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UK court sets Assange US extradition hearing for February 2020

By Andrew MacAskill

LONDON - The full extradition hearing to decide whether Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be sent to the United States to face accusations including spying charges will take place in February next year, a London court ruled on Friday.

Assange, 47, faces 18 counts in the U.S. including conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. He could spend decades in prison if convicted.

“It is important that people aren’t fooled into believing that WikiLeaks is anything but a publisher,” said Assange, who appeared by videolink from a London prison, dressed in a gray T-shirt and wearing black-framed glasses.

“The U.S. government has tried to mislead the press,” he told Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

As Ben Brandon, the lawyer representing the United States, ran through a summary of the charges against him including that he had cracked a U.S. Defense network password, Assange said: “I didn’t hack anything.”

Australian-born Assange came to prominence when WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010, angering Washington which said he had put lives at risk.

His supporters hail him as a hero for exposing what they describe as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech.

He spent almost seven years holed up in cramped rooms at the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he fled in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden where he was wanted for questioning over allegations of rape.

He was dragged from the embassy on April 11 and jailed for 50 weeks for skipping bail.

The United States has since charged Assange with numerous offences including espionage, saying he unlawfully published the names of secret sources and conspiring with ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain access to classified information.

Brandon said Assange’s actions had been dangerous and “by publishing the unredacted material Mr Assange created grave and imminent risk that many intelligence sources, including journalists, human rights defenders and political activists would suffer serious physical harm or arbitrary detention.”

However, Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers said the charges were an “outrageous and full fronted assault on journalist rights and free speech” and that his client did not have access to a computer to allow him to follow the case.

He told the court that Assange, who had been too ill to attend the previous hearing in May, was receiving healthcare. He did not elaborate.

Judge Emma Arbuthnot said the full extradition case would be heard in the week starting Feb. 25 next year.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said on Saturday that it was providing consular assistance to Assange and had sought assurances he would be treated appropriately under British law.

“Any extradition request is a matter for the UK authorities. The Australian government cannot interfere in another nation’s legal proceedings,” a DFAT spokesperson told Reuters via email on Saturday.


Party of Ukraine's president can win parliamentary majority: poll

KIEV - The new party set up by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who took office last month, could win a majority in a parliamentary election due on July 21, an opinion poll showed on Friday.

A good showing next month would cement the former television comedian’s meteoric rise and upending of Ukrainian politics.

The survey by research group SOCIS showed Zelenskiy’s party, Servant of the People, had the support of 51.1 percent of people who said they would vote.

The outgoing parliament, dismissed by Zelenskiy after his landslide election victory in April, is dominated by loyalists of his defeated predecessor Petro Poroshenko. Servant of the People, campaigning on a pro-European, anti-corruption ticket, has no lawmakers at present.

The SOCIS poll had Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party in second place on 9.5 percent, followed by Opposition Platform on 9.2 percent. Fatherland, the party of former prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, scored 8.7 percent, above the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.

SOCIS said it interviewed 4,000 voters in all regions, except annexed Crimea, from May 29 to June 6.

Half of the 450 seats in Ukraine’s parliament are elected via party lists and the other half in single-member constituencies.

Ukraine’s most pressing issue is conflict with its neighbor Russia, which annexed its Crimea region in 2014. Zelenskiy has said his first task is to achieve a ceasefire.

Zelenskiy became famous playing the TV comedy role of a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president after a pupil films his foul-mouthed tirade against corrupt politicians and posts the video online. His presidential campaign exploited parallels with that fictional narrative, portraying him as an everyman who would stand up to a crooked political class.



UNICEF report ranks the best and worst ‘family-friendly’ nations

NEW YORK - UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, revealed its latest rankings on Thursday for countries which practice the most family-friendly policies; seen as critical to fostering childhood development.

Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal top the list, among the 31 rich, mainly European nations, where data is available, according to the new UNICEF report. Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, the United Kingdom and Ireland rank the lowest.

The policies seen as most effective, include paying parental leave at the equivalent of a full salary, and the State provision of childcare services for children up to the age of six. The report is part of UNICEF’s early childhood development policy and programming, and the Early Moments Matter campaign.

“There is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

“We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children,” she added.

Produced by UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti the report ranks countries across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Union (EU) based on their national family-friendly policies. These policies include the duration of parental leave at full pay equivalent, and childcare services for children aged between 0-6 years old.

The report is part of UNICEF’s early childhood development policy and programmatic work, and Early Moments Matter campaign, now in its third year, which aims to support families in providing their young children with the nurturing environment and stimulating experiences needed for healthy brain development.

“There is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children. And we need the support and influence of the private sector to make this happen.”

Family-friendly policies strengthen the bond between parents and their children, which is critical for the development of families and socially cohesive societies. UNICEF advocates for at least six months of paid leave for parents, and for universal access to quality, affordable childcare from birth to children’s entry into the first grade of school. In line with the Early Moments Matter campaign, UNICEF is working with governments, civil society, academics, and the private sector – which plays an important role in influencing policies – to encourage greater investment in families.

Taking a closer look at parental leave at full pay equivalent in 41 countries, Are the world’s richest countries family friendly? Policy in the OECD and EU notes that only half of countries offer at least six months of leave at full pay for mothers.

Estonia offers mothers the longest duration of leave at full pay at 85 weeks, followed by Hungary (72 weeks) and Bulgaria (65 weeks). The United States is the only country included in the analysis with no national paid leave policy for mothers or fathers.

The report also finds that even when fathers are offered paid leave, many do not take it. In Japan, the only country that offers at least six months at full pay for fathers, only 1 in 20 took paid leave in 2017. The Republic of Korea has the second longest, yet fathers only make up 1 in 6 of all parents who take parental leave.

Paid paternity leave helps fathers bond with their babies, contributes to healthy infant and child development, lowers maternal depression and increases gender equality, the report says. It calls for national policies ensuring paid paternity leave and encouraging fathers to use it.

For some parents looking for childcare options once they are ready to return to work, affordability is the biggest barrier. According to data from 29 countries, parents of young children in the United Kingdom were the most likely to cite cost as the reason why they do not use childcare centres more. However, in Czechia, Denmark and Sweden, cost was an issue for less than 1 in 100 parents who said that they had an unmet need for childcare services.

The report offers guidance on how countries can improve their family-friendly policies:

Provide statutory, nationwide paid parental leave of at least six months for parents.
Enable all children to access high-quality, age-appropriate, affordable and accessible childcare centres irrespective of family circumstances.

Ensure there is no gap between the end of parental leave and the start of affordable childcare so that children can continue their development without interruption.
Ensure that mothers can breastfeed both before and after they return to work by providing lengthy-enough paid parental leave, guaranteed breaks at work and safe and appropriate locations to breastfeed and pump.

Collect more and better data on all aspects of family-friendly policies so that programmes and policies can be monitored, and countries compared.

The report uses 2016 data from the OECD and Eurostat to highlight the availability of paid leave for mothers and fathers at full-rate equivalent, and childcare enrollment for children under 3 and aged between 3 and school age.



Macron suffers setback in EU parliament as party pays price for gaffes

PARIS - President Emmanuel Macron’s handpicked candidate to lead a new centrist alliance in the European Parliament said on Thursday she was pulling out of the race, in a blow to French government influence in the parliament.

Nathalie Loiseau was quoted by Belgian media disparaging allies in Renew Europe, formed by Macron’s party and the liberal ALDE, and saying she planned a sweeping overhaul of the grouping, the third biggest in the European Parliament.

Loiseau described the comments, made during an off-record briefing to journalists in Brussels, as “pure fiction” but the leak damaged her credibility just as jostling for the leadership of the bloc intensified.

“I would rather be a unifying force for the group than a divisive one,” Loiseau wrote in a message to the group seen by Reuters. “I therefore will not run for the party’s leadership.”

Macron’s party, the pro-European Republique En Marche, which was only formed in 2016, won 21 French seats in May’s European election, leaving it in a strong position to call the shots in its union with the longer-established ALDE.

With neither of the mainstream conservative and social democrat parties holding a majority, the new liberal grouping says it can be a kingmaker in EU policymaking and deciding top jobs such as the new head of the European Commission.

Loiseau was quoted in Belgium’s Le Soir and France’s Le Canard Enchaine calling ALDE’s longtime leader Guy Verhofstadt “an old git with pent-up frustrations” and branding the conservative EPP’s candidate for Commission president an “ectoplasm”.

Her remarks on seeking to revamp the centrist grouping meanwhile alarmed those in the alliance wary of Macron gaining too much influence.

An official in Macron’s office sought to downplay Loiseau’s exit from the race, saying the president’s ambitions were in no way diminished.

“On the contrary, it is a sign of unity. We are focusing on other positions in order not to give the impression that we hold a crushing grip (on the grouping),” the official said.

A spokesman for Renew Europe said there were now four names left in the race to head the group, including Sweden’s Fredrick Federley and the Netherlands’ Sophie in ‘t Veld. The group plans to elect a new leader on June 18.




Hong Kong Protesters return to streets

HONGKONG - Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting in Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill, despite the bill having been suspended.
The densely-packed crowds are demanding that the bill - which would allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China - be completely scrapped.
The region's leader, Carrie Lam, on Sunday apologised for causing "disputes in society" over the bill.
A day earlier she delayed the bill plans after mass protests this week.
Many protesters, who fear increased Chinese influence over Hong Kong, are calling on Ms Lam to resign over the unrest.
The protests have so far remained peaceful, in contrast to the previous major demonstration on Wednesday which saw clashes between protesters and police that injured dozens.
By early Sunday afternoon, large crowds had gathered in the city's Victoria Square, many wearing black or carrying white flowers. Organisers said they hoped more than a million people would attend, though no formal estimates of the crowd have yet been made.
The progress of the march was slow, as the large numbers of people blocked many streets and crowded train stations.
Many held white flowers to mourn a protester who fell to his death on Saturday from a ledge, where hours earlier he had unfurled an anti-extradition banner.
 Ms Ng and Mr Chu have joined the protests at Victoria Park - say it's the first time protesting against the extradition proposals. Say they were angered by police use of force. Wearing white flowers to commemorate yesterday's protester who fell to his death.
As darkness fell, protesters started to take over major roads and crossings and surrounded the legislative council building.
They carried placards that read "the students did not riot", in response to police labelling Wednesday's student protests a riot - an offence punishable by up to 10 years in jail.
There was scepticism among some protesters about Ms Lam's decision to suspend the bill.
"Carrie Lam has ignored the feelings of Hong Kongers," Mr Ma, a 67-year-old protester, told the BBC. He said Ms Lam had "acted like it was no big deal" after a reported million people marched last week.
"Secondly, we are marching for the students who were brutally treated by the police. We need to get justice for them."
Chloe Yim, 20, who had joined the protests for the first time, said: "If Carrie sees so many people come out, and still doesn't listen - she's being an autocrat who doesn't listen to people. Hong Kong people can't accept that."(FA)

China slams US for 'crude interference' in Hong Kong

BEIJING - China has denounced as "crude interference" proposed US legislation for the annual certification of Hong Kong's autonomy.

US lawmakers on Thursday introduced the so-called Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would require the US secretary of state to issue an annual certification of Hong Kong's autonomy.

Under the proposed bill, Hong Kong risks losing certain trade-related privileges with the US that are not enjoyed by mainland China.

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called the introduction of the bill "irresponsible carping and crude interference."

Speaking at a regular media briefing in Beijing, Geng urged the US "to give up its delusions of creating chaos in Hong Kong, stop pushing the proposed bill, and stop interfering in China's domestic affairs."

The development came shortly after days of unrest in Hong Kong over an extradition bill.

Hong Kong's government seeks to have a law passed that allows suspects to be sent for trial to countries not covered by the region's current extradition agreements. Critics say the law could be used to send Beijing's political opponents to mainland China. Proponents say it makes for normal judicial processes that will close loopholes in current laws.

The protests were the most intense and violent on Wednesday, when the government was forced to postpone the second round of the debate on the extradition bill.

US officials have been supporting the protesters.


China summons senior US diplomat


Later on Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned a senior US Embassy official to file stern representations over remarks and actions by the US government regarding Hong Kong.

According to the ministry's statement, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned US Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing Robert Forden and called on the US not to not take any action that harmed Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.

"China will watch the US side's actions and further respond," Le said, without elaborating.

Former British colony Hong Kong was returned to China after about a century in 1997. Its legislative, executive, and judicial bodies are separate from and independent of China, and Beijing only maintains authority in defense, foreign affairs, and constitutional disputes.


India no longer needs to look to West for heavy torpedoes for its submarines

New Delhi - India has joined the elite bloc of nations like Russia, Germany, Italy, and France with indigenously built heavyweight torpedoes for its submarines and warships.

The development comes with India signing a $170 million contract for the supply of over 70 torpedoes for arming both warships and submarines. The supply of torpedoes named "Varunastra" has to be executed in the next 42 months.

The ship-launched electrically propelled underwater weapon is equipped with the most advanced automatic and remote controlled guidance systems, according to Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) - the manufacturer of the weapon system.

The development holds high importance as India scrapped a deal to purchase heavy torpedoes from Whitehead Alenia Systemi Subacquei (WASS) over corruption allegations involving another Finmeccanica subsidiary, Agusta Westland, in 2017.

The Indian Navy has made another attempt to purchase similar torpedoes from foreign vendors, including German and French firms, but it could not make much progress in the last two years.

The Indian Navy had evaluated German SeaHake and French F21 Artemis heavyweight torpedoes, but the current status of the tender is yet unknown.

In the absence of heavy torpedoes, the Indian Navy has been operating its first Scorpene-class submarine without its primary weapon system.

The second submarine of this class, also without the modern heavyweight torpedoes, is likely to be inducted in the next few months. "We cannot reveal due to sensitivity of the matter", a BDL spokesperson replied when asked whether Varunastra could be fitted into the Scorpene-class submarines immediately.

Varunastra, with 95% indigenous content, is developed by the Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL), a premier Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) laboratory based at Visakhapatnam. Bharat Dynamics Ltd. has been associated as a production partner in concurrent engineering mode.

The versatile naval weapon, Varunastra, which can be fired from Rajput-class destroyers, the Delhi-class and all future Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) ships, is capable of firing heavy torpedoes. It is also capable of targeting quiet and stealthy submarines both in deep and littoral waters even in an intense countermeasure atmosphere.

The Indian shipyard MDL has been building Scorpene-class submarines with the help of French firm DCNS. It originally envisaged equipping the submarines with Black Shark torpedoes as their primary weapons.



Iran president renews ultimatum over nuclear pact compliance

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - Iran will continue scaling back compliance with its nuclear deal commitments unless other signatories show “positive signals”, the Iranian president told a meeting of Russian, Chinese and other Asian leaders in Tajikistan.

Iran stopped complying in May with some commitments in a 2015 nuclear deal that was agreed with global powers, a year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord and tightened sanctions.

Tehran said in May that Iran would start enriching uranium at a higher level, unless world powers protected its economy from U.S. sanctions within 60 days.

“Obviously, Iran cannot stick to this agreement unilaterally,” President Hassan Rouhani told the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

“It is necessary that all the sides of this agreement contribute to restoring it,” he said, adding that Iran needed to see “positive signals” from other signatories to the pact, which include Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

He did not give details on what actions Iran would take or say what positive signals Tehran wanted to see.

France and other European signatories to the deal, which aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, have said they wanted to save it, but many of their companies have canceled deals with Tehran, under financial pressure from the United States.

Western powers have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies saying it wants nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Rouhani made no mention of attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman this week which Washington has blamed on Tehran, raising concern about new confrontation. Iran has denied any role in the attacks.




French allied forces kill Mali militants

BAMAKO - Allied French and Malian forces killed 20 militants in an operation in a part of northern Mali where Islamic State operates, a spokesman for the West African nation’s military said on Sunday.
The operation in the district of Akabar, a remote part of a game reserve near the border with Niger and not far from the Malian city of Menaka, was continuing, army spokesman Colonel Diarran Kone said by telephone.
“But I can tell you that 20 terrorists have been neutralised,” he said.
Mali has become increasingly engulfed in violence since a Tuareg uprising in 2012 was hijacked by Islamist militants, prompting France to intervene to push them back the following year.
Several jihadist factions and allied criminal gangs have regrouped and set up operations in parts of Mali, from where they have launched attacks across the Sahel.
They also now have a significant presence in swathes of neighbour Burkina Faso, and in some remote parts of Niger.
Despite the deployment of 4,500 French troops meant to contain the violence in the Sahel, it has steadily worsened, and the Islamists have succeeded in triggering an ethnic conflict.
Attackers believed to belong to the Fulani ethnic group raided the ethnic Dogon village of Sobane Da last Sunday and Monday, killing 35 people, according to the government, although a local authority maintains the real figure is 95 deaths. A bigger massacre by Dogon hunters in March left 150 dead.
Malians have become increasingly frustrated by the failure of the authorities to end regular attacks by jihadist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State, as well as increasing tit-for-tat ethnic killing between Fulani and Dogon villagers.(FA)

Gang kills 34 in northwest Nigeria, police

BAUCHI, Nigeria - An armed gang killed at least 34 people in attacks on villages in northwest Nigeria, police said on Sunday, part of a wave of violence the government has blamed on bandits.
Hundreds of people have died in the northwest region this year, adding to security problems in a country already struggling with Islamist insurgencies in the northeast and a brutal conflict between farmers and herders in central states.
The armed gang came to unprotected villages in the northwestern state of Zamfara on Friday night, killing 34 people, said Muhammed Shehu, police spokesman for the state.
People from the village told Reuters the attackers escaped.
“We heard gunshots and saw people running for shelter, chased by men on motorbikes,” said Shehu Shinkafi.
“We immediately took cover in a house nearby, and after the bandits were done with their killing spree they moved to a nearby village,” he said, adding he counted 12 bodies in his village alone.
The gang left without any resistance as there were no security agents in the area, and it was only after the massacre that police arrived hours later, Shinkafi and two other witnesses said.(FA)

Algeria ex finance minister in corruption investigation

ALGIERS - Algeria's former finance minister Karim Djoudi has appeared before the Supreme Court to face questions about corruption accusations, state television has reported.
He has not been charged but joins a series of senior figures associated with former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to face investigations since protests broke out this year demanding the departure of the ruling elite and prosecution of former officials linked to Bouteflika.
State television gave no details on Djoudi's case and his lawyer was not immediately available for comment.
His hearing on Sunday came days after the same court ordered the detention of ex-prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, as well as former trade minister Amara Benyounes for "dissipation of public funds and awarding illegal privileges".
The army is now the main player in Algerian politics after Bouteflika stepped down two months ago and its chief of staff Ahmed Gaed Salah has urged the judiciary to speed up the prosecution of people suspected of involvement in corruption cases.
Djoudi served as finance minister under Ouyahia from June 2007 to May 2014 when he resigned on health grounds before being named Bouteflika's adviser for the past two years.
The legal moves have not prevented further demonstrations by protesters pushing for radical change and a clean break with an elite who have governed the North African country since independence from France in 1962.
For the 17th straight week, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the capital on Friday to demand the removal of the ruling elite.
Bouteflika stepped down on April 2 under pressure from the army and protests that erupted in February.
Bouteflika's youngest brother, Said, and two former intelligence chiefs have been placed in custody by a military judge for "harming the army's authority and plotting against state authority".
Several prominent businessmen, some of them close to Bouetflika have been detained at a prison in Algiers over corruption allegations.
Protesters are now seeking the departure of interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, both seen as part of the establishment.
Authorities have postponed a presidential election previously planned for July 4, citing a lack of candidates.
Protesters rejected an offer from Bensalah to hold a dialogue with all parties after the postponement of the election.
No new date has been set for the vote.(FA)

South Sudanese facing famine in all but name, warns UN

GENEVA - Record numbers in South Sudan – some seven million people – face acute food shortages, while more than 20,000 are close to famine, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Friday.

The warning, which follows years of violent unrest and vicious rights abuses linked to mass displacement, food shortages and disease outbreaks, coincides with the release of updated data on hunger levels in the country.

"It is famine-like, but you cannot call it famine, because you can only call (it) famine if you have a certain number of criteria," including the number of people affected, said WFP spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel. "We are not at that number, that level, to use the word famine. We cannot use the word famine, but they live in conditions that are equivalent to a famine, if there was many more"

According to Friday's food insecurity report, an estimated 21,000 South Sudanese will likely face a "catastrophic lack of food access" by the end of July, in the middle of the rainy season.

More than 1.8 million are set to endure "emergency" food shortages, while five million are expected to be in "crisis".

Compared to forecasts made in January, the updated hunger estimates reckon on another 81,000 people facing "a highly stressed and critical lack of food", particularly in Jonglei, Lakes and Unity states, WFP said in a statement.

Already in South Sudan, the UN agency noted that food and fuel prices have spiked, while trade and local markets have been disrupted, depleting the country's food stocks.

Today, WFP assists more than 2.7 million people in South Sudan, but it plans to scale up aid to 5.1 million by December, to meet seasonal needs, using a combination of food and cash distributions.

For the first time in many years, WFP has also prepositioned 173,000 tonnes of food in some 60 areas ahead of the rainy season; some 66,000 tonnes more than at the same point in 2018.

This helps to "save lives" while also reducing delivery costs as the food can be transported by road - and not air - before the rains render them impassable.

Mr. Verhoosel stressed that the success of the operation depends upon the "effective implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan and political stability", to allow urgent and scaled-up humanitarian assistance to protect livelihoods and boost agricultural production across the country and save lives."


Sudan: Urgent UN, AU investigation needed after military admits deadly decision

LONDON - Following an admission by Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) that they all met the country’s security chiefs on 2 June, and after receiving undisclosed advice from the Attorney General and the Head of the Judiciary, ordered the dispersal of peaceful protestors on 3 June, which “by mistake” killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds more , Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes Sarah Jackson said:

“It is completely outrageous and unacceptable that what has now been confirmed to have been a carefully planned attack on sleeping protestors has in the same breath been reduced to a ‘mistake’.

“The senseless killing of protestors must be stopped immediately, and those responsible for the bloodbath, including at command level, must be held fully accountable for their actions.

“The Attorney General and Head of the Judiciary should urgently clarify the advice they gave before leaving the meeting where this decision was taken. The world needs to understand the extent to which they advised the security forces on the legality and proportionality of deadly force used.

“Following this admission, it is now more urgent than ever, in the interest of accountability and transparency, that the military authorities allow international scrutiny and investigations by the United Nations and African Union into the escalating human rights violations under their watch.”


The TMC spokesperson Lieutenant General Shams al-Deen al-Kabashi on on 13 June issued a statement about the 2 June meeting where the decision was taken to clear the protestor sit-in area near the military headquarters in Khartoum. The statement reads in part:

“In the evening before the implementation of the decision to clear the sit-in area, we called for a meeting attended by all members of the TMC, the head of military intelligence, the head of General Staff Command (army), the head of national security and his deputy, the head of police and his deputy, and the head of RSF. We also requested the Head of the Judiciary and the Attorney General to attend this meeting to provide us with legal advice on how to deal with this situation. We thanked the head of judiciary and the Attorney General for their advice and then they left the meeting.”



Power cuts throw Argentina into darkness

BUENOS AIRIES - A massive electrical failure has left all of Argentina and Uruguay without power, according to a major Argentine electricity provider.
Reports said the power cut had also affected parts of Brazil and Paraguay.
Argentine media said the power cut occurred shortly after 07:00 (11:00 BST), causing trains to be halted and failures with traffic signalling.
It came as people in parts of Argentina were preparing to go to the polls for local elections.
"A massive failure in the electrical interconnection system left all of Argentina and Uruguay without power," electricity supplier company Edesur said in a tweet.
Argentina's energy secretary, Gustavo Lopetegui, said the cause of the power failure had not yet been determined.
The Ministry of Civil Protection estimated that parts of the service could be restored in about seven or eight hours.
Edesur said that power had been restored to parts of Buenos Aires and local media reported that two airports were operating on generators in the capital.
Uruguay's energy company, UTE, said in a tweet that power had been restored to coastal areas.
The combined population of Argentina and Uruguay is about 48 million people.
Among the affected provinces in Argentina were Santa Fe, San Luis, Formosa, La Rioja, Chubut, Cordoba and Mendoza, reports said. Tierra del Fuego is the only area that remains unaffected.
Social media reports of the power were widespread - from the capital Buenos Aires in the north, to Mendoza in the west and Comodoro Rivadavia in the south, among many other cities.
One of Argentina's biggest water companies, Agua y Saneamientos Argentinos, warned those without power to limit their water use, as the distribution of drinking water had been affected by the power cut.(FA)

US Air Force conducts successful hypersonic weapon flight test

ARLINGTON, Virginia, USA - The U.S. Air Force successfully conducted the first flight test of its AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, on a B-52 Stratofortress aircraft on June 12 at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

A sensor-only version of the ARRW prototype was carried externally by a B-52 during the test to gather environmental and aircraft handling data.

The test gathered data on drag and vibration impacts on the weapon itself and on the external carriage equipment of the aircraft. The prototype did not have explosives and it was not released from the B-52 during the flight test. This type of data collection is required for all Air Force weapon systems undergoing development.

"We're using the rapid prototyping authorities provided by Congress to quickly bring hypersonic weapon capabilities to the warfighter," said Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. "We set out an aggressive schedule with ARRW. Getting to this flight test on time highlights the amazing work of our acquisition workforce and our partnership with Lockheed Martin and other industry partners."

The Air Force is leading the way in air-launched hypersonic weapon prototyping efforts. As one of two rapid prototyping hypersonic efforts, ARRW is set to reach early operational capability by fiscal year 2022.

"This type of speed in our acquisition system is essential – it allows us to field capabilities rapidly to compete against the threats we face," Roper said.

The flight test serves as the first of many flight tests that will expand the test parameters and capabilities of the ARRW prototype.

The ARRW rapid prototyping effort awarded a contract in August 2018 to Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, Orlando, Florida, for critical design review, test and production readiness support to facilitate fielded prototypes.


Documents suggest Russian contractor key figure for Kremlin in Africa

By Jamie Dettmer

WASHINGTON - A Russian military contractor indicted last year by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller for meddling in domestic American politics is emerging as a key figure in a wide-ranging Kremlin influence operation aimed at boosting Russian clout in Africa at the expense of Western powers, according to documents obtained by an investigative unit funded by an exiled critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Nicknamed "Putin's cook' because of his lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, the 57-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin emerges from a tranche of documents as the go-to oligarch for Moscow's ambition to turn sub-Saharan Africa into a strategic hub and to reduce Western influence.

The documents, first reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper, detail the activities and goals in various African countries of the Wagner group, a military contractor that supplied Russian mercenaries to Kremlin allies for combat in Syria and Ukraine. The St. Petersburg-based Prigozhin has denied in the past the existence of the Wagner group, but both were sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2016 for supporting pro-Moscow separatists in the conflict in Ukraine's Donbas region.

The Treasury Department said Prigozhin provided extensive support to the separatists, including constructing a military base near Ukraine for Russian troops to use for deployments into the Donbas. Some Russian opposition leaders and independent military analysts suspect Wagner is a disguised unit of Russia's defense ministry.

Who is Cooperating

The documents, internal communications shared between Prigozhin's employees, outline what Wagner has accomplished and plans to do in 13 African states, including the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya and South Africa. There are also ratings of the level of cooperation already achieved with local political authorities, the armed forces and police as well as evaluations of current political and economic ties with Russia.

In CAR, the group credits itself with reducing the influence of local politicians who it describes as "orientated to France” and of strengthening the armed forces. The group also brags about setting up newspapers and a radio station. It accords a five out five for the level of cooperation already achieved in CAR.

In July last year three Russian journalists who were investigating Wagner's involvement in the CAR were found dead outside the capital city of Bangui.

Madagascar is also marked as a five out five for cooperation already reached. In the internal documents Wagner's achievements listed on the island include helping to secure the election in 2018 of 45-year-old Andry Rajoelina as president. Other accomplishments noted are stabilizing the political situation, counteracting anti-government protests, training the police and producing and distributing the country's biggest mass-selling newspaper.

Wagner's activities are coordinated with top officials inside Russia's foreign and defense ministries, suggest the documents, which were obtained by the Dossier Center, an investigation team set up and financed by Mikhail Khodorkovksy, a businessman and philanthropist who was imprisoned in Russia for a decade and now lives in exile in Switzerland.

U.S. Indictment

Last year, Robert Mueller, who led a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, secured from a grand jury an indictment of Prigozhin for overseeing a troll factory that spearheaded Russian meddling in the elections. A dozen other Russians were charged at the same time.

According to the indictment Prigozhin controlled the entity behind a troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency, which waged "information warfare against the United States” by "creating fictitious social-media personas and spreading falsehoods.”

European intelligence agencies have also accused the Internet Research Agency of conducting social-media based disinformation campaigns designed to magnify and aggravate social and political divisions in the West.

Prigozhin mocked the Mueller indictment, telling the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti: "The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”

The Kremlin's Hand

But Russian opposition politicians and rights activists describe Prigozhin as Putin's go-to oligarch for sensitive and unsavory missions that advance Kremlin's geopolitical ambitions. The documents obtained by the Dossier Center suggest Wagner is nurturing relations with existing African rulers and identifying and grooming likely future leaders, as well as striking military deals and advising on disinformation campaigns.

One of the documents proposes establishing a database of Africans residing in the U.S. and Europe to help spot "future leaders” and those who could be developed to become "agents of influence” with the eventual aim of shaping a "loyal chain of representatives across African territory.”

Wagner has also been advising some African leaders on how to undermine anti-government protests, although its counsel is not always taken, apparently. In a letter purportedly written by Prigozhin, the Wagner boss berates the former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted earlier this year, for failing to heed Russian advice on how to combat the pro-democracy protests imperiling his rule.

Prigozhin reprimanded al-Bashir at the "lack of activity” and the government's "extremely cautious position.” He had urged the ousted leader to be more aggressive and to smear the demonstrators as being pro-Israel and pro-gay and anti-Islam.

In March 2009, al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians in Darfur.

Kremlin officials have regularly denied any Russian government connection with the activities of the Wagner group. But last November supporters of Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, who launched this year an assault on Tripoli, posted a video showing Prigozhin attending a meeting in Moscow between top Russian officials and the Libyan general.

A recent investigation by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta found that a private jet linked to Prigozhin had flown back and forth between Russia and Africa frequently in 2018.



Release of the US Strategy on Women, Peace and Security

WASHINGTON - Women around the world have an essential role in conflict prevention and resolution, security provision, peace processes, and countering terrorism. For over a decade, the United States has been a leader in promoting global peace and stability by empowering women to take on those roles and addressing challenges faced by women and girls in conflict and disaster affected areas. Today, the United States reaffirms our leadership on these issues with President Trump's release of the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in statement.

The strategy directs the Department of State to ensure women and girls' meaningful participation and safety in efforts to promote stable and lasting peace as well as enhance U.S. partners' capacity to advance women, peace, and security. We are proud to take on this task in partnership with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Department of State will mobilize the unique contributions of American diplomacy through the implementation of this strategy.

The United States recognizes that societies which empower women economically and politically are more stable and peaceful. As such, the strategy is a government-wide effort, complementing the recently announced Women's Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. Both efforts underscore President Trump's emphasis on the importance of empowering women to participate fully in civic and economic life, leading to more peaceful and prosperous societies.


Justice Department presses UK to extradite Assange to US

Justice Department presses UK to extradite WikiLeaks founder to US

By Masood Farivar

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has formally asked Britain to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face a raft of charges related to his release of a massive trove of secret diplomatic cables and war logs, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

A formal request for Assange's extradition was delivered to British authorities last Thursday, just days before a June 11 deadline.

Under an extradition treaty with the United Kingdom, the U.S. had 60 days from the date of Assange's April 11 arrest in London to file a formal request for his handover. The treaty bars U.S. prosecutors from charging Assange with crimes not outlined in the request, making the filing of additional counts against Assange highly unlikely.

The Australian-born computer programmer and activist is being sought to face charges in federal court in Northern Virginia that he worked with former Army specialist Chelsea Manning to unlawfully obtain and publish hundreds of thousands of reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as conditions within the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Assange had eluded arrest for seven years by holing up in Ecuador's embassy in London until Ecuadorian officials turned against him in April.

After Assange's arrest by London police, U.S. prosecutors unsealed a year-old indictment charging Assange with a single count of computer intrusion in connection with the publication of the secret documents. But last month, they upped the ante, accusing Assange in a new 18-count superseding indictment of violating the 1917 Espionage Act by distributing classified information.

Assange, 47, faces up to ten years in prison for each of the new charges.

The Espionage Act was enacted by Congress to deter spies from passing secret information to foreign governments. The last time a grand jury returned an indictment under the law was during World War II.

The Espionage charges against Assange have provoked outrage among press freedom advocates who worry that the government could use the law to prosecute others for distributing confidential defense information.

Yet it remains far from certain that Assange will stand trial in the United States. That is because the U.S.-U.K. treaty prohibits extradition for the specific charges Assange faces.

"Espionage is generally considered a political offense, and the treaty forbids extraditing someone charged with political offenses," John T. Nelson, a legal fellow at the Just Security blog, wrote recently.

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as "an intelligence agency of the people." To obtain secret documents to publish on his website, he "repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal and provide it to WikiLeaks to disclose," prosecutors wrote in the superseding indictment.

Assange took refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid possible extradition to Sweden to face charges that he raped a Swedish woman. A Swedish court ruled last week that Assange should not be extradited to Sweden but should still be questioned in the case while he is imprisoned in Britain.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to Sweden for a revived rape investigation, but should still be questioned in the case while he is imprisoned in Britain, a Swedish court ruled Monday, The ruling by the Uppsala District Court. doesn't mean the preliminary rape investigation must be abandoned, only that Assange won't be extradited to Sweden for now. Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden's deputy director of public prosecutions, said she has not decided yet.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London, Britain, May 1, 2019.

Swedish prosecutors are reopening the rape case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange following a request from the lawyer of one of the alleged victims. Assange was arrested last month in Ecuador's embassy in London, after the country reversed its decision to give him asylum. The 47-year-old Australian national is also wanted in the United States on hacking charges and the British government will now have to decide which extradition request should take priority.

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange held placards and a banners in protest outside Westminster Magistrates Court in London on May 30, 2019.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange missed a court session Thursday, apparently due to health problems. He had been expected to appear from prison via video link at a brief extradition hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court. Lawyer Gareth Peirce told the court Assange was "not very well.''

Assange is due to appear this Friday at Westminster Court in London but his ill-health may not provide him with the strength to stand trial.

At briefing Tuesday at the Foreign press Association, a former Icelandic minister of the Interior revealed that an FBI delegation landed in Iceland capital in 2015 with the objective of framing Assange so that he could stand trial either in Britain or Sweden. The minister ordered the FBI delegation to go back to the US.

the Editor of Wikileaks also said that Assange’s detention is politically motivated and that press freedom is now on trial.


Australia & Pacific

Accused Christchurch gunman pleads not guilty to all charges

By Charlotte Greenfield

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand - An Australian man pleaded not guilty on Friday to 92 charges stemming from a massacre in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch three months ago and will stand trial in May next year.

A lone gunman armed with semi-automatic weapons attacked Muslims attending Friday prayers in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island on March 15, killing 51 people in the country’s worst peace-time mass shooting. The attacker broadcast the shooting live on Facebook.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced tough new firearm laws banning semi-automatic weapons after the attack, which also wounded dozens more people.

Brenton Tarrant, 29, a suspected white supremacist, appeared by video link from a maximum security facility in Auckland while his lawyer entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. The accusations against him include one terrorism charge.

About 80 members of Christchurch’s Muslim community and dozens of media representatives attended the hearing in a packed court room, with many seated in another room watching by video.

High Court Justice Cameron Mander said the trial would begin on May 4. The prosecution expected the trial would take around six weeks, although Mander said defense lawyers believed it could take considerably longer.

Courts normally try to bring cases to trial within a year but Mander said “the scale and complexity of this case makes this challenging”.

Tarrant has been remanded in custody until Aug. 15, when the next case review hearing is scheduled.

Mander said Tarrant was fit to stand trial after the court ordered him to undergo a mental health assessment at a previous hearing on April 5.

“No issue arises regarding the defendant’s fitness to plead, to instruct counsel, and to stand his trial. A fitness hearing is not required,” Mander said in a minute released to the media after Friday’s hearing.

The court lifted an order last week suppressing the publication of pictures of Tarrant. An interim suppression order barring the publication of the identity of survivors also lapsed and will not be reinstated.



Uber takes its flying taxi to Australia

CANBERRA - Uber has said Australia will become the first international market for its flying taxi service Uber Air.

The firm has selected Melbourne as the third pilot city for its air taxi programme, joining Dallas and Los Angeles.

Test flights are due to start from 2020, with the aim of launching commercial operations from 2023.

Several companies are developing flying taxis as a future mode of transportation.

Uber said increased air mobility would help ease traffic congestion in cities.

"As major cities grow, the heavy reliance on private car ownership will not be sustainable," said Eric Allison, global head of the firm's aviation division Uber Elevate.

"Uber Air holds enormous potential to help reduce road congestion."

He said the 19 kilometre journey from Melbourne's central business district to the airport would take some 10 minutes with Uber Air, down from up to an hour by car.

Uber is working with Nasa and the US Army on its flying taxis and has two aircraft manufacturers - Embraer and Pipistrel Aircraft - also on board. Last year, the company said it would open a laboratory in Paris to develop flying taxis.

It comes at a testing time for Uber following a disappointing stock market debut last month.

Uber's first earnings report showed the US firm posted a $1bn (£790m) loss, as it faced strong competition in its ride-hailing business, and incurred extra costs related to its Uber Eats delivery service.(FA)


New Zealand to withdraw troops from Iraq

WELLINGTON - New Zealand will withdraw its troops from Iraq by June next year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday, ending a mission that helped train Iraqi defence forces to fight Islamic State militants.

New Zealand, which has up to 95 soldiers in Iraq, deployed troops there in 2015, in a joint training mission with Australia to support the multinational U.S.-led operation against Islamic State.

“Over the next 12 months, New Zealand will be able to wind down and conclude that commitment,” Ardern told a news conference to announce the decision.

Troop numbers would be cut to a maximum of 75 from July and 45 from next January, before the mission wraps up by June 2020, she added.

The troops provide training on basic weapons skills as well as medical support and logistics to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in camp Taji to the north of Baghdad, the capital.

More than 44,000 ISF personnel have been trained at Taji since 2015, the New Zealand government said in a statement.

U.S.-backed forces drove Islamic State out of its last stronghold in eastern Syria this year, bringing an end to a so-called caliphate declared by the militant group.

New Zealand’s deployment in Iraq had been scheduled to end in May 2017, but successive New governments extended the date. Last year Ardern extended the armed force deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan until June.

Ardern added that New Zealand will cut to 11 personnel, from 13, its deployment to a NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, but troops would remain until December 2020, to support the training of Afghan army officers.(FA)


Australia police target journalists

SYDNEY - Police have raided the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC), in a second day of searches targeting journalists.

Officers arrived at the public broadcaster with search warrants naming two reporters and the news director. The ABC has protested over the raid.

The police action is related to articles about alleged misconduct by Australian forces in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday police searched the home of a News Corp journalist, sparking alarm.

The leading journalists' union said the two raids represented a "disturbing pattern of assaults on Australian press freedom".

According to the ABC, Wednesday's search is about the 2017 investigative series known as The Afghan Files which "revealed allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan".

The broadcaster said the series was "based off hundreds of pages of secret Defence documents leaked to the ABC".

The Australian Federal Police said the warrant was in relation to "allegations of publishing classified material" and that it "relates to a referral received on 11 July 2017 from the Chief of the Defence Force and the then-Acting Secretary for Defence".

The Afghan Files were published by the ABC on 10 July 2017.

The police said Tuesday's and Wednesday's raids were not connected, adding: "Both however relate to separate allegations of publishing classified material, contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act 1914, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia's national security."

It defended its actions, saying they had "been independent and impartial at all times".(FA)



Netanyahu's wife admits misusing public funds

JERUSALEM - The wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has admitted to misuse of state funds and will have to pay $15,000 (£11,910).
Sara Netanyahu was accused of spending $99,300 on outside catering while falsely declaring there were no cooks available at the PM's residence.
She was charged with fraud and breach of trust last year.
Her lawyer said the case had nothing to do with her and said it was an attempt to bring down her husband.
Under a plea deal, Mrs Netanyahu will repay the state $12,490 and pay a fine of $2,777.
She will have a criminal record though the charges she faced were reduced, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Prosecutor Erez Padan said that the prosecution had made "significant concessions" that led to a "balanced and right plea deal." He said the compromise had saved the court from calling on 80 witnesses.
"The prosecution is aware there isn't full correlation between the sum and the criminal offence, however in the framework of the legal procedure, a full correlation is not obligatory," he said.
Last year, Mrs Netanyahu's lawyers argued that she had not been made aware of the procedures about outside catering and that the meals had been ordered by the household manager and served to visiting dignitaries.
Responding to the charges, Mr Netanyahu said in a statement: "Sara Netanyahu is a strong and honourable woman and there has never been any fault in her actions."
In 2016, a court awarded $47,000 in damages to a former housekeeper who accused Mrs Netanyahu of workplace abuse. The court accepted Meni Naftali's claim that he had been insulted and verbally abused.
Separately, Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing his own legal battles. The Israeli attorney general informed him in February that he intended to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three cases, pending a final hearing.
The final hearing, at which the prime minister and his lawyers will be able to argue against the allegations, is scheduled to take place in October.
Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and claimed that he is the victim of a political "witch-hunt".(FA)

Saudi-led coalition hits Houthi positions in Yemen's Sanaa

CAIRO - A Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes on Iran-allied Houthi forces in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, Saudi state television reported early on Saturday, part of an escalation of tit-for-tat strikes that has stoked regional tensions.

The strikes hit air-defence systems and other military positions in the Houthi-controlled city, days after the Houthis launched a missile attack on a Saudi airport, according to the TV report.

The Western-backed, Sunni Muslim coalition has been battling the Houthis in Yemen since 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government that was forced out of Sanaa by the Houthis.

The Houthis have stepped up drone and missile attacks on cities in neighboring Saudi Arabia in recent months as tensions have risen between Iran and Gulf Arab states allied with the United States further afield across the Middle East.

The Yemen conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the Houthis have denied taking any orders from Tehran and say they took up arms against corruption.

Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the impoverished country to the verge of famine, the United Nations and aid agencies have said.

Saudi authorities says the Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport on Wednesday wounded 26 people.

Campaign group Human Rights watch condemned that attack. “Unlawful Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Yemen never justify Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The escalation in violence could threaten a fragile U.N.-led peace initiative in Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, which handles the bulk of the impoverished country’s commercial and aid imports and is a lifeline for millions of Yemenis.



Iran's Rouhani says US actions threaten Middle East stability

BISHKEK - U.S. actions pose a serious threat to stability in the Middle East, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the leaders of a China-led security bloc including Russia and India on Friday.

The United States blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday that drove up oil prices and raised concern about a new U.S.-Iranian confrontation. Iran denied any connection with the attacks.

Rouhani did not mention the attacks but focused his criticism on U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

He said Iran continued to honor the accord. “Iran asks the remaining participants in the nuclear deal to immediately [meet] their commitments,” Rouhani told the meeting in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

The United States blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday that drove up oil prices and raised concerns about a new U.S.-Iranian confrontation, but Tehran bluntly denied the allegation.

Iran's foreign minister said on Friday that the U.S. allegations against Iran over the Gulf of Oman tanker attacks were part of "sabotage diplomacy" adopted by a so-called B Team, which he has said includes U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.


Iran says it is in charge of security of Strait of Hormuz: radio

TEHRAN - Iran said on Friday it was responsible for maintaining the security of the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, state radio reported, adding that blaming Tehran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman was alarming.

“We are responsible for ensuring the security of the Strait and we have rescued the crew of those attacked tankers in the shortest possible time,” Radio quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying.

“Obviously, accusing Iran for such a suspicious and unfortunate incident is the simplest and the most convenient way for (U.S. Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and other U.S. officials. These accusations are alarming.”

The United States blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday that drove up oil prices and raised concern about a new U.S.-Iranian confrontation.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosions that forced the crews to abandon ship and leave both the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous adrift in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran.

The blasts, south of the Strait of Hormuz, followed last month’s sabotage attacks on vessels off the Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs. Iran has distanced itself from the attacks.

Almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Strait - some 17.2 million barrels per day (bpd). Consumption was about 100 million bpd in 2017, data from analytics firm Vortexa showed.

Brent crude futures rose 0.6% to $61.69 per barrel in Asian trade on Friday, having gained 2.2% the previous day, though at one point they had surged as much as 4.5% in the wake of the attacks.

Iran’s key regional rival Saudi Arabia said that Riyadh was committed to providing reliable oil supplies to global markets.

One source said the blast on the Front Altair, which caught fire and sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, may have been caused by a magnetic mine. The firm that chartered the Kokuka Courageous tanker said it was hit by a suspected torpedo, but a person with knowledge of the matter said torpedoes were not used.

The U.S. military released a video late on Thursday that it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from the side of the Japanese-owned oil tanker.

The U.S. military’s Central Command also released photographs showing the apparent mine, which attaches to the side of a ship magnetically, before it was removed later in the day.

Tension between Iran and the United States has risen since May last year, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers that aimed to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran has repeatedly warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it cannot sell its oil because of U.S. sanctions.

Tensions have increased further since Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran and acted at the beginning of May to force Iran’s oil customers to slash their imports to zero or face draconian U.S. financial sanctions.

Iran’s oil exports, its economy’s lifeblood, have dropped to about 400,000 bpd in May from 2.5 million bpd in April last year.

Meeting on Friday on the sidelines of a regional summit in Kyrgyzstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Friday that China will promote steady development of ties with Iran no matter how the situation changes, the official Xinhua news agency reported.