Daily Archives: November 12, 2017

Saad Hariri: Lebanon return from Saudi Arabia ‘within days’

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Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he will return home “in days” to formally submit his resignation.

Mr Hariri spoke to Future TV from Riyadh, his first public remarks since he announced he was stepping down last week.

His cabinet allies say he is being held captive, but Mr Hariri denied this.

He has blamed the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement for his resignation, citing concerns over his and his family’s safety.

The US and UK have warned other countries not to use Lebanon for proxy conflicts.

Mr Hariri, a Sunni leader and businessman, was nominated to form Lebanon’s government in November 2016.

“I have resigned. I am going to Lebanon very soon and I will resign in the constitutional manner,” he said in the TV interview.

A sombre Mr Hariri recognised that he did not resign in the “usual way” but said he wanted to give his country a “positive shock”.

“My resignation came as a wake-up call for Lebanon,” he said.

In televised remarks from Riyadh a week ago, Mr Hariri accused Iran and Hezbollah, a Shia group, of taking over Lebanon and destabilising the wider region.

He took aim at Hezbollah in his televised interview, saying: “I am not against Hezbollah as a party, I have a problem with Hezbollah destroying the country.”

Mr Hariri also said that if he was to rescind his resignation, the Hezbollah movement must respect Lebanon’s policy of staying out of regional conflicts.

Iran and Hezbollah have accused Saudi Arabia of holding Mr Hariri hostage.

But Mr Hariri insisted that he was free to travel as he pleased in the country. “I am free here. If I want to travel tomorrow, I will,” he said.

His father, the former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, was killed in a car bombing in 2005.

Mr Hariri said that the main problem for the region was “Iran interfering in Arab states”.

“I will not be responsible for taking Lebanon to a confrontation with the Arab states,” Mr Hariri said, citing the recent launch of a missile against Riyadh from Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition has accused Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah operatives, working alongside Houthi rebels, of being behind the strike.

In a statement, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he hoped Mr Hariri would return to Lebanon “without further delay”.

Mr Johnson said the country “should not be used as tool for proxy conflicts” and its independence should be respected.

Iraq-Iran earthquake: Deadly tremor hits border region

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A strong 7.3-magnitude earthquake has rattled the northern border region between Iran and Iraq, killing scores.

At least 61 people died in western Iran, state media said, with four more reported dead in Iraq. The death toll is likely to rise.

The earthquake sparked panic, with residents fleeing their homes for the streets.

Mosques in the Iraqi capital Baghdad have been saying prayers through loudspeakers.

Iranian news channel IRINN said rescue teams have been despatched to western parts of the country.

“Damage has been reported in at least eight villages,” Morteza Salim, the head of Iran’s Red Crescent Organisation, told the channel.

“Some other villages have suffered power cuts and their telecommunications system has also been disturbed.”

The earthquake was felt in Turkey and Israel too.

It struck in the evening local time south of the Iraqi town of Halabja at a depth of 33.9 km (21 miles), the US Geological Survey (USGS) said.

Catalan crisis: Spain’s Rajoy vows to end ‘separatist havoc’

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Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said regional elections next month in Catalonia will help end “separatist havoc” in the north-eastern region.

He addressed a campaign event on his first visit there since imposing direct rule on the region a fortnight ago.

Defending his decision in Barcelona, he said he had “exhausted all roads” after the Catalan government’s unilateral declaration of independence last month.

Several key Catalan leaders are currently being detained over the move.

Some 750,000 people protested in Barcelona on Saturday against the arrests, local police estimated.

The crisis was sparked by a disputed referendum held in Catalonia in October, which had been declared illegal by the Spanish courts.

Catalan officials said the independence campaign won 92% of the vote, from a turnout of 43%. Many of those who were against independence did not cast votes, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the referendum.

The Catalan government subsequently declared independence. In response, the Spanish government dissolved the region’s parliament, imposed direct rule and called a snap regional election on 21 December.

Speaking at a campaign event in Barcelona for his Popular Party (PP) on Sunday, Mr Rajoy called on the participation of the “silent majority” to “convert their voice into a vote”.

“We must reclaim Catalonia from the havoc of separatism,” he added, saying: “With democracy, we want to reclaim Catalonia for everyone.”

He told PP supporters that the right result would boost Spain’s economic growth next year to above 3%.

He called on companies not to leave the region, after hundreds of firms moved their headquarters away amid uncertainty over the region – which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy. He also urged people in Spain to continue buying Catalan products.

Rajoy’s message to the faithful

By James Reynolds in Barcelona

For a short while, the man who ultimately runs Catalonia was in Catalonia. But Mariano Rajoy’s advisors made sure he would not run into vocal pro-independence opponents.

Instead, he spoke to the party faithful. Mr Rajoy’s main campaign event was held inside a hotel ballroom, in front of mostly older supporters.

Spain’s prime minister came here in order to win the regional Catalan election he’s called for 21 December. His People’s Party doesn’t command widespread support in this region.

But the pro-Spain movement as a whole makes up about half the population of Catalonia. An election victory for this sector would make it much harder for pro-independence forces to make another attempt to break away from Spain.

After speaking for 25 minutes, Mr Rajoy posed for pictures and made his way out of the hotel amid a crush of supporters.

“Will you meet your opponents?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said. But he didn’t say where or when.

Since the crackdown by Madrid, Catalonia’s sacked President Carles Puigdemont has gone into self-imposed exile in Belgium, and many of his top allies have been remanded in custody.

Thousands took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday calling on Spain to free the ministers, as well as two grassroots campaign leaders being detained.

They marched behind a banner declaring “We are a republic”, and carried placards that said the detainees were political prisoners.

The sacked former ministers are accused of alleged rebellion and sedition, while the two activists were arrested over a mass protest before the referendum.

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The left-wing ERC party, a key ally of Mr Puigdemont, has announced that some of the prisoners, including party leader Oriol Junqueras, as well as some of the sacked ministers who also went to Belgium, will stand on its electoral list.

However, the ERC has rejected a call from Mr Puigdemont to fight the election as part of a single pro-independence bloc with other parties – as they did in 2015.

A recent opinion poll in Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia suggests that the ERC will win the biggest share of the vote in December.

Mr Rajoy’s PP won just 8.5% of the vote in the last regional elections two years ago.

In another development, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, condemned Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders.

Ms Colau, who was elected in 2015 on an anti-capitalist platform and whose party is standing in the regional parliamentary election for the first time, said leaders of the independence movement had “tricked the population for their own interests”.

However, her party has also voted to break a pact with the Socialist party in Barcelona in protest at its support for the national government’s decision to invoke Article 155 of the constitution, imposing direct rule on Catalonia.

Geldof returns Dublin honour in protest over Aung San Suu Kyi

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Bob Geldof has said he will return his Freedom of the City of Dublin in protest against the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who also holds the award.

Mr Geldof said “her association with our city shames us all”.

Ms Suu Kyi has faced heavy criticism over her failure to address allegations of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh following recent violence.

Mr Geldof, the musician and founder of Live Aid, said in a statement: “Her association with our city shames us all and we should have no truck with it, even by default. We honoured her, now she appalls and shames us.

He said he would hand back the award at City Hall in the Irish capital on Monday morning.

Ms Suu Kyi has been condemned by international leaders and human rights groups over her reluctance to acknowledge the military violence, which the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Fellow Irish musicians U2 also criticised Burma’s civilian leader, urging her on Saturday to take a stronger stance against the reported violence by security forces.

In a statement on the band’s website, they said her failure to address the crisis was “starting to look a lot like assent”.

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“So we say to you now what we would have said to her: the violence and terror being visited on the Rohingya people are appalling atrocities and must stop.”

Last month, Oxford city council stripped Ms Suu Kyi of the freedom of the city, which she was awarded in 1997.

Oxford City Council leader Bob Price acknowledged that it was an “unprecedented step” for the local authority.

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People are “absolutely appalled” by the situation in Myanmar, he said, adding it was “extraordinary” she had not spoken out about reported atrocities in the country.

St Hugh’s College at Oxford University, where Ms Suu Kyi read politics, has removed a portrait of her from display.

The violence in Rakhine erupted on 25 August when Rohingya militants attacked security posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, triggering a military crackdown.

Scores of people have been killed in the crackdown and there are widespread allegations of villages being burned and Rohingya being driven out.

Myanmar’s military says it is fighting Rohingya militants and denies targeting civilians.

Trump Russia: US ‘in peril over president’s stance’

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Two former US intelligence chiefs say Donald Trump’s stance on Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election is putting the US at risk.

The US president sparked uproar by suggesting he believed Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin when he said there had been no interference.

The two leaders briefly discussed the allegations at an Asia-Pacific summit.

US intelligence has long concluded Russia tried to sway the vote in Mr Trump’s favour.

“Every time he [Putin] sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr Trump told reporters.

“I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”

Mr Trump also disparaged key figures in the US intelligence community who concluded in January that Russian meddling had taken place, including former national intelligence chief James Clapper, ex-CIA director John Brennan and sacked FBI chief James Comey, whom he called “political hacks”.

Mr Trump has since sought to mollify critics of his comments following uproar at his apparent defence of Mr Putin.

Ex-intelligence chiefs go on the attack

Mr Clapper said he was alarmed by the president’s comments.

“Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process,” he told CNN.

“To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and in fact poses a peril to this country.”

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Appearing alongside him, Mr Brennan, said he found it “puzzling” why Mr Trump was not more explicit in condemning the Russian president when it represented a “national security problem”.

Referring to Mr Trumps criticism of him, Mr Brennan said: “Considering the source of the criticism, I consider that criticism a badge of honour.”

Soon after, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin rejected suggestions from both men that Mr Trump was being “played”, saying he was focused on tackling difficult issues like North Korea and Syria.

Why the row matters

Questions surrounding Russia’s role in last year’s US elections and allegations of collusion involving Donald Trump’s campaign team have dogged his presidency.

US intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to help Mr Trump win the presidency by hacking and releasing emails damaging to his opponent Hillary Clinton.

While Russian hackers are widely suspected of involvement, there has been no conclusive link to the Kremlin.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is currently investigating whether there were any links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Both deny there was any collusion.

Last month, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to having lied to the FBI about the timing of meetings with alleged go-betweens for Russia.

Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and an associate were also placed under house arrest on charges of money laundering as a result of the Mueller inquiry, but the charges do not relate to the election.

Brussels riot after Morocco World Cup qualifier win

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More than 20 police officers were injured in Brussels when celebrations over Morocco’s qualification for football’s World Cup turned violent.

The Moroccan national side qualified for the 2018 tournament in Russia with a 2-0 victory away to Ivory Coast on Saturday, topping their group.

Fans hit the streets after the game and burned at least one car, smashed glass and looted shops, police said.

Belgium has a large Moroccan community, making up 4% of the population.

One witness posted video to Twitter of water cannon being used on a crowd. Police said it was used on a group of about 300 people, some of whom were throwing stones.

Calm had returned by 21:30 local time (20:30 GMT), a reporter for the AFP news agency said.

Belgium’s Interior Minister Jan Jambon condemned the riots, tweeting (in French) that they constituted “unacceptable aggression in the centre of Brussels”.

He added: “Living together means respect, also for the police who are committed to our safety day and night.”

In the Netherlands too, large groups of fans from Morocco or of Moroccan background celebrated in the streets. Some celebrations there turned violent, with the police in The Hague tweeting (in Dutch) that some people threw things at officers.

In Rotterdam, dancing fans set off flares in red and green, Morocco’s colours.

Meanwhile in Morocco itself thousands of fans celebrated in the streets of Marrakesh, Casablanca and other cities.

EU preparing for possible collapse of Brexit talks – Barnier

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The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, says he is planning for the possible collapse of Brexit negotiations with the UK.

Mr Barnier was talking to French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche days after giving the UK a two-week deadline to clarify key issues.

Failing to reach an agreement was not his preferred option, he stressed.

The UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis has said it is time for both sides “to work to find solutions”.

On Friday, Mr Davis insisted good progress was being made across the board, and that the negotiations had narrowed to a “few outstanding, albeit important, issues”.

Discussing the likelihood of the talks collapsing, Mr Barnier said: “It’s not my option, but it’s a possibility. Everyone needs to plan for it, member states and businesses alike. We too are preparing for it technically.

“A failure of the negotiations would have consequences on multiple domains.”

Mr Barnier has asked the UK to clarify its stance on its financial obligations to the EU if future trade talks are to go ahead in December.

But Mr Davis has made conflicting remarks, suggesting the UK would not have to give a figure for a financial settlement before it could move on to talks about a future trading relationship.

Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, he said: “In every negotiation, each side tries to control the timetable. The real deadline on this is, of course, December.”

Mr Davis was referring to the next EU summit which will take place in Brussels in December.

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He said British taxpayers “would not want me to just come along and just give away billions of pounds”.

He added: “We’ve been very, very careful, and it’s taking time and we will take our time to get to the right answer.”

His comments followed a sixth round of talks between Mr Davis and Mr Barnier in Brussels.

Speaking after the talks on Friday, Mr Davis said any solution for the Irish border could not be at the expense of the constitutional integrity of the UK.

EU preparing for possible collapse of Brexit talks – Barnier

Published by:

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, says he is planning for the possible collapse of Brexit negotiations with the UK.

Mr Barnier was talking to French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche days after giving the UK a two-week deadline to clarify key issues.

Failing to reach an agreement was not his preferred option, he stressed.

The UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis has said it is time for both sides “to work to find solutions”.

On Friday, Mr Davis insisted good progress was being made across the board, and that the negotiations had narrowed to a “few outstanding, albeit important, issues”.

Discussing the likelihood of the talks collapsing, Mr Barnier said: “It’s not my option, but it’s a possibility. Everyone needs to plan for it, member states and businesses alike. We too are preparing for it technically.

“A failure of the negotiations would have consequences on multiple domains.”

Mr Barnier has asked the UK to clarify its stance on its financial obligations to the EU if future trade talks are to go ahead in December.

But Mr Davis has made conflicting remarks, suggesting the UK would not have to give a figure for a financial settlement before it could move on to talks about a future trading relationship.

Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, he said: “In every negotiation, each side tries to control the timetable. The real deadline on this is, of course, December.”

Mr Davis was referring to the next EU summit which will take place in Brussels in December.

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He said British taxpayers “would not want me to just come along and just give away billions of pounds”.

He added: “We’ve been very, very careful, and it’s taking time and we will take our time to get to the right answer.”

His comments followed a sixth round of talks between Mr Davis and Mr Barnier in Brussels.

Speaking after the talks on Friday, Mr Davis said any solution for the Irish border could not be at the expense of the constitutional integrity of the UK.

Turkey denies ‘ludicrous’ Gulen kidnap allegations

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Reports that former White House aide Michael Flynn was part of a plot to help forcibly remove a Muslim cleric to Turkey in exchange for millions of dollars are “ludicrous”, Turkey says.

The Turkish embassy in Washington said the allegations were “utterly false, ludicrous and groundless”.

Ex-CIA director James Woolsey revealed an alleged $15m (£11.5m) plan to remove cleric Fethullah Gulen in March.

Turkey accuses Mr Gulen of being behind the failed July 2016 coup.

In a statement, the embassy said: “The Turkish people expect the immediate extradition of Fethullah Gulen from the United States to Turkey, so that he can stand trial.”

They added: “All allegations that Turkey would resort to means external to the rule of law for his extradition are utterly false, ludicrous and groundless.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called for Mr Gulen’s extradition from the US, where he lives in Pennsylvania.

President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is accused of meeting Turkish officials in September 2016 to discuss the removal of Mr Gulen.

My Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, said the claims were “outrageous”.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr Flynn – who quit his post after misleading the White House about meeting a Russian envoy before Donald Trump took office – discussed having Mr Gulen transported on a private jet to the Turkish prison island of Imrali.

It also reported that a payment was offered.

The newspaper said the matter had emerged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the US election.

Meanwhile, NBC said that federal investigators were also looking into whether Mr Flynn had tried to push for the return of Mr Gulen to Turkey during his time as White House national security adviser.

But Mr Kelner vociferously denied all the allegations. He issued a statement saying that, as a rule, he and his client had avoided responding to media rumours and allegations.

“But today’s news cycle has brought allegations about General Flynn, ranging from kidnapping to bribery, that are so outrageous and prejudicial that we are making an exception to our usual rule: they are false,” he added.

Ex-CIA chief Mr Woolsey, who is also a board member for Mr Flynn’s consultancy, Flynn Intel Group, previously told CNN about a meeting involving Turkish officials in September 2016.

“There was at least some strong suggestion by one or more of the Americans present at the meeting that we would be able, the United States would be able, through them, to be able to get hold of Gulen,” he said.

A spokesman for the company denied Mr Flynn had discussed any illegal actions with the officials.

Trump trades ‘short and fat’ barb with N Korea’s Kim

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President Donald Trump has again traded barbs with North Korea, shortly before offering to mediate in a heated regional dispute.

He took to Twitter to complain he would never call North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “short and fat”, after its foreign ministry called him “old”.

It was one of a series of remarks he made on social media before volunteering his services over maritime claims in the South China Sea.

“I’m a very good mediator,” he said.

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims to territory in the South China Sea.

Tensions with China have been high in both Vietnam and the Philippines, inflamed by the formers island-building and naval patrols.

A framework for a code of conduct was agreed in August, but this is still only an outline, with more negotiations due to take place before it can be legally binding.

Mr Trump, who has long styled himself as a dealmaker, suggested his expertise could aid the process.

“If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know,” Mr Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart, Tran Dai Quang, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi.

Mr Trump’s own dispute with North Korea continues to escalate, at least in the insults traded across Twitter and in official statements.

On Saturday, North Korea denounced Mr Trump’s Asia trip, calling it a “warmonger’s visit” and again described the president as a “dotard” – a centuries-old insult for an elderly person.

Mr Trump responded with a passive aggressive tweet, suggesting he would never call Mr Kim was “short and fat”, and complaining: “Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”

As the president took to social media, three US aircraft carriers were taking part in a military exercise in the Western Pacific, in a show of strength aimed at North Korea.

US Pacific Fleet commander Scott Swift said the triple-carrier drill was the first in the region since 2007.

South Korean and Japanese ships were also due to take part in the exercises, which began on Saturday and will continue until Tuesday.

President Trump has not ruled out friendly relations with North Korea.

Asked at a news conference in Vietnam if he could see himself being friends with Mr Kim, the president said: “That might be a strange thing to happen but it’s a possibility.

“If it did happen it could be a good thing I can tell you for North Korea, but it could also be good for a lot of other places and be good for the rest the world.

“It could be something that could happen. I don’t know if it will but it would be very, very nice.”

The Vietnamese leg of Mr Trump’s five-nation Asia tour was met with protests. Mai Khoi, a singer and dissident, said police confined her to her home and threatened her with eviction, after she defied a ban on protests.

Ms Khoi, who was barred from standing for parliament last year, said she was escorted home after she flashed a sign insulting the president as his motorcade passed by.

She said she was protesting against Donald Trump’s attitude to women and his failure to meet with human rights activists in Vietnam.

Mr Trump will travel to Manila later on Sunday for the final stop on his Asia tour, before flying back to the US.