Wednesday 21 February 2018

In the world

(AFP )

Russia on Wednesday jailed three men and a woman for up to 8 years for embezzling state funding worth millions of dollars while working as contractors on the construction of the country's showpiece Vostochny cosmodrome.

The four, who controlled or worked for construction companies, were together found guilty of embezzling 1.3 billion rubles ($23 million) from the national prestige project, in the latest blow to Russia's troubled space industry.

(AFP )

President Donald Trump's two top envoys on the Middle East told UN Security Council ambassadors that they hope for their support for the upcoming peace plan, diplomats said.

Jason Greenblatt, the US envoy for Middle East peace, and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser, met behind closed doors with the ambassadors on Tuesday.

The council had just heard Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas call for an international conference to be held by mid-2018 to launch a wider peace process in which the United States would not have the central mediating role.

(AFP )

For several days, residents of the Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave near Damascus have huddled, terrified, in basements and bomb shelters as regime air strikes pound their towns to rubble.

Just a few miles away, inhabitants of government-held capital Damascus, spared much of the devastation of Syria's seven-year war, stay off the streets for fear of retaliatory rebel bombardment.

(AFP )

Governments are not doing enough in the global fight against graft, anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) said Wednesday as it presented its annual corruption perceptions index.

Many nations have made no progress at all over the past six years, the group found.

"More corruption correlates with less respect for civil liberties, for rule of law, for access to justice," TI chair Delia Ferreira Rubio told AFP.

"The index reflects the relation between transparency and democracy."

(AFP )

Student survivors of the Florida school shooting that saw 17 people killed in a hail of bullets last week descended on the state capital Wednesday to ramp up the pressure on lawmakers to enact tougher gun control measures.

Holding signs reading "Never Again" and "Be The Adults, Do Something," students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School rallied with thousands of supporters outside the imposing white stone-columned capitol building in Tallahassee.

(AFP )

The Dutch justice minister on Wednesday rejected accusations from the country's police union that the Netherlands was showing signs of becoming a narco-state.

"In the Netherlands we fight successfully against organised crimes and drugs," Justice and Security Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said in a statement sent to AFP.

He added he "does not believe that the Netherlands is a narco-state".

(AFP )

Nine people appeared in a Benin court Wednesday on charges of selling fake drugs at the start of a landmark trial in a regional campaign against illicit medicines.

The suspects, who include executives from major pharmaceutical companies operating in the West African nation, were remanded in custody until March 6 on technical grounds.

They are accused of "the sale of falsified medicines, (and) display, possession with a view to selling, commercialisation or sale of falsified medical substances."

(AFP )

At least 35 people were killed Wednesday when a bus veered off a mountain road and plunged into a ravine in southern Peru, the interior ministry said.

At least 20 other passengers were injured when the bus left the Pan-American highway and tumbled 80 meters (260 feet) down a jagged slope in the southern region of Arequipa.

"So far the bus accident has left 35 dead and 20 injured," the Interior Ministry announced on Twitter, quoting Arequipa police chief General Walter Ortiz.

(AFP )

The European Union is to double its funding for a joint African military force to fight jihadists in the Sahel region with a 50-million-euro boost, EU sources said Wednesday.

The bloc is expected to announce the new money for the G5 Sahel force, grouping Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, at talks in Brussels on Friday which will be attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

(AFP )

The annual cost of cybercrime has hit $600 billion worldwide, fueled by growing sophistication of hackers and proliferation of criminal marketplaces and cryptocurrencies, researchers said Wednesday.

A report by the security firm McAfee with the Center for Strategic and International Studies found theft of intellectual property represents about one-fourth of the cost of cybercrime in 2017, and that other attacks such as those involving ransomware are growing at a fast pace.

(AFP )

Two soldiers from France's counter-terrorism force in West Africa were killed and another was hurt Wednesday when their vehicle struck a mine in northeast Mali.

The French army said the attack took place near Mali's borders with Niger and Burkina Faso, a bastion of jihadist activity where three French soldiers were injured in an attack last month.

(AFP )

The devastating effect of Ebola on Liberia's fragile health system may have killed more people than the virus itself, a new study says, many of them pregnant women and malaria patients.

The West African nation was the worst-hit by the haemorrhagic virus during the 2014-16 outbreak, leaving 4,800 dead and thousands more with lingering symptoms.

The study in the journal PLOS Medicine conducted by a team from the University of Washington and released late Tuesday found that up to 67 percent of essential primary care disappeared during and immediately after the epidemic.

(AFP )

The Vatican's top abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, has been taken to hospital shortly after his arrival in Chile to investigate a controversial bishop, the Catholic Church announced Wednesday.

Scicluna, in Chile to hear evidence against a bishop accused of covering up the abuses of a pedophile priest, was taken ill but was "stable and fully aware," a spokesman for the Chilean Catholic Church said.

"He has been taken to a medical facility for a check-up due to a malaise that has emerged in recent weeks," Church spokesman Jaime Coiro said.

(AFP )

Brazil's Senate overwhelmingly approved the army's takeover of security in Rio de Janeiro following a breakdown of law and order in drug-ravaged neighborhoods.

Despite criticism that the military intervention could lead to violations of constitutional rights, while also failing to address the causes of the urban violence, the Senate voted late Tuesday by 55 to 13, with one abstention, in favor.

(AFP )

Hundreds of African migrants launched a hunger strike to protest Israel's implementation of its controversial policy to expel or indefinitely imprison them, a spokesman for the group said Wednesday.

Israel has resolved to expel thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who entered illegally over the years, giving them an ultimatum to leave or risk being imprisoned indefinitely.

(AFP )

Nigeria's women's bobsleigh team finished with the wooden spoon Wednesday but left with their heads held high after an emotional Olympic debut in the crackpot winter pursuit.

The plucky West Africans finished 20th in Pyeongchang, more than seven seconds behind gold medallists Germany in a sport where success and failure is measured in hundredths of a second.

But try telling that to Nigerian driver Seun Adigun and partner Ngozi Onwumere after a landmark appearance, cheered on by their families and a vocal pocket of Nigerian fans.

(AFP )

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday sought to dispel perceptions his administration is too close to Sikh separatists, officials said, a controversy that has overshadowed his trip to India.

Trudeau's visit has been dogged by claims he has been snubbed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been notably absent since his Canadian counterpart touched down in India on Saturday evening.

(AFP )

Two people were killed and 11 wounded when a bomb exploded Wednesday at a bank in northern Myanmar, officials said, amid continuing violence despite a fraught peace process.

The bomb went off in the town of Lashio in Shan state, which has seen several ethnic insurgencies over the decades -- although targeted strikes in urban areas are rare.

Two female staffers at a branch of Yoma bank were killed and 11 other people injured, a security officer on the scene told AFP on condition of anonymity.

(AFP )

The husband of a British-Iranian citizen jailed in Iran delivered a petition for his spouse to the country's embassy to Britain Wednesday, as Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi visited London.

Richard Ratcliffe, whose wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving a five-year sentence in Tehran for alleged sedition, was forced to leave the papers on its doorstep, he told AFP.

"We left them on the door with them promising to pick them up once the press had gone," Ratcliffe said after visiting the embassy, in the Kensington neighbourhood of the British capital.

(AFP )

The Red Cross demanded access Wednesday to a rebel-held enclave near Damascus where Syrian jets have been raining bombs in a four-day blitz that has killed more than 300 civilians.

The United Nations chief Antonio Guterres described the death and devastation that has engulfed Eastern Ghouta since Sunday as "hell on earth" while France asked for an immediate truce.

Fresh air raids on several parts of the enclave killed at least 38 civilians and sent 250 more people to hospitals that have also been targeted, leaving many out of service.

(AFP )

Reverend Billy Graham, the influential Southern preacher who became a spiritual advisor to several US presidents and millions of Americans via their television sets, died Wednesday. He was 99.

The one-time backwoods minister who eventually became the world's foremost Christian evangelist, spread a message of spiritual redemption at tent and stadium revival meetings, in a career that spanned decades.

"The GREAT Billy Graham is dead," President Donald Trump tweeted in tribute. "There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man."

(AFP )

South Africans were hit by the first sales tax increase since apartheid when the finance minister delivered a tough budget on Wednesday, dampening optimism spurred by the country's new reformist president.

President Cyril Ramaphosa took over last week from the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma, raising hope for a turnaround in the economy that slid into recession in 2016 and has grown sluggishly since.

(AFP )

A German court was due on Wednesday to sentence a Swedish convicted killer -- dubbed "the laser man" for using a laser-scoped rifle to target immigrants -- for the murder of a Jewish woman in 1992.

John Ausonius, 64, has already received a life prison term in Sweden for a six-month shooting spree in 1991-92 in which he killed an Iranian student and wounded 10 other immigrants.

The convict was extradited to Germany in late 2016 to face trial for one additional murder -- of 68-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor Blanka Zmigrod in Frankfurt in 1992.

(AFP )

One of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closest confidants has agreed to testify against him in a graft probe, Israeli media reported Wednesday, in a fresh threat to his long tenure.

Two new corruption investigations announced this week, hot on the heels of a police recommendation that Netanyahu face charges in two other cases, have fuelled growing speculation he could be forced to step down or call an early election.

(AFP )

Turkey on Wednesday said it would consider a "legitimate target" any group that comes to the aid of Kurdish militia in Afrin in northern Syria.

The threat from presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin came a day after Syrian pro-regime forces entered Afrin, only to come under fire from Turkish forces.

Last month Ankara launched a cross-border air and ground offensive backing Syrian rebels against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin.

(AFP )

An ally of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to ten days in detention after posting a tweet calling on followers to come to an unauthorised rally last month.

The Simonovsky District Court late on Tuesday ruled that Roman Rubanov was guilty of organising an unauthorised rally and sentenced him to ten days in police cells, his lawyer Ivan Zhdanov told Interfax news agency.

(AFP )

At least 3,000 people sleep rough on the streets of Paris, according to figures from the city's first ever homelessness census which authorities warned Wednesday were likely a serious underestimate.

Some 1,700 Parisian volunteers and 300 officials carried out the census last Thursday night, going street by street counting the number of people huddled in sleeping bags in doorways or camped out in tents.

(AFP )

Jailed high-profile Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab was Wednesday sentenced to five more years behind bars over tweets critical of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen war and on the alleged mistreatment of prisoners, in a trial rights groups slammed as "shameful".

Rajab, a leading figure in 2011 protests against the Gulf state's Sunni minority monarchy, is already serving a two-year sentence handed down last July for "disseminating rumours and false information" in television interviews critical of the government.

(AFP )

Samsung Electronics will unveil its next flagship smartphones -- the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ -- on Sunday, after it reported record profits in recent weeks and its vice chairman was released from prison.

Samsung, the flagship subsidiary of South Korea's biggest business group, suffered a humiliating recall of its Galaxy Note 7 device in 2016, and was then embroiled in the sprawling corruption scandal that brought down ousted president Park Guen-hye.

But its Galaxy S8 smartphone was a consumer and critical success and financially it has gone from strength to strength.

(AFP )

Moscow on Wednesday said it would be "very difficult" to improve US-Russia relations, which have plummeted to Cold War lows on accusations of election meddling and crises in Syria and Ukraine.

Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the US of trying to meddle in Russia's internal affairs ahead of a presidential election next month, after Washington indicted 13 Russians for an alleged covert effort to interfere in 2016 US polls.

(AFP )

Emergency teams on Wednesday began recovering bodies from a plane crash in Iran's Zagros mountains but the operation had to be suspended due to bad weather, officials said.

Aseman Airlines flight EP3704, carrying 66 people, disappeared from radar on Sunday morning around 45 minutes after taking off from Tehran on a domestic flight. No survivors have been found.

Search helicopters located the crash site after a break in the weather on Tuesday at a height of around 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) in the Dena range.

(AFP )

Jailed high-profile Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab was Wednesday sentenced to a further five years in prison over tweets critical of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen war, a judicial source and human rights groups said.

Rajab, a leading figure in 2011 protests against the Gulf state's Sunni minority rulers, is already serving a two-year sentence handed down last July for "disseminating rumours and false information" in television interviews critical of the government.

He has served multiple stints in prison since 2012, all linked to his role in the protests.

(AFP )

Ten civilians were killed Wednesday in fresh air strikes by the Syrian regime on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, where 270 people have died in three days of bombardment, a monitor said.

The latest strikes hit several towns in Eastern Ghouta, a semi-rural area which lies just east of the capital Damascus and has been controlled by Islamist and jihadist groups since 2012.

Three children were among those killed in Wednesday's strikes, which also left at least 200 wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

(AFP )

The powerful chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Selmayr, will take a top post in the European Commission in a move which means he can stay on after his boss steps down next year, sources said Wednesday.

The German -- affectionately nicknamed the "Monster" by Juncker himself and less affectionately dubbed the "Rasputin of Brussels" by the British press -- will become secretary general of the commission, the EU's executive arm, a European source told AFP.

(AFP )

Ten suspected Islamic militants who were trying to establish a Malaysian cell of a Philippine kidnap-for-ransom group have been arrested in Borneo island, police said Wednesday.

The alleged extremists, mostly Filipinos, are also accused of trying to help fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) group travel to the Philippines to join up with militants there, they said.