US defense chief to visit Macedonia, concerned about Russian ‘mischief’

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis holds a press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on August 28, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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US defense chief to visit Macedonia, concerned about Russian ‘mischief’

  • NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but said it would have to change its constitution and adopt the new name first

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday he would visit Macedonia before a Sept. 30 referendum on changing the country’s name, also expressing concern about suspected Russian interference in the vote, which Moscow denies.
Macedonia scheduled the referendum on the government’s deal in June with neighboring Greece to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia which would open the door for it to join NATO and the European Union.
“I am concerned about it... The kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia, it always has adapted to the specific situation and it’s always beyond the pale,” Mattis, who will visit Macedonia over the weekend, told reporters.
Mattis said he wanted to make it clear the United States supported the Macedonian people.
NATO invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but said it would have to change its constitution and adopt the new name first. The EU has also said it would set a date for Macedonian accession talks pending implementation of the name deal.
Moscow’s ambassador to Skopje has criticized Macedonia’s ambitions to join NATO, saying it could become “a legitimate target” if relations between NATO and Russia deteriorate further.
Greece, a member of both NATO and the EU, has refused to accept the Balkan country’s name, saying it implies territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia and amounts to an appropriation of its ancient civilization.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government, elected in 2017, pushed for an agreement with Greece. Nationalists, including President Gjorge Ivanov, oppose the deal saying it is against the constitution.
In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two other people from entering the country, accusing them of having meddled by encouraging demonstrations and bribing unidentified officials to thwart the Macedonia agreement.
Russia has denied wrongdoing and responded in kind with expulsions of Greeks.


Indonesian fishermen return home after release from Philippines militants

Updated 20 September 2018
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Indonesian fishermen return home after release from Philippines militants

  • With the release of the trio, all Indonesians abducted by Filipino militants before 2018 have been released
  • Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines wil boost security cooperation in the Sulu Sea, which is a busy maritime area for fishing boats and cargo vessels transporting coal from Indonesia to the Philippines

JAKARTA: After 20 months being held hostage by militants in the southern Philippines, three Indonesian fishermen were finally reunited on Wednesday with their respective families at the Foreign Ministry.

Vice Foreign Minister A.M. Fachir handed them over from the government to their respective family representatives in a ceremony which was held without media presence.
 
"The condition on the field was getting more difficult. But we made the most of our contacts and assets on the field, and with the Philippines government support we were able to get them released,” Fachir said in a statement from the ministry. .
 
Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, the Foreign Ministry’s director for protection of Indonesians abroad, said the handover was held in private because “it was not a cause for celebration.”
 
“We are grateful for their release, but we still have two Indonesians who were abducted on Sept. 11 and we don’t want to hurt their families’ feeling,” Iqbal said.
 
The three fishermen are Hamdan bin Saleng, Sudarling bin Samansunga, and Subandi bin Sattu, who hail from Selayar and Bulukumba in South Sulawesi province. They were freed from their captors on Friday in Sulu province on the southern Philippines.
 
Rudi Wahyudin, a representative of Sattu’s family, said the family members were devastated during the 20 months Sattu was held hostage but they tried to keep their hopes up by keeping in touch with the foreign ministry to get updates of efforts to release him and his fellow fishermen.
 
“It’s normal for people in our village in Bulukumba to migrate and work abroad. Now his wife has asked Sattu to quit working overseas and find another job close to home instead,” Wahyudin said.
 
Indonesian ambassador to the Philippines, Sinyo Harry Sarundajang said the military attache and he flew to Zamboanga City to pick up the three men, after the embassy received information of their release from the West Mindanao Command.
 
“We thank President Duterte and the Philippines government for their attention and cooperation on this matter. It was a long and delicate process to release them and we had to be very careful because we didn’t want anyone to become victim in the process,” Sarundajang said at the press conference.    
 
According to the ambassador, the three men were moved and had to island-hopped to various small islands on the Sulu archipelago as their captors were avoiding the Philippine military operation.
 
The three men were working as crew members in a Malaysian fishing boat when they were abducted in the waters of Sabah in Malaysia on Jan 2017.
 
Iqbal said there are about 6,000 Indonesians working in fishing vessels in Sabah. Since 2016, there has been 34 Indonesian citizens who were kidnapped by armed militants in the southern Philippines and 13 of them were fishermen who were abducted from their vessels in the waters of Sabah.
 
With the release of the trio, all Indonesians abducted by Filipino militants before 2018 have been released.
 
“We are now working to release the two fishermen who were abducted on Sep 11. We have expressed our concerns to the Malaysian authority on the lack of security on their waters,” Iqbal said.
 
He added that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines would boost security cooperation in the Sulu Sea between the three countries, which is a busy maritime area for fishing boats and cargo vessels transporting coal from Indonesia to the Philippines.
 
The three neighboring countries agreed in May 2016 to launch joint patrols in the area following a series of hijacking and kidnapping of Indonesian vessels and crew members. The initial maritime patrol was launched in June 2017 and was beefed up with air patrols in Oct 2017.