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Trump Demands Release of US Pastor Imprisoned in Turkey

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U.S. President Donald Trump is calling on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release an American pastor who has been in prison for two years awaiting trial on terrorism charges.

A Turkish court Wednesday ordered Andrew Brunson to remain in jail until his next hearing on October 12. Brunson was arrested in 2016 and charged with supporting followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been blamed by Ankara for the failed 2016 coup against President Erdogan. Brunson is also accused of assisting the outlawed Kurdish insurgent group PKK.

Trump called Brunson’s continued detention “a total disgrace” in a post on Twitter hours after the court hearing. “He has been held hostage far too long,” the president tweeted. “@RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”

Trump reportedly raised the pastor’s case in a telephone call Monday with his Turkish counterpart.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Philip Kosnett, U.S. charge d’affaires in Turkey, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“I’ve read the indictment; I’ve attended three hearings. I don’t believe that there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity,” Kosnett said. “Our government remains deeply concerned about his status, as well as the status of other American citizens and local Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under the state of emergency rules.”

Kosnett, speaking before the court decision, had warned of the damaging effect of the case on U.S.-Turkish relations.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States has been closely engaged with the Turkish government on Brunson’s case and repeated calls for his release.

“We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of these crimes. The case against him is built on anonymous accusations and speculation,” the official told VOA in a statement. “We strongly believe that he is innocent, and we call on the Turkish government to resolve his case in a timely, transparent, and fair manner.”

Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who is chairman of the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency that monitors democracy and human rights in Europe, said, “The cruelty of today’s decision is astonishing.

“By extending Pastor Brunson’s indefinite detention and setting his next trial date for mid-October, the Turkish government has declared its intention to keep this innocent man in jail past the two-year anniversary of his arrest without conviction or any credible evidence against him. There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking. Pastor Brunson should be freed immediately,” Wicker added.

The 50-year-old Brunson has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. The North Carolina native worked as a pastor serving a small Protestant congregation in the western Turkish City of Izmir, close to the town of Aliaga, where he is now on trial. Brunson has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. Brunson describes the charges against him as “shameful and disgusting.”

Last month, U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen also pressed for Brunson’s release in a meeting with Erdogan in Ankara.

The U.S. Congress is threatening to introduce sanctions on Turkey if the pastor is not released.

Several members of Congress have accused Turkey of hostage taking by seeking to use Brunson as diplomatic leverage. Adding to Congress’anger, three local employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey are also being held on terrorism charges. Ankara strongly denies allegations of hostage taking, maintaining that the cases are a matter for the courts.

Observers warn the continued detention of Brunson now increases the likelihood of Washington imposing measures against Ankara.

“It’s (the Brunson case) very important because it’s already an obstacle and sticking point between the countries, having prompted the discussion about sanctions against Turkey,” political columnist Semih Idiz of Al-Monitor said. “Senators are coming to Turkey and Trump referring to Brunson as a hostage. Tensions will increase, calls for sanctions against Turkey will increase, and the downward spiral in relations will continue (if the trial continues).”

The blocking of the U.S. sale to Turkey of a new F-35 fighter is a move that has been threatened by Congress.

Turkish financial markets fell heavily on the news of Brunson’s ongoing detention. The falls reversed earlier gains stoked by the expectation of the pastor’s release and the hope of improved U.S.-Turkish relations.

Erdogan and his advisers have linked the Brunson case to calls to extradite Gulen in connection with the 2016 coup attempt. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Sunday U.S. authorities were cooperating in investigating Gulen and his followers. Observers, however, say the detention of Brunson suggests Ankara could be looking for more concessions from Washington.

Erdogan could release Brunson under the presidential power to free jailed foreign citizens if it is deemed to be in the country’s national interest.

The ongoing jailing of Brunson comes as analysts point out the two countries were making tentative progress on a number of disputes. In the past few months, there have been intense diplomatic efforts to resolve differences over Syria and Ankara’s controversial purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system. Observers warn if Congress carries out its threat to sanction Turkey over Brunson’s jailing, it will likely add to broader diplomatic tensions.

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7.3 Earthquake hits New Britain island in Papua New Guinea

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7.3 Earthquake hits New Britain island in Papua New Guinea.

Preliminary reports warn tsunami waves could hit areas within 300km of the earthquake’s epicentre.

The quake hit off the coast New Britain region of Papua New Guinea earlier today. (Daily Star)

This is a breaking story and will be updated shortly

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NY Man Planned to Blow Himself Up at Washington Mall

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Police and FBI agents searched a Hudson Valley home Wednesday after learning about a man who was allegedly building a bomb in order to blow himself up in Washington D.C., two law enforcement officials told News 4 New York.

Investigators said they were concerned the man, identified as Paul Rosenfeld, at the home on Slocum Avenue in Orangetown was in the process of acquiring bomb parts.

Officials tell News 4 Rosenfeld had no criminal history but had told a reporter in Pennsylvania he planned to blow himself up on the Washington Mall around Election Day because he was angry about the country’s direction. 

He had no plans to hurt anyone else, officials said. He is believed to be a lone actor not affiliated with any international terror group or ideology. 

Full Article at https://nts24.co.uk/2A2oWjM 

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Trump ‘demanding’ answers from Saudis about missing writer

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday the U.S. is “demanding” answers from Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of a well-known Saudi writer and government critic Turkish authorities say was slain inside his country’s diplomatic mission in Istanbul.

Trump said he plans to invite to the White House the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, a writer for The Washington Post who has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 to get paperwork for his marriage.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question during an interview with Reuters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Members of Congress have grown increasingly insistent that the administration find out what happened to Khashoggi. The Saudi government has become a closer ally under Trump and some lawmakers warn that relations could be jeopardized if it turns out the kingdom was involved in his disappearance.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to the fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who had been waiting outside the consulate when Khashoggi went inside and has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.

Trump said nobody knows exactly what happened and expressed hope that Khashoggi is not dead. He also said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a “bad situation,” but he did not disclose details of his conversations.

Saudi Arabia denies involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, a former insider in Saudi government circles who has been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year after fleeing a crackdown on intellectuals and activists in the country.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said White House national security adviser John Bolton and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information.

While angry members of Congress likely won’t cause the administration to turn away from Prince Mohammed and end decades of close security ties with Saudi Arabia, they could throw a wrench into arms sales that require their approval and demand the U.S. scale back support for the Saudi military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “there will definitely be consequences” if it turns out the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi disappearance. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it would be “devastating” to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, said if Saudi Arabia had lured a U.S. resident into a consulate and killed him, “it’s time for the United States to rethink our military, political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.” But he said it was unclear whether the Trump administration was willing to “go beyond words.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, said he’ll try to force a vote in the Senate this week blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He told local radio in his home state Tuesday that he wants to end the arms shipments if there’s “any indication” the Saudis are “implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them.”

Trump’s comments Wednesday were the toughest yet from his administration on the Khashoggi case. Officials have expressed concern but refused even to entertain questions about what the consequences would be if Turkish allegations turn out to be true. Pompeo has called on the Saudi government to conduct a thorough investigation and to be transparent about its results.

The reaction from European governments has also been cautious. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told his Saudi counterpart that if media reports about Khashoggi were correct, it “would be extremely concerning and the U.K. will treat the incident very seriously,” according to the Foreign Office.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, has described the allegations as “malicious leaks and grim rumors” and said the kingdom is “gravely concerned” about Khashoggi. Saudi officials maintain he left the consulate shortly after entering, although it has failed to provide evidence.

Washington Post CEO and publisher Fred Ryan said reports suggested the journalist was victim of “state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder.” He demanded answers in a statement Tuesday, saying “Silence, denials and delays are not acceptable.”

Analysts said there were reasons for skepticism about the Turkish account. Ties between Ankara and Riyadh are at a low point over Turkey’s support for Qatar in that country’s yearlong dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power, is also annoyed by Ankara’s rapprochement with the kingdom’s Shiite archrival, Iran.

Saudi authorities’ failure to provide video footage of Khashoggi’s movements at the consulate to rebut the Turkish allegations have only deepened suspicions.

The Trump administration, from the president on down, is heavily invested in the Saudi relationship. That’s unlikely to change, said Robin Wright, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and close friend of the missing writer. The administration’s Middle East agenda heavily depends on the Saudis, including efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, fight extremism and build support for an expected plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Indication of those stakes came within four months of Trump taking office, when Saudi Arabia became his first destination on a presidential trip and he announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales.

Prince Mohammed has introduced some economic and social reforms, allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters in the deeply conservative Muslim nation. The flip side, however, is that he’s also squelched dissent and imprisoned activists. He has championed the three-year military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has pushed that nation toward famine and caused many civilian deaths.

Still, the Trump administration last month stood behind its support for that campaign with weapons, logistics and intelligence, certifying that the Saudis were taken adequate steps to prevent civilian despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Karen Elliott House, a veteran writer on Saudi affairs and chair of the board of trustees at RAND Corp., said U.S. support for the Yemen war is likely to be the focus of congressional criticism but won’t endanger a relationship that has endured for decades, underpinned by shared strategic interests. Even under the Obama administration, which had difficult relations with Riyadh compared with Trump, there were some $65 billion in completed arms sales.

“The U.S.-Saudi relationship is certainly not about shared moral values,” House said. “It’s about shared security interests.”

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Associated Press writers Susannah George, Matthew Lee and Deb Riechmann and video journalist Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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