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IMF and Ukraine agree $5.5bn aid

WASHINGTON - The International Monetary Fund said Saturday it had reached an agreement in principle with Ukraine on a new $5.5 billion, three-year aid program for the war-scarred country.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva welcomed the deal, adding it was subject to IMF management approval.
Georgieva said she spoke by telephone on Saturday to President Volodymyr Zelensky and commended him on "impressive progress" on reforms and "sound economic policies."
"The President and I agreed that Ukraine's economic success depends crucially on strengthening the rule of law, enhancing the integrity of the judiciary, and reducing the role of vested interests," she said.
She added that it was "paramount to safeguard the gains made in cleaning up the banking system and recover the large costs to the taxpayers from bank resolutions."
The IMF and other international donors have repeatedly pressed Kiev to attract much-needed investment by addressing pervasive corruption and reducing the power of oligarchs.
But bankers and analysts said they fear the current authorities are targeting former bankers who have helped clean up the market instead of the oligarch owners of banks that go bankrupt.
Georgieva said that the effectiveness of the new program would be "conditional on the implementation of a set of prior actions."
Ukrainian lawmakers in November authorized an increase in defense spending to record levels as Zelensky vows to end the country's long conflict with Russian-backed separatists.
Approving the 2020 budget, lawmakers voted for a 16 percent increase in both defense and security spending, bringing it to nearly $10 billion, or 5.45 percent of gross domestic product.
At his inauguration in May, the 41-year-old president -- a former comedian -- urged people with Ukrainian heritage to return home and help build a "new, strong and successful Ukraine."
The country is also in the spotlight due to the impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump.
Trump is accused of abusing his office by pressuring Ukraine to find dirt on former US vice president Joe Biden, his potential challenger in the 2020 election.
The White House maintains Trump was simply encouraging the new government of Ukraine to rein in corruption.
More than 13,000 people have been killed in Ukraine's conflict with separatists in the industrial east which broke out shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
Ukraine's economy has been hit hard by the conflict and the country has struggled to keep up with arms purchases.
It is also reliant on foreign military help, including aid from the United States that was temporarily frozen this year in a move now being scrutinized in the impeachment probe.
Ukraine's overall budget for 2020 set an economic growth target of 3.7 percent. It also set a deficit of 2.09 percent -- in line with requirements of the IMF.(FA)

Suu Kyi to address UN's highest court

THE HAGQUE, Netherlands - Former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is set to make legal history when she defends Myanmar in The Hague this week against charges of genocide targeting the Buddhist state's minority Rohingya Muslims.
The tiny west African state of Gambia, acting on behalf of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, will ask the International Court of Justice to take emergency measures to halt Myanmar's "ongoing genocidal actions".
But in a highly unusual move, the office of Nobel Peace laureate and Myanmar civilian leader Suu Kyi has said she will lead a team to the UN's highest court, based in the turreted Peace Palace in the Netherlands.
Legal experts said Suu Kyi would be one of the first national leaders to personally address the tribunal since it was set up in 1946 after World War II to rule in disputes between countries.
Her plan to appear before the court's judges for the three-day hearing starting Tuesday was "unprecedented and also very unwise", Cecily Rose, an assistant professor in international law at Leiden University, told AFP.
"States never ever send politicians to lead legal teams at the ICJ," she said.
Although Oxford-educated Suu Kyi's background was "impressive, she has no legal qualifications and would be completely at sea before the court," Rose added.
Around 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee into camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar's military launched a violent crackdown on the group in 2017, which UN investigators concluded amounted to genocide.
The case will be the first international legal attempt to bring Myanmar to justice over the crisis, and is a rare example of a country suing another over an issue to which it is not directly a party.
Muslim-majority Gambia's case alleges that Myanmar has breached the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. It is seeking the special measures pending a future decision by the court on whether to take on the wider case.
Any final judgment could take years.
Suu Kyi has said she is heading to The Hague in order to "defend the national interests of Myanmar".
Myanmar is expected to argue that the court has no jurisdiction, that its military operation was targeting Rohingya militants and that its own investigations into alleged abuse are adequate.
However, Suu Kyi's international reputation has been tarnished by her response to the crisis, with critics saying she is acting as an apologist for the same military that kept her under house arrest for many years.
Experts say Suu Kyi now risks being in the legal firing line herself.
"It's highly unusual for top leaders to go to the ICJ themselves to defend their countries," said Willem van Genugten, professor of international law at the Netherlands' Tilburg University.
"What you often see is that they come to The Hague when a case is launched to attract extra publicity," he added, for example when then-Bolivian president Evo Morales came to The Hague for a ruling on a border dispute with Chile.
Myanmar faces other legal challenges, including an investigation by the International Criminal Court -- another Hague-based tribunal set up in 2002 to probe war crimes -- and a lawsuit in Argentina.
This week's case will be only the fourth in the ICJ's history invoking the genocide convention, after two involving the 1990s Balkans wars and another one between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in 2002.
ICJ judges have only once ruled that genocide was committed: the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia.
"What might be seen as unusual about Aung San Suu Kyi leading the Myanmar delegation is the fact that she is viewed as personally responsible at some level for Myanmar's alleged wrongdoing," Mike Becker, assistant international law professor at Trinity College in Dublin, told AFP.
"Suu Kyi is not personally on trial at the ICJ... but her presence will be remarkable."(FA)

'One comfort woman for every 70 soldiers', Japanese records

TOKYO - The Imperial Japanese Army asked the government to provide one "comfort woman" for every 70 soldiers, Japan's Kyodo news agency said, citing wartime government documents it had reviewed, shedding fresh light on Tokyo's involvement in the practice.
"Comfort women" is a euphemism for the girls and women - many of them Korean - forced into prostitution at Japanese military brothels. The issue has plagued Japan's ties with South Korea for decades.
Later, there were also several "comfort women" reported from the Philippines during the second world war.
One dispatch from the consul general of Qingdao in China's Shandong province to the foreign ministry in Tokyo, says that the Imperial Army asked for one woman to accommodate every 70 soldiers, Kyodo reported late on Friday.
Another dispatch, from the consul general of Jinan, also in Shandong province, notes "at least 500 comfort women must be concentrated here" as the Japanese forces made further advances, Kyodo said.
The 1993 "Kono Statement", named after then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in whose name it was issued, acknowledged Japanese authorities' involvement in coercing the women to work in the brothels.
But that did not stop disputes over the issue, such as the degree of involvement of the Japanese government.
"From the latest document ... we got detailed information on the operation of the brothels - how many soldiers were so-called assigned to a comfort woman," said Yoon Mi-hyang, head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
"This is a clear sign that the Japanese government is accountable for forcefully recruiting Korean women for sexual enslavement."
No officials were immediately available for comment at Japan's Cabinet Secretariat, which Kyodo said collects official documents concerning comfort women.
South Korea reached a settlement with Japan to resolve the comfort women dispute in 2015, in which Japan apologised to victims and provided 1 billion yen ($9m) to a fund to help them.
Relations between the two East Asia neighbours have deteriorated since South Korea's top court ruled in favour of South Koreans seeking compensation from Japanese firms for wartime forced labour.(FA)

Leaked UK-US trade talks 'linked to Russia'

MOSCOW - Leaked documents detailing UK-US trade talks were posted on Reddit by an account linked to a campaign "originating from Russia", the online message board has said.
In a post on Friday, the site said it had suspended 61 accounts that were part of a co-ordinated effort.
The papers had their first wide burst of public attention when unveiled in the election campaign by Jeremy Corbyn.
The government said it was "looking into the matter".
Mr Corbyn claimed they show the NHS is "for sale" and Labour says their release was in the public interest.
The Conservative Party, which denies the NHS would be on the table during trade talks with the US, declined to comment on Reddit's announcement.
Reddit's post did not provide any further details about the evidence behind its conclusions.
But it said a group of suspect accounts "provides us with important attribution for the recent posting of the leaked UK documents, as well as insights into how adversaries are adapting their tactics".
Mr Corbyn and Boris Johnson continue to debate what the UK government documents actually mean - and the subject came up again during Friday's televised BBC debate.
The Labour leader, who first highlighted them at a press conference on 27 November, contends they pave the way to higher drug costs and the privatisation of the National Health Service, while the prime minister insists that is not true.
Culture secretary Nicky Morgan said it was "extremely serious" that the leaked documents could be linked to a Russian disinformation campaign.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme she said: "I understand from what was being put on that website, those who seem to know about these things say that it seems to have all the hallmarks of some form of interference.
"And if that is the case, that obviously is extremely serious. And actually as culture secretary, obviously one of the things that we are looking for and monitoring is any interference in our elections."(FA)


India blaze kills factory workers

NEW DELHI - A large fire has swept through a bag factory in the Indian capital Delhi, killing 43 workers, officials say.
The blaze broke out at the four-storey building in the city's congested old quarter early on Sunday morning.
At least 100 people were sleeping inside the factory, which mainly makes school bags, when the fire started. More than 60 have been rescued.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the fire "horrific" and sent his condolences.
Delhi's firefighters received the first call about the fire at 05:22 local time on Sunday (23:52 GMT Saturday).
The fire began on the lower storeys, spreading rapidly to the third floor where workers were sleeping.
"We woke up with cries and shouts for help," said Ronak Khan, a 17-year-old living next door.
"I saw people trapped. We asked them to come to the rooftop so that we could rescue them but they were not able to come up."
The area where the factory is located - Azad Market - is a web of narrow alleyways, which made it difficult to reach the blaze.
Rescuers had to carry out victims on their shoulders one-by-one with firefighters cutting away window grills to access the building.
A local fire chief told BBC Hindi's Dilnawaz Pasha the building did not have a proper fire licence and was operating illegally as a factory.
It is not clear what caused the blaze but an investigation has been ordered.
An initial probe and eyewitnesses suggested a short circuit may have been to blame.
Victims' relatives have been scrambling for information. One man told India's PTI agency his brother was inside.(FA)

Woman dies after being set on fire by rapists

NEW DELHI - An Indian woman who was set on fire on her way to testify against her alleged rapists has died of her injuries.
The 23-year-old died late on Friday after suffering cardiac arrest at a Delhi hospital. She had 90% burns.
She was attacked on Thursday as she was walking to a hearing in the rape case she filed against two men in March in Unnao, in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
Five men, including the alleged rapists, have been arrested, Indian police say.
The sister of the victim, whose name has not been released, told the BBC that she wanted the death penalty for the pair.
She said the family would continue to fight the case against them in court.
Rape and sexual violence against women have been in focus in India since the December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in the capital, Delhi.
But there has been no sign that crimes against women are abating.
According to government figures, police registered 33,658 cases of rape in India in 2017, an average of 92 rapes every day.
Unnao district has itself been in the news over another rape case.
Police opened a murder investigation against a ruling party lawmaker in July after a woman who accused him of rape was seriously injured in a car crash. Two of her aunts were killed and her lawyer was injured.
Separately, on Friday, Indian police shot dead four men suspected of raping and killing a young female vet in the southern city of Hyderabad last week.
That case sparked widespread outrage, and the killing of the suspects, in what rights activists believe may have been an extra-judicial killing, sparked jubilation among local residents.(FA)

Chinese women seek overseas sperm donors

BEIJING - An increasing number of affluent single women in China are seeking a child, but not a husband, according to a report by the French news agency AFP.

The report says unmarried women in China are largely barred from accessing sperm banks and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, forcing them to seek options abroad.

"There are many women who won't get married, so they might not fulfil this fundamental biological mission," single woman Xiaogunzhu told AFP, using the name she blogs under to avoid any negative attention.

"But I felt another path had opened up," she added.

Her baby, now nine months old, is called Oscar after a character in a comic about the French revolution -- a nod to the donor's French ancestry.

The marriage rate in China has been in decline over the last five years. Last year, only 7.2 out of 1,000 people got married, according to official statistics.

Educated professional women face "discrimination" when seeking spouses, explained sociologist Sandy To, as their male partners have "difficulty accepting their higher educational or economic accomplishments."

But many feel that struggling to find or simply not wanting a partner should not preclude them from motherhood.

Xiaogunzhu believes a father isn't necessary -- her own was controlling and often angry, dimming her view of the traditional family set-up.(FA)

Indians celebrate as police kill rape suspects

NEW DELHI - Indian police on Friday shot dead four detained gang-rape and murder suspects as they were re-enacting their alleged crime, prompting celebrations but also accusations of extrajudicial killings.

The men, who had been in custody for a week over the latest gruesome case of violence against women to shock India, were shot in the early morning as they tried to escape during the staged re-enactment in Hyderabad, police said.

"They were killed in crossfire. They tried to snatch weapons from the guards but were shot dead," deputy police commissioner in the southern city Prakash Reddy told AFP.

The four were accused of gang-raping and murdering a 27-year-old veterinary doctor before setting fire to her body with petrol underneath an isolated bridge late on November 27.

The woman had phoned her sister saying she was scared of the men before her phone went dead. She said police did not take her seriously when she said her sister was missing.

Like in the infamous 2012 rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus, the case sparked demonstrations and calls for swift and tough justice, with social media swamped with demands for them to be put to death.

Shortly after their arrest hundreds of protesters also tried to storm the Hyderabad police station where the four accused were held.

At one demonstration in Delhi, some women wielded swords while in parliament one lawmaker called for the men to be "lynched" and another for rapists to be castrated.

But rights activists were aghast -- police in India are often accused of using extrajudicial killings to bypass the legal process, often as a cover-up in botched investigations or to pacify public anger.

More than 33,000 rapes were reported in India in 2017, according to the latest government figures, but vast numbers go unreported, experts say, with just 32 percent of cases ending in convictions.

The men were shot in the early morning as they tried to escape during the staged re-enactment in Hyderabad, police said.

A huge backlog of cases in the highly inefficient Indian criminal justice means that many victims wait years for their attackers to be convicted.

India's last execution was in 2015 when Yakub Memon, convicted of financing bombings in Mumbai in 1993, was hanged. The men behind the 2012 Delhi bus case remain on death row.

Several hundred people flocked to the scene of the men's deaths on Friday, setting off firecrackers to celebrate and showering police with flower petals.

The victim's sister also welcomed the killings.

"I am happy the four accused have been killed in an encounter. This incident will set an example. I thank the police and media for their support," the sister told local television station.(FA)


Uganda floods kill 16

KAMPALA - Deadly flooding in Uganda has claimed at least 16 lives, the Red Cross says, as the region reels from weeks of rain.
Rescuers have been recovering the bodies of victims swept to their deaths by the flash floods in the western Bundibugyo area, the aid group said.
Homes have been washed away and a number of roads blocked or destroyed.
Large parts of east Africa have suffered floods and landslides in recent weeks. Hundreds have died and millions have been displaced.
The events have been linked to an unusual weather phenomenon in the Indian Ocean,
The climate phenomenon linking floods and bushfires
Meanwhile, in Somalia, the authorities are trying to assess the damage caused by tropical storm Pawan, which brought wind and torrential rain to part of the northern coast on Saturday, cutting communications with the town of Eyl.
What happened in Uganda?
Heavy rain has been battering the country for weeks, and intensified overnight on Friday into Saturday.
Police, military, aid agencies and community members are assisting with search and rescue operations in more than a dozen affected areas.
Rain is hampering communications in the locations in the remote west of the country, AFP news agency reported.
The Red Cross said its volunteers continued to recover more bodies, including some trapped in cocoa trees in the Bundibugyo hills, describing the events as "devastating".(FA)

Kenya governor arrested for 'economic crimes'

NAIROBI - The governor of Nairobi was arrested on Friday shortly after Kenya's chief prosecutor ordered he be detained to face charges for economic crimes.

Governor Mike Sonko is the latest in a string of top officials to be hauled in on corruption charges as Kenya battles to clamp down on rampant graft.

"EACCKenya confirms that Nairobi City County Governor Mike Sonko Mbuvi has been arrested while escaping arrest at a road block in Voi," the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) posted on Twitter.

Sonko and other country officials are accused by public prosecutor Noordin Haji of having benefitted from irregular procurement and payments of $3.5m (3.1 million euros).

Haji said he had sufficient evidence to prosecute Sonko and other county officials for "unlawful acquisition of public property, money laundering and other economic crimes."

"I have therefore ordered for the immediate arrest and arraignment in court of the Governor of Nairobi Hon. Mike Mbuvi Sonko and other persons," Haji said in a statement earlier on Friday.

When, in 2017, the ruling party chose populist Mike Sonko as its candidate for Nairobi's gubernatorial poll, it was seen as a maverick move. Sonko is a controversial politician who has spent time in jail and has had to deny allegations of illegal activities, including drug trafficking.

Haji said his investigation into Sonko and his officials had been challenging "because of the repeated attempts by the accused to obstruct the course of the investigations by deploying intimidation tactics".

Kenya has for decades battled the scourge of corruption, and President Uhuru Kenyatta - like many presidents before him - has vowed to combat graft.

Dozens of top executives and government officials have been charged since Kenyatta's 2017 re-election, including sitting Finance Minister Henry Rotich who was in July charged over an alleged multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Rotich and nearly 20 other top officials from the treasury and other departments were arrested after an investigation into the alleged loss of 21 billion Kenyan shillings ($203m) on ghost dam construction projects.

The finance minister, a Harvard-trained economist, pleaded not guilty to a slew of charges that included but limited to: failure to comply with guidelines relating to procurement, conspiracy to defraud the public and financial misconduct.(FA)

Rwanda opposition leader barred from leaving the country

KIGALI - A top Rwandan opposition leader has not given permission to leave the country in order to pick up a human rights award.

Victoire Ingabire wanted to travel to Madrid in Spain to collect the award but she told the BBC that she reached out to the minister of justice for permission to travel and got no response. The ministry has not commented.

She has to seek permission to travel out of Rwanda after she was pardoned among 2,400 other convicts by President Paul Kagame in September 2018.

The FDU-Inkingi was awarded the International Human Rights Award 2019 by Apdhe, a Spanish human rights association.

Ms Ingabire's three children had to receive the award on her behalf:

Ms Ingabire addressed the awards ceremony through a video live stream instead.

She said her country does not respect human rights.

Rwanda is far from respecting the human rights, like freedom of expression and of political affiliation. For this, the opposition pays the price. We have people who were killed, those who are abducted and those imprisoned for their rights. Being not there to collect the prize is a proof of what I am saying."(FA)


Libyans cite evidence of Russians in civil war

TRIPOLI - Officials in Libya's UN-recognised government say they plan to confront Moscow over the alleged deployment of Russian mercenaries to fight alongside their opponents in the country's civil war.

Libyan and US officials accused Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key battleground areas in Libya in recent months.

They say the Russian fighters are backing renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been trying for months to capture the capital, Tripoli, where the UN-recognised Government of National Accord is based.

The GNA has documented between 600 and 800 Russian mercenaries in Libya and is collecting their names on a list to present to the Russian government, according to Khaled al-Meshri, head of the GNA's Supreme Council of State.

"We are going to visit Russia after we collect all evidence and present to the authorities and see what they say," al-Meshri told The Associated Press last week.

He did not say when the visit would take place. Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya's war.

Haftar's Libyan National Army - made up of army units, ultra-conservative militias, and tribesmen - launched its offensive on Tripoli in April after seizing much of eastern Libya from rivals in recent years.

Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, while the GNA receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides are bolstered by militias.

Fighting has stalled in recent weeks with both sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli's southern reaches.

David Schenker, US assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, told reporters last week the State Department is working with European partners to impose sanctions on the Russian military contractor responsible for sending fighters to Tripoli. (FA)

Migrant boat sinks killing 58

NOUAKCHOTT - At least 58 people, including women and children, were killed after a boat carrying dozens of migrants capsized in the Atlantic Ocean off the West African nation of Mauritania, the UN's migration agency said.

The perilous sea passage from West Africa to Europe was once a major route for migrants seeking jobs and prosperity.

The sinking is one of the deadliest incidents since the mid-2000s when Spain stepped up patrols and fewer boats attempted the journey.

The boat carrying at least 150 people was low on fuel while approaching Mauritania before it capsised, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

It said 83 people swam to shore. The survivors were being helped by Mauritanian authorities in the northern city of Nouadhibou, IOM said.

Survivors said the boat left The Gambia on November 27.

IOM's Leonard Doyle said the vessel was unseaworthy and overcrowded when it overturned.

"It speaks really to the callousness of the smugglers who of course have made their money and disappeared into the wilderness. That's the problem here, people are being exploited, people are looking for a better life," Doyle told Al Jazeera.

An unknown number of injured were taken to hospital in Nouadhibou.

There was no immediate statement from authorities in The Gambia, a small West African nation from which many migrants set off in hopes of reaching Europe.

Al Jazeera's Mohamed Vall, reporting from Mauritania's capital Nouakchott, said the military police discovered the survivors - most of whom came from The Gambia - and that is when the extent of the tragedy became clear.

"It's a very horrible story and one of the deadliest incidents in regard to migrants trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe this year," said Vall. "It's been confirmed that women and children were on that boat and some of them lost their lives."

Although home to some of the continent's fastest-growing economies, West Africa is struggling to generate enough jobs for its growing population of young people.

Doyle said the survivors would likely be returned to their home countries.

"We can imagine that they're deeply traumatised. People will need some medical care and our staff will need to establish their origin and try to help them return in the most dignified way as possible. The tragedy in all this is there is no happy solution for people who take these routes," he said.

Despite the Gambia's small size, more than 35,000 Gambian migrants arrived in Europe between 2014 and 2018, according to the IOM.

The 22-year long oppressive rule by then-president Yahya Jammeh severely affected the country's economy, especially for The Gambia's young people, prompting some to look to migrating.

Since Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016 and fled into exile in January 2017, European countries have been pushing to return asylum seekers, but the country's economy has still to recover.

The coastal nation, a popular tourist destination, was shaken earlier this year by the collapse of British travel company Thomas Cook.

At the time, The Gambia's tourism minister said the government convened an emergency meeting on the collapse, while some Gambians said the shutdown could have a devastating impact on tourism, which contributes more than 30 percent of the country's GDP.(FA)


Trump halts designating drug cartels terrorists

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump has delayed plans to legally designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups.
Mr Trump had vowed to label the gangs as terrorists after the killing last month of nine American citizens from a Mormon community in Mexico.
But he has put the plans on hold on the request of his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
"I celebrate that he has taken our opinion into account," the Mexican president said.
"We thank President Trump for respecting our decisions and for choosing to maintain a policy of good neighbourliness, a policy of cooperation with us," he added.
Mr Trump's original announcement came after three women and six children of dual US-Mexican nationality were killed in an ambush in a remote area of northern Mexico.
Following the attack the victims' community, the LeBarons, petitioned the White House to list the cartels as terror groups, saying: "They are terrorists and it's time to acknowledge it."
The move would have widened the scope for US legal and financial action against cartels but Mexico saw it as a violation of its sovereignty.
The US president has now put the plans on hold.
"All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter. "Statutorily we are ready to do so."
But Mr Trump said his Mexican counterpart is "a man who I like and respect, and has worked so well with us," adding that he was temporarily holding off on the designation and stepping up "joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations!"
He did not comment on how long the delay would last.(FA)

Saudi king condemns attack on US Naval base

PENSACOLA, United States - Saudi Arabia's King Salman condemned a gun attack at a US naval base by a Saudi student as "barbaric", President Donald Trump said.
He tweeted that the monarch had called him to offer "sincere condolences".
The gunman, an aviation student, killed three people and injured at least eight at the base in Pensacola, Florida, before being shot dead.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the Saudi government was "going to owe a debt" to the victims.
The attacker has been named by US media as Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. He used a handgun during the shooting.
The FBI are yet to declare a motive but are believed to be investigating for links to terrorism.
"There are many reports circulating, but the FBI deals only in facts," special agent Rachel Rojas told a news conference on Friday night.
Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the Middle East and the two countries have longstanding military exchange programmes. The shooting has already prompted questions about the vetting of foreign military personnel sent to the US for training.
It is the second shooting to take place at a US military base this week.
A US sailor shot dead two workers at the Pearl Harbor military base in Hawaii on Wednesday.(FA)

Pelosi pulls trigger on Trump impeachment

WASHINGTON - Top US Democrat Nancy Pelosi gave the green light Thursday to draft articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, as the embattled president vowed he would "win" the coming fight.

By asking the House Judiciary Committee chairman to draw up the charges, Speaker Pelosi signaled that a formal vote on impeaching the 45th American president is all but assured.

With a majority of the Democratic-controlled chamber already expressing intent to back the divisive procedure, Trump is likely to become just the third president in US history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

"Sadly, but with confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders and a heart full of love for America, today I am asking our chairman to proceed with articles of impeachment," Pelosi said in a televised statement.

Trump "has engaged in abuse of power, undermined our national security and jeopardized the integrity of our elections," she said, adding "the president leaves us no choice but to act."

A defiant Trump dared Democrats to press ahead with impeachment "now, fast" -- so he can have a "fair trial in the Senate" where his party holds power and he is confident of being exonerated.

"The good thing is that the Republicans have NEVER been more united," Trump tweeted. "We will win!"(FA)

Uber had 6,000 US sexual complaints in two years

WASHINGTON - Uber said it received almost 6,000 reports of sexual assault in the United States in 2017 and 2018.

While the number of cases rose in 2018, the rate of incidents dropped by 16%, as the number of journeys was higher.

Passengers - as opposed to drivers - accounted for nearly half of those accused of sexual assault.

The data was published in a report which Uber said showed its commitment to "improving safety for Uber and the entire industry".

Uber is facing growing scrutiny around the world, and recently lost its licence to operate in London.

The report showed 5,981 sexual assault incidents were reported out of the 2.3bn US trips over the two-year period.

Uber claimed 99.9% of the total journeys were concluded without safety issues.

Uber said the report was the first comprehensive safety review of its ride-hailing business.

"Voluntarily publishing a report that discusses these difficult safety issues is not easy," said Tony West, chief legal officer at Uber.

"Most companies don't talk about issues like sexual violence because doing so risks inviting negative headlines and public criticism. But we feel it's time for a new approach."

The company told the BBC there were currently no concrete plans to release safety reports for any non-US markets.

This is a hugely significant document that for the first time details the extent to which the gig economy puts people in harm's way.

Uber described it as a complex project that was two years in the making, with much of that time spent auditing the data to ensure accuracy.

It should be noted that, knowing it would provoke grim headlines, the firm opted to release this data voluntarily.

The firm has committed to releasing the report every two years.

Now that Uber has proven it can produce this data in a digestible form, it must keep doing so at regular intervals and, eventually, for all its markets around the world.

That's not an easy undertaking, but the company can afford it.

Continual publication of the report would bring focus and urgency: is Uber's record on safety getting better or worse? Why might that be? Are certain regions safer than others? What can we learn from that?

Attention must also turn to the other gig economy firms out there. Lyft - which is facing a lawsuit over sexual assault filed just this week - has no excuses now that its bigger rival has acted.

Uber said 3,045 sexual assault reports were made in 2018 compared with 2,936 in 2017.

Last year, 1.3 billion trips were completed in the US, up from one billion in 2017.

The head of the US National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Karen Baker, welcomed the report, saying it "provides an opportunity to shed light on how this information-sharing emboldens our work for a safer future".

Passenger safety, in particular sexual violence, have been major challenges for Uber and its US rival Lyft, as well as China's Didi.

In November, London's transport regulator announced that Uber would not be granted a new licence to operate after repeated safety issues.

The firm has appealed against the ruling and continues to operate during the process.(FA)


Pentagon denies sending more troops to Middle East

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has denied a report that the United States was weighing sending up to 14,000 more troops to the Middle East in the face of a perceived threat from Iran.

The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported the possible deployment would include "dozens" more ships and double the number of troops added to the US forces in the region since the beginning of this year, citing unnamed US officials.

The newspaper said US President Donald Trump could make a decision on the troop boost as early as this month.

But the Pentagon disputed the accuracy of the report.

"To be clear, the reporting is wrong. The US is not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East," spokeswoman Alyssa Farah tweeted.

The deployment could double the number of U.S. military personnel who have been sent to the region since the start of a troop buildup in May.

The region has seen a series of attacks on shipping vessels and a drone and missile attack on Saudi oil installations in September, blamed on Iran.

Washington has already ratcheted up its military presence in the Gulf and expanded economic sanctions on Tehran, elevating tensions across the region.

In mid-November, the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln sailed through the Strait of Hormuz in a show of force aimed at reassuring allies worried about the Iran threat.

In October, defence chief Mark Esper announced that two fighter squadrons and additional missile defence batteries were being sent to Saudi Arabia, for a total of about 3,000 new troops.

A senior Pentagon official said on Wednesday there were indications Iran could potentially carry out aggressive actions in the future, amid simmering tensions between Tehran and Washington.

"We also continue to see indications, and for obvious reasons I won't go into the details, that potential Iranian aggression could occur," John Rood, the Pentagon's number three official, told reporters.

Rood did not provide details about what information he was basing that on, or any timeline.

"We've sent very clear and blunt signals to the Iranian government about the potential consequences of aggression," Rood said.

Two US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was intelligence over the past month indicating that Iran was moving forces and weapons in the region.

It was not clear what specifically Iran was looking to do with the movements, they added.(FA)

Australia & Pacific

Australia fire kills several

NEW SOUTH WALES, Australia - Fires raging out of control in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) have merged into what firefighters dubbed a "mega fire", escalating the destruction of the country's worst fire season on record.
More than 2.1 million hectares (5.1 million acres) have been scorched, 688 homes destroyed, and six people killed since fires erupted across the state in September.
Greg Allan, spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service (RSF), said 87 separate fires were burning throughout the state on Sunday.
Cooler weather and more favourable wind conditions have assisted firefighters in containing many of these blazes throughout the day, but about 50 remain out of control, including the Gospers Mountain "mega fire" near Sydney's northwest outskirts.
"Crews today have worked to slow the spread of fire under the more favourable conditions of easterly winds and undertake back burning where they can ahead of worsening conditions on Tuesday," Allan said.
Temperatures are expected to hit the high 30s to low 40s throughout the state on Tuesday with westerly winds returning, which threatens to place large parts of the state under "severe fire danger".
The worst of Australia's fire season usually comes in the mid-summer month of January.
"It was a very fast, very early, very destructive season," Allan told Al Jazeera. "In fact, the amount of hectares already burned is more than the previous three seasons combined, and the season is not over yet."
RSF is the world's largest volunteer firefighting service. Allan said about 2,200 volunteer firefighters and support crews are right now working to save homes, lives and forests throughout NSW.
"They've already done an amazing effort," he said. "They're all very tired, but it goes to show the willingness and the commitment of our volunteers to support not only their local communities but travelling around the state to support residents and communities elsewhere."
These volunteer units have received assistance from other government departments and interstate fire agencies.
Firefighting specialists have also been flown in from Canada, the United States and New Zealand to assist local crews with planning and logistics.
But a continuing drought that has devastated much of Australia has driven the spread of fires.
"Very high temperatures, strong winds, low humidity, coupled with the ongoing drought and the dryness of the land certainly hasn't helped," Allan said, adding that water shortages in some areas have also been an obstacle for fire crews.(FA)

Forty years on, New Zealand apologizes for Antarctic plane disaster

WELLINGTON - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologized on Thursday for the then-government’s handling of a plane crash in Antarctica 40 years ago that took the lives of 257 people in the country’s worst peacetime disaster.

On 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand flight 901 was on a sightseeing tour from Auckland when it crashed into the side of Mount Erebus, a 3,794 meter (12,448 ft) volcano near the U.S. Antarctic research base of McMurdo Station.

Most of the 237 passengers and 20 crew killed were New Zealanders but other nationalities included Americans, Canadians, Japanese and Australians.

Originally the crash was blamed on the pilots, but following a public outcry, a Royal Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the disaster. It concluded the main cause of the accident was the state-owned airline’s actions in reprogramming the aircraft’s navigation system without advising the aircrew.

The Commission head, former justice Peter Mahon, controversially also said witnesses from Air New Zealand had conspired to give false evidence, famously describing the airline’s defense as “an orchestrated litany of lies”.  

This led to his report being criticized by both Air New Zealand and the government.

The actions of the then government and the airline caused more pain and grief to the victims’ families, Prime Minister Ardern said at a memorial service at the Government House in Auckland on Thursday.

“After forty years, on behalf of today’s government, the time has come to apologize for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership; which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved,” Ardern said in her speech.

“The pilots were not responsible for this tragedy, and I stand here today to state that again,” she added.

Ardern acknowledged the findings of the Royal Commission were not accepted by the government of the day, and it was only nearly 20 years later the report was even presented in parliament.

In 2009, Air New Zealand apologized to the families of the victims for mistakes made by the airline in the aftermath of the crash, and on Thursday Air New Zealand Chairman Therese Walsh also expressed regret.

“I apologize on behalf of an airline which 40 years ago failed in its duty of care to its passengers and staff,” said Walsh.

China, Australia in war of words over claims of Beijing's meddling attempts

BEIJING/CANBERA - Australia has engaged in a war of words with China after a media outlet accused Beijing of plotting to install an agent in the country's parliament, allegations rejected by the Chinese government as "fabricated."

Beijing on Monday reacted to the allegations aired on the Nine Network's 60 Minutes program on Sunday, which suggested suspected Chinese agents had approached a Chinese-Australian man to run as a candidate in the parliament prior to Australia's May general elections.

The report claimed that they offered Bo "Nick" Zhao, a member of Australia's Liberal Party, $679,000.

According to the report, the 32-year-old man disclosed the alleged approach for him to spy on the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (Asio) last year.

He was later found dead in a motel room in March. Police have been unable to determine how he died.

Parliamentary intelligence committee Chief Andrew Hastie also accused China of trying to "infiltrate our parliament using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system."

"This is really significant and Australians should be very, very concerned about this," he said.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the allegations as "deeply disturbing and troubling."

Morrison, however, warned authorities not to leap into conclusion.

"Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security," said the prime minister. "Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces more broadly. And I mean more broadly."

He also reassured that his government has "strengthened the laws… increased the resources... to ensure Australia was in the best possible position to deal with any threats that come our way broadly, or specifically."

The media claims and Australian officials' reactions angered China, with its Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang saying at a daily news briefing on Monday that the interference allegations leveled against China in Australian media outlets had been fabricated.

Australians 'seized with imaginary fear' of China

He said that some Australian politicians, organizations, and media outlets have "become seized with imaginary fears" on issues related to China.

"They constantly fabricate cases of so-called Chinese spies infiltrating Australia," he said. "However bizarre the story, lies are still lies in the end, whatever new guise they wear."

In an unrelated case, Nine also reported that a man claiming to be a Chinese agent had applied for asylum in Australia.

It said the man identified as Wang "William" Liqiang had reportedly provided authorities with information about operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia.

The man told the program that he was aware of several Chinese spies operating in Australia and attempting to influence politics.

Chinese police, however, identified the man as an unemployed fugitive who was convicted of fraud before fleeing China on a fake passport.

It said Wang, a 26-year-old from the eastern province of Fujian, was found guilty of fraud in 2016 and given a suspended 15-month prison sentence.

Australia has long accused China of trying to influence the country's domestic affairs.

China, Australia's largest trading partner, however, says it never interferes in the internal affairs of another country.

DG of security statement responding to reports on foreign interference

CANBERRA - The reporting on Nine's Sixty Minutes contains allegations that ASIO takes seriously.

As the Director-General of Security, I am committed to protecting Australia's democracy and sovereignty.

Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them.

However, in accordance with long-standing practice, I will not comment on this particular operational matter, including any detail of the individuals involved. Given that the matter in question is subject to a coronial inquiry, and as not to prejudice our investigations, it would be inappropriate to comment further.

Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security. ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia.

Australian media slammed for hyping up 'spy' story

Chinese experts slammed Western media for defaming China in disregard of the facts after Shanghai police clarified that self-confessed "Chinese spy" Wang Liqiang, who has applied for political asylum in Australia, is in fact an ex-con.

Shanghai police said on Sina Weibo Saturday night that Wang is wanted for involvement in a fraud case involving 4.6 million yuan ($653,000). He was previously sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2016 for fraud.

Wang left for Hong Kong on April 10, the police said, noting that his Chinese passport and Hong Kong permanent resident identity documents were forged. He is said to be 26 years old from Nanping, East China's Fujian Province.

Police said they are still working on the case.

The announcement came after on Saturday The Sydney

Morning Herald reported that Wang had "defected" to Australia. The newspaper said Wang was ordered to "shift his attention from a covert operation to undermine Hong Kong's democracy movement and focus instead on meddling in Taiwan's 2020 elections."

The ultimate aim was to topple Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, the report said.

Wang told the newspaper he holds a Chinese passport (No. EA6120226) with the name Wang Qiang, a Hong Kong permanent resident identity card (No. Z780239) and a South Korean passport (No. M35772699) which he said he used to conduct his alleged espionage.

Based on the report, Wang is supposed to be a very senior and important intelligence officer.

"But how could a 26-year-old man with a wife and son living in Australia be [a spy]," Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University's Institute of International Relations, told the Global Times on Sunday.

Those working for China's national security departments must pass the civil service examination. Many hold master's or doctorate degree.

Convicted for fraud

As Wang was convicted in China, his name and picture have been made public by the court, which is against the confidentiality principle of being intelligence personnel, Li said.

The only explanation is that Wang not only is a fraudster, but also tried to get political asylum by making up stories, Li noted.

Yu Lei, a researcher at the Oceania research center at the Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University, told the Global Times on Sunday that if Wang was indeed a "Chinese spy," the Australian intelligence community would have extracted Chinese intelligence from Wang and protected his identity from being published in the media as best they could. "However, considering the spread of the media reports about Wang, most likely Australian intelligence officers did not believe Wang's story, but instead exposed him in public, which provided the media good material to defame China," Yu said.

The reports by Western media, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The New York Times, to spread Wang's untenable story reflect that they care less about the credibility of the story than whether Wang is a fraud suspect who used a forged identity to cheat his way to an Australian green card or citizenship. Instead, it is clear they want material to demonize China even in disregard of the facts, Yu noted.

Chinese police announced on August 22 that Simon Cheng Man-kit, 28, then an employee of the British Consulate General in Hong Kong was detained for soliciting prostitutes after Western media extensively reported that Cheng "had gone missing" during a business trip to Shenzhen, a mainland city that borders Hong Kong.

Australian media outlets have previously published several reports which alleged that Chinese students in Australia could be spies, and that China had infiltrated Australian elections and interfered in Australian domestic affairs, which have been picked up by other Western mainstream media.

Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, said in October that China hopes that the Australian side will learn from the setbacks in the relations in recent years, look at China and China-Australia relations in an objective, rational and just manner.


Oman's Sultan heads to Belgium for medical checkup

MUSCAT - Sultan Qaboos of Oman will head to Belgium on Saturday for a medical checkup, a royal court statement has said.
Qaboos, 79, believed to be suffering from colon cancer, has rarely appeared in public since undergoing lengthy treatment in Germany in March 2015.
The statement said the checkup will take "a limited period of time", but did not specify the duration or give details on his condition.
The sultan's ill health and repeated hospital spells in Germany have focused attention on the fact that he has no designated successor.
Qaboos, who has ruled the Gulf sultanate since 1970, is unmarried and has no children or brothers.
According to the constitution, the sultan must write a letter designating a successor from the ruling dynasty, to be opened in the event that his family cannot agree on his replacement within three days of his death.
The sultanate's Basic Law says the royal family should choose a new sultan within three days of the position falling vacant.
Should it fail to reach an agreement, the nation's defence council, the head of the Supreme Court and the heads of the two chambers of the consultative council would then enforce Qaboos's choice and enthrone the person he designated in the envelope.(FA)

US and Iran in 'prisoner swap'

TEHRAN - A Chinese-American researcher convicted of spying in Iran is to be freed in an apparent exchange for the release of an Iranian scientist held by the US.
Xiyue Wang was arrested in Iran in 2016 for "collaborating with foreign governments".
Massoud Soleimani, a stem cell expert, was arrested at Chicago airport last year.
He was accused of attempting to export biological materials to Iran.
Both deny the charges.
"Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
In a statement, US President Donald Trump said Mr Wang had been "held under the pretense of espionage".
"Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my Administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas," the statement said.(FA)

Saudis must release rights defender Abu al-Khair, Amnesty

RIYADH - Amnesty International has received credible reports that Saudi Arabian prison authorities arbitrarily placed human rights defender and prisoner of conscience Waleed Abu al-Khair in solitary confinement and under tightened security.
Waleed Abu al-Khair was placed in solitary confinement in Dhahban Prison near Jeddah on 26 November and for the past week, has been held incommunicado, putting him at heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment. He has been on hunger strike since 29 November in protest against his ill-treatment.
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said: “The fact that Waleed Abu al-Khair is in prison to begin with, let alone serving a 15-year prison sentence, is outrageous.
He was imprisoned under bogus terrorism-related charges simply for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and defending human rights. He is one amongst scores of Saudi women and men being punished for standing up for their fellow citizens’ rights.
“Saudi Arabia just recently assumed the Presidency of the G20, and as it starts paving the way for it, it would serve it well to start matching words to action. It cannot claim to be committed to reforms to the outside world, when inside the Kingdom, it continues to brazenly treat its citizens this way.
"We call on the Saudi Arabian authorities to ensure that Waleed Abu al-Khair is protected from torture or other ill-treatment. They must allow him to contact his lawyer and family and provide him with access to medical care he may require without delay.
We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Waleed Abu al-Khair and all other prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Saudi prisons.”
Waleed Abu al-Khair is a lawyer and human rights defender who has defended numerous victims of human rights violations, as well as other human rights defenders. He was the lawyer of Raif Badawi, a well-known Saudi Arabian blogger who was sentenced in July 2013 to seven years in prison and 600 lashes.
Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced in 2014 to 15 years in prison, followed by a 15-year travel ban and a fine of approximately US $53,000 on charges which include “disobeying the ruler and seeking to remove his legitimacy”, “insulting the judiciary and questioning the integrity of judges”, “setting up an unlicensed organization”, “harming the reputation of the state by communicating with international organizations” and “preparing, storing and sending information that harms public order”.(FA)

ICC report angers Palestinians

RAMALLAH - Palestinian officials have expressed concern over a report by the International Criminal Court's (ICC) chief prosecutor that includes a warning that Palestinian stipends to the families of those killed or imprisoned as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict could constitute a war crime.

Palestine's Foreign Affairs Minister Riad Malki on Thursday said the ICC report was "based on misleading narratives of a political nature ... rather than an objective and accurate description of the relevant facts".

The Palestinians have long sought redress with international bodies such as the ICC for what they consider Israeli crimes.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has long paid stipends to the families of people killed or imprisoned by Israel. The PA says these payments are a national duty to families affected by decades of violence.

But Israel, which argues the fund encourages violence, earlier this year withheld millions of dollars in tax revenues it collected on behalf of the PA equal to the sum of the Palestinian stipends.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said he will not halt the payments, which totalled approximately $330m - around 7 percent of the PA's $5bn budget - in 2018.

Thursday's report, released in The Hague, highlighted possible crimes by both Israel and the Palestinians that are under investigation, including Israel's use of deadly force against the protesters along the Israel-Gaza fence.

At the Palestinians' request, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in 2015 opened a preliminary investigation into alleged violations of international law following the 2014 war between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Thursday's report said the prosecutor "believes that it is time to take the necessary steps to bring the preliminary examination to a conclusion".

The ICC was set up as a court of last resort intended to prosecute senior leaders allegedly responsible for grave crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity when national courts prove unable or unwilling to take on such cases.

A number of local and international human rights groups have raised concerns that Israeli security forces have used excessive force when confronting Palestinians who carried out attacks or were suspected of doing so.(FA)