Thursday 18 January 2018

In the world

(AFP )

The former CIA agent arrested in the United States earlier this week on suspicion of helping Chinese spies was a security guard at Christie's in Hong Kong, the auction house said Thursday.

Hong Kong resident Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a naturalised US citizen also known as Zhen Cheng Li, was arrested late Monday after he arrived at JFK International Airport in New York.

His arrest was reportedly linked to Beijing's brutal dismantling five years ago of the CIA's network of undercover operatives and informants inside China.

(AFP )

The last three years were the hottest on record, the United Nations weather agency said Thursday, citing fresh global data underscoring the dramatic warming of the planet.

Consolidated data from five leading international weather agencies shows that "2015, 2016 and 2017 have been confirmed as the three warmest years on record", the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.

(AFP )

Turkey has ramped up its rhetoric to threaten an imminent cross-border incursion against Kurdish militia in Syria but the attitude of Russia and to a lesser extent the United States will determine the nature of the operation, analysts say.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia controls key northern Syrian towns including Manbij and Afrin, and is an ally of the US but Ankara accuses the group of being a terror organisation.

(AFP )

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Thursday that police were raiding his campaign headquarters in Saint Petersburg as he pressed ahead with a call for a boycott of presidential polls.

"Right now a search is going on in our Saint Petersburg headquarters," Navalny wrote on Twitter, posting a video of uniformed police and non-uniformed officials with his staff.

The charismatic politician, who has called a major protest on January 28, is urging voters to boycott the March election in which President Vladimir Putin is expected to win a fourth Kremlin term.

(AFP )

Hungary published details Thursday of tough anti-immigration laws named after "public enemy" George Soros amid a row over claims Budapest covered up a hike in refugee arrivals.

Hungarian-born US billionaire Soros has been called "a public enemy" by Prime Minister Viktor Orban who accuses the 87-year-old of orchestrating migration into Europe since the refugee crisis began in 2015.

Hungary erected fences on its southern borders in 2015 and last year began holding all adult asylum-seekers in guarded border camps.

(AFP )

A three-month old baby has died after being picked up by rescuers at sea off Libya, because bad weather and a lack of boats made a medical evacuation impossible, aid organisations said Thursday.

Over 1,650 migrants have been rescued in the Mediterranean since Tuesday, including many women and children. While some were brought to land Thursday, hundreds of others could be trapped for days yet by stormy seas.

(AFP )

US officials mis-spoke about a plan to set up a 30,000-strong militia in eastern Syria and owe angry ally Turkey an explanation, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admits.

On Sunday, the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria announced that it was training local fighters, including Kurdish militia, as a "border security force."

Turkey, which regards the US-backed YPG militia as a faction of the outlawed Kurdish separatist PKK and thus a terrorist group, reacted with fury and vowed to destroy the new unit.

(AFP )

Pope Francis on Thursday strongly defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up a priest's sexual abuse of minors.

"The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, then I will speak," the pope said in response to a journalist's question about the 61-year-old bishop, appointed by Francis in 2015 despite being accused of covering up another priest's abuse of boys.

"There is not a single piece of proof against him. Everything is slander. Is this clear?" the pope said before celebrating open-air mass in the northern city of Iquique.

(AFP )

President Macky Sall on Thursday suspended all authorisations for logging and ordered an overhaul of Senegal's forestry laws after a massacre connected to the illegal trade in timber.

In a statement, Sall said he had instructed the government "to suspend until further orders all authorisations for logging and to immediately proceed with a revision of the forestry code."

He also urged the armed forces to "use all necessary means to permanently neutralise all armed groups" operating on national soil.

(AFP )

The policies of US President Donald Trump and his embrace of populist strongmen have dealt a blow to rights campaigns around the world but resistance is building, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

In its annual report, the group denounced rights abuses in unstable states like Syria and Myanmar as well as authoritarian trends in powers like Turkey and China -- while also weighing in on the first year of Trump's term.

(AFP )

Temperatures in Siberia fell to extremely low levels on Thursday as Russian Christians prepared to plunge into ice holes in traditional celebrations marking the baptism of Jesus Christ.

In the Sakha Republic, a region in Russia's Far East around 5,300 kilometres (3,300 miles) east of Moscow, temperatures dropped to minus 68 degrees celsius (minus 90 Fahrenheit).

Local authorities had already ordered schools closed when temperatures reached minus 65 celsius on Wednesday. The republic includes the village of Oymyakon, considered the coldest inhabited place on Earth.

(AFP )

The new pro-independence speaker of Catalonia's parliament on Thursday started meeting party representatives to pick a regional president, with exiled former leader Carles Puigdemont in the lead for the post.

The central government in Madrid has already warned it will keep direct control over Catalonia if Puigdemont tries to govern from Belgium, where he and other ousted ministers fled after declaring independence from Spain in October.

(AFP )

Violent gales battered northern Europe and beyond Thursday, snapping air and train links and leaving six people dead.

Germany halted all long-distance rail traffic for at least a day, while numerous domestic flights were scrapped as hurricane-force winds lashed the country.

A 59-year-old man was killed instantly when a tree fell on him in North Rhine-Westphalia state, German police said, as wind speeds attained a high of 203 kilometres an hour (126 mph) at the Brocken -- the highest peak of northern Germany.

(AFP )

Czech President Milos Zeman will accept the resignation of the minority Czech government led by billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis on January 24, the president's office said on Thursday.

Babis, whose ANO (YES) movement scored a landslide win in a general election last October, formed a cabinet comprising ANO members and unaffiliated experts, but the team lost a parliamentary confidence vote on Tuesday.

(AFP )

Germany's far-right AfD party will decide Friday whether to adopt a think-tank named after Nobel peace laureate Gustav Stresemann, despite anger from the former chancellor's descendants who have threatened legal action.

"The politics undertaken by Gustav Stresemann in his time are a perfect ideological fit with our ideas. His heritage is in the very good hands of the AfD," said Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the anti-immigration party, in an interview with Die Zeit weekly.

(AFP )

Finland on Thursday welcomed a panda pair after a long plane ride from their native China, which leased the fluffy animals to the Nordic nation to strengthen ties.

As part of "Panda Diplomacy" -- China's historic use of the charming creatures to foster relations with trade partners -- Jin BaoBao (Flurry) and Hua Bao (Snow) were greeted by a Chinese and Finnish delegation at the Helsinki Airport, before making their way to the Ahtari Zoo, 325 kilometres (200 miles) north of the capital.

(AFP )

Pope Francis has again stressed the importance of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem and urged fresh talks between Israel and Palestinians on a two-state solution, the Vatican said Thursday.

The Argentine pontiff strongly opposed United States President Donald Trump's bitterly-contested move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.

(AFP )

A former governor of Sri Lanka's central bank has been accused of insider trading by a damning presidential report into a high-profile bond scandal that cost the island millions.

The long-awaited inquiry recommended the state recover a $4.4 million loss caused by the actions of then bank chief Arjuna Mahendran in 2015.

He leaked sensitive information to his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius, a bond trader, according to the report released Wednesday by the president's office following an 11-month investigation.

(AFP )

India's top court on Thursday overturned a ban imposed by several states on the release of a Bollywood epic about a mythical Hindu queen.

The Supreme Court said the ban, which followed violent protests by members of the Hindu right who claimed the film falsely depicted a romance between the queen and a Muslim ruler, violated creative freedoms.

India's film censor board had cleared "Padmaavat" for release subject to certain changes, but at least four states said they would ban its screening.

(AFP )

Iraq signed a contract Thursday with British energy giant BP to develop oil fields in the northern province of Kirkuk that were retaken from the Kurds last year.

The agreement was signed by Iraqi Oil Minister Jabbar al-Luaybi in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, where the North Oil Company has its headquarters, AFP reporters said.

Iraqi forces reclaimed a string of major oil fields in Kirkuk after Iraqi Kurds in September voted for independence in a controversial referendum opposed by Baghdad.

(AFP )

The EU agreed to add Venezuela's interior minister and six other senior officials to its sanctions blacklist on Thursday, European sources said, the first time the bloc has targeted individual members of President Nicolas Maduro's regime.

The head of the Venezuelan Supreme Court and the chief of the intelligence agency are also blacklisted, diplomatic sources said, making them subject to asset freezes and travel bans.

(AFP )

German stock market operator Deutsche Boerse said Thursday that Iran's central bank had levelled claims for billions of dollars against its Luxembourg subsidiary Clearstream, which blocked the funds after the US accused Tehran of funding terrorism.

The central bank (Bank Markazi) demands some $4.9 billion (4.0 billion euros) of assets it says are held in Clearstream accounts belonging to it and to Italian bank UBAE, plus interest, Deutsche Boerse said in a statement.

If the assets themselves cannot be recovered, the Iranian institution wants damages in the same amount.

(AFP )

Turkish engineers using two cranes on Thursday successfully lifted back to the runway a passenger plane which skidded onto a muddy embankment metres from the sea and languished there for over half a week.

The Pegasus Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane had landed normally at Trabzon airport late on Saturday on a flight from Ankara but then went off the runway just metres (feet) from the waters of the Black Sea with its wheels stuck in mud.

(AFP )

British police said Thursday they are investigating a man over a third sexual assault, with the Press Association news agency reporting that US actor Kevin Stacey is the suspected assailant.

The assault allegedly occurred in central London in 2005, during Spacey's 11-year tenure at The Old Vic theatre in the British capital.

"On 13 December we received an allegation that the man sexually assaulted a man (Victim 3) in 2005 in Westminster," a Metropolitan Police spokeswoman told AFP on Thursday.

(AFP )

US President Donald Trump is "very eager" to speak to the special counsel overseeing the Russia election meddling probe into claims that he colluded with Moscow, his lawyer said.

Ty Cobb told CBS in interview excerpts released Thursday that Trump is "very eager to sit down and explain whatever is responsive to the questions" that Robert Mueller might pose.

Trump last week said he did not expect to meet with Mueller.

(AFP )

Afghanistan's top diplomat has pulled out of a high-level UN meeting about his country to help end a growing political crisis that is testing the authority of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, sources told AFP Thursday.

The eleventh-hour decision by Salahuddin Rabbani not to travel to New York comes as his Jamiat-e-Islami party holds talks with Ghani's office to resolve a dispute, involving a powerful governor in the northern province of Balkh who is refusing to stand down, which has caused concern in Washington.

(AFP )

A mother and daughter polio vaccination team were gunned down Thursday in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta as they were immunizing children, police said, the latest deaths in the country's long campaign against the disease.

The duo were killed in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, capital of restive Balochistan, Pakistan's largest and poorest province.

"Sakina Bibi, 38 and her daughter Rizwana Bibi, 16, were killed by unknown assailants while they were administering polio drops to children," senior police official Aitzaz Ahmed Goraya told AFP.

(AFP )

A pair of Australian swimmers on Thursday became the first people to be rescued in the ocean by a drone when the aerial lifesaver dropped a safety device to distressed teens caught in rough seas.

Australia is leading the use of the technology in surf lifesaving, with dozens of drones being trialled on beaches around the country.

In what is believed to be a world-first drone surf rescue, two boys on Thursday got caught in three-metre (10-foot) swells while swimming off Lennox Head in New South Wales, near the border with Queensland.

(AFP )

European authorities should not be sending migrants trying to reach the continent back to Libya until the security situation there has stabilised, the chief of Human Rights Watch said.

"The way migrants are treated in Libya is horrendous, where we hear over and over stories of forced labour, forced sexual abuse, torture," Kenneth Roth said in an interview as the group released its annual report on risks around the globe.

(AFP )

Fifty-two people were killed Thursday when the Russia-bound bus they were travelling on caught fire in Kazakhstan, the central Asian nation's emergency services ministry said.

"On January 18 at 10:30 am (0430 GMT), a bus caught fire ... 55 passengers and two drivers were on board. Five people who managed to escape are receiving medical assistance. The rest died on the spot," the ministry said, without elaborating on the cause of the blaze.

(AFP )

Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Thursday for a high-profile summit, preceded by a British promise to pay more for border security in the migrant hot-spot of Calais.

The two leaders arrived at the Sandhurst military academy near London for the wide-ranging talks, following lunch at the Royal Oak pub in May's Maidenhead constituency.

The French flag was flying at the academy where the two were greeted by a guard honour and the sounds of the French national anthem on a rainy day.

(AFP )

Israeli forces raided a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank overnight to arrest suspects in the recent murder of an Israeli, leaving one of them dead and sparking clashes, officials said.

Two Israeli special forces members were wounded during the raid on Jenin that began late Wednesday and continued into Thursday morning, the Israeli military said. A number of arrests were made.

The Palestinian health ministry confirmed a Palestinian was killed in the operation, naming him as Ahmed Ismail Jarrar, 31.

(AFP )

A California couple arrested on suspicion of torture was due in court on Thursday after investigators discovered they were holding their 13 malnourished children captive in a suburban home.

David Allen Turpin, 57, and his wife Louise Anna Turpin, 49, had registered their home as a school, but instead of teaching materials, investigators found signs of torture inside.

County officials investigating the case announced a press conference for 1500 GMT Thursday. The court was expected to announce charges a few hours later.

(AFP )

British and French leaders aim to deepen cooperation in tackling terrorism and the migration crisis at a bilteral summit near London Thursday, as Britain tries to strenghten ties before leaving the European Union next year.

Prime Minister Theresa May will meet President Emmanuel Macron -- on his first official trip across the Channel -- at an army base close to the capital, with an agenda intended to "reflect the broadness of the UK-France relationship," British officials said.

(AFP )

Donald Trump said during his election campaign he wanted to improve relations between the US and Vladimir Putin's Russia. But a year on from his inauguration, ties between Washington and Moscow are at Cold War lows.

As American investigators continue to probe Russian involvement in Trump's shock 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton, Moscow talks of the US president as a hostage to internal political struggles who is unable to improve ties.