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Brexit: May pushes on after latest defeat

LONDON - Theresa May will press on with efforts to secure a revised Brexit deal, despite another Commons defeat, and will return to Brussels "within days".
MPs voted against a motion endorsing the government's strategy by 303 to 258, with 66 Tory MPs abstaining.
Steve Baker, of the Conservative backbench European Research Group, which led the rebellion, called the loss a "storm in a teacup".
Business Minister Richard Harrington accused the ERG of "treachery".
Mrs May is trying to renegotiate the Irish backstop with the EU after MPs voted to replace it with "alternative arrangements" earlier this month.
Some MPs fear that the backstop - the insurance policy to prevent the return of customs checks on the Irish border - will see the UK will be bound to EU customs rules in the long-term.
The government motion on Thursday called for MPs to back its existing strategy, including seeking changes to the backstop, but ERG members believed voting for it would also see them endorsing calls to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
They say the option of leaving the EU without a formal deal is essential as "negotiating leverage" in Brussels, but a majority of MPs believe it would cause chaos at ports and massive disruption to business.
The EU has repeatedly rejected the idea of changing the backstop in the withdrawal agreement.(FA)

Spain sets snap election for April

MADRID - Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called a snap general election for 28 April, after Catalan nationalist MPs withdrew support for the Socialist government's budget.
It is just eight months since Mr Sánchez took office, heading a minority government reliant on Catalan support.
Opinion polls suggest that no single party would win a clear majority. But conservatives and the far-right Vox party are expected to do well.
The Catalan crisis is still simmering.
Catalan separatist MPs rejected Mr Sánchez's budget bill after the government refused to discuss the region's right to self-determination.
Divisions were highlighted on Tuesday, when 12 Catalan separatist leaders and activists went on trial accused of rebellion and sedition over their unrecognised independence referendum in 2017.
The Socialists (PSOE) have 84 seats in the 350-seat lower house (Congress of Deputies), and their main allies, anti-austerity Podemos, have 67. But the biggest party is the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP), with 134.
In his announcement, Mr Sánchez complained that the right-wing parties - the PP and Ciudadanos - had blocked numerous bills in parliament, including important measures to reduce inequality.
Yes. Since the return of Spanish democracy, with the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, it is only the second time that a government's budget bill has been defeated in parliament.
The previous occasion was in 1995, when the Socialists under Felipe González were forced to call an election.
While the end of Pedro Sánchez's tenure looked inevitable, following his parliamentary budget defeat, this adds further uncertainty to a fragmented Spanish political landscape.
His PSOE is leading many polls and could win this election, but might find it hard to form a majority and govern.
The leftist Podemos, the PSOE's natural ally, is riven by infighting and struggling in polls.
With the Catalonia issue likely to dominate the upcoming campaign, the hardline pro-unity stance of parties on the right - the PP and Ciudadanos - could see them benefit. If the numbers add up, they could try and form a majority, possibly with the support of far-right Vox, which has enjoyed a surge in polls, due mainly to its uncompromising policy on Catalan independence.(FA)

Pope highlights role of IFAD in global poverty

ROME - Pope Francis has highlighted the importance of rural development and the essential role played by the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in achieving the first two Sustainable Development Goals – ending global hunger and poverty.
"None of this will be possible without achieving rural development, a development that has been talked about for a long time but has not fully materialized," the Pope said, addressing Member States gathered at IFAD's 42nd Governing Council in Rome.
IFAD President Gilbert F. Houngbo,  in his address, echoed the Pope’s message. "The rates of extreme poverty and food insecurity remain persistently high. The progress we once claimed in reducing hunger has stalled. Today, nearly 821 million people suffer chronic under-nourishment, 37 million more than in 2014," said Houngbo.
Given this reality, Houngbo urged those present to invest more in rural development in order to prevent future crises of hunger, poverty and migration.
The Pope said the world has achieved great scientific and technical advances and now has the capacity to win "the battle against hunger and misery, if it is taken seriously."
He called on government leaders to work together to make the slogan "hunger does not have a present or a future, only a past" a reality. Speaking of the world's poor and hungry people, he said "I would like us to be able to look at their faces without blushing  because their cries have been heard".
The Pope urged all those who have responsibilities in national governments and international organizations, as well as those who can contribute from the private sector, to develop and implement the necessary mechanisms and measures to enable rural people to become the architects of their own development.
"Today more than ever," he said, "we must join efforts, achieve consensus, strengthen ties. The current challenges are so intricate and complex that we cannot continue to deal with them on an occasional basis, only with emergency resolutions. "
The Pope assured the audience that IFAD has achieved great results in its fight against hunger and poverty, "promoting South-South cooperation, diversifying funding sources and modes of action, promoting action based on evidence that, at the same time, generates knowledge."
He said that the world must "rely on innovation, entrepreneurial capacity and the central role of local actors." Pope Francis concluded by saying that the path of rural development is "humble, but fair" and when followed to the end provides "a harvest of justice and prosperity."
IFAD has invested in rural people for 40 years, empowering them to reduce poverty, increase food security, improve nutrition and strengthen resilience.(FA)

British IS schoolgirl 'wants to return home'

LONDON - One of three schoolgirls who left east London in 2015 to join the Islamic State group says she has no regrets, but wants to return to the UK.
In an interview with the Times, Shamima Begum, now 19, talked about seeing "beheaded heads" in bins - but said that it "did not faze her".
Speaking from a refugee camp in Syria, she said she was nine months pregnant and wanted to come home for her baby.
She said she'd had two other children who had both died.
She also described how one of her two school friends that had left the UK with her had died in a bombing. The fate of the third girl is unclear.
Bethnal Green Academy pupils Ms Begum and Amira Abase were both 15, while Kadiza Sultana was 16, when they left the UK in February 2015.
They flew from Gatwick Airport to Turkey after telling their parents they were going out for the day. They later crossed the border into Syria.(FA)


Hong Kong seizes $1m rhino horn at airport

HONG KONG CITY - Airport authorities in Hong Kong have arrested two men smuggling a record number of suspected rhino horns worth $1m (£780,000) on Thursday.
Some 24 severed rhino horns weighing 40kg (88lb) were found in the bust - Hong Kong's largest ever seizure.
The alleged smugglers were in transit to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam from Johannesburg in South Africa.
Customs officials said the illegal haul was brazenly transported through the terminal in two cardboard boxes.
The airport incident comes just two weeks after Hong Kong seized a record eight tonnes of pangolin scales and more than 1,000 elephant tusks.
A local environmental group said Thursday's rhino horns accounted for 20% of the total amount of Hong Kong's rhino horn seizures since 2013.
Hong Kong is a known transit point for the illegal wildlife trade, and conservation groups have urged the authorities to crack down on smuggling.
Rhino horn is used in China and Vietnam in some traditional medicine, despite containing little more than keratin, the same protein that makes human hair and fingernails.
The demand for rhino horn has fuelled wildlife poaching, particularly in South Africa, which is home to about 80% of the world rhino population.
Conservation groups say the number of rhinos killed has been gradually decreasing since 2014, but more than 1,000 rhinos continue to be killed in South Africa every year.(FA)

China closes Everest base camp to tourists

BEIJING - China has closed the base camp on its side of Mount Everest to visitors who don't have climbing permits.
Authorities have resorted to the unusual move to deal with the mounting waste problem at the site.
The ban means tourists can only go as far as a monastery slightly below the 5,200m (17,060ft) base camp level.
More people visit the mountain from the southern side in Nepal, but over the past years numbers have been rising steadily on the Chinese side as well.
The Chinese base camp, located in Tibet, is popular as it is accessible by car - whereas the Nepalese camp can only be reached by a hike of almost two weeks.
The world's highest peak has been struggling with escalating levels of rubbish for years, as the number of visitors rises.
The Chinese Mountaineering Association says 40,000 visited its base camp in 2015, the most recent year with figures. A record 45,000 visited Nepal's base camp in 2016-7 according to Nepal's Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.
Ordinary tourists will only be banned from areas above Rongbuk monastery, which is around 5,000m above sea level, according to China's state news agency Xinhua.
Mountaineers who have a permit to climb the 8,848m peak will still be allowed to use the higher camp.
In January, authorities announced that they would limit the number of climbing permits each year to 300.
On Chinese social media, claims have spread in recent days that its base camp will be permanently closed to tourists - but Xinhua cited officials denying that. (FA)

India vows to isolate Pakistan over Pulwama attack

NEW DELHI - India has said it will ensure the "complete isolation" of Pakistan after a suicide bomber killed 46 soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Federal Minister Arun Jaitley said India would take "all possible diplomatic steps" to cut Pakistan off from the international community.
India accuses Pakistan of failing to act against the militant group which said it carried out the attack.
This is the deadliest attack to hit the disputed region in decades.
Both India and Pakistan claim all of Muslim-majority Kashmir but only control parts of it.
An insurgency has been ongoing in Indian-administered Kashmir since the late 1980s and there has been an uptick in violence in recent years.
India says that Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group behind the attack, has long had sanctuary in Pakistan and accuses its neighbour of failing to crack down on it.
It has called for global sanctions against the group and has said it wants its leader, Masood Azhar, to be listed as a terrorist by the UN security council.
Although India has tried to do this several times in the past, its attempts were repeatedly blocked by China, an ally of Pakistan.
Mr Jaitley set out India's determination to hold Pakistan to account when speaking to reporters after attending a security meeting early on Friday.
He also confirmed that India would revoke Most Favoured Nation status from Pakistan, a special trading privilege granted in 1996.
Pakistan said it was gravely concerned by the bombing but rejected allegations that it was in any way responsible.
But after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a speech that those behind the attack would pay a "heavy price", many analysts expect more action from Delhi.
After a 2016 attack on an Indian army base that killed 19 soldiers, Delhi said it carried out a campaign of "surgical strikes" in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, across the de facto border. But a BBC investigation found little evidence militants had been hit.
However analysts say that even if the Indian government wants to go further this time, at the moment its options appear limited due to heavy snow across the region.(FA)

Iran suicide bomb 'kills Guards'

TEHRAN - A suicide attack in south-eastern Iran has killed at least 27 members of the Revolutionary Guards and wounded 13 others, state media say.
The bomber targeted a bus transporting personnel in Sistan-Baluchestan province near the border with Pakistan.
The Sunni Muslim militant group, Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), has said it was behind the bombing.
The Revolutionary Guards, which is a major military, political and economic force in Iran, blamed foreign powers.
What do we know about the attack?
The Revolutionary Guards branch in south-eastern Iran said a unit of its ground forces had been returning from the Pakistan border area on Wednesday when a car filled with explosives blew up beside their bus on the Khash-Zahedan road.
In a statement, it blamed "takfiri terrorists and mercenaries of the intelligence services of hegemonic powers". "Takfiri" is a term used to describe Sunni extremists who see other Muslims as non-believers.(FA)


Anger and frustration after Nigeria poll delay

ABUJA - Many Nigerians woke up wondering whether the last-minute postponement of the presidential election was fake news.
In the middle of the night, just five hours before polls were due to open, Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission (Inec) head Mahmood Yakubu told a hastily arranged press conference that the vote had been delayed by a week because of logistical problems.
Initial disbelief was followed by anger, frustration and resignation.
Musa Abubakar, who travelled 550km (340 miles) from the capital, Abuja, to vote in the far northern town of Daura, told the BBC that he "couldn't believe" what had happened.
He is one of many Nigerians to have made a journey to their home states to take part in the poll.
"I don't know what to do now, I'm not happy," Mr Abubakar said.
He is now faced with the choice of staying in Daura and missing out on work, repeating the journey or not bothering to vote next week.
There has been an outpouring of frustration on Twitter, with "postponed", "postponement" and "Inec" all trending. Many, like Bobby Ezidi, have called the electoral commission "incompetent".(FA)

Nigeria poll halted in last-minute drama

ABUJA - Nigeria has delayed its presidential and parliamentary elections for a week, in a dramatic night-time move.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) made the announcement just five hours before the polls were due to open on Saturday.
"Proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible," commission chairman Mahmood Yakubu said, citing logistical issues.
He said the difficult decision was needed to ensure a free and fair vote.
The presidential and parliamentary votes have been rescheduled for Saturday 23 February.
Governorship, state assembly and federal area council elections have been rescheduled until Saturday 9 March.
The announcement came after an emergency meeting at the Inec headquarters in the capital, Abuja.
Nigeria's two main political parties, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), swiftly condemned the move and accused each other of trying to manipulate the vote.
President Muhammadu Buhari, of the APC party, urged calm and appealed to Nigerians to "refrain from civil disorder and remain peaceful, patriotic and united to ensure that no force or conspiracy derail our democratic development".
Voters have reacted with a mixture of anger, frustration and resignation.(FA)

Egypt executes six in two weeks

CAIRO - Egyptian authorities today hanged three prisoners convicted of killing a police officer during clashes that erupted in the weeks following the deadly Rabaa massacre. The executions brought the total number of executions in Egypt to six within a span of two weeks.
Responding to the news, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director Najia Bounaim said:
“These executions, which come just days after three other people were put to death in separate cases, mark an alarming escalation in executions so far this year.
“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and its use is appalling under any circumstances, but it is even more so given that all six execution victims were sentenced based on confessions they said were extracted under torture. The shocking flaws in Egypt’s justice system have seen hundreds sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials in recent years.
 “The Egyptian authorities should stop all further executions and immediately establish an official moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty completely.” (FA)

Uganda deports MTN boss

KAMPALA- Ugandan police say the head of telecommunications company MTN Uganda - a unit of South Africa's MTN group - has been deported for national security reasons.
The company's chief executive, Wim Vanhelleputte, was put on a plane to his native Belgium on Wednesday evening.
There has been no official explanation.
Last month, three foreign nationals working for MTN Uganda were also deported.
One of them, Elsa Mussolini, said she had been accused of inciting violence and funding the Ugandan opposition politician, Bobi Wine.
The musician turned politician is a critic of President Yoweri Museveni.(FA)

Zimbabwe gold miners feared dead

HARARE - At least 23 gold panners in Zimbabwe are feared to have drowned underground after heavy rains flooded two mines.
Police said rescue teams were trying to pump out the water and search for bodies and any survivors at the mines near the town of Kadoma.
The two mines, called Silver Moon Mine and Cricket Mine, are run by registered companies, according to local media.
But the illegal workers are said to have gone underground late on Tuesday without the owners' knowledge.
Heavy rain then destroyed a dam wall, causing the floods.
A total of 38 artisanal miners went underground across the two mines, state broadcaster ZBC reported.
Africa Live: Real-time news from across the continent
Dicing with death: South Africa's illegal gold miners
It's the third deadly mine disaster to hit the continent in a fortnight.
A gold mine collapsed in Liberia at the weekend, killing at least five people. Around 35 people are still believed to be missing at the unregulated site.
While in South Africa last week, a number of were killed by a gas explosion in an underground mine.(FA)


Man shoots five dead at Illinois firm

ILLINOIS, United States - A man who was being fired from his job shot dead five people and injured several others at his workplace in the US state of Illinois, police say.
The gunman was also killed during an exchange of fire with police officers. Five officers were shot and wounded.
The shooting took place at a manufacturing company in Aurora, a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago.
Police named the gunman as Gary Martin, 45, who had worked at the Henry Pratt company for 15 years.
Aurora police chief Kristen Ziman said late on Friday they had information that indicates "he was being terminated today".
Officers declined to speculate on a motive, but the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper reports that his family say he was "stressed out" by being made redundant by the company, which makes valves for large water pipes.
Police received reports of an "active shooter" in an industrial park in Aurora at about 13:24 local time (19:24 GMT), Ms Ziman said at a press conference.
They were "fired upon immediately" when they arrived at the scene, she said.
The police chief added that a rescue task force was quickly deployed to the industrial park, accompanied by the emergency services, including the fire department and paramedics.
Chris Southwood of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police described the Aurora officers who attended and were shot as "courageous".
"[These] officers and their colleagues did not hesitate to literally put their lives on the line today to stop further bloodshed," Mr Southwood said in a statement.
Of the five officers wounded, two were airlifted to nearby trauma centres.
The names of the five people who were killed have not yet been released.(FA)

Trump faces fight over Mexico wall

MEXICO CTY - President Trump faces legal challenges to his decision to use emergency powers to build a wall on the US border with Mexico.
California and New York said they would take legal action to challenge his move to bypass Congress and secure funding for the project.
Building the wall was a key pledge of Mr Trump's campaign.
Democrats said it was a "gross abuse of power" and vowed to contest it "using every remedy available".
On Friday, Mr Trump signed the emergency declaration along with a spending bill aimed at preventing a repeat of a recent government shutdown.
Declaring an emergency could give him access to billions of dollars. Mr Trump announced the plan after Congress refused funding for the wall.
Within hours, the first legal challenge against the declaration of national emergency was launched.
A liberal advocacy group, Public Citizen, sued on behalf of a nature reserve and three Texas landowners who have been told the wall may be constructed on their properties.
Governor Gavin Newsom of California dismissed the president's decision as "political theatre".
"He's been embarrassed, and his base needs to be fed," he told reporters.
"Fortunately, Donald Trump is not the last word. The courts will be the last word," he added.
New York state's Democratic attorney general, Letitia James, said the state would not "stand for this abuse of power and will fight back with every legal tool at our disposal."(FA)

Haiti President defies calls to quit

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haitian President Jovenel Moise has said he "will not leave the country in the hands of armed gangs and drug traffickers", amid continuing protests.
He broke his silence in a TV address after a week of violence in which at least seven people have been killed.
Protesters, who accuse Mr Moise of corruption, want his resignation.
Meanwhile, the US has ordered the departure of "all non-emergency US personnel and their family members" from Haiti.
Canada has temporarily closed its embassy.
In the past week, thousands of people have rallied in the capital Port-au-Prince and other cities, burning tyres and throwing stones at police.
A number of foreign tourists have been trapped in their hotels as the security situation deteriorates.
Mr Moise - who has been in power since 2017 - has called for talks with the opposition, to no avail so far.
Opposition groups called for protests after a court report alleged that officials and former ministers had misappropriated development loans made by Venezuela to Haiti after 2008.
The report also suggested that President Moise had been involved in irregularities.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and 60% of the population live on less than $2 (£1.56) a day.(FA)

Venezuela crisis: Juan Guaidó vows to bring in aid

CARACAS - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó has vowed at a rally in the capital Caracas to ensure humanitarian aid blocked by President Nicolás Maduro is brought in to the country.

Mr Guaidó said new collection points and routes into the country would allow volunteers to bring the aid in.

Mr Maduro told the BBC he would not allow aid in, claiming it was a means for the US to intervene in Venezuela.

Venezuelans are facing drastic food shortages amid an economic crisis.

"We have almost 300,000 Venezuelans who will die if the aid doesn't enter. There are almost two million at health risk," said Mr Guaidó at the rally on Tuesday.

Mr Guaidó, who has been recognised by the US and most Western governments as interim president of Venezuela, told his supporters in the capital that humanitarian aid would be brought into Venezuela on 23 February.

Envoys for Mr Guaidó met with Brazilian officials this week and announced plans to create a second aid storage hub in the state of Roraima, on Venezuela's southeastern border.

Mr Guaidó appeared to be relying on volunteers - he called on 250,000 people who signed up online to organise themselves over the weekend, "because we're going to have to go in caravans".

US humanitarian aid trucks arrived last week at the Colombian border city of Cúcuta but were stopped at the Tienditas bridge, which has been blocked by Venezuelan troops.

Mr Maduro still enjoys widespread support among the Venezuelan population and the loyalty of the military, and his leftist government is backed by Russia and China.

But he is under growing national and international pressure to call early presidential elections, amid accusations of widespread corruption and human rights violations under his leadership.

Mr Guaidó last week offered an amnesty to military personnel who break with Mr Maduro, telling them that refusing to allow in aid is a "crime against humanity".(FA)


Maduro condemns 'extremist' Trump

CARACAS - Venezuela's embattled President Nicolás Maduro has called Donald Trump's government a "gang of extremists" and blamed the US for his country's crisis.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Maduro said he would not allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela as it was a way for the US to justify an intervention.

"They are warmongering in order to take over Venezuela," he said.

The US and most Western governments have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.

Mr Maduro is under growing internal and international pressure to call early presidential elections amid a worsening economic crisis and accusations of widespread corruption and human rights violations.

Meanwhile, Mr Guaidó has called for new anti-government protests later on Tuesday.

Relations between the US and Venezuela were already fraught before President Trump's administration became one of the first countries to back Mr Guaidó as interim leader.

Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations in response while Mr Trump said the use of military force remained "an option".

In a rare interview, Mr Maduro said he hoped "this extremist group in the White House is defeated by powerful world-wide public opinion".

Speaking in the capital, Caracas, he told the BBC's Orla Guerin: "It's a political war, of the United States empire, of the interests of the extreme right that today is governing, of the Ku Klux Klan, that rules the White House, to take over Venezuela."

The US has led the international pressure on President Maduro and imposed a raft of economic measures on Venezuela, including against the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, aiming to hit the country's main source of revenue.

It has also criticised Mr Maduro's increased use of the courts and security forces to suppress political opposition.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the government a "disastrous dictatorship" while National Security Advisor John Bolton said Mr Maduro was holding an "illegitimate claim to power".(FA)

Australia & Pacific

Australia admits 'failing' to improve Aboriginal lives

CANBERRA - More than a decade after vowing to "close the gap" between indigenous Australians and the rest of the country, the government on Thursday admitted it was still falling far short.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that only two of seven government targets to improve the wealth, health and wellbeing of the first Australians were being met.
Efforts to improve early education and rates of high school qualifications were on track, but targets in other areas - including boosting employment and increasing life expectancy - were falling behind.
"I want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to have the same opportunities as all other children growing up in Australia," Morrison told parliament.
"But this is not true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia today. It's never been true. And I don't know when it will be true. And that is the truth we must confront again today," he said.
Aboriginal Australians make up about three percent of the total national population of 25 million, but remain the country's most disadvantaged community.
The unemployment rate for Aboriginal Australians is three to four times higher than the national average.
Suicide rates for Aboriginal children are five times higher than for the rest of the population according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Thursday's report marks eleven years since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an historic apology to Aboriginal people for centuries of injustice.
Morrison said while the "Closing the Gap" initiative will continue to take action across the broad range of issues, he would place immediate focus on education.
The prime minister pledged several new initiatives, including cancelling student debt for teachers who spend four years in remote communities.
"Education is the key to skills. It is the key to jobs. It is the key to building enterprises - and giving young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians the opportunity to create their futures," he said.(FA)

Australia 'to re-open' controversial detention centre

CANBERRA - Australian PM Scott Morrison says he will re-open a controversial detention centre on Christmas Island, after a historic defeat in parliament.

On Tuesday, non-government MPs secured enough votes to pass a bill making it easier for sick refugees held offshore to be treated in the country.

Mr Morrison said the law would weaken the nation's tough border policies and embolden human traffickers.

Opponents accused him of spreading fear before an impending election.

Since 2013, Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru.

It previously also sent detainees to Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean which is about 2,600km (1,600 miles) from the mainland and 300km south of Indonesia.

The UN has criticised Australia's detention policies as "inhumane", but the nation insists they prevent human trafficking and save lives at sea.(FA)


Australians welcome home refugee footballer

CANBERRA - Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi has returned home to Australia after two months of detention in Thailand.

The Bahraini citizen was detained in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon, at the request of Bahrain authorities.

Following international outcry and diplomatic pressure, the Arab kingdom ended its extradition attempt on Monday.

Hundreds of supporters cheered the arrival of the 25-year-old footballer at Melbourne Airport on Tuesday.

Wearing his team's football jersey, al-Araibi told the crowd: "I would like to say thanks to Australia. It's amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people who supported me."

The professional footballer and vocal critic of Bahrain authorities had fled to Australia in 2014 where he was granted political asylum.

Bahrain had sentenced him in absentia to 10 years for vandalising a police station, charges which he has denied.

The Arab kingdom had sought his extradition, but human rights groups warned that he risked torture if he was sent back.

Hours before his return, his wife told the BBC she was deeply thankful for the lobbying efforts of the Australian government and public, and the international football community.

"I have had a smile all the time on my face and I can't stop crying - I am just so happy," said the 24-year-old, who does not wish to be named.

"I prayed and prayed that he would come back to me, and finally our nightmare is ending."(FA)

Australia floods bring crocodiles onto streets

QUEENSLAND, Australia - Australia has deployed troops to tackle "once-in-a-century" floods that have inundated houses, schools and airports in the country's northeast, forcing hundreds to flee and bringing crocodiles onto the streets.

The Australian Defence Forces on Monday filled sandbags, deployed amphibious cargo vehicles and helped pluck flashlight-wielding residents from their rooftops, as monsoon rains drenched the northern state of Queensland.

Australia's tropical north typically experiences heavy rains during the monsoon season, but the recent downpour has far exceeded normal levels.

The weather bureau warned of "dangerous and high velocity flows" along the Ross River after the floodgates were opened fully at the Ross River dam late on Sunday, releasing about 1,900 cubic metres of water a second.

Even after the release, as of Monday morning, the dam was still at 229 percent capacity, holding about 532,000 gigalitres of water, or roughly as much as Sydney Harbour.

"We're hoping to see an easing trend from tomorrow," bureau spokeswoman Jess Gardner said, adding that the rains could move further south, towards Mackay, a major coal-exporting area.

More than 1,100 people have called the emergency services for urgent help, according to Annastacia Palaszczuk, the state premier.

Schools and courts remain closed, more rain is on the way and emergency warnings are still in effect for more than a dozen rivers, with winds expected to gust at up to 100km an hour on the coast.

Up to 20,000 homes are at risk of being inundated if the rains continue, according to officials.

"It's basically not just a one-in-20-year event, it's a one-in-100-year event," said Palaszczuk. "This is unprecedented, we've never seen anything like this before," she said.(FA)


Iraq woman gives birth to septuplets

DIYALA, Iraq - A 25-year-old woman is making headlines after she gave birth to what doctors are saying are the first septuplets in Iraq's history.
The unnamed woman gave birth to six girls and one boy at the al-Batoul Hospital in Diyala province earlier this week.
In a statement to the press, the official spokesperson for the local health department, Firas Al Izzawi, said the woman gave birth naturally and was in good health.
He also explained the seven newborns received medical check-ups and are in perfect health.
Izzawi also said the birth was the first of its type in Iraq.
Local media published images of the infants, who are being celebrated nationwide.(FA)

Iran blames U.S., Israel for attack on Republican Guards

DUBAI - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the United States and its regional allies on Thursday for a suicide bombing in southeastern Iran that killed 27 members of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Iranian state TV reported.
The force said on Wednesday a suicide bomber driving a vehicle laden with explosives had attacked a bus transporting members of the Guards in the province of Sistan-Baluchestan.
A militant Sunni Muslim group, Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice), which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for the ethnic minority Baluchis, has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iranian media have reported.
“The crime will remain as a ‘dirty stain’ in the black record of the main supporters of terrorism in the White House, Tel Aviv and their regional agents,” Rouhani said.
Apart from Israel, Rouhani did not name the regional states he believed were to blame. Mainly Shi’ite Muslim Iran does not recognise Israel, which is a key U.S. ally in the region and sees Tehran as posing an existential threat to its existence.
“There is a link between this crime ... and some regional and international spying and intelligence agencies,” TV quoted Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as saying.
Khamenei ordered immediate action against those responsible for the attack.(FA)

Jordan warns against stalemate over Palestinian-Israeli conflict

AMMAN - Jordan on Sunday warned against the impasse in efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the state-run Petra news agency reported.

In a meeting with visiting Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi underlined the need for action to create a new political horizon to resolve the conflict.

The solution, he said, should be based on the two-state solution that ensures the rights of the Palestinians and leads to create an independent Palestinian state at the borders of 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The two sides called for launching "serious and effective" international efforts to end the conflict in line with the international legitimacy resolutions and the 2002 Arab Peace initiative as the sole method for attaining lasting peace in the Middle East.

Safadi said Jordan will continue to place all its capabilities and efforts to resolve the conflict to end the occupation and ensure that the Palestinians obtain their rights in living in freedom and dignity.

Erekat voiced appreciation for Jordan's continued efforts to support the Palestinians.(FA)


Trump not blaming Saudis for Khashoggi murder

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has refused to respond to a request from Congress to provide a report determining who killed the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Senators wrote in October demanding the murder be investigated and that the White House give more information.
An administration official said the president was within his rights to decline to act.
Khashoggi was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October last year.
He was a strong critic of the Saudi government. His body was reportedly dismembered and has still not been found.
US intelligence officials have reportedly said such an operation would have needed the approval of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.(FA)