Sunday, October 22, 2017

Abe: Nationalist blueblood at home, shrewd diplomat abroad

 

Tokyo, Japan | AFP | Japan's Shinzo Abe, seeking a fresh term in Sunday's election, is seen as a pragmatic and canny diplomat who has cozied up to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin while pushing a nationalist agenda at home.

Groomed for power from birth, the 63-year-old is often viewed as arrogant but has also shown a self-deprecating sense of humour, dressing up as video game icon Super Mario as the Rio Olympics closed to give a zany preview of Tokyo 2020.

The third-generation politician captured global attention when he became the first foreign leader to visit Trump Tower in New York -- before the now president was even inaugurated -- warmly shaking hands with the tycoon in glittering surroundings.

The golf-loving pair later jetted off to Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for a spot of "golf diplomacy", with the US president praising Abe's "strong hands" and a "very, very good chemistry".

With opinion polls predicting a comfortable victory in Sunday's election, Abe is likely to welcome Trump to Tokyo next month as planned, with an even firmer grip on power.

But Abe has also cultivated ties with Putin, inviting the Kremlin strongman to his hometown of Nagato for a so-called "hot spring summit" as part of a bid to sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities.

- 'Abenomics' -

Abe seemed born to lead Japan, the latest in three generations of powerful politicians.

His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a World War II cabinet member briefly arrested for war crimes -- but never charged -- who became prime minister and forged an alliance with the United States.

His father, Shintaro Abe, rose to be foreign minister but never won the top job. Shinzo took Shintaro's parliamentary seat in 1993 following his death.

Abe cut his teeth by taking a hawkish line on North Korea and became the hand-picked successor to the popular former PM Junichiro Koizumi, whom he served as an eager and earnest deputy.

When he finally reached the top of the greasy pole in 2006, he became the country's youngest-ever prime minister -- aged just 52 -- and the first born after World War II.

But he left office abruptly 12 months later, citing debilitating bowel problems caused by exhaustion and stress, becoming the first in a series of short-lived premiers, each of whom lasted around a year.

Recovered, he swept back to power in 2012 on a pledge to reignite Japan's once-booming economy and carry out "diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map".

On the economic front, he pioneered a multi-pronged policy dubbed "Abenomics", a combination of generous government spending and central bank monetary easing.

 

Japan -- the world's third-largest economy -- is enjoying its longest period of expansion in more than a decade, but inflation is stubbornly low as consumer spending remains underwhelming.

In domestic policy, he has pursued a nationalist agenda, proposing to change Japan's US-imposed pacifist constitution in his election manifesto so it could turn its self-defence forces into a full-fledged army.

This has led to tensions with China and South Korea, not helped by his inflammatory visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Tokyo's militarist past.

- 'Arrogance' -

In recent months, Abe saw public support plunge over a series of scandals, including allegations of favouritism to a friend in a business deal -- which the premier strongly denies.

When his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a drubbing in local Tokyo elections in July, analysts and media blamed it on the increasing "arrogance" of the prime minister and his government.

This left him fighting for his political life -- in the words of one observer, scrambling to crawl out of a "hell hole".

His reputation for arrogance was not helped when he shouted down hecklers at a rally, and voters turned in droves to support charismatic Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

But he swiftly reshuffled his cabinet and polls showed voters approved of his hawkish reaction to North Korean missiles, giving him a bump in the ratings and apparently tempting him into the gamble of a snap election.

On a personal level, Abe is married to Akie, the daughter of a prominent businessman known for her love of South Korean culture.

In the early days of his political career, Japanese media focused on how he would walk hand-in-hand with his wife -- an unusual sight in a country where politicians' partners rarely appear in public.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

CPC congress a "global event" for journalists

Journalists are seen at a press conference held

Journalists are seen at a press conference held by the press center of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 22, 2017. (Xinhua/Li Xin) 

Beijing,(Xinhua) -- The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a "global event" thanks to its openness, according to journalists and observers.

   "China's role in international affairs is becoming more important in all directions, especially in economic and political fields," said Andrey Kirillov, Beijing bureau chief of Russia's TASS news agency. "China is the second biggest economy, and for this reason, the situation inside China has influence to the whole world."

   The congress is a "global event," and it has attracted plenty of attention from foreign journalists because of its content, the issues raised and the problems being solved, Kirillov said.

   All these issues are of great importance, including changes in China's economic approach, formation of a new economic development model, changes in society, poverty relief and political issues such as a new leadership, he said.

   "Journalists are also interested in China's foreign policy," he added.

   TASS published 15 to 20 stories and a major summary on the first day of the congress Wednesday, according to TASS journalist Nikolay Selishchev.

   More than 3,000 journalists have come to Beijing to cover the congress. Among them, 1,818 are from overseas including Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, 6.7 percent more than the 18th CPC National Congress. Foreign reporters come from 134 countries, 19.6 percent more than the previous congress, according to the press center.

   "Now China has a strong voice in foreign affairs, including politics and economics. This is connected with the policies the country takes. So it is interesting to know what decisions about foreign policy and approaches to the world's market development will be made at the congress", Kirillov said.

   The Chinese currency has joined the elite reserve currency basket of the International Monetary Fund, or the Special Drawing Right basket. It is a very important shift for the yuan to become a currency unit used not only in trade inside China, but also in international financial operations, he said.

   For all these reasons, according to Kirillov, decisions made at the congress will be very important not only for China, but for the whole world.

   Ana Goguadze, Georgian sinologist and founder and president of Georgian-Chinese media platform SINOMEDIA, said that China has opened its door to the world and "showed its power and humanity" at the same time.

   "The world is curious right now. I think we all want to see how far China can go, everyone agrees that the country with the great past is becoming stronger and stronger every year," said Goguadze.

   Yuksel Mansur Kilinc of Turkey's Yon Radyo 96.6 radio station said that the Communist Party's openness to foreign journalists is a display of confidence.

   Watanabe Yasuhito, with Japan's Kyodo News, agrees.

   "We usually hear the official words from officials of the Foreign Ministry, but here at the congress, we get to hear the voices of grassroots CPC members," Watanabe said.

   Zhang Xixian, professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC, said that one of the reasons why the congress drew so much global attention is that China's "comprehensive national strength" is rising.

   "China's contribution to world economic growth and its power in leading world development are on the rise, and the world is beginning to shift its focus to China," he said.

   "The advantages of the CPC political system are gradually showing, which brings attention to the Communist Party," he said.

   Zhang said that for almost 70 years, the CPC has helped developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Belt and Road Initiative have also attracted the attention of many countries.

   Abdulwaheed Odusile, head of Nigeria's journalists association, said that China and Nigeria are increasingly close and China has helped a lot with construction work in Nigeria, partly the reason why their journalists came to cover "such an important event."

   "The 19th CPC congress is one that is open and transparent to the entire world, and it accepts acclaim as well as criticism," Zhang said. "Such openness has a big impact on the world."

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Iraq PM arrives on Saudi visit

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on October 21, 2017, shows King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) greeting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi upon his arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (via AFP)  

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia | AFP | Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Riyadh Saturday in a visit aimed at upgrading strategic ties, amid warming relations between the Arab neighbours.

The tour coincides with Saudi Energy Minister Khaled al-Faleh's high profile visit to Baghdad where he called for the strengthening of economic relations to boost oil prices.

It also comes after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, his second visit to the region in recent months to launch a fresh bid Sunday to ease a crisis between Riyadh and Doha.

Abadi is on Sunday to take part in Riyadh in a meeting to establish a joint Saudi-Iraqi coordination council aimed at boosting cooperation.

While in Riyadh, Tillerson is also set to take part in the meeting.

Iraq is seeking economic benefits from closer ties with Riyadh as both countries suffer from a protracted oil slump. Saudi Arabia is also seeking to counter Iranian influence in Iraq.

After years of tense relations, ties between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iraq have begun looking up in recent months.

After former dictator Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Riyadh severed relations with Baghdad and closed its border posts with its northern neighbour.

Ties remained strained even after Saddam's ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, since when successive Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad have stayed close to Tehran.

But a flurry of visits between the two countries this year appears to indicate a thawing of ties.

At the opening of the Baghdad International Fair on Saturday, Saudi minister Khalid al-Falih hailed what he called "the new Iraq, on the ambitious road to prosperity and growth while strengthening its relations with the world".

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Japan's Koike: Media-savvy operator with stomach for a fight

 

Tokyo, Japan | AFP | Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike is a media-savvy veteran who has charmed her way through Japan's male-dominated politics and transformed its sleepy political landscape with a wildcard new party that caught everyone off-guard.

Often touted as Japan's potential first female prime minister, the charismatic former television anchorwoman combines a natural understanding of the media with a ruthless stomach for the fight, observers say.

A trailblazer who became Japan's first woman in key jobs like defence minister and governor of the capital, Koike has played on her natural appeal and reformist zeal to win over voters and some in the old-school political world.

Koike stunned the establishment last month by unveiling her new conservative "Party of Hope", seeking to offer an alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Displaying a knack for timing, she presented the new party in a blaze of publicity just hours before Abe himself declared snap polls, pulling the rug from under the premier's feet.

The telegenic 65-year-old certainly understands how to hog the media limelight -- just minutes before her news conference, she was being pictured alongside images of a baby panda, recently named in a Tokyo zoo.

And her first campaign video was classic Koike.

A woman presumed to be Koike -- viewers don't see her face -- in high heels and a snappy business suit barges her way past a bunch of stuffy old male smokers and leads a group of younger followers into the light.

Koike, who was elected Tokyo governor only a year ago, has complained that Japan has not just a glass ceiling but an "iron plate" holding women back.

"She is a person who clearly enjoys politics. She has a natural intuition," said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of Japanese politics at Nihon University.

"She is quick to make decisions. She doesn't dwell on things. She knows the media extremely well," said Iwai, who has known Koike for a long time.

"Because she is intuitive and not a plotter, she comes off as a good sport," he said.

- 'Cool biz' -

Fluent in English and Arabic, Koike is an internationalist rarely seen in navel-gazing Japanese politics.

Born in 1952 in Ashiya city in western Japan, Koike attended the region's Kwansei Gakuin University before graduating from the Cairo University of Egypt in 1976.

 

After a stint as a translator, she worked as a television broadcaster, interviewing Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and Palestinian Liberation Organisation chair Yasser Arafat.

Harnessing her by-then nationwide fame, she first won an upper house seat in 1992 before switching to the more powerful lower house the following year.

She joined the LDP in 2002, and became environment minister in 2003 in the administration of the popular former PM Junichiro Koizumi.

From 2005, she began promoting "cool biz", pressing Japanese businessmen to take off ties and jackets during summer in a drive to cut down on energy used for air conditioning.

During Abe's first short stint as a prime minister a decade ago, Koike was tapped as his special adviser on national defence before being appointed the first woman defence minister in 2007.

But she had only lukewarm support inside the LDP and failed in her bid to become party chief.

In 2016, she defied LDP leaders and won a landslide victory against the party's candidate in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, portraying the long-governing party as being controlled by secretive, wasteful bosses.

She went on to batter the LDP again in the Tokyo assembly election in July.

Until recently, she has carefully maintained cordial ties with Abe, and vice versa, as they have to work together on putting on a successful Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

- 'Haphazard' policies -

The creation of the "Party of Hope" sent shockwaves through Japanese politics and caused the immediate implosion of the main opposition party, as scores of members pinned their colours to the Koike mast.

But support began to melt away as she decided not to run herself, leaving potential voters in the dark as to who would be PM if she were to win.

Critics attacked her both for lacking a clear policy platform and for taking a dictatorial approach to the new party -- she reportedly forced potential members to sign a pledge that was leaked to the media.

"Slogans do not open the way to the future," Abe said pointedly on the campaign trail, even as Koike fought to point out differences with her former boss, pledging a phase-out of nuclear power by 2030 and a freeze on a proposed sales tax.

However, if her group were to win a few dozen seats in parliament, it could tip the balance of power, said political analyst Iwai.

"Mr Abe is not going away anytime soon. So she originally envisioned a small group, maybe five to 10 people, whom she could control remotely," Iwai said.

"Her policies may be haphazard. But a sense of unity would come once she gets people elected," he added.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Populist billionaire Andrej Babis wins Czech vote

 

Prague, Czech Republic | AFP | He may be facing charges over alleged EU subsidy fraud, but billionaire businessman Andrej Babis has won the support of voters in the Czech general election by pushing his trademark anti-corruption and anti-euro ticket.

Dubbed the "Czech version of Trump" by Forbes, the wiry, grey-haired, Slovak-born farming, media and chemicals mogul is the Czech Republic's second-richest man.

He set up the populist ANO (Yes) party in 2011 as a political outsider determined to lure voters with promises of clean politics in the EU country of 10.6 million ranked more corrupt than Botswana by Transparency International.

ANO entered parliament two years later, but Babis himself has since been dogged by allegations of wrongdoing, something he flatly denies.

The 63-year-old hammered home his "now or never" mantra in his campaign, insisting that the ballot was a last chance for voters to get rid of "the treacherous hydra of corruption choking this country" by handing him power.

He also reached out to eurosceptic voters with a letter vowing that "the Czech Republic will not adopt the euro" should he take office and that he wants "a single Europe which plays fair and where nobody is a second-class member".

In his victory address, Babis insisted ANO was "pro-European" and did "not threaten democracy".

He echoes other eastern EU leaders -- especially in Hungary and Poland -- who oppose mandatory refugee quotas and various rules they see as attempts by Brussels to limit national sovereignty.

Given his country's heavy reliance on the EU both in terms of trade and subsidies, Babis has ruled out "Czexit" but does want changes to the bloc's rules on free movement of capital, goods, labour and services.

- 'Family Business' -

ANO has spent the last four years in a rocky coalition with the Social Democrats and the centrist Christian Democrats.

A string of scandals has failed to dent Babis's popularity -- voter support for ANO even surged as he stuck to his promise to fight corruption in public life and "manage the state like a family business".

But pundits have slammed him for extending tax benefits on biofuels, benefitting Agrofert, the Czech Republic's largest trading conglomerate, which he ran before stepping aside to become finance minister in 2014.

In May, Babis was ousted from that post after leaked recordings showed he had influenced reporters working for newspapers he owns, something he had vowed never to do.

Earlier this month, he was charged with fraud and harming the EU's financial interests over a two-million-euro ($2.35 million) subsidy for small companies paid to his Stork Nest farm in 2007.

Babis insisted the indictment was trumped up to derail his victory at the polls.

Last week Slovakia's top court also overruled earlier verdicts clearing Babis of being a suspected secret police agent during the Communist era in the former Czechoslovakia.

"There is no evidence, I didn't sign anything, I didn't collaborate with the secret police," Babis said after the constitutional court returned the case to a lower court.

- Richer than Trump -

An ex-Communist who served up doughnuts to woo voters, Babis has a net worth of $4.1 billion (3.48 billion euros) according to the 2017 Forbes list of global billionaires, making him richer than US President Donald Trump, who is worth $3.1 billion (2.63 billion euros) on the same list.

Thanks to a father who he claims he "co-founded foreign trade in Slovakia" under communism, Babis grew up on the road, attending elementary school in Paris and high school in Geneva.

His work ethic and knack for making money came young.

"I worked since age 15, delivered milk, unloaded parcels at the station, did decorating, built weekend houses, all to make money," he once said.

After earning an economics degree, he followed in his father's footsteps and worked as a sales representative in Morocco in 1985 to 1991.

When the Velvet Revolution toppled totalitarian rule in 1989, Babis returned home to see his country split into two states and to find himself jobless.

Born on September 2, 1954 in Bratislava, Babis lives with his second wife Monika, 20 years his junior and mother of two of his children, whom he married at the controversial Stork Nest farm in the summer.

The former tennis and volleyball player also has two children with his ex-wife.

"I'm a wealthy man. I have made almost all of my dreams come true. I have earned billions with honest work," he once said.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Former presidents take stage at hurricane benefit concert

 

College Station, United States | AFP | All five of America's living former presidents took the stage Saturday at a benefit concert in Texas to raise money for victims of the hurricane-ravaged southern United States and Caribbean.

Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter appeared together onstage at Texas A&M , praising Americans for their willingness to help fellow citizens and urging them to do more.

The effort by the three Democrats and two Republicans has raised over $31 million from 80,000 donors for the victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, George H.W. Bush's office said.

"All of us on this stage here tonight could not be prouder of the response of Americans. When they see their neighbors and they see their friends, they see strangers in need, Americans step up," Obama said.

"Let's all work together and make America still a greater volunteer nation," said Carter, making an apparent play on President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.

The Georgia native said that Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit he's worked with for 36 years, would build 6,000 homes in hard-hit areas. It's raised $20 million of the $100 million sought, he said.

And "I too am here to urge you to give to this fine fund, and I want to thank all the volunteers," the younger Bush said.

"There's still work to do," Clinton said. "It can be a new beginning if we just do what we ought to do and prove that the heart of America, without race or religion or political party, is greater than our problems."

- 'We need each other' -

Former first ladies Barbara and Laura Bush both attended the event, as did vice president Dick Cheney, ex-secretary of state James A. Baker, Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

Lady Gaga gave a surprise performance at the concert, announcing that she would make a $1 million donation and that a "mental health and emotional trauma surviving program" would be set up for hurricane survivors.

"Pain is such an equalizer. And in a time of catastrophe, we all put our differences aside and we come together, 'cause we need each other, or we can't survive," she said.

Lee Greenwood opened the concert and served as master of ceremonies for the event, titled "Deep From the Heart: The One America Appeal," which also featured artists including The Gatlin Brothers, Yolanda Adams, Robert Earl Keen and Sam Moore.

Trump did not attend the concert, but praised the effort in a video message released earlier, terming it a "wonderful" and "vital effort."

"As we begin to rebuild, some of America's finest public servants are spearheading the One America Appeal," said Trump, whose administration's response to the heavy storm damage in Puerto Rico has drawn fire.

"Melania and I want to express our deep gratitude for your tremendous assistance," he said.

Ticket-sale receipts were to benefit organizations in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Trump says he'll allow release of Kennedy assassination files

President John F Kennedy was given a state

President John F Kennedy was given a state funeral, after hundreds of thousands of people viewed his casket  

Washington, United States | AFP | US President Donald Trump said Saturday he will allow long blocked secret files on the assassination of John F Kennedy to be opened to the public for the first time.

The November 22, 1963 assassination -- an epochal event in modern US history -- has spawned multiple theories challenging the official version that Kennedy was killed a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald.

So the release of all the secret documents has been eagerly anticipated by historians and conspiracy theorists alike.

Trump's announcement followed reports that not all the files would be released, possibly to protect still relevant intelligence sources and methods.

But Trump appears to have decided otherwise.

"Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened," he said in a tweet.

The files are due to be opened in their entirety Thursday, nearly 54 years after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas -- unless the US president decides otherwise.

Millions of classified Kennedy files have been made public under a 1992 law passed in response to a surge in public demand for disclosure in the wake of Oliver Stone's conspiracy-heavy movie on the assassination.

But the law placed a 25-year hold on a small percentage of the files that expires October 26.

Some reports put the number withheld at 3,100. Tens of thousands of files that had been released with portions blacked out are also set to be fully declassified.

"The president believes that these documents should be made available in the interests of full transparency, unless agencies provide a compelling and clear national security or law enforcement justification otherwise," a White House official said.

- Traumatic turning point -

Kennedy was the fourth US president to be cut down by an assassin's bullets, and his death at age 46 proved a traumatic turning point as the United States headed into a period of turbulence over civil rights and the Vietnam War.

The shocking images of Jacqueline Kennedy cradling her mortally wounded husband in the back of an open presidential limousine froze the moment in the public consciousness.

A 10-month investigation led by then Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald, a former Marine who had lived in the Soviet Union, acted alone when he fired on Kennedy's motorcade, hitting the president with two shots, one through the upper back and the other in the head.

 

Oswald, arrested two hours later after murdering a Dallas police officer, was shot to death two days later by nightclub owner Jack Ruby as he was being transferred from the city jail.

The Warren commission's finding was challenged in 1979 by a special House investigative committee that concluded Kennedy was "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy," and that there were likely two shooters.

- Trump's conspiracy theory -

A welter of conspiracy theories have arisen over the years, variously blaming Fidel Castro, the Mafia, the KGB, Lyndon Johnson and the CIA.

Stone's controversial 1991 movie "JFK" managed to implicate Johnson, the Mafia and the CIA.

Trump himself tapped into the public fascination with the case during last year's presidential campaign, bizarrely linking Republican rival Senator Ted Cruz's father to the Kennedy assassination.

"His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being -- you know, shot," Trump said in a May 2016 telephone interview with Fox News.

"I mean, what was he doing -- what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting?" Trump continued. "It's horrible."

Cruz called the accusation "nuts."

"Yes, my dad killed JFK, he is secretly Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa is buried in his backyard," he said sarcastically, speaking to reporters at a campaign event in Indiana.

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff recalled that history Saturday, retweeting Trump's announcement and asking "does this mean Ted Cruz's father will be exposed?"

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

UN chief to visit C. Africa amid tense security situation

 

Bangui, Central African Republic | AFP | UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is expected to arrive in the Central African Republic on Tuesday, as violence between Muslim and Christian militias has intensified in the past few months.

"This is a gesture of solidarity with the peacekeepers working in one of the most dangerous environments," Guterres said in an interview with AFP and Radio France Internationale (RFI).

His trip to one of the world's poorest countries will be his first as part of a peacekeeping mission since taking office on January 1 -- but he regularly visited the country as former head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

The secretary general's visit comes at a time when the United Nations faces a precarious financial situation, as the United States pushes for cost-cutting measures in peacekeeping.

The international body has maintained some 12,500 troops and police on the ground in the Central African Republic since September 2014 to help protect civilians and support the government of Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was elected last year.

Its mandate expires on November 15, 2017 but is expected to be renewed.

For Guterres -- whose visit coincides with "United Nations Day" marking the entry into force of the UN charter -- "the level of suffering of the people but also the trauma suffered by aid workers and peacekeepers are deserving of our solidarity and heightened attention".

One of the world's poorest nations, the Central African Republic has been struggling to recover from a three-year civil war between the Muslim and Christian militias that started after the 2013 overthrow of leader Francois Bozize.

- 'Honour the fallen' -

Between 2013 and 2016, acting under a UN mandate, France intervened militarily to push out the Muslim Seleka rebels and the United Nations launched its MINUSCA peacekeeping mission in 2014 -- but the country remains plagued by violence.

Since May, renewed clashes in the southeast have pitted armed groups against each other as they compete for control of natural resources and areas of influence, while claiming to protect communities.

MINUSCA said Friday that at least 26 people were killed during clashes in the town of Pombolo, while another 11 were wounded.

Since the beginning of the year, 12 aid workers and 12 peacekeepers have also been killed -- six peacekeepers alone in Bangassou where Guterres is expected to make a stop.

"He wants to go honour the fallen," a UN source in Bangui said.

 

Touadera visited Bangassou earlier this week as well in a bid to reassert authority in the southeastern region -- where much of the growing unrest has been concentrated.

Guterres's trip, just weeks before the likely reappointment of MINUSCA, would also send a strong political message amid criticism of the UN mission.

Accused of "passivity" by critics and sometimes even "collusion" with armed groups, UN troops are also facing an avalanche of sexual abuse and rape allegations.

MINUSCA has been hit with the highest number of rape charges of all UN missions, prompting Guterres earlier this year to agree to the withdrawal of a 600-troop contingent from Congo Republic which had faced several accusations.

About 120 Congolese peacekeepers were dismissed for similar reasons last year.

Guterres will meet with some of the victims and their families as part of his effort to address the damaging allegations, accompanied by Jane Connors, the first United Nations advocate for victims' rights.

- 'Warning signs of genocide' -

The conflict has driven more than 600,000 people from their homes internally while an additional 500,000 have crossed borders to become refugees, according to UN figures.

Half of the population, or 2.4 million Central Africans, depend on humanitarian aid.

The worsening violence has prompted some UN officials to raise alarm over "early warning signs of genocide" in CAR, as did former UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien in late August.

Adama Dieng -- the UN's special advisor for the prevention of genocide who visited the country in early October -- denied the country was in a "pre-genocide situation" but said the situation there is "serious".

There are still "indicators" that could result "in crimes of genocide" if they are not tackled, he said.

Touadera, whose election with the full support of the UN and France sparked a wave of hope, also pushed back on the warnings, saying "talk about genocide at this stage ... is not justified".

Guterres previously said there was "ethnic cleansing" in many parts of the country, but he will invariably be asked to comment about genocide.

To the displaced population, a visit from Guterres is a welcome relief.

"The peacekeepers must help us more and be more visible," said Regis, who was forced to flee from the east of the country to Bangui. "It is imperative that the UN chief make them understand that".

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

WHO chief 'rethinking' after Mugabe honour outrage

 

Geneva, Switzerland | AFP | The head of the World Health Organization said Saturday that he was "rethinking" his decision to name Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador, as global outrage over the move mounted.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the UN health agency, had this week asked Zimbabwe's 93-year-old authoritarian leader to serve in the role to help tackle non-communicable diseases like heart attacks, strokes and asthma across Africa.

The decision triggered confusion and anger among key WHO member states and activists who noted that Zimbabwe's health care system, like many of its public services, has collapsed under Mugabe's regime.

"I'm listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible," Tedros, a former Ethiopian health minister, said on Twitter. 

Tedros took charge of WHO in July, becoming the first African to lead the powerful UN agency.

In announcing the appointment in Uruguay's capital this week, Tedros had praised Zimbabwe as "a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all."

- 'Bad April Fool's joke' -

Britain, Canada and the US on Saturday joined the widening chorus of critics of the decision.

"This appointment clearly contradicts the United Nations ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity," the US State Department said.

Britain said the move was "surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him."

"We have registered our concerns with WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus," a foreign office statement read.

And Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau termed the appointment "absolutely unacceptable," and said he "quite frankly... thought it was a bad April Fool's joke."

Zimbabwean activist and human rights lawyer Doug Coltart said on Twitter that a "man who flies to Singapore for treatment because he has destroyed Zimbabwe's health sector is WHO's goodwill ambassador."

Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, is in increasingly fragile health and makes regular trips abroad for medical treatment.

"Mugabe doesn't trust Zimbabwe health care he destroyed (he travels abroad) but @WHO's Tedros names him ambassador," the head of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, added in a tweet.

- 'Sickening' -

UN Watch, a group primarily known for defending Israel at the world body, called the decision "sickening."

"Amid reports of ongoing human rights abuses, the tyrant of Zimbabwe is the last person who should be legitimized by a UN position of any kind," the group's executive director Hillel Neuer said in a statement.

WHO had earlier on Saturday pointed to Zimbabwe's record on tobacco, NCDs and Tedro's desire to engage senior politicians as justifications for the Mugabe honour. 

"Dr Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health," spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in an email.

"Zimbabwe has ratified the WHO FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) in 2014 and the government has launched a levy fund for NCDs to generate revenues for health promotion, including NCD prevention and control."

UN agencies often name high-profile personalities as goodwill ambassadors to draw attention to their work, including actress Angelina Jolie with the refugee agency UNHCR.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Approaching typhoon brings heavy rain, wind to election-day Japan

 

Tokyo, Japan | AFP | A powerful typhoon barrelled toward Japan on Sunday, prompting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to order his government on alert as millions struggled to the polls for a national election.

Typhoon Lan, described as "very large and very strong" by Japan's meteorological agency, was packing gusts up to 216 kilometres (134 miles) per hour Sunday afternoon in the Pacific south of Japan.

The storm, which has already lashed large areas of the Japanese archipelago, was moving northeast and may hit Tokyo or surrounding regions Monday morning.

Strong winds forced airline companies to ground more than 380 flights, while some train and ferry services in western Japan were cancelled due to the storm, local media said.

Abe ordered his minister in charge of disasters to be ready to mobilise rescue and evacuation forces, including troops.

"In order to protect people's lives, the Abe cabinet will unite and do its best to provide an emergency response to a disaster," he told reporters.

Several local governments in Osaka and other prefectures issued evacuation advisories, urging residents living near the coast, rivers and hillsides to move to shelters.

The weather agency separately warned of high waves, landslides and floods in central and western Japan.

Voters in the capital braved torrential rain and driving wind on election day, as opinion polls  indicate Abe is on course for a comfortable win.

Analysts say that if the weather affects turnout, it is likely to benefit Abe, whose conservative voters are seen as more determined to cast their ballots.

Voting was delayed by some 20 minutes in Kochi in western Japan when landslides blocked a road.

Ferries to a remote island in the west were cancelled due to high waves, forcing election officials to suspend the counting of votes there.

On Saturday voters on remote southern islands in the path of the storm had cast their ballots early, heeding a call from Abe.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Catalan leader blasts Spain move to sack separatists

 

Barcelona, Spain | AFP | Spain took drastic measures Saturday to stop Catalonia from breaking away, announcing plans to dismiss its separatist government and call fresh elections in a move the region's leader compared to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and his ministers -- who sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum -- will be stripped of their jobs and their ministries taken over under measures laid out by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

After hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Barcelona's streets earlier Saturday to show their anger at Madrid, Puigdemont said Rajoy was guilty of "the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people" since Franco, calling for the parliament of the semi-autonomous region to meet urgently.

Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist from 1939 to his death in 1975, and among other repressive measures took Catalonia's powers away and banned the official use of Catalan language.

Cautious, though, Puigdemont did not once say the word "independence" as Spain and the rest of the European Union waits to see if he will carry out his threat to declare a breakaway state.

Barcelona police said 450,000 people joined a protest in the regional capital earlier, many chanting "freedom" and "independence" and waving Catalonia's yellow, red and blue separatist flag.

Madrid could take direct control over Catalonia's police force and replace its public media chiefs, with Rajoy saying he had no other choice, faced with a grave threat to Spain's national unity.

Elections for the semi-autonomous region must be called within six months, he added.

The measures must now pass through the Senate -- a process that will take about a week -- but Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority there and his efforts to prevent a break-up of Spain have the backing of other major parties.

The Catalonia crisis could cause a "dangerous dislocation", French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the Journal du Dimanche, adding that he hoped the elections would "clarify the situation."

- 'The game could end badly' -

Home to 7.5 million people, wealthy Catalonia fiercely defends its language and culture and has previously enjoyed control over its policing, education and healthcare.

Madrid has the power to wrest back control of rebellious regions under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, but has never used it before.

Rajoy said the measure was a last resort as Puigdemont refuses to drop his threat to declare independence based on the results of the October 1 referendum, which had been ruled unconstitutional.

"This was neither our desire nor our intention," Rajoy said.

 

"We are applying Article 155 because the government of a democratic country cannot accept that the law is ignored."

Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said the central government was taking a huge risk.

"The game could end badly, very badly for Rajoy's government," he told AFP, adding civil servants and protesters could rise up against the measures.

"It's going to be like a colonial administration, and independence supporters will see it as an occupation."

Though she opposes the independence drive, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau deplored Madrid's decision, tweeting: "Rajoy has suspended the self-government of Catalonia for which so many people fought. A serious attack on the rights and freedoms of everyone."

Despite the political chaos in Catalonia, Barcelona's football team continued their merry way at the top of La Liga by beating Malaga 2-0 at the Camp Nou.

Other than the usual cries in favour of independence in the 17th minute to mark the fall of Catalonia in the Spanish War of Succession in 1714 and sporadic chants of "freedom", it was business as usual for Barca.

- Elections by June -

Allowing 54 days for campaigning, new elections would fall in mid-June at the latest.

Separatists of all political stripes, from Puigdemont's conservatives to the far-left, have dominated the Catalan parliament since the last elections in 2015, holding 72 seats out of 135.

Prosecutors said Saturday they would take former journalist Puigdemont to court for "rebellion" if he makes any attempt to declare independence, a crime punishable with up to 30 years in jail.

Puigdemont says 90 percent backed a split from Spain in the referendum, but turnout was given as 43 percent as many Catalans who back unity stayed away while others were hindered from voting by a police crackdown.

Catalonia is roughly evenly split over whether to go it alone, according to polls, with supporters saying the region pays too much into national coffers but their opponents arguing it is stronger as part of Spain.

The crisis has worried the EU as it struggles with Brexit and taken a toll on one of Spain's most important regional economies, with nearly 1,200 companies shifting their legal headquarters elsewhere in a bid to minimise the instability.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Slovenians vote at presidential election

 

Ljubljana, Slovenia | AFP | Slovenian citizens started voting Sunday in a presidential election in which incumbent head of state Borut Pahor was expected to be re-elected.

Some 1.7 million citizens were eligible to cast their vote, with partial results expected later in the evening.

Polls have put the 53-year-old internet-savvy Pahor, first elected to the largely ceremonial presidency in 2012, close to or above the 50 percent needed for an outright victory.

His nearest rival, former comic actor and Kamnik mayor Marjan Sarec, is projected to get 21 percent, according to a survey in the Delo daily.

Pahor's campaign has seen him walk 700 kilometres (435 miles) around the country chatting to voters while posting photos and videos to legions of followers on social media.

Pahor stepped down as prime minister in 2011 after his government collapsed in the midst of the global financial crisis that drove Slovenia close to needing a bailout.

But the following year he won a surprise victory in presidential elections, standing as an independent candidate backed by the Social Democrats (SD) party.

The president of the small former Yugoslav republic has a mostly ceremonial role although the holder can propose and appoint some state officials and heads the army in case of war.

If none of the nine contendents wins an outright majority of at least 50 percenton Sunday, a runoff between the two leading candidates will be held on November 12.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Huge cave found on moon, could house astronauts: Japan scientists

 

Tokyo. Scientists at Japan's space agency have discovered a huge moon cave that could one day house a base that would shelter astronauts from dangerous radiation and wild temperature swings, officials said Thursday.

Data taken from Japan's SELENE lunar orbiter has confirmed the existence of the 50 kilometre (31 miles) long and 100 metre wide cavern that is believed to be lava tube created by volcanic activity about 3.5 billion years ago. 

The major finding was published this week in US science magazine Geophysical Research Letters.

"We've known about these locations that were thought to be lava tubes...but their existence has not been confirmed until now," Junichi Haruyama, a researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, told AFP on Thursday.

The underground tunnel, located under an area called the Marius Hills, would help protect astronauts from huge swings in temperature and damaging radiation that they would be exposed to on the moon's surface, he added. 

"We haven't actually seen the inside of the cave itself so there are high hopes that exploring it will offer more details," Haruyama said.

The announcement comes after Japan in June revealed ambitious plans to put an astronaut on the Moon around 2030.

That was the first time the agency had said it aimed to send an astronaut beyond the International Space Station. 

The idea is to first join a NASA-led mission in 2025 to build a space station in the moon's orbit, as part of a longer-term effort by NASA to reach Mars.

The US also announced the country is committed to send astronauts to the moon. 

"We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundations we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond," US Vice President Mike Pence said this month.

China and India are also developing their space programmes.

In November, China's Shenzhou-11 spacecraft returned to Earth, bringing home two astronauts from the rising power's longest-ever orbital mission.

Beijing has also unveiled illustrations of a Mars probe and rover it aims to send to the Red Planet at the end of the decade.

NASA and other global space agencies are working hard on sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.

 

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Barack Obama returns to the political arena

 

Richmond. Barack Obama is returning to the political arena for the first time in months after keeping a low profile and avoiding direct confrontation with his White House successor.

The 56-year-old former president is scheduled to attend campaign rallies in New Jersey and Virginia on Thursday to support Democratic party candidates for governor.

Voters in both states will decide the gubernatorial contests on November 7, one year after Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton and stormed into the White House on a wave of anti-establishment fury.

The races are a potential indicator of voter sentiment ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, which will be a major test for Trump and his Republican party.

"There are only two big elections this year, for governor in NJ and VA," political science professor Larry Sabato told AFP.

"What's at stake is bragging rights headed into the 2018 midterm elections," Sabato said.

It is unclear what Obama's message will be. The former US leader has remained largely detached from the political debate since leaving office on January 20, in keeping with presidential tradition.

Trump has meanwhile used his first nine months in the White House to methodically demolish key Obama administration policies.

After three months of vacation Obama began writing his memoirs. He has said little in public and granted almost no interviews.

The few times Obama broke his silence was to comment on issues of national importance, such as immigration, health care and climate change.

But the 44th president may be tempted on Thursday to take aim at Trump, who has frequently and publicly excoriated his predecessor.

- Test for Trump -

In New Jersey, the post of governor will almost certainly go to Democrat Philip Murphy, who would succeed Chris Christie, a Trump ally whose popularity has plummeted to record lows.

New Jersey "is a runaway win for the Democrats, so Virginia is the only competitive contest. Obama is needed much more in Richmond than Trenton," said Sabato, referring to the capitals of the two states.

Virginia is a pivotal state and the only southern US state that Clinton won in 2016. Its importance is amplified by its proximity to the US capital.

"If the GOP loses in Virginia, Trump will be widely blamed since he is so unpopular in a state carried by Hillary Clinton," Sabato said.

"Should the Republicans win Virginia’s governorship, then Trump will not be viewed as such a liability for the GOP in 2018."

In Richmond, Obama will back Ralph Northam, a former military doctor who was credited Wednesday with a slight lead over Republican Ed Gillespie in a Quinnipiac poll.

Obama's impending arrival in the city of over 220,000 people sparked long lines of people seeking tickets to the campaign event.

Well aware of the importance of the vote, Trump has backed Gillespie and accused Northam of "fighting for the violent MS-13," a Hispanic gang, as well as "sanctuary cities" that offer shelter to illegal immigrants.

Gillespie, a former advisor to president George W. Bush who has become a millionaire lobbyist, has so far kept a cautious distance from the mercurial Trump, whose backing recently failed to ensure the election of his pick in a Republican Senate race in Alabama. (AFP)

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trial of S. Korea's Park on hold after lawyers quit

 

Seoul. Ousted South Korean president Park Geun-Hye's corruption trial was put on hold Thursday after her lawyers resigned to protest what they called biased proceedings.

The defence team quit en masse on Monday, when Park condemned the trial as "political revenge", after her detention warrant was extended for another six months.

Park -- who faces multiple charges including bribery, coercion and abuse of power for offering governmental favours to tycoons -- refused to attend the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday, citing her allegedly poor health.

The court had urged her lawyers to reconsider their resignations "to prevent possible disadvantages to the accused" but they had not withdrawn them, senior judge Kim Se-Yun told the hearing.

"This case cannot proceed without defence lawyers... as the charges against the accused may entail a heavy punishment," he said, adding the court will appoint state attorneys to replace them.

He adjourned the proceedings to an unspecified date.

The process is likely to take some time as the defendant's new representatives will have to review more than 100,000 pages of evidence.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

World's deepest lake in peril, scientists warn

 

Moscow. Lake Baikal is undergoing its gravest crisis in recent history, experts say, as the government bans the catching of a signature fish that has lived in the world's deepest lake for centuries but is now under threat.

Holding one-fifth of the world's unfrozen fresh water, Baikal in Russia's Siberia is a natural wonder of "exceptional value to evolutionary science" meriting its listing as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Baikal's high biodiversity includes over 3,600 plant and animal species, most of which are endemic to the lake.

Over the past several years, however, the lake, a major international tourist attraction, has been crippled by a series of detrimental phenomena, some of which remain a mystery to scientists. 

They include the disappearance of the omul fish, rapid growth of putrid algae and the death of endemic species of sponges across its vast 3.2 million-hectare (7.9 million-acre) area.

Starting in October, the government introduced a ban on all commercial fishing of omul, a species of the salmon family only found in Baikal, fearing "irreversible consequences for its population", the Russian fisheries agency told AFP.

"The total biomass of omul in Baikal has more than halved since 15 years ago" from 25 million tonnes to just 10 million, the agency said.

Local fishery biologist Anatoly Mamontov said the decrease is likely caused by uncontrollable fish poaching, with extra pressure coming from the climate.

"Baikal water stock is tied to climate," he said. "Now there is a drought, rivers grow shallow, there are less nutrients. Baikal's surface heats up and omul does not like warm water."

- 'Significant stress' -

UNESCO last month "noted with concern that the ecosystem of the lake is reported to be under significant stress" and a decrease in fish stocks is just one observable effect.

The Baikal omul, a well-known speciality, was for centuries the main local source of food, eaten salted or smoked, and especially important given the region has no farming.

Another peril to the lake's ecosystem is the explosion of algal blooms unnatural to Baikal with thick mats of rotting Spirogyra algae blanketing pristine sandy beaches, which some scientists say indicates that the lake can no longer absorb human pollution without consequence.

"I am 150 percent sure that the reason is the wastewater runoff" from towns without proper sewage treatment, particularly of phosphate-containing detergents, said Oleg Timoshkin, biologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Limnological Institute in Irkutsk.

Fifteen years ago, some of the lake's picturesque villages had only two hours of electricity a day, but now improved power access means that "every babushka rents out rooms and has a washing machine," he said.

- 'Not Baikal anymore' -

Indeed the lake, which is 1,700 metres (5,580 feet) deep, and its tourism now provide a livelihood for many residents to replace fishing.

Foreign visitors often spend time at Baikal while doing a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and in recent years more Chinese have been coming as Russia eased visa requirements. 

Russians love the area, too, for its hiking trails, camping and spectacular scenery.

Timoshkin has travelled the length of Baikal testing for Spirogyra prevalence and said that in three critical zones near populated areas "the bottom does not look like Baikal anymore" and algae is pushing out oxygen-loving molluscs and crustaceans.

Near the town of Listvyanka, the tourist hub closest to regional centre Irkutsk, "there used to be underwater forests of sponges 15 years ago, now they are all dead," Timoshkin said.

Last year, Timoshkin tested 170 types of sponges throughout Baikal's coast, and "only 11 percent looked healthy," he said. "When you take a dead sponge to the surface it smells like a corpse."

- Money 'stolen' -

If dumping polluted water into the lake doesn't stop, "shallow coastal zones will change severely," he said, calling for a ban on phosphate-containing substances in the region and building "the best sewage treatment plants in Russia."

President Vladimir Putin in August complained of "extremely high pollution" while visiting Lake Baikal, calling its preservation a "government priority". 

A special 1999 law in Russia spells out protection measures for Lake Baikal. The government is also putting 26 billion rubles (about $452 million, 385 million euros) into a cleanup programme, which started in 2012, to fund treatment facilities, though local experts say much of the money gets wasted.

In one town, Babushkin, on Baikal's shore, millions of dollars were spent on a brand new treatment plant but bacteria meant to purify the water fail to work in the Siberian winter, local media said.

"As usual, the strictness of our laws is compensated by the fact that following them is optional," said Buryatia-based ecologist Sergei Shapkhayev. "Money is being allocated but it gets stolen." 

Science funding has also grown thin at a time when studying Baikal is most vital, both Timoshkin and Mamontov said. "How can you cut funding during a crisis?" Timoshkin asked.

"That's like firing epidemiologists during a smallpox outbreak."

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

PM May vows to make it easy for EU citizens to stay in UK

 

London. British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to cut red tape and costs for EU citizens wanting to remain in Britain after Brexit, as she prepares to address EU leaders Thursday.

In an open letter on Facebook, May told EU citizens in Britain that their status was her "first priority" and that the government was in "touching distance of agreement" with EU negotiators on their rights.

"I couldn't be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay," she wrote.

"EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK have made a huge contribution to our country. And we want them and their families to stay."

But The 3 Million campaign group responded in a statement: "EU citizens strongly disagree that we are in touching distance of guaranteeing that their rights will be unchanged post-Brexit."

"We are barely out of the starting blocks," said Nicolas Hatton, co-founder of The 3 Million, which is fighting for the rights of EU nationals resident in Britain.

Negotiations are ongoing over what rights EU citizens remaining in Britain will have with regards to family reunions and social benefits.

EU officials have also pressed for their rights to be protected by the Court of Justice of the European Union -- a red line for May's government.

May said she was trying to ensure that EU citizens "who have paid into the UK system can benefit from what they've put in".

She said the government was developing a "streamlined" digital system to process requests for those wanting to remain, and that "we will keep the cost as low as possible".

She said a new "User Group" would bring together EU citizens and technical experts to advise on the application system.

May will address EU leaders on the state of negotiations during a working dinner in Brussels on Thursday, where she is expected to encourage them to "move the conversation" on to a future trade deal," according to her Downing Street office. (AFP)

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

China's Jiang rises from the 'dead' for Communist meeting

 

Rumoured to have died a few months ago, 91-year-old former Chinese president Jiang Zemin roused social media users Wednesday by taking a prominent place at the ruling Communist Party's leadership Congress.

Proving that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated, the former leader sat next to President Xi Jinping and stood for the national anthem as the twice-a-decade congress opened on national television in Beijing's vast Great Hall of the People.

Many Chinese internet users gushed over the elderly "Frog" -- an affectionate nickname inspired by Jiang's wide grin and prominent bespectacled eyes -- marvelling over the apparently still hale nonagenarian in postings sprinkled with frog emojis.

 

"I want to ask about his secret for longevity," said one posting on China's Twitter-like social network Weibo.

 

"How many organs must he have had replaced to be standing in the middle of the stage?" asked another, before China's notorious internet censors swooped in to delete most of the postings within a couple of hours.

Guided into his chair by two ushers, Jiang and his oversized glasses stood out in the crowd of dark-suited party leaders.

He occasionally glanced at his watch or examined Xi's speech text with a large magnifying glass while his comrades sat motionless, and flashed his trademark smile in a conversation with Xi.

 

The former party leader and Chinese president for a decade from 1993, Jiang is occasionally the subject of rumours about his demise.

 

Most recently, in May online speculation swirled that Jiang had died of a stroke in Shanghai, the financial centre he formerly governed as mayor and party chief. He subsequently was seen in public.

 

Past presidents are typically on hand for the congress, during which the top leadership and party policies for the next five years are set in stone. Jiang's immediate successor Hu Jintao, 74, was on Xi's right hand.

 

- 'Younger than ever' -

A former factory engineer, Jiang came to power in the traumatic aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and led China through an era of stunning economic transformation.

 

Jiang's legacy remains mixed, however, as rapid economic growth led to ills such as rampant environmental degradation and a widening wealth gap, which today's leaders are wrestling with.

 

But with his big smile, grasp of several languages, and sometimes clownish behaviour including making jokes in English, Jiang is fondly remembered by many as a relatively colourful Chinese leader compared to his stiff successors Hu and Xi.

 

A music lover who played the piano, Jiang was known for bursting into song on foreign trips, including a memorable rendition of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" during a state visit to the Philippines.

 

"Holy (expletive)! He is getting younger than ever," said one Weibo posting.

 

Other than the live television broadcast, Jiang's presence was largely ignored by state-run media.

 

Official mention of past leaders has become increasingly rare under Xi, who took power in 2012 and moved swiftly to clamp down on dissent as party mouthpieces push a cult of personality around him.

 

dma/eb

 

© Agence France-Presse

 

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mugabe's wife sues over $1.35-mn diamond ring: report

 

The wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has sued a Lebanese businessman for failing to deliver a $1.35-million diamond ring she ordered for her wedding anniversary, state media reported Wednesday.

"First lady Dr Grace Mugabe is suing fugitive businessman Mr Jamal Joseph Ahmed for $1.23 million (1.05 million euros) over a diamond ring deal that went sour last year," The Herald newspaper said.

"In breach of the agreement, Mr Ahmed failed to deliver the ring, triggering a legal wrangle."

In 2015, Grace Mugabe placed an order for a 100-carat diamond ring worth $1.35 million to mark the anniversary of her wedding to the 93-year-old leader.

"The plaintiff wanted to purchase a unique diamond ring for her wedding anniversary celebrations," said court documents seen by The Herald.

"The defendant tendered a diamond ring worth $30,000 and naturally, the plaintiff refused to take possession of an inferior ring."

Grace Mugabe demanded a refund but Ahmed paid back just  $120,000.

In court documents filed last year, Ahmed said he had offered to repay the money in instalments and claimed he had already paid back $150,000.

 

In January Ahmed went to court to stop Grace Mugabe from seizing his properties over the diamond ring spat.

Grace Mugabe has however denied attempting to seize Ahmed's properties, saying police had been guarding his premises because he was wanted for alleged crimes.

The Lebanese businessman holds a Zimbabwean permanent residence permit, but no longer lives in southern African country.

Ahmed also claimed to have received threats from officials from Zimbabwe's spy agency -- the Central Intelligence Organisation -- as well from Grace herself and a son from her first marriage, Russell Goreraza. She has denied the allegation.

Grace, 52, married Mugabe in 1996. She now heads the ruling ZANU-PF party women's league.

She has said that she has the right to rule the country like any other Zimbabwean and is now seen to be among those manoeuvering to replace her husband.

 

rm/sn/gw/ri

 

© Agence France-Presse

 

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

'My god, 3.5 hours': Xi gives marathon speech, China listens

 

By Becky Davis / Joanna CHIU

As Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his three-plus-hour speech at the Communist Party congress, delegates ranging from men in suits to military officers and former presidents dutifully turned every page as they read and listened to his words.

On the internet, government bureaus peppered social media with their favourite phrases from Xi's speech, while photos circulated of children watching Wednesday's congress in classrooms.

The carefully orchestrated address was in keeping with the cult of personality that state media have crafted around the Chinese leader, who is expected to consolidate his already formidable power at the week-long conclave.

During his wide-ranging monologue about China's achievements and challenges ahead, Xi stood behind a glossy wooden lectern, resting both his palms on the stand and occasionally sipping from a white ceramic mug.

The majority male audience of nearly 2,300 delegates inside the imposing Great Hall of the People in central Beijing would interrupt their collective page-turning to applaud key sections of the speech.

Jiang Zemin, the 91-year-old former Chinese president, was seated prominently on stage and used a large magnifying glass to study the document.

 

He also conspicuously checked his watch several times. 

 

"My god, 3.5 hours – what hard work," said a commenter on the Weibo microblogging platform, one of millions of citizens who were following the proceedings on social media.

 

Xi touted his nationalistic "China dream" slogan, and heralded a "new era" that will see "China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind".

 

When he concluded his speech -- which was twice as long as the one given by his predecessor Hu Jintao in 2012 -- the delegates applauded enthusiastically as Xi took a bow.

 

- 'You're so beautiful' -

On the promenade of Tiananmen Square outside, delegates strolled toward cars and buses to return to their hotels.

 

Only a smattering of women could be seen in the crowd, including some in traditional ethnic minority costumes.

 

"Your dress is so beautiful. You're so beautiful!" one male delegate exclaimed to a woman representing the Yao minority in Hunan province.

 

Others quickly brushed past journalists or asked reporters where they were from before accepting interviews.

 

"The speech was extremely good. The most important part was the idea of a new era, with everything getting better and moving forward," a delegate from Henan province told AFP, declining to give his name.

 

"I think Xi's thoughts should be included in the (party) constitution," he said, nodding when asked if Xi's name should also be enshrined, then saying he had to go.

 

Adding Xi's name to the constitution would put him in an exclusive club alongside Communist China's founder, Mao Zedong, and the architect of economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping.

 

- Children watching -

During Xi's speech, social media was flooded with images of watch parties across the country, with Communist party committees in areas as far-flung as northeastern Jilin and southern Yunnan provinces.

 

A number of the photos posted highlighted minority audience members such as the Hui Muslims, the Yi, or Tibetans.

 

Images also circulated of young children sitting obediently in their classroom in a semi-circle around a television playing Xi's speech.

 

By early afternoon, the hashtag #19thPartyCongress# on microblogging platform Sina Weibo had received a mind-boggling cumulative 1.19 billion views -- nearly one per every person in the world's most populous country.

 

As soon as the meeting ended, media outlets and government bureaus across the country peppered social media with the same graphic from the party's official mouthpiece the People's Daily: a series of 10 motivational quotes from Xi's speech pasted next to an image of him at his lectern.

 

"Every one of these is important," wrote one commenter, expressing a common refrain.

 

"Don't forget everyone to always cheer on the party!" wrote another.

 

It is unclear whether less fawning social media comments were posted but deleted by censors in a country with one of the world's most restrictive internet censorship regimes.

 

jch-rld/lth/eb

 

© Agence France-Presse

 

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pope expresses sorrow over Somalia carnage

 

Pope Francis on Wednesday expressed his sorrow over the worst bombing in Somalia's history, a deadly truck attack that left at least 276 people dead in Mogadishu at the weekend.

"I pray for the conversion of the violent and send my encouragement to all those who, in the face of enormous difficulties, work for peace in this martyred country," Francis said at his weekly audience in St Peter's square.

No-one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was widely seen as likely being the work of the Shabaab, an insurgent Islamist group aligned with Al-Qaeda.

The pope had earlier told delegates to an interfaith conference at the Vatican that "those who engage in acts of violence, or try to justify them in the name of religion, gravely offend God."

cm-am/RI 

 

© Agence France-Presse

 

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Xi is everywhere: China's omnipresent leader

 

By Becky Davis

Chinese President Xi Jinping's stiff smile greets visitors in room after room at a Beijing exhibition put up by the Communist party to tout its past five years of accomplishments.

"Five Years On" looks at China's changes since 2012 -- when Xi came to power -- ahead of the twice-a-decade party congress which opened Wednesday.

Xi's omnipresence at the Soviet-style Beijing Exhibition Centre is yet another example of the cult of personality that the state propaganda machine has wrapped around the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.

 

Alongside every flow chart and diorama on display in the red star-topped building loomed a larger-than-life photo of the president: commanding a lectern, striding alongside farmers or foreign dignitaries, inspecting a steel plant, even aiming a gun alongside troops in Macau.

 

Other displays showed five-year-old menus and receipts from modest meals Xi ate while inspecting villages in the countryside.

 

His fans flocked to the exhibit.

 

"We don't find the photos weird. We grew up in this environment," said finance manager Liu Wen, 35, pointing out that the face of modern China's founder, Mao Zedong, graces every yuan bill.

 

"It's not a cult of personality, because as people from a collectivist society, when we see Xi Dada, we think of the team behind him, not of him as an individual hero," he added, using a chummy nickname coined for the leader by party propaganda organs that roughly equates to "Big Uncle Xi."

 

Xi's ever-expanding power and intolerance for dissent has earned him comparisons to Mao.

 

- Party rise -

While his father was purged under the Communist leader, 64-year-old Xi rose through the ranks without scandal, thanks to an unassuming demeanour that earned him fewer rivals than most.

 

"He believes that the party is the force that can really transform China," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, China politics specialist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

 

Beginning as a county-level party secretary, Xi rose to become governor of coastal Fujian province, then party secretary of Zhejiang province and eventually Shanghai, in 2007.

 

That same year, he was appointed to China's top governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee, a group he has led since 2012 as general secretary.

 

Xi is now expected to secure a second five-year term as head of the party during the congress, like his predecessors. But more importantly, he will have the opportunity to stack key positions with loyalists.

 

Xi is the first Chinese leader to have been born after 1949, when the Communist revolution that gives the party its legitimacy ended.

 

The son of revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, he was born in Beijing in 1953 into privilege.

 

A so-called "princeling" who reaped the benefits of his father's acclaim, Xi studied chemical engineering at the prestigious Tsinghua University before turning to politics.

 

After a divorce, Xi married his second wife, the celebrity soprano Peng Liyuan, in 1987, at a time when she was much more famous than him. The couple's daughter, Xi Mingze, studied at Harvard and stays out of the public eye.

 

- 'Closer to us' -

But official media have aggressively shaped an image for Xi as a man of the people, who dresses modestly and buys his own steamed buns at a common shop.

 

They have also highlighted the time he spent during the Cultural Revolution as a "sent-down youth" in the countryside, labouring alongside farmers and living in a cave.

 

In the run-up to the congress, state media touted his accomplishments, running a video series on his growing diplomatic clout and stories on the poverty alleviation programme of the man now known as the "core" of the Communist Party.

 

The propaganda, however, glosses over the series of crackdowns on activists, lawyers and academics that Xi has overseen.

 

Authorities have also clamped down on what can be said on the internet, tightening censorship in a country where young people are avid users of social media.

 

That very definitely includes what can be said about Xi Dada -- even obliquely.

 

Since comparisons were first made in 2013 between China's leader and a certain portly yellow bear who likes "hunny", references to the most famous inhabitant of Hundred Acre Wood have periodically been blocked.

 

As the congress got under way on Wednesday, a Chinese language search on Weibo for "Winnie the Pooh" and "Xi Jinping" returned the message: "According to relevent laws and policy, the search results are not displayed."

 

rld/lth/aph/hg

 

© Agence France-Presse

 

        Related documents

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hillary slams Trump's 'dangerous' war of words with N. Korea

 

Seoul, South Korea | AFP | Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed President Donald Trump's "dangerous and short-sighted" war of words with North Korea Wednesday, saying his Twitter tirades only benefitted Pyongyang's attention-seeking ruler and hurt Washington's credibility.

Clinton lost last year's presidential election to the insurgent Republican despite having decades of experience in politics.

Tension has been running high for months as the White House's new incumbent and the North's Kim Jong-Un trade threats of war, with Trump dubbing Kim "Rocket Man" and being called a "dotard" in response.

In recent months Pyongyang has carried out multiple launches of missiles potentially capable of reaching the US mainland, and its sixth nuclear test.

But Trump's tit-for-tat with the young, autocratic ruler of the isolated regime only dents Washington's credibility and helps Kim bask in global attention he seeks, the former secretary of state told a forum in Seoul

"I am worried about some of the recent actions from the new administration that seem to raise tensions. Our allies are now expressing concerns about America's credibility and reliability," she said.

"Picking up fights with Kim Jong-Un just puts a smile on his face. It's like picking fights with NATO and the EU which puts a smile on Putin's face," she added, referring to the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump's escalating verbal threats have sparked concerns of potential conflict on the peninsula, especially after he warned this month that "only one thing will work" on the North, without elaborating further.

Such "cavalierly threats to start a war are dangerous and short-sighted", Clinton said, adding the regime would be "thrilled" to get the "personal attention of the leader of our country".

Without once mentioning Trump by name, she also said she was "very concerned that the new administration is draining the government of the expertise" in diplomacy over the North.  

"There are few Asia experts of senior level left at the State Department," she said. 

The 69-year-old former first lady, who served as the US' top diplomat from 2009 to 2013 under president Barack Obama, suffered a shock defeat to Trump in the 2016 election.

She felt "so responsible" for the defeat, she said, but also blamed multiple factors including sexism, misogyny and Russian intervention she recounted in her recent memoir "What Happened".

Moscow, she said, was "trying to destabilise every democracy".

Trump's presidency has been overshadowed by allegations that his campaign team colluded with Russia during last year's election.

 

Moscow has faced accusations of state-sponsored cyberattacks on countries including Germany and France to influence election results -- allegations it has steadfastly denied.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Privacy groups warn of perils in smartwatches for kids

The organisations contend that the devices,

The organisations contend that the devices, instead of keeping children safe, could make them vulnerable to hackers or criminals. ― Reuters pic  

Washington, United States | AFP | Smartwatches designed to help parents keep tabs on children could create privacy and security risks, activist and consumer groups said Wednesday as they called for probes by regulators.

A coalition of child protection, consumer, and privacy groups asked the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate the risks posed to children by the devices and also called on retailers to stop selling the watches.

The groups said consumer organizations in Europe were expected to file similar complaints with EU regulators.

The organizations contend that the devices, instead of keeping children safe, could make them vulnerable to hackers or criminals.

"By preying upon parents' desire to keep children safe... these smartwatches are actually putting kids in danger," said Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in a statement.

"Once again, we see Internet of Things products for kids being rushed to market with no regard for how they will protect children’s sensitive information. Parents should avoid these watches and all internet-connected devices designed for kids."

The actions come after research by the Norwegian Consumer Council highlighted security flaws in smartwatches designed for children, which transmit and store data without encryption.

With two of the watches, an attacker was able take control of the watch, eavesdrop on conversations, communicate with the child, and access stored data about the child's location.

The Norwegian group also found that a "geofencing" feature meant to notify parents when a child leaves a specified area did not work as advertised, according to the organizations.

The study examined smartwatches sold under the Caref brand, marketed as Gator in Europe, SeTracker, Xplora and Tinitell.

"The devices implicate not only the data privacy of children, but also their personal safety," said a letter to the FTC by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Public Citizen and the US Public Interest Research Group.

"The devices create a new vulnerability that allows a third party to find a young child at precisely the time when the child is separated from a parent or guardian."

The same coalition warned last year of similar risks from internet-connected dolls, prompting an FBI warning and leading to many retailers taking the products off their shelves.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wildfire toll hits 45 in Portugal-Spain but rain brings respite

The wreckage of a burned van in which two

The wreckage of a burned van in which two people died trapped by flames.PHOTO\AFP 

Penacova, Portugal | AFP | Overnight rain and calmer winds have helped firefighters tame a spate of deadly wildfires that broke out over the weekend, devouring homes and killing 41 people in Portugal and another four in northern Spain.

Portugal's civil protection agency said Tuesday that the 15 biggest fires, which had raged through the centre and the north of the country, had been brought under control, but that the death toll had risen.

"We've gone from 37 dead to 41," civil protection agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar told AFP.

As the country began three days of mourning for the victims, the agency said 71 people had been injured in the fires, 16 of them seriously. And one person was still missing.

Among the dead was a one-month-old baby.

"Most of the victims were killed in their cars, but we also found them inside their houses," said Jose Carlos Alexandrino, mayor of Oliveira do Hospital near Coimbra, speaking to broadcaster RTP.

"The whole city looked like a ball of fire, surrounded by flames on all sides."

Portugal's conservative President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa called on the socialist government to "bear all the consequences of this tragedy".

"These more than a hundred deaths will never leave my mind, it's a terrible weight on my conscience," he said.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Monday reaffirmed his pledge to prevent new tragedies by carrying out "fundamental reforms" in forest management and firefighting.

Across the border in Galicia, Spain's westernmost province which flanks northern Portugal, the number of dead rose to four from fires which also broke out on Sunday and were stoked by warm winds as Hurricane Ophelia passed the Iberian Peninsula.

But by Tuesday, officials said they had lowered the alert level after early-morning rain and calmer winds halted the progression of the flames.

It is the second time in four months that Portugal has been hit by deadly wildfires after huge blazes in June killed 64 people, the worst fires in the country's history.

"We went through absolute hell, it was horrible. There was fire everywhere," a resident of the central town of Penacova told RTP television.

- Residents return -

Further north, villagers from the Vouzela area spoke of how fast the fire spread.

"Everything happened in 45 minutes, the fire came to the foot of the village and spread at an incredible rate," resident Jose Morais told AFP.

 

"I had never seen anything like that before. It felt like the end of the world. Everyone fled".

Despite the rain, the civil protection agency said that around 3,000 firefighters remained deployed to tackle any resumption of the blaze, but that there had been no major active fires burning since dawn.

In the villages near Penacova, about 230 kilometres (140 miles) north of Lisbon, life began to resume some semblance of normality with residents hosing down their land to prevent further blazes.

Others were examining their crops and olive trees to gauge the extent of the damage.

In the forests around Coimbra, a city on the banks of the Mondego River, plumes of white smoke filled the air as firefighters continued working to douse the flames on a hillside covered with blackened ash.

"There was a lot of rain during the night but not enough to completely put out the fire," a senior fire officer told Portuguese news RTP, saying the main difficulty for firefighters was fatigue and the scope of the area they had to work on.

- National mourning, again -

The blazes which broke out on Sunday were blamed on arsonists and fanned by the passing of Ophelia.

Lisbon declared a state of emergency in areas north of the Tagus river, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula which effectively cuts Portugal in half and also runs through Spain.

For the second time in four months, Portugal held a three-day mourning period, while in Brussels, the European Commission's flags were lowered to half-mast as a sign of respect for victims in both countries.

Since the start of the year, more than 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of vegetation have been consumed across Portugal -- four times the annual average over the past decade -- according to an estimate from the European Forest Fire Information System.

Portugal is covered with fast-burning eucalyptus trees which are used to supply the country's paper industry, and it is also vulnerable to strong winds coming off the Atlantic.

Scientists also say climate change has extended the wildfire season.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Baghdad says mission accomplished in Kurd operation

An Iraqi army vehicle stands at the Bai Hassan

An Iraqi army vehicle stands at the Bai Hassan oil field west of Kirkuk on October 17, 2017 after Iraqi forces seized major oil fields in the disputed province from Kurdish forces 

Baghdad, Iraq | AFP | Iraqi forces said Wednesday they had achieved their objectives in a lightning operation that saw them sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month.

On Monday and Tuesday, federal troops and allied militia retook the northern province of Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, as well as formerly Kurdish-held areas of Nineveh and Diyala provinces -- all outside the autonomous Kurdistan region.

"Security has been restored in sectors of Kirkuk, including Dibis, Al-Multaqa, and the Khabbaz and Bai Hassan North and South oil fields," the federal government's Joint Operations Command said.

"Forces have been redeployed and have retaken control of Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, Mosul dam, Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains," it added.

The 48-hour operation saw Kurdish forces almost entirely confined to their longstanding three-province autonomous region in the north.

It dealt a body blow to the region's finances by depriving it of the output from the Kirkuk oil fields which had made up much of its exports.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

EU's Tusk proposes two-year reform blitz



Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk 

Brussels, Belgium | AFP | EU President Donald Tusk on Tuesday proposed an ambitious timeline of 13 summits over the next two years to reboot the European Union after the shock of Brexit and other setbacks.

Tusk, who coordinates EU summit meetings, unveiled the schedule of talks just weeks after calls for deep EU reform by French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as by European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker.

It follows consultations by Tusk with all 28 EU leaders on the reform drive, which became urgent after Britain shocked the world with its referendum vote in June 2016 to break with the bloc.

The schedule, which begins with this week's Thursday-Friday talks in Brussels, includes the EU's regularly planned summits through June 2019 as well as informal sitdowns with special themes.

These include a special EU summit in Romania just weeks after Britain is expected to finally leave the bloc in March 2019, as well as a special security meeting in Vienna next year.

EU leaders from the 27 remaining member states decided last year that the bloc required major change or risked failure, but newly elected Macron breathed new life into the process.

"I am very happy with your willingness to accelerate our work and overcome the sense of powerlessness," Tusk said in an invitation letter to EU leaders ahead of the two-day talks kicking off Thursday.

"Based on my consultations... it is clear that there is also a willingness to reinvigorate and enrich our work, including by drawing on new ideas," he said.

Tusk stressed that the talks could take place among the current 28 members, including Britain, or just the 27 remaining countries "depending on the subject".

Tusk's proposal also includes an idea to update the working method at summits by scrapping the traditional consensual approach and allow room for open disagreement among leaders.

Instead, political splits among the member states would be tracked in so-called decision notes, which would mark a major break with the EU tradition to carefully paper over differences.

"I would like to propose a method that focuses on solving real issues," Tusk said in his letter.

The new method "will report on our differences, precisely describing the scope of conflict and thus allowing us to hold a serious, political discussion," Tusk said.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

George Soros transfers $18 bn to his foundation

 

New York, United States | AFP | American financier George Soros, 87, has transferred $18 billion to his foundation, which works to promote democracy, human rights and freedom of the press.

The figure "reflects an ongoing process of asset transfer that has been underway for several years," spokeswoman Laura Silber told AFP on Tuesday.

Soros "plans to leave the vast majority of his wealth to the Open Society Foundations," Silber said.

Open Society Foundations is the second-richest in the US after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of over $40 billion, according to the National Philanthropic Trust.

Soros, a Hungarian-born investor known for his risky financial bets, chairs OSF and three of his children are members of the board.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

S. Korea police raid Samsung unit in embezzlement probe

 

Seoul, South Korea | AFP | South Korean police raided the construction unit of the giant Samsung Group Wednesday to investigate allegations that company money was diverted to remodel the conglomerate chairman's house, officials said.

A spokeswoman for Samsung C&T -- one of the group's biggest subsidiaries -- confirmed about 10 investigators were searching its construction headquarters in Seoul's southern suburbs.

"The company is suspected of diverting billions of won (millions of dollars) of company funds to pay for remodelling and repair expenses of Chairman Lee Kun-Hee's private residence", a detective told AFP.

Lee Kun-Hee has been bedridden since suffering a heart attack in 2014.

His son and heir Lee Jae-Yong was convicted in August of funnelling millions of dollars to ousted president Park Geun-Hye's secret confidante Choi Soon-Sil in return for government favours, and sentenced to five years in prison.

South Korea's powerful, family-run business empires -- called chaebols -- have a long history of their top figures being charged with bribery, embezzlement, or tax evasion, among other offences.

But even if convicted, many see their sentences significantly reduced on appeal or suspended, leaving only a few actually spending significant time behind bars.

Separately, police have also been investigating allegations that the chairman of Korean Air owner Hanjin Group, Cho Yang-Ho, also diverted company funds to remodel his own house.

Police uncovered both the alleged irregularities while investigating a renowned interior design company over tax avoidance.

Local news reports said more probes into other conglomerates suspected of similar wrongdoings through the same firm were expected.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Madagascar plague death toll climbs to 74

 

Antananarivo, Madagascar | AFP |An outbreak of highly contagious plague has claimed 74 lives in Madagascar over the past two months with the capital particularly affected, according to a new official toll published Tuesday.

A total of 805 cases have been reported on the poor Indian Ocean island nation since August, the health ministry said in a statement.

Madagascar has suffered plague outbreaks almost every year since 1980 -- typically between September and April -- and are often sparked by rats fleeing forest fires.

The current outbreak is unusual as it has affected urban areas -- especially the capital Antananarivo -- increasing the risk of transmission, according to the World Health Organisation.

It has sparked panic despite the government appealing for calm.

Passengers at Antananarivo's transport hubs are subject to medical inspections, infected areas have been fumigated to kill fleas, public gatherings are banned, and schools and universities have been shut to combat the outbreak.

WHO has delivered 1.2 million doses of antibiotics vital to fighting the disease while the Red Cross has been urgently training hundreds of volunteers on the island to publicise preventative measures.

Plague bacteria develops in rats and is carried by fleas.

In humans, the pneumonic version is transferred through coughing and can be fatal within 72 hours.

Most of the victims recorded in Madagascar have been infected with the pneumonic form. The bubonic form is less dangerous.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Secret files show US knew about Indonesia massacres

Jakarta, Indonesia | AFP | The United States government had intimate knowledge of the Indonesian army's bloody anti-communist purge in the 1960s, describing the mass killings as a "widespread slaughter", newly declassified documents have revealed.

The 39 recently declassified US Embassy documents cover the period from 1964-1968, at the peak of the Cold War, and uncover new details about one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Indonesian history

Historians say up to 500,000 alleged Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) supporters were killed between October 1965 and March 1966 by soldiers and civilian militias after the army launched a campaign to crush the Indonesian communist party and its leaders following a failed coup.

General Suharto, who put down the coup, blamed the Indonesian Communist Party and rose to power on the back of the bloodshed, going on to lead the world's most populous Muslim nation with an iron fist for three decades.

During his rule, the massacres were presented as necessary to rid the country of communism -- Indonesia had the world's third-biggest communist party after China and the Soviet Union before the killings.

The declassified documents show how American officials across the archipelago knew of the massacres, including the complicity of prominent Muslim civil society groups in the killings.

In one telegram sent from the city of Surabaya on November 26, 1965 the US consul said the number of reports coming in from East Java were an "indication (of) widespread slaughter" adding as many as 15,000 communists may have been murdered in a single massacre.

A month later the same consul said communist prisoners held by the military were being "delivered to civilians for slaughter".

Other victims were "taken out of populous areas before being killed and bodies are buried rather than thrown into river."

A cable the same month from the US consulate in Medan, on the western island of Sumatra, detailed how Muslim preachers described the killings as a religious obligation.

The cable said preachers from Muhammadiyah, one of the country's largest Muslim groups, said communists were the "lowest order of infidel, the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing chicken".

Human rights activists urged the US and Indonesia to disclose all remaining classified documents on the massacres.

"Those classified documents are crucial to an accurate historical record of the killings and to provide justice for those crimes," Human Rights Watch's Andreas Harsono told AFP.

The release of the new material comes during a current surge in anti-communist hysteria in Indonesia, stoked by Islamic hardliners and some politicians.

Public debate about the killings is still taboo in many quarters.

The government has taken some steps towards reckoning with the past by backing for the first time public discussions into the killings -- attended by survivors and members of the military.

But those moves have also sparked a backlash from the military and police.

Last month an angry mob broke up an event organised by human rights lawyers that they believed was a discussion about communism. Five police officers were injured.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Xi unveils plan to make China "great modern socialist country" by mid-21st century

 

Beijing|Xinhua|President Xi Jinping on Wednesday unveiled a two-stage plan of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to make China a "great modern socialist country" by mid-21st century.

   It was announced in a report Xi delivered to the 19th CPC National Congress at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

   This is the first time that the CPC has set forth a post-2020 strategic plan to make China a "great" country. The Party is expected to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020.

   According to the new plan, the CPC will basically realize socialist modernization in the first stage from 2020 to 2035, before developing China into a "great modern socialist country" that is "prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful" after another 15 years.

   This means the CPC now aims to basically achieve socialist modernization of the country around 15 years ahead of its previous schedule set by the Party's three strategic goals, which were laid out after the adoption of the reform and opening up policy in late 1970s.

   The two-stage development plan is the CPC's "strategic vision for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era," Xi said.

   According to the plan, the following goals will have been met by 2035:

   -- China's economic and technological strength has increased significantly. China has become a global leader in innovation.

   -- The rights of the people to participate and to develop as equals are adequately protected. The rule of law for the country, the government, and society is basically in place. Institutions in all fields are further improved; the modernization of China's system and capacity for governance is basically achieved.

   -- Social etiquette and civility are significantly enhanced. China's cultural soft power has grown much stronger; Chinese culture has greater appeal.

   -- People are leading more comfortable lives, and the size of the middle-income group has grown considerably. Disparities in urban-rural development, in development between regions, and in living standards are significantly reduced; equitable access to basic public services is basically ensured; and solid progress has been made toward prosperity for everyone.

   -- A modern social governance system has basically taken shape, and society is full of vitality, harmonious, and orderly.

   -- There is a fundamental improvement in the environment; the goal of building a Beautiful China is basically attained.

   By the middle of the 21st century, the following goals will have been met:

   -- New heights are reached in every dimension of material, political, cultural and ethical, social, and ecological advancement.

   -- Modernization of China's system and capacity for governance is achieved.

   -- China has become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.

   -- Common prosperity for everyone is basically achieved.

   -- The Chinese people enjoy happier, safer, and healthier lives.

   "The Chinese nation will become a proud and active member of the community of nations," said Xi.

   The two-stage plan is an important component of the "Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era," a long-term guide to action that the Party must adhere to and develop.

   The Thought builds on and further enriches Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development. It represents the latest achievement in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context, Xi said.

   The five-yearly CPC congress is China's most significant political meeting.

   This is a meeting of great importance taking place during the decisive stage in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and at a critical moment as socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, Xi said.

   The congress will deliberate and adopt an amendment to the CPC Constitution. It will also elect the Party's 19th Central Committee and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trump warns McCain: 'I fight back, and it won't be pretty'

 

Washington, United States | AFP |US President Donald Trump reignited a long-standing feud with John McCain Tuesday, warning "I fight back, and it won't be pretty" after the respected senator appeared to take aim at him in a speech.

The relationship between the pair -- one a veteran lawmaker and war hero, the other a real estate tycoon and political neophyte before he assumed the presidency -- has long been testy.

But the acrimony has risen to a new level with Trump's latest threats, which come just over a week after a war-of-words with another senior legislator from his own party, Bob Corker.

Speaking on Monday night at an event in Philadelphia to honor his life's achievements, McCain had railed against the "America First" approach espoused by the Trump administration.

"To refuse the obligations of international leadership...for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past," said the 81-year-old, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in July.

Trump lashed out Tuesday, telling conservative radio host Chris Plante: "People have to be careful because at some point I fight back.

"I'm being very nice. I'm being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won't be pretty."

McCain has proved a thorn in Trump's side in recent months, twice helping to scupper Republican attempts to repeal a healthcare law that was a signature accomplishment of former president Barack Obama.

Asked by AFP what he made of the president's latest missive, McCain shrugged the matter off. "I do what I have to do and I work with him as much as I can, and I do what I need to do for the people of Arizona," he said.

Regarding the president's suggestion he would fight back, he responded simply: "I have faced some pretty tough adversaries in my life."

- 'Lincolnesque' -

The Trump-McCain feud has a long history.

Trump -- who in addition to being a businessman was also a reality TV star winning the White House -- questioned McCain's military record in July 2015, earning widespread rebuke for saying "I like people who weren't captured" in comments that threatened to derail his presidential ambitions just a month after announcing his bid.

 

Former Navy pilot McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam where he was tortured, while Trump received student and medical deferments that prevented him from being enlisted in the conflict.

In August, McCain broke party ranks to call Trump "often poorly informed," adding he "can be impulsive in his speech and conduct."

Some political observers wondered whether his votes against Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare -- one of Trump's main campaign promises -- were influenced by the desire for revenge.

McCain on Monday received the backing of another long-time Trump critic Mitt Romney, who was also the Republican candidate for president in 2012.

"Ran against him, sometimes disagree, but proud to be a friend of @SenJohnMcCain: hero, champion of character and last night, Lincolnesque," said Romney.

The latest battle with a senior member of the Republican party comes after Trump engaged in a heated exchange with senior Senator Bob Corker, who accused the president of pushing the country to the brink of World War III.

Trump's frequent sparring with congressional leaders is seen as perhaps damaging to his legislative agenda, with a potentially bruising fight for tax-reforms that could divide his party on the horizon.

Republicans currently hold only a slim majority in the Senate, with 52 of the chamber's 100 seats.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

'Co-living' project takes on London housing crisis

Terrace at the co-living building The

Terrace at the co-living building The Collective Old Oak in north west London 

London, United Kingdom | AFP | The 10-storey building may look like a hotel, but it is thought to be the world's biggest large-scale house-share, offering modest rooms and upscale services for hundreds of young adults caught in London's housing crisis.

The Old Oak building, situated on a canal bank in north west London, opened in the spring of 2016, and has become a pioneer of "co-living", a concept that is beginning to catch on elsewhere, notably in the United States.

"Today in cities, we don't know our neighbours, housing is more and more expensive, we're living behind our devices and this is addressing that challenge," said Ryan Fix, consultant at The Collective, the project's developer.

This was no niche market, he insisted: "It's going to be a massive movement in the coming decades."

Ed Thomas, who manages the property for The Collective, offers a tour of the 546-room building and its facilities.

"You've got a nice spacious room with big window that lets lots of light in," he says as he shows AFP a room measuring 12 square metres (129 square feet).

All of the rooms are currently occupied.

Some have a tiny ensuite bathroom, with a small wash basin placed almost over the toilet, and a kitchenette. In others, the cooking and washroom areas are shared.

- Yoga and cinema -

The Old Oak boasts high-end facilities such as a spa, gym, library, work room, restaurant and even a cinema, which is packed for evening showings of the hit TV series "Game of Thrones".

The building is a ten-minute walk from two London Underground stations. And its distinguishing features include its industrial-style architecture and sprawling common spaces filled with colourful armchairs and wooden furniture.

There are also communal activities on offer, such as music evenings and yoga classes.

The majority of the Old Oak's current tenants are young people aged between 22 and 35 earning an average of £30,000 a year ($40,000, 34,000 euros) -- who might otherwise be sharing a cramped house with strangers.

It is common for Londoners to spend "40 to 50 percent of their net salary" on housing, James Mannix, a partner at estate agency Knight Frank, told AFP.

"It is extremely difficult to find a place to rent in London and young people are increasingly marginalised," said The Collective's Ed Thomas.

 

"It is very time-consuming, and even once you move into somewhere, the chances that you find a group of people that you get along with are extremely slim. We're trying to tackle that problem."

According to Knight Frank, a typical room in shared accommodation costs £1,602 per month in central London and £954 in areas farther out.

The Old Oak's prices are largely in line with those of the local area.

The majority of the rooms cost between £850 and £1,100 pounds per month, but that includes all bills (energy, internet, cleaning, taxes and common facilities). The largest are advertised at more than £1,400.

- 'An investment' -

Adam Saez, a 26-year-old Australian sports trainer who has lived in Old Oak for over a year, sees his rent as "an investment".

"I've not only made friends, but I've also done a lot of networking, so I've met lot of people that I now work with as well," he told AFP.

Sarah Sinigaglia, a 19-year-old Italian-Swiss student newly arrived in London, agreed.

"It's very easy to meet people," she said. "In the evening, you can go downstairs (...) to the lobby or the bar, and there are lots of people like me who are alone."

The Collective, whose first shared building was funded by a "Singapore family" for an undisclosed amount, is launching two other projects in east London.

One is close to the Olympic Park in Stratford and the other in Canary Wharf, in the business district of the British capital.

They are expected to open in 2019, with a combined total of 1,000 rooms up for rent.

The Collective is also looking to expand internationally and eyeing different target groups, such as families.

Estate agent Mannix said the concept of co-living is "socially a good thing," creating affordable accommodation -- at the same time profitable for the developers -- in a private-sector response to a crisis which the public authorities are failing to tackle sufficiently.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Trump and the dismantling of Obama's legacy

 

By Jerome CARTILLIER

Brick by brick, the demolition job has begun: since taking office less than a year ago, Donald Trump has launched an all-out assault on the legacy of Barack Obama.

Climate, free trade, health care, immigration, foreign policy -- the 45th US president has set about undoing just about everything done by the 44th.

All new presidents, of course, break with their predecessor once in the Oval Office, especially if they come from a rival political party.

But what is striking is how systematic the hammer blows to Obama's legacy have been.

 

And rather than throw his weight behind new policies or projects, Trump has shown a willful desire to unpick, shred and erase everything his predecessor accomplished.

 

It's worth noting that each time he buries one of the reforms of the man who sat before him at the "Resolute desk," Trump sounds more like a candidate than a president.

- 'Ridiculous trade deals' -

The Trans-Pacific Partnership? Within days of taking office, Trump signed an order pulling America out of the free trade accord, the fruit of eight years of negotiations between 12 Asia-Pacific countries, from Chile to Canada and Japan.

"We're going to stop the ridiculous trade deals that have taken everybody out of our country and taken companies out of our country, and it's going to be reversed," Trump said.

Paradoxically, in signing off on the project's demise, Trump was aligning himself more with the left wing of the Democratic party than with the Republican mainstream.

 

The Paris climate accord? Obama played a leading role in attaining that milestone in the effort to combat global warming.

 

Trump pulled out of the agreement signed by 195 countries, claiming that it "punishes the United States" and declaring: "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris."

 

What about Obamacare, the signature legislative achievement of Obama's first term? After trying in vain to get Congress to repeal it, Trump is now working to bring about its collapse through the regulatory process.

 

And the Iranian nuclear accord? The bid to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon in return for a lifting of sanctions more than any other bore came to represent Obama's approach to world affairs.

 

"This deal will have my name on it," the Democratic president said shortly before it was concluded. "Nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise."

 

While Trump has stopped short of tearing up the Iran deal, as he threatened on the campaign trail, on Friday he warned he could do so "at any time," raising doubts about the fate of an accord born of years of painstaking diplomacy.

 

- A break at any price -

How to explain the fixation on destroying Obama's legacy at all cost?

 

Trump has held high his determination to fulfill his campaign promises, and give form to a simple slogan: "America First."

 

And his team recalls, with reason, that Obama acted by decree many times when thwarted by Congress. What has been decided by the stroke of a pen can be undone by the stroke of a pen.

 

Historian Jeffrey Engel, however, sees no equivalent in recent decades to Trump's systematic application of the simple principle that "if the other guy liked it, it must be bad."

 

To Engel, the explanation is that Trump's electoral base "never accepted fully Barack Obama as their president."

 

"There was a move among Obama's opponents to delegitimize him and to say that this man is not really president and consequently anything that he did, Trump's base is ready to get rid of," said Engel, who heads Southern Methodist University's center for presidential history in Dallas, Texas.

 

A notable fact: Obama has until now remained largely silent as his legacy is demolished.

 

American tradition, which is generally respected, holds that a former president should remain above the fray.

 

But, in thinking about his place in history, Obama is also playing the patience card.

 

"I think that Obama understands that his legacy ultimately will be defined by how America reacts to Trump in the long term and how Trump's successors act," said Engel.

 

On November 7, 2016, on the eve of the US elections, Obama warned voters "it all goes out the window" if they were to send Trump to the White House.

 

That attempt to rally Democratic voters now seems prophetic.

 

jca/jm/ec

 

© Agence France-Presse

 

        Related documents

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

By ARNALDO VIEIRA AFRICAREVIEW Correspondent

Eighteen people, among them security agents, were killed in a Mozambique ambush by suspected insurgents, local media reported.

The Moçambique para todos newspaper said the ambush took place at a location at Pemba- Mocímboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado Province, some 1,663km north of Maputo.

Cabo Delgado is the northernmost province of Mozambique, bordering Tanzania.

The publication said one vehicle was burnt down in the incident and several others partially damaged.

The paper further reported that a contingent of police officers and soldiers had been dispatched to Cabo Delgado Province to deal with the suspected insurgents.

A fortnight ago, 16 people were killed in a string of attacks on three police stations in northern Mozambique’s Mocímboa da Praia region.

The attack, according to the authorities, involved about 30 gunmen.

Mozambique still suffers from the effects of a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992. The protracted conflict in the former Portuguese colony pitted the ruling Frelimo against the rebel Renamo fighters.

Tensions remain between Frelimo and Renamo, despite the latter evolving into an opposition political party.

 

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Former Malagasy President Albert Zafy dies

 

Prof Zafy passed away Friday at the St Pierre hospital in Reunion Island, a region of France east of Madagascar, where he was receiving treatment.

His ally and former Environment and Forestry minister Joseph Randriamiarisoa said Prof Zafy’s body will arrive at the Antananarivo Ivato International Airport on Saturday at 6pm.

The body will be taken to the National Palace of Culture and Sports at the Mahamasina Stadium in the capital Antananarivo for the people to pay their last respects on Sunday.

But the government has warned against crowding the facility due to an outbreak of pneumonic plague that has killed at least 60 people and infected more than 300 since August.

Antananarivo and its suburbs are some of the worst hit areas. The government has banned public gatherings and temporarily closed schools in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading.

The southeast African nation will observe a national day of mourning on Monday in honour of a man largely considered as the father of democracy in Madagascar.

Prof Zafy slid into a state of deep unconsciousness on Wednesday morning.

He underwent treatment at the intensive care unit of the Polyclinique d’Ilafy Antananarivo hospital before being transferred to Reunion Island.

Dr Randrianarisoa disclosed that the former president had heart related complications.

Prof Zafy ruled the island nation between 1993 and 1996.

The renowned cardiologist ascended to the throne following months of political instability in early 1990s. The-then opponents of the incumbent socialist leader Didier Ratsiraka were challenging the legitimacy of his authority.

Prof Zafy is also recognised as the father of the national reconciliation initiative in the country.

Malagasy politicians, including former President Ratsiraka, have been paying tribute to Prof Zafy following the news of his demise

 

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Trump breaks with allies as US goes it alone on Iran

 

Washington. Donald Trump will unveil a more aggressive strategy to check Iran's growing might Friday, withdrawing presidential backing for a landmark nuclear deal and targeting the country's missile program and militia proxies.   

During a White House speech at 12:45 pm (1645 GMT), Trump is expected to declare a 2015 deal, which curbed Iran's nuclear program in return for massive sanctions relief, is no longer in the US national interest.

Officials say he will not kill the deal outright, or designate Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization -- a move that would almost certainly bring retaliatory action.  

Instead he will leave US lawmakers to decide whether they want to kick away one of the accords foundational pillars by "snapping back" sanctions against Iran.

Many lawmakers are waiting to see how Trump presents the choice, with no clear consensus even among Republicans on whether to torpedo the agreement. 

In a statement to AFP, leading Republican Senator Marco Rubio described the accord as "fatally-flawed" and said he was open to legislation that would "substantially improve America's ability to counter Iran's nuclear, terrorism, militancy and regional threats."

While Trump's decision is largely rhetorical -- designed to meet a key campaign pledge -- it risks unpicking years of careful diplomacy and increasing Middle East tensions.

The agreement was signed between Iran and six world powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US -- at talks coordinated by the European Union.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent much of the week on the telephone, talking through a decision that is deeply unpopular with allies.

UN nuclear inspectors say Iran is meeting the technical requirements of its side of the bargain, dramatically curtailing its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

So, while US officials still insist that "America First" does not mean "America Alone," on this issue they are starkly isolated. The other signatories all back the deal.

"This is the worst deal. We got nothing," Trump thundered to Fox News on Wednesday. "We did it out of weakness when actually, we have great strength."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at US counterpart saying he was opposing "the whole world" by trying to abandon a landmark nuclear agreement.

"It will be absolutely clear which is the lawless government. It will be clear which country is respected by the nations of the world and global public opinion," he added.  

Trump, whose address to this year's UN General Assembly was a hymn to national sovereignty, has been railing against the Iran deal since before he was elected.

- Allies pleading -

In office, he has chafed at being required under US law to re-certify Iran's compliance with the accord every 90 days, declaring that Tehran has broken it "in spirit."

Now, as he prepares to roll out the broader US strategy to combat Iran's expanding power in the Middle East, he feels the time has come to turn his back on the deal.

Right up until the last minute, America's closest allies have urged Trump to think again.

After his nationalist UN speech, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that the deal "doesn't belong to one country... it belongs to the international community."

US allies have not been convinced by the argument that the deal fell short because it left Iran free to develop ballistic missiles and sponsor proxy militias in its region.

"Mixing everything means risking everything," a French diplomatic source told AFP. "The existential threat is the bomb. The nuclear deal is not meant to solve Lebanon's problems."

Europe fears not only that Iran will resume the quest for the bomb but that the US is relinquishing its leadership role in a stable, rules-based international system.

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May called the White House to impress upon it her government's "strong commitment to the deal alongside our European partners." 

In parallel, her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, told his US counterpart Tillerson "that the nuclear deal was an historic achievement."

"It was the culmination of 13 years of painstaking diplomacy and has increased security, both in the region and in the UK," he argued.

But the US administration barely acknowledged the calls, and European diplomats in Washington privately complain that their message is not getting through.

- 'We will see' -

One Western diplomat said that once Trump "decertifies" the deal their efforts will move to Congress, where they will urge US lawmakers not to re-impose sanctions.

They will find some sympathetic ears in Congress but this won't move Trump. His most senior foreign policy advisers have also urged him to back the deal, to no avail.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was asked whether he believes the Iran deal remains in the US national interest. 

"Yes, senator, I do," he replied.

"I believe at this point in time, absent indication to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with."

On Thursday, in another dramatic sign of Washington's foreign policy direction, the US announced that it was withdrawing from the United Nations science and cultural organization UNESCO.

France's UN ambassador expressed dismay, warning "we need an America that stays committed to world affairs."

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Indian woman uses Facebook to annul her underage marriage

 

New Delhi, India /AFP/. A young Indian woman has proved in court she was illegally married off as a minor after submitting evidence from her husband's Facebook page, a child rights activist said Thursday.

Sushila Bishnoi, 19, appealed to a court in Rajasthan state to dissolve her underage marriage, an illegal but rife tradition in many parts of rural India.

But her husband denied the couple was ever betrothed, threatening to scuttle her case.

The teenager, aided by an activist, trawled her husband's Facebook accounts until they found the smoking gun that proved their marriage occurred when she was underage.

"Many of his friends had posted congratulatory messages on his Facebook page," said Kriti Bharti, an activist whose Sarathi Trust charity has annulled many child marriages in Rajasthan.

"The court accepted the evidence and declared the marriage invalid," she said of the ruling Monday.

The couple was married at a secret wedding ceremony in Barmer district in 2010 when both were just 12 years old.

Girls married off in Rajasthan often remain with their parents after the wedding ceremony until reaching 18 years of age, when they are sent to live their husbands.

Bishnoi said her parents were forcing her to move to her husband's house and consummate the marriage.

"I wanted to study but my family and my in-laws wanted me to live with a drunkard," Bishnoi told AFP.

"It was about life and death, and I chose to live."

She ran away from home to a shelter where she met Bharti, who helped her begin legal proceedings to dissolve the union.

India's highest court Wednesday declared sex with a minor akin to rape even if the couple was married, a landmark ruling that closed a legal loophole around child marriage.

Nearly half of all girls in South Asia marry before 18 years of age, according to a UNICEF report released in 2014.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

US pulls out of UN cultural body, citing 'anti-Israel' bias

UNESCO. A logo of the United Nations

UNESCO. A logo of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is displayed in front of the organization headquarters on September 14, 2011. File photo by Miguel Medina/AFP 

Paris, France | AFP/. The United States said Thursday that it was pulling out of the UN's culture and education body, accusing it of "anti-Israel bias" in a move criticised by the head of the Paris-based organisation.

Following years of tension at UNESCO, which is in the process of electing a new director-general, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced that Washington planned to withdraw.

"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO," she said in a statement.

The United States -- one of the body's founding members -- has withdrawn once before under president Ronald Reagan, who quit in 1984 over alleged financial mismanagement and anti-US bias in some of its policies.

President George W. Bush announced America's return in 2002, but relations soured again in 2011 when Washington pulled the plug on funding to the body after its members voted to admit Palestine as a full member.

Washington opposes any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinians as a state, believing that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.

But President Donald Trump's administration is also reviewing many of its multilateral commitments, pursuing what he calls an "America First" policy.

The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, voiced "profound regret" over the decision, calling it a "loss to multilateralism".

"At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack," she said.

In a statement, Bokova said that "despite the withholding of funding, since 2011, we have deepened the partnership between the United States and UNESCO, which has never been so meaningful."

- 'Observer mission' -

UNESCO, which is best known for producing the list of World Heritage sites that includes the Grand Canyon and other US attractions, has been the scene of diplomatic flare-ups in recent years after Arab countries succeeded in passing a number of resolutions critical of Israel.

In May this year, Israel was infuriated by a resolution identifying Israel as "the occupying power" in the divided of city of Jerusalem and calling on it to rescind any move changing the city's "character and status".

The text denounced "all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem."

In July, the agency again delighted Palestinians when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered World Heritage site.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the vote "another delusional decision" by UNESCO, which promotes education, cultural development and free media initiatives around the world.

The agency's board members are set to vote this week to elect a new director-general, with candidates from Qatar, France and Egypt in a three-way race for the position.

Washington said it would establish an "observer mission" to replace its representation at the agency.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Egypt extends state of emergency

 

Cairo, Egypt | AFP/. Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi extended for the second time a state of emergency first declared following deadly church bombings in April, in a decree issued in the official gazette Thursday.

The renewed three-month state of emergency will start on Friday, according to the decree.

"The armed forces and the police will take the necessary measures to confront the dangers of terrorism," it said.

Parliament approved the initial state of emergency in April after the two church bombings claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group that killed at least 45 people.

The state of emergency was then renewed on July 10.

The jihadist group said it was behind the bombings in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, and it threatened further attacks against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.

Jihadists also claimed a Cairo church bombing in December that killed 29 people.

The emergency law expands police powers of arrest, surveillance and seizures and can limit freedom of movement.

Egypt had been ruled for decades under a state of emergency, which was cancelled a month before Islamist president Mohamed Morsi took power in 2012.

Following Morsi's overthrow by Sisi, then an army chief, in 2013, a state of emergency was declared for a month after clashes between police and Islamist protesters that killed hundreds and after Islamist mobs attacked Christian properties.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

UK protest for two citizens held in Iran

 

London, United Kingdom | AFP/. The husband of a British-Iranian woman detained in Iran on Wednesday led a protest in London demanding the release of his wife and another British citizen held in the Middle Eastern state.

NazaninZaghari-Ratcliffe, a 38-year-old mother, had already been sentenced to five years in prison for participating in anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, and last week was hit with further charges, carrying a possible 16-year prison term.

"We were very surprised," husband Richard Ratcliffe said of the new charges.

"We had been getting some positive noises in the past few weeks, she has been told she would be temporarily released and would just stay at home until she is allowed to come back to the UK," he told AFP at the protest attended by around 50 Amnesty activists.

His wife was "very shocked" by the decision, which left her family "devastated," he added.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday tweeted that he had held talks with Vice President of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, where he had "underlined serious concern for dual national detainees" including Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Her original five-year sentence was upheld on appeal in April and she now faces a further 16 years behind bars.

"These charges are linked to her work at BBC Media Action and at the Thomson Reuters Foundation," said Thomson Reuters Foundation director Monique Villa.

"The accusation states that her charity work was a screen to overthrow the Iranian regime," she added.

"This is a complete invention as the Thomson Reuters Foundation doesn't work in Iran and has no programme or dealings with Iran."

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran's airport on April 3, 2016, after visiting her family in Iran with daughter, Gabriella, who was born in Britain and is now three-years old.

After being held in solitary confinement, she was transferred to the women's quarters of Evin Prison in Tehran on December 26.

She has since been visited by her daughter, whose British passport was confiscated and who is now living with her grandparents in Iran.

The protesters also demanded the release of detainee Kamal Foroughi, 78, who has been held since 2011.

Foroughi was originally sentenced to an eight-year prison term for espionage and possession of alcoholic beverages, which has since been reduced to seven years.

"We have been lobbying the UK government to do more," for both detainees, Kathy Voss, a campaigner for Amnesty International, told AFP.

"At the moment they have expressed their concerns. But they have to say publicly that they should be released," she added.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Erdogan accuses US of 'sacrificing' relations with Turkey

Ankara, Turkey  /AFP/. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said the US was in danger of "sacrificing" its relations with Turkey, as he blamed the American envoy to Ankara for the crisis in relations between the NATO allies.

"It is the ambassador here who caused this," Erdogan told a meeting in Ankara, referring to the outgoing US envoy in Turkey, John Bass.

"It is unacceptable for the United States to sacrifice its strategic partner like Turkey for a presumptuous ambassador," he said.

The dispute erupted last week when Turkey arrested a Turkish employee of the US consulate in Istanbul on suspicion of links to Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim preacher who Ankara blames for last year's failed coup.

In response, Washington halted issuing non-immigrant visas from its missions in Turkey, prompting Ankara to hit back with a tit-for-tat move.

Appearing to have no regrets despite the row, Erdogan said Turkey was "fully behind its decision" on the visa suspensions.

Although Turkish officials blamed the ambassador for the spat, the State Department said Bass had been operating with the full authority of the US government.

Bass is due to leave Turkey at the weekend after he was named the US envoy to Afghanistan earlier this year.

"If the giant America is ruled by an ambassador in Ankara, what a shame," Erdogan said.

- US response 'disproportionate' -

On Monday, Turkish prosecutors summoned another local employee working at the US consulate in Istanbul.

Erdogan on Thursday claimed that he was hiding in the consulate, but Bass had denied this the day before, telling reporters: "No one's hiding at any of our facilities."

Turkish authorities this week detained his wife, his son and his daughter.

Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said the man currently in police custody made a request the day before to see his lawyer and would meet with them on Friday.

"There had been no request until yesterday (Wednesday)," he said.

Erdogan said the US response to the arrest of the consulate employee was "unfair" and "disproportionate", and urged for common sense.

Ankara wanted to open a new page in relations with the US under Trump but a spate of issues have raised tensions, including the US refusal to extradite Gulen and American support for Kurdish militias in Syria.

Erdogan said that Turkish police forces would no longer use guns made by US-based arms manufacturer Sig Sauer and would "take steps" towards using Turkish-produced weapons instead.

"From now on our police department ... will not and should not use Sig Sauer weapons," he said.

Last month, the US government froze arms sales to Erdogan's bodyguards after Turkish security officials clashed with Kurdish protesters in May following a meeting between Erdogan and President Donald Trump.

The move blocks a deal with Sig Sauer for $1.2 million (1.1 million euros) worth of small arms.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Whizz-kid' seen moving Austria right in election

Head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian

Head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz (left) and head of the Social Democrats (SPOe) Chancellor Christian Kern prepare for a TV discussion in Vienna  

Vienna, AUSTRIA / AFP/. Austria is set to move to the right in elections on Sunday with conservative Sebastian Kurz expected to become Europe's youngest head of government and form a coalition with the anti-immigration Freedom Party.

The centre-right People's Party (OeVP), rebranded by Kurz, 31, as his personal turquoise "movement", is forecast to come first with over 30 percent, polls suggest.

But in a fresh triumph for Europe's populists just after Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third-biggest party in parliament there, the Freedom Party (FPOe) looks set to be second or third with at least 25 percent -- double the AfD's score.

Austria has had almost 150,000 asylum claims since 2015, making the wealthy Alpine country of 8.75 million one of Europe's highest recipients per capita.

Like the AfD, France's National Front and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the FPOe -- which almost won the presidency in December -- has stoked concerns about the influx, while also moving left on social issues.

"No, Islam is not part of Austria," party head Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, recently told a cheering, flag-waving FPOe rally.

Immigration must stop "until further notice", its programme says, and asylum is temporary.

"Strache is the counterweight to (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel whose 'welcome culture' is destroying Europe," one FPOe supporter told AFP, not wishing to give his name. "Austrians should come first."

- Novelty act -

"Wunderwuzzi" ("whizz-kid") Kurz took over the OeVP in May and ended its acrimonious "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats (SPOe).

Presenting himself as a breath of fresh air despite being in the government since 2011 and the OeVP having been in power nonstop since 1987, the foreign minister helped his party leapfrog the FPOe to lead opinion polls.

This was partly thanks to Kurz swinging to the right, talking tough on immigration and pledging to both shut Islamic kindergartens and cut welfare payments for foreigners.

Kurz and Strache also see eye-to-eye on lowering taxes, reforming Austria's bloated bureaucracy and wanting the EU to be less involved in how the country is run.

The once-mighty SPOe, in government for a total of around 60 years since 1945, looks set to be the main loser on Sunday despite it too taking a harder line on migrants.

Chancellor Christian Kern, 51, whose business acumen gave the SPOe hope when he took over last May, has suffered a string of mishaps, scandals and resignations.

Most damagingly, an Israeli election consultant -- since fired -- allegedly set up fake Facebook accounts with anti-Semitic content on behalf of the SPOe to damage Kurz.

Kern has said the SPOe will go into opposition if it doesn't win the election, making another "grand coalition" unlikely -- unless a party coup topples him or he changes his mind.

- 'Explosive' -

The reaction abroad will likely be more muted than in 2000 when the FPOe under the late JoergHaider, who called Hitler's employment policies "orderly", entered government and turned Vienna into a pariah.

But Austria could become a tricky EU partner.

Vienna will hold the bloc's presidency in the second half of 2018, just when Brussels wants to conclude Britain's talks to leave the bloc in March 2019.

Strache wants Austria possibly to join the Visegrad group of eastern and central European countries including Hungary and Poland, a thorn in Brussels' side.

He thinks Britain "will probably be better off after Brexit" and demands EU sanctions on Russia be lifted.

But Kurz too, and his ideas on everything from immigration to economic policy, could prove a source of conflict, said Patrick Moreau, an Austria specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

The young leader does not subscribe to the agenda of French europhile President Emmanuel Macron, who has outlined an ambitious reform proposal for the bloc, he said.

"Kurz's positions are pretty much diametrically opposed to those of French President Emmanuel Macron and are to a large extent in conflict with Merkel," Moreau told AFP.

"It's an explosive combination."

 

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Thursday, October 12, 2017