US failed to provide proof for claims of Russian missile violating INF - Moscow

MOSCOW - The United States has not provided Russia with specific proof to substantiate its claims that the ground-launched SSC-8 cruise missile (Russian designation 9M729) violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Sputnik Thursday.

"We fulfill the contract in full, without exemptions, without exceptions, without deviations from the requirements. Our 9M729 system has never been tested for a range banned by the contract. We see no other reasons why the United States would make claims to us regarding the treaty and specifically regarding this system. The United States was unable to provide us with specific reasons why it concluded that this missile did not not meet the requirements of the treaty," the official said.

According to Ryabkov, US claims on Russia's alleged violations are nothing more than "sweet icing used to cover a void position."

"We will continue to emphasize that this icing has nothing under it: there is no dough, no content, no substance at all. It's all fake. They are illusionists in the field of arms control policies who are trying to mislead NATO allies and the international community as a whole," the diplomat said.

The United States must turn to fulfilling its own obligations under the deal to ensure the treaty's survival, Ryabkov said, adding that if Washington is not ready to the dialogue with Russia, the responsibility for the failure of the pact would rest with the US party.

Russia does not understand whether the United States wants the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to be ended or is ready to work jointly with Russia to preserve the agreement, Ryabkov added.

"We don't understand the essence of the US current position. Do our partners in Washington want us to work toward preserving the treaty or have they finally decided that following suspension of the treaty, as they told us clearly at the consultations [in Geneva], the official and complete withdrawal from the treaty will follow?" the official added.

Ryabkov recalled Russia's statements on US deploying Aegis Ashore systems in Europe and the capacity of these systems to fire missiles banned under the treaty.

"Therefore, in asking how Russia is going to fulfill the treaty, the US side is wrong, to say the least, and strictly speaking provocative," the diplomat added.

Russia is ready to meet its US partners to discuss the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at any time, Ryabkov stressed.

"We are ready to meet any time that is convenient and acceptable for the United States. If they name time and place, we will be there. We have always said this and we repeat it again. But so far we do not see readiness for such contacts," the diplomat said.

Earlier, US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said that Washington would completely withdraw from the INF Treaty after a six-months transition period starting on February 2, and urged Moscow to provide convincing evidence of compliance with the INF during this period to save the 1987 pact.

The United States has repeatedly raised concerns about Russia developing the SSC-8 cruise missile whose range is between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (311 and 3,418 miles).

In early December, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would suspend its adherence to the INF Treaty within 60 days unless Russia returns to full compliance with the agreement.

Russia has repeatedly refuted US allegations that it violates the INF Treaty, saying Moscow has very serious questions regarding the accord's implementation by the United States.



Greek PM says Macedonian vote opens ways for an 'historic' name deal

ATHENS - Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Saturday that the approval by Macedonia’s parliament of a proposal to change the country’s name on Friday opens the way for the implementation of an “historic” deal between the two countries.
“Today is a symbolic and historic day after the decision at the Skopje’s parliament which opens the way for the implementation of the accord,” Tsipras said at a ceremony taking over the foreign affairs portfolio.
Tsipras assumed the foreign ministry after Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s main negotiator in talks that led to an accord that settles a decades-old row over Macedonia’s name, resigned unexpectedly from government this week.

EU moves closer to overcoming migration feud

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS - The head of the European Parliament said on Thursday EU countries who refuse to host refugees could instead pay more for EU migration and development projects in Africa, signalling possible compromise to end a bruising dispute in the bloc.

The migration feud has divided southern and eastern EU states as well as rich destination countries such as Germany since 2015, when more than one million refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa reached the bloc’s borders.

But the tone of the discussion has changed recently after years of one camp insisting that all EU states must take in some migrants and the other side rejecting that.

“No relocation - (then) more money for Africa,” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani told a news conference on Thursday as the bloc’s 28 national leaders discussed migration.

“This should be a good compromise. It’s better to have an agreement with a compromise than no agreement,” he said.

Mediterranean arrivals of migrants and refugees are below 100,000 people so far this year, according to United Nations data, a far cry from the 2015 influx that caught the bloc unprepared and overwhelmed security and other public services.

The EU has since tightened its external borders, has turned more restrictive on granting asylum and has sealed deals with countries from Turkey to Libya to keep a lid on migrants departing their territory by sea for EU shores.

EU will further step up returns and deportations of those who reach Europe but do not qualify for asylum, a statement of the 28 national leaders’ meeting in Brussels on Thursday said.

The bloc will seek to build “a broader partnership” with countries along the migratory routes, mainly in North Africa, including to crack down on people smugglers.

The chaotic scenes from 2015 are still reverberating in European politics, which has since seen a surge in support for anti-immigration, populist and nationalist groups. But fewer arrivals now mean some of the heat is off, making a deal easier.

The eastern, formerly communist EU states like Poland and Hungary, remain adamant that they will not allow in any refugees from mainly Muslim countries.

Germany, France and the Netherlands, which had previously demanded solidarity from all EU states, may be more open now to allowing their reluctant peers to buy out of the refugee distribution scheme as a way of sealing a deal, diplomats said.

“We cannot force (others to take in refugees), but those that do not do so must possibly contribute in another way such Africa. Everyone needs to take on some of the responsibility that we all have,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told his EU peers recently.

Any political agreement is likely to take more time, diplomats and officials said, not least because Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the eurosceptic Italian government have built their political clout on an anti-immigration line and criticism of how the EU has handled migration.

Turkey: Seek UN Inquiry on Khashoggi, Amnesty

New York – Turkey should urgently ask UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish a United Nations investigation into the possible extrajudicial execution of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders said today.

The investigation should determine the circumstances surrounding Saudi Arabia’s role in the enforced disappearance and possible killing of Khashoggi. It should aim to identify everyone responsible for ordering, planning, and executing any operations connected with the case.
“Turkey should enlist the UN to initiate a timely, credible, and transparent investigation” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “UN involvement is the best guarantee against a Saudi whitewash or attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative business ties with Riyadh.”
Evidence collected by the UN investigation team should be preserved for use in future prosecutions. The investigation team should have complete access to travel where it needs to and to interview potential witnesses or suspects without interference. The team should also recommend avenues for bringing to justice anyone against whom credible and admissible evidence of involvement is found.
Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 and has not been seen or heard from since. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, claiming he left the consulate on his own shortly after his arrival, but it has failed to produce any evidence supporting this claim.

Saudi authorities have escalated their crackdown on dissenting voices in the country since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017, marked by systematic repression of dissent, including peaceful expression directed to the promotion and protection of human rights. Virtually all human rights defenders and critical voices, including religious clerics, journalists, and academics, have been targeted in the recent arrests.

Khashoggi’s disappearance comes after more than a year of arrests targeting journalists who reported on corruption, women’s rights, and other sensitive issues. Several are being held in unknown locations, without charges, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many individuals, including the prominent women human rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef, have been arbitrarily detained without charge for months. These women activists and many others may face lengthy prison terms or the death penalty following grossly unfair trials before the counterterrorism court for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, or assembly.
The Turkish authorities announced that they had initiated a criminal investigation on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2. As part of this investigation, they conducted a forensic examination of the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 15. Information from the investigation has been shared with the media through a series of leaks, including claims regarding the existence of audio and visual records proving that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate.

On October 15, Saudi Arabia’s king ordered the Public Prosecution to open an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Given the possible involvement of Saudi authorities in Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance and possible murder, and the lack of independence of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, the impartiality of any investigation by the Saudi authorities would be in question.

Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national, told media outlets that when Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate on October 2 to obtain their marriage documents, he left her his phones and instructions to alert the Turkish authorities if he did not return after two hours. That was the last time Cengiz saw him. Turkish authorities believe Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents inside the consulate.
"This demonstrates all the more clearly how imperative an impartial and independent investigation is in order to establish the truth and ensure justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. “If the UN is truly mobilized to fight impunity for crimes against journalists, then at the very least they must be fully engaged in one of the most shocking and extreme cases in recent years by undertaking this investigation."

There is a precedent for such a UN investigation. In 2008, Pakistan asked then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to establish an investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. That investigation uncovered what investigators said was an attempt by Pakistani authorities to whitewash the events surrounding Bhutto's murder.

An investigation into Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance and possible murder should start promptly and be thorough, impartial, and independent. UN Secretary-General Guterres should appoint a senior criminal investigator with extensive experience in international investigations to head the team. Once the investigation is concluded, the secretary-general should issue a public report on the overall findings along with his recommendations for following up.
“Jamal Khashoggi’s family and the rest of the world deserve the full truth about what happened to him,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Partial explanations and one-sided investigations by Saudi Arabia, which is suspected of involvement, aren’t good enough. Only the UN has the credibility and independence required to expose the masterminds behind Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance and to hold them to account.”

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and all other UN member countries should fully cooperate with the UN investigation to ensure that it has all the access and support necessary to determine what happened to Khashoggi. To facilitate the investigation, Saudi Arabia should immediately waive diplomatic protections such as the inviolability or immunity of all relevant premises and officials bestowed by treaties such as the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has called for waving these diplomatic protections in the case.
Turkey should turn over all evidence, including audio and visual records that Turkish officials have repeatedly claimed to the media reveal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate. A newly formed Turkish-Saudi working group investigating the murder will be unable to make progress in the face of Saudi Arabia’s blanket denials and rejection of any involvement in Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance.
“If the government of Saudi Arabia is not involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, it has the most to gain in seeing an impartial UN investigation determine what happened,” said Sherine Tadros, head the New York office of Amnesty International. “Without a credible UN inquiry, there will always be a cloud of suspicion hanging over Saudi Arabia, no matter what its leadership says to explain away how Khashoggi vanished.”
Jamal Khashoggi is a prominent Saudi journalist with several Saudi Arabia-based Arabic and English-language newspapers including Okaz and the Saudi Gazette, and he served two stints as the editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily al-Watan. In December 2016, Saudi authorities publicly denounced Khashoggi after he criticized then US President-Elect Donald Trump at an event in Washington, and he fled Saudi Arabia to the United States in June 2017, becoming a regular columnist for the Washington Post.


Afghans vote amid chaos, corruption and Taliban threats

By Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
KABUL - Afghans voted on Saturday in parliamentary elections overshadowed by chaotic organization, allegations of corruption and violence that has forced a postponement of the vote in the strategic southern province of Kandahar.
With Taliban insurgents controlling large areas of the country, thousands being killed in the fighting and doubts about the success of the U.S. strategy to force the insurgents to accept peace talks by stepping up air strikes, the credibility of the Western-backed government is at stake.
Several security incidents marred the polling day, with three police killed and at least eight people wounded by explosions in Kabul. Clashes erupted between the Taliban and the security forces in at least three provinces.
But wider election concerns so far have centered on technical and organizational problems with biometric voter registration equipment, polling stations not opening on time, missing election materials and delays forcing lengthy waits.
“The biggest problem is with the biometric machines, there are some sites where they’re not working and a lot of voters have been discouraged and gone home,” said Nasibullah Sayedi, a voter in the western city of Herat.
There were similar reports from other centers including the capital Kabul, while in Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan, angry voters tried to break the biometric devices because of the delays. At least 15 men were arrested over the incident.
The untried biometric technology, aimed at preventing election fraud, was rushed in at the last minute, over the objections of foreign partners who said there was not enough time to set up the system.
The organizational headaches come on top of fears of violence, particularly following the assassination of the police chief of Kandahar on Thursday, which forced authorities to delay the election in the province by a week.
Taliban militants have issued a series of statements telling people not to take part in what they consider a foreign-imposed process and warning election centers may be attacked.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed across the country but already nine candidates have been assassinated and hundreds of people killed and wounded in election-related attacks.
Widespread allegations of voter fraud present a challenge to the legitimacy of the process, seen by Afghanistan’s international partners as a vital step ahead of the more important presidential election next year.
Afghan politics is still tainted by the aftermath of a disputed presidential vote in 2014 that forced the two main rival groupings to form an unstable partnership. Both sides were accused of massive electoral cheating.
Despite the widespread problems reported at numerous sites across the country, there were still people who hoped their ballot could help improve their lives.
“I want candidates to serve the country and hear the voices of the disabled and the poor,” said Abdullah, a wheelchair-bound voter in Herat. “People ask what difference one person’s vote will make but I say, if a million disabled people come out to vote, you don’t think that will make a difference?”
In Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, men and women came out in numbers to vote and created a human chain to prevent entry of suicide bomber near six polling stations.
Some 8.8 million voters have been registered but an unknown number, by some estimates as many as 50 percent or more, are believed to be fraudulently or incorrectly registered.
About 2,450 candidates are competing for places in the lower house, which has 250 seats, including one reserved for a candidate from the Sikh minority. Under the constitution, parliament reviews and ratifies laws but has little real power.
Polls opened at 7.00 a.m. (0230 GMT) and voting is due to continue until 4.00 p.m. Due to the difficulty of collecting and collating results across Afghanistan, the overall results will not be known for at least two weeks.
Election authorities originally planned 7,355 polling centers but only 5,100 will be able to open due to security concerns, according to the Independent Election Commission, overseeing the vote.
Voting has also been delayed in Ghazni province, by arguments about the representation of different ethnic groups.

Dozens killed as train hits crowd in northern India

NEW DELHI - A commuter train travelling at high speed ran through a crowd of people on the rail tracks in northern India killing at least 59 people on Friday, state officials said, making it India's worst rail disaster this year.
Video footage from the scene showed hundreds had gathered to watch the burning of an effigy as part of the Dussehra festival celebrations, when a commuter train ran through the crowd.
"We have 59 confirmed dead. The toll can rise," State police chief Suresh Arora told Reuters, adding emergency officials were still trying to ascertain the extent of the disaster on the outskirts of Amritsar in Punjab state.
A Reuters witness at the scene saw bodies of victims strewn around rail tracks, friends and relatives stood around in shock, many were sobbing and appeared distraught.
An officer in the police control room said it was hard to confirm the toll as there were dismembered body parts all over.
Reuters partner ANI, a domestic news agency, reported that the Chief Medical Officer of the Civil Hospital in Amritsar said 60 people were killed and at least 51 people were injured. Reuters could not immediately confirm that death toll.
Police said it was "freak accident" as people did not hear the train approaching amid the din of festivities and fireworks.
During the festival of Dussehra people all over the country set aflame large effigies of a 10-headed demon from the Hindu epic Ramayana in a ceremony that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
In Amritsar, video footage showed the effigy of the demon Ravana had just been lit and firecrackers were going off when the train ploughed into the crowd, who were craning their necks and applauding the show.
ANI reported that a witness at the scene said the train that ran over people was travelling at a high speed.
Amarinder Singh, Punjab chief minister, said he was rushing to Amritsar to supervise relief and rescue operations.
"We have also ordered an inquiry as to why this incident has taken place," Singh told ANI, adding he did not know why the Dussehra celebrations were being held so close to the railway tracks.
Singh declared a state of mourning and said all offices and educational institutions across the state would remain closed on Saturday.
A witness told Indian television channel Times Now that relatives of some of the deceased were picking up dead bodies by themselves and no proper rescue operations were currently taking place.
Bodies of victims lay strewn around the scene and local television stations showed distraught and angry people, including a weeping mother who just lost a child.
"Lot of students were gathered here and we can see so many unknown bodies lying around and there is not even enough light here even now," one person on the scene told a local channel.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was extremely saddened by the train accident.
"The tragedy is heart-wrenching," he tweeted. "My deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and I pray that the injured recover quickly. Have asked officials to provide immediate assistance that is required."
India's state railways, largely built during colonial rule, have an appalling safety record after decades of underinvestment in rail safety infrastructure, as the priority has remained more on keeping fares low for the 23 million passengers who use the network daily.
Seven people were killed and 21 were injured earlier this month when nine coaches of the New Farakka Express derailed in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

China attempts to defend the illegal internment of Muslim ethnic minorities

BEIJING - China is defending its mass internment of Muslim ethnic minorities, saying it is preventing terrorism by helping them improve job skills, by teaching them the Mandarin language and encouraging them to accept modern science.

A senior Chinese official made that argument in a report released Tuesday, the latest action in a broad campaign to defend its internment of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities in the face of growing criticism.

The report, published by China's official Xinhua News Agency, said the ruling Communist Party's vision for the far western Xinjiang region is the assimilation of the indigenous Central Asian ethnic groups into Chinese culture and introducing them to a "modern" way of life.

Governor Shohrat Zakir said in the report the extrajudicial internment of the Muslims was an effort to provide "free vocational training" in centers. He said they are paid a "basic income" during the training and that free food and accommodations are provided.

China's Communist Party has resisted Western pressure related to the internment camps. The resistance is seen as an indication of China's growing faith in President Xi Jinping, the country's most powerful leader in decades.

China has insisted that its vast police pursuit and surveillance program is needed to counter latent extremism and to maintain stability.

Former detainees have described the facilities as political indoctrination camps where they were forced to condemn Islam and declare loyalty to the Communist Party.

Turkik-speaking Uighurs have resented restrictions on their religious practices and have complained about widespread discrimination in the job market and obtaining access to passports.

The United Nations estimates about 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities have been arbitrarily detained in China. The U.N. said in August that the detentions were "deeply disturbing."

The U.N. report preceded a U.S. congressional study released last week that concluded the protection of human rights in China has been on a "downward trajectory by virtually every measure" since President Xi assumed power in 2012.

The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China accused Beijing of initiating an "unprecedented" campaign to repress ethnic minorities and said such abuses "may constitute crimes against humanity."

The commission report proposed legislation urging U.S. President Donald Trump to condemn "gross violations" of human rights in the Xinjiang region and for Trump to press Xi to immediately close the "political re-education camps."

China's secret H-20 stealth bomber to be revealed in 2019 - reports

BEIJING - China's Hong-20 long-range stealth bomber is reportedly going to be unveiled publicly for the first time during the 70th anniversary of the People's' Liberation Army-Air Force in 2019.

According to The Diplomat and The Defence Blog, the mostly secret aircraft will be unveiled during the anniversary festivities celebrating the founding of the nation's air force. The outlets cited various Chinese media reports from October 15, though the Chinese military has yet to corroborate these reports.

According to The Diplomat, the H-20 is specified to include a flying-wing configuration, an intercontinental range of more than 5,000 kilometers, a substantially greater payload than the H-6K and the capability of carrying nuclear weapons. The aircraft can carry at least 10 tons of air-to-surface explosives.

Chinese Central Television confirmed the H-20's designation as the "new long-range strategic bomber" poised to complement the Chinese air force's H-6K bomber force during an August documentary. The video report is said to have marked the first time Chinese officials acknowledged the program's designation publicly.

Andreas Rupprecht, a Chinese military aviation scholar with the US-based Jamestown Foundation, has said that the bomber's been in development since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Chinese television reports declared last month that the top-secret aircraft would make its maiden flight "soon," though it's not clear how soon that will be.


Burkina Faso cabinet resigns -TV statement

OUAGADOUGOU - The cabinet of Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Kabore resigned on Friday, according to a statement read on national television, which gave no explanation for the move.

Kabore accepted the resignations, the statement said, and is expected to form a new government soon.

Attacks by Islamist militants have surged in the previously peaceful West African country in recent months. A state of emergency has been in effect since Dec. 31 in several northern provinces near the borders with Mali and Niger.


Saudi Arabia in talks to build oil refinery in South Africa

By Paul Burkhardt

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia is in talks to build an oil refinery in South Africa as part of a pledge to invest as much as $10 billion in Africa’s most developed economy.

Joint studies for a refinery and petrochemical complex will be conducted by state oil giant Saudi Aramco and South Africa’s Central Energy Fund, energy ministers from the two countries said in Pretoria on Friday. The negotiations mark a step forward in South Africa’s plans to add a refinery, which it has been considering for about a decade.

Saudi Arabia made its spending pledge last July as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sought investment to revive a flagging economy. Although South Africa has struck previous agreements to develop a new refinery -- including with China in 2011 -- the project is yet to get off the ground.

With Saudi Arabia supplying about 40 percent of South Africa’s crude, ties between the two countries are close. South African Energy Minister Jeff Radebe has called for an increase in domestic refining to cut reliance on fuel imports. But the pending introduction of clean-fuel standards has, if anything, prompted refiners to stall rather than expand, with Sasol Ltd. considering selling a plant.

Radebe and his Saudi counterpart Khalid Al-Falih signed a declaration of intent Friday to cooperate in oil and gas. Talks between the two have also broached the possibility of Saudi Aramco using the vast oil-storage tanks in Saldanha Bay, a harbor north of Cape Town offering a strategic location for trading.

“We believe that South Africa will grow economically” and additional projects may follow those currently under discussion, Al-Falih said, suggesting that Aramco could also help supply South Africa with natural gas. The Saudi delegation included its minister of commerce and deputy minister of mining, along with executives from Aramco.


Drought, animal disease threaten South African farmers

By Tanisha Heiberg

JOHANNESBURG - South African grain and red meat farmers are bracing for hard times after dry weather conditions and an outbreak of the highly contagious foot and mouth disease suspended meat exports, officials said on Friday.

Maize prices have climbed amid concerns that dry conditions in the main part of South Africa’s maize belt have delayed crop plantings outside the optimum planting window, threatening yields for the staple food that is also used in livestock feed.

In early estimates farmers have planted around 95 percent of the country’s yellow maize, which is mainly used in animal feed and between 70 to 80 percent of the white maize, which is used in human consumption, the Grain SA lobby group said.

Jaco Minnaar, chairman of Grain SA, an industry body that represents grain producers, said the reduced plantings could have devastating impact on the financial status of the farmers.

“Especially in the western parts of the country this is not the first year of drought for some farmers, it is the fifth or the sixth year that they have had less than normal yields or less than normal income,” said Minnaar.

“We certainly will see less hectares than we did last year and less hectares than we expected in October when the farmers published their intention.”

South Africa’s official Crop Estimates Committee, which in October estimated that farmers would plant 2.448 million hectares of maize in the 2018/2019 season, is expected to release the preliminary area planted estimates on January 29.

The white maize futures contract due in March closed near a one-year high, up 1.49 percent to 3,280 rand, while yellow maize futures due in March closed at 2,840 rand just under its peak of 2,872, levels that were last seen in January 2017.

The higher maize prices have also increased animal feed costs amid a constrained consumer environment restricting the costs that can be passed on to the consumer.

In another blow, the read meat industry has seen the suspension of exports after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the northern Limpopo province.

The disease, which does not affect humans, causes lesions and lameness in cattle and sheep.

Exports of beef made up 4 percent of South African meat production last year, fetching to 1.8 billion rand ($131 million). The exports were destined to various countries, including Mozambique, Ghana, UK, Germany and China.

“All these factors put the producers’ cash flow and financial survival under pressure,” the Red Meat Producers Organization said in a statement on Friday.


Zimbabwe detains hundreds as U.N. denounces crackdown

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE - Hundreds of Zimbabweans arrested during anti-government protests were detained on Friday on public order charges, as the United Nations urged an end to a brutal security crackdown and an internet blackout.

The government has said three people died during the unrest that broke out on Monday after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices by 150 percent. Lawyers and activists say the toll was much higher and that security forces used violence and carried out mass arrests to quell the unrest.

Among the around 400 people charged by magistrates on Friday was pastor Evan Mawarire, a rights activist who rose to prominence as a critic of Robert Mugabe’s rule and led a national protest in 2016.

He will stand trial on more serious charges of subverting the government after encouraging Zimbabweans via social media to heed a strike call from unions. His lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said she would lodge a High Court appeal for him to be released on bail. Mawarire faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

The internet was blacked out for much of the day, until authorities began gradually lifting a ban that had disabled some electronic communications in the country since Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for restraint by the Zimbabwe authorities.

“We are worried with the deterioration of the situation caused by the potential use of excessive violence in confronting the demonstrations in Zimbabwe,” Guterres told a news conference in New York on Friday.

In Geneva, The U.N. human rights office called on the government to halt the crackdown and denounced allegations of “generalised intimidation and harassment” of protesters.

As life returned to a semblance of normality in Harare, civilians ventured outside to stock up on food and other supplies while police continued to patrol the streets.

Jacob Mafume, spokesman for the main Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party, said he feared the web blackout was a prelude to more violence. “The world must quickly step in to remove this blanket of darkness that has been put on the country,” he told Reuters earlier in the day.




Authorities have yet to respond to the allegations of a crackdown, but many Zimbabweans believe Mnangagwa - a former Mugabe ally - is falling back on his predecessor’s tactics by using intimidation to crush dissent.

The president has also failed to make good on pre-election pledges to kick-start the ailing economy - beset by high inflation and a currency shortage, and the trigger for this week’s protests.

Referring to allegations of night-time door-to-door searches against demonstrators and beatings by police, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said hospital medics had treated more than 60 people for gunshot wounds.

“This is not way to react to the expression of economic grievances by the population,” she said.

One Harare schoolteacher waiting in a fuel station queue said filling his petrol tank twice a month would now cost him $528 rather than $230.

“I will have to probably cut on some other things or simply decide not to drive to work,” Gilbert Kepekepe told Reuters.

While long queues formed at petrol stations and outside shops, the internet shutdown meant that Harare banks were providing only partial services and no cash machines were working, a Reuters witness said.

Leading mobile operator Econet Wireless said late on Friday it had received an instruction from the government to reopen internet access, except for some social media applications.




Sudan inflation up 72.9 pct in December

KHARTOUM - Sudan’s inflation rate increased to 72.94 percent in December from 68.93 percent in November, state news agency SUNA said on Thursday.

Since Dec. 19, Sudan has seen widespread anti-government protests, triggered by price increases and limits on cash withdrawals.




Trump unveils space-based missile defense strategy

By Carla Babb

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump unveiled the military's long-delayed Missile Defense Review (MDR), the first overhaul of U.S. missile defense policy since 2010.

Speaking at the Pentagon Thursday, Trump said his plan will allow the United states to detect and destroy missiles "anywhere, anytime, anyplace."

"It is not enough to keep pace with our adversaries, we must outpace them at every turn," he said.

Officials say the doctrine, initially expected in 2017, has been frequently rewritten to keep up with changing missile threats posed by North Korea, China, Russia and Iran.

Trump added that the upcoming Pentagon budget "will invest in a space-based missile defense layer."

The MDR orders a study of space-based technologies that officials have said are "key" to the next level of defense, including weapon sensors and interceptors in space.

These technologies could help detect an enemy missile launch sooner and shoot it down in space, or possibly even as the missile is launching.

The idea is reminiscent of former President Ronald Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" initiative in the 1980s.

U.S. officials have said a space-based defense could help protect against weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds.

In a report released earlier this week, the Pentagon warned that China has made advances in hypersonic technology that, "in some areas" "already leads the world," potentially allowing Beijing to develop weapons that are far more difficult to detect.


Defense at home and abroad


In addition to a space focus, the MDR breaks down the threat into two camps: protecting the U.S. homeland and defending U.S. forces abroad from any missile source.

Concerning the homeland, the U.S. had already announced plans to add 20 new ground-based interceptors, increasing the number positioned at Fort Greely, Alaska, from 44 to 64 by 2023.

"We are committed to establishing a missile defense program that can shield every city in the United States, and we will never negotiate away our right to do this," Trump said Thursday.

Trump's rollout of the Missile Defense Review comes amid reports of possible movement toward another meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Three North Korean officials are expected to meet with White House officials in Washington this week to discuss a potential second summit between the two leaders.

The increased defenses to the homeland are scaled with respect to projected threats from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, not the much more robust threat from China and Russia.

The United States will continue to rely on nuclear deterrence, the assurance that an attack on the U.S. homeland from a major power would insure mutual annihilation, to protect against large attacks from Russia or China.

Finally, to protect against adversary advances abroad, the MDR calls for "expanding and modernizing" regional missile defenses.

The review says North Korea is fielding regional missiles capable of threatening allies and deployed forces, while Iran has a ballistic missile force that could strike throughout the Middle East and southeast Europe.

Speaking ahead of the president Thursday, Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan said North Korean and Iranian missiles "remain a significant concern" across the globe.

"To our competitors, we see what you are doing, and we are taking action." he said.



On Day 28, no sign of end to U.S. partial government shutdown

By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON - As the partial U.S. government shutdown hit the four-week mark on Friday, tensions mounted in Washington on either side of the standoff over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to help fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

That ultimatum, which congressional Democrats have rejected, has prevented Congress from approving legislation to restore funding to about a quarter of the federal government, which closed down partially on Dec. 22 when several agencies’ funds expired for reasons unrelated to the border.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives has left town for a three-day weekend, returning late on Tuesday. The Senate was expected to reconvene on Friday, but its exact plans were unsettled.

The Republican-controlled Senate, toeing Trump’s line on the wall, has not acted on any of several shutdown-ending bills approved in recent days by the House, all lacking wall funding.

The partial shutdown - already the longest in U.S. history - seemed certain to drag well into next week, meaning 800,000 federal workers nationwide would continue to go unpaid and some government functions would remain impaired.

Any serious debate about immigration policy has deteriorated into a test of political power. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested to Trump that he delay the annual State of the Union address until after the government reopens, Trump responded by denying Pelosi and a congressional delegation use of a military aircraft for a planned trip to Belgium and Afghanistan.

Trump’s intervention stopped the trip just as Pelosi and other lawmakers were about to travel.

Pelosi’s spokesman said on Friday that the congressional delegation had been prepared to fly commercially after the military plane was revoked, but learned the administration had also leaked the commercial travel plans.

“In light of the grave threats caused by the President’s action, the delegation has decided to postpone the trip so as not to further endanger our troops and security personnel, or the other travelers on the flights,” Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.

In tweets on Friday, Trump reiterated his claim that farmworkers would still be able to enter the country and stressed again his demand for the border wall, which he says is needed to stem illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Democrats have resisted the wall as wasteful and unworkable.

The House has passed short-term spending bills that would end the shutdown and reopen the government, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to allow a floor vote on them, saying they lacked White House support.

A House Republican aide told Reuters on Thursday that no back-channel talks to resolve the shutdown were taking place.

During the week, a small group of Senate Republicans sought support for a plan to urge Trump to agree to a short-term funding bill in exchange for a debate on border security. Their efforts went nowhere.

The Trump administration worked to minimize the damage being done to government operations across the country. On Thursday, the State Department said it was calling furloughed employees back to work.

Trump reportedly told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Russia-Trump Tower deal

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to online news site BuzzFeed, which cited two federal law enforcement officials involved in investigating the matter.

NBC News has not independently confirmed the report, which was published on Thursday night.

Cohen, who was Trump's personal lawyer and fixer for years, pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about the proposed Trump real estate project in Russia and the extent of the president's involvement in and knowledge of that deal. The project never came to fruition.

He talked to Senate and House investigators about the Moscow tower negotiations in October 2017.

Prosecutors said Cohen lied in order to minimise links between Trump and his Moscow building project, and to give the false impression that the project had died before the Iowa caucuses in February 2016, the first contest on the path toward a presidential nomination.

After Cohen's plea, Trump accused his former fixer of lying about his admissions in order to "get a reduced sentence".

"He's a weak person and not a very smart person", Trump said.

When Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in December it was for several crimes, including campaign finance violations he said Trump directed him to carry out.

According to the BuzzFeed report, the two law enforcement sources said Cohen told Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's team that Trump personally told him to lie in order to hide the real estate mogul's ties to the Moscow negotiations. Mueller is investigating potential links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC sent late Thursday.

The Washington Post quoted Trump's current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani , as saying, "If you believe Cohen I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge." He gave a similar response to The Associated Press and NBC News.

BuzzFeed reported that Mueller's office learned about Trump's alleged order for Cohen to lie through "interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents." Cohen, the report said, then subsequently acknowledged that directive.

Lanny Davis, who is Cohen's legal and communications advisor, declined to comment on the BuzzFeed story "out of respect for Mr. Mueller's and the Office of Special Counsel's investigation."



Trump reportedly told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Russia-Trump Tower deal

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to online news site BuzzFeed, which cited two federal law enforcement officials involved in investigating the matter.

NBC News has not independently confirmed the report, which was published on Thursday night.

Cohen, who was Trump's personal lawyer and fixer for years, pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about the proposed Trump real estate project in Russia and the extent of the president's involvement in and knowledge of that deal. The project never came to fruition.

He talked to Senate and House investigators about the Moscow tower negotiations in October 2017.

Prosecutors said Cohen lied in order to minimise links between Trump and his Moscow building project, and to give the false impression that the project had died before the Iowa caucuses in February 2016, the first contest on the path toward a presidential nomination.

After Cohen's plea, Trump accused his former fixer of lying about his admissions in order to "get a reduced sentence".

"He's a weak person and not a very smart person", Trump said.

When Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in December it was for several crimes, including campaign finance violations he said Trump directed him to carry out.

According to the BuzzFeed report, the two law enforcement sources said Cohen told Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's team that Trump personally told him to lie in order to hide the real estate mogul's ties to the Moscow negotiations. Mueller is investigating potential links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC sent late Thursday.

The Washington Post quoted Trump's current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani , as saying, "If you believe Cohen I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge." He gave a similar response to The Associated Press and NBC News.

BuzzFeed reported that Mueller's office learned about Trump's alleged order for Cohen to lie through "interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents." Cohen, the report said, then subsequently acknowledged that directive.

Lanny Davis, who is Cohen's legal and communications advisor, declined to comment on the BuzzFeed story "out of respect for Mr. Mueller's and the Office of Special Counsel's investigation."



Migrants camp on bridge between Guatemala and Mexico as US pressure mounts

By Delphine Schrank
TECUN UMAN, Guatemala - Hundreds of Central American migrants bedded down overnight on a bridge separating Guatemala and Mexico, many squeezed against a metal border gate, as efforts to halt a trek north by a caravan of thousands of people gathered pace under U.S. pressure.
U.S. President Donald Trump has warned the Central American caravan must be stopped before it reaches the United States, and Honduras and Guatemala said late on Friday they were mobilizing to return Honduran migrants to their homeland.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of migrants at the head of the caravan had poured through Guatemalan border posts and onto the bridge, but were repelled by dozens of shield-bearing Mexican police. Several complained they had been teargassed.
Drained from days of walking and frustrated, many prepared to spend the night in the open. Some stretched towels and garbage bags along the bridge walls, others lay down on backpacks, while a man applied lotion to his tired feet.
Mexico’s government, which says it will process migrants’ claims for asylum individually, vowed to tackle the caravan as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met top officials in Mexico City. Pompeo urged Mexico to ensure the procession did not reach the United States.
Meanwhile, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was due to meet his Guatemalan counterpart Jimmy Morales in Guatemala on Saturday to implement a strategy for returning the Honduran migrants, their two governments said.
Most of the migrants that Reuters spoke to said they had no idea how to get the documentation needed for Mexico. But many were determined to try.
“No, I’ll fight. I’ll try again,” said Honduran Hilda Rosa as her four teenage children sat upright, beaming as she pumped the air with her fist.
The native of Tegucigalpa told a familiar tale when asked why she had left Honduras: “You know why: no work, violence.”
Most of the people now caught trying to enter the United States illegally hail from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, among the poorest and most violent countries in the Americas.
A few of the caravan members, who ranged from farmers and bakers to housewives and students, and included a whole block of friends and family from the Honduran city of El Progreso, said they would start going back to where they came from on Saturday.
Jose Ramon Rodriguez, 45, a construction worker from El Progreso, sat on the Guatemalan end of the bridge with his head hanging low, his 9-year-old son tucked against him.
“Tomorrow we go home,” he said. His companions nodded.
Among them was Osman Melgar, who nursed a bleeding gash on his shin, suffered when he fell as dozens of people packed on the bridge began fleeing when police, according to several eyewitnesses, used tear gas.
Some, including 40-year-old Adriana Consuelo, went under the bridge, paying raftsmen 25 pesos ($1.30) to ferry them across the Suchiate River on vessels made of giant rubber tires.
After making it to the muddy banks of Mexico, she said “No one checked my documents,” as she headed to a taco restaurant.
But Mexico had stepped up its efforts to stop the flow of people, migration experts said.
“Every time there’s a (migrant) caravan there are police sent to the southern border ... but we’ve never seen anything as dramatic as we’re seeing today,” said Eunice Rendon, coordinator of migrant advocacy group Agenda Migrante.
“This has everything to do with Trump,” she added.

Australia & Pacific

Australian PM criticized for possibly recognizing Jerusalem as Israeli capital

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose government faces a crucial by-election in four days, said on Tuesday Canberra was open to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, prompting concern from Indonesian and Palestinian officials.
The Palestinian Foreigne Minister Riyad Al-Malki  said that such a move would violate international law.

Morrison’s comments about recognizing Jerusalem and possibly moving Australia’s embassy there, just like U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision in December, would reverse decades of foreign policy and inflame tension with some of Australia’s Asian neighbours.

Australia is due to sign a trade deal this year with Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, where the Palestinian question is a sensitive issue and tens of thousands protested against Trump’s decision.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, speaking at a joint news conference with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki in Jakarta, reaffirmed Indonesia’s support for a two-state solution to the Middle East dispute and warned Australia against the risk of insecurity.

“Indonesia asks Australia and other countries to support peace talks ... and not take steps that would threaten that peace process and stability of world security,” Marsudi said.

Morrison told parliament on Tuesday he had been in touch with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to explain his position.

Maliki said he was saddened that Australia might violate international law and disrespect a U.N. Security Council resolution.

“They are risking Australia’s trade and business relationship with the rest of the world, in particular (the) Arab and Muslim world,” he said.

Ambassadors from 13 Arab countries met in Canberra on Tuesday and agreed to send a letter to Australia’s foreign minister expressing their concern, Egyptian ambassador to Australia Mohamed Khairat said.

Morrison’s openness to recognizing Jerusalem and moving Australia’s embassy there comes four days before a by-election in Sydney at which his center-right coalition runs the risk of losing its tenuous hold on power.

The by-election is in the Sydney harborside seat of Wentworth vacated by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted in a party-room coup by members of Morrison’s Liberal party, the senior partner in a Liberal-National coalition, in August.

Census figures show 12.5 percent of people in Wentworth are Jewish, a significantly larger proportion than elsewhere in Australia. The Liberal candidate contesting the by-election on Saturday, Dave Sharma, is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who has floated the idea in the past.

Morrison will have to negotiate with independent lawmakers in order to continue governing in a minority if the coalition loses Saturday’s by-election.


Morrison said earlier on Tuesday the political orthodoxy that drove such debates suggested that discussion of the Israeli capital was “taboo”. He said no decision had been made and he was simply being open to the suggestion.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper described his apparent change of heart as “unprincipled and craven”.

University of Sydney political analyst Rod Tiffen said the shift in position was being driven by domestic politics.

“It’s a big change, it is out of step with everyone, except America,” said Tiffen.

“But three days out from the Wentworth by-election, it’s pretty blatant ... to the extent that there is a Jewish vote there, it probably helps.”

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector that it annexed after the 1967 Middle East war, as its capital.

Trump’s decision in December enraged Palestinians and upset the Arab world and Western allies. Australia refused to follow its closest ally’s example and has so far kept its mission in Tel Aviv.

The apparent change of policy was welcomed by Israel but swiftly criticized by Palestinian representatives.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Morrison had telephoned to explain his shift, said on Twitter he was “very thankful” Morrison was considering the move.

Palestinians, with broad international backing, want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Peace talks between the parties broke down in 2014.

The U.S. Embassy became the only foreign embassy in Jerusalem in May, but Netanyahu has attempted to persuade others to follow suit.

Australia considering moving embassy to Jerusalem

CANBERRA - Australia's prime minister said Tuesday he was open to shifting the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in line with President Donald Trump's decision to recognise the contested holy city as Israel's capital.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a press conference to say he was "open-minded" to proposals to formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move his nation's embassy - a sharp break with the policy of successive Australian governments for decades.
"We're committed to a two-state solution, but frankly it hasn't been going that well, not a lot of progress has been made, and you don't keep doing the same thing and expect different results," said Morrison.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel regards all of the city - including the eastern sector it annexed after the 1967 Middle East war - as its capital while the Palestinians, with broad international backing, want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In a statement, Palestine's embassy in Australia called Morrison's announcement "deeply disturbing".
It said short-term political gain "would surely be outweighed by the detriment both to Australia's international standing and in its relations with Arab and Muslim-majority countries".
Ambassadors from 13 Arab countries met in the Australian capital, Canberra, on Tuesday.
"We have agreed that we will send a letter to the foreign minister expressing our worries and our concern about such a statement," Mohamed Khairat, Egypt's ambassador to Australia, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.
"Any decision like that might damage the peace process ... this will have very negative implications on the relations between Australia and not only Arab countries but many other [Islamic countries] as well," Khairat said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, said he had recently spoken to Morrison and welcomed the Australian policy shift.(FA)

Australian police find five bodies in a house

BEDFORD, Australia - Up to five bodies have been found in a house in suburb of Perth, according to police in Western Australia.
The dead include women and children. Assistant commissioner Paul Steele said the incident was "tragic" but that there were no ongoing safety concerns.
He said officers made the discovery on Coode Street in Bedford after a man attended a regional police station.
The man, who is in his 20s, is in custody. It is not yet known if the victims were related.
Mr Steele called the discovery "heartbreaking" and said the tragedy would send a ripple through the wider community.
He said forensic teams were on the scene and investigators were trying to piece together a timeline of events.
In July, a 19-year-old man was charged with the murders of two children and their mother in another Perth suburb, Ellenbrook.
Two month before that, seven people were found dead at a rural property in a town of Osmington, 280km (170 miles) south of Perth.
It was the country's worst mass shooting since 1996. Police treated it as a murder-suicide, saying resident Peter Miles killed himself and six relatives, including his four grandchildren.(FA)

Catholic bishops in Australia reject compulsory abuse reporting, defying new laws

By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham

SYDNEY - The Catholic church in Australia said on Friday it would oppose laws forcing priests to report child abuse when they learn about it in the confessional, setting the stage for a showdown between the country’s biggest religion and the government.

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, is facing sexual abuse crises in several countries and the stance taken by the Australian bishops reflected the abiding, powerful influence conservatives in the church.

Visiting Ireland earlier this week, Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the multitude of abuses suffered by victims in Ireland, and he has promised no more cover-ups.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), the country’s top Catholic body, said it did not accept a recommendation from an official inquiry which would force priests by law to report abuse to the police when they hear about it in confession.

Two of Australia’s eight states and territories have since introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in the confessional, while the others have said they are considering their response.

“This proposed law is ill-conceived, and impracticable, it won’t make children safer, and it will most likely undermine religious freedom,” ACBC President Mark Coleridge told reporters in Sydney, referring to the sanctity of the confessional.

The seal of confession was “a non-negotiable element of our religious life and embodies an understanding of the believer and God”, Coleridge added.

Twenty-two percent of Australians are catholic and the move sets up a rare schism between the church and the government, in a country that adheres to a secular constitution.

Andrew Singleton, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in the state of Victoria, said the bishops’ response reflected a disconnect in Australia between religious and secular sensibilities.

“Their stance is the classic tension between canon law, and their sense that there is some sort of higher, transcendent entity, and common law,” Singleton said.

Last year, Australia ended a five-year government inquiry into child sex abuse in churches and other institutions, amid allegations worldwide that churches had protected pedophile priests by moving them from parish to parish.

The inquiry heard seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes and nearly 1,100 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.

Accusations of cover-ups in the church have reverberated all the way to Pope Francis, who has been accused by a United States archbishop of knowing for years about sexual misconduct by an American cardinal and doing nothing about it.


The ACBC’s opposition runs against laws which take effect in South Australia, the country’s fifth-biggest state, in October, and in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) from April 2019.

Representatives of the attorneys general of South Australia and ACT were not immediately available for comment.

Larger New South Wales and Victoria states have said they are considering the recommendation, while Western Australia has promised a similar law. Queensland, the third-largest state, has never exempted priests from mandatory reporting of abuse.

The stance taken by the Australian bishops also runs against the position taken by their church’s chief adviser on child abuse complaint handling, Francis Sullivan, who said in 2017 that “priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences”.

Sullivan was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Clare Leaney, CEO of In Good Faith Foundation, a victim support group, described the bishops’ decision as “more of the same”.

“I’ve spoken to a number of survivors ... who said they were actually quite disappointed,” Leaney said.

“We are aware of at least one instance where the confession has been misused.”

The ACBC report came two weeks after a former Australian archbishop became the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of concealing abuse, and was ordered to serve a one-year prison sentence at home.

The convicted former archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, himself a former ACBC president, was found to have failed to report child abuse outside the confessional. He filed an appeal against his conviction on Thursday.

Australia’s former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had been scheduled to deliver a rare public apology to victims of sexual abuse on Oct. 22 but he was ousted by his party earlier this month.


Eastern Libyan force says it killed senior al Qaeda operative

By Ayman al-Warfalli

BENGHAZI, Libya - Eastern Libyan forces said on Friday they had killed a senior al Qaeda figure in southern Libya, during an operation to secure oil and gas assets and fight militants in the lawless south.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) faction said it killed Abu Talha al-Libi, a commander in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and two other militants near the city of Sabha, LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said.

He named the others as Abdullah al-Desouki, an Egyptian, and al-Mahdi Dangou, a Libyan also known as Abu Barakat, who a Libyan official had previously said had links with Islamic State.

Al Qaeda and Islamic State have been using southern Libya as a base for attacks in Libya and neighbouring countries, exploiting a security vacuum created by the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 rebellion backed by NATO air strikes.

Islamic State stepped up attacks in Libya, including the capital Tripoli, in recent months after regrouping in the south having lost its main base in the coastal city of Sirte in late 2016.

The LNA sent troops to Sabha this week, triggering speculation they might be headed for the El Sharara oilfield, some 250 km (150 miles) away.

The LNA is led by Khalifa Haftar, a major player in Libya since his forces seized Benghazi in 2017, after a three-year battle mainly with Islamist fighters. Benghazi became the base of a rival government to the one in Libya.

The 315,000-barrels a day El Sharara oilfield has been closed since December due to a protest by tribesmen and state guards demanding salary payments and development in the area.




Algeria sets April election, no word on Bouteflika candidacy

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS - Algeria on Friday announced a presidential election for April 18 without indicating whether veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika would stand, following calls for his nomination by a loyal ruling caste of businessmen, trade unions and the military.

The 81-year old leader, who has been in office since 1999 and rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, has now 45 days to say whether he wants to seek a fifth term.

Under the constitution the election date was made necessary by the expiry in April of Bouteflika’s fourth term.

Algeria’s ruling coalition and other leading figures in labour unions and the business world had previously urged him to run again for the presidency.

But there have been concerns about his health.

In December, Boutelfika, who has been wheelchair-bound since 2013, was unable to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he came to Algiers for a two-day visit due to acute flu.

His last meeting with a senior foreign official was during a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sept. 17. An earlier meeting with Merkel and a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte were cancelled.

The North African country, an OPEC oil producer, avoided the major political upheaval seen in many other Arab countries in the past decade but has experienced some protests and strikes. Unemployment, especially among young people, remains high.

The economy has improved over the past year as oil and gas revenues have picked up, allowing authorities to ease austerity measures imposed when they halved between 2014 to 2017. Oil and gas revenues account for 60 percent of the budget and 94 percent of export revenues.


Analysts said Bouteflika’s announcement of the election date will ease concerns that the vote might get postponed.

In 1991, the army cancelled elections which an Islamist party was set to win, triggering almost a decade of civil war that killed some 200,000 people.

“This decision shows that Bouteflika is sticking to the constitution,” said political analyst Arslan Chikhaoui.

Observers say if Bouteflika runs again he is set to win, as the opposition is divided into Islamists and secular parties.

Bouteflika is part of a thinning elite of the veterans who fought France in the 1954-1962 independence war and have run Algeria ever since. Many also credit him with ending the civil war by offering former Islamist fighters amnesty.

Bouteflika’s supporters say his mind remains sharp, even though he needs a microphone to speak. The opposition says he is not fit to run again.

He is unlikely to face competition from within ruling circles. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, leader of the National Rally for Democracy (RND) allied to the FLN, has already said he will not run if Bouteflika goes for a fifth term.

Nobody has yet said they will run against Bouteflika, even though the president has said he wants more competition. He won with 82 percent of the vote in 2014, 90 percent in 2009, 85 percent in 2004 and 74 percent in 1999.

The government has said it wants to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, which accounts for 60 percent of budget finances, but there has been resistance from those within the ruling elite to opening up to foreign investment.

That has left the economy dominated by the state and firms run by business tycoons.




Morocco foils 89,000 illegal migration attempts in 2018

RABAT - Morocco stopped 89,000 people from illegally migrating in 2018, up 37 percent compared to a year earlier, the interior ministry said on Thursday, as the country became the main launchpad in the Mediterranean for Europe-bound migrants.

Morocco, which other Africans can visit without visas, has become a major gateway for migrants into Europe since Italy’s tougher line and EU aid to the Libyan coastguard curbed the number of people coming from Libya.

In 2018, Moroccan authorities dismantled 229 migrant trafficking networks, the interior ministry’s figure showed.

Some 80 percent of illegal migrants intercepted in 2018 were foreigners, 29,715 migrants were saved at sea while 5,608 opted for a voluntary return to their home countries, the ministry said.

While some migrants try to reach Ceuta and another Spanish enclave in Africa, Melilla, others pay smugglers to put them on boats, as Spain is just 14 km across the western end of the Mediterranean.

The EU has already transferred 30 million euros out of 140 million promised last October to help Morocco curb illegal migration, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Thursday at a news conference in Rabat.

About half of the 111,558 migrants and refugees who entered Europe by the Mediterranean sea in 2018 made it through the Western route separating the Iberian peninsula from North Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Some 2,217 died while crossing the Mediterranean including 744 on the western route, the IOM said.




Saudi Arabia admits Khashoggi died in consulate

By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Jeff Mason and Yara Bayoumy
DUBAI/WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had died in a fight inside its Istanbul consulate - Riyadh’s first acknowledgement of his death there after two weeks of denials that it had anything to do with his disappearance.
Saudi King Salman also dismissed five officials over the incident, which has caused an international outcry and thrown Western relations with the Middle East power into turmoil.
Reacting to the Saudi account, U.S. President Donald Trump said it was credible. But U.S. lawmakers said they found it hard to believe, signaling a battle over what actions might be taken against Saudi Arabia, an important Western ally.
Saudi Arabia provided no evidence to support its account of the circumstances that led to Khashoggi’s death and it was unclear whether other governments would be satisfied with it.
But Trump, who has made close ties with Saudi Arabia a centerpiece of his foreign policy, said in Arizona: “I think it’s a good first step, it’s a big step.”
“Saudi Arabia has been a great ally. What happened is unacceptable,” he added, saying he would speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Trump emphasized Riyadh’s importance in countering regional rival Iran and the importance for American jobs of massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Some U.S. lawmakers however were unpersuaded by Riyadh’s account.
“To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” said Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham.
Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince who lived in the United States and was a Washington Post columnist, went missing after entering the consulate on Oct. 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
Days later, Turkish officials said they believed he was killed in the building and his body cut up, an allegation Saudi Arabia had, until now, strenuously denied.
The Saudi public prosecutor said on Saturday that a fight broke out between Khashoggi and people who met him in the consulate, leading to his death. Eighteen Saudi nationals had been arrested, the prosecutor said in a statement.
A Saudi official told Reuters separately: “A group of Saudis had a physical altercation and Jamal died as a result of the chokehold. They were trying to keep him quiet.”
Saudi state media said King Salman had ordered the dismissal of five officials, including Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser seen as the right-hand man to Crown Prince Mohammed, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Asiri.
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate.
Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak has published what it said were details from the audio. It said Khashoggi’s torturers cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him.
Before the Saudi announcements, Trump said he might consider sanctions although he has also appeared unwilling to distance himself too much from the Saudi leadership.
He said in Arizona that he would work with Congress on next moves, but “I would prefer that we don’t use as retribution cancelling $110 billion worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs...we need them as a counterbalance to Iran.”
For other Western allies, a main question will be they believe Prince Mohammed, who has painted himself as a reformer, has no culpability. King Salman had handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to his son, whose reputation has been tarnished by the Khashoggi affair.
“It’s a highly worrying situation and we have decided not to attend the investment seminar,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in Copenhagen on Saturday, referring to a planned Saudi investment summit that has seen a string of high-profile Western executives and officials pull out since the crisis began.
“The whole world community is now watching the situation.”
The crisis prompted the king to intervene, five sources with links to the Saudi royal family told Reuters.
The king also ordered the formation of a ministerial committee headed by Prince Mohammed to restructure the general intelligence agency, state media said, suggesting the prince still retained wide-ranging authority.
The White House said it would continue to press for “justice that is timely, transparent, and in accordance with all due process”.
Republican Senator Rand Paul tweeted: “We should also halt all military sales, aid and cooperation immediately. There must be a severe price for these actions by Saudi Arabia.”
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told CNN the Saudi explanation “absolutely defies credibility” while Democratic Senator Jack Reed, the Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Saudis were still not coming clean with the truth.
“This appears to have been a deliberate, planned act followed by a cover up,” he said in a statement. “You don’t bring 15 men and a bone saw to a fist fight with a 60-year-old.”
Qahtani, 40, rose to prominence after latching onto Prince Mohammed, becoming a rare confidante in his secretive inner circle.
Sources say Qahtani would regularly speak on behalf of the crown prince and has given direct orders to senior officials including in the security apparatus.
People close to Khashoggi and the government said Qahtani had tried to lure the journalist back to Saudi Arabia after he moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views.
In a Twitter thread from August 2017, Qahtani wrote: “Do you think I make decisions without guidance? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince.”
In a tweet on Saturday, he thanked the king and crown prince for the “big confidence” they had in him.
Asiri joined the Saudi military in 2002, according to Saudi media reports, serving as spokesman for a coalition backing Yemen’s ousted president after Prince Mohammed led Saudi Arabia into that country’s civil war in 2015. He was named deputy chief of foreign intelligence in April 2017.
The crown prince had no knowledge of the specific operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s death, a Saudi official familiar with the Saudi investigation said.
“There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. There was a standing order to bring critics of the kingdom back to the country, he added.
“MbS had no knowledge of this specific operation and certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody. He will have been aware of the general instruction to tell people to come back,” the official said.
The official said the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body were unclear after it was handed over to a “local cooperator” but there was no sign of it at the consulate.
The public prosecutor’s statement did not specify where the operatives had put Khashoggi’s body or if they plan to inform the Turks. The Saudi official told Reuters, “We don’t know for certain what happened to the body.”
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted in Arabic: “The heart grieves, the eye tears, and with your separation we are saddened, my dear Jamal,” she said, also asking “#where is martyr Khashoggi’s body?”