Tuesday 20 February 2018

In the world

(AFP )

The European Union saw in 2017 the lowest number of detected illegal border-crossings since the migrant crisis began four years ago, the EU border agency Frontex said Tuesday.

"The annual total of 204,700 marked a significant decrease compared to recent years, but not yet a return to the situation before 2014," the Warsaw-based agency said, upon releasing a new report based on figures provided by EU member states.

It amounted to a 60 percent decline from the 511,000 illegal border-crossings in 2016, and far below the 1.8 million in 2015, according to the report.

(AFP )

Poland's main opposition party Tuesday tabled an amendment to the government's controversial Holocaust bill, which was meant to defend Warsaw's image abroad but instead stoked tensions with Israel, Ukraine and the US.

However, the liberal Civic Platform (PO) party's proposal has no chance of being adopted since the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party controls both houses of parliament.

(AFP )

Brazil's center-right government has conceded defeat in its attempts to push through controversial cuts to the pension system, which had long been presented as a keystone of austerity reforms.

President Michel Temer had been hoping to push through the downsizing of the generous pension system in the coming days.

However, the government has failed to win enough support in Congress, where lawmakers will have to face voters in an October general election.

(AFP )

A Moscow court on Tuesday upheld the Russian security service's refusal to open the files of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg -- who saved thousands of Jews during World War II -- to his family.

Wallenberg, often described as the "Swedish Schindler", disappeared under Soviet rule after the war. His family has for decades tried to establish what happened to him.

(AFP )

Humanitarian groups around the world expressed their outrage on Tuesday after Syrian regime air strikes left more than 200 civilians dead in three days in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

Here are some of their reactions:

- 'No words' -

The bloodshed prompted the UN children's agency UNICEF to issue a blank statement.

"No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones," UNICEF's Geert Cappelaere said in a footnote.

(AFP )

Thousands of Zimbabweans gathered Tuesday to bid a final farewell to opposition veteran Morgan Tsvangirai who was one of Africa's most globally admired politicians and lived to see the fall of his political nemesis Robert Mugabe.

Tsvangirai, the country's fiercest opponent of former president Mugabe's tyrannical 37-year rule, died last Wednesday aged 65 at a hospital in South Africa where he had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

His body was flown to the burial ceremony aboard a military helicopter, accompanied by his mother Mbuya Tsvangirai.

(AFP )

A prominent Zimbabwean activist voiced doubt Tuesday that upcoming elections -- the first since Robert Mugabe's ouster -- will be credible, as the new president's commitment to basic rights was still unclear.

Evan Mawarire, a pastor who became the face of anti-Mugabe demonstrations last year, told AFP that Zimbabwe's legacy of ballot rigging and political repression would take time to shed.

(AFP )

Venezuela formally launched its new oil-backed cryptocurrency on Tuesday in an unconventional bid to haul itself out of a deepening economic crisis.

The leftist Caracas government put 38.4 million units of the world's first state-backed digital currency, the Petro, on private pre-sale from the early hours.

A total of 100 million Petros will go on sale, with an initial value set at $60, based on the price of a barrel of Venezuelan crude in mid-January.

(AFP )

A Spanish court on Tuesday allowed an Ivory Coast man to walk free, with only a small fine to pay, after his son was found crammed into a suitcase at a border crossing.

Prosecutors had initially sought a three-year prison term for Ali Ouattara, 45, for facilitating his son's illegal entry into Europe and threatening the child's life.

"The child's life was endangered, he was inhumanly curled up in a tiny suitcase, without ventilation," judge Fernando Teson said as the trial got under way.

(AFP )

Russia's Communists on Tuesday appealed to President Vladimir Putin in an open letter accusing Kremlin "provocateurs" of running a smear campaign against their presidential candidate.

The Communist Party chose a new face for the March 18 polls, opting for businessman Pavel Grudinin rather than veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The party complains that Grudinin has faced a barrage of negative coverage in state-controlled and pro-Kremlin media, focusing on his foreign bank accounts and property.

(AFP )

North Korean hackers are becoming more aggressive than their Chinese counterparts, a leading US cybersecurity firm warned Tuesday, as it identified a Pyongyang-linked group as an "advanced persistent threat".

It was the first time that FireEye had used the designation for a North Korean-based group.

Analysts say the isolated and impoverished but nuclear-armed North has stepped up hacking operations partly to raise money for the cash-strapped regime, which is subject to multiple sanctions over its atomic weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

(AFP )

The niece of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a hardliner tipped as a possible future leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, will share a stage this week with President Donald Trump and other US conservatives.

Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a 27-year-old former MP, is to mark her return to the public eye with a speech in Washington nine months after she said she was withdrawing from politics.

(AFP )

Three people were arrested in France on Tuesday for alleged links to a suspect in last year's deadly jihadist attacks in Barcelona and a nearby seaside resort, the Spanish interior ministry said Tuesday.

The arrests were made during a joint operation with French and Spanish police in the south and southwest of France, the ministry said in a statement.

A total of 16 people were killed when a van drove into crowds on the popular Las Ramblas boulevard in the heart of Barcelona and in a knife attack in the nearby resort of Cambrils in August 2017.

(AFP )

A three-year downturn in Dubai's property market will likely continue until at least 2020, Standard & Poor's said Tuesday, citing low oil prices, the introduction of VAT and a Gulf diplomatic crisis.

A glut of housing units and weak demand were also key reasons for the decline, the credit ratings agency said in a report.

The emirate's real estate sector has been on the slide since 2014, when crude oil prices crashed, dealing a harsh blow to many Gulf investors.

(AFP )

Poland's rightwing government broke the law by logging in one of Europe's last primeval forests, the legal advisor to the EU's top court said Tuesday, setting up a new clash between Brussels and Warsaw.

Logging in the Bialowieza Forest began in May 2016 but the European Commission took Poland to court last year arguing that it was destroying a forest that boasts unique plant and animal life.

Bialowieza, which straddles the border with Belarus, includes one of the largest surviving parts of the primeval forest that covered the European plain 10,000 years ago.

(AFP )

Germany's armed forces are being pushed beyond their limits as Berlin makes greater international commitments while failing to invest in and reform the military, according to a report published Tuesday.

"The army's readiness to deploy has not improved in recent years, but instead has got even worse," parliamentary armed forces commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels said as he presented his annual findings at a press conference, pointing to "big gaps" in personnel and equipment.

(AFP )

Britain will not engage in "Mad Max-style" deregulation and easing of workers' rights and environmental standards once it leaves the European Union, the Brexit secretary said Tuesday.

"We will continue our track record of meeting high standards after we leave the European Union," David Davis said in Vienna, and not a "an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom".

Davis, 69, told business leaders in Austria, which will hold the EU presidency from July, that fears that Britain will plunge into a "Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction" were "based on nothing".

(AFP )

Oxfam revealed Tuesday it was investigating 26 new cases of sexual misconduct since the crisis erupted over its handling of a 2011 prostitution scandal in Haiti, which the British charity called a "wake-up call".

Chief executive Mark Goldring told a parliamentary committee in London that the cases varied in their seriousness, while 16 related to its international operation.

"They range in time frame from more recent events to long historic events where people did not report them at the time," he said.

(AFP )

More than five million people have signed up to vote in Burundi's controversial constitutional referendum in May and elections in 2020, which could allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to remain in power until 2034.

By the end of the inscription process on Saturday, "a total of 5,000,742 people" signed up, including Burundians living abroad, Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) was quoted as saying Tuesday by local media.

The figure was higher than CENI's estimate of 4.5 million earlier.

(AFP )

Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday angrily denounced the conviction of its vice president for corruption by a French court as a "flagrant violation" of international law, and insisted on its "total independence."

On the second of four days of hearings before the UN's top court in The Hague, Malabo pushed its case against France which it accuses of breaking conventions on diplomatic relations and immunity.

(AFP )

Oxfam said Tuesday it was investigating 26 new cases of sexual misconduct which had been reported since a scandal broke earlier this month over its handling of a 2011 case in Haiti.

The British charity's chief executive Mark Goldring told a parliamentary committee in London that 16 of the cases related to its international operation.

"There are 26 cases that have come forward... They range in time frame from more recent events to long historic events where people did not report them at the time," Goldring said.

"We really want people to come forward," he added.

(AFP )

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said Turkish forces would soon lay siege to Syria's Afrin as a cross-border offensive targeting a Kurdish militia entered its second month.

On January 20, Ankara launched an air and ground operation supporting Syrian rebels against the People's Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin region of northern Syria.

Turkey views the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

(AFP )

Germany's Social Democrats Tuesday started a membership ballot on whether to again govern under Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives after an opinion poll showed them trailing the far-right AfD party for the first time.

The referendum for more than 460,000 members of the crisis-hit SPD is the last hurdle for veteran leader Merkel as she seeks to form a new government, five months after an inconclusive election.

(AFP )

A former Catalan lawmaker and major figure in the region's secession drive has fled to Switzerland ahead of a court hearing and may seek asylum there, the sixth separatist to leave Spain in months.

In an interview with Switzerland's Le Temps newspaper published Tuesday, Anna Gabriel, a top member of the far-left separatist CUP party, said she had decided to leave as she would not have "a fair trial at home".

She also compared the situation in Catalonia, whose separatist leaders are under investigation for their attempt to break from Spain, to Turkey's post-coup crackdown.

(AFP )

Nearly half of the opposition supporters arrested during a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Togo will be pardoned, Ghanaian mediators have said as talks to end a six-month political crisis got under way in Lome.

Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe "has decided to give a presidential pardon to 45 of the 92 people detained ... following their participation in protests," said Ghanaian delegation spokesman Daniel Osei late on Monday.

"Togo's courts will look at the situations of the other detainees on a case-by-case basis," he added in a statement.

(AFP )

Seventeen Turkish nationals, including six children, have requested asylum in Greece after crossing over from Turkey, the Greek coastguard said Tuesday.

The group -- seven men, four women and six children -- on Monday reached the small island group of Oinousses, opposite the ports of Cesme and Izmir.

"They were picked up by a coastguard vessel and taken to the island of Chios for registration," a coastguard spokeswoman said.

Chios news portal politischios said the asylum seekers were civil servants and judicial staff. The authorities declined to give more details.

(AFP )

The deputy head of security at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel says guards were ordered to wave through a car later revealed to be carrying militants and explosives ahead of a deadly assault one month ago.

His account reinforces earlier speculation from survivors that the terrifying hours-long assault at the government-owned hotel, which killed at least 25 people including 15 foreigners, had inside help.

It comes in the face of official silence over how the attack on the hilltop hotel unfolded on January 20.

(AFP )

The family of slain Cambodian political analyst Kem Ley has arrived in Australia after being granted refugee status there, an Australian lawmaker's office said, more than a year after fleeing home in the wake of his brazen murder.

Kem Ley, a popular analyst and critic who dabbled in grassroots political organising, was shot at point-blank range while having his morning coffee at a gas station cafe in Phnom Penh in July 2016.

(AFP )

Turkey will lay siege to Afrin in northern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday a month after Ankara launched an offensive against Kurdish militia in the region.

"In the coming days, swiftly, we will lay siege to the centre of the town of Afrin," Erdogan told parliament.

His remarks came as Turkey's operation "Olive Branch", a ground and air offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia which Ankara brands "terrorists", entered its second month.

(AFP )

A former Catalan lawmaker and major figure in the region's secession attempt has fled to Switzerland ahead of a court hearing in Madrid, comparing the situation in Catalonia to Turkey's post-coup crackdown.

In an interview with Switzerland's Le Temps daily published Tuesday, Anna Gabriel, a top member of the far-left, separatist CUP party, said she had decided to leave Spain as she would not have "a fair trial at home."

(AFP )

A Malaysian artist was jailed for a month Tuesday for publishing a caricature of scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak looking like a clown, the latest government critic to be imprisoned.

Fahmi Reza's picture of the premier wearing powder-white clown make-up, with evilly arched eyebrows and blood-red lips, went viral and the image was widely used in demonstrations against Najib.

(AFP )

Iranian rescue teams struggled to recover bodies on Tuesday from the wreckage of a plane that crashed in hazardous terrain near a mountain peak two days earlier with 66 people on board.

"Deep and dangerous crevices in the area of the crash have made it impossible for helicopters to land," Ghafoor Rastinrooz, director of the regional medical centre, told official news agency IRNA.

"The bodies must be transferred by hand to the foot of the mountain which will be time-consuming," he said.

(AFP )

Nepal's ruling party has merged with a former Maoist rebel group to form a super bloc that experts say will reshape politics after years of turbulence in the Himalayan nation.

Officials said Tuesday the new alliance, the Nepal Communist Party, was formally signed into agreement following late-night negotiations between the two sides Monday.

They forged a political alliance to trounce the incumbent party in last year's landmark general elections, but this formal merger creates a political behemoth unprecedented in Nepali politics.

(AFP )

Rohingya refugees living in no man's land refused Tuesday to return to Myanmar without guarantees of citizenship and security after Bangladesh and Myanmar officials met to discuss their repatriation.

The 6,000 Rohingya were among the first to flee Myanmar in the wake of a brutal military crackdown on the Muslim minority in late August. They have been living ever since in a makeshift camp in a strip of unclaimed land between the two countries.

(AFP )

The US and South Korea will go ahead with joint military drills after the Paralympics, both of them confirmed Tuesday, despite the exercises always infuriating Pyongyang and the Olympics having driven a rapprochement on the peninsula.

Washington previously agreed to a request from Seoul to delay the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises -- which usually begin in late February or early March -- until after the Pyeongchang Games in the South, to try to avoid stoking tensions.