World News World News en New strikes hit Syria enclave after UN delays truce vote
The Damascus government launched a devastating bombardment of the area just outside the capital last Sunday that has now killed nearly 500 civilians including more than 100 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based monitor of the war said at least 21 civilians were killed in fresh strikes on Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, including 12 in the main town of Douma.

It has said the strikes are being carried out by Syrian and Russian forces. Moscow, which intervened militarily in support of its Damascus ally in 2015, has denied any direct involvement in the Eastern Ghouta bombardment.

US President Donald Trump on Friday said Russia's recent actions in Syria were a "disgrace".

Friday's civilian death toll in the enclave — under siege by the Syrian army since 2013 — totalled 41, including 17 children, according to the Observatory.

The UN Security Council had been due to hold a vote on Friday on a resolution calling for a month-long ceasefire to allow aid deliveries and the evacuation of seriously wounded civilians.

But the vote was postponed until 1700 GMT on Saturday as Western powers bickered with Russia over the wording.

Rebel fire on Damascus

Control of Eastern Ghouta is shared between two Islamist factions and Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, and Russia insists there can be no ceasefire with the jihadists or their allies.

Russia has been pressing for a negotiated withdrawal of rebel fighters and their families like the one that saw the government retake full control of second city Aleppo in December 2016.

But all three rebel groups have refused.

World leaders have expressed outrage at the plight of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which UN chief Antonio Guterres called "hell on earth", but have so far been powerless to halt the bloodshed.

The enclave is completely surrounded by government-controlled territory and its 400,000 residents are unwilling or unable to flee the deadly siege.

The rebels have been firing back into Damascus, where a hospital was hit on Friday, state news agency SANA reported.

At least 16 civilians have been killed in eastern districts of the capital since Sunday, according to state media, and many residents have sought temporary accommodation elsewhere for fear of a further intensification of the fighting.


At the United Nations, US ambassador Nikki Haley expressed dismay as negotiations dragged on to secure Russian approval for a ceasefire resolution.

"Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria," Haley posted on Twitter.

"How many more people will die before the Security Council agrees to take up this vote? Let's do this tonight. The Syrian people can't wait."

Russia has vetoed 11 draft resolutions on Syria to block action that targeted its ally. In November, it used its veto to end a UN-led investigation of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron wrote to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday to ask him to back the ceasefire.

Negotiations have stumbled over a key provision of the draft resolution that specifies when the ceasefire will begin.

Following hours of tough negotiations, an amended draft was circulated that demands a 30-day ceasefire "without delay," while stopping short of specifying the timing.

A previous draft had said the ceasefire would go into force 72 hours after the adoption, but that was dropped from the text in a bid to reach compromise with Russia.

In another concession to Russia, the draft also specifies that the ceasefire will not apply to operations against the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda, along with "individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated" with the blacklisted terror groups.

The text would demand the immediate lifting of all sieges, including that on Eastern Ghouta, and order all sides to "cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival." — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 12:40:01 +0000 theSundaily 528252 at
At least 23 killed in multiple attacks in Afghanistan (Updated)
In the biggest attack, Taliban militants stormed an army base in the western province of Farah overnight, killing at least 18 soldiers.

"Last night a big group of militants attacked an army base in Bala Buluk district of Farah. Unfortunately, we lost 18 soldiers, two soldiers were wounded. We have sent more reinforcements to the area," defence ministry spokesman Daulat Wazir said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Deputy provincial governor Younus Rasooli said the authorities had sent a fact-finding delegation to Bala Buluk to investigate the assault.

In another attack, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives near the diplomatic area of Kabul during the morning rush hour, killing at least three people and wounding five others, deputy interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP.

"At around 8.30am, a suicide bomber on foot, well-dressed with a necktie on, was identified at a checkpoint. He blew up his explosives, killing three and wounding five others," he said, updating an earlier toll.

A security source who requested not to be named said the explosion happened near a compound belonging to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency. The NDS compound is located near the NA headquarters and the US embassy.

"I was driving nearby when I heard a big explosion, the windows of my car were smashed. I saw several wounded people on the street near me," a witness told Tolonews TV adding that security forces had since swarmed the area, closing off the main road leading to the attack site.

In December, a suicide attacker on foot blew himself up near the same compound, killing at least six civilians.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack in Kabul, which in recent months has become one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for civilians.

Since mid-January, militants have stormed a luxury hotel, bombed a crowded street and raided a military compound in the capital, killing more than 130 people as the city remains on high alert fearing further violence.

Car bombings

In two other attacks on Saturday in volatile southern Helmand province, suicide car bombs killed at least two soldiers and wounded more than a dozen others, officials said.

In the first incident, militants used a Humvee to attack an army base in Nad Ali district but the vehicle was destroyed when soldiers identified it and hit it with a rocket propelled grenade, provincial spokesman Omar Zawak told AFP.

"Unfortunately, two soldiers were killed in the attack and seven wounded," he said.

The Nad Ali attack was followed by a second suicide car bombing in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah that wounded seven people.

The attack was against an NDS compound and near a police headquarters in the city, Helmand police spokesman Salaam Afghan told AFP.

The Taliban claimed both attacks in Helmand.

Militants including the Taliban and the Islamic State group have stepped up their attacks on beleaguered Afghan troops and police in recent months, sapping morale already hit by desertions and corruption.

Afghan soldiers have taken what the UN describes as "shocking" casualties since international forces ended their combat role at the end of 2014, though troop casualty figures are no longer released. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 05:51:50 +0000 theSundaily 528186 at
Death toll rises to 38 in Mogadishu bombings
"We have seen at least 38 people dead," said Abdukadir Abdurahman Aden of the Aamin Ambulance of the bombings that targeted the presidential palace and a hotel.

The first blast, followed by gunfire, occurred at a security checkpoint close to Villa Somalia, the name for the seat of government, while a second followed soon after at a hotel, according to police.

The Shabaab Islamist militant group claimed the attacks in a statement posted online, saying it was targeting the government and security services.

The blasts follow weeks of relative calm in Mogadishu.

According to officials, the main attack involved the use of a vehicle loaded with explosives attempting to breach a checkpoint leading to the presidential palace, but security forces prevented the assault.

"The security forces foiled the intent of the terrorists. They were aiming for key targets but they could not even go closer, there were five of them killed by the security force," said Abdulahi Ahmed, a security officer.

The Shabaab is fighting to overthrow Somalia's internationally-backed government. In October it carried out its deadliest-ever bombing, killing over 500 people.

In the wake of that attack Somalia's government declared a fresh offensive against the group and US drone strikes have increased in frequency.

While the militant group was pushed out of the capital in 2011 by an African Union force it continues to control large parts of the countryside and launches regular attacks on government, military and civilian targets. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 11:32:32 +0000 theSundaily 528242 at
Trump recites inflammatory 'snake' song in anti-immigrant diatribe
In a speech to conservatives at a convention outside Washington, he also bashed opposition Democrats for failing to back his proposal for putting 1.8 million so-called "Dreamer" immigrants on a pathway to citizenship in exchange for tightening border security and severely restricting legal immigration.

During his hour-long address, Trump pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and read The Snake, a ballad by Al Wilson about a reptile who repays a "tender woman" that nurses it back to health with a deadly bite.

During his campaign, as well as in a speech early in his presidency, Trump used the song, based on one of Aesop's fables, as a less-than-subtle allegory about immigrants entering the United States.

On Friday, he made no secret about the comparison he was making.

"Think of it in terms of immigration," he urged attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as he launched into the song.

"You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in," he said, reading the final line of the song, before returning to his speech.

"And that's what we're doing with our country, folks — we're letting people in, and it's going to be a lot of people. It's only going to be worse."

Some mainstream Republicans have recoiled at Trump's continued recitation of the lyrics.

"Trump's snake story is vicious, disgraceful, utterly racist and profoundly un-American," tweeted Steve Schmidt, a former campaign aide for president George W Bush.

Democrats 'totally unresponsive'

In his wide-ranging speech, Trump warned that efforts to reach a deal on the status of undocumented migrants brought to the US illegally as children could fail — and blamed his opponents.

"The Democrats are being totally unresponsive. They don't want to do anything about Daca, I'm telling you," he said, referring to negotiations on Capitol Hill on replacing an expiring program that defers deportation for some undocumented migrants.

"It's very possible that Daca won't happen."

Former president Barack Obama launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program, whose recipients were given legal permission to work, live and go to school in the United States.

Last September, Trump announced he was rescinding Daca and called on Congress to craft a solution before Mar 5, setting off months of bipartisan negotiations.

The Senate held votes on several Daca-related bills last week, but none of them advanced.

Many conservatives in Congress including Senator Ted Cruz have been outspoken in their opposition to any legislation that provides "amnesty" to people who are in the United States illegally. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 11:21:16 +0000 theSundaily 528240 at
Philippine Catholics protest bill to legalise divorce
The pre-dawn protest was organised by church groups worried about the possible passage of a divorce bill, which is being championed by Duterte's allies in Congress.

The Catholic Church counts about 80% of Filipinos as followers, and its lobbying has helped to make the Philippines the only state in the world aside from the Vatican where divorce is illegal. Abortion and same-sex marriage are also outlawed.

"Christ the Lord raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. Let not Congress lay waste these victories with a divorce bill," a commission of the country's Catholic bishops said in a pastoral letter read at the march.

"What God has joined together, no man, no human being must separate. No to divorce."

Duterte has not personally taken a stance on the bill. But he has actively attacked the church since taking office in mid-2016, accusing the clergy of sexual abuses and hypocrisy.

The church, in turn, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Duterte, particularly his human rights record, with the government admitting to the killings of some 4,000 suspects in its drugs war. Activists say the real toll is three times that number.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, one of the leaders of Saturday's rally, said the church's opposition to divorce and its criticism of extra-judicial killings under Duterte emerged from a shared "pro-life" stance on both issues.

"All of that involves life: the taking of life, even divorce ... That deals with the family that is the centre of life," he said. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 10:40:25 +0000 theSundaily 528231 at
Ex-Trump aide paid European politicians for Ukraine lobby: Indictment
The indictment, filed in Washington federal court by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, said Manafort retained the so-called Hapsburg Group of onetime politicians, to "take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying the United States."

The group, which operated in 2012-2013, was managed by an unnamed "former European chancellor," who along with other members of the group lobbied US legislators and White House officials, it said.

They were to "appear to be providing their independent assessments of government of Ukraine actions, when in fact they were paid lobbyists for Ukraine," according to the indictment.

The group was meant to "act informally and without any visible relationship" to the Ukraine government, a memorandum written by Manafort in June 2012 read.

Manafort has been accused by the team investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections and possible collusion with the Trump campaign of money laundering, tax fraud and banking fraud for work he did for Yanukovych in 2006-2014.

Backed by Moscow, the billionaire Yanukovych was eyed suspiciously at the time in much of Europe for his pro-Russia stance and widespread accusations of deep corruption.

He was overthrown in the popular uprising of 2014 and exiled to Russia. After that, Manafort stopped working for him, returned to the United States and, in 2016, joined Trump's election campaign.

While the latest indictment did not charge Manafort with any crime specifically tied to the Hapsburg Group, those activities were cited to show Manafort had been actively lobbying for Ukraine and had broken laws by not registering as such in the United States. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 10:36:35 +0000 theSundaily 528229 at
Florida governor calls for police officer in every public school
"I'm calling for a mandatory law enforcement officer in every public school," Rick Scott told a news conference, as he unveiled a raft of safety measures in response to last week's deadly rampage.

Scott said the southern US state "will require all individuals purchasing firearms to be 21 or older," and intended to make it "virtually impossible" for anyone with "mental issues" to acquire a gun.

Students who survived the Feb 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have stepped up pressure on the governor to take action to protect their schools, demanding stricter gun control laws.

The self-confessed gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, legally purchased the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle used to killed 17 people at the Parkland, Florida school.

Scott, a Republican endorsed by the National Rifle Association, said the package of measures had been designed after meetings he held with some students.

The measures do not include a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons like the AR-15.

Instead, the state would raise the minimum age for all gun purchases to 21 from 18, and ban the purchase or sale of so-called "bump stocks," devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire at rates akin to machineguns.

The plan calls for deploying a police officer for every 1,000 students in every public school in Florida from the start of the 2018 school year.

An additional US$50 million (RM196 million) would be made available for mental health initiatives.

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday also called for a ban on bump stocks.

The devices were used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people at an outdoor concert Oct 1. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 10:25:26 +0000 theSundaily 528225 at
Trump announces 'heaviest ever' sanctions on North Korea
Trump used a speech to conservatives just outside Washington to step up his campaign of "maximum pressure" designed to force North Korea to roll back its weapons programmes.

"We imposed today the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before," Trump claimed at the end of a 90 minute campaign-style address.

In light of past US embargoes, that is likely an overstatement, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin confirmed the sanctions covered "virtually all the ships" North Korea is "using at this moment in time".

Trump had been expected to provide details of measures that target "56 vessels, shipping companies, and trade businesses," but skipped that part of his prepared remarks.

"I do want to say because people have asked, North Korea," he said instead. "Frankly hopefully something positive can happen."

Trump's administration is locked in a nuclear standoff with North Korea, which is trying to develop missiles that could deliver a nuke to major cities in the United States.

The latest sanctions are designed to put the squeeze on North Korea's already precarious economy and fuel supply.

Mnuchin said there were signs that effort was starting to have an impact, but did not elaborate.

The North Korean military and broader economy depend heavily on imports of coal and oil from China and Russia.

China has steadfastly rebuffed Washington's calls for a full oil embargo – fearing the chaotic collapse of the Pyongyang regime – but has agreed to caps agreed at the United Nations.

Reaffirming ties with Seoul

The timing of the new measures coincides with the arrival in South Korea of Trump's daughter Ivanka.

She is attending the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, which have taken place against the backdrop of the crisis.

The 36-year-old businesswoman and model-turned-policy-advisor has been tasked with reaffirming US ties with South Korea, which have been strained over how to deal with the North.

She was hosted in Seoul by President Moon Jae-in, who has long advocated talks rather than confrontation with North Korea.

"Mrs. Trump delivered a personal message to President Moon from President Trump about today's North Korea related sanctions announcement at a small meeting at the Blue House," the White House said.

"They also discussed the continued effort on the joint maximum pressure campaign against North Korea."

South Korean officials, who sit in a capital well within range of conventional North Korea artillery, have been spooked by Trump's easy talk of military confrontation.

US officials worry meanwhile that North Korea is luring Moon into talks that are designed to go nowhere.

Ivanka Trump is not expected to meet North Korean officials on her trip. —]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 10:11:27 +0000 theSundaily 528221 at
Indonesian woman mauled to death by crocodile
The Indonesian woman's family and neighbours launched a search after she failed to return home from a riverside garden near the remote village of Teluk Kuali in Jambi province earlier this week.

Locals became suspicious she had been attacked after seeing a huge crocodile near a boat containing her belongings, police said.

"Residents found the lifeless victim floating on the edge of the river," Kuswahyudi Tresnadi, Jambi police spokesman, told AFP.

The crocodile had eaten the lower half of her body and both hands, Tresnadi said.

The Indonesian archipelago is home to a vast array of exotic wildlife, including several species of crocodile that regularly attack and kill humans.

In April 2016, a Russian tourist was killed by a crocodile in the Raja Ampat islands, a popular diving site in the east of the archipelago. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 04:47:34 +0000 theSundaily 528174 at
Three bombs hit capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state
The three blasts at separate locations around Sittwe included one at the home of a high ranking official, police told AFP.

Besides the bloody campaign against the Rohingya, Rakhine has been struggling with a decade-long rebellion fought by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist insurgents but bombings in the state capital are rare.

"Three bombs exploded and three other unexploded bombs were found. A police officer was injured but not seriously," a senior officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The blasts took place around 4am, the officer said.

One was detonated in the compound of the state government secretary's home, while the two others exploded in front of an office in the city and on a road leading to a beach.

A local official from the state government confirmed the explosions. Photos of the sites showed shattered windows and scattered debris.

"Some streets are being blocked by police already because of the bomb blasts," Zaw Zaw, a resident of Sittwe, told AFP by phone.

In recent months, unrest in Rakhine has been concentrated in the state's northern wedge, where a sweeping military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim community last August pushed nearly 700,000 refugees across the border to Bangladesh.

But the restive state also hosts a simmering insurgency waged by a Rakhine Buddhist rebel group called the Arakan Army, which clashes with Myanmar troops.

Unlike the Rohingya Muslims, the Rakhine are recognised by the government as an ethnic minority but are still marginalised in a country historically dominated by the Bamar (Burmese) majority.

Tensions between the community and local authorities shot through since after a police crackdown on an ethnic Rakhine mob left seven dead last month.

That violence in Mrauk U township prompted the Arakan Army's political wing to warn of a "serious" retaliation for the deaths of the protesters.

Around two weeks later the town's administrator was found murdered on the side of the road.

Ethnic Rakhine tensions

David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Myanmar, said Saturday's Sittwe blasts were more likely tied to ethnic Rakhine tensions than the Rohingya crisis, whose epicentre is further north.

The Arakan Army is "the only armed group operating in central Rakhine that would have the sophistication to do something like this", he told AFP.

Coordinated strikes in an urban area would however mark a "significant escalation" of that rebellion, which typically sees clashes outside the capital.

He said it was unlikely that the bombs were linked to the Rohingya – who also have a militant wing – as very few Muslims have mobility in the capital.

Sittwe was once home to a sizeable Rohingya population but most were forced to abandon their homes by deadly communal violence in 2012.

Today a small community of Rohingya are confined to a Muslim enclave in the city while more than 100,000 others are still trapped in squalid displacement camps outside the capital.

Over the past six months, the vast majority of Myanmar's 1.1-million Rohingya population have emptied out of northern Rakhine in the mass exodus to Bangladesh.

Refugees said they were fleeing a brutal army assault that saw troops team up with ethnic Rakhine mobs to torch homes, murder civilians and commit mass rape.

The UN has accused Myanmar troops of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.

Myanmar authorities deny committing any atrocities and say they were targeting Rohingya rebels who raided police posts in August, killing at least a dozen officers.

The government has blocked UN staff from investigating the conflict zone in northern Rakhine, where thousands of Rohingya are believed to have been killed. — AFP]]>
World Sat, 24 Feb 2018 09:21:02 +0000 theSundaily 528212 at