Wednesday 17 January 2018

In the world

(AFP )

Former South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak on Wednesday denounced as "political revenge" a corruption probe into allegations his office accepted bribes from the country's spy agency.

The rare statement from conservative Lee, who stepped down in 2013, came after two of his closest aides were arrested and as his impeached ally and successor Park Geun-Hye stands trial for corruption.

South Korean presidents have a tendency to end up in prison -- or meet untimely ends -- after their time in office and the prosecutors' noose is reportedly closing in on Lee.

(AFP )

Seven ethnic Rakhine Buddhists died after Myanmar police opened fire on a crowd trying to seize a government office, officials said Wednesday, in fresh violence in a febrile state already scarred by ethnic and religious hatred.

The incident unfurled as around 5,000 Buddhists gathered late Tuesday for a nationalist ceremony in Mrauk U, a town that has so far remained unscathed by the military's crackdown on the region's minority Rohingya Muslim community.

It was not immediately clear why the rally descended into violence.

(AFP )

The deaths of seven ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar's north has cast fresh light on the complex swirl of religious and ethnic tensions in one of the country's poorest and most troubled regions.

Rakhine state usually makes the news because of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority who have fled to Bangladesh in an army crackdown against insurgents that has been classified as ethnic cleansing.

But most of the population in the state is ethnic Rakhine, a group whose grievances are a key part of the conflict but often go unheard.

- Who are the Rakhine? -

(AFP )

Catalonia's parliament met Wednesday for the first time since it was dissolved following a failed bid to break from Spain in a session that will see separatists start the process to get sacked regional leader Carles Puigdemont back into power.

Pro-independence parties are in the majority after winning regional elections on December 21 called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to try and put an end to a secession crisis that shook the region of 7.5 million people, Spain and Europe.

(AFP )

Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday it would transfer $2 billion to Yemen's central bank, following desperate calls for funding from the war-torn country's president and prime minister.

"To address the deteriorating economic situation faced by the Yemeni people as a result of the actions of the Iranian-backed Huthi militias, King Salman bin Abdulaziz has issued a directive to transfer a $2 billion deposit to the central bank of Yemen, in continuation of the kingdom's support of the Yemeni people," the interior ministry said.

(AFP )

US authorities said Tuesday they had arrested a former CIA agent, Hong Kong resident Jerry Chun Shing Lee, after discovering he had an unauthorized notebook that had the identities of undercover US spies.

Lee, a naturalized US citizen also known as Zhen Cheng Li, was arrested late Monday after he arrived at JFK International Airport in New York.

The Department of Justice said Lee, 53, grew up in the United States and served in the US Army before joining the Central Intelligence Agency as a case officer in 1994.

(AFP )

Leading economists from France and Germany on Wednesday called for new fiscal rules for the eurozone and the creation of an independent watchdog to help to make the single currency more resilient against crises in the future.

In a 33-page paper, the economists warned that even if the single currency area was "finally experiencing a robust recovery... after nearly a decade of stagnation", it "remains fragile."

Germany and France are currently trying to inject new momentum into stalled EU reform efforts.

(AFP )

The French presidency said Wednesday that it was in talks to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain, but that the 11th-century embroidery would not be transferred before 2020.

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce the proposed loan of the tapestry, which depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, during a visit to Britain on Thursday.

The 70-metre-long (230 feet) artwork has rarely been moved from the museum in the northern Normandy city of Bayeux. It was displayed in Paris in 1804 and again briefly at the Louvre in 1945.

(AFP )

Sudanese security agents arrested the leader of the opposition Communist Party on Wednesday after it organised a protest in the capital Khartoum against rising bread prices, its spokesman told AFP.

Sporadic protests have erupted in parts of Sudan, including Khartoum, after bread prices more than doubled earlier this month following a jump in the cost of flour.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Sudanese demonstrated near the presidential palace in response to a call by the Communist Party.

Anti-riot police fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons to disperse the crowd.

(AFP )

Bangladesh has counted more than a million Rohingya refugees living in camps near the border with Myanmar, higher than previous estimates, the head of its registration project said Wednesday as preparations for their return got under way.

The Bangladesh army began biometric registering of the refugees last year after the latest mass influx of Rohingya from Myanmar, where the Muslim minority have faced decades of persecution.

The registration is aimed partly at aiding repatriation of the refugees -- a controversial issue as most say they do not want to return.

(AFP )

Saudi Arabia said Wednesday it had intercepted a fresh missile attack by Yemeni rebels on the south of the kingdom and renewed its accusations that arch-foe Iran had armed them.

The Huthi rebels said on their Al-Masirah television channel that they had fired two missiles at Saudi border provinces but there was no immediate mention of a second from the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting them since 2015.

Coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said that Saudi air defences had intercepted one missile over Jizan province on the Red Sea coast late on Tuesday.

(AFP )

Former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon Tuesday refused to answer questions from a congressional committee probing the president's campaign links to Russia, saying he was under orders from the White House not to.

Bannon was quizzed voluntarily behind closed doors by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, the first time he has testified in the probe investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia in its bid to influence the 2016 US elections.

(AFP )

The name chosen by the small eastern European country of Macedonia at its independence 27 years ago has been steadfastly rejected by its neighbour Greece.

The bitter dispute has stalled the young Balkan nation's efforts to take its place in the European Union and other international institutions.

Amid a new push for a solution, here is an outline of the row:

- Rejected from the start -

(AFP )

As a helicopter buzzes in circles despite a blizzard, thousands are busy working in the huge hangars of a Siberia-based aircraft maker, eager to win a contract with India that would be a major coup for Russia's defence industry.

"It can drop to minus 40 degrees in winter or soar to plus 40 (40-104 Fahrenheit) in summer here, allowing us to test the machines in extreme conditions," chief engineer Sergei Solomin said as he walked on the frozen tarmac, a fur hat keeping him warm.

(AFP )

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong was jailed for the second time Wednesday for his role in mass pro-democracy protests as concern grows that prison terms for young campaigners are shutting down debate in the semi-autonomous city as Beijing increases control.

Wong, 21, who became the face of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, was handed a three-month sentence on a contempt charge for obstructing clearance of a major protest encampment, to which he had pleaded guilty.

He was already on bail pending an appeal over a six-month sentence for another protest-related offence.

(AFP )

The Bayeux Tapestry could be displayed in Britain after France agreed in principle to the historic artwork leaving the country for the first time in 950 years, according to British media.

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announced the proposed loan of the tapestry, which depicts the Norman Conquest of England, during a visit to Britain on Thursday, according to The Times.

The BBC and The Guardian also reported the proposed loan.

(AFP )

At least 32 bodies have been found in mass graves in Mexico's northwestern state of Nayarit, authorities said Tuesday.

"The first grave was located on Saturday. There were nine bodies," in a rural area not far from a banana farm, an official in the local prosecutors' office told AFP on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to media.

Two other graves were detected nearby with remains "in an advanced state of decomposition," the source said.

(AFP )

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday expressed concerns after Myanmar and Bangladesh reached a deal on the return of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas that sidelined the UN refugee agency.

"We believe it would be very important to have UNHCR fully involved in the operation to guarantee that the operation abides by international standards," Guterres told a press conference at UN headquarters.

The agreement, finalized in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw this week, sets a two-year deadline for the repatriation of the Rohingya.

(AFP )

Steve Bannon faced a marathon grilling Tuesday by a congressional committee probing Donald Trump's campaign links to Russia, as it emerged the former top aide has also been subpoenaed by the special prosecutor investigating the issue.

Bannon was quizzed behind closed doors by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, the first time he has testified in the probe investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia in its bid to influence the 2016 US elections.

(AFP )

Cedric Mandin, who raises some 800 Charolais cows with his brother in France's Vendee region, is the fourth generation of his family to own their farm, and he fears he will be the last.

The source of his worry is a huge trade deal being negotiated by the European Union and the four Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- an accord whose signature seems closer than ever.

If the treaty goes through, "we would be in an impossible situation, untenable", said Mandin, 44, who inherited his 270-hectare farm 20 years ago.

(AFP )

British MPs will vote Wednesday on a key Brexit bill whose turbulent passage through parliament has dealt damaging defeats to Prime Minister Theresa May, and which still faces stiff opposition in the upper house.

The House of Commons is expected to pass the bill, which will incorporate thousands of pieces of EU legislation into the British statute books and repeal the legislation enshrining Britain's EU membership.

(AFP )

Raqa is still mostly a sinister ghost town of gutted buildings and rubble-strewn streets but there is one place teeming with activity in the Syrian city: Ammar Qassab's falafel shop.

"We reopened almost two weeks ago," the 33-year-old said, as one of his employees spooned balls of yellow chickpea mixture from a battered, bullet-pierced vat and dipped them in searing oil.

"King Falafel is famous here," Qassab said, smiling as customers crowded his tiny shop in central Raqa.

(AFP )

Officials from North and South Korea met Wednesday to discuss how many of Pyongyang's athletes will take part in next month's Winter Olympics, the latest in a flurry of cross-border talks.

The North agreed last week to send athletes, high-level officials, art troupes and others to the Games being hosted by the South in Pyeongchang.

Seoul has long sought to proclaim the event a "peace Olympics" in the face of tensions over the North's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and the discussions represent a marked improvement in relations.

(AFP )

Donald Trump is expected to remain physically fit for the duration of his presidency and has "no cognitive issues whatsoever," according to full results from his first medical examination released Tuesday.

Trump's critics have openly questioned his mental health, and an explosive book on his presidency published earlier this month described aides as having doubts about his fitness for office.

(AFP )

Alberto Fujimori, Peru's pardoned former president who was until recently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses, was discharged from hospital Tuesday after receiving treatment for cardiac arrhythmia.

Fujimori, 79, was hospitalized at the end of last year and treated for various ailments. "He is under careful medical observation," his doctor Alejandro Aguinaga told AFP.

Aguinaga said Fujimori was given a Holter monitor that records "everything that happens with his heart, 24 hours a day."

(AFP )

The United States held back $65 million that had been destined for the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians on Tuesday, two weeks after President Donald Trump threatened future payments.

State Department officials insisted the decision was not taken to pressure Palestinian leaders, but because the US wants other countries to help pay for and reform UNRWA.

But the call came after a behind-the-scenes tussle between hawks who want to cut all aid to Palestinians and officials concerned about the humanitarian and diplomatic fallout.

(AFP )

Venezuela's government announced Tuesday that rogue pilot Oscar Perez was among seven "terrorists" killed during a bloody police assault to arrest him the day before.

Police swooped on Perez and his armed group holed up outside Caracas on Monday, setting off a fierce gunbattle in which two police officers were also killed.

It was initially unclear whether the 36-year-old -- Venezuela's most wanted man -- had been killed or captured.

(AFP )

The two largest pro-independence parties in Catalonia said Tuesday they had agreed to nominate sacked regional leader Carles Puigdemont for president, despite his self-imposed exile in Belgium and Madrid's insistence he cannot rule remotely.

The separatist ERC and Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia party reached an accord to support him "as a candidate for president of the Catalonia region", a joint statement said.

(AFP )

The United States and its allies on Tuesday vowed tougher measures to halt North Korean sanctions busting, including naval security operations to prevent maritime smuggling.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canada's foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, hosts of talks in Vancouver, urged world powers to support "maritime interdiction" measures.

And, along with Japan, South Korea and the other powers gathered for the high-level meeting, they re-committed to "the complete, verifiable and irreversible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

(AFP )

Five journalists were handed jail terms by a court in Istanbul on Tuesday after a trial in which they were accused of taking part in "terrorist propaganda", Turkish media reported.

Four of those condemned received 18-month sentences for participating in a solidarity campaign with the now-defunct pro-Kurd daily Ozgur Gundem, according to the private Dogan news agency.

The paper's editor-in-chief, Huseyin Akyol, was given three years and nine months behind bars, Dogan said, adding that the court noted a "lack of remorse" during his trial.

(AFP )

The United States sent $60 million to keep the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees operating Tuesday but withheld a further $65 million, urging others to pay more.

A State Department official said the US had held back more than half of the voluntary payment Washington had been due to make to the UN Relief and Works Agency.

"There is a need to undertake a fundamental re-examination of UNRWA, both in the way it operates and the way it is funded," the official said on condition of anonymity.

(AFP )

Nestle said Tuesday it has agreed to sell its US candy business to Italy's Ferrero for CHF 2.7 billion ($2.8 billion/2.3 billion euros) in cash as the Swiss food giant shakes up its product portfolio.

Ferrero, known for its Tic Tac, Nutella and Ferrero Rocher brands but which has traditionally preferred organic growth to acquisitions, will now be picking up Crunch, Butterfinger and Baby Ruth from Nestle.

The sale will make Ferrero the third-largest confectionary company in the US market.

(AFP )

Airbus got an early jump on rival Boeing for 2018 with news Tuesday that low-cost Mexican airline Volaris has ordered 80 of its popular A320 planes for a total $9.3 billion.

The planned purchase, which entails deliveries over the next eight years, comes after the European Aerospace giant overtook Boeing last year in terms of aircraft orders, booking 1,109 against the US company's 718.

(AFP )

US President Donald Trump said Tuesday he wants immigrants to come to the United States "from everywhere," according to participants at a White House meeting -- a remark in stark contrast with his alleged denunciation of immigration from "shithole countries" last week.

"We want them to come in from everywhere," the president said when asked about immigration policy during an Oval Office meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

(AFP )

Why should women get to wear all the pretty dresses?

Why can't men also flounce about in the feathers, lace or fine embroidery if they fancy?

These are the questions being posed by the daring young Spanish label, Palomo Spain, whose flamboyant show kicked off the Paris men's fashion week late Tuesday.

Designer Alejandro Gomez Palomo told AFP he wants nothing less than to "liberate" men from the straitjacket of convention.

The 25-year-old is one of a new wave of young designers for whom gender fluidity is not just a fashion statement but a way of being.