seized territory in Iraq and Syria.

Saudi Arabia has in the past accused Iraq of being too close to Shi'ite-led Iran, its biggest regional rival, and of encouragingdiscrimination against Sunnis. Baghdad denies the charges.

Based on reporting by Reuters and Al-Arabiya TV

Two Dead As Gunmen Attack Indian Air Base Near Pakistan

Officials say Indian troops killed four gunmen who had entered an Indian air force base near the border with Pakistan and exchanged fire with security forces in the early hours of January 2.

At least two Indian soldiers were also killed in the gunbattle, local media reported.

The suspected Islamic militant gunmen entered the living quarters section of the Pathankot air force base, but were not able to penetrate the area, which houses fighter helicopters and other expensive military equipment, said air force spokeswoman Rochelle D'Silva.

Pathankot is on the highway that connects India's Jammu and Kashmir state, a hotbed of insurgency, with the rest of the country. It's also very close to India's border with rival Pakistan.

The violence comes amid an effort to restore more peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. A week ago, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

The two also had an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks and had decided to start a dialogue to resolve outstanding issues. Their foreign secretaries are scheduled to meet in Islamabad later this month.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP

Russia Discounts Gas Price Offered To Ukraine

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev approved a discount in the price of natural gas for Ukraine to bring Russian gas prices closer to prices in European markets.

Russia will discount its previous gas price of $230 per 1,000 cubic meters (TCM) by $17.8, bringing it to $212.2 per TCM, an official Russian government notice said January 1.

Ukraine's Energy Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn previously said Ukraine was ready to buy Russian gas in the first quarter of 2016 if the price was reduced to under $200 per TCM.

Currently, gas is trading at a price of around $170 per TCM in European markets.

"Russians understand that in order to be competitive they need to decrease the price," Medvedev said, noting that the discount was intended to reflect "market conditions."

Whether the discount will be enough to attract Ukraine remains to be seen. Ukraine halted gas purchases from Gazprom in July 2015 after Kyiv and Moscow failed to reach a deal on gas deliveries for the third quarter of the year.

Based on reporting by Interfax and Sputniknews.com

More Crimean Power Shortages Likely With End Of Ukraine Supplies

Power lines feeding the peninsula have been sabotaged.

Residents of Crimea face several more months of power shortages as Russia appears to have ended a contract with Ukraine to deliver electricity to the peninsula it annexed in 2014.

A Kremlin spokesman said January 1 that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not renew the contract, which expired on New Year's day, as long as Kyiv keeps insisting on stipulating in the contract that the peninsula belongs to Ukraine.

"It can be assumed with a great degree of probability that the president will opt not to sign a contract on such terms," which would amount to an abnegation of Russia's annexation, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said.

After a month of on-and-off electricity supplies from Ukraine due to sabotage of the high-voltage transmission lines feeding the peninsula, power to Crimea was officially cut off at midnight December 31 when the contract expired, Russian media reported.

If Kyiv agrees to drop its demand for a clause designating Crimea as part of Ukraine, Peskov said, then Russia would be more inclined to renew the contract.

To support the Kremlin's apparent decision not to renew the contract, Putin commissioned an opinion poll to determine whether Crimean residents want to be a part of Ukraine to continue getting power supplies from the Ukrainian company Ukrenegro.

Russian news agencies reported on January 1 that over 90 percent of Crimeans said in the poll they would be against renewing the contract under those circumstances, even if it meant experiencing more minor disruptions in supply.

The Kremlin said Putin will be guided by the results of the poll, which was conducted by a state-owned polling organization, in making a decision about the now-lapsed power supply contract with Ukraine.

Without power from Ukraine, officials have warned that Crimeans will continue to experience at least minor electricity shortages and rolling blackouts for three or four months until Moscow can complete the construction of undersea cables transmitting more power from Russia.

Russian Energy Minister Aleksander Novak has said the power shortages will be particularly acute at peak times of usage, when shortfalls of up to 10 percent are possible.

With reporting by the Daily Telegraph, Interfax, and TASS

U.S., French Planes Hit Islamic State Sites In Iraq, Syria

The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) says it conducted 24 air strikes against the militant group in Iraq, while French jets attacked IS sites in Syria.

The coalition said in a statement on January 1 that the strikes targeted IS positions in seven areas, including near Tal Afar, where 11 strikes reportedly destroyed nine bunkers and four bridges used by militants.

It added that three air strikes near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul struck a tactical unit and destroyed two heavy machine guns and six fighting positions.

Other strikes near the recently liberated city of Ramadi -- the capital of Anbar Province that Iraqi forces captured from IS fighters on December 27 -- hit a large tactical unit and destroyed a vehicle-borne, improvised-explosive-device facility.

Meanwhile, French warplanes bombed IS oil installations near the Syrian city of Raqa, an IS stronghold.

The attacks came as French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made a New Year's visit to the air base in Jordan used by the French jets.

Based on reporting Reuters and AFP

Iranian Officials Defiant In Ramping Up Missile Program

Iranian officials are vowing to increase Iran's missile capabilities amid reports from Washington of new sanctions against Tehran for its testing of a ballistic missile in October.

"As long as the United States supports Israel we will expand our missile capabilities," said the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' deputy chief, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, Fars news agency reported.

Speaking during Friday Prayers on January 1, Salami added that Iran does not have enough space to store its missiles. "All our depots and underground facilities are full," he said.

Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said the same day that Iran had never agreed to allow restrictions put on its ballistic missile program.

"Iran's missile capabilities have never been the subject of negotiations with the Americans and never will be," he said on Iranian station Press TV.

Meanwhile, the White House is reportedly delaying the imposition of any new sanctions on Iran over the recent tests within its ballistic missile program, the Wall Street Journal reported December 31.

The move to hold the planned sanctions, which at one point the Journal said were to be announced on December 30, reportedly came after Tehran had seemingly retaliated against the U.S. decision by speeding up the program that Washington says violates existing UN sanctions.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani had ordered Dehghan to speed up the country’s missile program in response to reports of the new U.S. sanctions.

"As the U.S. government is apparently planning a continuation of its hostile policies and illegal meddling to add a number of companies and individuals to the list of its previous unjust sanctions...the armed forces need to quickly and with more seriousness pursue their missile-development program," Rohani said in a letter to Dehghan published by Iranian news agencies.

Rohani's letter responded to a Journal report December 30 that the U.S. administration was preparing new sanctions on companies and individuals connected with Iran’s ballistic-missile program.

U.S. officials have said the Treasury Department retains a right under July's nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers to blacklist entities suspected of involvement in Iran's missile development.

Iranian officials have insisted that their ballistic missile program does not violate UN sanctions and the country's supreme leader would view any new sanctions as violating the nuclear accord.

“The government of the Islamic republic announced during the nuclear talks that it has never negotiated with anyone over its legitimate defense power, including its missile program, and while emphasizing on its legitimate right, it won’t accept any restrictions in this area,” Rohani wrote in the December 31 letter to Dehghan.

He said Iran’s missiles have not been designed to carry nuclear warheads and that they’re merely used as “an important and standard tool" for defense purposes.

Rohani said that Iran’s defense capabilities are not a threat against others.

The Iranian president also said that if the U.S. repeats its "wrong and interventionist policies" then the Iranian Defense Ministry would have to plan to expand the country's missible capabilities.

UN sanctions monitors said on December 15 that a medium-range Emad rocket that Iran tested on October 10 was a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, making it a violation of a UN Security Council resolution.

The United States and its allies have pushed for new UN sanctions over the missile test.

But while it is possible for the UN sanctions committee to blacklist additional Iranian entities over the missile launch, UN diplomats say Russia and China have opposed the sanctions on Iran's missile program and might block any new action.

The Obama administration is under strong pressure from the Republican-led Congress to act on the missile-test violation documented by the UN.

Republican leaders contend that if current UN sanctions aren't enforced, no one can be confident that the curbs on Iran's nuclear activities under the nuclear deal will be enforced.

The White House has warned that the United States might move on its own if the UN fails to act.

The Wall Street Journal said the planned U.S. Treasury Department sanctions cover two networks linked to Iran that are developing the country's missile program and include many of the people in those networks.

The Treasury Department is also preparing to sanction five Iranian defense officials for work on the ballistic-missile program, the newspaper said.

The Treasury will justify the new sanctions in part by citing ties between Iran and North Korea on missile development, it said.

With reporting by The Wall Street Journal, IRNA, Reuters, and Fars

Iraq Forces Extend Control In Ramadi, Rescue Civilians

Iraqi forces are extending their control within the central city of Ramadi as they continue to flush out pockets of Islamic State (IS) fighters in the city.

The expansion by Iraqi soldiers on January 1 allowed hundreds of trapped civilians to escape from areas that had been controlled by the militants.

Some terrified families waved white flags as they emerged from homes reduced to rubble.

Hamid al-Dulaimi, a Ramadi district mayor, said Iraqi forces had retaken control of the city's agricultural college and soldiers are "clearing several other neighborhoods."

The government declared on December 27 that it had captured the center of Ramadi, the capital of the western Anbar Province.

The IS had taken Ramadi in May, and its liberation by Iraqi forces is seen as a big boost to the government.

Police chief Hadi Irzayij said security forces had detained 30 suspected IS fighters "who were attempting to flee Ramadi by blending in with civilians."

An Iraqi military official said IS fighters that had retreated from Ramadi attacked an Iraqi Army compound outside the city on January 1 with "suicide vehicles" and commandos wearing suicide belts.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Two Dead In Kabul Explosion Claimed By Taliban

A suicide car bomber killed one person and wounded at least 11 others in central Kabul on January 1.

Afghan police said the explosion -- apparently targetting the Le Jardin restaurant -- caused a building to be engulfed in flames.

In addition to the bystander killed in the incident, the suicide bomber also died.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter that the extremist group was responsible for the attack.

The Afghan-owned restaurant, which is popular with foreigners, is in a district containing many foreign embassies, government buildings, and restaurants.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the explosion occurred in the Qala-e-Fathullah neighborhood.

Local media reported that one suspect -- allegedly wearing a security forces uniform -- has been arrested.

The attack comes one day after Afghan officials announced four-way talks will be held in Pakistan on January 11 in an effort to resume peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and tolonews.com

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