Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham, American charismatic evangelist, dies at 99


Billy Graham, the charismatic evangelist whose eloquent oratory and passion for Jesus attracted a worldwide following and made him one of the most influential and best-known religious figures of his time, was found dead Feb. 21 at his home in Montreat, N.C. He was 99.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman, Mark DeMoss. Mr. Graham had Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Graham’s ministry spanned more than six decades, and his evangelical “crusades,” as he called them for most of his career, touched every corner of the world. He proclaimed his message of salvation through repentance and commitment to Jesus in the poorest of Third World villages and in the world’s highest centers of power and authority.

In addition to his mass rallies and serving as spiritual adviser to U.S. presidents, he reached millions more through a syndicated newspaper column and best-selling books.

Mr. Graham — he preferred this salutation over “the Rev.” — was a frequent guest at the White House, and he delivered the invocations at presidential inaugurations and national political conventions. In the royal chapel at Britain’s Windsor Castle, he preached before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. He traveled to combat zones in South Korea and Vietnam to pray with U.S. servicemen.

An accomplished showman with a down-to-earth theology, Mr. Graham preached with a burning sincerity, although he generally avoided the exaggerated theatrics of the stereotypical bible-thumping revivalists of an earlier era.

He was charming, tall and handsome, always immaculately dressed, and he had an engaging smile. As he aged, his hair turned snow-white. His delivery was varied and dramatic, liberally laced with a stream of self-deprecating anecdotes, and he was an extraordinarily effective proselytizer.

“Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life?” Mr. Graham would ask his audiences. “Then listen for a moment to me. Say yes to the savior tonight, and in a moment you will know such comfort as you have never known.”

Millions accepted his invitations to come forward and “make a decision for Christ” over the years of Mr. Graham’s ministry, although his critics liked to cite published statistics that 80 to 90 percent of these people were church members who were reaffirming their faith.

William Martin, a professor of sociology at Rice University, called him “the most powerful evangelist since Jesus” in a 2002 article in Texas Monthly magazine.

Martin, author of a 1991 Graham biography, “A Prophet With Honor,” wrote that Mr. Graham was singularly influential in trying to restore American evangelism’s good name.

The profession had become badly tarnished by the middle of the 20th century for a variety of reasons. Among these were the rigid fundamentalist religious dogma held up to ridicule in the Scopes “monkey” trial of the 1920s and the unscrupulous excesses of itinerant evangelists traveling the “tent-and-sawdust circuit” as portrayed in the Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry,” which later became a hit movie. (Washington Post)



Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Secret Pence, N. Korea meeting planned, then scrapped


Washington, United States | AFP |Mike Pence and North Korean officials had planned to meet secretly during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but Pyongyang scrapped the talks after the US vice president denounced abuses from the "murderous regime," US officials said Tuesday.

Pence did not interact with the North Koreans even though he was seated in the same box as them at the opening ceremony of the Games on February 9 -- nor did he shake hands with the North's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam during an earlier leaders' reception.

The North Koreans, who had sent Kim Yong Nam and leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong to the Games, backed out of the planned meeting after Pence announced Washington would soon unveil its "toughest and most aggressive sanctions" against Pyongyang.

During his Asian tour, he also denounced the North's nuclear drive and sought to shore up ties with regional allies -- and longtime North Korean foes -- Japan and South Korea.

Pence, who led the American delegation to the Games, said at the time he traveled with the father of late former prisoner Otto Warmbier to the South to "remind the world of the atrocities happening in North Korea."

"North Korea would have strongly preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the maximum pressure campaign," Pence's spokesman Ayers said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said only a "brief meeting" with leaders of the North Korean delegation had been on the table.

"The vice president was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs," Nauert said in a statement.

"At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting. We regret their failure to seize this opportunity."

- 'Murderous regime' -

Ayers characterized the offer as the North having "dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics."

"As we've said from day one about the trip: this administration will stand in the way of Kim's desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics," Ayers said.

"Perhaps that's why they walked away from a meeting or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down."


Analysts say the North's Olympic diplomatic drive sought to loosen international sanctions against it and undermine the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

Even as the US warned against falling for Pyongyang's Olympic charm offensive, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued an invitation via his sister Kim Yo Jong, who was attending the Games, for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

But on his return trip from the Games, Pence said there was "no daylight" between the US, South Korea and Japan on efforts to isolate Pyongyang economically and diplomatically until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Washington calls it a campaign of "maximum pressure."

Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in the Koreas, tweeted that "it's entirely possible that North Korea scheduled the reported secret meeting with VP Pence fully intending to cancel so that they could play the blame game."

"Sudden cancellations/withdrawals are a well-established part of the North Korean playbook," added Oba, now a speechwriter in Washington.

- Complete denuclearization first -

Global alarm at the rapid advance of nuclear-armed North Korea's weapons technology rose further last year when the regime tested its Hwasong-15 ballistic missile -- theoretically capable of hitting the mainland US -- in a challenge to Washington, which has threatened to "utterly destroy" the regime in the event of an attack.

President Donald Trump and the North's leader Kim Jong Un have engaged in a series of personal insults.

But as tensions rose between the North and Washington, the Games triggered a rapid reconciliation between the two Koreas, who are still technically at war.

"The president made a decision that if they wanted to talk, we would deliver our uncompromising message. If they asked for a meeting, we would meet," Ayers said, referring to Trump.

"He also made clear that until they agreed to complete denuclearization we weren't going to change any of our positions or negotiate."

Woodrow Wilson Center vice president Aaron David Miller, a former advisor to Republican and Democratic diplomatic chiefs, highlighted the Trump administration's conflicting messages on whether to talk or not with the North Koreans.

"Has the locked and loaded fire and fury Trump Administration come to conclusion that it's time to stop talking about North Korea and to start talking to them?" he asked.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Syria, Russia pound rebel enclave, put clinic out of service

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense run to help

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense run to help survivors from a street that attacked by airstrikes and shelling of the Syrian government forces. | AP 

Arbin, Syria | AFP | Syrian and Russian air strikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave have killed more than 100 civilians for the second straight day and put another hospital out of service.

In a major development in Syria's complex seven-year war, Damascus also sent pro-regime fighters to the northern Afrin region, where they came under fire by Turkish forces attacking the Kurdish-controlled enclave.

On the outskirts of Damascus, air strikes, rockets and artillery fire have been battering the Eastern Ghouta enclave in apparent preparation for a government ground assault.

At least 250 civilians have been killed since the escalation began on Sunday, among them dozens of children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Bombardment on Tuesday killed 106 civilians, including 19 children, the Britain-based war monitor said.

It was the second straight day that the civilian death toll topped 100, after 127 were killed Monday in Eastern Ghouta's bloodiest day in four years.

The strikes left an important hospital out of action, further limiting the little medical aid that besieged civilians can access.

"The Arbin hospital was hit twice today and is now out of service," said Mousa Naffa, country director in Jordan for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supported the clinic.

The Observatory blamed Russian warplanes, saying Moscow carried out its first strikes in three months on Eastern Ghouta.

The rebel-held region is nominally included in a "de-escalation" deal meant to tamp down violence, but President Bashar al-Assad appears to be preparing troops for a ground assault to retake it.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "deeply alarmed by the escalating situation in Eastern Ghouta and its devastating impact on civilians," said spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticised the "siege and starve tactics" of the Assad regime and said: "The cessation of violence must begin now."

- Six hospitals hit -

Eastern Ghouta is home to more than 400,000 people living under crippling government siege, with little access to food or medical resources.

The United Nations said six hospitals had been hit in the region in the past 48 hours, in addition to the one in Arbin.

At least three were out of service and two were only partially functioning, said the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis.


"It's beyond imagination what is happening in East Ghouta today," he said.

"The untold suffering is intolerable and residents have no idea whether they will live or die. This nightmare in East Ghouta must end and must end now."

Hours before the Arbin hospital was bombed, a doctor there spoke of the casualties they had been treating.

"February 19 was... one of the worst days that we've ever had in the history of this crisis," Abu al-Yasar told AFP.

He described treating a one-year-old with blue skin and a faint pulse, rescued from under the rubble.

"I opened his mouth to put in a breathing tube and I found it packed with dirt," said Abu al-Yasar.

He pulled out the dirt as fast as possible, put in the breathing tube and managed to save the baby.

"This is just one story from among hundreds of wounded."

- 'No words' -

The bloodshed prompted the UN children's agency UNICEF to issue a largely blank statement saying "we no longer have the words to describe children's suffering."

Syria's main opposition group condemned the government onslaught as a "bloodbath" and a "war crime", saying it may pull out of UN-backed peace talks in protest.

Eastern Ghouta is mostly held by two hardline rebel groups that often fire rockets and mortar rounds into residential neighbourhoods of east Damascus.

On Tuesday, at least nine people were killed and 49 wounded by rebel fire on the capital, state media reported.

Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said the bombing campaign "comes ahead of a vast operation on Ghouta, which may start on the ground at any moment."

The army already waged a ferocious five-day air assault on Eastern Ghouta earlier this month that left around 250 civilians dead and hundreds wounded.

- Turkey shells regime -

Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Assad, but the ensuing war has carved the country into various zones of control among rebels, jihadists, the regime, and Kurds.

Turkey has been waging an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin enclave for the past month but on Tuesday the stakes were ratcheted up.

Hundreds of Syrian pro-government forces entered the region for the first time since 2012 to face off against Turkey alongside Kurdish forces that Ankara views as an offshoot of its own internal insurgency.

But they quickly came under shelling by Turkish forces, who said they had fired "warning shots" at the "pro-regime terrorist groups".

In a statement, YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmud said the Kurdish forces had called on the Damascus government to help fend off Turkey's assault.

"The Syrian government responded to the invitation, answered the call of duty and sent military units today, February 20, to take up positions on the borders, and participate in defending the territorial unity of Syria and its borders," the statement said.

The YPG has controlled Afrin since government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority northern areas in 2012.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Raul Castro receives US lawmakers on visit to Cuba


Havana, Cuba | AFP | Cuban President Raul Castro Tuesday received a bipartisan delegation of US lawmakers Tuesday, who are visiting the island with the alleged "acoustic attacks" against US diplomats on their agenda.

"During the meeting they discussed matters of interest to both countries," the Cuban government said in a statement.

The delegation, led by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, arrived in Cuba Sunday to address various issues including the mysterious supposed attacks in Havana.

The issue has hit US-Cuba relations, with Washington withdrawing half of its diplomats from Cuba and expelling 15 officials from the Cuban embassy in the US capital.

The Cuban foreign ministry's US director, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, met with the congressmen Monday assuring them that "no evidence that attacks occurred against US diplomats in Cuba exists," according to his deputy Johana Tablada.

Accompanying Leahy on the visit are senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Michigan's Gary Peters, along with representatives Kathy Castor of Florida, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Susan Davis of California.

Leahy has been one of the most active politicians inside the Capitol in advocating the improvement of US-Cuba relations, which defrosted somewhat in 2014 under Barack Obama after half a century of tension.

The US delegation will end its stay in Cuba on Wednesday with a press conference.

At least 24 Americans, a mix of US embassy personnel and their dependents -- suffered headaches, hearing loss, disorientation and some loss of cognitive ability between November 2016 and August 2017.

Some recovered from the most acute symptoms, but the severity, range and recovery time was mixed and it's not yet clear whether any have suffered permanent injury.

US press reports suggest that FBI agents dispatched to Havana have been unable to find any evidence to support a theory that the staff were attacked with an acoustic or sonic weapon.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Duterte slammed for barring Philippine news site from his events


Manille, Philippines | AFP |Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's move to ban a critical news website from covering the presidential palace is a threat to press freedom, rights and media groups said on Wednesday.

Rappler, set up in 2012, is among a clutch of Philippine news organisations that have sparred with Duterte over their critical coverage of his drug war which the government says has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 suspects.

Human rights groups charge that thousands more have been killed by shadowy vigilantes.

Duterte's spokesman said the president had decided to bar Rappler journalists from covering his events due to a "lack of trust".

US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said the move "threatens media freedoms".

"It could portend a broader assault on journalists and news organizations, whose critical watchdog role has magnified the government's poor human rights record," it said in a statement.

The move came as the site also faced state-enforced closure, after the government's corporate regulator last month alleged that Rappler violated a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of local media.

Since taking power in 2016, Duterte has also publicly attacked other media outlets which have criticised his policies.

On Tuesday, guards barred Rappler's palace reporter from entering the grounds of the presidential office. She was later allowed to attend a news conference by Duterte's spokesman but prohibited from covering the president's speech. 

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Wednesday Duterte had decided to bar Rappler from all presidential coverage.

The order came a day after the senate summoned Duterte's chief aide to answer questions following a Rappler report that he had intervened in a controversial $308 million frigate project by the Philippine navy. Duterte had branded the story as "fake news".

"She cannot have access to the president because the president is annoyed with her," Roque told radio DZMM, referring to the Rappler reporter who had defended the report during Tuesday's briefing.

Rappler, which has appealed last month's ruling, decried Duterte's ban as an "attempt to intimidate independent journalists".

Local media groups and opposition lawmakers also condemned Duterte's decision.

"It sends a clear and chilling signal that everyone else better report only what he wants you to or else," said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Brazil doctors start separating Siamese twins joined at head

RIO DE JANEIRO,  (Xinhua) -- Brazilian doctors have successfully carried out the first operation to separate a pair of Siamese twins joined at the head in a complicated procedure that will continue till November, TV Bandeirantes reported Tuesday.

   The operation was done Saturday at the medical hospital of the University of Sao Paulo in Ribeirao Preto municipality near Sao Paulo with the support of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

   Overseen by neurosurgeon Helio Rubens Machado, it was the first of the four operations that Maria Ysabelle and Maria Ysadora, born in 2016, underwent. They are expected to be completely separated by November.

   American surgeon James Goodrich, a pioneer in such operations, was on hand to assist.

   Before the surgery, the skulls and the brains of the girls were reconstructed as a 3D model.

   The procedure to disconnect the blood vessels and expand the skin of the head lasted seven hours.

   "Everything we had planned has gone well," Dr. Machado said.

   Over the next three surgeries, a part of the skull will be opened and the veins and the superposed areas of the brains will be separated. The twins will have to spend several months in recovery between each operation, with the final intervention expected to be the most complex.

   Cases of Siamese twins joined at the head are very rare. Operations to separate them are very expensive, estimated at around 2.5 million U.S. dollars in the U.S. healthcare system.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Trump junior says presidency is costing the family firm


New Delhi, India | AFP |Donald Trump's presidency has cost the family firm "millions of dollars" in lost business, his son told an Indian newspaper during a visit aimed at drumming up sales of new luxury apartment complexes.

Donald Trump junior told the Times of India that the Trump Organization was turning down new business opportunities around the world because of his father's position.

"We are refraining from doing new deals while my father is in office," he said in an interview published on Wednesday.

"We are turning down deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars around the world."

Trump junior is in India to promote a series of luxury apartment developments being marketed under his father's name

On Friday he will have dinner with dozens of people who have bought into a development in Gurgaon, a satellite of the capital where many major companies have their offices.

The 47-storey towers will comprise 250 homes and are expected to be completed by 2023, with price ranging from 55-110 million rupees ($850,000-$1.7 million).

The Indian developers say the high-rise apartment complex boasting floor-to-ceiling windows, state of the art amenities and a "lifestyle concierge" has already clocked up sales worth nearly $80 million.

Trump junior is on an unofficial visit to India, but will address a business conference on Friday on the subject of Indo-Pacific ties. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the keynote speaker at the event.

The US president has ceded control of the Trump Organization to his adult sons, but refused to divest his assets, sparking concerns about a conflict of interest.

Critics say the Trump family's continued involvement could allow the firm to profit from foreign governments eager to curry favour in Washington.

But Trump junior said the firm was focusing on existing developments rather than seeking new business opportunities in India, its biggest market outside the United States.

He praised Modi's economic reforms and said India was a better place to do business than regional rival China.

The Trump family earned $3 million in royalties in 2016 from ventures in India, according to a New York Times report.

The Trump Organization has also lent its brand to developments being built with local partners in Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune. It does not invest directly, but takes a share of the profits in return for the use of the Trump name.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Trump backs ban on 'bump stocks' on semi-automatic weapons


Washington, United States | AFP |Faced with an outpouring of grief and anger over a deadly school shooting in Florida, US President Donald Trump on Tuesday threw his support behind moves to ban "bump stocks" -- an accessory that can turn a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one.

Trump also said school safety was a "top priority" for his administration, with meetings on the subject planned through next week, when he holds talks with governors from all 50 US states.

Calls to ban bump stocks have been mounting since Stephen Paddock, a retired accountant, used them on several of his weapons to kill 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas in October 2017 in the deadliest mass shooting in recent US history.

Although the former student who shot dead 17 people in Florida last week did not use bump stocks, there has been a renewed focus on the devices because outlawing them is a rare point of agreement between Democrats, some Republicans and the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby.

Less than a week after the shooting, the Florida state House of Representatives rejected a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines in a 36-71 vote, during a session that opened with a prayer for the people killed in the tragedy.

About 100 student survivors of the tragedy plan to hold a gun control rally and speak with lawmakers about gun control and school safety Wednesday at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

Trump -- who received strong backing from the NRA during his White House run -- said he had signed a memorandum "directing the attorney general to propose regulations to ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns."

The president said he expected the measures to be finalized "very soon."

"We must move past cliches and tired debates and focus on evidence-based solutions and security measures that actually work," Trump said at a White House event to honor 12 Americans for heroism.

"We must actually make a difference... We must do more to protect our children."

Trump said he would meet this week with students, local leaders and members of law enforcement to develop "concrete steps" to protect schools, students and communities.

"This includes implementing common sense security measures and addressing mental health issues," he said, "including better coordination between federal and state law enforcement to take swift action when there are warning signs."

"Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!" he added later on Twitter.

Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, 19, had a history of troubling behavior and a person close to him warned the FBI five weeks before the shooting that he was a threat -- but no action was taken.


- Parkland students take action -

Cruz legally bought the gun he used in the attack --  an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle -- and the White House said it would consider options to raise the age for such purchases.

"I think that's certainly something that's on the table for us to discuss and that we expect to come up over the next couple of weeks," spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.

Many of the students who survived the shooting have vowed to make the tragedy a turning point in America's deadlocked debate on gun control.

They are planning a "Narch for Our Lives" in Washington next month, and they earned at least $2 million in pledges from Hollywood A-listers. Sister rallies are set to take place around the country.

George Clooney and his human rights lawyer wife Amal, Oprah Winfrey, director Steven Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, and film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and his wife Marilyn each pledged $500,000.

"Amal and I are so inspired by the courage and eloquence of these young men and women," Clooney said in a statement.

"Our family will be there on March 24 to stand side by side with this incredible generation of young people from all over the country."

Winfrey then tweeted: "George and Amal, I couldn't agree with you more. I am joining forces with you and will match your $500,000 donation."

The US Congress is deadlocked on the gun control debate, accomplishing nothing since the October shooting in Las Vegas.

Americans support stricter gun laws by a 66 percent to 31 percent margin, according to a poll released on Tuesday by Quinnipiac University.

It described the margin as "the highest level of support" for stricter gun control since it began surveys on the question in 2008.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Boko Haram attacks girls school in northeast Nigeria


Boko Haram jihadists launched an attack on a girls boarding school in northeast Nigeria but the students and teachers fled to safety, witnesses said Monday.

A convoy of fighters in pickup trucks descended on Dapchi village in the Bursari area of Yobe state around 6 pm (1700 GMT) targeting the school, resident Sheriff Aisami told AFP.

"When they stormed the village they began shooting and setting off explosives," Aisami said.

"This drew the attention of the girls in the Girls Science Secondary School, so the girls and the teachers were able to escape before the attackers got into the school."

Unable to kidnap the girls, the Boko Haram fighters looted the school before fleeing.

"There was an attack on the girls secondary school in Dapchi by Boko Haram," said a member of a local civilian militia battling the extremists.


"Obviously the attack was meant to abduct school girls but luckily they found none of the girls as they were taken away by teachers before they arrived," said the militia member, who declined to provide his name for safety reasons.


"Military jets were deployed and are in pursuit", he added.


It's unclear whether anyone was killed in the violence.


The attack recalls Boko Haram's audacious kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April, 2014.


The kidnapping drew the world's attention to the jihadist insurgency in northeast Nigeria.


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general, came to power in 2015 on a platform promising to stamp out the Islamist movement.


But despite retaking swathes of territory from Boko Haram, the group continues to stage attacks targeting both civilians and military targets, and frequently uses young girls as suicide bombers.


Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency has left at least 20,000 dead and made over 2.6 million more homeless.




© Agence France-Presse


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Father of boy smuggled into Spain in suitcase on trial


By Laurence BOUTREUX

The heart-rending photo went round the world in 2015, showing an eight-year-old boy from Ivory Coast crammed into a suitcase that was found at a Spanish border crossing.

His father goes on trial Tuesday in Ceuta, a Spanish overseas territory in northern Morocco which migrants from Africa regularly try to reach by scaling high border fences, hiding behind car dashboards or in bus chassis.

Prosecutors are seeking a three-year prison term for Ali Ouattara for facilitating his son's illegal entry into Europe and endangering the child's life.

"I'm going to this trial with a lot of confidence because I'm not a human trafficker," Ouattara, 45, told AFP.

On May 7, 2015, Spanish police noticed a young Moroccan woman dragging what looked like a heavy suitcase across the border with Ceuta.

When they put the suitcase through an X-ray machine they were shocked to see the silhouette of a child curled up in foetal position.

"My name is Adou," the boy told them in French after they extricated him from the suitcase, according to Spanish journalist Nicolas Castellano, who wrote a book about the story.

- Paid traffickers 5,ooo euros -

The desperate smuggling attempt was a first in Ceuta.

But only three months later, a 27-year-old Moroccan died of asphyxiation inside a suitcase placed in the trunk of a car on a ferry linking Melilla, another Spanish territory in Morocco, to southern Spain.

Adou was soon reunited with his mother, and his father, who had been waiting for his son on the Spanish side of the border, was arrested shortly after the police discovery.

Ouattara said he was "misled" by the traffickers who charged him 5,000 euros ($6,200) and did not tell him his son would be hidden in a suitcase.


The traffickers had initially promised to fly the boy from the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan to Madrid but then told him they would instead travel via Ceuta by car, he said.


"For us, it was crucial for the child to come, we couldn't live without him, we couldn't stop thinking about him," Ouattara said.


A former philosophy and French teacher in Abidjan, Ouattara arrived illegally in Spain in 2006, making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean aboard a boat.


He eventually got a stable job and home in the Canary Islands, and was able to bring his wife and daughter over legally.


But Spanish authorities refused four times to let him bring over his son too.


"I was earning more than 1,300 euros in a launderette but they said it wasn't enough" for the entire family to live, he says.


His wife, daughter and Adou are now living in France, but Ali is still in Spain as he is barred from leaving the country pending the trial.


Adou is expected to return to Ceuta for the trial.




© Agence France-Presse


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Palestinian leader goes to the UN to counter US on Jerusalem


By Carole LANDRY

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas will urge world powers at the UN Security Council on Tuesday to stand up to the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and establish a revamped peace process.

President Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem infuriated the Palestinians who declared that the United States could no longer play a role as lead mediator in the Middle East peace process.

The stage will be set for a tense face-off with US Ambassador Nikki Haley, just weeks after she launched a scathing attack on Abbas and accused him of lacking the courage needed for peace.

Addressing the council for the first time since 2009, Abbas will call for a new collective approach in a bid to salvage the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour.

Abbas "will say that after the 6th of December with regard to Jerusalem, that now is the time for a collective approach," Mansour told AFP.

This could lead to a stepped up role for the other four permanent council members - Britain, France, China and Russia - or an expanded diplomatic quartet with Arab countries and others.

The Middle East quartet currently is made up of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Mansour said the Security Council - as the highest authority on matters of international peace and security - should come up with a new multilateral initiative and said the United States would not be sidelined.

In this new approach, the United States "will not have the only control. They will be part of the collective process for sure," said Mansour.

"The bottom line is we want a new active process," he said.

Israel, which often accuses the European Union and the United Nations of bias against it, would be reluctant to accept any other mediator than the United States.

Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon will also address the council.

- New phase of struggle -

Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told state media that a "new phase of struggle has started" as the Palestinians seek to protect their claim to Jerusalem.

The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and UN resolutions call on countries to refrain from moving their embassies to the city until its status is resolved in an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

In December, the General Assembly voted 128-9, with 35 abstentions, to reject the US decision to recognize Jerusalem.

That vote in the 193-nation assembly came after 14 of the 15 council members voted in favour of a similar measure. The United States vetoed that draft resolution.

Abbas' address to the council comes as the Trump administration is preparing a new peace plan even though chances for agreement appear dim.

Tensions have also flared over the US decision to cut funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

Trump has accused the Palestinians of "disrespecting" the United States when Abbas refused to meet US Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region last month.

"We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support," Trump said, before warning "that money's not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace."

Abbas will also meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres but no separate meeting is planned with Haley, who has energetically defended the US decisions on Jerusalem and the funding cuts.

Haley told the council last month that peace will not be achieved "without leaders with courage" and warned the United States "will not chase after a Palestinian leadership that lacks what is needed to achieve peace."

The United Nations granted Palestine the status of a non-member observer state in 1992, but an upgrade to full membership would require unanimous backing from the Security Council.

Diplomats said they were no plans for the time being to seek full UN membership, a move that would certainly face a US veto.


© Agence France-Presse

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Oxfam apologizes to Haiti government over sex scandal


By Amelie BARON

Oxfam formally apologized to Haiti on Monday over the prostitution scandal rocking the aid charity, expressing its "shame" and vowing to do better as it handed over a damning internal report into the allegations.

Made public earlier in the day, Oxfam's 2011 report into the behavior of aid workers sent to Haiti following a devastating earthquake revealed that a former top official admitted to paying for sex and that three staff physically threatened a witness.

"We came here to share the report with the minister and express our shame and apologies to the Haitian government and to the Haitian people," said Simon Ticehurst, Oxfam's regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"We've taken lots of measures to improve internal safeguarding measures," he said following a more than two-hour meeting with Haiti's minister of planning and external cooperation, Aviol Fleurant, who had summoned the charity to explain itself.


Oxfam's 2011 report, compiled in the year after aid workers were deployed to Haiti, revealed that seven staff were accused of using prostitutes at an Oxfam-funded residence.


Country director Roland van Hauwermeiren admitted paying for sex and was offered a "phased and dignified exit" if he cooperated with the inquiry.


The Haitian government has expressed its outrage and launched its own inquiry.


Haitian President Jovenel Moise tweeted last week that there was "nothing more unworthy or dishonest than a sexual predator" taking advantage of a natural disaster "to exploit needy people in their moment of great vulnerability."


- 'Physical' threats -

The report also said three Oxfam employees were involved in "physically threatening and intimidating" a witness who spoke to the investigators.


Four staff were fired for gross misconduct and three others, including van Hauwermeiren, were allowed to quit.


Details of the scandal surfaced earlier this month and have engulfed Oxfam, drawing widespread condemnation and putting its funding at risk.


British Prime Minister Theresa May described the matter as "horrific," adding that "it was far below the standards that we expect for the charities and the NGOs that we're working with."


"We will not work with anybody who does not meet the high standards that we set," May added during a visit to a London school.


The charity has been suspended from bidding for new government funding until it undertakes reforms, and Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring has been called to explain the scandal to British MPs in London on Tuesday alongside officials from Save the Children.


That charity faces its own problems over claims that a staff member drunkenly harassed a female colleague.


Last week, Oxfam unveiled an action plan to tackle sexual harassment and abuse, including creating a new vetting system for staff, and has urged victims to come forward with any new allegations.


The aid group has denied trying to cover up the allegations but admitted it could have been more open at the time, saying it was publishing the report "in recognition of the breach of trust that has been caused."


- 'Loving relations' -

All names in the report have been redacted apart from that of van Hauwermeiren, a 68-year-old Belgian who last week released a letter defending himself after the scandal broke.


In the letter, he claims he had not visited any brothels, nightclubs or bars in Haiti, despite offers from men and women "who tried to get into my house with all sorts of excuses to demand money, work, or to offer sexual services."


Van Hauwermeiren says he told Oxfam he had "intimate relations" three times at his house with "an honorable, mature woman, who was not an earthquake victim nor a prostitute. And I did not give her any money."


In an interview with The Times, however, a young Haitian mother claimed she had a relationship with van Hauwermeiren when she was just 16 -- legally underage in Haiti.


Now 23, Mikelange Gabou said the Belgian initially helped her with supplies for her baby, and that they later had a "loving relationship" and he would sometimes give her money.


A woman who worked alongside van Hauwermeiren in Liberia said she made a complaint about him in 2004 -- years before the Haiti scandal.




© Agence France-Presse


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Trump backs improved background checks on gun buys



US President Donald Trump signaled support Monday for improving background gun checks amid mounting pressure for reform in the wake of the Florida school shooting, as the accused gunman appeared in court.

Nikolas Cruz, charged with killing 17 people, sat silently with his head bowed during a procedural hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in what is expected to be a lengthy and emotional prosecution.

Wednesday's rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Parkland, Florida has ignited protests by students who survived the onslaught and renewed calls for changes in US gun laws.

Cruz, 19, was able to legally buy an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle despite numerous red flags that nonetheless failed to prompt action by state and federal agencies.

In fact, Cruz actually had bought seven rifles and had access to another three, according to several US media outlets, quoting law enforcement sources.

The White House indicated that Trump is receptive to a bipartisan proposal that would require more prompt reporting to a national database of offenses that would bar an individual from buying a firearm.

"While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The legislation, however, does not address the broader, divisive issue of permissive gun laws under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects the right to bear arms.

- Student protests -

Chanting "Shame on you, Shame on you," about 100 students from area high schools gathered outside the White House and staged a "lie-in" to press demands for change.


"More Guns, More Murder," read one of the signs carried by demonstrators.


Maya Smith, 15, said she fears for her life when she walks into school "because the government won't decide that my life matters as much as the right to bear arms matters."

"We as students shouldn't be worrying about being shot in our school," said high school junior Juneau Wang.

"Students should be worrying about a bad test grade, not the fact that someone could walk in with an AR-15 any time during the school day."

After earlier mass shootings, Trump has said little about guns, focusing instead on the mental health of shooters. Following the October 1 attack in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead, he said only that "we'll be talking about gun laws as time goes by."

After the Parkland shooting, he emphasized the need to deal with mental-health issues, while castigating the FBI for missing warning signs about the shooter.

The president initially made no mention of guns, drawing an angry reaction from Democrats and Floridians. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic minority leader, noted that Trump's proposed 2019 budget would actually cut spending on the background check program.

Even one of the most shocking mass shootings of recent years -- the 2012 attack on a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 young children and six adults dead -- brought little legal change, though Connecticut and a handful of other states toughened their gun laws.

- 'A real, genuine effort' -

But there are some indications that the limited steps Trump backs might succeed.

The NRA says it has "long supported the inclusion of all legitimate records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System."

Gun control advocates also back the bill sponsored by Senators Joh Cornyn, a Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat. They came together after a gunman killed 26 people at a Texas church in November.

"This is a real, genuine effort from people who couldn't be further from each other on the other side of the aisle," a Coalition to Stop Gun Violence official told The Atlantic magazine.

And the impassioned calls for change from Parkland shooting survivors -- photogenic young people who say they can no longer put up with the inaction of older generations -- have kept the issue alive.

"We need to do something," 17-year-old David Hogg, a shooting survivor, told CNN. "Congress needs to get over their political bias with each other and work toward saving children's lives."

CNN is holding a town hall meeting on Wednesday with the victims' classmates, parents, community members and Florida politicians.

The students' cries for action would appear to enjoy broad support.

A Quinnipiac University opinion survey in November found that support for universal background checks had reached an all-time high, with 95 percent of voters favoring such checks.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released overnight Monday found that more than six in 10 Americans fault Congress and Trump for not doing enough to prevent mass shootings.

The survey said most Americans still say such tragedies are more reflective of problems identifying and dealing with health issues than inadequate gun laws.


© Agence France-Presse

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

No-sweat exercise may prolong life for the elderly: study


By Marlowe HOOD

A few hours a week of light exercise -- walking the dog, puttering about in the garden -- lower the risk of death in older men, even if workouts are brief, researchers said Tuesday.

Their findings, reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, challenge two long-held assumptions about the benefits of physical activity for the elderly.

To improve health and reduce the risk of dying, according to many national health authorities, workouts must be strenuous and more long-lasting.

In Britain, for example, the elderly are advised to do moderate-to-intense exercise at least 150 minutes per week, divied up into segments of no less than 10 minutes.

"UK and US physical activity guidelines don't mention any benefits of light activity," lead author Barbara Jefferis, an epidemiologist at University College London, told AFP.

"When those guidelines were written there wasn't enough evidence to make a recommendation."


The study, which tracked 1,200 men without heart disease in their early 70s and late 80s, says such guidelines should be revised. 


"The results suggest that all activities -- no matter how modest -- are beneficial," Jefferis said.


Encouraging older adults to engage in no-sweat exercise also appears to be more realistic.


Only 16 percent of the volunteers lived up to current British exercise guidelines in sessions of at least 10 minutes. Two-thirds, however, did hit the weekly, 150-minute quota in shorter snippets of activity.


The research drew on data from the British Regional Heart Study, which began in 1978 with nearly 8,000 participants aged 40 to 59 from a couple dozen towns scattered across Britain.


In 2012, the 3,137 men still living underwent a physical check-up, and answered questions about their lifestyle and sleeping patterns.


- Couch potatoes -

The study focused on 1,181 participants who wore an accelerometer -- a device that tracks the volume and intensity of physical exercise -- for seven days.


"The availability of body-worn activity monitors has enabled us to investigate whether light activity is linked to longevity," said Jefferis.


The men, who averaged 78 years old, were monitored for five years, during which time 194 of them died.


The study showed that each additional 30 minutes-a-day of light-intensity exercise was associated with a 17 percent reduction in the risk of death.


As expected, a half-an-hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity reduced the risk by even more -- 33 percent.


What counted, however, was the total time spent exercising, not how the time was divided up.


The men who engaged in brief, sporadic bouts of moderately intense activity -- mowing the lawn, swimming, walking briskly -- were as likely to avoid the grim reaper as men whose exercise time was parcelled into longer sessions.


For both groups, the chance of dying was 40 percent lower compared to full-time couch potatoes who hardly moved at all.


The authors cautioned that the structure of the study -- the fact that it was observational, and not a clinical trial -- made it impossible to describe the results in terms of cause-and-effect.


And in the comparison between older men who exercise -- sporadically or regularly -- and those who don't, the fact that the participants who volunteers to wear accelerometers were in better health to begin with may have somewhat skewed the results.


It was also not clear whether the findings would apply to older women, though Jefferis said there was little reason to think they don't.


"We didn't have the necessary data for women," she said.




© Agence France-Presse


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Japanese 'baby factory' man wins custody of 13 kids born to Thai surrogates


A Bangkok court on Tuesday granted a Japanese man "sole parent" rights to 13 children he fathered through Thai surrogate mothers, a ruling that paves the way for him to take custody of the group.

Mitsutoki Shigeta caused a "baby factory" scandal in 2014 after Thai police said DNA samples linked him to nine infants found in a Bangkok apartment, plus at least four other babies born by surrogates.

The murky case threw the spotlight on Thailand's then unregulated rent-a-womb industry, and helped push authorities to bar foreigners from paying for Thai surrogates in 2015.

Shigeta, the son of a Japanese tycoon, left the country in the wake of the scandal but later sued Thailand's Ministry of Social Development and Human Security for custody of the children.

"For the happiness and opportunities which the 13 children will receive from their biological father, who does not have a history of bad behaviour, the court rules that all 13 born from surrogacy to be legal children of the plaintiff," Bangkok's Central Juvenile Court said in a statement.

Shigeta, who did not attend the trial in person, was deemed the "sole parent" of the children after the Thai surrogates had signed away their rights, the court said.

As he comes from a wealthy family, he has ample money and has prepared nurses and nannies to care for the children in Japan, the ruling stated.

Shigeta's lawyer said he would contact the Social Welfare Ministry, who has taken care of the children since the scandal broke in 2014, about the next steps in transferring them from state custody.

Shigeta hired the Thai surrogates before the kingdom banned the lucrative trade in 2015, following a string of scandals and custody tussles.

Surrogacy agencies quickly migrated to neighbouring Cambodia, who followed suit and barred the industry in 2016.

In recent months there have been signs the industry has shifted to Laos, an opaque communist country with no restrictions on surrogacy.

Some surrogacy agencies are now offering services to carry out the embryo transfer in Laos and then provide pregnancy care for the surrogate in Thailand, a wealthier country with vastly superior medical facilities.


© Agence France-Presse

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Oxfam says former Haiti director admitted hiring sex workers


London, United Kingdom | AFP | The former Oxfam official at the centre of a prostitution scandal admitted to paying for sex at his charity-funded residence during an internal inquiry into the allegations, a report released Monday by the British organisation said.

The report also said three Oxfam employees physically threatened a witness in the investigation into alleged sexual misconduct in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake there.

The charity fired fired four staff members for gross misconduct and allowed three others, including former country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, to resign over allegations they hired young sex workers.

The 68-year-old Belgian has denied organising orgies or visiting brothels on the Caribbean island, saying he told Oxfam he had engaged in "intimate relations some three times" at his home but did not pay for these liaisons.

A redacted copy of the 2011 report made public by the charity said Van Hauwermeiren offered to resign after admitting to investigators that he had hired sex workers at Oxfam-funded accommodation.

"During the interview the CD admitted to using prostitutes in his OGB (Oxfam Great Britain) residence," the report said.

During the inquiry, three employees also allegedly threatened a colleague who had been interviewed by investigators after witness details were leaked.

"This incident resulted in three of the suspects... physically threatening and intimidating one of the witnesses who had been referred to in the report," it said.

Details of action taken against the suspects included dismissal for "bullying and intimidation of OGB staff" and misuse of Oxfam computing equipment "through the access and download of pornographic and illegal material".

- 'Dignified exit' -

Oxfam has unveiled an action plan to tackle sexual harassment and abuse, and agreed not to bid for any more state funds until reforms were in place.

It has faced accusations it was not transparent about the scandal, which has led to the resignation of its deputy head and high-profile ambassadors such as Desmond Tutu.

The report said the charity negotiated a month's notice period with Van Hauwermeiren and agreed to allow him "a phased and dignified exit" if he cooperated with the rest of the investigation.

His dismissal could lead to "potentially serious implications for the programme, affiliate relationships and the rest of the investigation", it said.


The report said Oxfam officials had received an email in July that year alerting them to alleged sexual exploitation, fraud, negligence and nepotism during relief efforts.

It concluded that the inquiry found no substantial evidence of fraud, nepotism or hiring underage sex workers, "although it cannot be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were underage".

The charity said it had released the report "to be as transparent as possible about the decisions made during the investigation and in recognition of the breach of trust that has been caused".

Van Hauwermeiren said in a letter published by Belgian media last week that he had not visited any brothels, nightclubs or bars in Haiti.

"There were numerous men and women who tried to get into my house with all sorts of excuses to demand money, work, or to offer sexual services. But I never gave into these advances," he wrote.

In the letter he said he told Oxfam he had sexual relations with an "honourable, mature woman" and did not give her any money, but added he was however "deeply ashamed" of the incident.

Oxfam said it had passed the names of the seven men accused of sexual misconduct to relevant authorities and has shared an unredacted version of the report with the Haitian ambassador in London.

It added it would give a copy of the report to the Haitian government, which has said it would open a probe into the scandal, in a meeting planned for Monday morning.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Mexican presidential race kicks off with nominations


Mexico City, Mexico | AFP |The campaign for Mexico's July 1 presidential election began in earnest Sunday as the country's top parties officially nominated their candidates, with all three front-runners trying to sell a message of change.

It is still a wide-open race to succeed President Enrique Pena Nieto, who is deeply unpopular heading into the final stretch of his six-year term in a Mexico beset by endless corruption scandals and record levels of violent crime.

The candidate to beat is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, a fiery leftist who has tried to present a mellower image this time around, and who has taken a growing lead in the polls.

In second place is Ricardo Anaya of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), a youthful ex-lawmaker whose bid to campaign as a fresh face has been hurt by allegations of corruption and strong-arming his way to his party's nomination.

Rounding out the top three is respected former finance minister Jose Antonio Meade, standing for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- a long-dominant force in Mexican politics whose popularity is now so low it tapped a non-party member to be its presidential candidate for the first time in its history.

Lopez Obrador, a two-time presidential runner-up whose critics hate him as fervently as his supporters love him, promised sweeping change for Mexico as he accepted his Morena party's nomination

He vowed to overhaul public health and education, end the privatization of state resources and improve life for the poor.

But -- sensitive to critics' accusations of an authoritarian style -- he vowed that "nothing will be imposed from above."

"I'm aware of my historic responsibility. I want to be remembered as a good president," he told cheering supporters in Mexico City, going for a presidential look in a dark suit and red tie.

He vowed to be relentless fighting the graft festering in the Mexican political system.

"I'm stubborn. It's a well-known fact," he said.

"With that same conviction, I will act as president... stubbornly, obstinately, persistently, bordering on craziness, to wipe out corruption."

- Deep divisions -

Anaya, 38, and Meade, 48, are fighting tooth and nail for the anti-AMLO vote, each hoping it will propel them to victory.

Both have struck sometimes awkward alliances with smaller parties.


Recent polls give Lopez Obrador just over 30 percent of the vote, with Anaya in the 20s and Meade in the teens -- enough for Lopez Obrador to win in Mexico's first-past-the-post system.

He's the clear choice for change, a former Mexico City mayor famous for railing against the country's "mafia of power."

Encouraged by his strong numbers, Lopez Obrador, 64, has been trying to cultivate an aura of inevitability around his campaign.

Anaya will run in a landmark alliance with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

"I'm not running for president of Mexico to keep on doing the same thing. ... I want to be president so I can make sure the dramatic change that our country needs is achieved," Anaya said after accepting his party's nod.

"The big question in this kind of election is what kind of change we want, change looking toward the future or trapped in the past," he stressed.

Meade tried to sound upbeat as he accepted the PRI's nomination at its national convention -- though two recent polls have him falling farther behind.

"We can win!" said the former finance minister, who is highly respected in business circles but is struggling under the baggage of the PRI -- which has been hit by a string of corruption scandals that have landed seven of its ex-governors in jail.

"I'm doing it for Mexico and asking all of you to do it for Mexico as well," he said.

Officially, the campaign does not open until March 30, but months of "pre-campaigning" have already laid bare Mexico's divisions.

"This election is about those people who are desperate for change in Mexico... and are willing to try anything different, and those people who are genuinely worried about what change will bring," said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute in Washington.

The next president will inherit a lackluster economy, a political system rotting with corruption and a messy war on Mexico's powerful drug cartels that has left a trail of dead and missing in its wake.

Not to mention there's also difficult ties with the administration of US President Donald Trump, whose attacks on Mexico have put the future of the country's most crucial trade relationship in doubt.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Trump says Russia succeeding in sowing US discord


West Palm Beach, United States | AFP | President Donald Trump said Sunday that Russia was succeeding beyond its "wildest dreams" in sowing US discord but refrained once more from directly challenging Moscow on its election meddling.

In a flurry of tweets, Trump blamed former president Barack Obama for failing to stop Russia while accusing the FBI of spending "too much time trying to prove collusion with the Trump campaign."

But the president has made no move to take on Russia since indictments Friday against 13 Russians that laid out in detail aspects of an alleged covert effort to sway the 2016 US presidential election in Trump's favor.

US intelligence chiefs warned earlier in the week that Russian meddling has continued and poses a threat to the US mid-term congressional elections this year.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich Saturday, National Security Advisor HR McMaster called the evidence of Russian interference in US democratic processes "incontrovertible."

But Trump glossed over Russian responsibility and offered no indication of what his administration would do about it.

"General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems," Trump said in a tweet late Saturday, making reference to his defeated Democratic Party challenger Hillary Clinton.

He followed that up Sunday: "I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said 'it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.' The Russian 'hoax' was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!"

- 'Wildest dreams' -

Friday's indictment was filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia, and possible obstruction of justice.

"For anyone, including the president, who continues to call this a witch hunt... the evidence is now overwhelming and unequivocal and we need to move to protect ourselves from Russian interference in elections that are coming up," said Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union" program.

Trump, however, suggested that the problem lay with congressional and Department of Justice probes, rather than the interference itself.

"If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams," Trump tweeted.


"They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!" he added.

In yet another tweet, he said: "Obama was President, knew of the threat, and did nothing."

Schiff agreed that the Obama administration should have done more when it learned of the Russian meddling.

"None of that is an excuse for this president to sit on his hands," Schiff said.

"The president of the United States continues to sit on sanctions that Congress passed, that Congress wants enforced against Russia over this interference," he said.

The US Treasury Department last month issued a list of prominent Russian political and business figures who could be sanctioned, as required under a law passed last year to punish Moscow's election meddling.

But the administration said new sanctions called for under the law were not needed because the measure was already having a deterrent effect.

- Shoes drop -

The indictments brought by Mueller alleges that the Russian campaign was launched in 2014, initially as an effort to undermine confidence in the US political system.

By mid-2016, however, the campaign -- under the direction of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- had become focused on hurting Clinton and helping Trump, according to the indictment.

The effort allegedly involved hundreds of people working in shifts and with a budget of millions of dollars. Three companies were also indicted.

The indictment did not address the Russian government's role or hacks of the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee.

"I do think there are other shoes to drop here besides this indictment," former national security director James Clapper said on CNN.

In announcing the indictments, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there was "no allegations in this indictment" that any American was a "knowing participant" in the Russian scheme -- leading Trump to declare that this vindicated his campaign team.

Rosenstein also said there was no judgment on whether the Russian campaign "altered the outcome" of the White House race.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the charges, calling them "blabber" and "fantasies."


Monday, February 19, 2018

Australia politician slammed for Facebook gun photo


Sydney, Australia | AFP | A conservative Australian politician who posted a photo of himself on Facebook holding a gun in a jibe at environmentalists was reported to police and slammed Monday as insensitive after a mass US school shooting.

George Christensen put up the image on Saturday showing him in a shooting stance with the comment "You gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky, greenie punks?".

He claimed it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "Dirty Harry" film franchise in which a police officer played by Clint Eastwood takes on "people who are conducting illegal activity, such as the greens are".

The MP has been critical of environmentalists -- sometimes backed by the Greens political party -- who have tried to blockade mining projects, including chaining themselves to machinery.

The Facebook post was referred to the Australian Federal Police by the Greens, with their Senator Sarah Hanson-Young saying on Twitter she had received an emailed threat from one of Christensen's supporters.

"Frankly, guns are not a joke and particularly in the wake of the massacre in the US only last week, 17 people shot dead, including children," Hanson-Young told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the post "very inappropriate". It was also widely criticised by politicians from other parties.

Christensen, whose National party is the junior partner in the government's ruling coalition, later deleted it but responded defiantly, saying: "I'm not going to be moralised to by these extreme greens who put the livelihoods, safety and lives of other people at risk."

He said the post had nothing to do with the American shooting last week where a 19-year-old killed 17 people at his former high school, claiming instead it was a comment on environmentalists' "illegal activism on mine sites".

Australia has tough gun laws that include bans on certain weapons, a minimum age, licences and secure storage, after a mass shooting at the historic Tasmanian colonial convict site of Port Arthur in 1996 where 35 people were killed.

The uproar is the latest headache for the ruling Liberal-National coalition, with Turnbull last week publicly criticising Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce for his affair with a younger former staffer who is now pregnant with his child.


Monday, February 19, 2018

S. Korea's Moon urges 'stern' response to new US tariffs


Seoul, South Korea | AFP | South Korean President Moon Jae-in called Monday for a "stern" response to new US tariffs on the South's exports as concern grew over looming trade restrictions by Washington.

US President Donald Trump last week threatened retaliatory action against China and South Korea and vowed to revise or scrap a 2012 free trade deal with the South which he described as a "disaster".

Trump also put his "America First" doctrine into action last month by imposing duties of 20 to 50 percent on large washing machines made in nations including the South, as well as tariffs on solar panels imported from China and elsewhere.

Seoul has said it would take the issue to the World Trade Organization while Beijing expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with the move, adopted to protect US manufacturers.

The trade frictions have strained ties at a time when Seoul and Washington are seeking to present a united front against North Korea's nuclear threat. 

Moon, at a meeting with aides, expressed concern over "intensifying protectionism" that may take a toll on the South's export-reliant economy -- also the world's 11th largest.

"I am concerned that widening restrictions by the US on our exports, including steel, electronics, solar panels and washing machines, may take a toll on the exports despite their global competitiveness," he said.

"I'd like (officials) to respond to unreasonable protectionist measures in a confident and stern manner by... reviewing whether the measures violate the current Korea-US free trade pact," he said.

Moon also urged officials to "actively argue the unfairness" of the tariffs when renegotiating the bilateral free trade deal.

Moon's comments also came days after the US Commerce Department recommended hefty new tariffs on steel imports from countries including the South.

The US trade deficit -- which Trump has vowed repeatedly to fix -- widened even further during his first year in office, up 12 percent to $566 billion.

The Trump administration last July initiated talks to renegotiate the free trade pact with Seoul, arguing it was lopsided because America's bilateral trade deficit had ballooned under it.

Two previous rounds of talks made little progress and Seoul's chief trade negotiator Kim Hyun-chong said at the time there was "a long way to go".

The next round of negotiations is scheduled in Washington next month.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

'Shame on you!' student tells Trump at Florida anti-gun rally


Fort Lauderdale, United States /AFP/. A student survivor of the Parkland school shooting called out US President Donald Trump on Saturday over his ties to the powerful National Rifle Association, in a poignant address to an anti-gun rally in Florida.

"To every politician taking donations from the NRA, shame on you!" said Emma Gonzalez, assailing Trump over the multi-million-dollar support his campaign received from the gun lobby -- and prompting the crowd to chant in turn: "Shame on you!"

Wednesday's massacre, which claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has fueled urgent calls for an end to the national deadlock over gun control -- with a string of shooting survivors rallying behind the cause.

The gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was able to legally buy an assault rifle despite a history of troubling and violent behavior.

In Washington, however, the political response has made clear that the powerful NRA pro-gun lobby remains formidable, while Trump himself suggested the root cause of mass shootings was a crisis of mental health -- making no mention of gun control.

"If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and... how nothing is going to be done about it, I'm going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association," said Gonzalez.

"It doesn't matter because I already know. Thirty million," she told the rally attended by fellow students, parents and local officials, citing the sum spent by the NRA to support Trump's election bid and defeat Hillary Clinton.

Dividing that sum by the number of shooting victims in the United States so far this year, Gonzalez asked: "Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump?"

The young woman's powerful address immediately went viral, with her name a top trending topic on Twitter.

The US leader also tweeted a day after the massacre that that neighbors and fellow students had failed to flag Cruz to the authorities.

"We did," Gonzalez said, her shaking with emotion. "Time and time again. Since he was in middle school. It was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter."

US authorities have come under mounting scrutiny for failing to act on a series of warning signs.

The FBI admitted Friday it received a chilling warning in January from a tipster who said Cruz could be planning a mass shooting, but that agents failed to follow up.

Cruz was also known to local police after his mother repeatedly called them over his violent outbursts, while records obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel show welfare services investigated Cruz after he cut his arms and said he wanted to buy a gun.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Plane crashes in Iran with more than 50 aboard: media


Tehran, Iran  /AFP/. An Iranian passenger plane has crashed into the country's Zagros mountains with more than 50 people on board, the head of the country's emergency services told local media on Sunday.

"This plane has crashed in the Semirom area and all emergency forces are on alert. The plane had 50 to 60 passengers," PirHosseinKoolivand told the Fars news agency.

The plane was reportedly travelling from Tehran to the small town of Yasuj in Isfahan province.

Semirom lies in the mountainous southwestern region of Iran, around 480 kilometres (300 miles) south of the capital.

"An ATR aircraft of Aseman Airlines with 60 passengers and about six crew disappeared from radar this morning," AladinBorujerdi, head of parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, told the semi-official ISNA news agency.

"Observation by people (in the area) indicates a crash," he said, adding that he was still awaiting confirmation.

MojtabaKhaledi, spokesman for the national emergency services, told the semi-official ISNA news agency that a helicopter had been sent to the area.

"Given the fact that the area is mountainous, it is not possible to send ambulances," he said.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Trump turns on FBI over school shooting after criticism from survivors


Fort Lauderdale, United States | AFP/. US President Donald Trump said Saturday the FBI was so caught up in the Russia probe that it failed to heed signs which could have prevented the Parkland school shooting.

His comments came as he faces criticism from survivors of the attack over his ties to the powerful National Rifle Association, and after several thousand rallied in Florida to demand urgent action on gun control.

"Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable," he wrote on Twitter.

"They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!"

US authorities have come under mounting scrutiny for failing to act on a series of warning signs ahead of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which 17 people were killed.

The FBI admitted Friday it received a chilling warning in January from a tipster who said the gunman Nikolas Cruz could be planning a mass shooting, but that agents failed to follow up.

But the attack, the 18th school shooting this year alone, has also renewed calls for greater gun control with several survivors leading the charge.

One of them, 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez delivered a fiery address to a crowd of students, parents and residents in Ft. Lauderdale.

"To every politician taking donations from the NRA, shame on you!" she thundered, assailing Trump over the multi-million-dollar support his campaign received from the gun lobby. The crowd chanted in turn: "Shame on you!"

"We are going to be the last mass shooting... We are going to change the law," she vowed -- slamming the fact 19-year-old Cruz was able to legally buy a semi-automatic firearm despite a history of troubling and violent behavior.

"The question on whether or not people should be allowed to own an automatic weapon is not a political one. It is question of life or death and it needs to stop being a question of politics," Gonzalez told AFP following her speech.

In Washington, the political response has made clear that the powerful NRA pro-gun lobby remains formidable, while Trump himself suggested the root cause of mass shootings was a crisis of mental health -- making no mention of gun control.

"If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and... how nothing is going to be done about it, I'm going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association," Gonzalez said in her impassioned address.

"It doesn't matter because I already know. Thirty million," she said, citing the sum spent by the NRA to support Trump's election bid and defeat Hillary Clinton.

She then ran through a list of the pro-gun lobby's talking points -- for example, that "a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun," that no law could ever stop a madman intent on killing -- answering each argument with "We call BS."

The young woman's powerful address immediately went viral, with her name a top trending topic on Twitter.

- Missed warnings -

In addition to the FBI's missteps, Cruz was also known to local police after his mother repeatedly reported him for violent outbursts, while records obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel show authorities investigated Cruz in 2016 after he cut his arms on messaging app Snapchat and threatened to buy a gun.

The newspaper, citing Department of Children and Family Services documents, said the investigation came four days after Cruz turned 18 -- legally an adult, and thus able to buy a firearm.

Investigators said there were "some implications" for the teen's safety, but concluded that his "final level of risk is low as (he) resides with his mother, attends school and receives counseling" as an outpatient at a mental health center, the Sun Sentinel said.

Cruz later passed a background check, allowing him in February 2017 to buy the AR-15 rifle used in the massacre.

- Russia probe -

Trump spoke by phone Saturday with the Parkland mayor, the county commissioner and the principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to express his condolences and offer his support.

He then pivoted to politics late Saturday with his allegations against the FBI -- though the federal government's investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and collusion with the Trump campaign has been led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller since last May.

There was no immediate response from the FBI to Trump's latest allegation.

Mueller's investigation has so far swept up four members of Trump's campaign, with two agreeing to work for the probe under a plea deal.

On Thursday Mueller indicted 13 Russians for allegedly running a secret campaign to tilt the vote, but did not accuse any Americans of knowingly participating in that effort.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

China sees more tourists, higher revenue during holiday


BEIJING, Feb. 17 (Xinhua) -- China has hosted 214 million tourists in the first three days of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, up 9.7 percent from the same period last year, the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) said Saturday.

 Tourism revenue rose 9.9 percent to 258.2 billion yuan (about 40.69 billion U.S. dollars) in the three-day period, the CNTA said.

On Saturday alone, some 870 million visitor trips were made across the country, CNTA data showed.

A total of 3.85 million passenger trips were made on Chinese railways Friday, the first day of the week-long Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, up 8.4 percent from the same day last year, according to the China Railway Corporation (CRC), which expects 6.89 million trips to be made on Saturday.

Short railway trips for family visits or travelling have become popular among Chinese as the country's high-speed railway network continues to expand, said the CRC.

Some 385 million Chinese are expected to travel around during the holiday spanning from Feb. 15 to 21, representing an increase of 12 percent, the CNTA forecast earlier this month.

China earned 5.4 trillion yuan from tourism in 2017, an increase of 15.1 percent.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Daddy Yankee gets the world dancing again with viral song


Miami, United States  /AFP/. It's another viral dancing sensation. And once again, it's from Daddy Yankee.

The Puerto Rican king of reggaeton who co-wrote "Despacito" has people around the world moving their hips with his latest song, "Dura."

Millions of people have clicked on online videos inspired by "Dura" as aspiring dancers around the world -- from fresh-faced children to top models to endearing elderly people -- find their groove, with varying degrees of skill or stiffness.

"I'm beyond honored and feel very blessed. You make music for an audience," Daddy Yankee told AFP. "And the audience has made this song in their own organic, spontaneous way."

Daddy Yankee helped bring reggaeton -- a Latin dance music, with roots in Jamaican dancehall and the style of hip-hop, that was historically associated with the marginalized Afro-Puerto Rican community -- to a global audience starting with his 2004 hit "Gasolina."

But "Dura" marks a fresh turn in the 41-year-old singer and rapper's career as the song has taken off based largely on how fans appropriate it.

"Why have so many people -- even babies -- liked it?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, some things you can't explain. It's the magic of music, a magic that just happens and that you can't understand."

He has one theory. "Dura," he said, harks back to "the rhythm and nostalgia for music of the late 1980s and early 1990s, that essence of reggae that inspired reggaeton."

- No excuse not to dance -

Daddy Yankee, whose real name is Ramon Luis Ayala, released "Dura" on January 18. The next day, Colombian model Andrea Valdiri posted a video on Instagram, barefoot in sweatpants and a loose white top, as she danced to "Dura" with her hands rubbing sensually around her body.

The video has been viewed nearly nine million times on her Instagram account and in Daddy Yankee's repost. It also set off a rush of new homemade interpretations of the song -- posted under hashtag #DuraChallenge.

Daddy Yankee's original video has been seen nearly 200 million times on YouTube.

More recently, the 25-year-old Valdiri has been eclipsed as the #DuraChallenge star by a nonagenarian.

Rachel Phillipsen, a 90-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican origin, follows a zumba instructor with impressive rhythm and coordination as Daddy Yankee sings in Spanish, "I like how you move that ram-pam-pam." The video has generated 5.5 million clicks.

"There are no excuses not to dance. The excuse is all in your mind," the zumba instructor, Rina Elena Martinez (@rina_25), told AFP. The Venezuelan appears in the video shot in a gym in Miami.

Daddy Yankee agreed. "The 90-year-old grandmother was phenomenal," he said, adding: "No doubt that video gives encouragement to the whole world."

Celebrities who have taken the #DuraChallenge include Venezuelan model Diosa Canales, Dominican reggaeton singer Natti Natasha and the Puerto Rican former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera, who also appeared in the "Despacito" video.

- 'You're one tough mama' -

"Dura," which literally means "hard" but could also mean "hot" when it comes to appearance, is an ode to a beautiful woman.

"You're one tough mama," Daddy Yankee sings, with lines such as "If it's a crime to be so beautiful / I'll arrest you in my bed and put you in handcuffs."

Musically, the song returns to early reggaeton without the pop melodies that mega-stars such as Shakira, Enrique Iglesias or "Despacito" co-writer Luis Fonsi deployed to bring the genre to the anglo pop world.

In a retro video, Daddy Yankee and his cohorts dance around well-trodden streets covered with vibrant street art. Women, who so often take passive roles in highly sexual songs, assume the lead in showing their moves.

"We were inspired by the bright colors of the '90s and a bit of the era's fashion. I wanted to make this fun and to show that the song could empower women," Daddy Yankee said.

The video was directed by Carlos Perez, the Puerto Rican who shot "Despacito" and has worked with Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony.

"Despacito" also spawned spoofs and has made history as the most-watched video on YouTube with more than 4.8 billion views.

Helped by a remix featuring Justin Bieber, "Despacito" tied a record by spending 16 weeks on top of the benchmark Billboard singles chart in the United States -- a major feat in a country where non-English songs rarely fare well.

"Dura" as of Friday was number 10 on Spotify's global singles chart and number one in several Latin American countries.



Thursday, February 15, 2018

Being a single dad can shorten your life: study


Paris, France /AFP/. The risk of dying prematurely more than doubles for single fathers compared to single mothers or paired-up dads, according to a study of Canadian families published Thursday.
"Our research highlights that single fathers have higher mortality, and demonstrates the need for public health policies to help identify and support these men," said lead author Maria Chiu, a scientist at the University of Toronto.
The findings, published in The Lancet Public Health, may apply to wealthy nations with similar ratios of single-parent families to Canada, the researchers said.
Chiu and colleagues tracked nearly 40,500 people across Canada over 11 years. The subjects -- who included 4,590 single moms and 871 single dads -- were, on average, in their early 40s when study began.
Nearly 700 died by the end of the monitoring period.
Compared to partnered fathers or single moms, the death rate was three times higher among single fathers.
Factoring in that solo dads tended to be older, had higher cancer rates, and were more prone to heart disease, the researchers concluded their mortality risk was still twice as high.
Likely culprits include poor lifestyle choices and stress, Chiu said.
"We did find that single fathers tended to have unhealthier lifestyles," which could include poor diet, lack of exercise, or excessive drinking, she said.
Men parenting on their own were more likely to be separated, divorced or widowed than single mothers -- a larger proportion of whom raise babies conceived outside of a relationship, the team found.
Having experienced a breakup is a risk factor for mental ill health.
"These results show that single fathers might be a particularly vulnerable group," Rachel Simpson, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, commented in the same journal.  
Making matters worse, a 2016 study showed that go-it-alone dads -- even if they acknowledge being in poor shape, physically and mentally -- are less likely to seek professional help than women.
- A stiff drink -
Single-parent households have become more common across the developed world in recent decades.
In the United States, for example, the percentage of children living with single mothers nearly tripled from eight percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2016, according to the US Census.
The percentage living with single fathers increased from one to four over the same period.
In Europe, Denmark tops the list of single-parent households which make up 30 percent of the total.
Of those, 23 percent are headed by women and seven percent by men, according to the OECD rich country grouping.
The corresponding percentages are 19 and four for France; 14 and five for Sweden, 17 and two for Germany; 16 and three for Canada.
Rates of single-parenthood are even higher in many low-income nations, especially in Africa, according to Joseph Chamie, former director of the UN Population Division.
Close to 40 percent of children in South Africa, for example, have their mother as the sole parent, and four percent have only a dad.
Other countries with a large share of single-parent households include Mozambique (36 percent), Dominican Republic (35 percent), Liberia (31 percent), and Kenya (30 percent), he noted in a 2016 report.
"Of the world's 2.3 billion children, 14 percent -- or 320 million -- are living in a single-parent household," he calculated.
In at least two categories, single fathers hold a slight edge over solo moms.
Researchers at the University of Illinois found that moms on their own make about two-thirds of what their male counterparts earn.
And a study in South Korea, published in PLOS ONE, showed single mothers were three times more likely to become alcohol dependent.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

17 killed in Florida school shooting by former student: sheriff


Parkland, United States /AFP/. Authorities in Florida could offer no explanation Wednesday night as to why a former student armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire at a high school earlier that day, killing at least 17 people.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel identified the gunman as Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who had been expelled for "disciplinary reasons," but was currently enrolled in Broward County Public Schools.
Cruz, whose fellow students described him as "troubled," was arrested without incident in the nearby town of Coral Springs after the Valentine's Day rampage and taken to hospital with minor injuries, the sheriff said.
He had mixed in with students fleeing the school before being caught, officials said.
"We have already begun to dissect his websites and things on social media that he was on and some of the things... are very, very disturbing," Israel said.
"If a person is predisposed to commit such a horrific event by going to a school and shooting people ... there's not anybody or not a lot law enforcement can do about it."
Israel said both students and adults had been killed, 12 of whom have now been identified.
Fifteen people were killed at the school itself and 17 were taken to hospital, two of whom died of their wounds, the sheriff's office said. One of those killed was a football coach, and one student injured was a deputy sheriff's son.
"This is a terrible day for Parkland," Israel said, speaking of the city of about 30,000 people, located 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami.
A teacher at the school said Cruz had been identified previously as a potential threat to his classmates.
"We were told last year that he wasn't allowed on campus with a backpack on him," math teacher Jim Gard said in a Miami Herald interview.
"There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus."
Cruz was also said to have been in the Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) program while at school.
A law enforcement source told CBS News that the gunman pulled a fire alarm before opening fire, but Israel could not confirm that report.
- 'Everyone started running' -
The shooting, one of nearly 20 at a school since the start of the year, will once again throw the spotlight on the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, where there are 33,000 gun-related deaths annually.
But when questioned at a press conference late Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott -- who described the massacre as "just pure evil" -- declined to make a statement on gun control in the aftermath of the shooting.
"There's a time to continue to have these conversations about how through law enforcement, how through mental illness funding that we make sure people are safe, and we'll continue to do that," said Scott, a Republican.
At the same briefing, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said the state will cover the costs of funerals and counseling for survivors.
"We will continue to work together as a team, as a family, and love and take care of all of these victims and their family members," she said.
Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky told CNN she had spoken to a number of students after the shooting erupted shortly after 2:00 pm (1900 GMT).
"They were very scared," she said. "And almost in shock when they came out."
Students, some with their hands in the air, were led out of the school by heavily armed police officers and an armored vehicle filled with a SWAT team on the scene.
Student Jeiella Dodoo told CBS News that she and her schoolmates evacuated calmly after hearing what they thought was a routine fire alarm.
"The alarm went off so we had to evacuate from our classes," she said. "Then we heard gunshots.
"I heard about six gunshots," she said, "and then some people started running and then everyone started running because we were like 'If it's real, then just run.'"
Teacher Melissa Falkowski told US networks that she had helped 19 students squeeze into a closet with her.
"We were in there for probably 40 minutes. We were locked in the closet until SWAT came and got us," she told CNN.
Police officers in helmets, bulletproof vests and armed with automatic weapons could be seen stationed at several points around the sprawling school complex, which serves nearly 3,000 students.
"Just a horrible day for us," said the superintendent of the county's school district, Robert Runcie.
"This is very sad to me and our family too," 61-year-old Joseph Panikulangara, whose 17-year-old niece Dhiya attends the school, told AFP.
The FBI said it was assisting local law enforcement with the investigation.
When asked about security, Hunschofsky said a police officer is always stationed at the school and there is a "single point of entry."
- No child should 'feel unsafe' -
President Donald Trump offered his "prayers and condolences to the families of the victims."
"No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school," he said on Twitter.
But since January 2013, there have been at least 291 school shootings across the country -- an average of about one a week, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit group that advocates for gun control.
"It is pretty clear that we're failing our kids here," said Falkowski, the teacher who helped shield her students from harm in a closet.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

UN chief extends greetings for Chinese Lunar New Year


UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 15 (Xinhua) -- United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday extended warmest greetings for the Chinese Lunar New Year through a video message.
He began the video message with a greeting in Mandarin: "Xin Chun Kuai Le! (Happy Lunar New Year.)"
"I am pleased to send my warmest greetings for the Lunar New Year as we begin the Year of the Dog," he continued in English.
Dogs are guards and good companions to human beings. Dogs universally symbolize loyalty and trust, which inherently encourage the boosting of unity and collaboration. That is what our world needs, he said. "Let us work together for global peace and prosperity," he added.
He thanked China and the Chinese people for their support for the work of the UN. "I wish you good health, happiness and success in the year of the Dog!" he said.
The Chinese Lunar New Year falls on Friday this year.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tillerson heads to Ankara to ease Turkey tensions


Ankara, Turkey /AFP/. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Turkey on Thursday seeking to ease tensions with its NATO ally that have reached fresh heights over Ankara's ongoing operation inside Syria.
During his two-day trip to the Turkish capital, Tillerson -- who last visited in July 2017 -- will hold talks with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey's operation against a Kurdish militia in Syria has added a potentially insurmountable new problem to the litany of issues clouding the relationship between Washington and Ankara.
Analysts said the level of tension was similar to 2003 when Turkey refused to let US troops operate from its territory for the Iraq war, or even the aftermath of Ankara's invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
Turkey's operation against the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara blacklists as a terror group, has seen troops fighting a militia which is closely allied with the US in the battle against jihadists.
And Erdogan has further upped the ante by warning US troops to steer clear of Manbij, a YPG-held town east of Afrin where the main operation is happening, raising fears of a clash.
"We are going to go to Manbij and if they are there, it's too bad for them," a senior Turkish official told AFP.
When a US commander told the New York Times it would respond "aggressively" to any attack by Turkey, Erdogan didn't mince his words.
"It's very clear that those who make such remarks have never experienced an Ottoman slap," he said, using the term for a backhander which, according to legend, could kill an opponent in one stroke.
- Weakening anti-IS efforts -
For Ankara, the YPG is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is blacklisted as a terror outfit by the US and the EU.
But for Washington, the YPG is an ally.
On Tuesday, Tillerson said Turkey's operation "detracted" from the fight against Islamic State jihadists, saying Kurdish fighters had been "diverted" from where they were really needed in order to fight in Afrin.
Former State Department official Amanda Sloat told AFP Washington did not appear to have "developed a clear way forward on Syria nor determined how its plans address Turkish security concerns".
And if Ankara expected any clarity from US officials on the way forward in Syria, it would be "disappointed", said Sloat, now a senior fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution.
Speaking ahead of the visit, a senior State Department official said "eyes had to be on" the defeat of IS.
"It's complicated enough. Let's not make it more so."
But Cavusoglu warned Washington that ties were at a "critical point" where relations would "be fixed or... completely damaged."
Ties were damaged after the failed coup of 2016 with Turkey stung by a perceived lack of US solidarity and angered by its intransigence over the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric blamed for ordering the putsch.
There is still no US ambassador to Turkey after the departure of John Bass last year, and it was only in December that the two sides ended a row following tit-for-tat suspensions of visa services.
- 'Inflaming public anger' -
Last month, Ankara reacted furiously to the conviction in New York of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla on charges of violating sanctions against Iran.
And Washington has expressed concern that several of its citizens, as well as Turkish employees of US missions, have been caught up in the post-coup crackdown.
Last week, NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for being a member of Gulen's movement, with the State Department saying he had been convicted "without credible evidence".
Another case is that of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in Izmir, who has been held on similar charges since October 2016.
Such tensions have affected the Turkish public with 83 percent holding unfavourable views of the US, a Center for American Progress (CAP) poll showed this week.
"The Turkish public has long been sceptical of the US, but Erdogan and the (ruling party) have chosen to inflame the public's anger to score political points," said CAP's associate director Max Hoffman.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for hard work in new era


BEIJING. President Xi Jinping encouraged Chinese people to work hard in the new era during his Spring Festival speech on Wednesday.
"The new era belongs to those who work hard," and happiness can only be earned by filling one's life with endeavors, said Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
"There will be difficulties in our endeavor, but battling them will also purify our souls and strengthen our faith," said Xi.
Xi stressed that the great endeavor of upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics will take generations, even dozens of generations, of hard work.
Those fighting in these efforts will be richest in spirit, and will have the most profound understanding of happiness, according to Xi.
Xi called on CPC members to always focus their work on the aspirations of the people to live a better life, and to always fight for the people and with the people.
There should be both competition and solidarity in the endeavor, said Xi.
At the 19th CPC National Congress last October, the Party announced that socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era with decades of hard work.  (Xinhua)


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Australia bans sex between government ministers and staff


Sydney, Australia /AFP/. Australia's prime minister imposed a formal ban on sex between ministers and their staff on Thursday after his deputy made "a shocking error of judgement" by having an affair that left an aide pregnant and the government reeling.
Malcolm Turnbull announced the amendment to the ministerial code of conduct at an extraordinary press conference during which he slammed deputy Barnaby Joyce for causing "terrible hurt and humiliation" to his wife and four children.
"Barnaby made a shocking error of judgement in having an affair with a young woman working in his office," he said.
"In doing so, he has set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us.
"Our hearts go out to them. It has been a dreadful thing for them to go through in the glare of publicity."
Joyce, 50, has been under immense pressure since his affair with former media advisory Vikki Campion, 33, who is now pregnant with their child, became public last week.
It has led to allegations that he breached ministerial rules, with the crisis dominating the front pages and parliament question time, with calls mounting for him to resign.
Joyce, whose National Party is in a coalition with the prime minister's Liberals, will take leave next week, allowing him to side-step the role of acting leader while Turnbull is on a visit to the United States.
Turnbull departs for Washington next Wednesday for meetings with US President Donald Trump and is scheduled to be overseas for four days.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as deputy Liberal leader, would normally step in if Joyce was unavailable. But she will also be travelling, which means Senate leader Mathias Cormann will take the position.
Turnbull said the break would allow Joyce to "consider his own position".
The prime minister could sack him, but that risks fracturing the ruling coalition and could cause a rift between the Liberal and National parties.
- 'No good comes of it' -
Joyce admitted to the affair after a picture of his pregnant lover was splashed across the front page of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and has publicly apologised to his shattered wife of 24 years Natalie and their daughters.
Turnbull said times had changed and people expected politicians to set an example.
"I am not here to moralise. But we must recognise that whatever may have been acceptable or to which a blind eye was turned in the past, today, in 2018, it is not acceptable for a minister to have a sexual relationship with somebody who works for them," he said.
"It is a very bad workplace practice. And everybody knows that no good comes of it."
As such, he amended the code of conduct to make unequivocally clear that "ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with staff".
Joyce -- best known internationally for threatening to euthanise Hollywood star Johnny Depp's dogs over a quarantine violation -- denies he breached any rules, which could be grounds for him to be removed from office.
He has defended the two jobs, one for a minister, that Campion was given after she stopped working for him last year.
The code stipulates that "partners" of ministers cannot be given jobs in ministerial offices without the express approval of the prime minister.
Joyce is also under fire over revelations that he accepted a rent-free apartment from a millionaire friend after his marriage collapsed.
Labor accused him of breaching ministerial standards by asking for a place to live, and in effect receiving a gift of not paying rent for six months. Joyce insists it was offered and he did not ask for it.
Joyce was re-elected in his rural constituency in New South Wales late last year after being forced to stand down over a once-obscure rule barring dual citizens from federal office.
He campaigned on a platform of being a pillar of the community who upheld conservative values, including marriage.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Sirleaf wins prestigious Ibrahim Prize for African leadership


Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Monday won the rarely-awarded Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership -- the world's biggest individual prize.

The prize only goes to a democratically-elected African leader who has demonstrated exceptional leadership, served their mandated term and left office within the last three years.

The award comes with $5 million (4.1 million euros), which is paid over 10 years, and $200,000 annually for life from then on.

Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state, left office on January 22 after a maximum 12 years as president, served in two terms.

The 79-year-old won the 2017 Ibrahim Prize, only the second time it has been awarded in six years. In 2011, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize as a champion for women's rights.

Former African Union secretary general Salim Ahmed Salim, chairman of the prize committee, said Sirleaf had changed Liberia's fortunes.

"Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the helm of Liberia when it was completely destroyed by civil war and led a process of reconciliation that focused on building a nation and its democratic institutions," he said.

"Throughout her two terms in office, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of Liberia. Such a journey cannot be without some shortcomings and, today, Liberia continues to face many challenges.

"Nevertheless, during her 12 years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf laid the foundations on which Liberia can now build."

- First female laureate -

The prize, founded by Sudan-born telecoms tycoon Mo Ibrahim, has only been given five times in its 11-year existence.

The philanthropist has said in the past that making no award sent just as strong a message on African leadership.

Ibrahim said he was delighted by Monday's decision.

"In very difficult circumstances, she helped guide her nation towards a peaceful and democratic future, paving the way for her successor to follow," he said.

"I am proud to see the first woman Ibrahim laureate, and I hope Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will continue to inspire women in Africa and beyond."

The prize's four previous laureates are: Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007); Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008); Pedro Pires of Cabo Verde (2011), and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014).

Former South African president Nelson Mandela was made an honorary laureate in 2007.

The London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation produces an annual index of African governance, allowing citizens to measure how well their countries are being run.

Since 2006, Liberia was the only country out of 54 to improve in every category on the index. Liberia moved up 10 places in the overall African ranking to 28th since then.

Former football star George Weah, the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year, won last year's Liberian presidential elections and took over from Johnson.

The handover has been seen as a milestone in Liberia's transition from a civil war that killed around a quarter of a million people between 1989 and 2003.

Other major awards are the Fundamental Physics Prize, worth $3 million; the Templeton Foundation for spiritual contributions, worth £1.1 million ($1.53 million); and the Nobel Prize, which in 2017 was set at nine million Swedish kronor ($1.11 million) for each award.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Investigators hunt for clues over Russian passenger plane crash


By Anna Malpas

Investigators will examine Monday numerous possible causes of one of Russia's worst ever aviation accidents that saw a passenger plane carrying 71 people crash near Moscow minutes after take off, killing everyone on board.

Russia's Investigative Committee said it would consider explanations including human error, technical failure and weather conditions, as the country has experienced record snowfall in recent weeks. But it did not mention the possibility of terrorism.

The Antonov An-148 plane went down in the Ramensky district on the outskirts of Moscow at 2:48 pm (1128 GMT) on Sunday after taking off from Domodedovo airport in the capital.

"Sixty-five passengers and six crew members were on board, and all of them died," Russia's office of transport investigations said in a statement

Three children were among the fatalities on a list published by Russian authorities.

The flight was operated by the domestic Saratov Airlines and was headed for Orsk, a city in the Ural mountains.

More than 400 people and 70 vehicles had been deployed to the crash site, the country's emergency ministry said.

The site was enveloped in heavy snow, making it difficult to access, with emergency workers forced to park their vehicles and reach the wreckage by foot. Others used snowmobiles and drones to survey the scene.

Russian transport minister Maksim Sokolov said "genetic expertise" would be needed to help identify the victims, adding that it could "take two or three months".

- 'Shock wave' -

"I felt a shock wave," Maria, a resident of a village near the crash site, told AFP.

"The windows shook," she said

The transport investigations office said the plane disappeared from radar screens around four minutes after take-off.

A regional official said the aircraft's black box had been retrieved.

The Russian-made plane was reportedly seven years old and bought by Saratov Airlines from another Russian airline a year ago.

Saratov was founded in the 1930s and flies to 35 Russian cities. Its hub is Saratov Central Airport in southern Russia.

The governor of the Orenburg region, where the plane was heading, told Russian media that "more than 60 people" on board the plane were from the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered "his profound condolences to those who lost their relatives in the crash," his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Putin also cancelled plans to travel to Sochi to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. Instead, the meeting will take place in Moscow.


- Grieving relatives -

Local media website in the Orenburg region showed footage of distressed relatives at Orsk airport, where the plane had been due to land.

Andrei Odintsov, the mayor of Orsk, told Russian state television that six psychologists and four ambulances with medics were working with the families in the small airport.

Orsk is the second biggest city in the Orenburg region, near Russia's border with Kazakhstan.

A crisis centre was also set up at Domodedovo, Moscow's second-largest airport in terms of passenger numbers.

Russia has suffered numerous plane crashes, with airlines often operating ageing aircraft in dangerous flying conditions.


A light aircraft crashed in November in Russia's far east, killing six people on board.


In December 2016 a military plane carrying Russia's famed Red Army Choir crashed after taking off from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, killing all 92 people on board.


The choir had been due to give a concert to Russian troops operating in Syria.


Pilot error was blamed for that crash.


In March 2016, all 62 passengers died when a FlyDubai jet crashed in bad weather during an aborted landing at Rostov-on-Don airport.




© Agence France-Presse


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Monday, February 12, 2018

Palestinian leader seeks Russia's backing over Jerusalem


By Maria Panina

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas visits Russia on Monday in a bid to secure Russian President Vladimir Putin's support following Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The Palestinian leader was set to visit Moscow two weeks after a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas has refused any contact with US President Donald Trump's administration since Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital at the end of last year. Abbas is due to speak at the United Nations Security Council on February 20.

Palestinians see the US decision, which broke with years of international diplomacy, as a denial of their claim to East Jerusalem as the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.

Israel took control of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, annexed it and later declared it the indivisible capital of Israel.

The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has accused Abbas of lacking the courage needed to forge a peace deal with Israel.

Abbas in turn has rejected any mediation by Washington in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has promised his people to work towards full recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations.

Alexander Shumilin, a Middle East scholar at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, called Abbas's visit "an attempt to cosy up to Russia, a consistent ally, and to stop Netanyahu leading Moscow astray during an improvement in Russia-Israeli ties".

Netanyahu visited Russia on January 29 and along with Putin attended a memorial ceremony at the Jewish museum in Moscow for the victims of Nazi camps. He took the opportunity to accuse Iran of wanting to "destroy" the Jewish state.

In turn, the Russian president likened antisemitism to "Russophobia" and said Russia and Israel were "cooperating closely", particularly against "attempts to falsify history".

- Chances 'close to zero' -

For Shumilin, Monday's visit "is a necessary political gesture for Abbas but can do little in the practical sense".

"It is also definitely not worth expecting a breakthrough from this visit," he added.

In 2016 Russia offered to host one-on-one talks without preconditions between Abbas and Netanyahu but these never materialised.

In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov estimated that chances of resuming direct talks between the two sides in the current situation were "close to zero".

Lavrov also said "we understand the emotions" Palestinians feel towards Trump.

"We keep hearing in recent months that the US is about to publish some 'major deal' that... will satisfy everyone," he said. But he added that Russia "has not seen or heard of such a document or even any statement".

With relations between Washington and Moscow at a record low for the post-Cold War era, Abbas may be expecting that "Russia-US relations will get even worse and then Russia could do something to spite the US", Shumilin said.

On November 29, 2012, the United Nations designated Palestine as a non-member observer state after a vote by the General Assembly.

That enabled the Palestinians to join international organisations and the International Criminal Court, though they did not become a full UN member state.

Palestinian statehood is recognised by more than 130 countries.


© Agence France-Presse


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Monday, February 12, 2018

UN chief tribute to late Pakistani rights activist


The United Nations Secretary-General has paid tribute to Pakistan's "human rights giant" Asma Jahangir following her death by cardiac arrest at the weekend, praising her courage in campaigns for justice and equality for all.

Antonio Guterres issued his "heartfelt condolences" to those grieving the 66-year-old lawyer, who co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and also once served as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran.

"We have lost a human rights giant," the UN chief said in a statement released after Jahangir's death was announced on Sunday.

"She was a tireless advocate for inalienable rights of all people and for equality –- whether in her capacity as a Pakistani lawyer in the domestic justice system, as a global civil society activist, or as a Special Rapporteur. Asma was brilliant, deeply principled, courageous and kind."  

Pakistan social media has been flooded with an outpouring of grief for the loss of what many described as the country's "moral compass", while on Monday newspaper front pages were dominated by tributes to the nation's leading human rights activist.

In its editorial "Asma the fearless", Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said Jahangir was a citizen that all of Pakistan could be proud of and whom most can only hope to emulate.

"Principled and courageous, Asma's willingness and determination to confront evil, defend the vulnerable, and insist on Pakistan living up to the ideals of its democratic, constitutional and secular foundations made her truly iconic," the paper wrote.

Another English language daily, The News wrote that she "spoke out bravely and with immense courage for all the oppressed people of the country, essentially acting as the conscience of Pakistan".

"Only her sudden death could silence her and steal away from us the bravest of the brave this country has produced," it said.

Jahangir faced death threats, beatings and imprisonment to win landmark human rights cases while standing up to dictators.

The rights commission which she helped create made its name defending religious minorities and tackling highly charged blasphemy accusations along with cases of "honour" killings -- in which victims, normally women, are murdered by a relative for bringing shame on the family.

Jahangir secured a number of victories during her life, from winning freedom for bonded labourers from their "owners" through pioneering litigation, to a landmark court case that allowed women to marry of their own volition.


She was also an outspoken critic of the powerful military establishment, including during her stint as the first-ever female leader of Pakistan's top bar association.

Jahangir was arrested in 2007 by the government of then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf and held under house arrest. In 2012 she claimed her life was in danger from the feared Inter Services Intelligence spy agency.

Funeral prayers will be held in Jahangir hometown of Lahore, according to an obituary published by her family in local papers.



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Monday, February 12, 2018

London City Airport closed after WWII bomb found


London City Airport announced its closure on Sunday after a World War Two bomb was discovered in the nearby River Thames.

The ordnance was discovered in King George V Dock, close to the runway of London's most central airport, during planned works.

"A 214m (234-yard) exclusion zone has been implemented as a precaution by the Met Police. As a result, London City Airport is currently closed," the airport said in a statement.

Travellers were told to avoid the airport: "All passengers due to travel from London City on Monday are advised to contact their airline for further information."

City Airport operates short-haul flights and is located in east London, close to the Canary Wharf business district.

The Metropolitan Police said the discovery was reported before dawn on Sunday, at around 0500 GMT, and the exclusion zone was put in place at 2200 GMT.

The decision was taken "to ensure that the ordnance can be safely dealt with whilst limiting any risk to the public," police said in a statement.

The unexploded ordnance is being dealt with by specialist police officers working alongside the Royal Navy.

Thousands of bombs were dropped on London during the "Blitz" by German Air Forces between September 1940 and May 1941.


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Monday, February 12, 2018

Valentine's Day a rosy opportunity for jobless Colombians


By Santiago TORRADO

Valentine's Day is a crazy rush for Colombia, one of the biggest flower exporters in the world, resulting in huge demand for labor in greenhouses near  Bogota.

That's how Rubiela Mendez and William Perez found themselves shivering in a cold they'd never known, preparing roses in a hangar 500 kilometers (300 miles) from their hometown of Cucuta, on the jungle-steamy eastern border with Venezuela.

They are among hundreds of Colombians and Venezuelans brought in on buses -- a 12-hour trip over not-so-great roads -- to ready the fragrant flowers for shipment to the United States.

Valentine's Day on February 14 is one of the times of year Americans spend the most on gifts. That means a bonanza for Colombia, which is the source of 74 percent of US flower imports. Last year, between January and November, Colombia's flower industry earned $1.3 billion.

Those working to prepare the roses see only the minimum wage -- $300 a month -- but for Mendez and Perez and laborers like them from the border, that's far better than what they had been earning.

- Border joblessness -

Although Colombia has a nationwide unemployment rate of 10 percent, joblessness in Cucuta is significantly higher, reaching 16 percent last year.

Mendez said the situation has worsened in past months with Venezuelans who are fleeing economic despair in the country coming over the border to work for half the rate paid to Colombians in the town.

"The situation in Cucuta is very difficult. No one wants to go back there because there's no work," the 26-year-old said, before adding: "But me, I have to return, because my little girl is there."

This work stint in Tabio, a town just north of Bogota, was the first time she had been separated from her four-year-old daughter.

The task involves taking cut roses and scrupulously maintaining the "cold chain" -- a supply chain that ensures the flowers are kept at very low temperatures in storage and transport so they still appear fresh when sold in shops.

Mendez and other workers gather and package bouquets of a dozen roses in spaces refrigerated to 10 degrees (50 degrees Fahrenheit), while listening to tropical music on the radio.

They sleep in heated shipping containers, and are fed by the horticultural companies employing them.

Despite the basic conditions, the money is better than what Mendez pocketed back in Cucuta. There, after losing a $7-a-day restaurant job, she barely made ends meet by selling contraband jerrycans of cheap Venezuelan gasoline.

- 'People suffering' -

Her employer, Sunshine Bouquet, had initially sent recruiters to the border thinking it could hire Venezuelan migrants willing to handle the roses. Instead it found a desperate and willing Colombian work force.


That's how it came to be, in mid-January, that it transported in 600 people, 80 percent of them Colombians, to its production center.

In Cucuta, "there are people suffering, and who very much want to work," said the company boss, Felipe Gomez.

Perez, a 24-year-old Colombian, was relieved when he was chosen. He had spent seven years in Venezuela, and had returned home as the crisis there obliterated previous oil-buoyed prosperity.

"There is fear, horrible despair" in Venezuela now, he said, describing rampant public safety woes and lack of food.

The outflow of people from Venezuela is reversing a trend that had once seen Colombians heading to their neighbor to escape a half-century conflict between their government and Marxist FARC rebels.

Today, the FARC has disarmed and transformed into a political party. And Venezuela has become destitute, prey to hyperinflation.

Colombian officials say more than 550,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border, legally or illegally, and the number is expected to double by June. But the outflow is even greater, once repatriating Colombians are taken into account.

According to Ivan Daniel Jaramillo, at a labor observatory in Bogota's Del Rosario University, unemployment in Cucuta spiked "because it is a border zone receiving this migratory pressure."

The rose business in Tabio, as seasonal as it is, doesn't represent a longterm solution for the 600 laborers brought in. But it is a temporary fix that has given them some respite.

Many hope to be taken on as full time employees by the company, which has promised to hire 20 percent after the Valentine's Day rush is over, or to find some other opportunity.

"If I don't get to stay, I'd like to try Bogota and start a new life," said Perez, grinning among the flowers


© Agence France-Presse

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