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Us Defense Secretary Mattis To Press European Allies On Military Spending

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BRUSSELS – U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will press European allies on Wednesday to stick to a promise to increase military budgets as the United States offers an increase in its own defense spending in Europe.

For the first time, NATO countries have submitted plans to show how they will reach a target to spend 2 percent of economic output on defense every year by 2024, after Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. support for low-spending allies.

Fifteen of the 28 countries, excluding the United States, now have a strategy to meet a NATO benchmark first agreed in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, following years of cuts to European defense budgets.

It is unclear whether that will be enough to impress U.S. President Donald Trump when he attends a NATO summit in July.

While France plans to increase defense spending by more than a third between 2017 and 2025, Spain has said it will not meet the 2024 target, while Belgium and Italy are also lagging.

A multi-billion euro projected increase in Germany will not be enough to take Berlin up to 2 percent by 2024.

Mattis is expected to take a tough stance, according to Katie Wheelbarger, principal U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

“He will address those who don’t have national plans to meet 2 percent and suggest they really need to develop those plans,” she told reporters.

MIXED MESSAGE?

The issue of low defense spending in Europe has long been an irritant in Washington. But Russia’s military modernization, Islamist militancy and electronic warfare on computer networks have underscored Europe’s heavy reliance on the United States.

According to NATO data, Britain, Greece, Romania and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meet, or are close to, the 2 percent goal, while France and Turkey are among those countries set to reach it soon.

One area of tension lies in the language of the NATO spending pledge of 2014. Allies committed to “move toward” 2 percent, while Trump now says 2 percent is the “bare minimum.”

Trump has also set an example by proposing a $1.7 billion increase in military expenditure in Europe for 2019, as the United States leads NATO efforts to deter Russia.

But U.S. officials have also sown confusion about their support for a new defense pact to coordinate European Union defense policy and allow countries to club together to buy arms.

Wheelbarger warned that “we don’t want to see EU efforts pulling requirements or activity away from NATO and into the EU.” The U.S. envoy to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said there were concerns that U.S. defense companies would be shut out.

“We do not want this to be a protectionist vehicle for the EU,” she said of the proposed pact.

Reporting by Robin Emmott;

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Eu To Double Funding For Military Force In West Africas Sahel

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BRUSSELS – The European Union will double its funding for a multi-national military operation in West Africa’s Sahel region to counter Islamist insurgencies, the EU’s top diplomat said on Friday, part of a broader effort to stop migrants and militants.

At a donor conference of about 50 countries including the United States, Japan and Norway, former colonial power France looked set to win enough backing to allow the new regional force to be fully operational later this year.

“This is not about charity, this is a partnership,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters, promising a doubling of EU funding to 100 million euros for the G5 Sahel force, made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

The G5 Sahel force needs more than 400 million euros ($494 million) to be able to meet the demands of its Western backers, up from the 250 million euros it has now.

Evoking the desperation young people feel in the impoverished Sahel, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said many had just two options in life: to die in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe or to die at the hands of militants.

“We have to act resolutely to change the face of the Sahel region or risk seeing this region of the world fall irreversibly into chaos and violence,” Issoufou told the conference after asking leaders and ministers to stand for a moment of silence for two French soldiers killed this week in Mali.

Fears that violence in the arid zone could fuel already high levels of migration toward Europe and become a springboard for attacks on the West have made military and development aid there a priority for European nations and Washington.

While the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in October in Niger have highlighted the security threat, public awareness is low. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy struggled to name the five countries of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania as he arrived at the conference.

President of Niger and Chair of the G5 Sahel Mahamadou Issoufou talks to the media at the start of an International High-Level Conference on Sahel in Brussels, Belgium February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Eric VidalFrance, which has more than 4,000 troops in the region, hopes to reach at least 300 million euros in military aid on Friday to overcome financing problems for the force that was first proposed in 2014, while militants have scored military victories in West Africa.

So far, the United States has pledged 60 million euros to support it. Another 100 million euros has been pledged by Saudi Arabia, 30 million from the United Arab Emirates and 40 million on a bilateral basis by EU member states, separate from the EU.

The G5 Sahel operation, whose command base is in central Mali, is to swell to 5,000 personnel from seven battalions and will also engage in humanitarian and development work.

Slideshow (5 Images)“PRICE OF PEACE”

France is also set to pledge 1.2 billion euros to fund development in the region over the next five years, a 40 percent increase over current levels, while other countries are expected to provide more aid for farmers, schools and water projects.

Mogherini said the European Union was spending 8 billion euros in development aid in the region over eight years.

“Peace has no price, peace is made with financial support” Mogherini said.

French President Emmanuel Macron will call for more to be done to support a separate EU train-and-advise mission in Mali, an EU diplomat said, and is seeking 50 more EU troops after Belgian soldiers ended their tour in the mission.

France has been frustrated that it is the only EU member with combat troops on the ground, although others have contributed trainers. By training African forces, Paris sees an eventual exit strategy for what is its biggest foreign deployment, diplomats said.

Tuaregs and jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012 before French forces pushed them back in 2013 in an intervention that alerted Washington to the growing threat in the region.

Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek;

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Chance Of Halting Brexit Now Close To 5050 Says Leading Campaigner

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LONDON – Opponents of Britain’s exit from the European Union are preparing a major campaign they say now has close to a 50:50 chance of stopping Brexit by blocking Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal, a leading pro-EU campaigner said.

With Britain scheduled to leave the EU in March 2019, opponents of Brexit are exploring various ways to stop what they say is Britain’s biggest mistake since World War Two.

‘Best for Britain’, a campaign group which received a 400,000 pound ($558,000) donation from billionaire financier George Soros last year, hopes to convince lawmakers in the 650-seat parliament to block the withdrawal deal May aims to bring back from Brussels in October.

“Brexit can be stopped if people want it to be stopped,” the group’s chief executive officer, Eloise Todd, told Reuters in the basement of a former Victorian bakery in central London. “It is absolutely not over yet.”

Blocking any deal May manages to clinch with the EU would plunge British politics into crisis with uncertain consequences for Brexit, for the world’s sixth largest economy, and for the fate of London, the only global financial hub to rival New York.

But Todd, 41, and other campaigners hope this would trigger a rerun of the June 2016 EU referendum, this time offering voters the option of leaving on the terms of May’s deal or staying in a reformed EU.

In the 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent voted to leave the EU while 48.1 percent voted to stay.

May, who voted to stay in the EU, is due to set out “the way forward” for Brexit next week after a meeting on Thursday with top aides that tried to resolve deep differences within her ruling Conservative Party over strategy.

May has said there will be no second referendum on Brexit.

Opinion polls so far show little sign of a major change of mood among voters, though one recent poll suggested there may be a small majority for remaining in the EU.

Asked how likely it was for Brexit to be stopped, Todd said: “We are sort of getting toward the 45 percent mark, we are nudging on 50:50 – we are not quite there yet.”

Elouise Todd, CEO of Best for Britain, poses for a photo at their offices in London, Britain February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Peter SummersShe said the odds of stopping Brexit had changed from just a 1 in 10 chance when she started the job in early 2017.

“PRETTY BAD SHAPE”

“The mood is changing – it is probably about even right now. The country is changing…,” she said, adding that the group was holding events across Britain and campaigning on social media. It plans an advertising blitz in coming weeks to convince voters to lobby their members of parliament to vote against Brexit.

While May casts the Brexit referendum result as a vote against immigration, Todd said it had exposed a deeper malaise that has left large swathes of the population cut off from booming economic growth in London and southern England.

Slideshow (2 Images)“Our country is in pretty bad shape,” said Todd, a former international development worker from the northern English city of Hull.

Todd said Britain’s political and business elite had failed to spread wealth and opportunity more broadly across the nation.

“Either you just go to London to make your fortune like Dick Whittington or you stay where you are and you’re stuck,” she said, alluding to an old folklore tale of a poor young man from the provinces who becomes wealthy in the capital and eventually becomes Lord Mayor of London.

Todd urged business leaders opposed to Brexit to speak out.

When the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph newspaper reported Soros’s donation, some Brexiteers accused him of plotting a “coup” against British democracy.

“It is really important that people are not intimidated into not speaking up,” she Todd.

“George Soros has fought for democracy across the world and we are proud to receive money from him and our other donors. We operate within every rule that is ascribed to us. We have never hidden it.”

‘Best for Britain’ has raised nearly 200,000 pounds in less than two weeks in a crowdfunding campaign. Soros has pledged to match 100,000 pounds of that while another donor, private equity investor Stephen Peel, has pledged to do the same, she said.

“We have an ambitious plan that is multiple seven figures. We think we need millions to win this fight,” Todd said.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge;

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Last Residents Hold On In Tunisias Underground Houses

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MATMATA, Tunisia – In the arid valleys of southern Tunisia’s Djebel Dahar region, people have lived for centuries in underground houses whose earthen casing provides protection against searing summer heat and winter winds.

But in recent decades, rural depopulation has meant fewer people live in the homes, which are composed of rooms hewn into the walls of an excavated circular courtyard. The few remaining families say they are attached to the homes and the land or see no way of moving.

“My father died, my mother died, the girls got married and I was left alone. They all went to lead their own lives,” said Latifa Ben Yahia, 38, who lives in a five-room troglodyte home in the village of Tijma.

“If I leave then the house will be gone.”

The homes are concentrated around Matmata, which lies in a cratered landscape dotted with palm trees and olive groves about 365 km (227 miles) south of Tunis.

They are highly unusual, though similar constructions are found across the border in Libya, to the southwest. In other parts of the Djebel Dahar, houses and storerooms were carved from rock and earth above ground.

Many families left the underground houses when new towns and villages were built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a modernization drive by President Habib Bourguiba.

Locals suspect Bourguiba wanted to dilute Berber communities as he strove to integrate them into the Arab nation after independence from France.

Saliha Mohamedi, 36, fills a bowl from her water storage outside her troglodyte house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, February 5, 2018. “I don’t want to leave my house, it would be as if I was throwing my life and my traditions away,” Saliha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra Disputes over inheritance and periods of drought or heavy rain, which can cause the houses to collapse, also contributed to the rural exodus.

Some built modern houses on adjoining land, using the traditional homes as stables or workshops.

Slideshow (20 Images)Residents live largely off olive farming and tourism. Matmata became a popular destination after a troglodyte home converted into a hotel was used as a Star Wars set in the 1970s.

But tourism across Tunisia is still recovering from a sharp decline after the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising and major attacks targeting tourists in Tunis and Sousse in 2015.

“Before the revolution there was tourism. Since then there’s not been much, just some Tunisians who come on days off or holidays,” said Saliha Mohamedi, 36.

She says she is comfortable in the house, where she lives with her husband and four children and lets tourists visit in return for tips. 

“If I got another house I would give it to (my children). This is where we have passed our lives,” she said.

Hedi Ali Kayel, 65, who runs a small shop in the village of Haddej, is one of the last people in the area who knows how to build and maintain the houses. The last new house he dug was in the 1970s.

Now he is fighting a lonely battle to save the ones that still exist. “Every time there’s rain I come and repair them,” he says. “I don’t let them go.”

Writing by Aidan Lewis;

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