Wednesday 21 February 2018

In the world

(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 )

Syrian jets carried out more deadly raids on Eastern Ghouta Wednesday, as Western powers and aid agencies voiced alarm over the mounting death toll and spiralling humanitarian catastrophe.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad intensified its strikes this month on the rebel enclave east of Damascus, where close to 300 civilians have been killed since Sunday.

Warplanes continued to pound Eastern Ghouta towns on Wednesday, killing 24 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

(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, has died, his family said 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.

"Billy Graham is the closest thing to a national pope that we shall ever see," journalist Garry Wills once wrote in The Washington Post.

(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 in a fresh blow to his long tenure in power, Israeli media reported Wednesday.

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.

(AFP )

Record-breaking Alina Zagitova, 15, stole the show in figure skating on Wednesday as America's Lindsey Vonn wound up her Olympic downhill career by becoming the oldest female alpine ski medallist in Games history.

Zagitova was breathtaking in the Russian-dominated short programme, breaking the world record set just minutes earlier by her team-mate, 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva.

It put the Russians top of the standings ahead of Friday's free skate, where Zagitova will attempt to become the youngest women's singles figure skating champion since Tara Lipinski in 1998.

(AFP )

Pakistan has narrowly avoided being targeted by a global watchdog over terrorism financing, the foreign minister said, after reports that the US had supported a motion to place its ally on the group's watchlist.

The country was granted a three-month reprieve by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), according to a tweet late Tuesday by Khawaja Asif, after a meeting in Paris failed to reach agreement on the matter.

(AFP )

Donald Trump's presidency has cost the family firm "millions of dollars" in lost business, his son told an Indian newspaper during a visit aimed at drumming up sales of new luxury apartment complexes.

Donald Trump junior told the Times of India that the Trump Organization was turning down new business opportunities around the world because of his father's position.

"We are refraining from doing new deals while my father is in office," he said in an interview published on Wednesday.

"We are turning down deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars around the world."

(AFP )

Afro-Colombian communities in the southwest of the Latin American country are celebrating Christmas, like every year, a little later than the rest of the world.

The mid-February festivities are a tradition that dates back to the days of slavery, when their ancestors were banned from marking Christmas at the same time as the country's white landed gentry.

(AFP )

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's move to ban a critical news website from covering the presidential palace is a threat to press freedom, rights and media groups said on Wednesday.

Rappler, set up in 2012, is among a clutch of Philippine news organisations that have sparred with Duterte over their critical coverage of his drug war which the government says has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 suspects.

Human rights groups charge that thousands more have been killed by shadowy vigilantes.

(AFP )

The clang of jackhammers and excavators fills the streets of Marib, an oil-rich Yemeni boomtown once accustomed to the sounds of war, now a rare oasis of stability in a country torn by strife.

Yemen is convulsed by the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with rampant disease, famine and a ruinous conflict pitting the Saudi-backed government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.

(AFP )

Russian meddling, national mourning for school shooting victims, the chaotic state of Donald Trump's presidency: US political turbulence forms a dramatic backdrop as conservatives gather near Washington beginning Wednesday for their often controversial annual confab.

Thousands of Republican activists, party heavyweights and national politicians -- not to mention a scion of France's ultra-nationalist movement -- converge on a Maryland convention center to tout the health of a populist revolution that rocked American politics to its core in 2016 and ushered in the Trump era.

(AFP )

Salvagers are confident debris and human remains can be recovered if Malaysia Airlines MH370 is finally found, despite the pitch-black darkness, crushing pressure and ice-cold water awaiting them.

The disappearance of the Boeing 777 carrying 239 passengers and crew almost four years ago is one of aviation's greatest mysteries, with an Australian-led hunt across a 120,000 square-kilometre (46,000 square-mile) zone failing to reveal the crash site.

(AFP )

Japan has reported a new suspected sanctions violation by Pyongyang to the UN after spotting an apparent cargo transfer between a ship marked with Chinese characters and a North Korean vessel, the Japanese foreign ministry said.

The incident is the third time this year that Tokyo has reported a cargo transfer by a North Korean vessel in violation of UN sanctions over Pyongyang's banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

(AFP )

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

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 in one additional murder, of 68-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor Blanka Zmigrod in Frankfurt in 1992.

(AFP )

Faced with an outpouring of grief and anger over a deadly school shooting in Florida, US President Donald Trump on Tuesday threw his support behind moves to ban "bump stocks" -- an accessory that can turn a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one.

Trump also said school safety was a "top priority" for his administration, with meetings on the subject planned through next week, when he holds talks with governors from all 50 US states.

(AFP )

A doctor has been reported to health authorities and three nurses fired over the suspicious deaths of five people at a Baptist-run aged care facility in Australia, authorities said Thursday.

The dead were palliative care patients at the Carinity Fairfield Grange home in the northern city of Townsville, with their demise being investigated by police, the coroner and regulators who were tipped off by a concerned staff member.

(AFP )

This week's Berlin film festival is turning a wary eye eastward with a series of new movies spotlighting the rise of violent extremism and anti-migrant sentiment in the ex-communist bloc.

The filmmakers show a region at a crossroads, divided between old loyalties to authoritarian Russia and forces trying to avert a drift away from the European Union and the West.

(AFP )

A century after the Battle of Verdun a French soldier who was left behind on the battlefield will get a proper burial Wednesday after being identified by DNA samples from his relatives.

Sergeant Claude Fournier is the first French soldier who died in World War I to be identified by DNA analysis -- a process already used by Britain to identify 10 servicemen in 2014.

(AFP )

Artificial intelligence could be deployed by dictators, criminals and terrorists to manipulate elections and use drones in terrorist attacks, more than two dozen experts said Wednesday as they sounded the alarm over misuse of the technology.

In a 100-page analysis, they outlined a rapid growth in cybercrime and the use of "bots" to interfere with news gathering and penetrate social media among a host of plausible scenarios in the next five to 10 years.

(AFP )

Mike Pence and North Korean officials had planned to meet secretly during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but Pyongyang scrapped the talks after the US vice president denounced abuses from the "murderous regime," US officials said Tuesday.

Pence did not interact with the North Koreans even though he was seated in the same box as them at the opening ceremony of the Games on February 9 -- nor did he shake hands with the North's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam during an earlier leaders' reception.