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Ukraine PM offers to resign

KIEV - Ukraine's Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk has tendered his resignation after a leaked audio recording apparently revealed him criticising the president.

A voice sounding like Mr Honcharuk's, but not officially confirmed as his, says President Volodymyr Zelensky only has a "primitive" grasp of economics.

Mr Honcharuk also appears to admit that he himself is not good at economics.

Mr Zelensky, a TV comedian and businessman, was elected last April.

The audiotape affair comes at a difficult time for him, as his relations with President Donald Trump are under intense scrutiny. The US president is being impeached for allegedly trying to pressure Mr Zelensky into investigating political rival Joe Biden.

It remains unclear whether Mr Honcharuk genuinely intends to step down, Reuters news agency reports, quoting him as saying "do not jump to conclusions", when asked about his resignation.

The controversial audiotape was uploaded to an anonymous YouTube channel on Wednesday evening. Mr Honcharuk, 35, was apparently discussing the national budget with some other government ministers and finance chiefs.

Writing on social media, Mr Honcharuk said the recordings had been edited from several fragments of government meetings to create the false impression that he did not respect the president.

Mr Zelensky's office has confirmed receiving the resignation offer and says the president will now decide whether to accept it.

It's unlikely that Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky is really upset about the comments made by his Prime Minister.

They're probably true.

Mr Zelensky's professional background is not as an economist but a comedian and a television producer.

His incredible rise to power last year was based around him being an "everyman" figure intent on honestly doing his best. He never claimed to have all the answers.

What may be of more concern for the president is what the leaking of the audio of a top level meeting tells us about his government.

It's confirmation that there are those either within the administration or in the security services determined to drive a wedge between him and a young reform minded Prime Minister.

It's long been known that President Zelensky's team are an uneasy mix of reformers and individuals with links to one of Ukraine's most powerful oligarchs Ihor Kolomoisky.(FA)


Russia's ruling party approves Mishustin as PM

MOSCOW - Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, on Thursday unanimously approved Mikhail Mishustin’s candidacy as prime minister ahead of a formal parliamentary vote, Anastasia Kashevarova, an aide to parliament’s speaker said on social media.

Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is expected to vote on Mishustin’s candidacy later on Thursday. United Russia has a majority in the Duma.

Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes the day before that would give him scope to extend his grip on power after leaving the presidency, and picked Mishustin as prime minister after Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet stepped down.


Amid fears US will pull troops from Africa, French minister heads to Washington

PARIS - France’s armed forces minister said on Wednesday she would travel to Washington in the coming days to discuss U.S. military support to French forces in the Sahel region, amid growing concern of a U.S. exit from the area.

France, the former colonial power, has 4,500 troops in Mali and the wider Sahel, but security has been progressively worsening. The United States provides intelligence, logistical and drone support for the French forces, but there have been mixed signals from Washington that it could pull out.

“We count on the precious support of the United States for the success of this consolidated effort,” Florence Parly told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“I will be in the American capital in the coming days to consolidate the existing deployment.”

Militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold in the north-central region of Africa, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who had seized northern Mali a year earlier.

The U.N. Security Council then deployed a peacekeeping mission - known as MINUSMA - in Mali in 2013. The U.N. Security Council, which is due to renew the mission’s mandate in June, was briefed on Mali on Wednesday.

The United States suggested that the council consider changing the focus of the U.N. mission to protecting civilians instead of supporting the implementation of a failed peace deal. Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Cherith Norman Chalet, said “a new approach that disrupts the status quo” was needed by June.

“Additionally, the mission can reduce its size, allowing member states to apply resources toward more effective efforts in the region,” Norman Chalet told the 15-member council.

“We must recognize that peacekeeping missions are not the answer to growing terrorist threats in Mali. A clear-eyed assessment of MINUSMA is needed to determine how the mission most effectively complements other security activities in the region,” she said.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission currently has some 13,000 troops and police on the ground.

Merkel to seek end to Huawei dispute in her conservative camp

BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet senior conservative lawmakers on Thursday to resolve a dispute in her own party over whether to bar China’s Huawei from the country’s 5G network rollout, party sources said.

Merkel’s conservatives are divided on whether to support a proposal by their Social Democrat junior coalition partners that, if approved, would effectively shut out the Chinese technology giant from the network.

Handelsblatt business daily was first to report on Wednesday the planned meeting between Merkel and senior conservative lawmakers.

Merkel’s right-left government, under pressure from the United States to bar Huawei, wants to toughen up technical certification and scrutiny of telecoms equipment suppliers, without excluding any specific country or vendor.

Social Democrat (SPD) lawmakers last year backed an internal proposal that stipulates that vendors from countries without “constitutional supervision” must be excluded.

The SPD maintains it wants to reach a common position with Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative group, which is divided on the issue.

Conservative hawks opposed to rules favored by the chancellor that would keep the door open to Huawei are eager to go ahead with the SPD’s strict standards.

Moderates eager to avoid a showdown with Merkel suggested that the stringent security criteria should apply to the core network only.



SARS-linked virus kills two in China

BEIJING - A second person has died in China from a mysterious SARS-linked virus that has stricken dozens and appeared in two other Asian countries, with a new case reported in Thailand on Friday.

Local authorities said a 69-year-old man died on Wednesday in Wuhan, the central Chinese city believed to be the epicentre of an outbreak of a coronavirus from the same family as the deadly SARS pathogen.

No human-to-human transmission has been confirmed so far, but Wuhan's health commission has said the possibility "cannot be excluded".

The enigmatic illness has caused alarm because of its connection to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Pneumonia linked to the new virus has hit at least 41 people in China, with the outbreak centred around a seafood market in Wuhan.

Of these 12 have recovered and been discharged from hospital, according to the Wuhan health commission, while five others are in a serious condition.

The second man to die became sick on December 31 and his condition worsened two weeks ago, it said, with the disease causing pulmonary tuberculosis and damage to multiple organ functions.

Three other cases have been detected -- two in Thailand and one in Japan -- with health managers in both countries saying the patients had visited Wuhan prior to their hospitalisation.

Thailand reported its second case of the coronavirus on Friday: a 74-year-old Chinese woman who had arrived from Wuhan earlier this week.

Her condition is improving, said Thai health officials, who urged people not to panic as there was "no spread of the virus" in the Southeast Asian country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday that "much remains to be understood about the new coronavirus".

Not enough was known to "draw definitive conclusions about how it is transmitted," a statement added.

The latest fatality comes as China prepares for its busiest travel season of the year next week, when millions of people take buses, trains and planes for Lunar New Year.

Wuhan is a main hub in China's vast railway network and connects train lines that crisscross the country's north-south and east-west axes, from Beijing to Guangzhou, Nanjing to Chengdu.

A WHO doctor has said it would not be surprising if there was "some limited human-to-human transmission, especially among families who have close contact with one another".

China has not announced any travel restrictions but authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up detection measures, including rigorous temperature checkpoints for inbound travellers.

The Wuhan health commission said one man who had been diagnosed worked at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, but his wife, who also had the virus, reported "no history of exposure" at the facility.

The first case in Thailand had not reported visiting the seafood market, the WHO said Tuesday. The woman was reported to be in a stable condition earlier this week.

The patient in Japan, who was released from hospital, had also not visited the market. Japanese officials said it was possible that the man had been in contact with a person infected with the virus while in Wuhan.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a Level 1 "Watch" alert for travellers to Wuhan, saying they should practise normal precautions and avoid contact with animals and sick people.

After the second death was reported, online discussion spread in China over the severity of the Wuhan coronavirus -- and how much information the government is hiding from the public.

Several complained about censorship of online posts, while others made comparisons to 2003, when Beijing drew criticism from the WHO for under-reporting the number of SARS cases.

"Scarier than panic is treating something too lightly," wrote a Chinese web-user on Weibo, the country's Twitter-like social media platform.

"It's so strange," wrote another, citing the overseas cases in Japan and Thailand. "They all have Wuhan pneumonia cases but (in China) we don't have any infections outside of Wuhan -- is that scientific?"(FA)


Chinese economy hits 'three-decade low'

BEIJING - China's economy grew last year at its slowest pace in three decades, hit by weak domestic demand and trade tensions, but while officials warned of further headwinds, separate figures Friday suggest the downward trend is bottoming out.

The 6.1 percent rate is a sharp drop from the 6.6 percent the year before and marks the third straight drop, though it met the government's target and analysts said leaders were unlikely to open up the stimulus taps just yet.

The reading was also in line with AFP analyst forecasts.

And while the world's number two economy had been gradually losing steam over the first three quarters, growth held steady at 6.0 percent in October-December -- the same as the previous quarter, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Ning Jizhe, commissioner of the NBS, said momentum remained generally stable through the year and said the same could be expected in 2020.

"However, we should also be aware that the global economic and trade growth is slowing down," he said at a news conference, adding that there were more sources of instability and risk, with the economy facing "mounting downward pressure".

The figures were released days after Vice Premier Liu He and Donald Trump signed a much-vaunted "phase one" pact that marks a truce in their nearly two-year-old trade war.

The agreement will see the US slash import duties on Chinese goods worth billions of dollars, though levies remain in place on two-thirds of more than $500 billion of products.

The World Bank said in a report this month that weakening exports from China had compounded the impact of a slowdown in domestic demand. Policy uncertainty and higher tariffs on exports to the US also cast a pall on manufacturing activity and investor sentiment, it added.

Other data released Friday showed while industrial production and retail sales slowed over the year, both indicators outperformed in December, with the NBS pointing to a particularly strong showing in consumer spending.

"The latest ... data provides a very positive start to the Chinese New Year for China’s economy," Rajiv Biswas, of IHS Markit, said. "The outlook for 2020 is for continued robust growth, boosted by the phase one trade deal with the US and the continued positive impact of government monetary and fiscal policy stimulus measures."

But analysts note that China's slowdown is structural, as it becomes a more developed economy and faces demographic challenges such as a shrinking number of people of working age.

The NBS said China's birthrate fell to 10.48 per 1,000 people last year -- the lowest since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

Faced with an ageing population, Beijing relaxed its one-child policy in 2016 to allow people to have two children, but it has not led to more births.

Still, Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics, told AFP that Beijing considers the slowdown part of a "new normal" and that major easing is unlikely, given the improving global outlook and the US trade deal.

He noted policymakers likely want to keep their powder dry, aiming for a stabilisation rather than reigniting growth, adding: "What they don't want to see is a too-rapid slowdown."

Analysts and officials are expecting the economy to level out this year.

Kuijs noted the trade deal bodes well for exports, as well as sentiment on business investment and consumption. It also reduces the risk of escalation and "severe decoupling" in other dimensions such as restrictions on companies and finance.

But UOB economists Ho Woei Chen and Peter Chia said in a recent note that the deal is unlikely to catalyse a strong rebound in growth for China as the bulk of US tariffs remain in place.

Tommy Xie, head of Greater China Research at OCBC Bank, said more supportive state policies such as tax incentives have helped stabilise national growth.

But he noted a tailing off in the growth of infrastructure investment, which could prove problematic. With property investment slowing, the strength of China's growth this year will depend on whether infrastructure investment is able to offset this decline, he said.

Last month, the NBS said China would revise its historical regional GDP data under a unified accounting mechanism to be introduced early 2020.

This is expected to close a discrepancy between national and regional figures and enhance the credibility of government statistics, according to state media.

Economists have long suspected that Chinese economic data is massaged upward, often noting that full-year gross domestic product hits Beijing's targets with suspicious regularity.(FA)


Chinese birth rate lowest in decades

BEIJING - China's birth rate has fallen to its lowest since the formation of the People's Republic of China 70 years ago - despite the easing of the one-child policy.

The birth rate was 10.48 per thousand in 2019 - the lowest since 1949, the National Bureau of Statistics said.

The number of babies born in 2019 dropped by 580,000 to 14.65 million.

The country's birth rate has been falling for years - posing a challenge for the world's second biggest economy.

Despite the birth rate falling, a lower death rate meant China's population hit 1.4 billion in 2019, inching up from 1.39bn.

But the falling birth rate is raising fears of a "demographic timebomb" - that is, a smaller working-age population having to support a bigger, retired population.

China's birth rate is lower than the US which stood at 12 per thousand people in 2017 (the most recent data available), but higher than Japan's figure of 8.

The overall global birth rate was 18.65 in 2017, according to the World Bank.

In 1979, the Chinese government introduced a nation-wide "one-child policy" - with various exceptions - to slow population growth.

Families that violated the rules faced fines, loss of employment and sometimes forced abortions.(FA)

China says rights groups that issued critical reports are biased

BEIJING - Two rights groups that issued reports this week criticizing China’s treatment of minorities at home and its interference abroad are biased and distorting facts, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday.

Geng made the comments responding to the reports at a daily news briefing.

In its annual report on Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang and warned of China’s growing efforts to influence and censor others abroad.

On Wednesday, U.S. democracy watchdog group Freedom House released a similar report that focused on China’s interference in media overseas.



Fake medicines killing thousands in Africa

KAMPALA - Health leaders from seven African countries are meeting on Friday to sign an agreement criminalising trafficking in fake drugs.

Tens of thousands of people in Africa die each year because of fake and counterfeit medication.

The representatives from The Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Togo and Uganda are hoping that law specifically targeting fake medications will do the trick.

Denis Bukenya is a health rights activist who’s working with the advocacy group Human Rights Research Documentation in Kampala.(FA)

Burundi journalist arrested for exposing embezzlement

GITEGA - A Burundian radio journalist, who reported on misuse of public funds in the country. has been arrested.

Blaise Pascal Kararumiye was arrested on Thursday, his employer Radio Isanganiro told the BBC.

The authorities have not disclosed the charges against the journalist and he was interrogated without a lawyer, station director Sylvere Ntakarutimana added.

Radio is the main source of information for many Burundians. Most privately-owned stations were shut after a 2015 coup attempt and have stayed closed, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Some journalists have fled the country.

In October 2019, four journalists of the privately-owned newspaper Iwacu were arrested while interviewing residents in the north-western Bubanza province following an attack by a rebel group. They remain in police custody.(FA)


Imam charged for marrying a man

KAMPALA - A Ugandan Imam who married man dressed as a woman has been arrested and charged.

Sheikh Mohammed Mutumba was charged with having carnal knowledge with a person against the order of nature, according to Daily Monitor newspaper.

His charge was read out at a magistrate court in Kayunga district in central Uganda.

The Imam was charged alongside his bride Richard Tumushabe, also known as Swabullah Nabukeera, according to the newspaper

Sheikh Mutumba has been remanded at Ntenjeru prison.

Sheikh Mutumba had earlier on confided in a colleague after his wedding that his new wife had refused to have sex claiming to be menstruating.

He had been reported to have been devastated and gone missing after it was discovered that his newly wed was a man.

The discovery was made during a body search after Tumushabe was accused by their neighbours of stealing:(FA)

Nigerian militants free three aid workers, other civilian hostages: UN

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria - Nigerian militants released three aid workers and other civilians in northeast Nigeria who had been held hostage since late December, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in the country said on Thursday.

The people were kidnapped on Dec. 22 by militants posing as soldiers who stopped a convoy of commercial vehicles traveling towards the city of Maiduguri, state capital of the northeastern state of Borno.

Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan to finalize Blue Nile dam agreement this month

WASHINGTON - Ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed on Wednesday to reconvene in Washington later this month to finalize an agreement on a giant hydropower dam on the Blue Nile that sparked a diplomatic crisis between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

The ministers met in Washington this week and agreed to fill the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in stages during the wet season, taking into account the impact on downstream reservoirs, the U.S. Treasury Department, which hosted the meeting, said in a joint statement with the countries and the World Bank.

Initial filling of the dam, due to begin in July, will aim for a level of 595 meters above sea level and early electricity generation, while providing appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during severe droughts, the statement said.

The ministers will hold technical and legal talks ahead of their Jan. 28-29 meeting in Washington, where they plan to finalize the agreement, the statement said.

Cairo fears the dam, announced in 2011 and under construction on the Blue Nile near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, will restrict supplies of already scarce Nile waters on which its population of more than 100 million people is almost entirely dependent.

Addis Ababa denies the dam will undermine Egypt’s access to water and says the project is crucial to its economic development, as it aims to become Africa’s biggest power exporter with a projected capacity of more than 6,000 megawatts.

The three regional powers convened in Washington for the third time on Monday, aiming to reach a deal before Wednesday’s deadline the nations had agreed to following a November meeting with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass.

Previous meetings ended without agreement, with Egypt voicing concern that Ethiopia had not offered sufficient guarantees that filling the dam would be slowed during droughts.

Meetings in Addis Ababa last week ended in deadlock as Ethiopia said Egypt had proposed filling the dam over an extended period of 12-21 years, and that this was unacceptable.

However, Egypt said it had not specified the number of years over which the dam’s reservoir should be filled, and that an earlier, stage-based process agreed on by the countries would lead to a filling period of six to seven years under normal conditions.



US troops wounded in Iran missile

WASHINGTON - he United States treated 11 of its troops for symptoms of concussion after an Iranian missile attack targeted an Iraqi base where US forces were stationed, the US military has said, after initially saying no service members were hurt.

The January 8 attack was retaliation for a US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3 that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

US President Donald Trump and the US military had said there were no casualties after the attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a facility in its northern Kurdish region.

At the time of the attack, most of the 1,500 US soldiers at the base had been tucked away in bunkers, after advance warning from superiors.

"While no US service members were killed in the January 8 Iranian attack on al-Asad airbase, several were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed," Captain Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command, said in a statement on Thursday.

As a measure of caution, some service members were taken to US facilities in Germany or Kuwait for "follow-on screening," he added.

"When deemed fit for duty, the service members are expected to return to Iraq."

Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera's Gabriel Elizondo said many of the troops were screened for concussions, which the US authorities say is common.

"The blast from missiles can cause buildings to shake and rattle and can cause potentially, concussions even for people who are outside of the immediate impact zone," Elizondo said.(FA).

Panamanians die in suspected exorcism

PANAMA CITY - The bodies of seven people have been found in a mass grave in an indigenous area of Panama where members of a religious sect were believed to be performing exorcisms, officials say.

The victims included a pregnant woman, 32, and five of her children, aged one to 11. The sixth was a neighbour, 17.

Fifteen other people were freed.

Ten people have been arrested on suspicion of murder. The suspects and all victims were thought to belong to the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community.

The grave was discovered after three villagers escaped and made their way to a local hospital last weekend, prosecutor Rafael Baloyes said. They then alerted authorities about several families being held by an indigenous-run sect.

On Wednesday, police raided the community, located in a jungle region in north-west Panama some 250km (155 miles) from the capital Panama City.

"They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated," said Mr Baloyes. "All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they didn't repent their sins".

Inside the makeshift church, officers found a naked woman, machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat, Mr Baloyes said. The site was controlled by a religious sect called the New Light of God, believed to have been operating in the region for about three months.

According to Mr Baloyes, the kidnapping and torture started last Saturday after one of the members claimed to have received "a message from God". The victims were then kidnapped from their homes, beaten and killed.

The suspects, who include a minor, are expected to appear in court on Friday or Saturday. One of them is the father of the pregnant woman found in the grave, located some 2km from the makeshift church.

Those rescued had bodily injuries and reportedly included at least two pregnant women and some children.(FA)

Brazilian tribes and forest tappers unite against Bolsonaro

By Leonardo Benassatto

XINGU INDIGENOUS PARK, Brazil - Brazilian indigenous tribes and rubber tappers joined forces on Wednesday to oppose steps by Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that they say are destroying the Amazon forest they depend on.

Some 450 members of 47 tribes met for a second day to discuss how to resist Bolsonaro’s moves to weaken public agencies that are meant to protect the environment and native land rights. Bolsonaro has said tribes have too much land and he wants to open up the reservations to commercial mining and agriculture to develop the Amazon and lift indigenous people from poverty.

Protected tribal lands have seen increasing invasions by illegal loggers and miners since Bolsonaro became president last year, leading to a rise in deforestation, fires and deadly clashes on several reservations.

Bolsonaro has vowed to integrate Brazil’s roughly 900,000 indigenous people into the broader economy and society, while tapping the mineral riches and commercial farming potential of their 462 reservations.

Environmentalists say such a move will speed up clearing of the Amazon jungle, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, which is considered vital for slowing global climate change.

Kayapó chief Raoni Metuktire, who called the meeting in his village on the Xingu river, called on Brazil’s Congress to block the president’s policies.

“We are here to defend our land and to tell him to stop talking badly about us,” said Raoni, who became a global reference for his environmental campaigning in the 1980s with musician Sting at his side. He said he would never accept mining on his ancestral lands.

Among those attending the meeting was Angela Mendes, daughter of rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes who was killed by a rancher in 1988 for his efforts to protect the rainforest.

“United we can resist. They have the power of the state, but we have the force of the waters, the flowers and ancestral land,” she said at a news conference.

The existence of non-indigenous extractivist communities that live off rubber tapping and selling the fruits of the forest is being endangered by deforestation, she warned.

Mendes struck an alliance with Sonia Guajajara, head on the APIB umbrella, Brazil’s largest organization of tribes.

“This is a very grave moment in our history. It looks like a war scenario,” Guajajara said, accusing Bolsonaro of serving the interests of Brazil’s powerful agribusiness and farming sectors that have advanced into the Amazon region.

The rise in violence against Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people due to land conflicts with farmers and illegal mining and logging on reservations threaten the tribes’ future, she said.

Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Funai, run by a police officer appointed by Bolsonaro, said the meeting in the Xingu was a “totally private event” that it could not support because it was not “in line” with government policy.

According to a draft seen by O Globo newspaper, legislation drafted by the government would not just open up reservation to mining, but also to oil and gas exploration, the building of new hydroelectric dams and commercial farms with genetically modified crops currently banned by law on tribal lands.

Indigenous communities would be consulted on economic projects, as stipulated in Brazil’s Constitution, but they would not have the power to veto projects decided by the government, O Globo reported on Saturday.

The Bolsonaro government, which declined to comment on the O Globo report, has said it is attending to tribal leaders seeking economic development who are ignored by high-profile indigenous advocates.




Trump agrees with British PM Johnson on a 'Trump deal' for Iran

WASHINGTON/ LONDON - U.S. President Donald Trump said he agreed with a comment by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that a “Trump deal” should replace the Iran nuclear deal.

“Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, @BorisJohnson, stated, ‘We should replace the Iran deal with the Trump deal,’” Trump said in a posting on Twitter late on Tuesday. “I agree!”

Johnson, who has praised Trump as a great dealmaker, called on Tuesday for the president to replace the Iranian nuclear deal with his own new pact to ensure the Islamic Republic does not get an atomic weapon.


Ukraine company behind Trump impeachment, Cyber firm

WASHINGTON - The Ukrainian gas company at the centre of President Donald Trump's impeachment was successfully hacked by Russian military agents in November, a US cybersecurity firm has said.

Area 1 Security said it was not clear what the hackers were searching for when they hacked Burisma Holdings.

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden was previously on the board of the firm.

Burisma, the US government and Russia's Ministry of Defence are yet to respond.

Area 1 linked the hack - a "phishing" attack - to Russia's military intelligence unit known commonly as the GRU.

President Trump was impeached in December over allegations that he improperly pressured Ukraine's leader Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into Burisma and its links to the Bidens.

The security firm also drew parallels between November's hack and another that was carried out against Democrats in 2016, before the US presidential election.

In its eight-page report, California-based firm Area 1 said the GRU hackers behind the Burisma breach are known by the alias "Fancy Bear" among cybersecurity researchers.

The hackers used "phishing" emails that are designed to steal usernames and passwords, the California-based security firm said.

In this case, Burisma employees were sent what looked like internal company emails and fake websites that looked like the sign-in pages of Burisma subsidiaries.

Using this tactic, the hackers managed to get into Burisma's servers, it added.

Area 1 said it became aware of the hack after its email security scanning product found suspicious evidence online, including "decoy domains" for the fake websites.

A source close to Burisma told Reuters news agency that the company's website had been subject to a number of break-in attempts over the past six months.

Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm, is at the heart of the impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

In a phone call in July 2019, President Trump pushed for Ukrainian President Zelensky to announce an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens.(FA)

Australia & Pacific

Australia’s fires still raging and devastation can be seen from space

SYDNEY - Satellite pictures show the sheer scale of the unprecedented crisis, as flames and smoke continue to choke parts of the nation.

“Unprecedented”, “apocalyptic”. The language used to describe the intensity of the Australian bushfires can only do so much to encapsulate the sheer scale of devastation still being unleashed.

At least 27 people have been killed, almost 2,000 homes have been destroyed, and scientists estimate that more than one billion – yes, one billion – animals have died. Even that figure is said to be conservative and doesn’t include some groups, including bats, frogs and invertebrates. For some species, the catastrophe is feared to have resulted in total extinction.

An estimated 10.3m hectares of land has been burned. To put that in context, the UK’s total landmass is little more than 24m hectares.

“I can’t recall a situation where we’ve just had this much burning all at once over such a long period,” said Grant Williamson, a bushfire researcher at the University of Tasmania.

“It’s been scary knowing that so many communities are being affected, and simply the fact that when you’ve got this much fire at once there’s essentially no way to get on top of it until we get some significant rain.


Australia calls for another mass evacuation as monster bushfires return

By Martin Petty and Colin Packham

MERIMBULA, Australia/SYDNEY - Australian authorities urged another mass evacuation across the heavily populated southeast on Thursday as a return of hot weather fanned huge bushfires threatening several towns and communities.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews urged communities to be on alert ahead of the extreme conditions.

“If you receive instructions to leave, then you must leave,” Andrews said in a televised briefing. “That is the only way to guarantee your safety.”

Parts of Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-rich tourist spot off the southeast coast where Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday made a plea for foreign tourists not to be deterred by the fires, were again evacuated on Thursday.

“I urge everyone to heed warnings, follow advice, and to head to the east part of the island, which is deemed safe at this point,” South Australia Fire Chief Mark Jones said in a separate briefing in Adelaide.

A third of the island has been destroyed.

Twenty-seven people have been killed this fire season, according to the federal government, as the monster fires have scorched through more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area the size of South Korea.

Thousands have been made homeless and thousands have had to evacuate repeatedly because of the volatility of the fires.

Residents of the coastal town of Mallacoota, where thousands of people were stranded on a beach for days until a military evacuation that only ended on Wednesday, were among those again advised to flee.

“If we evacuate, where do we go?” said Mark Tregellas, who spent New Year’s Eve on a boat ramp as fire destroyed much of his town, and one of about 1,000 people who decided to stay.

“The electricity is slowly coming back but everyone is reliant on generators, and fuel for those is very limited,” he told Reuters by telephone from his house.

“People have now run out of petrol so most in the town are now riding on bicycles.”

Following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:

* A water bombing helicopter ditched in a dam on New South Wales South Coast on Thursday. The pilot was safe.

* Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, wind and a three-year drought, will persist until there is substantial rainfall. The weather agency said there was no sign of that for months.

“It takes a huge amount of rain to put out bushfires of this intensity and of this scale. That’s not forecast,” South Australia Fire Chief Jones told reporters.

* Weather officials in South Australia issued a severe weather warning for some parts of the state’s north.

* New South Wales fire officials warned of “extreme fire danger” in the state’s alpine region.

* Victoria state extended its disaster alert level for another two days.

* The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported only 6% of typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures were more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal: “Australia’s getting warmer, the fire season’s getting longer and the severity of the fire weather during that season is getting more frequent and severe.”

* New South Wales announced new funding of A$1 billion ($686 million) to rebuild.

* Mining magnate Andrew Forrest pledged A$70 million to a recovery package, including a force of more than 1,000 volunteers from the mining and agriculture sectors to help with rebuilding.

* 1,870 homes have been destroyed on the badly hit New South Wales coast.

* Moody’s Analytics said the cost of the fires could easily surpass that of deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares of land, which cost an estimated A$4.4 billion.

* The prime minister has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping with another 140 expected in coming weeks.

* Malaysia has approved a plan to send 65 fire and rescue personnel to help. The deployment is awaiting Australian approval.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the EU’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said.



Australia fires destroy 2,000 homes

CANBERRA - Almost 2,000 houses have been destroyed in Australia's months-long bushfire crisis, officials say, as crews prepare frantically for worsening conditions.

After ferocious conditions last week, firefighters are using milder weather to boost containment lines around fires engulfing south-eastern Australia.

Temperatures are likely to soar again on Friday, prompting fears that two fires could form a new "mega blaze".

At least 25 people and millions of animals have died since September.

Australia is fighting an unprecedented bushfire season, fuelled by record temperatures and widespread drought.

On Tuesday, New South Wales (NSW) officials said fires there had claimed 1,588 homes and damaged 653 more.

About 200 homes have been destroyed in neighbouring Victoria, adding to more than 100 lost in other states.

The Insurance Council of Australia estimated the damage bill had reached A$700m (£370m; $485m), but said it expected the cost to rise significantly.

Blue smoke still lingers over the town of Wingello, even after cooler weather and a little rain.

The trees and ground along the road are blackened and scorched. On the corner of Forest Road, May King's house has gone; only a steel chair frame still recognisable in the ashes.

But the people of Wingello are talking about a miracle here. Only 12 houses were destroyed; dozens more were saved.

At the fire station Fire Captain Mark Wilson is still stunned and emotional over what his teams managed to do.

The fire roared in on Saturday night, turning the sky purple, then a hellish red.

"We were just frantically going around trying to hit every fire that came up", says Mark. "It was really hard to see where we were winning."

Fire crews from other towns came to help defend Wingello, a return favour for the help the Wingello crew gave in earlier fires last month.

Today some of the 400 residents were back clearing up, looking around, just amazed, they say, that the town is still there.(FA)


Bushfires rage out of control across southeast Australia

By John Mair, Will Ziebell

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE - Bushfires burned dangerously out of control on Australia’s east coast on Saturday, fanned by high temperatures and strong winds that had firefighters battling to save lives and property, as a change in wind conditions merged several large fire fronts.

By late evening, Victoria had 14 fires rated at emergency or evacuate warning levels, and New South Wales had 11 rated emergency, with more than 150 others burning across the states. New fires had started, and others had broken containment lines.

“There are a number of fires that are coming together - very strong, very large, intense fires that are creating some of these fire-generated thunderstorms,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at an evening briefing.

“And unfortunately we’ve still got many hours to go of these elevated and dangerous conditions.”

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said conditions were deteriorating rapidly as a gusty southerly wind change pushed up the coast and smoke plumes from the fires triggered storms.

Authorities are worried the fires could turn out to be worse than New Year’s Eve, when they burnt massive tracts of bushland and forced thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers to seek refuge on beaches.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews said while conditions were difficult, the job of firefighters had been made easier by tens of thousands of people following advice to evacuate.

It may be Sunday or later before damage assessments can be made. Prime Minister Scott Morrison put the national death toll from the current fire season, which began in September, at 23. Twelve of those are from this week’s fires alone.

In updates, the NSW RFS repeatedly delivered the same blunt advice to those who had not evacuated at-risk areas: “It is too late to leave. Seek shelter as the fire approaches.”

Residents used social media to post photos of the sky turning black and red from the smoke and glare of the fires, including in the Victorian town of Mallacoota, where around 1,000 people were evacuated by sea on Friday.

The first of those evacuees arrived near Melbourne on Saturday morning after a 20-hour journey by boat and a second ship with about 1,000 people landed in the afternoon.

The federal government announced an unprecedented call up of army reservists to support firefighters as well other resources including a third navy ship equipped for disaster and humanitarian relief.

Andy Gillham, the incident controller in the Victorian town of Bairnsdale, said the area had avoided the worst of the fires on Saturday but stressed this was an exceptional fire season.

“In a normal year, we would start to see the fire season kick off in a big way around early January and we’re already up towards a million hectares of burnt country. This is a marathon event and we expect to be busy managing these fires for at least the next eight weeks,” he said.

* Click on links to see maps posted by emergency services in NSW and Victoria to predict the spread of fires on Saturday: and

Following are highlights of what is happening across Australia:

* Temperatures topped 113 degrees in much of the Sydney metropolitan area, with Penrith recording a high of 120 according to the BOM. Canberra, the national capital, recorded a temperature of 111.2 just after 4 p.m., which the chief minister said was a record for the territory.

*As the fires have flared, many towns have been isolated as major and minor roads are closed. Some fires are generating their own storm systems, which create the risk of lightning strikes generating new fires.

* A late southerly wind change on Saturday dramatically lowered temperatures, but also brought wind gusts of 43-50 miles per hour that caused some major fires near the border of Victoria and New South Wales states to merge and strengthen.

* In South Australia, two people died on Kangaroo Island, a popular holiday spot not far off the coast. South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said more than 247,000 acres have burned there, about one-quarter of the total area.

* Six people remain unaccounted for in Victoria, Premier Andrews said on Saturday, down from 28 reported on Friday.

* The focus on Saturday is preventing more loss of life, authorities said. National parks have been closed and people urged earlier this week to evacuate large parts of NSW’s south coast and Victoria’s north eastern regions, magnets for holidaymakers at the peak of Australia’s summer school holidays.

* Morrison confirmed that his visit to India and Japan scheduled for mid-January had been postponed due to the fires.

* More than 13 million acres of land has been burnt this fire season.



Khamenei defends Iran military

TEHRAN - Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has defended the country's military after it admitted shooting down a passenger plane by mistake.

He said the Revolutionary Guard - the elite unit responsible for the disaster - "maintained the security" of Iran.

Widespread protests and criticism from abroad have put growing pressure on Iran over its handling of the incident.

But the ayatollah tried to rally support as he led Friday prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012.

He called for "national unity" and said Iran's "enemies" - a reference to Washington and its allies - had used the shooting down of the plane to overshadow the killing of senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike.

"Millions in Iran and thousands in Iraq mourned [Soleimani]," he said.

The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was travelling to Kyiv from Tehran on 8 January when it crashed shortly after take-off. All 176 passengers on board, including dozens of Iranians and Canadians, were killed.

The Iranian authorities initially denied responsibility but, after international pressure mounted, the hardline Revolutionary Guard admitted that the plane had been mistaken for a "cruise missile" during heightened tensions with the US.

Hours before it was shot down, and in response to the killing of Soleimani, Iranian missiles targeted two airbases in Iraq that housed US forces. Washington initially said no US troops had been injured but it later said 11 people had been treated for concussion.

Ayatollah Khamenei, 80, addressed the nation from the Mosalla mosque in the capital. The last time he did so was in 2012 on the 33rd anniversary of the country's Islamic Revolution.

Leading Friday prayers in the capital is a symbolically significant act usually reserved for times when Iran's highest authority wishes to deliver an important message, says Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Historically, Iranian leaders have left this task to loyal clerics with strong oratorical skills, he adds.(FA)

Displaced and scared: Yemenis still in limbo after almost five years of war

KHAMIR, Yemen - Widow Samirah Nasser and her eight children tried to return to their Yemeni village but were forced by relentless air strikes to return to the relative safety of a refugee camp.

Shivering through yet another camp winter, she is one of 3.6 million Yemenis - around 12% of the population - displaced during a nearly five-year war that has spawned what the United Nations says is the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

“When we returned (to our village), planes were in the sky. They hit the market full of kids,” Nasser said. “I banned the children from going to school, fearing the warplanes.”

The air strikes have deterred Nasser over the past three years from attempting another return to her native region of Saada, heartland of the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that has been battling a Saudi-led military coalition since March 2015.

“The war there does not stop. Our houses are destroyed, we don’t have anywhere to stay, nothing,” said Houriya Muhammad, a 40-year-old mother-of-three also unable to return to Saada, where she used to sell pots.

Both women now live in a refugee camp in Khamir, some 2.5 hours by road from the capital Sanaa. Life is very hard in the camps, where facilities are rudimentary.

“We are dying of the cold,” said Muhammad. “My kids and I sleep wedged together with three or four blankets on us.”

Children, with runny noses, warm themselves near open fires. Water leaks through holes in the makeshift tents.

The war in Yemen pits the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the West, against the Iran-aligned Houthis, who still control Sanaa and other major urban centers.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has crippled basic services and infrastructure and ravaged the economy. More than 11 million people struggle to find enough food, and 240,000 people are living in famine-like conditions, according to The World Food Programme (WFP).




Nor are the refugee camps as safe as aid organizations would want.

“Fighting is taking place less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from some of the main camps,” said Sultana Begum of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

People trying to reach safety can be hampered either by Yemen’s mountainous terrain or a lack of money and identification papers, Begum said.

Yemenis continue to be displaced from fresh conflict areas, with almost 400,000 people driven from their homes in 2019.

But it is not all bad news. Food security has improved over the past year and the WFP now feeds 12 million people a month.

Diplomatic initiatives have led to a decrease in air strikes in recent months and a semblance of normality has returned to some larger cities.

“We can sleep and our children can go to school without fear,” said Abd Rahman Shouei, 28, a resident of the major port city of Hodeidah who ekes out a living by washing cars.

“True, there is no work, roads are closed and we have no electricity, but the situation in Hodeidah is better now because there is no fighting or bombing.”

Hodeidah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s imports and a lifeline for millions. A truce in the Houthi-held city has largely held for more than a year, though a withdrawal of troops agreed last year has stalled and there are intermittent clashes.

In another flashpoint city, the port of Aden, residents also report some modest improvements in daily life despite continued tensions between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and southern separatists.

“Electricity has improved, but water and sewage still fill the streets,” said Muhammad Omar a 56-year old government worker. “We live in a state of neither war nor peace.”


UN official: Lebanese politicians watching as economy collapses

BEIRUT - Lebanese politicians are watching on as the economy collapses, the senior U.N. official in Lebanon said on Wednesday, rebuking a political elite that has failed to form a government as the country sinks deeper into economic and financial crisis.

Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, also noted that central bank (BDL) governor Riad Salameh had requested extraordinary powers to manage the economy — an apparent reference to his request for extra authorities to regulate controls being implemented by commercial banks.

“Lebanon is truly unique — the BDL Governor requesting extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing. Incredible,” Kubis wrote in a Twitter post.


Iran's Zarif says 2015 nuclear deal is 'not dead'

NEW DELHI - Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday the country’s 2015 nuclear deal signed with major powers - China, Russia, France, Britain, the United States and Germany - to curb its nuclear program is ‘not dead’.

“No, it’s not dead. It’s not dead,” Zarif told Reuters on the sidelines of an event in New Delhi.

U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 abandoned the nuclear deal reached under predecessor Barack Obama, arguing it was too weak and that new sanctions would force Iran to accept more stringent terms. Iran says it will not negotiate with sanctions in place.