Wednesday 18 October 2017

In the world

(AFP )

A Swiss man accused of spying on German officials who were hunting tax cheats went on trial in Frankfurt on Wednesday, in a convoluted case that has strained ties between Bern and Berlin.

Daniel M., 54, was arrested in Frankfurt in April on espionage charges after he compiled information on officials tasked by the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia with ferreting out stashes of wealth hidden at Swiss banks.

(AFP )

As Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his three-plus-hour speech at the Communist Party congress, delegates ranging from men in suits to military officers and former presidents dutifully turned every page as they read and listened to his words.

On the internet, government bureaus peppered social media with their favourite phrases from Xi's speech, while photos circulated of children watching Wednesday's congress in classrooms.

(AFP )

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, weakened by poor election results, started talks Wednesday to forge an unlikely governing coalition from a motley crew of parties that span the political spectrum.

Merkel's conservatives, who won the September 24 vote without obtaining a clear majority, launched exploratory talks with the liberal and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), then planned to meet from 1430 GMT the left-leaning and environmentalist Greens.

(AFP )

US-backed forces combed the ruins of Raqa for survivors and bombs Wednesday, after retaking the Syrian city from Islamic State group jihadists and dealing their dreams of statehood a fatal blow.

A lightning final assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday saw jihadist defences collapse faster than expected and the SDF claim a landmark victory in the three-year fight against IS.

(AFP )

Spain said Wednesday it would take the unprecedented step of seeking to suspend Catalonia's autonomy if the region's leader does not abandon his independence bid, on the eve of his deadline to give a final answer.

Separatist leader Carles Puigdemont -- whose banned independence referendum on October 1 has sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades -- has until 10:00 am (0800 GMT) on Thursday to tell the central government in Madrid whether or not he is declaring a split from the rest of the country.

(AFP )

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed US President Donald Trump's aggressive criticism as "rants and whoppers" while vowing that Tehran would stick to its nuclear commitments.

"I don't want to waste my time on answering the rants and whoppers of the brute US president," Khamenei said in a speech to students in Tehran, published on his Telegram channel.

It was his first response to Trump's bellicose speech last Friday in which he called for tougher sanctions to curb Iran's "destabilising activities" in the Middle East.

(AFP )

Portugal's Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa resigned Wednesday as criticism mounts over the government's handling of a series of deadly forest fires that killed more than 100 people in four months.

Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted her resignation, his office said.

On Sunday, a series of deadly wildfires broke out in the centre and north of the country which killed 41 people and injured another 71, the civil protection agency said.

(AFP )

The wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has sued a Lebanese businessman for failing to deliver a $1.35-million diamond ring she ordered for her wedding anniversary, state media reported Wednesday.

"First lady Dr Grace Mugabe is suing fugitive businessman Mr Jamal Joseph Ahmed for $1.23 million (1.05 million euros) over a diamond ring deal that went sour last year," The Herald newspaper said.

"In breach of the agreement, Mr Ahmed failed to deliver the ring, triggering a legal wrangle."

(AFP )

Ugandan police on Wednesday banned what it termed illegal demonstrations over plans to remove presidential age limits, seen as paving the way for President Yoweri Museveni to serve a sixth term in office.

A bill removing the age limit for the president was introduced in parliament last month, and MPs are currently holding consultations with ordinary Ugandans to seek their views.

(AFP )

India's environmental watchdog shut down a coal-fired power plant and banned the use of diesel generators in New Delhi as air quality plummeted in the world's most polluted capital on Wednesday, the start of the Diwali festival.

New Delhi experiences suffocating smog every year around Diwali, when farmers in north India burn the stubble left behind after the harvest and revellers let off smoke-spewing firecrackers.

The onset of winter aggravates the problem as the cooler air traps the pollutants, a phenomenon known as inversion.

(AFP )

The US government was fully aware of a bloody anti-communist purge by the Indonesian army in the 1960s, with one diplomat at the time describing the bloodletting as "widespread slaughter", recently declassified documents have revealed.

The 39 US embassy documents cover the period from 1964-1968, at the peak of the Cold War, and uncover new details about one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Indonesian history.

(AFP )

European Parliament president Antonio Tajani has described Britain's financial offer on Brexit as "peanuts" ahead of a crunch European Union summit this week.

Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to maintain Britain's contributions for two years after Brexit in March 2019 to complete the current EU budget period, totalling around 20 billion euros ($24 billion).

But Tajani told the BBC's Newsnight programme late Tuesday: "Twenty billion is peanuts. The problem is 50 or 60 (billion euros), this is the real situation."

(AFP )

Israeli forces raided Palestinian media offices across the occupied West Bank overnight in what a military spokeswoman on Wednesday called a "large-scale operation" against incitement.

The raids on eight companies came hours after the Israeli government declared that it would not deal with an emerging Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas unless the Islamist group made radical changes.

Israeli officials said the raids targeted companies that provide services to Hamas television stations. Notices were posted saying the companies were to be closed for six months.

(AFP )

Spain will seek to suspend Catalonia's autonomy unless the region's leader abandons his push for independence, the country's deputy prime minister said Wednesday, 24 hours before Madrid's deadline.

If separatist leader Carles Puigdemont does not provide a satisfactory response by 0800 GMT Thursday, "Mr Puigdemont will provoke the application of article 155 of the constitution," Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told parliament.

(AFP )

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat described murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia Wednesday as "his biggest adversary" but vowed to track down and bring her killers to justice.

The centre-left premier, who was accused by the blogger's son on Tuesday of being complicit in his mother's death, attempted to shift the spotlight onto the main opposition Nationalist Party, saying it had been the focus of Caruana Galizia's latest investigations.

(AFP )

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a stern warning to Taiwan Wednesday, saying that Beijing has the will and power to thwart any attempts at independence.

Addressing a twice-a-decade gathering of the Communist Party in Beijing, Xi warned that China has "the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for Taiwan independence in any form".

"We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China," he said.

(AFP )

North Korea's nuclear test site may be suffering from the geological condition "Tired Mountain Syndrome" following the latest in a series of atomic blasts, but it is unlikely to be abandoned, an expert website said Wednesday.

The last five of Pyongyang's six nuclear tests have all been carried out under Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the north-west of the country.

Three small earthquakes have been detected in the immediate area since the most recent test on September 3, Pyongyang's most powerful by far.

(AFP )

Iraqi forces said Wednesday they had achieved their objectives in a lightning operation that saw them sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month.

On Monday and Tuesday, federal troops and allied militia retook the northern province of Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, as well as formerly Kurdish-held areas of Nineveh and Diyala provinces -- all outside the autonomous Kurdistan region.

(AFP )

The earthquake that hit Mexico on September 19 did not discriminate in its destruction, leveling homes in rich and poor neighborhoods alike.

But one month on, the tragedies facing Mexico City's newly homeless depend largely on class.

Residents of upscale neighborhoods like Roma and Condesa face a frenzied rush to rent or buy new homes in other neighborhoods nearby, creating a real estate bubble.

Meanwhile, in far-flung corners like Xochimilco in the south, residents say the government has forgotten them and they fight to cling to whatever they can.

(AFP )

New Zealand's populist kingmaker Winston Peters says he will finally reveal on Thursday who he is supporting in the country's deadlocked general election, after keeping voters waiting almost four weeks.

The South Pacific nation has been in political limbo since the September 23 vote failed to deliver a clear majority for either conservative Prime Minister Bill English or his centre-left rival Jacinda Ardern.

(AFP )

A French magazine has expressed regret after coming under fire for featuring a rock star who murdered his girlfriend on its cover amid a growing scandal over allegations of sexual violence against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Bertrand Cantat was convicted of killing his actress girlfriend Marie Trintignant in a hotel room in Lithuania in 2003.

Music magazine Les Inrockuptibles Tuesday expressed its "regrets" in an editorial and acknowledged its decision to put Cantat on its October 6 cover, ahead of the release of his first solo album, was "questionable".

(AFP )

Chinese President Xi Jinping's stiff smile greets visitors in room after room at a Beijing exhibition put up by the Communist party to tout its past five years of accomplishments.

"Five Years On" looks at China's changes since 2012 -- when Xi came to power -- ahead of the twice-a-decade party congress which opened Wednesday.

Xi's omnipresence at the Soviet-style Beijing Exhibition Centre is yet another example of the cult of personality that the state propaganda machine has wrapped around the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.

(AFP )

Australian gambling powerhouse Crown is facing a raft of explosive allegations, including slot machine tampering and avoiding money-laundering scrutiny after whistleblower accounts were tabled in parliament Wednesday.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie submitted video evidence in Canberra from three former employees accusing Crown of rigging machines at its flagship Melbourne casino to work in its favour, including modifying buttons that allowed them to illegally auto-play.

(AFP )

Rumoured to have died a few months ago, 91-year-old former Chinese president Jiang Zemin roused social media users Wednesday by taking a prominent place at the ruling Communist Party's leadership Congress.

Proving that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated, the former leader sat next to President Xi Jinping and stood for the national anthem as the twice-a-decade congress opened on national television in Beijing's vast Great Hall of the People.

(AFP )

Nearly four decades ago Fazol Ahmed returned to his native Myanmar with his family under a Rohingya repatriation scheme. Now he is back in the teeming camps of Bangladesh with his wife and children, a refugee once again.

Ahmed is among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed into Bangladesh since an upsurge in violence in neighbouring Myanmar in August that the UN has said amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Unlike most, he has been here before.

(AFP )

A Swiss man accused of spying on German officials who were hunting tax cheats goes on trial in Frankfurt on Wednesday, in a convoluted case that has strained ties between Bern and Berlin.

Daniel M., 54, was arrested in Frankfurt in April on espionage charges after he compiled information on officials tasked by the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia with ferreting out stashes of wealth hidden at Swiss banks.

He is also believed to have placed a mole inside the German tax office, though this person's identity is still unknown.

(AFP )

President Xi Jinping declared China is entering a "new era" of challenges and opportunities on Wednesday as he opened a Communist Party congress expected to enhance his already formidable power.

Xi told some 2,300 delegates at the imposing Great Hall of the People that the party must "resolutely oppose" any actions that undermine its leadership as it steers a course through a high-stakes period in its development.

(AFP )

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday after a court ordered the detention of two Catalan separatist leaders, further inflaming tensions over the chaotic referendum on splitting from Spain.

Shouting "freedom" or "independence" and carrying candles, the demonstrators stood massed on a large boulevard in the city centre at nightfall before observing a moment of silence.

Around 200,000 people took part, a spokesman for Barcelona's municipal police said.

(AFP )

Confusion, fear, humiliation, anger -- Catalonia's separatist challenge is taking its toll on many residents of Barcelona, a city only just recovering from a deadly terror attack, mental health workers say.

As the crisis drags on, with Madrid and Catalonia's leaders refusing to budge in their high-stakes standoff over the Spanish region's independence drive, Catalans find themselves caught in the middle in a tense climate of uncertainty.

(AFP )

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, weakened by poor election results, will from Wednesday seek to forge an unlikely governing coalition from a motley crew of parties that span the political spectrum.

Merkel's conservatives, who won a September 24 vote without a clear majority, will hold exploratory talks with the liberal and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) from 1000 GMT and then the left-leaning and environmentalist Greens from 1430 GMT.

(AFP )

Rio Tinto and two former top executives were charged with fraud by US authorities Wednesday, accused of inflating the value of the company's Mozambique coal assets and failing to disclose mounting losses.

The world's second biggest miner vowed to "vigorously" defend itself against the allegations, while announcing it had separately settled a case with Britain's Financial Conduct Authority about the timing of writing down the same projects.

(AFP )

American financier George Soros, 87, has transferred $18 billion to his foundation, which works to promote democracy, human rights and freedom of the press.

The figure "reflects an ongoing process of asset transfer that has been underway for several years," spokeswoman Laura Silber told AFP on Tuesday.

Soros "plans to leave the vast majority of his wealth to the Open Society Foundations," Silber said.

(AFP )

A large, pink diamond once set in the crowns of numerous French kings and emperors will go under the hammer in Geneva next month, the Christie's auction house said Wednesday.

"Le Grand Mazarin", a 19.07-carat light pink diamond, was a gift to Louis XIV in 1661 and was set in the crowns of almost all of the monarchs and emperors of France who followed, Christie's said.

(AFP )

The city of Chicago revealed Tuesday that it fired two airport police officers in connection with the controversial removal of a passenger from a United Airlines plane earlier this year.

Video of the April incident went viral online, showing airport officers dragging a bloodied David Dao off a full plane to make room for airline crew needing to be repositioned for future flights.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who heads the midwestern US city's watchdog office, had been pursuing an internal probe of the officers' actions.

(AFP )

Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul accused of decades of sexual abuse and harassment, resigned from the board of his production company on Tuesday, as Reese Witherspoon became the latest star to open up about her own experience of sexual asault.

Weinstein was sacked as co-chairman of The Weinstein Company on October 8, but had continued to hold a seat on the board until his resignation on Tuesday.

A source close to the film producer confirmed his departure after a meeting in Manhattan wrapped up between Weinstein's legal team and his eponymous company.