Nation and World briefs for February 19

Trump lashes out at key officials involved in Russia probe

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump is lashing out at key officials involved in the Russia probe, namely former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and the current deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

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In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, McCabe described Rosenstein as having raised the prospect of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Trump says McCabe and Rosenstein “look like they were planning a very illegal act, and got caught.”

Trump tweeted Monday: “This was the illegal and treasonous ‘insurance policy’ in full action!”

Rosenstein issued a denial of McCabe’s account last year. He said any suggestion that he had ever advocated for the removal of the president “is absolutely false.”

McCabe was fired last year by the FBI.

Tense standoff spells endgame for IS militants in Syria

BAGHOUZ, Syria — The collection of tents was largely silent on a sunny winter Monday afternoon. Few people were visible, but the few out and about were calm: Two men in long robes and pants walked slowly together through the grass, a woman leisurely came out of her tent to look around, a man on a motorcycle drove toward the river.

This is the last speck of land held by the Islamic State group — a patch along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria where an estimated 300 militants are mixed in with hundreds of civilians, refusing to surrender and trying to negotiate an exit with the U.S.-backed forces surrounding them.

An Associated Press team got a rare glimpse of the IS-held settlement, standing on a rooftop about a kilometer (half mile) away during a media tour to the front lines organized by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The roof looked out over a flat, green landscape with scattered palm trees, to an earthen berm and a line of pickup trucks put up by the militants at the edge of the camp.

At one point, gunfire crackled in the distance. An SDF commander on the roof with a number of fighters said it isn’t always so quiet. Only days earlier the militants surprised the soldiers with an attempted night raid. The SDF can’t assault the site or call in airstrikes because of the civilians, he said, adding that his fighters have seen the militants moving civilians around at gunpoint as protection.

“They try a psychological war. But that is it! The war is over, and we won,” said the commander, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre, Baran, in line with SDF rules.

Branson hopes concert saves Venezuelan lives

CARACAS, Venezuela — Billionaire Richard Branson said Monday that he hopes the concert he’s throwing to rally humanitarian aid for Venezuela will save lives by raising funds for “much-needed medical help” for the crisis-torn country.

The founder of the Virgin Group told The Associated Press that up to 300,000 people are expected to attend Friday’s concert on the Colombia-Venezuelan border featuring Spanish-French singer Manu Chao, Mexican band Mana, Spanish singer-songwriter Alejandro Sanz and Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra.

Branson said it is not funded by any government and that all artists are performing for free, hoping to raise donations from viewers watching it on a livestream over the internet.

“Venezuela sadly has not become the utopia that the current administration of Venezuela or the past administration were hoping for, and that has resulted in a lot of people literally dying from lack of medical help”, Branson said in a telephone interview from Necker, his private island in the British Virgin Islands. “I think it will draw attention to the problem on a global basis.”

The concert is being held in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, a town of some 700,000 people that has been swollen by hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing hardship in Venezuela. The city is the staging point for foreign humanitarian aid — much of it from the U.S. government — that is being blocked from entry to Venezuela by socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Brex-split: 7 lawmakers quit Labour over EU, anti-Semitism

LONDON — Seven British lawmakers quit the main opposition Labour Party on Monday over its approach to Brexit and anti-Semitism — the biggest shake-up in years for one of Britain’s major political parties.

The announcement ripped open a long-simmering rift between socialists and centrists in the party, which sees itself as the representative of Britain’s working class. It’s also the latest fallout from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which has split both of the country’s two main parties — Conservatives and Labour — into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

Many Labour lawmakers have been unhappy with the party’s direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grass-roots backing. They accuse Corbyn of mounting a weak opposition to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the EU, and of failing to stamp out a vein of anti-Semitism in the party.

Those leaving Labour have between nine and 27 years’ experience in Parliament and represent constituencies across England but still make up only a small fraction of Labour’s 256 lawmakers, or of the 650 total members of Parliament. But this is the biggest split in the Labour Party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.

Luciana Berger, one of those who quit Monday, said Labour had become “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

Israeli leaders’ Nazi comments derail European summit

JERUSALEM — Poland on Monday withdrew from a European summit in Jerusalem, derailing the meeting and embarrassing its Israeli hosts, to protest claims by Israel’s acting foreign minister that Poles collaborated with the Nazis and “suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”

The abrupt cancellation marked a new low in a bitter and long-running conflict between Poland and Israel over how to characterize Polish actions toward its Jewish community during World War II.

It also was a diplomatic setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had touted the gathering as a milestone in his outreach to the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe. Netanyahu has courted these countries to counter the criticism Israel typically faces in international forums.

Tuesday’s meeting of the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — known as the Visegrad group — was to be the first time the summit has been held outside of Europe.

The gathering began to unravel last week when Netanyahu, during a visit to Warsaw, told reporters that “Poles cooperated with the Nazis.” The comments infuriated his Polish hosts, who reject suggestions that their country collaborated with Hitler.

N Carolina elections chief says ballots handled illegally

RALEIGH, N.C. — A Republican operative, who last year rounded up votes for a GOP candidate running for Congress, conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation, North Carolina’s elections director said Monday.

The director’s testimony came on the first day of a hearing into whether mail-in ballots were tampered with a in race for the state’s 9th congressional district seat that saw Republican Mark Harris narrowly defeat Democrat Dan McCready.

The race wasn’t certified, leaving the country’s only congressional election without a declared winner. The elections board is expected to either declare a winner or order a new election after the hearing.

“The evidence that we will provide today will show that a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated in the 2018 general election” in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, which are part of North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, state elections director Kim Strach said at the start of a state elections board hearing.

Harris held a slim lead over Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results following November’s election, but the state elections board refused to certify the contest after allegations of potential ballot manipulation surfaced.

First private Israel lunar mission to be launched this week

RAMAT GAN, Israel — A nonprofit Israeli consortium said Monday that it hopes to make history this week by launching the first private aircraft to land on the moon.

SpaceIL and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries told a news conference that the landing craft — dubbed “Beresheet,” or Genesis — will take off from Florida, propelled by a SpaceX Falcon rocket on its weekslong voyage to the moon.

The launch is scheduled late Thursday in the United States, early Friday in Israel. It had been originally slated for last December.

SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby and Opher Doron, general manager of the IAI’s space division, said the spacecraft will slingshot around the Earth at least six times in order to reach the moon and land on its surface on April 11.

If the SpaceIL mission is successful, Israel will become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon, after the Soviet Union, United States and China.

French judge refuses to block Catholic sex scandal movie

PARIS — A French judge refused Monday to block the release this week in French cinemas of a movie based on a Catholic sex scandal.

French director Francois Ozon’s film “Grace a Dieu” (“By the Grace of God”) won the Berlin Film Festival’s jury grand prize on Saturday. The movie, which opens Wednesday, portrays French priest Bernard Preynat, who has been accused of molesting dozens of boys during the 1980s and ’90s.

Preynat’s lawyers said the picture depicted allegations against their client as facts and should have been blocked because it does not respect the presumption of innocence. Preynat has been handed preliminary charges of sexual assaults on minors and prosecutors are determining whether he will be brought to trial.

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Preynat has confessed to abusing Boy Scouts and his victims say church hierarchy covered up for him for years, allowing him to work with children right up until his 2015 retirement.

His lawyer, Emmanuel Mercinier, told the Associated Press the judge ruled Monday that messages in the film noting people are presumed innocent until proven guilty were enough to guarantee Preynat’s rights.

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