Friday, June 15, 2018

23 presidential candidates cleared for Zimbabwe's July vote



Harare, Zimbabwe: A record 23 presidential candidates were cleared on Thursday to run in Zimbabwe's elections due on July 30, including incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa and young opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, the country's electoral commission announced.

It is the first election in Zimbabwe since veteran leader Robert Mugabe was ousted following a brief military takeover in November last year, after 37 years in power.

The July election will be a key test for Mnangagwa, nicknamed the 'Crocodile', who succeeded the long-serving autocrat Mugabe seven months ago, and remains untested at the ballot box. 

He has pledged to hold free and fair elections as he seeks to mend international relations.

Mnangagwa has already invited Western observers, including the European Union and the Commonwealth for the first time in more than a decade, to monitor the polls. 

Previous elections in Zimbabwe have been marred by electoral fraud, intimidation and violence, including the killing of scores of opposition supporters in 2008.

Candidates vying to contest next month's presidential, parliamentary and local polls had just one day to submit their candidacy to one of several specially convened electoral courts across the country.

- 'Split opposition' -

Mnangagwa, 75, of the ruling ZANU-PF party and Chamisa, 40, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party are the presidential front-runners.

"I submitted the papers for his excellency honourable Emmerson Mnangagwa," said justice minister and Mnangagwa's election agent Ziyambi Ziyambi at the Harare High Court.

Chamisa's election agent, Jameson Timba, said the MDC was confident of victory. 

"Nelson Chamisa has been successfully nominated as the presidential candidate for the coming elections... Chamisa is the next president of Zimbabwe," Timba told journalists in Harare.

The opposition has complained of irregularities ahead of the much-anticipated vote and called for the full electoral roll of voters to be published.

They have also demanded that the ZEC be overhauled so that it includes fewer members with ties to the powerful military which is seen as backing Mnangagwa.

This year's vote has attracted more candidates than usual. The 2013 elections attracted five candidates while the 2008 polls were contested by only four hopefuls.

"This may be due to a sense of political liberalisation and relative peace as opposed to the highly polarised and violent political contestation between the Mugabe-led Zanu-PF and the MDC,"  said Gideon Chitanga of the Johannesburg-based Political Economy Southern Africa think-tank.

"The election campaigns have so far been peaceful," he said.

The opposition has also been hugely fragmented. 

"It is a rather sad reflection of Zimbabwean politics that so many with no chance think they can win. This will split the opposition, the unknown question is to what extent," said Piers Pigou of the International Crisis Group. 

A pre-poll survey by Afrobarometer published last week showed that Zanu-PF would attract 42 percent of the vote compared to 31 percent for the MDC, meaning the election could go to a run-off in September .

To register successfully, presidential candidates had to pay a $1,000 (850 euro) fee and be nominated by at least 100 registered voters from across the country's 10 provinces. |AFP|



Friday, June 15, 2018

France, Britain, US put UN hold on Chinese arms deliveries to C. Africa

An armed group in Central African Republic. AFP

An armed group in Central African Republic. AFP photo. 

By Carole LANDRY

United Nations, United States: France, Britain and the United States on Thursday put a hold on a request from the Central African Republic for UN Security Council approval of Chinese weapons deliveries for its national forces. 

CAR's defense minister asked a UN sanctions committee on June 5 to grant an exemption to an arms embargo and allow the shipments of Chinese-made armored vehicles, machine guns, tear gas grenades and other weaponry for its army and police.

France said it had "concerns concerning some lethal equipment included in this exemption request," citing anti-aircraft weapons and ammunitions, according to a document obtained by AFP.

The French mission to the United Nations requested "additional justifications concerning this lethal equipment in order to be able to take a decision."

The United States noted that there was "no threat of an air attack in CAR" and questioned deliveries of eight grenade launchers, four anti-aircraft machine guns as well as anti-personnel grenades and rockets. 

Britain said it was concerned that the shipments would pass through Cameroon unescorted to the border with CAR.

In her request to the United Nations, CAR Defense Minister Marie Noelle Koyara said the weaponry would help strengthen national forces who are "confronted with the strength and escalating violence of armed groups whose illegal activities pose a threat to civil order."

The council imposed an arms embargo on the Central African Republic in 2013 when the country descended into bloodshed but its sanctions committee last year gave the green light for Russia to supply weapons to the national forces.

China wants to donate military equipment which includes 12 armored vehicles and four assault vehicles, 50 pistols, six sniper rifles, ten submachine guns with silencers and some 30 machine guns of various calibers.

The list of equipment from China's Poly Technologies also includes 300 rockets, 500 anti-tank grenades, some 725,000 rounds of ammunition of various types and 15,000 tear gas grenades.

- Weapons request backed by UN -

The request for the Chinese weaponry is backed by a European Union military training mission and by the UN peacekeeping operation MINUSCA, which has come under repeated attacks from armed groups. Five peacekeepers have been killed this year.

In its note detailing objections, the US mission to the United Nations argued that special training was needed to operate the grenade launchers "which we are not certain has been provided."

Most of the armored vehicles and other weaponry would be used by special forces trained by Rwanda and certified by the EU training mission. Units of CAR's gendarmerie and police were trained by the United Nations police. 

In her request, the defense minister argued that tear gas would help gendarmerie and police deal with crowd control as the "units do not currently possess any of this equipment designed to maintain order."

The Central African Republic exploded into violence following the 2013 overthrow of longtime leader Francois Bozize, prompting France to intervene with its Operation Sangaris.

MINUSCA took over an African Union-led mission in 2014, deploying some 12,000 troops and police, but the country remains overrun with militias, many of whom claim to protect Christian or Muslim communities.

CAR's leaders have repeatedly asked the Security Council to ease the arms embargo to allow shipments of equipment that will beef up the national forces. | AFP |


Friday, June 15, 2018

Uber driver in Brazil accused of rape


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: An Uber driver in Brazil has been arrested on suspicion of raping a girl at gunpoint, police said Thursday.

The assault is alleged to have occurred June 7 in a rough neighborhood of Rio after the adolescent got into the car to go to another area of the city, as requested by her mother.

Along the way the driver took a detour, drove into deserted street and raped the girl at gunpoint, police said in statement.

The girl and her mother later reported the driver. The 43 year old man was arrested Wednesday at a gas station.

Uber said in a statement it does not tolerate such behavior and that the driver was removed from the app as soon as the complaint was filed. | AFP |


Friday, June 15, 2018

Disgraced comedian Cosby changes lawyer ahead of sentencing


New York, United States:Disgraced US comedian Bill Cosby, who was convicted of sexual assault in April, has changed his lawyer ahead of his sentencing, a spokesman said Thursday.

"Mr. Cosby has replaced his legal team with Attorney Joseph P. Green Jr (Philadelphia)," a spokesman for Cosby said, without offering further details.

Green will replace Tom Mesereau, who has represented numerous celebrities and was Cosby's lawyer for his second trial which resulted in his conviction on three counts of sexual assault on April 26.

His first lawyer, Brian McMonagle, represented the 80-year-old during his first trial in 2017 which resulted in a deadlocked jury.

Green's first task will be to seek a lenient sentence during the hearing fixed for September 24. He may also be called upon to appeal the conviction, as was announced by Mesereau previously.

Cosby's conviction ended the career of a once towering figure in late 20th century American popular culture, the first black actor to grace primetime US television, hitting the big time after growing up as the son of a maid.

He became the first powerful man to be convicted of a crime in the #MeToo era sparked by the downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

His convictions were all linked to one victim, Andrea Constand in 2014, but he stands accused by dozens more of assault over the years, many outside the statutes of limitation. |AFP|


Friday, June 15, 2018

Migrant tensions on the menu as Macron meets Italian leader

'It's time for collective action' Macron said

'It's time for collective action' Macron said during a trip to Rochefort, France. 

Paris, France: French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Italy's new premier Giuseppe Conte for a working lunch Friday, just days after sparks flew between the two leaders over Rome's rejection of a ship packed with hundreds of migrants.

Despite efforts by both sides to play down their testy exchanges, the clash underscores the deep divides in Europe on how to deal with another summer surge in migrant arrivals from across the Mediterranean.

"It's time for collective action," Macron said Thursday during a trip to Rochefort, France.

"Sometimes finding solutions involves legitimate tensions when people disagree, but they disappear when people are willing to work together."

Yet there are few signs that European leaders are anywhere near being ready to formulate a common response to the hundreds of people arriving daily -- mainly on the coasts of Italy and Greece.

The issue of how to share the migrant burden is expected to dominate an EU summit at the end of June, which is supposed to be the deadline for an overhaul of the bloc's "Dublin rules".

The rules say migrants hoping to apply for asylum must do so in the first country they enter, a policy which has placed a huge burden on Italy in particular.

The influx has encouraged the rise of far-right and populist parties -- leading most recently to Conte's nomination as prime minister in Italy's new anti-establishment and far-right government.

This week Conte's interior minister was a founding member alongside his German and Austrian counterparts of an "axis of the willing" to combat illegal immigration.

Their announcement was seen by many analysts as an implicit snub of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's efforts to find an EU-wide response.

Other countries meanwhile, such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under a contested EU quota system.

- 'Hypocritical lessons' -

The spat between Macron and Conte this week erupted after Italy refused to allow the Aquarius, a rescue boat carrying 629 migrants picked up off the coast of Libya, to dock on its shores.

The majority of the migrants are from Africa, while several others come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, according to Medecins sans Frontieres Spain.

Macron blasted Italy on Tuesday for "irresponsibility" -- a claim quickly denounced by Rome, which refused to take accept any "hypocritical lessons".

Many critics agreed that Macron was hardly in a position to lecture, saying France has accepted far fewer migrants than other EU countries, and its border police routinely send back migrants trying to cross into the country from Italy.

His comments prompted Rome to summon the French ambassador and cancel a meeting between the two countries' economy ministers this week, and cast doubt on whether Conte's lunch in Paris would still take place.

Macron's office said Thursday that the two leaders had spoken by telephone, and that "none of his comments were intended to offend Italy and the Italian people".

It also said Macron had called for closer cooperation between Rome and Paris to try to check the migrant flows at their source -- currently mainly in Africa.

Later the French foreign ministry said it was ready to welcome migrants aboard Aquarius who "meet the criteria for asylum" after they arrive in Spain.

Italy itself appeared eager to avoid too harsh a response, with a coast guard ship carrying over 900 migrants landing on Sicily on Wednesday. | AFP |


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Japan working to arrange Abe-Kim talks: reports

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already said publicly that he would meet Kim Jong Un in order to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s to help Pyongyang train its spies (AFP Photo/GEOFF ROBINS) 

Tokyo, Japan /AFP/. REFILES to correct gender of speaker in 3rd last par

Japan is working to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong Un after the North Korean leader said he was open to talks, local media reported Thursday.

The Sankei Shimbun said Kim discussed the possibility during historic talks Tuesday with US President Donald Trump.

"During the summit with Trump, Kim told Trump 'I can meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe'," the Sankei reported.

Japan wants the talks to push the emotive issue of citizens abducted by the North decades ago, which has seen little movement despite a whirlwind of diplomacy in recent months.

Abe on Thursday repeated a pledge to push for dialogue with Pyongyang on the issue as he met families of abductees.

"I will face (North Korea) directly and work toward resolving the abduction issue," he told the families.

"Japan has to take the initiative to resolve the issue," he said, adding that the summit would be "meaningless if it yields no progress on the abduction issue".

Government officials are weighing several scenarios, including Abe visiting Pyongyang in August, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

Another scenario would see Abe meet Kim on the sidelines of a conference in Russia in September, the daily said.

Several Japanese media outlets said Kim had expressed a readiness to meet Abe when he held a summit with Trump.

And Abe has already said publicly that he would be willing to meet Kim in order to resolve the abduction issue.

Japanese foreign ministry officials plan to hold talks with North Korean officials at an international security conference in Mongolia this week as they try to firm up plans, local media said.

"If (Abe's) visit to Pyongyang in August proves difficult," he could hold talks with Kim on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia's Vladivostok in September, the Yomiuri said.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Thursday said only that "nothing has been decided at the moment".

The issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s to help Pyongyang train its spies has long soured already strained relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

The Japanese government has officially listed 17 people as abductees, but suspects dozens more were snatched.

Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was kidnapped at age 13, told reporters she was encouraged by Trump's talks with Kim and said she had urged Abe to resolve the issue quickly.

"This is the beginning of a beginning," added Shigeo Iizuka, whose sister was kidnapped four decades ago.

"I can only say 'I'm sorry' to my sister... But I want to tell her, 'Don't give up, hold out a bit more,'" he added.

Trump said Tuesday he discussed the abductee issue with Kim, but it was not mentioned in the document signed by the two leaders.

Japan has maintained a hardline position on North Korea despite the stepped-up diplomacy with Pyongyang in recent months, and has been left largely on the sidelines as South Korea and the United States have held talks with Kim.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Prevention key to dealing with spike in suicide rate


© GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File / by Veronique DUPONT | Notes, photographs and flowers are left in memory of Anthony Bourdain at the closed location of Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain used to work as the executive chef, June 8, 2018 in New York City 

By Veronique Dupont

Los Angeles, United States /AFP/. The recent deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain have cast a spotlight on a jarring spike in suicides worldwide and on the importance of confronting the issue.

More than 800,000 commit suicide annually around the world and suicide is listed as the second highest cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 29, according to the World Health Organization.

In the United States, 45,000 people took their own lives in 2016, a worrisome increase of nearly 30 percent since 1999.

"It is difficult to explain, but this may be due in part to the opioid epidemic and economic factors that may have a stronger impact in the US than other developed countries because we do not have as comprehensive a protective health and social safety net as most European countries," said David Brent, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry, said in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that "the prevalence of suicide has fluctuated over time, often rising during periods of social strife" as was the case in 1932, during the Great Depression.

"The real question is why our society has made so little progress in dealing with  the public health crisis of suicide," he wrote. "In fact, the suicide rate last year — 13.7 per 100,000 people — was nearly the same as the rate a century earlier."

"We should declare war on suicide — just as we've done with other public health threats like HIV and heart disease — and give it the research and clinical funding needed to beat it," he added.

- Developing countries most affected -

Countries riven by conflict, such as Sri Lanka, are among the most affected, while South Korea and Japan are on the top of the list of industrialized countries dealing with high suicide rates.

Someone who has experienced war, a natural disaster, violence or sexual abuse has a higher likelihood of committing suicide, according to the World Health Organization,

In France, the suicide rate has plunged by 26 percent over the last 15 years to 10,000 a year, but remains one of the highest in Europe.

While the recent deaths of Spade and Bourdain have cast the spotlight on suicide in developed countries, the WHO says that more than three quarters of suicides take place in developing countries.

The majority of those who take their own life suffer from a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety, US health officials say, but other factors include loneliness, the loss of a job or a loved one and the breakup of a relationship.

All levels of society and age groups are affected, they add.

Young people, who can be influenced, are more vulnerable to copycat suicides, especially after a celebrity takes his or her own life.

People in certain professions, including the military and farming, are also more affected as are ethnic and racial minorities.

- 'Reached out for help' -

Experts say that suicide is often not preceded by warnings and is a shock to families and loves ones who didn't see it coming.

Bourdain belonged to a "strong man doesn't ask for help generation," the actress Rose McGowan, who was friends with the chef and his girlfriend Asia Argento, said in an open letter following his death.

"I know before Anthony died he reached out for help, and yet he did not take the doctor's advice," she wrote.

Experts note that medical monitoring and psychotherapy often help in such cases.

The proper training of medical and emergency personnel is also essential, they note, as people who survive a suicide attempt are at high risk to try again.

"I think my mom has been the most consistent in coming to my rescue and helping me take steps to seek light," said Ben, a veteran who left the army nine years ago and has since been dealing with suicidal thoughts.

"I have also had direct access to a social worker at the Veterans Affairs for the past nine years and have exerted a lot of effort exploring and reaching positive outcomes with self-help and mindfulness practices."

The WHO has underlined that access to firearms has been associated with increased suicide rates.

Health officials in the United States say that suicide rates are significantly higher in areas where people own guns and that 22,000 suicides a year are related to firearms.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

'Forced' sterilization of Brazilian woman sparks uproar


By Sebastian Smith

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil /AFP /. Claims that a drug-addicted Brazilian woman was subjected to forced sterilization are sparking accusations of a nightmarish "dystopia" in a country where a leading presidential candidate has stirred controversy with his own birth control proposals.

The facts of the case not under dispute are that Janaina Aparecida Quirino, an addict with numerous children, had her tubes tied after a ruling by a judge in Mococa, near Sao Paulo.

But according to a report in Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, the woman was homeless and the procedure was performed without her consent.

By the time the judge's ruling came to appeal at a higher court, "the mutilation had already occurred," wrote the author of the report, the constitutional law professor Oscar Vilhena Vieira.

One advocacy group, the Institute of Penal Guarantees, said "Janaina K. woke under the custody of people she didn't know, named in a judicial case that she was not informed about."

"It evoked Kafka's 'The Trial,'" the institute said, referring to the hallucinatory novel about a man prosecuted without even being told what he is accused of having done.

The judge, Djalma Moreira Gomes, pushed back after Vieira's article came out last weekend, insisting that Quirino, who had seven children, with one more on the way, wanted to be sterilized.

"The family set-up was characterized by the parents' drug dependencies..., physical violence against the children by the current partner, and financial difficulties," the judge said in a statement, also denying that she was ever homeless.

According to Gomes, the woman "fully expressed consciousness and agreement with the sterilization."

- Eugenics or common sense? -

Crucial details of the case, even the dates, remain unclear. The judge's order was dated October 2017, but the sterilization operation had to wait until the woman had given birth a last time.

Prosecutors say she did agree to the operation and some Brazilian media have published a redacted copy of what they say is a consent form signed back in 2015. 

However, officials said that a psychologist's report in which Quirino again gave the green light is under seal and cannot now be verified. In addition, the woman reportedly did not have a lawyer, which, if true, would raise doubts over the validity of anything she signed.

Whatever the truth, Quirino's story is stirring angry debate. 

The leftist news site said the incident illustrates the "dystopia of life" in Brazil. The Institute of Penal Guarantees noted that "compulsory sterilization is eugenics."

"She was treated as an object, a thing," another legal rights group, the Brazilian Association of Lawyers for Democracy, said.

But not everyone is complaining.

Janaina Paschoal, a prominent lawyer famous for her role in the 2016 impeachment case that brought down then president Dilma Rousseff, said sterilization was Quirino's best hope.

"Acknowledging the difficulties around the topic, I declare my support" for the judge, she tweeted. "If I were the judge, I would have decided as he decided. Someone has to look out for the children!"

The debate is unlikely to go away given that a frontrunner in Brazil's October presidential election, hard-right former army officer Jair Bolsonaro, has previously called for limiting births among the poor.

"Only birth control can save us from chaos," the congressman said in 2008, according to Folha de S.Paulo.

Bolsonaro has long campaigned in Congress to loosen laws around sterilization, for example by removing the requirements for the person to be over 25 and to have consent of their spouse.

One of the candidate's sons, Rio de Janeiro city councilor Carlos Bolsonaro, made a video this week to defend his father against "ridiculous" media assertions that his promotion of sterilization targeted poor people specifically.

"Jair Bolsonaro has a bill to make it easier to get tubal ligation or a vasectomy, because there are numerous bureaucratic hurdles today," he said. The presidential hopeful "wants to give this opportunity so that people can have family planning."


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Vietnam MPs approve sweeping cyber security law

According to Norton Cyber Security's 2017

According to Norton Cyber Security's 2017 insights report, cybercrime victims collectively lost $172 billion last year. PHOTO: AFP 

Hanoi, Vietnam: Vietnamese lawmakers on Tuesday approved a sweeping cyber security law which could compel Facebook and Google to take down critical posts within 24 hours, as space for debate is crushed inside the Communist country.

Activists and dissenters are routinely harassed, jailed or tied up in legal cases in Vietnam, a one-party state which is hyper-sensitive to critical public opinion.

Social media and Internet forums have provided a rare platform to share and debate views against authorities.

But the bill, waved through by an overwhelming majority of MPs in the National Assembly, is poised to end that relative freedom.

The law's far-reaching provisions mean internet companies will have to remove posts deemed to be a "national security" threat within a day and store personal information and data of their users inside Vietnam.

"Currently, Google and Facebook store personal data of Vietnamese users in Hong Kong and Singapore," Vo Trong Viet, chairman of National Assembly's defence and security committee told lawmakers.

"Putting data centres in Vietnam will increase expenses for the service providers... but it is necessary to meet the requirements of the country's cyber security."

The new law also outlaws material encouraging public gatherings or that "offends" everything from the national flag to the country's leaders and "heroes".

There was no immediate detail of the punishment for breaching the law.

Only 15 out of the 466 MPs present in the rubber-stamp assembly voted against the bill, which the government says will become law from January 1, 2019.

Rights advocates said the bill further shrinks the small space for debate.

"In the country's deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities," said Clare Algar of Amnesty International.

"With the sweeping powers it grants the government to monitor online activity, this vote means there is now no safe place left."

The country's conservative leadership, which has been in charge since 2016, is waging a crackdown on activists and dissidents.

It has jailed scores of bloggers and dissidents for criticising the regime.

At least 26 dissidents and actives have been prosecuted during the first five months this year, according to Human Rights Watch.

The government has also unveiled a 10,000-strong brigade to fight cybercrimes and "wrongful views" on the internet, according to state media reports. 

The unit, dubbed Force 47, is also tasked with fighting anti-state propaganda on the web. | AFP |


© Agence France-Presse


Monday, June 11, 2018

Trump's G7 bust-up shows risks for North Korea summit

Trump and Trudeau at the stormy G7 summit

Trump and Trudeau at the stormy G7 summit 

By Andrew BEATTY

Donald Trump's spectacular bust-up with America's closest allies at the G7 raises the already high political stakes for Tuesday's summit with Kim Jong Un, and highlights the dangers of the US leader's  self-serving diplomacy.

Many analysts suggest Trump is perversely more at ease with traditional foes -- contrasting his treatment of the likes of Canada's Justin Trudeau to the red-carpet welcome he recently gave Kim's right-hand man at the White House.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul summed it up: "If Trump can't negotiate a deal on milk with one of our closest allies, how is he going to get a deal on nuclear disarmament with one of our greatest foes?"

Heading into the G7 summit in Canada in characteristically bullish mood, Trump had promised he would pull off the sort of trade deal that only he, the world's greatest dealmaker, could make.

It will be "easy", said Trump, but the reality was anything but.

Despite diplomats' best efforts, and unusual personal involvement from leaders huddling in alcoves and sunrooms of a chateau by the Saint Lawrence river, the draft communique was barely enough to paper over the cracks.

So each leader, Trump and Trudeau included, left the summit and went off to tell their publics how hard they had fought for the national interest.

Watching Trudeau's press conference from Air Force One on his way to Singapore, Trump took umbrage at the Canadian leader's voter-tailored message and angrily rejected the communique.

Only hours earlier, Trump had performed his own victory lap in front of the cameras, declaring the summit a success and America's relations with its allies a "10" out of 10.

And faced with a choice between tarnishing his deal-maker credentials and throwing an ally under the bus, Trump's choice was never in doubt.

"He was angry about Trudeau's press conference," said one aide, on condition of anonymity.

So his aides rushed to turn the tables on Trudeau, painting the quiet-spoken Canadian PM as a back-stabber and the cause of the breakdown.

"There's a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door," said US trade advisor Peter Navarro.

- 'Posturing ... not policy' -

A flight across the world later and Trump was in Singapore, preparing for an unprecedented summit with Kim that has raised hopes of bringing peace to the Korean peninsula.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said the G7 meltdown had put more pressure on Trump to cut a deal with the nuclear-armed Kim.

"Trump will not want to bust up two summits in a row lest people conclude he is the problem," said Haas, predicting a more pliable president.

It is "all about posturing and message-sending, not policy", added Haas.

The White House rejected the notion that Trump was looking back at the G7 rather than forward towards peace.

"I doubt (the G7) will have any impact. They are unrelated buckets of issues," a senior White House official said. "The overarching issues with North Korea heighten the need for a positive outcome." 

Of those two buckets, trade and North Korea, there is no doubt North Korea is a more complex problem -— touching on non-proliferation, the balance of power in East Asia and America's treaty alliances.

But of the president's six tweets since landing in Singapore, five were rants about trade and only one -- "Great to be in Singapore, excitement in the air" -- referenced the upcoming summit.

Many of the tough details in the North Korea talks are likely to wait for future rounds of talks at a lower level.

But Trump has once again put himself at the centre of negotiations, and in doing so, has tethered his political fortunes to the outcome.

"It is clear that Trump is eager to demonstrate to the world that he can make this work and accomplish what his predecessors failed to do," said Julian Zelizer, history and public affairs professor at Princeton University.

The G7 bust-up shows how badly it can go wrong if he fails.



Monday, June 11, 2018

US, N. Korea officials in final summit preparations

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviewed an

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviewed an honour guard before departing Pyongyang for Singapore 

By Sebastien BERGER

North Korean and US negotiators met in Singapore Monday for final preparations on the eve of an unprecedented summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, seeking to bridge the gaps over Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.

Tuesday's meeting will be the first between a sitting US president and a leader of North Korea, whose nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions have raised global concerns and seen tensions soar.

It is an extraordinary turnaround from the rhetoric of last year, when Trump threatened the North with "fire and fury" and Kim dubbed him a "mentally deranged US dotard".

The summit has raised hopes of progress towards a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, the last festering legacy of the Cold War, after hostilities only stopped with an armistice.

But Pyongyang is demanding as yet unspecified security guarantees and the end of what it calls a "hostile policy" towards it, and has not made clear what concessions it is offering over the nuclear arsenal it calls its "treasured sword" to defend against a US invasion.

The North, which has been subjected to increasingly strict sanctions by the UN Security Council and others, has made promises of change in the past, such as at the lengthy Six Party Talks process, only for the agreements to collapse later.

"We remain committed to the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted.

The mercurial US leader has whipsawed on expectations for the meeting, signalling that it could be the beginning of a "process" of several meetings, only to call it a "one-time shot" for peace as he embarked for Singapore.

He would know "within the first minute" whether an agreement would be possible, he added.

"Great to be in Singapore, excitement in the air!" he tweeted Monday.

The North has sought such a meeting for decades, where its leader will meet a US president as an equal rather than as the representative of a pariah state. 

But analysts warn that it risks being more of a media event than an occasion of substantial progress and delegations from the two sides were negotiating at a neutral hotel in Singapore to try to address their differences.

The previous US stance, said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, was that "we don't deploy a president to negotiate a treaty, we deploy a president to sign a treaty where we know where every piece of punctuation is on that piece of paper".

"One of my worries is that we come out of this Singapore summit with something that looks remarkably like the Six Party Talks or anything that the president has previously criticised but it is hyped as something that's historic and new and groundbreaking," he added.

- Separate planes -

Heavy security and armed police were in place at summit-related venues across the city-state.

Outside the Istana, the presidential palace where Trump was due to meet Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, well-wishers displayed American flags and a boy held up a sign reading: "I love President Trump!"

The North's official KCNA news agency called the summit "historic", saying it would take place in a "changed era" and "under the great attention and expectation of the whole world".

Kim would exchange "wide-ranging and profound views" on issues including "building a permanent and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean peninsula" and "realising the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula", it added.

It formally referred to Trump by his full name in the Monday report, including his middle initial -- the first time it has done so.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, devoted its first two pages and 16 photos to Kim's trip, including images of him boarding an Air China Boeing 747 for the journey.

His sister and close aide Kim Yo Jong is also in Singapore, and is believed to have travelled separately on the ageing Soviet-made Ilyushin-62 that is Kim's personal aircraft.

US presidents and vice-presidents generally never fly on the same aircraft to guarantee that one of them survives in the event of a disaster, and the move appeared designed to ensure the preservation of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the North for three generations.

Under Kim, Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its weapons technology, carrying out by far its most powerful nuclear test to date last year and launching missiles capable of reaching the US mainland.

But the South's Winter Olympics in February were the catalyst for a flurry of diplomatic moves as South Korea's dovish leader Moon Jae-in sought to bring the two sides together, holding two summits of his own with Kim in the Demilitarized Zone that divides Korea.



Monday, June 11, 2018

Iran 'highly sceptical' on US-North Korea nuclear talks


Tehran, Iran: Iran said Monday that it remains dubious about the prospects for talks between the United States and North Korea, and warned Pyongyang to be highly vigilant about Washington's promises.

"As regards US behaviour, approach and its intentions, we are highly sceptical and look at its actions with utter pessimism," foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters in Tehran. 

"For the time being we cannot be optimistic about the United States' behaviour, and the government of North Korea must approach this issue with absolute vigilance," he added.

Ghasemi said US President Donald Trump's actions in abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and other international agreements, had shown he was an unreliable partner. 

"We would like peace, stability and security to be established in the Korean Peninsula," he said, but added that experience in dealing with the US and Trump had left it with "much pessimism". 

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Singapore on Sunday for an unprecedented summit, with the US demanding complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. 

It comes just over a month after the US president pulled out of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers that put strict restrictions on the Islamic republic's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. 



Monday, June 11, 2018

Hong Kong jails top independence leader for six years

Pro-independence protestor Edward Leung arrives

Pro-independence protestor Edward Leung arrives at the High Court before facing rioting charges in Hong Kong, for his part in the 'fishball riots' that took place in February 2016. Hong Kong's leading independence activist was jailed for six years on June 11, 2018 for his involvement in some of the city's worst protest violence for decades. Anthony Wallace / AFP 

By Elaine YU

Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong's leading independence activist was jailed for six years Monday for his involvement in some of the city's worst protest violence for decades.

Edward Leung was convicted in May of rioting during the 2016 running battles with police, when demonstrators hurled bricks torn up from pavements and set rubbish alight in the commercial district of Mong Kok.

Handing down his jail term, Judge Anthea Pang said Leung actively participated in the riots and described his actions as "wanton and vicious".

The 27-year-old was already in custody after pleading guilty in January to a separate charge of assaulting a police officer during the clashes. He was sentenced to one year in jail on that count, with the two terms to be served concurrently.

The 2016 protest began as a seemingly innocuous rally to protect illegal hawkers from health inspectors but it quickly morphed into an outpouring of anger against authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.

At the forefront of the clashes were young "localists", a term coined for radical groups promoting a split from mainland China which grew out of the failure of massive pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to win concessions from Beijing on political reform.

At the time, Leung was the head of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous and a rising star on the political scene as the fledgling independence movement gathered momentum, infuriating Beijing.

Pang said the protesters appeared to be "sincere, earnest but wrong-headed people" with strong convictions.

They "will stop at nothing to impose those views" on society, she said, which Hong Kong cannot tolerate as it poses "extremely great danger".

Two other protesters were sentenced alongside Leung to seven years and three and a half years in prison.

Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last colonial governor, slammed Leung's sentence, which was handed down under the public order ordinance. He said "the vague definitions in the legislation are open to abuse and do not conform" with international standards.

"It is disappointing to see that the legislation is now being used politically to place extreme sentences on the pan-democrats and other activists," Patten said in a statement issued by Hong Kong Watch, an NGO that monitors the city's freedoms.

Veteran democracy advocate and lawyer Alan Leong criticised the court's judgement that political reasons could not be admitted as a mitigating factor.

"How can you say that Edward Leung's motives... not for personal selfish gain, just to pursue his ideals... don't matter? They must be relevant," Leong told AFP.

He added the jail term felt "way too heavy" especially when compared with the lesser sentences handed down during the 1967 anti-colonial riots which left 51 dead.

- Fishball Revolution -

At least 16 people have already been jailed over the clashes, with terms of up to four years and nine months for a man convicted of rioting and arson. Unlike Leung, none were known activists.

Police fired warning shots in the air as the unrest worsened and scores of people including officers were injured, with dozens arrested.

It was later dubbed the "Fishball Revolution" after one of the city's best-loved street snacks.

The defence said Leung, who pleaded not guilty, had no intention to riot but wanted to "protect Hong Kong culture".

Leung testified his participation in activism was inspired by the pro-democracy slogan "Without resistance, how is there change?" according to local media.

Multiple pro-democracy activists who want a greater say in how the city is run but do not push for full independence have been prosecuted on protest-related charges over the largely peaceful 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Leung is the first high profile activist advocating full independence to come to court.

He was previously barred from standing in legislative elections due to his support for independence as Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government cracks down on any advocacy of a split.

Leung resigned as spokesman of Hong Kong Indigenous and left the group in December last year.

The government's squeeze on independence campaigners has seen several activists barred from standing for office and others ejected from Hong Kong's partially elected legislature.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who has campaigned for self-determination but not independence, attended the trial Monday.

"Edward Leung's six-year sentence is the harshest imposed on an opposition activist since 1997, bizarre even in Hong Kong's present era of political prisoners," he wrote on Twitter. | AFP |


© Agence France-Presse


Monday, June 11, 2018

'Afghanistan's Malala': College student shot by Taliban in 2016 graduates with honors


Kabul. The moment Breshna Musazai climbed onto the stage in a black cap and gown, leaning on a walker and her brother's arm, the audience burst into applause.

Of the 139 students who received bachelor's degrees at the American University of Afghanistan on May 11, Musazai, 28, was the indisputable star. Paralyzed by polio in one leg and shot by insurgents in the other, she had triumphed.

"When I looked at the audience, everybody stood for me," she said in an interview at her home here. "It was a very proud moment."

Her perseverance is remarkable, given the obstacles to higher education that Afghan girls face, even without physical disabilities. Many girls' schools are closed in areas that the Taliban controls or contests. About 80 girls' schools closed last week in eastern Nangahar province after the Islamic State said it would attack the schools, according to media reports.

About half of all Afghan children between ages 7 and 17 are not in school, 60 percent of that group being girls, according to a UNICEF report released this month. Even in government-controlled areas, a low percentage of girls go to college after finishing high school: Many conservative families do not allow their daughters to remain in school after puberty and arrange for them to marry instead.

Soon after the commencement, photos of Musazai went viral. Hundreds of people liked and shared them on Twitter and Facebook. Some compared her to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who was shot by Taliban attackers in 2012 and later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Breshna is full of courage and inspiration," tweeted Sahar Fetrat, a feminist and activist in Kabul. "She definitely is Afghanistan's Malala. More power to her."

 Musazai said the admiring tweets and posts "gave me more courage to do better than this in the future."

 Musazai comes from a middle-class family who supported her education. "We wanted her to study so she would become independent in the future," said her father, Saleh Mohammad Malang, a former member of parliament.

She attended high school and college in Pakistan, where her family moved before she was born. She also learned English and computer skills. After they returned in 2011, she began studying law at American University, a modern coeducational campus.

But on Aug. 24, 2016, as she made her way to the campus mosque for evening prayers, Taliban assailants shot their way into the compound. Students hid in classrooms or tried to escape. Musazai, barefoot and slowed by her paralysis in one leg, struggled to reach the nearest building.

In a hallway, she recounted, an insurgent wearing a police uniform shot her in the leg. She fell and pretended to be dead, and he shot her again in the foot. Despite the pain, she did not move for hours.

"I didn't want them to know I was alive," she said.


Finally, around midnight, a police officer entered the building and began firing blindly in the dark hallway. The bullets passed directly above where she lay.

"I thought I was going to die for sure," Musazai said.

Instead, a police officer carried her to an ambulance. One leg was broken and two of her toes had been shot off.

An American trustee of the university, a surgeon at a hospital in Dallas named John Alexander, sponsored her trip there for medical treatment. After six months, she returned to Afghanistan. Her fiance, who had accompanied her to the United States, decided to move to Canada and asked her to join him. She refused.

"I told him it was not the right thing to do," she said.

Afghanistan has one of the world's highest illiteracy rates among women, but there are also an increasing number of women such as Musazai pursuing higher education despite security threats and social restrictions.

 In March, Jahantab Ahmadi, 25, an Afghan mother of three, made headlines after a photo showed her nursing her baby while taking a university entrance exam. The photo went viral on social media, and supporters set up an online account to help pay for her education.

 Musazai, who needs further surgery on her toes, says she is determined to keep going. As soon as she is able to walk, she said, she plans to seek a master's degree in law or human rights. (Washington Post)


Friday, June 8, 2018

Celebrity chef, food critic Anthony Bourdain dead at 61


Anthony Bourdain, the American celebrity chef and author whose popular television shows explored the diversity of the world's food and cultures, has committed suicide at the age of 61.

Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in France, where he was filming an episode of his Emmy-winning CNN program "Parts Unknown," the network said Friday.

French authorities said that Bourdain had died by hanging at a luxury hotel, the Chambard, in the village of Kaysersberg in the Haut-Rhin region of Alsace.

"At this stage, we have no reason to suspect foul play," prosecutor Christian de Rocquigny du Fayel said.

CNN said Bourdain's body was found by his close friend Eric Ripert, the French executive chef of New York restaurant Le Bernardin.

"His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller," the network said in a statement.

"His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much."

Bourdain's sudden death drew tributes from around the world, including from US President Donald Trump, who described it as "very sad" and "very shocking." 

"He was quite a character," Trump said.

Celebrity chefs Jose Andres and Gordon Ramsay paid tribute on Twitter.

"You still had so many places to show us, whispering to our souls the great possibilities beyond what we could see with our own eyes," Andres said.

"Stunned and saddened by the loss of Anthony Bourdain," said Ramsay. "He brought the world into our homes and inspired so many people to explore cultures and cities through their food." 

- 'What do you eat?' -

A gifted storyteller, Bourdain promoted haute cuisine and street food alike in his travels, passionately encouraging viewers to "eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice." 

"We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook?" Bourdain said in 2014 in an acceptance speech for a Peabody Award, a prestigious honor for US media.

"And everywhere in the world, we go and ask these simple questions. We tend to get really astonishing answers."

After a start washing dishes in a restaurant, the New York-born Bourdain gradually rose through the ranks to become a chef. 

His 2000 memoir, "Kitchen Confidential," kicked off his celebrity career and led him to become a television host, starting with "A Cook's Tour" on the Food Network.

He went on to host a show called "No Reservations" on the Travel Channel before moving to CNN with "Parts Unknown."

On CNN, anchors struggled to hold back tears Friday as they reminisced about their late colleague and urged people faced with despair or who know people struggling with depression to call a suicide hotline.

CNN anchor John Berman remembered Bourdain as a "human contradiction."

"He loved food. He wrote about food. He lived food. He thought we obsessed about food too much," Berman said.

"He once said to me, 'I wish people would stop taking pictures of food and have more sex.' You know, because what he really wanted to do was to show people life."

Bourdain rhapsodized about the joys of food and drink but was candid about his struggles with own demons, including alcohol and drug abuse and depression.

Bourdain leaves behind a teenage daughter Ariane, from his relationship with his ex-wife Ottavia Busia.

He had been dating Italian actress Asia Argento since 2017 and he became an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement after she revealed she had been sexually assaulted by movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

"I came out of a brutal, oppressive business that was historically unfriendly to women," Bourdain said in an interview in January with "The Daily Show."

"I knew a lot of women, it turned out, who had stories about their experience, about people I knew," he said.

Bourdain's death comes just days after the suicide of another celebrity, designer Kate Spade. 

"Success does not protect you from depression. It doesn't protect you from suicide," Jodi Gold, director of the Gold Center for Mind Health and Wellness, said on CNN.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Ivanka Trump photo with son sparks backlash over border separations

Ivanka Trump holds her son Theodore alongside

Ivanka Trump holds her son Theodore alongside Jared Kushner at a reception hosted by US President Donald Trump in December 2017 

Ivanka Trump is facing an online backlash for tweeting a "tone deaf" photo of herself cuddling her son as outrage grows over a federal government policy to separate the children of undocumented migrants from their parents.

The eldest daughter of President Donald Trump, who serves as an advisor to her father, posted the picture of her with her infant son on Sunday, with the caption: "My <3! #SundayMorning."

Critics were quick to point to a "zero tolerance" policy announced earlier this month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that authorizes border security agents to take away the children of people who enter the United States unlawfully.

The government places such children in foster homes, but Steven Wagner, a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services told a Congressional committee last month the government was "unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475" minors after attempting to contact their sponsors in the last three months of 2017.

"Isn't it the just the best to snuggle your little one -- knowing exactly where they are, safe in your arms? It's the best. The BEST. Right, Ivanka? Right?" tweeted comedian Patton Oswalt.

"If there were a Tone-Deaf Olympics, you would be its Michael Phelps," added John Pavlovitz, a writer.

Many others tweeted using the #WhereAreTheChildren hashtag.

Donald Trump, for his part, blamed opposition Democrats for the "horrible law" in a tweet on Saturday -- though there is no law mandating the policy and it was not immediately clear what he may have meant.


Friday, May 25, 2018

N. Korea open to US talks 'any time' despite Trump axing summit

This May 24, 2018 picture released from North

This May 24, 2018 picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 25, 2018 shows a demolition 'ceremony' of North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test facility. North Korea declared it had "completely" dismantled its nuclear test site, in a carefully choreographed move portrayed as a goodwill gesture as US President Donald Trump on May 25 called off his planned June summit with Kim Jong Un, blaming "open hostility" from the North Korean regime and warning Pyongyang against committing any "foolish or reckless acts." KCNA VIA KNS / AFP 

North Korea said Friday it is willing to talk to the United States "at any time" after President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled a summit, a decision that once more casts a pall of uncertainty over the the turbulent Korean peninsula.

Trump blamed "open hostility" from the North Korean regime for his decision to call off the planned talks with Kim Jong Un, and warned Pyongyang against committing any "foolish or reckless acts."


In a personal letter to Kim, Trump announced Thursday he would not go ahead with the June 12 summit in Singapore, following what the White House called a "trail of broken promises" by the North.


Pyongyang's immediate reaction to the sudden U-turn was conciliatory.


First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Trump's decision "unexpected" and "regrettable". But he left the door open, saying officials were willing "to sit face-to-face at any time."


Just before Trump announced the cancellation of the talks, North Korea declared it had "completely" dismantled its nuclear test site in the country's far northeast, in a carefully choreographed goodwill gesture ahead of the summit.

But the chances of success for the unprecedented face-to-face had recently been thrown into doubt as threats were traded by both sides.


Trump's announcement came a day after Pyongyang hardened its rhetoric, calling comments by Vice President Mike Pence "ignorant and stupid".


"Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting," read Trump's letter to Kim.


But he said talks could still go ahead "at a later date".


- 'Shocking' -

The decision blindsided treaty ally South Korea, which until now had brokered a remarkable detente between Washington and Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the move "shocking and very regrettable" as he scrambled his national security team.


Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said Seoul would continue talking to Kim's regime which he believed "remains sincere in implementing the agreement and making efforts on denuclearisation and peace building".


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the parties to keep talking, as did host Singapore, while Russia's President Vladimir Putin held out hope that dialogue would resume and the talks would eventually take place.


Japan said it would maintain "close cooperation" with the United States and South Korea.


Politically, Trump had invested heavily in the success of the planned summit. But as the date drew nearer, the gulf in expectations between the two sides became apparent.


Washington has made it clear it wants to see the "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" of the North.


But Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrent until it feels safe from what it terms US aggression.


- US aides stood up -

A senior White House official said Pyongyang had demonstrated a "profound lack of good faith" in the run-up to the summit -- including standing up the White House's deputy chief of staff, who had travelled to Singapore for preparatory talks.


"They waited and they waited. The North Koreans never showed up. The North Koreans did not tell us anything -- they simply stood us up," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.


The White House viewed North Korea's objection to a routine US-South Korean joint military exercise -- and its recent cancellation of a meeting with the South Koreans -- as a breach of its commitments leading up to the summit.

It also was unhappy about the North's failure to allow international observers to verify the dismantling of its Punggye-ri test site, the staging ground for all six of its nuclear tests which was buried inside a mountain near the border with China.


But the North's Kim Kye Gwan countered that their angry statements were "just a backlash in response to harsh words from the US side that has been pushing for a unilateral denuclearisation".


Both Pence and Trump's hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton had recently raised the spectre of Libyan leader Moamer Khadafi, who gave up atomic weapons only to die years later at the hands of US-backed rebels.


Experts warned that cancelling the meeting could have knock-on effects, especially among allies already rattled by Trump's unpredictability.


"In a contest of who can be the most erratic leader, President Trump beats Kim Jong Un hands-down," Joel Wit, founder of the respected 38 North website which monitors North Korea, wrote on Twitter.

"His unsteady hand has left everyone scratching their heads, including our ROK (South Korean) allies."


But others said Trump's willingness to walk away could extract further concessions from Pyongyang.


"North Korea will have to propose more detailed plans for denuclearisation if it wants to talk in the future," Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Asan Institute of Policy Studies, told AFP.



Wednesday, May 23, 2018

'I'm sorry', Facebook boss tells European lawmakers

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (R) welcomes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg upon his arrival at the European Parliament, for his audition on the data privacy scandal on May 22, 2018 at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. JOHN THYS / AFP 


Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg apologised to the European Parliament on Tuesday for the "harm" caused by a huge breach of users' data and by a failure to crack down on fake news.

 But Zuckerberg's appearance failed to satisfy MEPs who accused him of dodging questions and criticised a format that gave the parliament's political leaders far more time to give long-winded speeches.

 His livestreamed testimony in Brussels was the latest stop on a tour of apology for the Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw him quizzed for ten hours in the US Congress in April, and will take him to Paris on Wednesday.

 Zuckerberg said that while Facebook has brought in new features to connect people, it had become clear in the last two years that they "haven't done enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm".

And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people's information. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility," he said in his opening statement.

 "That was a mistake, and I'm sorry for it."

 - 'Too slow' -

The European Parliament invited Zuckerberg in March after Facebook admitted that up to 87 million users may have had their data hijacked by British consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.

 The firm, which was working for US President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, has since declared bankruptcy.

 Zuckerberg originally tried to send a junior executive instead but finally bowed to pressure to appear. However he only agreed for it to be livestreamed on Monday after initially insisting on it being behind closed doors.

 Appearing calm and unruffled during the 90-minute hearing, Zuckerberg welcomed the EU's sweeping new personal data protection rules, which come into effect in three days, saying that his website would be "fully compliant".

In that spirit, Zuckerberg said Facebook was bringing in new features including a special "clear history" button that would allow them to delete any cookies or browsing history details it stores.

 Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook had been "too slow to identify Russian interfering" in the 2016 US presidential ballot but was working with European governments for future elections.

 In the run-up to last year's French elections Facebook "found and took down more than 30,000 fake accounts", he said.

 - 'Pre-cooked format' -

But some European lawmakers were still unhappy with the format in which Zuckerberg answered questions for only 25 minutes -- half as long as the time it took the parliament's political leaders to get through their long-winded questions.

 "Today's pre-cooked format was inappropriate and ensured Zuckerberg could avoid our questions," Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Liberal leader, tweeted afterwards.

 The former Belgian prime minister asked Zuckerberg during the hearing if he wanted to be remembered as a "genius who created a digital monster".

 Manfred Weber, the German head of the centre-right European People's Party, the largest group in parliament, said the Facebook chief was "not very convincing" and "did not answer all our questions".

 But European Parliament President Antonio Tajani -- who invited Zuckerberg and arranged the meeting -- called Zuckerberg's visit a "success" even if he said his apology was "not enough" and required follow up.

 Zuckerberg meanwhile pledged that Facebook would make fresh investments to protect its users in the wake of the scandal -- with many of those in Europe where he plans to have 10,000 employees by the end of the year.

 "It's going to take time to work through all of the changes we must make. But I'm committed to getting it right, and to making the significant investments needed to keep people safe," he added.

 "I expect this will significantly impact our profitability. But I want to be clear: keeping people safe will always be more important than maximising our profits."

 Zuckerberg is due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Wednesday.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Profiles of key figures at the royal wedding


London, United Kingdom. Here are brief profiles of the supporting cast at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle:


Best man, 35

Older brother William returns the favour Harry performed at his wedding in 2011.

William, who is in line to become king after their father Prince Charles, has given up his job as an air ambulance helicopter pilot to become a full-time royal. He is now a father of three after the arrival of Prince Louis on April 23.


Mother of the bride, 61

A social worker and a yoga instructor, Meghan calls her mother a "free spirit".

She has a master's degree in social work and ran the 2017 Los Angeles marathon. In the absence of her ex-husband Thomas Markle, who is recovering from a heart operation, she is thought the most likely to walk her daughter down the aisle.


Ceremony leader, 71

Conner is the senior cleric at St. George's Chapel and will therefore conduct the service.

He has been the dean since 1998 and was also bishop to the armed forces during Harry's time in the army. He was formerly the vicar of the Cambridge University church.


Spiritual leader of the Church of England, 62

The Anglican Communion's most senior bishop will officiate as the couple make their marriage vows. A former oil executive, Welby baptised Markle after her engagement. He went to Eton College, as did Harry.


Sermon reader, 65

The head of the Anglican church in the United States has been invited to give the address, the main speech during the wedding. The charismatic African-American from Chicago is a lively, animated preacher in the US tradition and could be the star turn in a setting more used to rigid formality. Markle's father is an Episcopalian.


Grandmother of the groom, 92

Her Majesty has reigned since 1952.

A steadfast monarch in a changing world, Queen Elizabeth has been a figure of constancy who has overseen post-war Britain into the new millennium. She is hosting the reception afterwards in Windsor Castle's St. George's Hall.


Grandfather of the groom, 96

Prince Philip has been at the Queen's side since they wed in 1947. A naval officer, he served in World War II and witnessed the Japanese surrender. He retired from royal duties in 2017. The duke is renowned for his off-the-cuff remarks. He left hospital on April 13 after a hip replacement but is expected to attend at least some of the day, having been seen outdoors since the operation.


Father of the groom, 69

The heir to the throne has spent a lifetime preparing to be king.

His "fairytale" marriage to Diana, princess of Wales disintegrated. Outspoken on the environment and architecture, he also heads the wide-ranging Prince's Trust charity. He is hosting the evening wedding reception at Frogmore House in Windsor.


Stepmother of the groom, 70

Charles's former mistress married the heir to the throne in 2005.

She uses one of her husband's lesser titles and has kept a low profile accompanying him on visits.

Camilla is set to become princess consort upon Charles' accession to the throne.


-- Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, 3: Harry's niece

-- Florence van Cutsem, 3: Harry's goddaughter

-- Zalie Warren, 2: Harry's goddaughter


-- Rylan Litt, 7: Markle's goddaughter

-- Remi Litt, 6: Markle's goddaughter

-- Ivy Mulroney, 4: daughter of Markle's friend Jessica Mulroney

Florence van Cutsem's father Nicholas is a lifelong friend of Harry and William. His brother Edward was a page boy at Charles and Diana's wedding.

Zalie Warren is the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth's bloodstock and racing adviser John Warren.

Benita Litt is a close friend of Markle, who is godmother to her two daughters.

Ivy Mulroney's stylist mother Jessica runs a bridal store in Toronto, where Markle filmed "Suits", and is said to have helped choose the wedding gown. She is married to Ben Mulroney, son of former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney.


-- Prince George of Cambridge, 4: Harry's nephew

-- Jasper Dyer, 6: Harry's godson

-- Brian Mulroney, 7: son of Jessica Mulroney

-- John Mulroney, 7: Brian's twin brother

Jasper Dyer's father is Mark Dyer, a former equerry to Charles who was entrusted to keep an eye on Harry after Diana's death. The pair travelled together during Harry's gap year.



Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ebola: Past outbreaks


Paris, France /AFP/. Following is a recap of past epidemics of Ebola as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) battles a new outbreak of the deadly tropical disease:


- 1976: First known outbreak -

Ebola was first identified in central Africa in 1976 and named after a river in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

It claimed 431 lives that year: 280 in the DRC (then known as Zaire) and 151 across the border in Sudan, in an area that is today part of South Sudan, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Three years later the virus reemerged in the same region of southern Sudan, killing 22.


- 1995: DRC again -

In May 1995 Ebola struck again in the DRC, in the forested region of Kikwit in its southwest. It spread quickly and lethally, killing 250 people from 315 reported cases.


- 2000-2001: Uganda -

In September 2000 the Sudan strain of Ebola fever spread for the first time to Uganda, infecting 425 people in the northern and western regions, of whom 224 died.


- 2001-2003: Gabon, Congo -

Affected by the Zaire strain of Ebola on three occasions between 1994 and 1997 with nearly 100 people dying in total, Gabon saw a sudden rise in cases between October 2001 and May 2002.

The epidemic hit the province of Ogooue-Ivindo in the northeast, an area which had previously been infected. Fifty-three of 65 people reported to have been infected eventually died.

The virus spread to neighbouring Republic of Congo where it killed 43 in 2001 and more than 150 over 2003.


- 2013-2015: Biggest outbreak -

The most deadly epidemic broke out in West Africa in December 2013 and lasted more than two years, killing more than 11,300 of the 29,000 recorded cases.

Around 99 percent of the victims came from three neighbouring countries. In Guinea, where the epidemic started, more than 2,500 died, while in Sierra Leone more than 3,900 perished and Liberia lost 4,800 people.

This toll, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says is an underestimate, was seven times the total number of deaths in previous epidemics since the virus was identified.


- DRC: Ninth outbreak -

The DRC is now facing its ninth Ebola outbreak since 1976.

The latest episode, publicly declared on May 8, has seen 44 reported cases so far with 23 deaths, according to UN figures. Its epicentre is in the Bikoro area in remote Equateur province.

On Thursday the WHO said a case had been recorded in Mbandaka, a city roughly 150 kilometres (90 miles) from Bikoro.


In 2007, the virus killed 187 people in the DRC, and 43 in 2012.


Sources: AFP, CDC, WHO


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Trump marks one year of Mueller probe with 'No Collusion' tweet


Washington, /AFP/. United States Donald Trump on Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into ties between the president's campaign team and Russia with a trademark tweet, reiterating "there is still No Collusion."

"Congratulations America, we are now into the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History...and there is still No Collusion and No Obstruction," Trump tweeted.

The Republican president has repeatedly insisted he's the target of a "witch hunt" and denied any collusion between Team Trump and Moscow to win the presidency against former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

In a follow-up tweet, Trump also revived claims that former president Barack Obama's administration spied on his campaign, after the FBI in 2016 launched its investigation into ties between the Republican camp and Russia.

"Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI 'SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN IMBEDDED INFORMANT,'" the president tweeted, misspelling the word "embedded."

The tweet alluded to a report in The New York Times that said at least one government informant met several times with two Trump campaign advisers under investigation by the FBI, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.

The Times said the FBI probe, codenamed "Crossfire Hurricane," began when two FBI agents secretly interviewed Australia's ambassador in London about a wine-fueled conversaation with Papadopoulos in which the Trump adviser suggested he knew in advance about the Russian meddling.

"As these revelations are making their way forward, it looks like the Trump campaign may in fact have been surveiled," White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told Fox News Thursday. "As the president likes to say, we'll see what happens."

"I think those who have been digging and conjecturing for over a year should be careful what they wish for."

Since his appointment on May 17, 2017, Mueller -- a veteran prosecutor and former FBI director -- has kept his silence on the investigation.

But his team has notched 22 indictments, including those of former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Mueller was given the reins of the probe shortly after Trump sacked James Comey as FBI director.

The special counsel has requested an interview with Trump -- a proposal the White House has thus far not accepted, as his lawyers debate the risks.

A leaked list of questions Mueller's team submitted to the White House suggests the special counsel is analyzing whether Trump obstructed justice -- notably by firing Comey last year and his attempt to shield Flynn.

Also on the table is how much Trump knew of his team members' contacts with Russia -- and what those contacts entailed.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia agree study of contentious Nile dam


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia /AFP /. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have agreed to set up a scientific committee to study a dam Ethiopia is building on a tributary of the Nile, an Ethiopian minister said Thursday.

The announcement broke a long impasse in a dispute over Egyptian fears that the $4-billion (3.2-billion-euro) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, being built on the Blue Nile, will affect the river's downstream flows.

The three countries' foreign and irrigation ministers, as well as heads of intelligence, met in Addis Ababa on Tuesday to discuss the scheme.

The meeting concluded on Wednesday at 3:00 am on a "high note", said Sileshi Bekele, minister of energy, irrigation and electricity.

"We managed to actually find a number of win-win approaches," he told reporters in Addis Ababa.

Previous rounds of talks had ended acrimoniously.

The project will feed a reservoir for a hydroelectric scheme producing 6,000 megawatts of power, equal to six nuclear-powered plants.

The foundation stone for the project was laid in 2011, and two of the 16 turbines are scheduled to start producing power this year, the Ethiopian authorities said earlier this year.

Cairo is primarily concerned at the speed at which the dam's reservoir would be filled.

The Blue and the White Nile converge in Sudan's capital Khartoum and from there run north through Egypt to the Mediterranean.

On Wednesday Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hailed a "breakthrough" in the talks, saying he had received assurances "that Egypt's share will not be affected".

"We just want to transform these statements to procedures ... so that we are talking about specific commitments we must all implement and operate with," Sisi said.

Ethiopia's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, said on May 3 in Khartoum, after a meeting with Omar Al Bashir, the Sudanese president, that Ethiopia had no intention of harming Sudan or Egypt with its dam.

The new scientific committee, made up of independent experts from the universities of the three countries, will focus on the operation of the dam and the filling of the reservoir.

It will complete its work in three months.

Meanwhile a French consultancy firm commissioned to study the dam's potential environmental impact will respond to queries from the three countries on June 18 or 19, Sileshi said.

He added that the three teams would meet on a rotational basis every six months to address regional issues such as trade and infrastructure as well as the dam.

The aim is "to bring these countries much closer together through development endeavours," he said.

The next round of high-level talks is set for July 3 in Cairo.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Windsor businesses cash in on royal wedding boom


By Robin Millard

Windsor, United Kingdom  /AFP/. Gift shops, pubs and street vendors are doing a roaring trade in Windsor ahead of the royal wedding, cashing in as tourists throng the town.

If it's got Prince Harry or Meghan Markle's face on it, it's likely to fly off the shelves ahead of their nuptials in Windsor Castle on Saturday.

"We're doing great," said MalkitAujla, who owns the A.P. Souvenirs and Gifts shop opposite the castle walls.

"We've seen a 25 to 30-percent increase in business," he told AFP in between selling gifts and trinkets.

"Mostly the mugs and tea towels are the big sellers -- plus the magnets, and small plates, and small flags. The Harry and Meghan masks are flying.

"When we order anything in, it's all gone. The shopping bags and bunting are all finished. With the tea towels, we ordered, very sensibly, 96 -- and they're all gone in two weeks."

Master Gifts and Souvenirs, further down Thames Street, has put its wedding souvenirs right in the shop entrance.

"When people see the stuff, they come inside," said shop assistant Julius Mariadas, as a French-speaking woman intending to camp out hunted for the biggest British flag available.

Replica engagement rings at £9.99 ($13.50, 11.50 euros), £6.99 mugs, and £2.99 fridge magnets jostle for shelf space with tea trays, pill boxes, shortbread boxes and teddy bears featuring the happy couple.

"The royal wedding stuff is moving very fast," said Mariadas.

"These are good times."


- 'It's manic' -

But Kevin Ball, a retired police officer, who cycles in every morning from a nearby campsite with his portable stall to sell souvenirs, said business was too slow for his liking.

"We're hoping it will pick up soon," he said.

He sells white baseball caps with "Harry and Meghan Royal Wedding" written on, and purple scarves featuring the couple's faces.

"I think people love to celebrate something British."

One stallholder selling mugs and hats, who did not wish to give his name, complained that the wedding would actually cost him money, because the castle was closing to the public.

"It's garbage," he said. "I rely on the castle being open," he said, adding: "I've been here 47 years -- I don't need a wedding to make money."

Near the castle, The Three Tuns pub is completing a makeover as The Prince Harry, just in time for the wedding. Outside on scaffolding, a decorator is busily painting "Prince Harry" on the wall.

"It's perfect timing," said landlady Kelly Carpenter as workers carted in sacks of potatoes before streets in central Windsor are shut down.

Pints of locally-brewed Harry-and-Meghan Windsor Knot royal wedding pale ale are doing a brisk trade.

"I've had another 10 casks delivered this morning," said Carpenter.

"It's manic. It's been absolutely heaving. It's just non-stop."


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Saudi Arabia announces Thursday start for Ramadan


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan will begin Thursday in Saudi Arabia, the land of the religion's two holiest sites, authorities said.

"The first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan falls on Thursday corresponding to May 17, 2018," the Royal Court said in a statement published by state news agency SPA.

The start date is set by both lunar calculations and physical sightings which determine when the last day of one lunar month ends and a new one begins.

Traditionally, many Muslim-majority countries have followed the dates set by Saudi religious authorities, but in recent years many have used their own astronomical calculations.

Ramadan is a holy month for the world's nearly 1.5 billion Muslims, many of whom practise the ritual of dawn-to-dusk fasting and prayers.

Tradition holds that it was during Ramadan that the Prophet Mohammed started receiving revelations of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

Ramadan is one of the five "pillars" of Islam.

The others are the profession of faith ("there is no God but God and Mohammed is his messenger"), the obligation to pray five times a day, charity, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Maduro brushes off risk of new sanctions after Sunday's vote


Paris, France. Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday dismissed the threat of new sanctions following an early election called for Sunday, which critics have denounced as a sham aimed at tightening his grip on power.

"These are unacceptable threats toward any sovereign nation," Maduro said in an interview with France 24 television. "Venezuela is a democratic country."

If EU leaders add to sanctions they first imposed last November, "We'll continue to work, continue to live: Their sanctions don't concern me, because these leaders have a superiority complex, they still think they control their former colonies," Maduro said.

US officials are also expected to tighten the screws on Venezuela, but Maduro reiterated his claim that President Donald Trump is bent on ousting his government.

The country has been gripped by a political and economic crisis for months as Madura has overhauled institutions while sidelining the main opposition coalition, which has been barred from fielding candidates in the coming election.

But Maduro also brushed off claims that his almost certain victory would be marred by huge abstention rates among voters wearied by years of economic and political crises which have devastated living standards for millions.

His campaign has called on citizens to give him a symbolic 10 million votes on Sunday, saying Wednesday that this was the country's "debt to the Bolivarian revolution" -- the political path laid out by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Asked if he would then dissolve the National Assembly, which is dominated by opposition groups, Maduro said: "The idea seems a good one".

He has already bypassed the parliament by setting up a Constituent Assembly packed with Maduro loyalists, though the body has not been recognised by foreign governments or the European Union.

- 'Filthy lies' -

Maduro also contested claims of rampant inflation as the country's economy has collapsed amid falling oil prices, calling them lies from groups like the International Monetary Fund, which last month warned prices were likely to soar more than 13,800 percent this year.

"Keep in mind we have an empire against us... Of course we have economic problems, we are working on them and we will solve them bit by bit," he said.

But he said Venezuela would in June undergo an unspecified "monetary conversion to ensure the country's stability."

He also denied claims that thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, with the Red Cross saying this month that one million had crossed into neighbouring Colombia last year alone.

"You have your information, and we have ours," Maduro said, claiming that Venezuela had welcomed some 5.6 million Colombians into Venezuela.

"It's the opposite, Venezuelans are coming back, once they have realised the beauty of their country," he said.

- 'A lot of hope' -

"There is an order, a goal, a national project for Venezuela. There is a lot of hope in a new social alternative to neo-liberal capitalism."

He also said there had been no shortages of food or medicines even as cases of diseases such as measles have soared, which aid groups have called a humanitarian crisis.

"Concerning food, Venezuela pursues its own unique policy, and that is why we have a programme that maintains sufficient food levels," he claimed.

Concerning suspicions over his possible involvement in the huge scandal surrounding the Brazilian construction group Odebrecht, Maduro denied receiving bribes to finance his 2013 election campaign.

According to Brazilian prosecutors cited in recent press reports, Maduro received $35 million in exchange for steering projects toward Odebrecht.

"If someone is accusing me of this, they are corrupt," he said.

"You can accuse me of what you want, but these filthy lies, it's out of the question."



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

OPCW confirms chlorine use in February attack in Syria


The Hague, Netherlands . A global arms watchdog on Wednesday confirmed that chlorine was "likely used as a chemical weapon" in a February attack on the Syrian town of Saraqeb.

A fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons determined that "chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talilneighbourhood of Saraqeb" on February 4, an OPCW statement said.

The team's conclusions were based on finding two cylinders "which were determined as previously containing chlorine."

Environmental samples also "demonstrated the unusual presence of chlorine in the local environment," said the organisation, based in The Hague.

However, in line with its mandate the watchdog did not say which side in Syria's complex seven-year civil war was responsible for using chlorine.

Eleven people had to be treated for breathing difficulties on February 4 after Syrian government raids on the town of Saraqeb, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at the time.

Mohammad GhalebTannari, a doctor in a nearby town in Idlib province, also told AFP at the time that his hospital had treated 11 people.

"All the cases we received had symptoms consistent with inhaling the toxic chlorine gas, including exhaustion, difficulty breathing, and coughing," he said.

The OPCW said its team had interviewed witnesses, and found that a "number of patients at medical facilities shortly after the incident showed signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine."

"I strongly condemn the use of toxic chemicals as weapons by anyone, for any reason, and in any circumstances," said OPCW head AhmetUzumcu.

"Such acts contradict the unequivocal prohibition against chemical weapons."

An OPCW fact-finding team is also currently awaiting the results of its difficult mission to the Syrian town of Douma, after medics and rescuers said 40 people died in a chlorine and sarin attack on April 7.

The team exhumed bodies as well as gathering over 100 environmental samples which are being analysed in different OPCW-designated labs.

Syria and Russia have accused Syrian volunteer rescue workers of staging the April 7 video footage at the behest of the United States and its allies.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Japan passes law to get more women into politics


Tokyo, Japan. Japan's parliament on Wednesday passed a law to encourage female candidates to stand for elections in a country where women are vastly underrepresented in politics.
Under the new law, political parties are urged to make the number of male and female candidates as equal as possible and are encouraged to set targets for gender parity.
But the law includes no penalties for parties that fail to do so, nor incentives to encourage them.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made increasing female participation in the workforce a key plank of his economic policies as Japan struggles with a labour shortage.
But only 47 of the 465 members of parliament's lower house are women, a ratio of 10.1 percent that puts Japan behind Myanmar and Gambia in terms of female government representation, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
"I hope this law will make a big change in Japanese politics," said Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, one of the members who drafted the legislation, according to public broadcaster NHK.
"I hope women who were hesitant to become candidates will be courageous" and run for election, she said.
The law was put forward by a cross-party group of lawmakers, but reportedly faced opposition during the drafting process despite containing no penalties for non-compliance.
Next year Japan will hold regional elections in April and elections for parliament's upper house in July.
Japan ranked bottom among G7 countries in the World Economic Forum's latest "Global Gender Gap Report", coming 114th worldwide.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

'Call me Equinor': Statoil changes name


Oslo, Norway. Norway's largest oil company Statoil officially changed its name to Equinor on Wednesday as it forges ahead with its drive into renewable energy.
Proposed in March and adopted on Tuesday at the shareholders' general meeting, the name change allows the company to take a step back -- at least in name -- from the Norwegian state, which owns 67 percent of its shares, and from oil.
Equinor is meant to combine the idea of equity and equilibrium ("equi") and geographical origin ("nor") for Norway.  
Founded in 1972 to operate Norway's large oil fields, the company -- which is listed on both the Oslo and New York stock exchanges -- is now active in renewable energies, including wind farms off the UK coast.
The group has earmarked 15-20 percent of its investments to "new energy solutions" by 2030.
But this shift has been cold shouldered by environmentalists concerned about global warming as they accuse the company of "green washing".
"Statoil name change to attract young talent will not be sufficient as long as #Equinor is exploring in vulnerable areas, such as the Arctic or the Great Australian Bight," tweeted Truls Gulowsen, leader for Greenpeace in Norway.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

China spots problems with US cars, pork as trade talks loom


Beijing, China. China said on Wednesday it had stepped up inspections of key US imports such as pork and automobiles, just as a high-level delegation visits Washington for key trade negotiations.
The world's two largest economies are locked in a tense standoff with tariff threats hanging over billions of dollars of goods many fear could spark a damaging trade war between the economic superpowers.
Vice Premier Liu He, President Xi Jinping's top economic adviser, and central bank chief Yi Gang arrived in the US capital on Tuesday for a new round of talks aimed at heading off a trade war.
Hopes the two sides can reach a deal were raised at the weekend when President Donald Trump said he was working with Xi to prevent telecom giant ZTE from going out of business after it was hit by a US technology sales ban.
However, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said there was a "wide" gap between the US and China while lawmakers in Washington questioned the offer to prevent ZTE's collapse, citing national security issues.
Meanwhile, Beijing has taken action to show their US counterparts the value of access to China's market for American goods and firms.
"We increased the inspection ratio of American pork," China's customs bureau said in faxed comments to AFP, calling the practice "in line with international norms."
It added that inspections came after "we found there were problems with American pork", the department said without providing details.
Reports have also said inspectors are taking similar action against US car giants such as Ford, waste imports, among other products.
The customs administration said US car imports were quickly deteriorating in quality when AFP queried the regulator about holdups for Ford.
"In the first four months of the year, major car ports in China detected a total of 652 batches of cars from the US -- totalling 4,360 vehicles worth $312.5 million -- that were not up to standard," the customs administration said.
"This is a relatively quick pace of growth," the regulator said.
A spokesman for Ford said: "We are closely monitoring our situation at the port."

The moves against waste imports have thrown the American recycling industry into a tailspin as China was one of the most important destinations for US trash.
On May 3, China said it would inspect all US waste coming into the country, according to a Chinese customs notice reposted by a US recycling trade group.
Citing statistics showing US waste imports failing to meet standards, China's customs department said it took action to "protect people's lives and health and safeguard the ecological environment".
"The United States has become the largest source of solid waste materials that do not meet environmental or major quarantine standards, so the risk attached to importing its waste materials is obviously high."
It denied any of the action targeted a specific country.
In a meeting with US business leaders in Beijing, Vice President Wang Qishan struck a more conciliatory tone.
"Economic and trade relations are the ballast of the the two nations' relations, and their essence is cooperatively beneficial," he said, according to the People's Daily.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

UK to publish Brexit blueprint as doubts swirl over trade ties

London, United Kingdom./ AFP/ Britain will produce a dossier spelling out its Brexit strategy in the coming weeks, the government said Wednesday, as doubts swirl and divisions deepen over trade ties with the EU after the country leaves the bloc.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said the "White Paper" will include "detailed, ambitious and precise explanations" of the government's positions and act as the "most significant publication on the EU since the referendum".

"It will communicate our ambition for the UK's future relationship with the EU, in the context of our vision for the UK's future role in the world," he said.

The paper, to be published ahead of an EU summit next month, will run around 100 pages, UK media reported.

It follows the first Brexit "White Paper" of February 2017 in which Davis promised the government would seek a "bold and ambitious free trade agreement".

"There's been a huge amount of work that has been going on in different government departments to put flesh on the prime minister's vision of a deep and comprehensive special partnership between us and the EU," Minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington told BBC Radio 4 Wednesday.

"We want to explain that in detail."

The new document has been announced despite divisions within Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet over post-Brexit trade ties with the European Union.

A cabinet meeting on Tuesday failed to heal the rifts between key ministers and the prime minister over proposed arrangements.

May's reported preferred option is the "customs partnership", which would involve Britain collecting EU tariffs on goods heading into the bloc but charging its own on UK-destined products.

A second option, "maximum facilitation", would involve using technology to minimise customs checks.

Brussels has condemned May's vision for arrangements as "magical thinking". To complicate matters further, Davis has reportedly told May her favoured model would be illegal under international law.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Indonesia hit by new terror attack after deadly suicide bombings


By Wahyudi

Pekanbaru, Indonesia. Four men who attacked an Indonesian police headquarters with samurai swords were shot dead Wednesday and one officer also died, authorities said, days after a wave of deadly suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State group rocked the country.
The assault in the city of Pekanbaru on Sumatra island saw a group ram their minivan into a gate at the station and then attack officers with the swords, police said.
It was not clear if Wednesday's incident was linked to other attacks this week, which saw two families -- who all belonged to the same religious study group -- stage suicide bombings at churches and a police station in Surabaya on Java island, Indonesia's second biggest city.
The attacks have put Indonesia on edge -- and sparked a string of travel advisories from foreign governments -- as the world's biggest Muslim-majority country starts the holy fasting month of Ramadan from Thursday.
Police said they shot dead four of the police station attackers and later arrested another who had fled.
One officer was killed by the speeding vehicle and two others were wounded in the incident, they added.
Local media said one attacker may have had a bomb strapped to his body but police have not confirmed the reports. No group has yet taken responsibility for the attack.
The bloody violence is putting pressure on lawmakers to pass a stalled security law that would give police more power to take pre-emptive action against terror suspects.
Indonesia -- which is set to host the Asian Games in just three months and an IMF-World Bank meeting in Bali in October -- has long struggled with Islamist militancy.
Its worst-ever attack was the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people -- including locals and foreign tourists.

- 'Better organised' -
Security forces have arrested hundreds of militants during a sustained crackdown since the Bali bombing, and most attacks in recent years have been low-level and targeted domestic security forces.
But on Sunday, a family of six -- including girls aged nine and 12 -- staged suicide bombings at three churches during morning services in Surabaya, killing 13.
All six bombers died, including the mother who was Indonesia's first known female suicide bomber. It was also the first time children had been used in such attacks.
A memorial service was held Wednesday for Vincencius Hudojo, 11, and Nathanael Hudojo, 8, two brothers who died after the blast at the Santa Maria Catholic Church on Sunday in Surabaya. Their mother was injured.
Services were also held for Martha Djumani, 54, who was killed in the bombing at a Pentecostal church, just a day after she had got engaged.
"My sister was always caring towards other people and taught her children to be compassionate," Daud Samari, Djumani's younger brother, told reporters.
On Monday members of another family blew themselves up at a police station in Surabaya, wounding 10.
The church bombing family were in the same religious study group as the Surabaya police station bombers and a third family believed to be linked to the wave of attacks, authorities said.
"They had the same teacher and they regularly met for Koran recital every week," said East Java police chief Machfud Arifin.
The coordinated church attack was a sign local extremist groups were becoming more proficient, and stirs concerns about an uptick in extremism as hundreds of Indonesians who flocked to fight alongside Islamic State in the Middle East return home.
"They were better organised...and suggests a higher level of capacity than what we have seen in recent years," said Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based Institute of Policy Analysis for Conflict.
The families have been linked to the local chapter of Indonesian extremist network Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), which police said was behind the attacks.
The radical group supports Islamic State, whose ambitions have been curbed after losing most of the land it once occupied in Iraq and Syria.
Police have said the church and earlier police station attacks were likely motivated by the arrest of JAD leaders.
They followed a deadly prison riot staged by Islamist prisoners at a high-security jail near Jakarta last week.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Iran's Zarif says EU meetings must be turned into action


Tehran, Iran. Iran's foreign minister said Wednesday that meetings with EU leaders on salvaging the nuclear deal sent a strong political message but must now be turned into action.
"If the JCPOA (nuclear deal) is supposed to continue, it was a good start and it has sent an important political message, but this is not the end of the work," Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters on his flight back to Tehran, according to state news agency IRNA.
"From next week, intensive expert meetings will start in Europe. They must do the work, but they will consult us so that we are sure the actions they take are sufficient from our point of view," he added.
Zarif was returning from a diplomatic tour of the remaining parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement -- Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- following the US decision last week to pull out.
He met his European counterparts in Brussels on Tuesday.
"They said that they would ensure Iran enjoys the benefits of the JCPOA and they accepted that the implementation of the JCPOA has nothing to do with other issues," he said, referring to Iran's demand that talks on saving the deal must not be linked to pressure on its missile programme and regional interventions.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Tuesday that experts had already begun work on measures to get round US sanctions, focusing on nine key areas including Iran's ability to continue selling oil and gas products, and how to protect European companies doing business in the country.
"We are not fantasising that Europe will break its relations with America... but we want Europeans to defend their own interests," Zarif added.
He said the negative global reaction to Washington's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement -- and the new sanctions it announced Tuesday on Iran's central bank -- reflected US isolation on the Iran issue.
"America is not in charge of everything in the world. Of course, Americans would like the whole world to think this way and when the world doesn't think this way, they take some angry actions such as sanctioning the head of the central bank without any reason," Zarif said.
"We must expect more such moves by the Americans. These moves are against the law, contrary to conventional international relations and indicate their weakness."



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Iran, Venezuela weighing on oil market: IEA


By Simon Morgan

Paris, France. Global oil supplies could be hit by the decision by the US to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, and also by falling production in crisis-hit Venezuela, the IEA said on Wednesday.
The decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Iran deal "has switched the focus of oil market analysis from the fundamentals to geopolitics," the International Energy Agency wrote in its regular monthly report.
On May 8, Trump announced he would pull the US out of a 2015 pact -- agreed by Britain, China, Germany, Russia and the Barack Obama administration -- that opened up Tehran's atomic programme in return for an easing of sanctions.
Oil prices -- which had already rising on the back of steady demand growth and a landmark deal by oil producing countries, both inside and outside the OPEC cartel, to lower output -- have since surged above $77 per barrel, the IEA said.
"In these early days, there is understandable uncertainty about (the) potential impact on Iran's oil exports" from the US move, it said.
When sanctions were imposed in 2012, Iranian exports fell by about 1.2 million barrels per day, the organisation said.
"It is too soon to say what will happen this time, but we should examine whether other producers could step in to ensure an orderly flow of oil to the market and offset a disruption to Iranian exports."
Shortly after the US announcement, Saudi Arabia, the OPEC cartel kingpin, acknowledged the need to work with producers and consumers to mitigate possible supply shortfalls, the IEA noted.
- Demand growth to slow -
Another possible risk to the global oil supply could come from crisis-hit Venezuela, the IEA said.
"In Venezuela, the pace of decline of oil production is accelerating and by the end of this year output could have fallen by several hundred thousand barrels a day," the IEA said.
"The potential double supply shortfall represented by Iran and Venezuela could present a major challenge for producers to fend off sharp price rises and fill the gap, not just in terms of the number of barrels but also in terms of oil quality," it said.
The IEA said that the overall market balance was "continuing to tighten", and it lowered its estimate for 2018 global oil demand growth to 1.4 million barrels per day from its previous estimate of 1.5 million.
"Demand at the start of the year was supported by cold weather in Europe and the US, the start-up of new petrochemical capacity in the US and a solid economic background," the IEA said.
"While the economic environment will continue to support oil demand... support from harsh weather conditions will vanish and the recent jump in oil prices will take its toll," it said.
"Therefore, world oil demand growth is expected to slow" in the second half of the year.



Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Vodafone returns to profit, announces CEO departure


London, United Kingdom | AFP | British telecoms giant Vodafone on Tuesday announced a return to annual profit, as it revealed that long-serving chief executive Vittorio Colao will step down later this year.

Group Chief Financial Officer Nick Read will succeed Colao from October, with the announcement coming less than a week after Vodafone unveiled a deal to turn it into Europe's largest cable and broadband operator by buying assets from US peer Liberty Global.

Vodafone on Tuesday posted net profit of 2.4 billion euros ($2.9 billion) in the 12 months to the end of March, which compared with a loss after tax of 6.3 billion euros in 2016/17, the group said in a statement.

The turnaround pointed to a "year of significant operational and strategic achievement and strong financial performance", Colao said.

"Our sustained investment in network quality supported robust commercial momentum," he added.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Gaza toll rises to 59 with more protests against Israel planned


Gaza City, Palestinian Territories | AFP | Fresh protests were expected Tuesday a day after Israeli forces killed 59 Palestinians during clashes and protests along the Gaza border against the US embassy opening in Jerusalem in the conflict's bloodiest day in years.

Palestinians on Tuesday mark the Nakba, or "catastrophe," commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

It comes a day after the United States transferred its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem in a move that infuriated the Palestinians and was widely condemned.

Most of the 59 Gazans who died Monday were shot by Israeli snipers, Gaza's health ministry said.

The toll included a baby who died from tear gas inhalation along with eight children under the age of 16, the ministry said.

At least 2,400 others were wounded in the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 Gaza war.

Senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya vowed protests in Gaza would continue on Tuesday.

Hamas's armed wing and other militant groups "will not prolong their silence over the crimes of the occupation", he said.

In the West Bank, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas declared a general strike on Tuesday after accusing Israel of "massacres".

On Monday, tens of thousands had gathered near the border in protest while smaller numbers of stone-throwing Palestinians approached the fence and sought to break through, with Israeli snipers positioned on the other side.

- Protests and clashes -
The death toll led to strong condemnation from rights groups and concern from a range of countries.

But the United States blocked the adoption of a UN Security Council statement that would have called for an independent probe into the violence, diplomats at the United Nations said.

Despite the violence, the embassy inauguration went on as planned in Jerusalem, attended by a Washington delegation that included US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides.

Trump addressed the gathering by video.

"Our greatest hope is for peace," he said, despite the Palestinian anger the move has provoked.

Israel's military said 40,000 Palestinians had taken part in the protests and clashes.

It said its aircraft had targeted 11 Hamas sites and tanks fired at "two terror posts belonging to Hamas", accusing the Palestinian Islamist movement of opening fire towards Israeli forces.

Israel says its action is necessary to stop infiltrations of the border fence and claims that Hamas, which runs the blockaded Gaza Strip, uses the protests as cover to carry out violence.

The White House also blamed Hamas for the violence.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the "violence of the Israeli armed forces against the protesters" as several countries urged restraint.

Britain's minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt acknowledged "Israel's right to defend its borders" but also said "the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning".

"We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint," he said.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "we expect all to act with utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of "state terror" and "genocide."

Turkey also said it was recalling its ambassadors to the United States and Israel "for consultations," while South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel "until further notice".

- 'Terrorist squads' -
At least 113 Palestinians have been killed in a campaign of protests along the Gaza border since March 30, the vast majority  by Israeli snipers during clashes.

Only one Israeli soldier has been reported wounded during that time.

On Monday, the army said "many rioters" tried to breach the border fence and "approximately 10 explosive devices and several firebombs were used to target the security fence and (Israeli) troops". It said shots were also fired at the soldiers.

The embassy inauguration followed Trump's December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.

Jerusalem's status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

International consensus has been that the city's status must be negotiated between the two sides, but Trump broke with that to global outrage.

He has argued that it helps make peace possible by taking Jerusalem "off the table", but many have noted he has not announced any concessions in return from Israel.

Beyond the disputed nature of Jerusalem, the date of the embassy move was also key. May 14 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Royal wedding a boost for Brexit-bound Britain


Windsor, United Kingdom | AFP | The royal wedding of Prince Harry and his glamorous fiancee Meghan Markle is a moment of light relief for a Britain weighed down by political, social and economic woes.

With growth shrinking and the government riven over Brexit, Saturday's wedding is set to provide a national boost and give people an excuse to party.

Around 100,000 people are expected to pack the streets of Windsor, west of London, to join in the festive atmosphere and get a glimpse of the newlyweds' carriage winding through the town.

Some 2,640 people have been invited inside the Windsor Castle grounds for a closer look -- among them Rashid Bhayat.

"It certainly could be a moment of national unity. It is a real opportunity for the country to celebrate," the youth inclusion charity chief told AFP.

The wedding in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle brings together Queen Elizabeth II's grandson, who is sixth in line to the throne, and US former actress Markle, who at 36 is three years his senior.

The dress and the wedding rings are a closely-guarded secret, as is Harry's uniform and whether he will be given a new title.

The service starts at midday (1100 GMT), with the newlyweds emerging to pose on the chapel steps at 1:00 pm (1200 GMT) before a 25-minute carriage ride through Windsor town.

Queen Elizabeth is then giving a reception for the 600 guests in the castle's St. George's Hall.

In the evening, Harry's father Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, is hosting a private reception for 200 family and close friends at nearby Frogmore House.

- Fun and surprises -
"Even the palace are promising fun and surprises so hopefully we're all going to have a big smile on our face and we'll be toasting this royal romance of the year," royal biographer Andrew Morton, told AFP.

"What you're going to see is the symbolic union of the special relationship, of America and Britain."

The same cannot be said of Markle's own family.

Her older half-brother Tom and half-sister Samantha have not been invited.

Tom wrote an extraordinary open letter to Harry on April 26, saying TV fame had made his half-sister a "jaded, shallow, conceited woman that will make a joke of you".

Markle's father, who had been due to walk his daughter up the aisle, may also be a no show.

According to celebrity news website TMZ, Thomas Markle, who recently caused a furor by posing for paparazzi photos, has pulled out of accompanying his daughter down the aisle at Windsor Castle because he does not want to embarrass her.

Kensington Palace did not confirm the report but pleaded for "understanding and respect" for the couple during a "difficult situation".

Politicians are also off the guest list, so US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May will not be attending.

It will be a chance for the British public to leave behind temporarily the deep divisions that have emerged over Britain's future outside the European Union.

It could also bring a welcome boost to the economy.

The British economy grew at 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2018, its slowest pace in more than five years, and the Bank of England has slashed its growth forecasts.

The Brand Finance valuation consultancy estimates the wedding will contribute £1 billion ($1.35 billion, 1.15 billion euros) to the British economy this year.

That includes £300 million in tourism, £300 million in advertising value for the UK and £250 million in retail and food spending.

- Party time -
The royal wedding commemorative china has already gone on sale, while stamps and a special £5 coin have been issued featuring the couple.

Besides the official souvenirs, Windsor shops are stuffed with mugs, bookmarks, tea towels, postcards, British flags, face masks and cardboard cut-outs as the town cashes in on its big day.

Traditional street parties will be held around the kingdom.

Market research firm Mintel, which surveyed 2,000 people online, reported that a third of Britons said the wedding made them feel more proud to be British.

"Where stories about negativity and uncertainty dominate the headlines, it's heartwarming that the fairytale story of a glamorous Californian actress marrying her British prince has captured the public's imagination," said Mintel analyst Jack Duckett.

The last time a US divorcee married into the British royal family, king Edward VIII had to give up his throne. The name Wallis Simpson and 1936 still send shivers through Buckingham Palace.

That Markle, a biracial, divorced US TV star, is being welcomed with open arms is a sign of how Britain has changed since.

"Britain is a very multicultural society. It was not the case of the royal family until now, but Meghan Markle brings a whole new kind of dynamic," said Bhayat.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Facebook suspends 200 apps over data misuse



Facebook said Monday it has suspended "around 200" apps on its platform as part of an investigation into misuse of private user data.

The investigation was launched after revelations that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica hijacked data on some 87 million Facebook users as it worked on Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.

"The investigation process is in full swing," said an online statement from Facebook product partnerships vice president Ime Archibong.

"We have large teams of internal and external experts working hard to investigate these apps as quickly as possible. To date thousands of apps have been investigated and around 200 have been suspended — pending a thorough investigation into whether they did in fact misuse any data."

Archibong added that "where we find evidence that these or other apps did misuse data, we will ban them and notify people via this website."

The revelations over Cambridge Analytica have prompted investigations on both sides of the Atlantic and led Facebook to tighten its policies on how personal data is shared and accessed.

Facebook made a policy change in 2014 limiting access to user data but noted that some applications still had data obtained prior to the revision.

"There is a lot more work to be done to find all the apps that may have misused people's Facebook data — and it will take time," Archibong said.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg spent most of the past month on the fallout from revelations about Cambridge Analytica's data hijacking, seeking to assuage fears that the California-based internet colossus can safeguard privacy while making money by targeting ads based on what people share about themselves.

Efforts to rebuild trust in Facebook include a review of all applications that had access to large amounts of user data.

The 200 applications Facebook said it suspended included one called myPersonality that collected psychological information shared by millions of members of the social network who voluntarily took "psychometric" tests.

"We suspended the myPersonality app almost a month ago because we believe that it may have violated Facebook's policies," Archibong said Monday in response to an AFP inquiry.

"We are currently investigating the app, and if myPersonality refuses to cooperate or fails our audit, we will ban it."

About 40 percent of the people who took the tests also opted to share Facebook profile data, resulting in a large science research database, the University of Cambridge psychometrics center said of the project on its website.

Security and encryption at the website used to share data with registered academic collaborators was meager and easily bypassed, according to a report Monday in British magazine New Scientist.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

China urges Israel to show restraint after Gaza deaths


Beijing, China | AFP | China on Tuesday called for restraint, "especially" from Israel, after 59 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during clashes and protests along the Gaza border against the US embassy opening in Jerusalem.

"China is seriously concerned about the large number of casualties caused by the violent conflict in the Gaza border," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing.

"We oppose violence against civilians. We call on both sides, especially Israel, to maintain restraint and avoid further tension and escalation of the situation," Lu said.

The spokesman reiterated Beijing's support for a two-state solution, with the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

"China has always believed that the final status of Jerusalem should be finally settled through peace talks between Palestine and Israel in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the United Nations," Lu said.

Fresh protests were expected on Tuesday as Palestinians mark the Nakba, or "catastrophe," commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

It comes a day after the United States transferred its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem in a move that infuriated the Palestinians and was widely condemned.

Most of the 59 Gazans who died Monday were shot by Israeli snipers, Gaza's health ministry said.

At least 2,400 others were wounded in the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2014 Gaza war.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Modi rejigs cabinet as finance minister undergoes surgery


New Delhi, India | AFP | India's finance minister Arun Jaitley was recovering in hospital Tuesday after undergoing a kidney transplant that forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reshuffle his cabinet.

Railways minister Piyush Goyal on Monday was assigned Jaitley's duties managing Asia's third-largest economy until the ruling party stalwart returns to good health.

Jaitley, 65, has been suffering kidney-related problems for months and was on dialysis for a fortnight at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences ahead of the transplant.

The institute said the procedure Monday was successful and both Jaitley and the donor were stable. It did not mention how long it would take him to recover fully.

Jaitley underwent bariatric surgery in 2014 to treat diabetes and weight gain. He also underwent heart surgery several years ago.

He is the second minister from Modi's cabinet to undergo a kidney transplant after foreign minister Sushma Swaraj in 2016.

Jaitley, a lawyer, has served as a senior minister in Modi's cabinet since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in May 2014.

He was appointed finance minister in Modi's first government and has remained at the helm since as India rose to become one of the world's fastest growing economies.

Jaitley was credited with landmark reforms including a nationwide goods and services tax rolled out in 2017, but has faced criticism for periods of slower growth.

In another cabinet change, Smriti Irani was dumped as head of the high-profile information and broadcasting ministry.

Irani has been embroiled in numerous controversies, including a failed bid to punish journalists accused of broadcasting fake news.

The order was revoked less than 24 hours after being issued amid an outcry at a perceived government crackdown on free press.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Asian markets down as attention turns back to trade talks


Hong Kong, China | AFP | Asian markets mostly fell on Tuesday as trade moves back into view with China and the US holding more high-level talks this week, while oil prices held gains as tensions in the Middle East simmer.

A recent run-up in equities over the past week has also led to profit-taking, with Hong Kong hit after six straight days of gains.

US markets rose again as Chinese Vice Premier Liu He -- President Xi Jinping's right-hand man on economic issues -- headed to Washington on Tuesday for a new round of talks aimed at heading off a trade war between the economic giants.

There are hopes the two sides can hammer out an agreement to end a spat that has seen both sides threaten tariffs on billions of dollars of goods.

Donald Trump's call to help get Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE "back into business fast" soothed nerves, while Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Monday he was exploring "alternative remedies" for the firm, which was in April banned from buying crucial US technology for seven years.

"China is reportedly close to removing tariffs on agricultural products in exchange for relief for ZTE," said Stephen Innes, head of Asia-Pacific trade at OANDA. "It helps explain why President Trump said he'd work with President Xi on this company."

The talks come as US officials try to reach agreements with Canada and Mexico on revising their three-way trade pact, while EU steel tariff exemptions are due to end on June 1.

- 'Hornet's nest' -
Hong Kong was one percent lower after racking up gains of more than five percent over the previous six sessions, while Tokyo ended 0.2 percent down.

Sydney shed 0.6 percent, Singapore fell 0.4 percent and Seoul sank 0.7 percent, with Wellington, Taipei, Bangkok and Jakarta also lower.

However, there were gains in Shanghai, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

And Mumbai's Sensex jumped 0.6 percent as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP looked on course to win a key state election just a year ahead of national polls.

Concerns about the already tinderbox Middle East have helped put upward pressure on oil prices, with deadly clashes in Gaza during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem coming less than a week after Trump ripped up the Iran nuclear deal.

"In general, the market is wholly focused on the hornet's nest in the Middle East that is an accident waiting to happen," Innes added.

While both main crude contracts dipped marginally Tuesday, they are still at highs not seen since November 2014, with economic uncertainty in major producer Venezuela also playing a key role.

The increase in oil prices is helping fan inflation expectations in the United States, which has given fuel to talk that the Federal Reserve will lift interest rates three more times this year.

While the dollar was flat against its main peers it was sharply up against most high-yielding currencies including the South Korean won, Mexican peso and Indonesian rupiah.

In early European trade London and Paris each fell 0.2 percent while Frankfurt shed 0.3 percent.

- Key figures around 0720 GMT -
Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOW 0.2 percent at 22,818.02 (close)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: DOWN 1.0 percent at 31,227.04

Shanghai - Composite: UP 0.6 percent at 3,192.12 (close)

London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.2 percent at 7,694.27

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.1925 from $1.1931 at 2100 GMT

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.3550 from $1.3556

Dollar/yen: UP at 109.92 yen from 109.65 yen

Oil - West Texas Intermediate: DOWN nine cents at $70.87

Oil - Brent North Sea: DOWN two cents at $78.21 per barrel

New York - Dow: UP 0.3 percent at 24,899.41 (close)


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dismantling of N. Korea nuclear site 'well under way': US monitor


Seoul, South Korea | AFP | Satellite photos indicate North Korea has begun dismantling its nuclear test site ahead of a historic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, a US monitor said Tuesday.

In a move welcomed by Washington and Seoul, North Korea said at the weekend it will "completely" destroy the Punggye-ri test site, in a ceremony scheduled between May 23-25 in front of invited foreign media.

But no observers from international atomic monitoring agencies have been invited, raising concerns over the openness of the process.

Punggye-ri, in the northeast of the country, has been the site of all six of the North's nuclear tests, the latest and by far the most powerful in September last year, which Pyongyang said was an H-bomb.

North Korea pledged to close the testing ground after Kim last month declared the country's nuclear force complete and said it had no further need for the complex.

The respected 38 North website said Tuesday that satellite images dated May 7 showed "the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well under way".

Several key operational buildings as well as smaller sheds had been razed and rails connecting the tunnels to their waste piles were removed, the monitoring group said.

Excavation of a new tunnel has also been halted since late March, it added.

Images showed preparatory work for the destruction ceremony had also begun, including a newly positioned foundation among the waste piles believed to have been built for the invited journalists.

"It is conceivably for a future camera position to record the closure of the West Portal," the group said.

However no tunnel entrances appear to have been permanently closed and some main buildings are still intact, it added, saying the destruction of those facilities was likely to be carried out in front of the foreign media.

Dialogue brokered by South Korea has seen US-North Korea relations go from trading personal insults and threats of war last year to a summit between Kim and Trump which will be held in Singapore on June 12.

Kim's latest diplomatic overture has seen him hold a summit with the South's President Moon Jae-in and travel twice in less than two months to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The two Koreas are due to meet for a high-level meeting on Wednesday to discuss follow-up measures from their summit last month, Seoul's unification ministry said.

Washington is seeking the "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" of the North and stresses that verification will be key.

But sceptics warn that Pyongyang has yet to make any public commitment to give up its arsenal, which includes missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Satellite photos from last month showed signs of construction at the North's Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The purpose of the new buildings at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre was unknown, 38 North has said, with "no observable signs that initial reactor operations are imminent".

North Korea blew up a cooling tower at the nuclear facility in 2007 following a deal with the US, but soon restarted the reactor.


Monday, May 14, 2018

Another family behind new Indonesia suicide bombings: police


Surabaya, Indonesia | AFP | A family of five, including a child, carried out the suicide bombing of a police headquarters in Indonesia's second city Surabaya on Monday, police said, a day after a deadly wave of attacks on churches staged by another family.

The spate of bombings has rocked Indonesia, with the Islamic State group claiming the church attacks and raising fears about its influence in Southeast Asia as its dreams of a Middle Eastern caliphate fizzle.

Indonesia has long struggled with Islamist militancy, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200 people -- mostly foreign tourists -- in the country's worst-ever terror attack.

Security forces have arrested hundreds of militants during a sustained crackdown that smashed some networks, and most recent attacks have been low-level and targeted domestic security force.

But that changed Sunday as a family of six -- including two young girls -- staged suicide bombings of churches during morning services in the country's second biggest city Surabaya, killing 14.

On Monday, members of another family attacked the police station in Surabaya, wounding 10.

"There were five people on two motorbikes. One of them was a little kid," national police chief Tito Karnavian said. "This is one family."

An eight-year-old girl from the family survived the attack and was taken to hospital, while her mother, father and two brothers died in the blast, he said.

The church attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.

The father of the church suicide bombers was a local leader in extremist network Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) which supports IS.

"It ordered and gave instructions for its cells to make a move," Karnavian said of the church attacks.

He added that the attacks may have also been motivated by the arrest of JAD leadership, including jailed radical Aman Abdurrahman, and were linked to a deadly prison riot staged by Islamist prisoners at a high-security jail near Jakarta last week.

Abdurrahman has been connected to several deadly incidents, including a 2016 gun and suicide attack in the capital Jakarta that left four attackers and four civilians dead.

Despite their apparent allegiance to IS, the church-bombing family were not returnees from Syria, police said Monday, correcting their earlier statements.

However, hundreds of Indonesians have flocked in recent years to fight alongside IS in its bid to carve out a caliphate ruled by strict Islamic law.

Its efforts have been fizzling quickly as it has lost most of the land it once occupied in Iraq and Syria.

- 'Operating transnationally' -
On Sunday evening, just hours after the church bombings, a further three people in another family were killed and two wounded when another bomb exploded at an apartment complex about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Surabaya.

Police said the father in the church bombings -- Dita Oepriyanto -- was a confidante of the man killed in the apartment, who police said had a bomb detonator in his hand when he was shot by authorities.

"The father was Dita's close friend," said Karnavian, the police chief.

"When we searched the flat we found pipe bombs, similar to pipe bombs we found near the churches."

Indonesian police have foiled numerous terror plots, but the coordinated nature of Sunday's church bombings and the subsequent blasts point to more sophisticated planning than in the past, analysts said.

"There is definitely a growing technical proficiency," than in past attacks, said Zachary Abuza, professor and Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in Washington.

"To pull off three near simultaneous bombings is hallmark of a group that is thinking."

Abuza questioned the police suggestion that the attacks were ordered by the IS leadership abroad, but said the group would likely keep up its influence in Southeast Asia as it fades elsewhere.

"(They're) going to continue to benefit from operating transnationally in Southeast Asia," he added.


Monday, May 14, 2018

Chinese double amputee finally summits Everest, decades after first bid


Kathmandu, Nepal | AFP | A Chinese climber who lost both legs to frostbite on Everest four decades ago finally reached the summit Monday, just months after the revocation of a controversial ban on double amputee climbers attempting the world's highest peak.

Xia Boyu, 69, summited Everest early Monday on his fifth attempt to reach the top of the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) mountain.

"He reached the summit this morning, along with seven other members of his team," said Dawa Futi Sherpa of Imagine Trek and Expedition, who organised Xia's Everest bid.  

Xia's dream of standing at the top of the world was nearly thwarted by the Nepal government, which last year banned double amputee and blind climbers from summiting its mountains.

The ruling was overturned by Nepal's top court in March, which branded it as discriminatory towards people with disabilities.

Xia first attempted to summit Everest with a Chinese government-backed team in 1975, but was thwarted by bad weather.

He became stuck in the frigid low-oxygen environment near the top of Everest and suffered severe frostbite, losing both his feet.

In 1996 his legs were amputated just below the knee after he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of blood cancer.

The tenacious climber returned to Everest in 2014 and 2015 but Nepal's climbing season was cancelled both years due to disasters.  

Bad weather forced him to turn back during his previous attempt in 2016 when he was just 200 metres from the summit.

"Climbing Mount Everest is my dream. I have to realise it. It also represents a personal challenge, a challenge of fate," Xia told AFP last month before heading to the mountain.

The only other double amputee to summit Everest is New Zealander Mark Inglis, who achieved the feat in 2006.

Xia is among the first of hundreds of climbers expected to summit Everest this month during a narrow window of good weather.

Nepal has issued 346 permits for this year's spring climbing season, which runs from mid-April to the end of May.

Most Everest hopefuls are escorted by a Nepali guide, meaning about 700 climbers will try to reach the top in coming weeks.

Another 180 climbers are preparing to summit Everest from its north side in Tibet, according to the China Tibet Mountaineering Association.

Last year, 634 people made it to the top and seven died trying.