Friday, November 17, 2017

Victoria's Secret gala hits snag in China as model pulls out

Hadid, who was number five on Forbes' list of

Hadid, who was number five on Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid female models last year, gave no reason when announcing she would not attend the gala in China. (Photo: AFP/Cindy Ord)  

Shanghai, China | AFP/. Top US fashion model Gigi Hadid on Friday pulled out of the annual Victoria's Secret fashion show in Shanghai after an online video showing her apparently making a slant-eyes face sparked criticism in China.
The announcement is the second apparent snag to hit the US lingerie maker's A-list underwear extravaganza set for Monday, following reports that three Russians and one Ukrainian model had failed to obtain Chinese visas.
Hadid, who was number five on Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid female models last year, earning $9 million, had excitedly announced her participation in the show in August.
She gave no reason for the reversal.
"I'm so bummed I won't be able to make it to China this year," she said on Twitter.
"Love my VS family, and will be with all my girls in spirit!"
Hadid's pull-out averts a potential PR disaster for Victoria's Secret, which is hoping to shore up a sagging bottom line with a push into China's growing intimate-wear market.
The company opened its first flagship stores in the country this year and Monday's show marks the first time it has been staged outside the US or Europe.
Chinese internet users lashed out at Hadid after her sister Bella -- another of the three dozen or more models expected in Shanghai -- posted an Instagram video in February showing Gigi squinting her eyes while holding up a Buddha-shaped cookie.
Hadid's announcement in August that she would appear at the show in Shanghai stirred the pot anew, with many Chinese accusing her of racism and warning her not to come.
She posted a bilingual apology on China's Twitter-like Weibo on September 1, declaring her "respect and love for the people of China" and swearing she meant no harm, but even that was pilloried.
Most Chinese Weibo comments on her withdrawal were celebratory.
"Suddenly I have better feelings about VS. If she had come, I would never buy VS my entire life," said one posting.
Others, however, expressed regret, especially following Hadid's apology.
"What a pity. I like her a lot," said one.
A Victoria's Secret spokesman declined comment, referring questions about the model line-up to each woman's individual agencies.
Speculation also has swirled over the participation of Russia's Julia Belyakova, Kate Grigorieva and Irina Sharipova, and Ukraine's Dasha Khlystun, after unconfirmed reports suggested they were denied Chinese visas.
The Victoria's Secret spokesman declined to confirm or deny the reports.
"That's getting into a Chinese government issue. Victoria's Secret is not going to comment on that," the spokesman said.
The annual show, viewed by millions worldwide, will see the planet's top models take to the catwalk, including Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Jasmine Tookes and Lais Ribeiro.
It tapes Monday and is aired globally on November 28.


Friday, November 17, 2017

US calls on Cambodia to 'undo' opposition party ban


Washington, United States | AFP/. The United States Thursday demanded Cambodia reverse its ban on the country's main opposition as it warned the dissolution of the party would strip 2018 elections of legitimacy.
Washington hit out after Cambodia's Supreme Court -- effectively controlled by strongman premier Hun Sen -- outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party and banned more than 100 of its politicians in a ruling blasted by a rights groups as the "death" of the nation's democracy.  
The European Union echoed Washington's concerns over the move which means Hun Sen's CPP party can now run in next year's polls essentially uncontested.
The verdict is the culmination of a methodical strangling of dissent in Cambodia that began after the CNRP nearly unseated Hun Sen -- who has ruled for 32 years -- in the last national election in 2013.
A government clampdown has ratcheted up in recent months, with CNRP president Kem Sokha thrown into jail and charged with treason in September.
The United States blasted Thursday's ruling as a setback for democracy in Cambodia, calling for the government to "undo its recent actions against the CNRP, release imprisoned CNRP leader Kem Sokha, and allow opposition parties, civil society and the media to maintain their legitimate activities," the White House said in a statement on Thursday in Washington.
It added that it would pull support for Cambodia's National Election Committee ahead of next years' vote.
"On current course next year's election will not be legitimate, free, or fair," the statement said.
- 'Not legitimate' -
Washington joined the European Union in condemning the decision, which follows a months-long crackdown on dissent the country with media outlets shuttered, journalists jailed and activists harassed.
The EU warned Thursday that next year's elections are stripped of credibility with the CNRP now pulled from the race.
"An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate," said a statement from a EU spokesperson.
"A situation in which all parties, including the CNRP, their leaders and their supporters are able to carry out freely their legitimate functions, must be swiftly restored," it added, saying "respect of fundamental human rights" is a prerequisite Cambodia's duty free access to the bloc's markets.
The CNRP said Thursday it "still considers itself to be a legitimate party with a mandate from half of the Cambodian population," though more than half its 55 lawmakers have fled the country in the midst of the crackdown.
The ruling was widely expected from a court closely aligned with Hun Sen's CPP party.
The CNRP was accused of a US-backed plot to overthrow the government in allegations which were ridiculed by the US and NGOs.
The former Khmer Rouge defector, who has staked his reputation on bringing stability and growth to Cambodia after decades of civil war, said Thursday next year's elections would be held as scheduled.
The premier has a long history of undercutting his rivals through well-timed crackdowns and dubious court cases.
But observers say the current climate of repression is harsher and longer-lasting than previous clampdowns, with Hun Sen foregoing even the pretense of respecting human rights and a free press.
In addition to assaults against the CNRP, his government has in recent months shut down a series of outspoken NGOs and independent news outlets -- including the respected Cambodia Daily.
This week, two former reporters from the US-based Radio Free Asia were arrested and accused of supplying a foreign state with information that threatens national security.
Analysts say Hun Sen has been emboldened by financial backing from Beijing, which has lavished the poor country with investment that has made it less dependent on aid from Western democracies.


Friday, November 17, 2017

German coalition talks go into overtime


Berlin, Germany | AFP/. Tough talks between the parties hoping to form Germany's next government failed to reach a breakthrough overnight and were expected to resume on Friday as Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that "serious differences" remained between the sides.
Merkel had initially said she wanted to wind up the negotiations by Thursday, as she seeks to avoid fresh elections, but as the deadline passed and talks failed to yield an agreement by the early hours, she agreed for them to continue later Friday.
"We're going to an extension," Greens' co-leader Cem Ozdemir said, with the talks expected to resume at 1100 GMT.
Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Merkel's conservative CDU, said negotiations could even continue into the weekend, as he left marathon talks around 4am (0300 GMT).
Merkel warned earlier Thursday that the parties had "very different positions" on some policy issues, while adding "I believe it can work".
After weeks of quarrelsome exploratory talks, Merkel's CDU/CSU bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the left-leaning Greens are hoping to find enough common ground to begin formal coalition negotiations.
The awkward bedfellows, who differ on everything from refugees and climate protection to EU reforms, have been pushed together by September's inconclusive election, which left Merkel badly weakened as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lured millions of voters.
For Merkel, eyeing a fourth term, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"If the conservatives, the Greens and the FDP can't pull together, there's no way to avoid new elections," Der Spiegel news weekly wrote.
The potential tie-up, dubbed a "Jamaica coalition" because the parties' colours match those of the Jamaican flag, is untested at the national level and questions abound as to how stable such a government would be.
"It's not just the chancellor's fourth term that depends on the success of Jamaica, but her entire political career," the best-selling Bild newspaper said.
Merkel herself set the Thursday deadline to reach an agreement in principle, with the goal of having a new government in place by Christmas.
But given the deep divisions between the parties, FDP deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki had floated the prospect of extending the exploratory talks, even before Thursday's talks broke up.
"I believe we should give ourselves a few more days to reach a strong and sensible agreement," he told Spiegel.
- Compromises -
A 62-page working document that could form the blueprint for an agreement, seen by AFP, showed that the parties remain at odds over a long list of issues, with migration among the most contentious.
The conservatives are eager to tighten asylum policy after voters punished Merkel's decision to allow in over a million migrants and refugees since 2015.
Merkel's Bavarian CSU allies are even calling for a cap on migrant numbers, pitting them against the Greens who want to ease restrictions on family reunifications for asylum seekers.
The FDP's Kubicki urged the Greens to soften their stance, but they appear in little mood to compromise after already watering down key campaign pledges to overcome deadlocks on the environment.
The Greens notably abandoned demands for a 2030 end date for coal-fired plants and the internal combustion engine, and called on the other parties to show the same flexibility.
But Green proposals to make polluting diesel cars less attractive and close the country's 20 dirtiest coal plants have also met with resistance from the conservatives and the FDP, who worry about job losses and disrupting the mighty auto and energy sectors.
Despite the divisions, the parties have been able to reach some broad agreements in recent weeks.
At a time when the state coffers are bulging, they have committed to maintaining Germany's cherished balanced budget, improving the nation's outdated internet infrastructure and increasing child benefits.
The parties, who are broadly pro-EU, also made headway on Europe after the liberal Free Democrats dropped their demand to wind down the eurozone's bailout fund.
Commentators say all sides will want to avoid triggering snap polls that could end up bolstering the AfD.
Surveys suggest there is little appetite for a return to the ballot box, and some two-thirds of voters say they expect the coalition negotiations to succeed.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Iraq launches assault on last IS-held town in country: army


Baghdad, Iraq /AFP/. The Iraq army said it launched an assault on Friday on the small Euphrates valley town of Rawa, the last in the country still held by the Islamic State group.
"Operations to liberate Rawa began at dawn," the Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
The launch of the attack as the Syrian army battled for a second day to retake the town of Albu Kamal just across the border.
An army general contacted by AFP at the front predicted that the battle for Rawa would be swift as "the majority of IS fighters who were in the town have fled towards the Syrian border."
The US-led coalition battling the jihadists said on Thursday that they had lost 95 percent of the cross-border "caliphate" the size of Britain that they declared in Iraq and Syria in 2014.


Friday, November 17, 2017

NAFTA negotiators hold new talks amid fears of collapse



By Yussel Gonzalez

Mexico City, Mexico / AFP/. After three months of thorny negotiations, fears of a breakdown are hanging in the air as the US, Mexico and Canada begin new talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement Friday.
The fifth round of talks on updating the 23-year-old deal will be a low-key affair, with the top trade officials from all three countries staying home to let the technical experts sift through the divisive details at a Mexico City hotel, out of the spotlight.
The previous round, held last month outside Washington, ended with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer trading blame with Mexican Finance Minister Ildefonso Guajardo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland over frictions that have left the future of the deal in doubt.
"The tone of NAFTA's fifth round of negotiations will be critical," the Eurasia Group consultancy said ahead of the talks.
"The rumors that President Donald Trump would announce the US's intent to exit the trade pact soon have subsided somewhat, but he could very well do so if there is no progress achieved in the next round of negotiations. The problem is that progress depends on the US moderating its demands."
Trump, who has attacked the deal as the worst the United States ever signed, is pushing proposals aimed at slashing the US trade deficit, particularly with Mexico.
They include a sunset clause requiring all three countries to renew the deal every five years and minimum US content requirements for auto imports.
After the last talks, Canada's Freeland blasted the Trump administration's "winner-take-all" mindset and Mexico's Guajardo suggested Mexico was being pushed to the limit of its capacity for compromise.
The three countries admitted they would not be able to reach a deal by the end of the year -- the initial deadline -- and extended the negotiations into 2018.
Seeking to tone things down, Lighthizer, Freeland and Guajardo announced they would stay away from the new round "so negotiators can continue to make important progress on key chapters advanced in round four."
There will be no opening ceremony, and in reality the talks already got under way informally on Wednesday, two days ahead of schedule.
The three countries said "some negotiating groups" had started meeting early, but did not specify what issues they were working on. The talks are scheduled to wrap up Tuesday.
- Life after NAFTA? -
Mexico, which has become a major exporter since the deal was signed, has started contemplating a possible post-NAFTA future.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said last week "there's life after NAFTA" if the negotiations fall through.
Trade expert Alejandro Luna said Mexico -- which sends some 80 percent of its exports to the United States -- would feel the pain if NAFTA ends, but gradually get over it.
"We could recover, but it would have to be in the medium term. In the short term, the Mexican economy would definitely be affected for at least three and maybe even five years," he told AFP.
Mexico's economy has been on a roller-coaster ride since Trump was elected a year ago after a campaign heavy on anti-Mexican rhetoric.
It shrank last quarter for the first time in more than four years, and the International Monetary Fund warned Monday that uncertainty over NAFTA posed a risk to economic growth.
Trump is determined to slash the United States's $64 billion trade deficit with Mexico.
Trade frictions with Canada have also risen under the Republican president.
On Tuesday, Canada requested that a dispute over US softwood lumber duties go to a NAFTA arbitration panel -- something Trump wants to scrap.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Sicilian Mafia boss of bosses Toto Riina 'dies after long illness'


Rome, Italy | AFP/. Former "boss of bosses" Toto Riina, one of the most feared Godfathers in the history of the Sicilian Mafia, died early Friday after battling cancer, Italian media reported.
Riina, who had been serving 26 life sentences and is thought to have ordered more than 150 murders, had been in a medically-induced coma after his health deteriorated following two operations.
The mobster, who turned 87 on Thursday, died in the prisoners' wing of a hospital in Parma in northern Italy just before 4am (0300 GMT), according to the country's main dailies and ANSA news agency.
The hospital would not immediately confirm his death.
Nicknamed "The Beast" because of his cruelty, Salvatore "Toto" Riina led a reign of terror for decades after taking control of the island's powerful organised crime group Cosa Nostra in the 1970s.
- 'No mercy' -
The most high-profile murders he ordered were those in 1992 of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who had worked fearlessly to bring more than 300 mobsters to trial in 1987.
He also famously ordered the brutal murder of a 13-year old boy who was kidnapped in a bid to stop his father from spilling Mafia secrets. The boy was strangled and his body dissolved in acid.
"God have mercy on him, as we won't," an association for victims told the Fatto Quotidiano daily.
Riina's family had been given permission by Italy's health ministry Thursday for a rare visit to say goodbye.
"You're not Toto Riina to me, you're just my dad. And I wish you happy birthday dad on this sad but important day, I love you," one of his sons Salvatore wrote on Facebook.
The ageing gangster had asked in July to be released from prison on the grounds of serious illness -- a request that was denied after a court ruled the care he received behind bars was as good as he would get on the outside.
- 'No regrets' -
Doctors said at the time that the former boss was "lucid". He was caught on a wiretap earlier this year saying he "regrets nothing... They'll never break me, even if they give me 3,000 years" in jail.
The son of a poor farmer, he was born on November 16, 1930 in Corleone, a village near Palermo that would become synonymous with the Mafia thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's popular Godfather film trilogy.
He lost his father and a brother young when they were blown up trying to extract gunpowder from an unexploded American bomb in 1943. By the time he was 19, he had killed his first victim.
He started off as a foot soldier to boss Luciano Leggio before moving up through the ranks, going on the run in 1969 but continuing to lead first the Corleone clan then the entire Mafia from hiding.
He would elude police efforts to snare him for almost a quarter of a century, without ever leaving Sicily.
Riina was slapped with multiple life sentences in absentia after a fellow mobster turned state witness.
The "Beast" retaliated by ordered the deaths of 11 of the turncoat's relatives. He was eventually captured in 1993 after a tip-off from a rival.


Friday, November 17, 2017

May under Brexit pressure at EU reform summit


By Lachlan Carmichael

Gothenburg, Sweden | AFP/. EU leaders will press British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday to do more to reach a divorce deal against the backdrop of a summit to launch reforms for the bloc's post-Brexit survival.
The Brexit crisis threatens to overshadow the meeting in the Swedish port city of Gothenburg, which is supposed to focus on fair jobs and growth in the European Union.
May will hold talks with EU President Donald Tusk and her Irish and Swedish counterparts as a deadline looms for Britain to make enough progress to move on to trade talks in December.
"Tusk will inform May that such a positive scenario is not a given, will require more work and that time is short," an EU source told AFP of the meeting at 1130 GMT.
Former Polish premier Tusk "will ask May how the UK plans to progress" on key issues before negotiations can advance to the next phase, which includes post-Brexit trade ties and a transition period.
The EU demands that Britain makes sufficient progress on its exit bill, on avoiding a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the EU state of Ireland, and on the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned last week that Britain had two weeks to meet the bloc's conditions if it wanted an agreement at the next EU summit in Brussels in December.
Failure to do so would push back a decision until February or March, leaving little time for trade talks before Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.
- 'All about people' -
The so-called "social summit" in Sweden is the first step in a two-year reform drive to show the bloc can survive after Brexit and other setbacks by tackling the economic inequalities fuelling populism.
EU leaders are looking to reboot the union based on plans by France's dynamic new president Emmanuel Macron and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker.
By holding their first "social summit" since one in Luxembourg in 1997, they aim to show the post-war dream of a united Europe is still alive by promoting fair jobs, growth and a social safety net after years of economic austerity.
An EU source told reporters in Gothenburg that despite Brexit, May herself fully supports the social reform agenda embraced by EU leaders in Sweden.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said far-right gains in Austrian and German elections this year, which followed last year's shock of Britain's vote to leave the European Union, showed action was necessary.
"I'm convinced that a sustainable European Union needs a strong social dimension because this is all about people," Lofven, the summit's co-organiser, told AFP in an interview in Brussels last month.
Most of the EU's 28 national leaders are expected to attend, including Macron.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the bloc's economic and political lodestar, will skip the summit to lead talks for a new governing coalition, though her aides said she fully supports the meeting's goals.
These points will be enshrined in a European Pillar of Social Rights which Juncker, European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani and Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas -- whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency -- are due to sign on Friday.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Fire sweeps through Cameroon parliament


Yaoundé, Cameroon /AFP/. A fire swept through the main building of Cameroon's parliament in Yaounde overnight, causing substantial damage, local television reported Friday.
Public broadcaster CRTV said witnesses reported that the blaze was raging on the third and fourth floors of the building.
"Firefighters are working to put out the blaze," it said on Twitter.
"Several deputies from all parties and administrative authorities are helping the deployment of firefighters to stop the flames, which have already ravaged four floors of the administrative block of the building," it added.
Pictures posted on social media appeared to show a large part of the building had been damaged.
There has so far been no indication of any casualties and the cause of the blaze was not immediately clear.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Belgian judge weighs extradition bid for Catalan ex-leader


By Damon Wake

Brussels, Belgium | AFP/. A Belgian court will on Friday consider whether to send axed Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont back to Spain to face charges of rebellion and sedition over his region's independence drive.
Madrid issued a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and four of his former ministers after they fled to Brussels last month and ignored a summons to appear before a Spanish judge, claiming they would not get a fair trial.
A judge in Brussels will hear arguments behind closed doors from prosecutors and lawyers for the Catalan separatists over Spain's extradition request in the first round of what could become a protracted courtroom battle, with both sides expected to appeal if they lose.
This could leave Puigdemont and his cadres still in Belgium when Catalonia goes to the polls on December 21 for an election ordered by Madrid to "restore normality" to the wealthy northeastern region.
"We are going to ask the Belgian judge to respect fundamental EU rights," Michele Hirsch, a lawyer for two of the ex-ministers told AFP.
"The act of organising a referendum is not a matter for criminal law. It is clearly a political opinion that is being targeted, and the peaceful and democratic execution of a series of events linked to that opinion."
- 'Democracy will prevail' -
The hearing is the latest act in Spain's biggest political crisis in decades, sparked by a banned October 1 referendum that the Catalan parliament then used as a mandate to declare independence.
Madrid in response dissolved the regional assembly and sacked the Catalan executive, and eight former ministers are currently behind bars in Spain on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
The five who fled to Brussels went to a Belgian police station on November 5 to answer the warrant and were freed that evening after hours of questioning, on condition that they agreed not to leave Belgium.
Under Belgian law a decision on a European arrest warrant -- brought in by the EU to speed up the once-lengthy extradition process in the bloc -- should be made within 60 days.
The case will be heard by a Dutch-speaking judge -- defendants in linguistically divided Belgium have the option to choose which language the judge hearing their case speaks, and the Catalans have won support from Dutch-speaking Flemish separatists in Belgium.
The judge is expected to give an initial judgement in eight to 10 days.
But at the weekend the country's justice minister warned that with appeals, the process could last up to three months.
Puidgemont, 54, who still describes himself as Catalonia's "president", has been active in the media since arriving in Belgium, but his efforts to internationalise the crisis have fallen flat with EU leaders closing ranks behind Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
In an interview with Scotland's former independence leader Alex Salmond on the Kremlin-backed RT outlet on Thursday, Puigdemont remained defiant, declaring "we will win finally, democracy will prevail".


Thursday, November 16, 2017

World anti-doping body refuses to lift Russia suspension



Seoul, South Korea /AFP/. The World Anti-Doping Agency maintained its suspension of Russia on Thursday, raising the spectre of a possible ban from February's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
WADA's Foundation Board, meeting in Seoul, came to the decision after its Compliance Review Committee recommended that Russia's anti-doping body, RUSADA, "should not be reinstated".
The decision had been expected after Russia refused to admit running a state-sponsored doping system, as detailed in an explosive report for WADA by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren.
The International Olympic Committee is expected to decide whether Russia can compete in Pyeongchang at an executive board meeting next month in Lausanne.
Russia was declared "non-compliant" by WADA in 2015 after the McLaren report alleged institutionalised doping culminating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi -- where the hosts topped the medals table.
Russia's secret service and sports ministry were accused of orchestrating an elaborate plot that included using a "mousehole" to switch dirty samples at the doping laboratory in the Black Sea resort.
WADA has told Russia to "publicly accept" the report's findings and allow access to urine samples at its Moscow anti-doping laboratory, among its key demands before returning to compliance.
Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov admitted that Russia's anti-doping system had failed, but he said officials at RUSADA and their Moscow laboratory were to blame.
"We accept the fact our national anti-doping system has failed... (but) we absolutely deny a state-sponsored doping system," Zhukov told the WADA meeting, echoing previous denials.
He added that an unconditional recognition of the McLaren report "is impossible".
Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov pointed to improvements within RUSADA, and insisted it was independent of state control as he pleaded for the agency to be reinstated.
"RUSADA performs all functions within the World Anti-Doping Code," he said. "I guarantee RUSADA will be fully independent, it is a totally new organisation.
"We are ready to go forward and work openly in the full standards of WADA. Please let us be compliant."
Progress has been made, and WADA has already partially lifted its ban on RUSADA, giving it the right to collect samples. It also audited the body in September.
But suspicions remain. Foundation Board member Adam Pengilly asked how WADA could "trust" Russia's new anti-doping regime "until there is a real acknowledgement of what happened?"
Last week, WADA also said it had obtained an "enormous" internal database of Russian drug test results from 2012-2015.
Despite WADA's refusal to readmit Russia, it may not be fatal to the country's chances of competing in Pyeongchang.
In 2016, the IOC ignored WADA's calls to ban Russia from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro over the McLaren report, instead leaving the decision to individual sports bodies.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

US official to defend Trump stance at UN climate talks

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and UN

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and UN chief Antonio Guterres have been trying to reinvigorate the climate talks in Bonn, Germany.| Photo John Macdougal, AFP 

By Mariëtte Le Roux

Bonn, Germany .AFP/. An American official will address the UN climate meeting in Bonn on Thursday, where envoys have battled to make progress in the shadow of President Donald Trump's rejection of a global action plan.
On the penultimate day of the annual climate huddle, most countries will be represented by heads of state or cabinet ministers at a "high-level segment", but Washington sent an acting assistant secretary of state, Judith Garber.
She replaces Thomas Shannon, number three at the State Department, who pulled out because of a "family emergency".
Garber will address delegates in the afternoon, just three days after White House officials drew the ire of conference-goers by hosting a sideline event defending the use of fossil fuels at a forum focused on reducing planet-warming emissions from burning coal, oil and gas.
"It will be very interesting to see both the content and the tone" of Thursday's speech," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Naomi Ages, a Greenpeace climate campaigner, said Garber would "likely reiterate Trump's decision to withdraw, or try to bargain for better terms."
Announcing Garber's participation, the State Department emphasised that the Trump administration's position on the climate-rescue Paris Agreement "remains unchanged".
"The United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as it is eligible to do so, unless the president can identify terms for engagement that are more favourable to American businesses, workers, and taxpayers," it said in a statement.
The United States ratified the hard-fought global pact, championed by former president Barack Obama, just two months before Donald Trump, who has called climate change a "hoax", was elected to the White House.
Trump announced in June that America would abandon the pact, but the rules prescribe this cannot happen until November 2020.
The US, the State Department said, "is participating in ongoing negotiations... in order to ensure a level playing field that benefits and protects US interests."
- 'Defining threat of our time' -
The United States is the world's biggest historical greenhouse gas polluter, and second only to China for current-day emissions.
Its presence at the Bonn talks has not been universally welcomed, especially as it has taken a tough line on a demand from developing countries for a firmer commitment to climate finance.
The 2015 Paris Agreement, which took more than two decades to negotiate, commits countries to limiting average global warming to under two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over Industrial Revolution levels, and 1.5 C if possible, to avert calamitous climate change-induced storms, drought and sea-level rises.
Nations submitted voluntary emissions-cutting commitments to bolster the deal.
A report Wednesday said America's withdrawal will boost global temperatures, calculated on current country pledges, by nearly half a degree Celsius by 2100, for a total of 3.2 C.
UN chief Antonio Guterres, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel led a diplomatic push Wednesday to reinvigorate the Bonn talks.
Labelling climate change "the defining threat of our time", Guterres said continued investment in fossil fuel would mean an "unsustainable future".
Macron described climate change as "the most significant struggle of our time", while Merkel said it was "a, if not the, central challenge of mankind."
But the German chancellor was criticised for not announcing a phase-out of coal, which still provides about 40 percent of Germany's electricity needs.
Since Monday last week, bureaucrats in Bonn have been haggling over a Paris Agreement "rule book" which will specify how countries must calculate and report their emissions cuts.
Now it is the turn of energy and environment ministers to unlock the toughest political issues.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Trump defends Asia trip, vows 'maximum pressure' on N.Korea


Washington, United States /AFP/. US President Donald Trump hit back at critics of his recent Asia trip and vowed a global campaign of "maximum pressure" on North Korea Wednesday, warning Pyongyang will not subject the world to "nuclear blackmail."
Defending an almost two week trip to Asia that was long on pomp but -- critics say -- short on achievements, Trump said he had successfully galvanized opposition to North Korean proliferation.
"I made clear that we will not allow this twisted dictatorship to hold the world hostage to nuclear blackmail," Trump said in a televised statement a day after returning from the marathon trip.
During a 25 minute address, Trump repeatedly reached for a bottle of water and appeared worn by the long journey that took in Hawaii, South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Always keen to garner praise and lift up examples of others showing him respect, Trump said the red carpet rolled out for him in Asia showed that "America is back."
"Everywhere we went, our foreign hosts greeted the American delegation and myself included with incredible warmth and hospitality and most importantly respect," he said.
Trump and his supporters are fighting a rearguard action against suggestions that the trip was a failure.  
They are pointing to a series of Asian investments in the United States and the release of three US basketball players on Chinese shoplifting charges, after presidential intervention, as evidence it was a success.
Adding to that, Trump himself said that he had won a commitment from Chinese leader Xi Jinping to use Beijing's economic leverage to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
It was not clear if that went beyond Chinese implementation of existing UN Security Council resolutions against Pyongyang.
Trump also suggested that Xi -- who will send a special envoy to Pyongyang later this week -- had ditched a proposal to freeze US military maneuvers in exchange for a freeze in North Korean proliferation.
"President Xi recognizes that a nuclear North Korea is a grave threat to China," Trump said. "And we agreed that we would not accept a so-called 'freeze for freeze' agreement like those that have consistently failed in the past."
There was no immediate confirmation of what would be a significant shift in Chinese policy from Beijing's embassy in Washington.
- Welcome home -
Democratic Senator Edward Markey summed up the sentiment of many in his camp in saying that Trump failed to "make meaningful progress" on "critical economic and security issues during his trip to East Asia."
"Rather than building on the messages in Japan and South Korea on the importance of trilateral unity in the face of the North Korean threat, President Trump tweeted about how hard he has tried to be North Korea's friend and called Kim Jong Un 'short and fat,'" he said.
Aside the furor over Trump tweets, his visit also saw 11 Asia-Pacific allies announce they would press ahead with a free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
That was seen as a diplomatic slap in the face and evidence that the world was looking beyond America's mercurial and nationalistic current leadership.
"The US is out of the game," said Nate Olson of the Stimson Center. "While the US posture alternates between defensive and scorched-earth, other countries are actively fighting to reshape the trade landscape in their favor."
"The progress toward a successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is just the latest example."


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Subaru recalls 400,000 cars in Japan


Tokyo, Japan | AFP/. Subaru recalled nearly 400,000 vehicles from its domestic market on Thursday due to an inspection scandal -- the latest to hit the beleaguered Japanese car industry.
The recall concerns nine models, including a sports car that Subaru manufactures for Toyota, but vehicles sold overseas were not affected, a spokesman told AFP.
Subaru admitted last month that uncertified staff had conducted vehicle inspections at two factories northwest of Tokyo.
It said at the time it would likely have to recall 250,000 cars at a cost of some 5.0 billion yen ($44 million).
It is not immediately known how much the wider recall of 395,000 vehicles will cost the group.
The affected cars were produced at the two factories between January 2014 and October 2017.
Cars bought before then will have been subject to compulsory inspections three years after purchase, a transport ministry official said.
"There is no problem with older cars as they have already been confirmed to meet safety standards," this official told AFP.
A Subaru spokesman said the group had decided to reinspect all vehicles produced domestically from 2014, not just some models believed to have been checked by uncertified staff.
The recall is the latest blow to the once flawless reputation of Japan Inc, after a similar case at bigger rival Nissan.
Last month, Nissan recalled some 1.2 million cars in Japan that had failed to meet domestic rules on final vehicle inspections.
This put a major dent in its operating profit forecast this year, the firm said last week.
The embarrassing admissions have hurt Japan's auto industry, once the envy of the world for its just-in-time manufacturing and near-obsessive focus on constant improvement.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Russia, US headed for UN showdown over Syria gas attacks probe


United Nations, United States | AFP/. Russia and the United States were on a collision course ahead of a UN Security Council vote Thursday on the fate of a UN-led probe to determine who is behind chemical attacks in Syria's six-year war.
Washington and Moscow have put forward rival draft resolutions on renewing for a year the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), tasked with identifying perpetrators of Syria's toxic gas attacks.
After negotiations failed to bridge differences, the rivals each called for a council vote on their draft resolutions on Thursday, hours before the JIM's mandate expires at midnight.
Diplomats said they expected Russia to veto the US-drafted measure, which would be the 10th time Moscow has used its veto power at the council to block action targeting its Syrian ally.
The Russian text is unlikely to garner the nine votes required for adoption, diplomats said.
A resolution requires nine votes to be adopted at the council, but five countries -- Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States -- can block adoption with their veto power.
"The United States hopes the Security Council will stand united in the face of chemical weapons use against civilians and extend the work of this critical group," said the US mission in a statement.
"Not doing so would only give consent to such atrocities while tragically failing the Syrian people who have suffered from these despicable acts."
Russia has sharply criticized the JIM after its latest report blamed the Syrian air force for a sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun that left scores dead.
The attack on April 4 triggered global outrage as images of dying children were shown worldwide, prompting the United States to launch missile strikes on a Syrian air base a few days later.
Washington and its allies have blamed President Bashar al-Assad's government for the Khan Sheikhun attack, but Syria has denied using chemical weapons, with strong backing from Russia.
- Victory for those who use chemical weapons -
In its draft, Russia insisted that the panel's findings on Khan Sheikhun be put aside to allow for another "full-scale and high-quality investigation" by the JIM, which would be extended for a year.
During a council vote in late October, Russia vetoed a US-drafted resolution on a one-year extension, arguing that it did not want to decide on the fate of the panel before the Khan Sheikhun report.
The United States, Britain and France have insisted that the JIM should be allowed to continue its work and that dozens of other cases of chemical weapons use in Syria must be investigated.
Britain said ending the investigation would mean that perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria will go unpunished.
"The only victors would be people who want to use chemical weapons in Syria, which is the Assad regime plus Daesh, and I think everyone in the Security Council would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we allowed that to happen," said British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft.
Daesh is an Arabic-derived acronym that refers to the Islamic State group.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said this week that scrapping the chemical weapons probe in Syria "may send a bad signal, but the way the investigation has been conducted sends an even worse signal."
The joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) panel was set up by Russia and the United States in 2015 and unanimously endorsed by the council, which renewed its mandate last year.
Previous reports by the JIM have found that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that the Islamic State group used mustard gas in 2015.
A bid by the United States, Britain and France to impose sanctions over the chlorine attacks was vetoed by Russia in February.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Pakistan indifferent as smog kills more people than militancy


Islamabad, Pakistan /AFP/. The toxic smog that has covered parts of Pakistan for weeks has exposed official torpor over rampant pollution that has killed thousands more people than have died in years of militancy.
The polluted air that has lingered in Islamabad in recent days was finally dispelled by rain this week, bringing the surrounding Margalla Hills into view once again.
In Lahore, where the situation was most critical, the level of PM2.5 -- microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs -- had dropped to 159 Wednesday from more than 1,000 during the pollution spike, according to PakistanAirQuality, a citizen-driven monitoring initiative.
But what looks good for Pakistan is still very bad: 159 is six times higher than the World Health Organization's (WHO) safe limit.
"Question is, can a change from #Hazardous to Very #Unhealthy be called an improvement?" tweeted PakistanAirQuality.
Pakistan is already ranked third in the world -- behind China and India -- for the number of deaths caused by pollution, with 125,000 people killed annually, according to one measure by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research institute founded by the Gates Foundation.
The figure is well beyond the estimated 60,000 people who have died in the militancy-wracked country's years-long battle against extremism.
"I don't want to downplay the risk of militant extremism, but we must understand that our citizens are more vulnerable to diseases in the air than to armed terrorists on the ground," wrote opposition senator Sherry Rehman in the Express Tribune newspaper this week.
"We must act. And we must act now."
Yet the Pakistani government provides almost no reliable data on pollution, making it difficult to say with any certainty why the smog has become so pervasive, particularly in the last two years, much less tackle its causes.
Obvious suspects include unchecked industrial emissions, millions of poorly maintained vehicles, and a complete lack of waste management, with tonnes of rubbish often burned in the streets.
These factors are aggravated by the annual post-harvest burning of crop stubble, blamed for fuelling the recent pollution crisis across South Asia.
- Environment 'bottom of the list' -
As the smog peaked in recent weeks, roughly 1,000 new patients were treated each day for respiratory issues in Punjab's nine public hospitals, health ministry officials have said.
But even as under-resourced medical centres struggle to cope, Pakistan's official reaction is lethargy.
"It is a matter of emergency but the officials concerned did nothing except taking tea in their offices," said Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, chief justice of the Lahore High Court.
He spoke Monday during an emergency hearing in which an opposition party accused the provincial government in Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, of failing to control the smog.
Provincial officials had delayed school start times and shut down some of the worst polluting companies, and said they had also ordered a temporary halt to crop burning.
But Shah said in court it was not enough, adding: "Why didn't you issue a red alert on smog since you know it's injurious to the health of pregnant women, elderly people and heart patients especially?"
Accusing environment officials of lying to the court, he ordered them to make pollution data available to the public.
Unlike Beijing, which is cracking down on pollution, and New Delhi, which at least monitors its air and issues warnings to its citizens, Pakistani authorities "haven't woken up yet", said Abid Omar, the entrepreneur behind PakistanAirQuality.
"Environment happens to be at the bottom of the list," he said.
Yet "Pakistan is extremely environmentally vulnerable," warned environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam.
He called on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to consider declaring Pakistan an "emergency" and setting up an office in Lahore.
The WHO representative for Pakistan, Mohammad Assai, said he hoped the situation would start to improve as "more awareness" spreads.
Yet even as citizens breathed a little easier Wednesday, residents of Punjab complained that the province's infamous brick kilns were belching smoke into the atmosphere once more.
"Many are still running," one farmer told AFP.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Merkel faces crucial deadline on coalition talks

Chancellor Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel 

By Isabelle LE PAGE with Michelle FITZPATRICK in Frankfurt

Berlin, Germany | AFP/. The German parties hoping to form a new government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel face a make-or-break deadline Thursday, when they will either agree to pursue a tricky three-way coalition -- or risk a snap election.
After weeks of quarrelsome exploratory talks, Merkel's CDU/CSU bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the left-leaning Greens are to announce whether they have found enough common ground to begin formal coalition negotiations.
The awkward bedfellows, who differ on everything from refugees to climate protection and EU reforms, have been pushed together by September's inconclusive election, which left Merkel badly weakened as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lured away millions of voters.
Merkel, eyeing a fourth term as chancellor, gave the coalition hopefuls until November 16 to reach an agreement in principle, with the goal of having a new government in place by Christmas.
"If the conservatives, the Greens and the FDP can't pull together, there's no way to avoid new elections," Der Spiegel news weekly wrote.
"No one wants that. But is that enough to justify an alliance?"
The potential tie-up, dubbed a "Jamaica coalition" because the parties' colours match those of the Jamaican flag, is untested at the national level and how stable such a government would be is anyone's guess.
The final round of pre-coalition talks is expected to run late into the night as party officials tackle thorny outstanding issues, including migration.
Mindful of the anger over the 2015 refugee influx that helped carry the anti-Islam AfD into the Bundestag lower house of parliament, the conservatives are eager to tighten asylum policy.
Merkel's Bavarian CSU sister party wants to go even further by calling for a cap on migrant numbers.
But that is anathema to the Greens, who are pushing to ease restrictions on family reunifications for asylum seekers.
- 'Build bridges together' -
The Greens will likely dig in their heels after already watering down key campaign pledges to unblock contentious talks on the environment.
Greens leader Cem Ozdemir abandoned demands for a 2030 end date for coal-fired plants and the internal combustion engine, and called on other parties to also show some flexibility.
"You build bridges together or not at all," he told the Bild newspaper.
But his proposals to make polluting diesel cars less attractive and close the country's 20 dirtiest coal plants have met with resistance from the conservatives and the FDP, who worry about job losses and disrupting the mighty auto and energy sectors.
On the eve of the talks deadline, the sniping and mud-slinging continued to play out in the media with the CSU's outspoken negotiator Alexander Dobrindt accusing the Greens of "clinging to ancient demands".
The Greens' political director Michael Kellner hit back at the CSU's "irresponsible" behaviour.
"The only conclusion to draw from Dobrindt's daily insults is that he wants the talks to fail," Kellner complained.
Despite the rifts on display, the parties have been able to reach some broad agreements in recent weeks.
At a time when the state coffers are bulging, they have committed to maintaining Germany's cherished balanced budget.
They have also agreed to improve the nation's outdated internet infrastructure, invest more in education and increase child benefits.
The parties, who are broadly pro-EU, also made some headway on Europe after the liberal Free Democrats dropped their demand to wind down the eurozone's bailout fund.
- Merkel under pressure -
Should a Jamaica government emerge, French President Emmanuel Macron could find in Merkel a willing and much-needed co-pilot in his ambitious drive to reform the bloc -- although his plans for a eurozone budget and finance minister will still prove divisive in Berlin.
As the clock ticks down towards the crunch deadline, commentators say all sides will want to avoid triggering snap polls that could end up bolstering the AfD.
Surveys suggest there is little appetite for a return to the ballot box, and some two-thirds of voters say they expect the coalition negotiations to succeed.
The stakes are especially high for Merkel, Europe's most powerful woman, who is still smarting from the bruising she received over her decision to allow over a million asylum seekers into the country.
"Nobody needs an agreement more than Merkel. After all, she's the one who wants to be re-elected chancellor," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily wrote.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Deadly roads make for bumpy ride in India's tech hub

Poor road conditions in Bangalore have been

Poor road conditions in Bangalore have been blamed for nearly 500 deaths so far this year. — AFP 

Bangalore, India | AFP/. It is described as India's answer to Silicon Valley but the tech hub of Bangalore, known for its start-up culture and entrepreneurism, is struggling to solve an age-old problem: potholes.
The southern city is under enormous pressure to fill tens of thousands of craterous holes caused by heavy monsoon rain, after a slew of road deaths blamed on potholes sparked angry protests.
Nearly 500 people have died so far this year navigating Bangalore's pockmarked streets, making it the fourth-deadliest city in India for motorists.
Among them were an elderly couple, who were crushed under a speeding truck last month as they swerved to avoid a gaping hole.
"Definitely it happened due to the bad road," Robert, the couple's son-in-law who goes by one name, told AFP.
Doctors have reported a spike in patients arriving at Bangalore's hospitals with back complaints and spinal injuries sustained on the city's scarred roads.
"After these potholes started surfacing, the numbers have almost doubled," said orthopaedic surgeon B. S. Shankar.
The spate of accidents and near misses has spooked motorists in Bangalore, one of India's most prosperous and developed cities.
The city is home to many of India's top tech companies including Infosys and is known for its temperate climate, green parks and tree-lined residential suburbs.
"You don't know where they are," Bangalorean motorist Vidya Gopalakrishna told AFP of the holes.
"The chances of a two-wheeler skidding is really high, and the chances of accidents are really, really high."
Local authorities have blamed unusually heavy monsoon rains for turning some of the city's roads to impassable stretches of cracked bitumen.
"Some motorcyclists lost their lives due to accidents caused by potholes in recent weeks," N. Manjunath Prasad, commissioner of Bangalore municipality, told AFP.
"We have been trying to fix the problem but rains caused havoc in the city."
One local artist has found a creative use for the potholes, painting elaborate murals around the craters to both beautify the city and alert motorists to danger.
Baadal Nanjundaswamy even filled one giant pothole with blue dye and had an actress dressed as a mermaid swim in the pond to draw attention to the scale of the problem.
Prasad said city workers had filled some 95,000 potholes in recent weeks, but activists accuse authorities of carrying out shoddy repairs in their rush to fix the problem and move on.
Local politician Sharath Kumar, who has organised self-styled "walkathons" to inspect the roads, accused civic authorities of "sub-standard" repairs.
"We found gravel has been used to fill potholes," Kumar told The Hindu newspaper this week.
India has some of the world's deadliest roads with more than 230,000 fatalities annually, and accidents shave three percent off the national GDP every year, according to the country's transport minister Nitin Gadkari.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Citgo is key link between US and Venezuela


Washington, United States / AFP/. Despite its deepening travails, Venezuela remains an important player in the United States, where it owns oil refineries and pipelines through Citgo, a unit of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.
PDVSA acquired 50 percent of Citgo in 1986 from Southland Corp., which is now known as 7-Eleven, the convenience store chain. PDVSA bought the remaining stake in 1990, taking 100 percent control of the company eight years before Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela.
Citgo, which was founded in 1910 as Cities Service, owns three oil refineries in the United States, in the states of Texas, Louisiana and Illinois.
The plants have total refining capacity of 750,000 barrels per day, or around four percent of total US refining production. The three refineries employ about 4,000 people.
Citgo also owns three pipelines and stakes in three more. It has 48 petroleum terminals.
The brand is known to Americans through about 5,600 Citgo gas stations around the country, but those are independently owned franchises.
In 2015, PDVSA sought to sell Citgo but was unable to find a buyer.
The refining company is an important component of the current crisis for PDVSA and Venezuela because a December 2016 restructuring of PDVSA debt offered a 50.1 percent stake in Citgo as a guarantee in case of default. That provision in particular has unnerved US officials.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pressed President Donald Trump to take steps to prevent Russian oil company Rosneft from taking control of Citgo assets in the event of a debt default. Rosneft holds much of PDVSA's debt.
Citgo donated $500,000 to fund Trump's January 2017 inauguration ceremony, making the Venezuelan company one of the top 20 donors, campaign documents showed. Citgo's contribution was on par with those of Microsoft, bankers JP Morgan Chase, and oil giants Exxon and Chevron.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

China imposes new rules on policy banks to curb risks


Beijing, China AFP/. China has set new rules to curb risks at its policy banks, stepping up oversight of the country's financial system as Beijing looks to avert a feared debt crisis in the world's number two economy.
For the first time, the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) will impose specific rules designed in part to reduce financial risk at three banks tasked with funding Beijing's pet projects and supporting Chinese companies abroad.
The rules, released on Wednesday, include setting up mechanisms to make sure they do not lend more cash than they can afford as well as corporate governance provisions.
The new rules come as Beijing copes with ballooning debt that some analysts say threatens the stability of the Chinese economy.
The three banks -- China Development Bank, Export-Import Bank of China and the Agricultural Development Bank of China -- had 25 trillion yuan ($3.8 trillion) in assets at the end of September, according to state news agency Xinhua.
That makes them roughly as large as the country's biggest state-owned bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
The special regulations will "strengthen risk control" and ensure the policy banks' "safe and stable" operations, an unnamed CBRC spokesman said on the commission's website, noting the lenders had consulted commercial banking regulations since their establishment in 1994.
The policy banks figure prominently in President Xi Jinping's signature One Belt, One Road project that China says will invest $1 trillion in Asian and European countries to revive ancient trade routes with a massive network of rail and maritime links.
Some of the projects have faced headwinds and critics say the initiative is weighing down some countries with debt they will struggle to repay.
The policy banks had directed 1.42 trillion yuan of lending to One Belt, One Road projects as of September, according to Xinhua.
China's leadership are struggling with a vast debt mountain that has seen Moody's and Standard & Poor's downgrade their sovereign ratings for the country
Debt-fuelled investment has underpinned the economy's rapid growth, but there are widespread concerns that years of freewheeling credit could lead to a financial crisis with global implications.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

N. Korea slams Trump for insulting leader


Seoul, South Korea | AFP | North Korea's state media on Wednesday slammed Donald Trump for insulting leader Kim Jong-Un, saying the US president deserved the death penalty and calling him a coward for cancelling a visit to the inter-Korean border.

An editorial in the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun focused its anger on Trump's visit to South Korea last week, during which he denounced the North's "cruel dictatorship" in a speech to legislators in Seoul.

The visit was part of a marathon five-nation Asia tour by the US president aimed largely at galvanising regional opposition to the North's nuclear weapons ambitions.

"The worst crime for which he can never be pardoned is that he dared [to] malignantly hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership," the editorial said.

"He should know that he is just a hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people," it added.

Since becoming president, Trump has engaged in an escalating war of words with Kim Jong-Un, trading personal insults and threats of military strikes and raising concerns about an outbreak of hostilities.

Towards the end of his Asia tour, he sent a tweet from Hanoi that took the verbal jousting to a new level, taunting the North Korean leader over his height and weight.

"Why would Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat'?" he tweeted.

The members of the ruling Kim dynasty -- past and present -- enjoy near god-like status in North Korea, which has demonstrated extreme sensitivity to any remark that might be seen as mocking or disrespectful of the leadership.

The editorial also took a dig at Trump's failure to tour the demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas -- a traditional stop-off for senior US officials visiting the South.

Trump's helicopter taking him to the DMZ had turned back after just five minutes due to bad weather -- an explanation the newspaper dismissed.

"It wasn't the weather," the editorial said: "He was just too scared to face the glaring eyes of our troops."


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tillerson in Myanmar to press Suu Kyi and army on Rohingya


Naypyidaw, Myanmar | AFP | Washington's top diplomat arrived in Myanmar Wednesday to press civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's powerful army chief over violence-torn Rakhine state, where troops are accused of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's one-day stop in the capital Naypyidaw comes as global outrage builds over an army crackdown that has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya out of the mainly Buddhist country since late August.

While Myanmar's military insists it has only targeted Rohingya rebels, refugees massing in grim Bangladeshi camps have described chilling and consistent accounts of widespread murder, rape and arson at the hands of security forces.

The UN has said the army campaign likely amounts to ethnic cleansing of a minority that has faced years of systematic oppression.

Tillerson will meet first with army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. He will urge a halt to the violence, to make it safe for Rohingya to return and a "credible investigation" into abuses, a senior US State Department official said ahead of the trip.

The official did not comment on whether Tillerson would raise the threat of military sanctions -- which US lawmakers have pushed for back home.

"We think Burma (Myanmar) has made a lot of progress in the past few years and we would not want to see that progress reversed because of an inadequate response to a crisis like this," the official said.

Tillerson will later meet with Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who has become a punching bag for global rights groups disappointed by her failure to condemn the army or defend the Rohingya against rising Islamaphobia.

Washington say Suu Kyi has a crucial role to play in tackling the crisis but has been careful to focus blame on the army, who Tillerson has previously said he holds "accountable" for violence.

Under Myanmar's junta era constitution the military still controls some key security ministries, including border and defence, and retains a de facto veto on any constitutional change.

The US was a major ally in the democratic transition that eventually led to Suu Kyi taking office in 2016 in a power-sharing arrangement with the army, ending 50 years of brutal junta rule.

The Nobel Laureate's supporters says she must tread lightly to avoid provoking an army that could roll back democratic gains at any time.

Tillerson's arrival comes after the army exonerated itself of any abuses in an internal probe published Monday that denied troops had killed civilians, raped women or used "excessive force" in Rakhine.


Rights groups blasted the probe as an attempt to "whitewash" atrocities by a military with a long history of abuses, especially against ethnic minorities in border regions.

Suu Kyi's administration has also dismissed reports of atrocities and has refused to grant entry to UN officials charge with investigating those allegations.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

China to send envoy to North Korea

President Xi Jinping's special envoy, Song Tao

President Xi Jinping's special envoy, Song Tao 

Beijing, China | AFP | China will send a special envoy to North Korea this week, state media said Wednesday, after US President Donald Trump concluded an Asian tour to rally support against Pyongyang's nuclear threats.

President Xi Jinping's special envoy, Song Tao, will head to North Korea on Friday to discuss the Chinese Communist Party's congress, which took place last month, Xinhua news agency said, without providing more details.

The announcement came a day after the end of Trump's five-nation tour of Asia, during which the US leader held meetings with Xi and urged him to act fast to rein in North Korea, warning that "time is quickly running out".

Trump has urged the region to take a united front against the threat posed by isolated North Korea, which has sparked global alarm with its nuclear and missile tests in recent months.

As tensions have surged China has backed a series of United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang and imposed banking restrictions on North Koreans, putting the Cold War-era allies at odds.

Washington has urged China to intensify use of its economic leverage over North Korea to strongarm Pyongyang into halting its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

- 'Upping the sanctions' -

US officials want Chinese authorities to clamp down on unauthorised trade that they say is still trickling across the North Korean border.

"China can fix this problem easily and quickly, and I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard," Trump said alongside Xi last Thursday.

For his part, Xi repeated his plea for the issue to be resolved through negotiations, saying China was ready to discuss the "pathway leading to enduring peace and stability on the peninsula".

Xi has never met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The last Chinese official trip there was in October 2016, when vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin visited.

On Sunday, Trump said Xi stated that "he is upping the sanctions against" North Korea, but he did not provide details and China has not announced any new punitive measures.

Beijing fears pressuring Kim's regime into collapse, triggering a flood of refugees across its border and eliminating a strategic buffer separating China from the US military in South Korea. 

It has condemned the North's missile tests, but hopes to resolve the nuclear crisis through diplomatic means, pleading for a resumption of long-dormant six-nation talks.

China and Russia have campaigned for a "dual track" approach in which the United States would halt its military drills in the region in return for North Korea suspending its weapons programmes, but the proposal has not gained traction.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Japan's economy continues growth spurt but pace slows

Japanese gross domestic product (GDP) grew by

Japanese gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 0.3% in the third quarter of the year 

Tokyo, Japan | AFP | Japan notched up its seventh straight quarter of economic growth, official data showed on Wednesday, although the rate of expansion in the world's third-biggest economy is slowing.

Japanese gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 0.3 percent in the third quarter of the year, marking the longest string of gains for more than 16 years.

However, the figure represented a slowdown from the second quarter, when the economy grew by 0.6 percent, as a recovery in private consumption appeared to lose steam.

The economy grew by an annualised 1.4 percent, driven mainly by robust exports, the Cabinet Office in Tokyo announced.

"On average, the Japanese economy is on track for a gradual recovery," Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, told AFP.

He said the decline in private consumption growth was due to a "backlash" from the second quarter, where demand was "too strong."

Domestic demand -- which accounts for roughly 60 percent of Japan's GDP, contracted 0.2 percent, after a 0.9 percent rise in the second quarter.

Shinke noted that the weather in Japan was especially poor in the third quarter, which put a dampener on demand in the service sector.

Japan's economy has been picking up steam, mainly on the back of surging exports including smartphone parts and memory chips, with investments linked to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics also giving growth a boost.

Wage rises have been tepid, however, and Tokyo has struggled to overcome years of deflation.

Falling prices can discourage spending by consumers, who may postpone purchases until prices drop further or save the money instead.

That creates a cycle in which firms then cut back on expanding production, hiring new workers or increasing wages.

"We can't say the recovery is led by domestic demand, but demand is not that bad if you calculate the average figure this year," said analyst Shinke.

"Looking ahead, as the global economy -- including the US and Europe -- is in good shape, the export-led recovery is expected to continue in the fourth quarter," he said.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Kate's uncle pleads guilty to punching wife in the face

File photo of Gary Goldsmith (L), uncle of the

File photo of Gary Goldsmith (L), uncle of the bride, attending the wedding of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews at St Mark's Church in Englefield, west of London. Goldsmith, the Duchess of Cambridge's uncle has admitted punching his wife in the face and knocking her to the ground after a drunken row on November 14, 2017 in court in central London. (AFP photo) 

London, United Kingdom | AFP | The Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton's uncle pleaded guilty in a British court on Tuesday to punching his wife in the face during a drunken argument last month.

Gary Goldsmith, 52, admitted using a closed fist to hit Julie-Ann Goldsmith, who fell to the ground and was left semi-conscious outside their central London home in the early hours of October 13.

Goldsmith -- the younger brother of Carole Middleton, the duchess' mother, and a guest at Kate's 2011 wedding to Prince William -- appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court to admit one count of assault by beating.

He will be sentenced there on November 21.

Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot indicated she would consider a community order over prison.

"But I am really looking at how to protect this lady from this man," she added.

The court heard the couple began to argue while in a taxi after a charity event, then continued the argument on the street outside their home.

Prosecutor Kate Shilton said Goldsmith fell down after her husband threw what was described by their taxi driver, Daniel Shepherd, as a "left hook".

"They both got out of the taxi and he (Mr Shepherd) describes Mrs Goldsmith slapping her husband to the face," Shilton said.

"He then describes how Mr Goldsmith punches her hard in the face using a left hook."

After falling to the floor, she remained flat-out with her eyes closed for around 15 seconds before waking up and staggering to her feet, the prosecutor added.

Her husband was "panicked and walking in and out of the house, trying to get her to go back in the house", the court heard.

When Shepherd then challenged Goldsmith over his actions, he became aggressive towards the taxi driver, it was said.

Goldsmith's wife subsequently asked the taxi driver to call the police.

At the police station, Goldsmith denied punching his wife, claiming he had pushed her hard with his left hand, but was apologetic for his actions, the court heard.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

People Magazine names Blake Shelton 'sexiest man alive'

This June 7, 2016 file photo shows Blake

This June 7, 2016 file photo shows Blake Shelton performing at the 12th Annual Stars for Second Harvest Benefit at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. Photo /AP 

Los Angeles, United States | AFP | Country crooner Blake Shelton -- also known for his role as a judge on TV's "The Voice" -- is this year's "sexiest man alive," People Magazine announced Tuesday.

Shelton, 41, is the boyfriend of rocker Gwen Stefani, who may have already come to this conclusion.

"She goes, ‘Listen to me, you’re going to regret this for the rest of your life if you don’t take this gift and just live in the moment,'" Shelton told the magazine.

The lanky Oklahoma native, who has a passion for eating and a chubby past, laughed that he has finally come into his own.

"It’s going to be used in every conversation, whether it’s at The Voice, or at the feed in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, or in a conversation with a doctor," he said.

"You’re damn right, I’m Mr. Sexy! I’ve been ugly my whole life, if I can be sexy for a year, I’m taking it. I’m taking it.”

The title is yet another thing he shares with "Voice" co-star Adam Levine of Maroon 5, now a close friend.

"I can’t wait to shove this up Adam’s ass," Shelton adds. "As proud as I am and honored that you guys asked me, that’s really the only thing I care about."


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

US approves first pill with digital tracking device

Washington, United States | AFP | US regulators have approved the first pill that contains a digital tracking sensor to alert doctors and caregivers as to whether a patient is taking the medication as scheduled.

The pill, called Abilify MyCite (aripiprazole tablets with sensor), is designed for patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

A patient ingests the pill, and a sensor inside the pill activates when it reaches the stomach fluids, sending a message to a wearable patch.

This patch then transmits the information to a mobile app, so that a doctor and up to four caregivers, friends or family members can see the information through a web-based portal.

"Being able to track ingestion of medications prescribed for mental illness may be useful for some patients," said Mitchell Mathis, director of the division of psychiatry products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement Monday afternoon.

"The FDA supports the development and use of new technology in prescription drugs and is committed to working with companies to understand how technology might benefit patients and prescribers."

Although the sensor can alert caregivers, the makers of Abilify, Japan-based Otsuka Pharmaceutical, said it is unclear whether the tracking device will actually help improve patients' ability to take their medication daily as prescribed.

The FDA approved Abilify in 2002 to treat schizophrenia, which affects about one percent of the US population.

The ingestible sensor used in Abilify MyCite was first allowed on the market by the FDA in 2012.

The sensor technology and patch are made by Proteus Digital Health, and are approved for use with existing medications in the United States and Europe.

But until now, the FDA had not approved a sensor-pill combination.

Some experts raised questions about the choice of Abilify as the drug in which to test the sensor, and the "Big Brother" connotations of being tracked.

"Patients with a tendency towards paranoia may feel a bit uncomfortable being monitored in this fashion," said Seth Mandel, chairman of psychiatry at Northwell Health's Huntington Hospital in New York.

"Patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are very often non-compliant with their medication and the result is almost always a relapse," he added.

Still, he said the pill may "potentially be a significant advance in our never-ending struggle to improve patient adherence to psychotropic medication."


Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, said more research is needed to see how the pill affects people in real life.

"This could be a really helpful device to help some of our patients," who often "have difficulty with focusing and concentrating and may forget to take their medications," he told AFP in an email. 

"On the other hand, one of the goals we set for patients is to improve quality of overall functioning with their lives.

"In some situations it may hinder the autonomy some patients are working toward in their treatment, or it may enable patients to rely on an instrument instead of themselves for treatment."


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Four killed in California mass shooting

A law enforcement officer is seen at one of

A law enforcement officer is seen at one of many crime scenes after a shooting on November 14, 2017, in Rancho Tehama, California. PHOTO|AFP 

Rancho Tehama Reserve, United States | AFP |Four people were killed and nearly a dozen wounded, including two children, when a gunman went on a rampage Tuesday, randomly picking his targets at a school and other locations in rural northern California.

Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston told reporters that the assailant was killed by police following the mass shooting, which began around 8:00 am (1600 GMT) at a home in Rancho Tehama Reserve and continued at several locations in the community, including the elementary school.

He said no children were among the dead and the motive for the assault was unclear, although it may be linked to a domestic dispute and a history of disagreements with neighbors.

"It was very clear at the onset that we had an individual that was randomly picking targets," Johnston said at a news conference.

"This man was very, very intent on completing what he set out to do today."

He said one child was shot and wounded at the school. Another suffered non-life-threatening injuries while riding in a car with his mother, who was severely wounded.

Johnston said the gunman, who has not been identified, went on his shooting spree after stealing a neighbor's vehicle and then tried to gain access to the school but was unsuccessful as it was on lockdown.

He said the suspect, who was wearing a military-style vest, left the school to continue on his rampage and crashed the vehicle at one point. He then stole a second vehicle and was killed in a shootout with police.

One of the four victims was a woman the gunman had previously been accused of stabbing, Johnston said.

Rancho Tehama resident Salvador Tello, who was taking his three children to school, described seeing the gunman open fire, killing a woman.

Tello "said he saw bullets strike the truck in front of him and he put his children down to protect them and put his truck to... reverse," Redding Record Searchlight newspaper reporter Jim Schultz said on Twitter.

"As he left, he saw (a) woman lying dead in the street and her... wounded husband next to her. Was told help was on its way."

Another witness, Casey Burnett, said the gunman was "driving around and shooting randomly from his car."

Area resident Brian Flint told local media that his roommate had been shot and killed by the gunman.

- Three weapons recovered -

"He's dead. He didn't make it," Flint told KCRA, referring to his roommate. "For his family and everything, I feel bad, and we'll be there for them."

He said the gunman was a neighbor and had "been shooting a lot of bullets lately, hundreds of rounds, large magazines."

The shooting coincides with a flareup of the long-running debate on America's epidemic of gun violence and the ready accessibility of high-powered weapons, less than 10 days after a gunman shot dead 26 people at a church in Texas.

Johnston told reporters that three weapons -- a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns -- had been recovered from the scene.

He added that some 100 law enforcement officers responded to the shooting.

The Redding Record Searchlight said among the wounded was a six-year-old who suffered two gunshot wounds and another child shot in the leg.

The elementary school is located on the outskirts of Corning, an olive oil-producing town of around 8,000 people about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the state capital Sacramento.

Jason Wandel, chief division counsel at the FBI's Sacramento field office, told AFP that agents had been sent to help with the investigation.

More than 33,000 people die annually in the United States from gun-related deaths -- two thirds of them suicides -- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Families of victims of one of the deadliest shootings in modern US history pushed to reinstate a lawsuit to hold a gun manufacturer responsible for the tragedy.

Remington manufactured the military-style assault rifle used in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 children and six adults.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Actress Rose McGowan surrenders near Washington in drugs case


Washington, United States | AFP | American actress Rose McGowan turned herself in Tuesday near Washington before being released on bond after her personal belongings left on a flight tested positive for narcotics.

McGowan, who has made headlines recently after becoming one of the first actresses to accuse fallen movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of rape, was released on a $5,000 unsecured bond, Loudoun County Sheriff's Office spokesman Kraig Troxell told AFP.

Troxell could not confirm when McGowan was due in court.

"She turned herself in early afternoon at the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center," Troxell said.

"A warrant for her arrest had been issued earlier this year by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department."

Celebrity news magazine Variety said the federal felony charge stems from a police investigation of personal belongings McGowan left on a United Airlines flight arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport in January.

The items allegedly contained traces of unspecified narcotics. Some reports said cocaine was to blame.

After news of the warrant became public, McGowan tweeted: "Are they trying to silence me? There is a warrant out for my arrest in Virginia. What a load of HORSESHIT."

In a public speech last month, McGowan decried what she called a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, and urged women to fight back.

"I have been silenced for 20 years. I have been slut-shamed. I have been harassed. I have been maligned, and you know what? I'm just like you," said McGowan, 44.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Merkel, Macron to front diplomatic push at UN climate talks


Bonn, Germany | AFP | The leaders of France and Germany will lead a diplomatic charge Wednesday to reinvigorate UN climate talks clouded by Washington's rejection of a planet rescue plan backed by the rest of the world.

Despite announcing it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the United States has a delegation at the Bonn huddle, tasked with drawing up rules for executing the hard-fought pact on winding down Earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas.

Washington's presence is not universally appreciated, especially after White House officials hosted a sideline event Monday defending the continued use of fossil fuels.

"A lot of negotiators are not happy with the way the US has been behaving in some of these negotiations," Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a veteran observer of the climate process, told AFP.

"Things like this fossil fuel initiative... are not making things easier."

The United States, which championed the Paris Agreement under former president Barack Obama, ratified it just two months before Donald Trump -- who has described climate change as a "hoax" -- was voted into office.

In June, the new president announced America would pull out of the historic pact.

This week, Syria became the 196th country to adopt the agreement, leaving the United States as the only nation in the UN climate convention to reject it.

Bureaucrats have been haggling over the Paris Agreement rulebook for the past nine days. Now it is the turn of energy and environment ministers to unlock issues above the pay grade of rank-and-file negotiators.

The goal is to draft a set of decisions to be adopted before the meeting ends on Friday.

Along with UN chief Antonio Guterres, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will kick off Wednesday a day-and-a-half of back-to-back "high-level" speeches.

- Not a holiday -

"Ministers speaking at the UN summit in Bonn on Wednesday have a big job to do. This meeting is not making progress on some key issues," said Mohamed Adow of Christian Aid, which represents the interests of poor countries at the talks.

"It almost feels like negotiators have taken this Fiji-led summit and treated it as if they are on holiday in the Pacific."


The Paris Agreement commits countries to limiting average global warming to under two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over Industrial Revolution levels, and 1.5 C if possible, to avert calamitous climate change-induced storms, drought and sea-level rises.

To bolster the agreement, nations submitted voluntary commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning.

But the 1 C mark has already been passed, and scientists say that on current country pledges, the world is headed for a 3 C warmer future, or more.

Armelle le Comte of Oxfam said Merkel and Macron must signal that they will lead by example.

"It is the moment to show that the French-German couple is dynamic and ambitious on these questions," she told AFP.

But Merkel is in a tough spot.

Coal provides about 40 percent of Germany's electricity needs, and the country is set to miss its own goal to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.

"Chancellor Merkel over the years has been a great climate champion and has driven the global debate forward," said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace.

"But that credibility is hanging in the balance."

Outstanding issues for ministers to solve include a demand from poorer countries for firm financing commitments to help them prepare for, and deal with, the fallout from climate change.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

'Old' Trump takes dig at 'short and fat' Kim Jong-Un


Hanoi, Vietnam | AFP | US President Donald Trump took his verbal jousting with Kim Jong-Un to a new level Sunday, taunting the North Korean leader over his height and weight before musing over the idea of them eventually becoming friends.

While they have never met, Trump and Kim have form when it comes to name-calling, with the US president a more than willing match for the highly rhetorical flourishes deployed by his adversary in Pyongyang.

Trump has referred to Kim as a "madman" and "Rocket Man" while the 33-year-old responded by calling the 71-year-old former reality TV star a "mentally deranged dotard".

On Sunday Trump got down to basics, with a sarcastic tweet prompted by recent descriptions of him in the North's state media as a "lunatic old man".

"Why would Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat'?" the president tweeted from Hanoi -- the latest leg of a lengthy Asia tour that had, until then, appeared to have moderated his Twitter habit.

"Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!" he wrote.

Sarcastic or not, the dig about Kim's weight, which has increased significantly since he came to power following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011, is unlikely to go down well in Pyongyang.

The members of the ruling Kim dynasty -- past and present -- enjoy near god-like status in North Korea, which has demonstrated extreme sensitivity to any remark that might be seen as mocking or disrespectful of the leadership.

Foreign tourists to Pyongyang are generally obliged to pay homage -- laying flowers and bowing deeply -- before giant statues of Kim's father and his grandfather -- founding leader Kim Il-Sung -- at some point during their visit.

Questioned later about his Tweet, Trump insisted he had not been entirely joking about one day befriending the man he described just last week as a dictator with "twisted fantasies".

"That might be a strange thing to happen but it's certainly a possibility," he told reporters at a press conference in the Vietnamese capital.

"If that did happen, it would be a good thing, I can tell you, for North Korea ... I don't know that it will, but it would be very, very nice if it did," he added.

Trump has played hawk and dove with the North during his sweep of five Asian countries -- denouncing it as a "cruel dictatorship," while offering Kim Jong-Un a diplomatic way out of the crisis over Pyongyang's growing nuclear arsenal.

During his election campaign, Trump said he would be willing to sit down with Kim and negotiate over a "hamburger" - an offer the North Korea leader has so far chosen to ignore.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Deported veterans protest in Mexico on US Veterans Day

The Mexican veterans, despite their far-flung

The Mexican veterans, despite their far-flung service, were deported for committing crimes 

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico | AFP | A group of Mexicans who served with the US military in Vietnam and Iraq only to be deported held a Veterans Day protest on Saturday in the border city Ciudad Juarez.

A stone's throw from the bridge between Juarez and El Paso, Texas, the deportees demonstrated with the flags of their US military units.

"We served a country that has cheated us," said Jose Francisco Lopez Moreno, 64. Many Mexicans have served in the US military in exchange for expedited residency.

But these veterans were deported for committing crimes, despite risking their lives in far-flung combat.

"It is so unfair. They separated us from our families, and we are alone here with no health care or assistance of any kind," said Lopez, who served in Vietnam but was deported to Mexico in 2004. Veterans in the United States receive pensions and health care.

Local officials estimate there are about 300 deportees.

"For as long as I live, even if I die on this side, I will always love the US flag. That was my life," said Ivan Ocon, who served in Iraq in 2003 but last year was deported to his homeland.

"It was like having a house come crashing down on top of you, to have them turn their backs on you after all that," he added.

"You think that you would not be deported because you were part of something so great, but in the end, they throw you out just the same," he said.

"We want to go back. That's what we are asking Donald Trump. We fought for your country," he said.

Trump has brought US-Mexican ties to their lowest point in many decades, seeking to build a border wall he first said he would force Mexico to fund. He later backtracked on that idea.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

MTV Europe Music Awards returns to London with glitzy show

Taylor Swift could be the big winner, with the

Taylor Swift could be the big winner, with the US pop sensation nominated in six categories. 

London, United Kingdom | AFP | Eminem, U2 and David Guetta will take to the stage in London on Sunday for the MTV Europe Music Awards, which returns to the British capital after more than 20 years.

British singer Rita Ora will host the ceremony at Wembley Arena, which for the first time will see categories stripped of gender after MTV announced it wants to "break barriers".

Taylor Swift could be the big winner of the night, with the US pop sensation nominated in six categories just two days after her sixth album "Reputation" was released.

Although up for awards including best artist, video, and look, it's uncertain whether she will attend the ceremony which is filled with live performances.

Top-selling rapper Eminem will unveil his single "Walk on Water" ahead of the release of his latest album "Revival", which comes out on Friday.

Eminem, who is nominated in the best hip-hop category, last month savaged US President Donald Trump in a video aired at an awards ceremony in Miami.

Other nominees set to perform at Wembley include Cuban-American artist Camila Cabello, Canadian singer Shawn Mendez, and the French DJ David Guetta.

The majority of the winners will be picked by music fans in an online vote, where there are 12 categories listed in addition to 32 separate prizes for different countries and regions.

The best worldwide act and best video will be chosen by the MTV team.

Irish band U2 will collect MTV's "Global Icon" gong, previously awarded to Queen, Whitney Houston and Eminem.

"U2's impact on music, pop culture and social issues around the world has been tremendous," said Bruce Gillmer, producer of the awards ceremony.

"For over four decades and counting, they've entertained, influenced, and inspired fans around the globe," he added.

U2 performed in London's Trafalgar Square the night before the MTV awards, along with DJ Guetta, to a crowd of 7,000 who won free tickets in a ballot.

Created in 1994, the MTV Europe Music Awards returns to London for the first time since 1996.

The cable channel also runs the Video Music Awards which are renowned for top performances and the occasional controversy, including pop diva Lady Gaga wearing a dress made of meat to the ceremony in 2010.

The previous Video Music Awards saw hip hop artist Kanye West leap on stage to interrupt an acceptance speech by Swift and argue that Beyonce was better.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Privacy fears over artificial intelligence as crimestopper

A display shows a vehicle and person

A display shows a vehicle and person recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference, which showcases artificial intelligence, deep learning, virtual reality and autonomous machines, in Washington, DC, November 1, 2017.PHOTO|AFP 

Washington, United States | AFP | Police in the US state of Delaware are poised to deploy "smart" cameras in cruisers to help authorities detect a vehicle carrying a fugitive, missing child or straying senior.

The video feeds will be analyzed using artificial intelligence to identify vehicles by license plate or other features and "give an extra set of eyes" to officers on patrol, says David Hinojosa of Coban Technologies, the company providing the equipment.

"We are helping officers keep their focus on their jobs," said Hinojosa, who touts the new technology as a "dashcam on steroids."

The program is part of a growing trend to use vision-based AI to thwart crime and improve public safety, a trend which has stirred concerns among privacy and civil liberties activists who fear the technology could lead to secret "profiling" and misuse of data.

US-based startup Deep Science is using the same technology to help retail stores detect in real time if an armed robbery is in progress, by identifying guns or masked assailants.

Deep Science has pilot projects with US retailers, enabling automatic alerts in the case of robberies, fire or other threats.

The technology can monitor for threats more efficiently and at a lower cost than human security guards, according to Deep Science co-founder Sean Huver, a former engineer for DARPA, the Pentagon's long-term research arm.

"A common problem is that security guards get bored," he said.

Until recently, most predictive analytics relied on inputting numbers and other data to interpret trends. But advances in visual recognition are now being used to detect firearms, specific vehicles or individuals to help law enforcement and private security.

- Recognize, interpret the environment -

Saurabh Jain is product manager for the computer graphics group Nvidia, which makes computer chips for such systems and which held a recent conference in Washington with its technology partners.

He says the same computer vision technologies are used for self-driving vehicles, drones and other autonomous systems, to recognize and interpret the surrounding environment.

Nvidia has some 50 partners who use its supercomputing module called Jetson or its Metropolis software for security and related applications, according to Jain.

One of those partners, California-based Umbo Computer Vision, has developed an AI-enhanced security monitoring system which can be used at schools, hotels or other locations, analyzing video to detect intrusions and threats in real-time, and sending alerts to a security guard's computer or phone.

Israeli startup Briefcam meanwhile uses similar technology to interpret video surveillance footage.

"Video is unstructured, it's not searchable," explained Amit Gavish, Briefcam's US general manager. Without artificial intelligence, he says, ''you had to go through hundreds of hours of video with fast forward and rewind."

"We detect, track, extract and classify each object in the video. So it becomes a database."

This can enable investigators to quickly find targets from video surveillance, a system already used by law enforcement in hundreds of cities around the world, including Paris, Boston and Chicago, Gavish said.

"It's not only saving time. In many cases they wouldn't be able to do it because people who watch video become ineffective after 10 to 20 minutes," he said.

- 'Huge privacy issues' -

Russia-based startup Vision Labs employs the Nvidia technology for facial recognition systems that can be used to identify potential shoplifters or problem customers in casinos or other locations.

Vadim Kilimnichenko, project manager at Vision Labs, said the company works with law enforcement in Russia as well as commercial clients.

"We can deploy this anywhere through the cloud," he said.

Customers of Vision labs include banks seeking to prevent fraud, which can use face recognition to determine if someone is using a false identity, Kilimnichenko said.

For Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the rapid growth in these technologies raises privacy risks and calls for regulatory scrutiny over how data is stored and applied.

"Some of these techniques can be helpful but there are huge privacy issues when systems are designed to capture identity and make a determination based on personal data," Rotenberg said.

"That's where issues of secret profiling, bias and accuracy enter the picture."

Rotenberg said the use of AI systems in criminal justice calls for scrutiny to ensure legal safeguards, transparency and procedural rights.

In a blog post earlier this year, Shelly Kramer of Futurum Research argued that AI holds great promise for law enforcement, be it for surveillance, scanning social media for threats, or using "bots" as lie detectors.

"With that encouraging promise, though, comes a host of risks and responsibilities."


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Trump backs US spy agencies on poll meddling but slams Putin 'haters'


Hanoi, Vietnam | AFP | Donald Trump said Sunday he backed US intelligence agencies who concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, but repeated his trust in the sincerity of Vladimir Putin's denials and slammed critics of his relationship with the Russian leader.

Key former Trump aides are under US investigation for possible collaboration with the Kremlin and the issue of whether Moscow interfered with last year's vote has overshadowed the tail end of the president's ongoing Asia tour.

Trump returned to the subject in an early morning Twitter storm, which also saw him take a sarcastic dig at North Korea's "short and fat" leader Kim Jong-Un.

Addressing a press conference in Hanoi, Trump was asked to clarify comments he had made on Air Force One the day before about Putin's insistence that Moscow had never tried to affect the outcome of the US vote.

"I believe he feels he and Russia did not meddle in the election," Trump said.

"As to whether or not I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies. I believe in our... intelligence agencies," he added.

In May, US intelligence chiefs told Congress they agreed with their analysts' conclusion that Russia had interfered in the election.

CIA director Mike Pompeo, who was appointed by Trump, said he still believed in that evaluation in a statement to CNN Saturday.

In his barrage of tweets earlier Sunday, Trump slammed "haters and fools" who questioned his efforts to improve ties with Russia.

"There (sic) always playing politics - bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!" he said.

- 'Short and fat' -

Trump was in Hanoi for a brisk visit with Vietnam's top communist leaders to drum up trade deals and seek further support on containing North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, which have been a dominant theme on each leg of his Asia tour.

Citing descriptions by North Korean officials and state media of him as an "old" man, another Trump tweet suggested he was disappointed by what he took to be a personal attack from the North's young leader.

"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Trump wrote.

"Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!" he added.

Later at the press conference, he insisted he hadn't been joking about eventually befriending a man he denounced just last week as a "twisted" dictator.

"It's certainly a possibility. If that did happen, it would be a good thing,” he told reporters.

North Korea is extremely sensitive to any remarks that might appear disrespectful of the country' ruling Kim dynasty, whose members are revered as near deities.

Since becoming president, Trump has engaged in an escalating war of words with Kim, trading personal insults and threats of military strikes and raising concerns about an outbreak of hostilities.

Over the past week, Trump has urged Asian leaders to take a united front against the threat posed by the isolated North, warning at APEC that the region "must not be held hostage".

Late Saturday, Pyongyang hit back, calling his Asia trip "a warmonger's visit for confrontation" and saying it would only serve to accelerate Pyongyang’s push for nuclear statehood.

- South China Sea support -

In another tweet Sunday, Trump said Chinese leader Xi Jinping had agreed to toughen sanctions against North Korea, whose impoverished economy is hugely reliant on trade with its giant neighbour.

"President Xi of China has stated that he is upping the sanctions against (North Korea). Said he wants them to denuclearise. Progress is being made," he wrote.

The US administration thinks China's economic leverage over North Korea is the key to strong-arming Pyongyang into halting its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

Trump leaves Hanoi for the Philippines later Sunday, which will be last stop in his marathon tour through Asia.

Philippines and Vietnam are two countries that have sparred with Beijing on overlapping claims in the resource rich South China Sea.

Vietnam has sought military support from Washington on the dispute, and dealmaker Trump said Sunday he could help mediate the conflict.

"If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know... I am a very good mediator," Trump told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.

In the past, China has reacted angrily to any suggestion of US mediation, saying Washington has no role in the dispute.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Trump, Putin agree 'no military solution' in Syria


Danang, Vietnam | AFP | The United States and Russia issued a presidential joint statement saying there was "no military solution" to the war in Syria after their leaders met briefly on the sidelines of a regional summit in Vietnam.

There had been mixed messages for days from both Moscow and the White House on whether President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would hold face-to-face discussions during the APEC summit in Danang.

The statement, issued by officials from both sides, said the two presidents had made progress on Syria, which has been battered by six years of civil war.

The US and Russia have backed competing factions in the bloody conflict, and agreement on the next steps towards peace is rare.

"The presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria," the statement said, adding that the two sides "confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS" -- an alternative name for the Islamic State jihadist group.

The statement added that the two sides had agreed to keep military channels open to avoid potential clashes over Syria and urged the warring sides to participate in UN-led peace talks in Geneva.

Russia has run a major bombing campaign in Syria since 2015, when it stepped in to support President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels -- some of them US-backed -- tipping the conflict in his favour.

The Russian military has recently accused the United States of merely "pretending" to fight IS in Iraq and of hindering the Russian-backed offensive in eastern Syria.

But Saturday's joint statement expressed satisfaction with efforts to prevent incidents between their respective forces in Syria.

"The Presidents affirmed their commitment to Syria's sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character," it said.

According to senior State Department officials, the statement was the result of "months of fairly intense discussions" and was finalised on the margins of the APEC summit between diplomats.

It represents Russia's firm committment to the UN backed peace process, one of the officials said.

"We made very clear that there will not be any reconstruction aid in Syria until there is a meaningful political process moving along the timeline," he said.

"I cannot speak to the Russians, but I think it might be one of the reasons why they clearly committed to the fact that the ultimate resolution to the civil war will be under the Geneva process," he added.

A new round of talks is scheduled to be held in Geneva from November 28, the UN special envoy for Syria announced Thursday.


There have been seven previous sessions between the Syrian regime and the opposition, which failed to overcome the main obstacle -- the fate of President Assad.

- Haunted relationship -

Trump's relationship with Moscow has haunted the first year of his presidency, with key former aides under a US investigation for alleged collaboration with the Kremlin.

Putin and Trump last held face-to-face talks at a G20 summit earlier in the year, and there was intense speculation over whether they would so do again in Danang.

After the pair met on the sidelines of the APEC summit, Trump said he believes Putin was sincere when he denied meddling in the US election that propelled Trump to power, adding that the Russian leader felt "very insulted" by the allegations.

Overly amicable talks between Trump and Putin in Vietnam risked being an awkward sell for the White House, as it vigorously denies any undue links with the Kremlin.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Facebook urges users to send nude pics


Sydney, Australia /AFP/. Facebook is trying to combat "revenge porn" by encouraging users in Australia to submit their nude photos to a pilot project designed to prevent intimate images from being shared without consent.
Adults who have shared nude or sexually explicit photos with someone online, and who are worried about unauthorised distribution, can report images to the Australian government's eSafety Commission.
They then securely send the photos to themselves via Messenger, a process that allows Facebook to "hash" them, creating a unique digital fingerprint.
The identifier is used to block any further distribution on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger as a pre-emptive strike against revenge porn, a common method of abuse and exploitation online.
"We’re using image-matching technology to prevent non-consensual intimate images from being shared," said Antigone Davis, Facebook's head of global safety.
A Facebook spokesman said Britain, Canada and the United States are also expected to take part in the project.
Australia's eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant told AFP the initiative empowers people to protect themselves against the unauthorised spread of intimate images.
"It removes control and power from the perpetrator who is ostensibly trying to amplify the humiliation of the victim amongst friends, family and colleagues," she said.
If successful, the Facebook trial should be extended to other online platforms, Inman Grant added.
"The precedent already exists for the sharing of child exploitation images and countering violent extremism online, and by extending to image-based abuse we are taking the burden off the victims to report to multiple online platforms."
Australia is among world leaders in efforts to combat revenge porn.
Its eSafety Commission launched an online portal last month, allowing victims to report cases where their photos have been shared on the internet without consent. The government agency then works with websites and search engines to have them removed.
- Abuse on 'mass scale' -
A recent survey by the commission showed one in five Australian women aged 18-45 suffered image-based abuse, with Facebook and its Messenger app accounting for 53 percent of revenge porn, followed by Snapchat at 11 percent then Instagram at four percent.
Research by Melbourne's Monash University and RMIT University earlier this year found people were falling prey to abusive behaviour on a "mass scale", and that men and women were equally likely to be targeted.
RMIT legal studies lecturer Anastasia Powell said it was "positive" to see collaboration between social media companies and government -- a vital part of any strategy to tackle revenge porn.
"It requires a combination of legal reform, as well as policy, as well as additional services from victims, as well as these sort of responses from social media companies," she told AFP.
"There's very little consistency between laws internationally and police cooperation and processes to make sure that countries can work together, to make sure that images can be taken down, or to pursue a criminal response."
But with a proliferation of "predatory" third-party companies operating online, people need reassurance that a mechanism for sending sensitive photos to Facebook was secure, Powell added.
"It is really important to give that confidence that this is being dealt with appropriately and that images are being handled by reliable sources."


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Risk of breast cancer's return looms for 20 years: study


Miami, United States / AFP/. Women who are treated for a kind of breast cancer that is fueled by the hormone estrogen face a substantial risk of the cancer returning, even 20 years later, researchers said Wednesday.
The risk is highest in women whose original tumors were large and affected four or more lymph nodes, said the report in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers analyzed data from 88 clinical trials involving nearly 63,000 women with estrogen-receptor (ER) positive breast cancer, one of the most common types.
Patients in the study all received endocrine therapy -- such as tamoxifen which is the standard of care to cut the risk of cancer recurrence -- for five years and were free of cancer when they stopped therapy.
But researchers found a "steady" risk of tumors recurring over the next 15 years, up to 20 years after the initial diagnosis.
"Even though these women remained free of recurrence in the first five years, the risk of having their cancer recur elsewhere -- for example in the bone, liver or lung -- from years five to 20 remained constant," said senior author Daniel Hayes, professor of breast cancer research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Women whose original tumors were large enough to have spread to four or more lymph nodes had a 40 percent risk of a cancer recurrence over the next 15 years.
For women with small, low-grade cancers and no spread to the lymph nodes, the risk of cancer recurring was 10 percent in 15 years.
"It is remarkable that breast cancer can remain dormant for so long and then spread many years later with this risk remaining the same year after year and still strongly related to the size of the original cancer and whether it had spread to the nodes," said lead author Hongchao Pan, from the University of Oxford.
The findings raise questions about the current practice of treating women with tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors for five years after the tumor is removed, in order to reduce the risk of a recurrence.
Some experts believe the treatment should be extended to 10 years.
Side effects can include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, osteoporosis and joint pain.
Ultimately, the decision is up to a woman and her doctor, said Hayes.
"These data can be used by patients and their health care providers as they consider whether to continue taking anti-estrogen therapy beyond five years, weighed against side effects and toxicity of the therapies," he said.
Treatments for breast cancer have improved in recent years, so the estimated risks of recurrence may be on the high side, said co-lead author Richard Gray, of the University of Oxford.
"To assess 20-year risks, we had to study women who received their breast cancer diagnosis many years ago," said Gray.
"We know that treatments have improved since then, so recurrence rates will be somewhat lower for women who were diagnosed more recently."


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Barack Obama dismissed from jury duty in Chicago


Chicago, United States /AFP/. Former US president Barack Obama answered a jury summons Wednesday, but was dismissed soon after arriving at a Chicago courthouse to perform the civic duty asked of all Americans.
As a prospective juror, Obama joined fellow citizens at Cook County's Daley Center courthouse, all waiting to see if they would be chosen to serve on a trial.
The former leader of the free world was the only juror to arrive by motorcade, however, accompanied by tight security and met with a throng of news media and court staff trying to snap a picture.
"He gorgeous!" one court clerk exclaimed upon spotting the former president, the Chicago Tribute reported. Potential juror Kelly Bulik told the newspaper she felt like a "piece of melting butter" as she shook his hand.
Obama thanked everyone for showing up, and was surprised by some who presented him with copies of his books to sign.
"Thanks everybody for serving on the jury. Or, at least being willing to," he said to laughter.
The former law professor left by midday, along with a number of others who were randomly selected for dismissal, according to the Tribune.
Before heading to court, the former president tweeted in the morning about Tuesday night's high-profile state and mayoral election results seen as a sweeping repudiation of the politics of his White House successor Donald Trump.
"This is what happens when the people vote," Obama wrote. "Every office in a democracy counts!"
Obama is not the first US president to show up for service that some Americans either dread or find excuses to avoid. Obama's predecessor in the White House, George W Bush, responded to a jury summons in 2015.
Bush was not selected to serve as a juror, but images of the smiling former president posing with delighted citizens at the courthouse in Dallas, Texas quickly showed up on social media.
Chicago has some experience with high-profile jurors. In 2004, media titan Oprah Winfrey, who at the time produced her talk show out of the midwestern city, was a juror on a three-day murder trial ending in a conviction.
While the Obamas currently live in Washington, the ex-president and first lady Michelle Obama maintain a home in Chicago, the city where he got his political start.
The south side of Chicago is also where the future Obama presidential center will be built, near the former leader's home.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Fresh EU bid to renew controversial weedkiller


Brussels, Belgium /AFP/. The European Union will make a fresh bid on Thursday to renew authorisation for the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, which critics say causes cancer.
With the current license set to expire December 15, it was unclear whether enough states would back a European Commission proposal to renew its licence for five years, half the 10 years it had originally proposed.
France, one of Europe's biggest users, said it would oppose the move and called for a renewal of just three years.
Monsanto, the US agro-giant that makes weedkiller Roundup, insists glyphosate meets the standards required to renew its European licence.
"I don't think the commission has a majority for a license for five years," Luxembourg's agriculture minister Fernand Etgen told the tiny duchy's newspaper Luxemburger Wort.
Luxembourg also plans to vote against a five-year renewal.
The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, had originally recommended approving the herbicide's use for another decade.
However, faced with growing uproar over the alleged dangers of glyphosate use, experts from the European Union's 28 member states balked last month at a renewal.
The commission then proposed reducing the timeframe from ten years to five years, with a vote by the experts scheduled for Thursday.
- Greenpeace urges ban -
Environmental campaigners Greenpeace and other critics are calling for an outright ban in Europe for glyphosate.
Activists last month handed the EU a petition signed by more than 1.3 million people backing such  move.
They point to a 2015 study by the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer that concluded it was "probably carcinogenic".
France's government has said it wants to phase out the herbicide and environment minister Nicola Hulot, a celebrity green activist, said: "France's position is three years."
The European Parliament, the EU's only elected body, last month said glyphosate should be renewed only until 2022 and banned thereafter.
The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency both say glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans, in line with a 2016 review carried out by WHO experts and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The weedkiller deadlock in the EU has dragged on since June 2016, when its previous 15-year licence expired, and an 18-month extension was granted.
Europe's main farmers union, the Copa-Cogeca, say there is no alternative but to renew the licence if the continent wants to maintain yields.
"Neither emotions nor politics should govern such important decisions," the union's secretary general Pekka Pesonen said.
If there is no vote for renewal, it will expire at the end of December. But it will still be possible to use up glyphosate stockpiles for another year.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Clock ticks as Brexit talks resume


Brussels, Belgium /AFP/. Britain and the European Union resume Brexit talks Thursday with little hope of a breakthrough and fears that the fragility of Theresa May's government threatens further progress before the end of the year.
The sixth round of negotiations is the first since EU leaders warned May at an October 20 summit that Britain had made insufficient progress to move on from divorce issues to discussions of a future trade deal.
They said they planned to start internal preparations soon with the aim of kicking off trade talks with Britain in December, but officials warned that that deadline now seems increasingly shaky.
"More progress needed on three key topics," EU negotatior Michel Barnier said on Twitter on the eve of the talks, along with a graphic showing the terms the remaining 27 EU states expect Britain to agree to.
This week's talks feature a stripped down two-day schedule, with Frenchman Barnier and his British counterpart David Davis only set to meet on Friday morning, sources said.
- 'Do they have strength?' -
The EU demands progress on three key divorce issues -- Britain's exit bill to meet its commitments to the EU budget, the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the rights of EU citizens in Britain.
The British premier's government however looks increasingly distracted, with the resignation of its aid minister over meetings in Israel on Wednesday adding to the sense of chaos since May's disastrous showing in elections earlier this year.
"I see a strong willingness to come to a deal. I am confident that everybody understands what has to be done on both sides," an EU diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The question is do they have the strength? And will the moves be made in time by the end of November, first week of December?"
Britain must show progress by then if it wants the bloc to move to talks on a future relationship and a post-Brexit transition period at the next summit on December 14, European sources said.
Failure to do so would likely push back the move to February or even March, leaving only around six months to reach a deal by October 2018, the timeline Barnier has set in order for the withdrawal agreement to be ratified by Brexit day in March 2019.
- 'Major issues' -
The EU says it wants Britain to provide written guarantees of a pledge to honour its financial commitments that May made in a speech in the Italian city of Florence in September.
"We don't need speeches, we need commitments," the diplomat said.
European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani -- whose institution will have the final vote on any Brexit deal -- last month set the bill at around 50 to 60 billion euros ($58-70 billion), and said that the 20 billion proposed by London was "peanuts".
The parliament also rejected fresh proposals by Britain this week on protecting the rights of the three million EU nationals living in Britain after Brexit.
"We don't recognise reports suggesting that a deal on citizens' rights is almost finalised. There are still major issues that have to be resolved," said the parliament's Brexit steering group, chaired by former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt.
EU ambassadors on Wednesday had their first internal "brainstorming" session looking at a working paper on future relations and a transition, expected to last two years, sources said.
"It was very theoretical because we haven't dealt with phase one yet," a diplomatic source added. "There was a recognition of the limits of any internal preparation exercise until we have a clearer idea of what future relationship London wants."


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Catalan parliament speaker due in court for 'sedition'


Barcelona, Spain | AFP/. The speaker of the Catalan parliament is due to appear before a Spanish court Thursday accused of sedition for declaring independence, after a union strike over the detention of separatist leaders disrupted the region.
Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell, 58, and five other elected officials will go before a Supreme Court judge on Thursday morning. The court has the power to decide if they are guilty of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement with a view to declaring independence.
They are suspected of having followed a "concerted strategy to declare independence", before the official declaration of the Catalan parliament on October 27th, which was annulled Wednesday by the Constitutional Court, in the most serious crisis in Spain in 40 years of democracy.
The magistrate could decide to place them in pre-trial detention, joining the majority of Catalan leaders who organised a referendum on independence last month.
A judge in Madrid last week ordered eight separatist politicians to be remanded in custody over their secession drive.
Conspicuously absent in court will be the region's deposed leader Carles Puigdemont and four of his former ministers, who travelled to Belgium after the central government imposed direct rule on Catalonia following the regional parliament's declaration of independence.
The 54-year-old has ignored a summons to appear before a judge in Madrid, saying he wants guarantees he will receive a fair trial.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Wednesday denied that his government was "in crisis" over Puigdemont's presence, after Flemish separatist members of his coalition government spoke out in support of Catalan independence.
Protesters blocked roads, highways and train tracks in Catalonia on Wednesday as part of a region-wide strike called by a pro-independence union.
The walkout was called by the CSC union but lacked support from Spain's two largest unions.
Main highways, including Spain's export route to France and the rest of Europe, were cut in about 60 places causing widespread disruption in the region.
Authorities said high-speed rail links with France were disrupted, with four out of eight daily trains affected.
Protesters draped huge banners across at least one tunnel in Barcelona, blocking entry, and activists also cut off main roads linking the region of 7.5 million people to France and to the Spanish capital Madrid.
French authorities said that the border was blocked at the Spanish town of Puigcerda and that other major routes were cut around Figueres, north of Barcelona.
Despite the disruptions, the work stoppage was on a smaller scale than a general strike on October 3.
On October 1, Catalonia held an unregulated referendum -- marked by a heavy-handed operation by Spanish police -- that saw a large majority in favour of seceding from Madrid. Turnout was just 43 percent, however, and Spain's top court ruled the plebiscite illegal.
Juan Antonio Puigserver, an interior ministry official, said participation in Wednesday's strike had been "minimal" in most sectors.
- Catalonia divided -
The independence crisis has further shaken the European Union which is still getting to grips with Britain's shock decision to leave the bloc, and raised fears of social unrest as well as prolonged disruption to the eurozone's fourth-largest economy.
More than 2,000 businesses have moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia as the turmoil drags on.
Fresh elections will be held in Catalonia on December 21 and Rajoy called on Wednesday for "massive participation" in the vote.
Puigdemont has called for a united separatist front to participate, but a former government ally, the leftwing ERC party, on Tuesday ruled out running on the same ticket.
Although the separatists won a majority of seats in 2015, they captured less than half of the votes cast, and polls show Catalans remain split over independence.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Trump says trade surplus unfair, adds 'I don't blame China'

US President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese

US President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare to shake hands during a business event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) 

Beijing, China / AFP/. US President Donald Trump decried his country's "one-sided and unfair" trade deficit with Beijing on Thursday, but he told Chinese President Xi Jinping: "I don't blame China."
At a signing ceremony for over $250 billion in US-Chinese business deals in Beijing, Trump said: "After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the sake of its citizens?"  
However, he pointed the blame at past US administrations "for allowing this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and to grow".
The Trump administration has aggressively pursued trade remedies in commercial relations with Beijing -- investigating Chinese trade practices on intellectual property and in aluminum and steel.
Alleged Chinese misdeeds in commerce were a mainstay of Trump's populist campaign for the White House but since taking office he has refrained from labelling Beijing a currency manipulator.
Xi has sought to cast himself as a champion of globalisation as the US retreats behind Trump's "America First" policy.
But US and European firms still complain about being barred from certain sectors and forced to share their technologies with local competitors to gain access in some industries.
Speaking after talks with his Chinese counterpart, Trump said that China has to take greater action on market access, forced technology transfers and theft of intellectual property.
"We have to fix this because it just doesn't work, for our great American companies, and it doesn’t work for our great American workers," he said.
Xi delivered a brief speech following Trump's remarks, where he said China welcomed the international business community.
"To keep opening up is our long term strategy. We will not narrow or close our doors. We will open wider and wider," Xi said.
"I will encourage Chinese businesses to do more investment in US and at the same time, invite more US companies to take part in One Belt One Road," Xi added.
He was referring to China's Silk Road project to revive ancient trade routes with a massive network of rail and maritime links.
Annually, the US runs a steep trade deficit in goods with China of about $350 billion.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Putin and Trump to meet Friday in Vietnam: Russian agencies


Moscow, Russia | AFP/. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump will meet Friday in Vietnam, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told Russian news agencies on Thursday.
The meeting "will be on November 10," but the exact time is being decided, Ushakov told the official TASS agency.
Both leaders will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang.
The pair last met at the G20 summit in Germany in July.
On Sunday Trump said he thinks "it's expected we'll meet with Putin" to discuss North Korea.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have plummeted as a US probe has accused Trump's former campaign aides of secretly meeting Kremlin-connected officials.
Russia has vehemently denied allegations of interfering in the US election last year that brought Trump to power.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

US, China sign $250 bn in business deals as Trump visits


Beijing, China /AFP/. China and the United States announced more than $250 billion in business deals during US President Donald Trump's state visit to Beijing on Thursday.
The deals range from billions in Chinese soybean and aircraft imports to major projects like the development and export of liquified natural gas from Alaska.
The signing of more than a dozen deals did little to quiet Trump's complaints about China's "unfair" trade practices.
President Xi Jinping acknowledged there has been some "friction" in the trade relationship and called for more US companies to participate in China's signature Belt and Road Initiative, a massive global trade infrastructure programme.
"To keep opening up is our long term strategy. We will not narrow or close our doors. We will open them wider and wider," Xi told an audience of business executives.
After the signing ceremony, China's commerce minister Zhong Shan praised the deals as "truly a miracle, not just in the history of US-China relations, but in the history of the whole world".
But some analysts say any large deals will do little to shift the overall balance of trade unless the structural barriers preventing US businesses from competing fairly in China are changed.
The gas deal between the state of Alaska, Alaska Gasline Development Corp, China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec), China Investment Corporation (CIC) and the Bank of China involves a total investment of up to $43 billion.
Official said the joint development agreement will create up to 12,000 American jobs and reduce the trade deficit between the United States and Asia by $10 billion annually.
In turn, it will provide China with clean and affordable energy.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Politics free? Even country music awards poke Trump


New York, United States  AFP/. Two top country music stars jabbed US President Donald Trump for his itchy Twitter finger at an awards show Wednesday after organizers unsuccessfully tried to keep politics out.
The Country Music Association had earlier warned journalists covering its annual gala in Nashville not to focus on politics, although it quickly revised its guidelines after a backlash.
Opening the nationally televised show, co-host Carrie Underwood teasingly said that the 2017 awards were a "politics-free zone."
She and co-host Brad Paisley promptly went into a rendition of Underwood's song of jealousy "Because He Cheats," turning it into "Because He Tweets" with an eye on the social media-loving president.
Paisley joked that Trump was sitting on a "gold-plated White House toilet seat" tweeting about football players, political rivals and "covfefe," Trump's infamous typo that became a neologism of sorts for his rhetorical style.
"It's fun to watch it / That's for sure / Until 'Little Rocket Man' starts a nuclear war / And then maybe next time he'll think before he tweets," Paisley sang, using Trump's insult for North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Un.
Yet the barbs on Trump were more light-hearted than biting, a contrast to major events in the pop music and film worlds in which the president has become a loathed figure.
Country traditionally has been the favorite music of conservative white Americans and the Country Music Association had especially urged journalists not to ask about gun control in the wake of the latest mass shootings.
The awards gala switched to a reverential tone to pay tribute to the 58 people killed on October 1 when a local man opened fire on a Las Vegas country music festival from his hotel in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
Underwood, surrounded by candles and her eyes moistening, sang the American gospel hymn "Softly and Tenderly" as a screen flashed portraits of victims of the massacre, as well as country music stars who died in the past year.
The Country Music Association Awards, one of two major prizes in the industry, for the second straight year gave its top prize of Entertainer of the Year to 55-year-old mega-star Garth Brooks.
Taylor Swift, a country prodigy turned pop sensation whose latest album comes out Friday, won Song of the Year for "Better Man," which she wrote for the group Little Big Town.
Album of the Year went to "From a Room: Volume 1" by Chris Stapleton, a veteran country songwriter turned performer who also won the prize two years ago for his debut.