US confirms further Palestinian aid cut

ICMD, Sep 16, 2018 The United States has cut additional aid to the Palestinians for programmes supporting conflict resolution with Israelis, an official said on Sunday, adding to more than $500 million in other cuts. The latest cuts come from $10 million in programmes on reconciliation involving Palestinians as well as Jewish and Arab Israelis. The portion of the money involving Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip was being redirected to programmes between Jewish and Arab Israelis, a US embassy official said. It was not clear how much of the $10 million was being redirected. US officials also could not confirm whether the latest cut meant all non-security related aid to the Palestinians had now been eliminated. “As announced in August, the administration redirected more than $200 million that was originally planned for programmes in the West Bank and Gaza,” a US embassy official said. “At the same time we redirected a portion of the $10 million which was planned for conflict management and mitigation.” The official said the portion involving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be used “to enhance” programmes in Israel instead. US President Donald Trump has said he will withhold aid from the Palestinians to force them to negotiate as the White House prepares a plan for Middle East peace — what he has called the “ultimate deal”. The Palestinian leadership cut off contact with the White House after Trump recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December. They accuse Trump of blatant bias in favour of Israel and say he is blackmailing them to force them to accept the White House's terms. In recent weeks, the US government has announced more than $500 million in cuts in Palestinian aid, including cancelling support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. It has maintained security-related aid, having provided $61 million in assistance this year. -- AFP

U.N. meeting on undermining North Korea sanctions

ICMD, Sep 15, 2018 The United States has called an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council for Monday in response to what it says are efforts by some countries “to undermine and obstruct” sanctions against North Korea. The U.S. Mission announced on Friday evening that the meeting will “discuss the implementation and enforcement of U.N. sanctions on North Korea.” The mission didn’t name any countries, but U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Russia on Thursday of pressuring an independent panel of U.N. experts to alter a report on North Korea sanctions that included alleged violations “implicating Russian actors”. A summary of the experts report obtained in early August by The Associated Press also said North Korea has not stopped its nuclear and missile programmes. And it said North Korea is violating sanctions by transferring coal at sea and flouting an arms embargo and financial sanctions. The Security Council initially imposed sanctions on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and has made them tougher and tougher in response to further nuclear tests and an increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile programme. ‘Illegal smuggling’ Many diplomats and analysts credit the sanctions with helping promote the thaw in relations between North Korea and South Korea as well as the June meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at which they agreed to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. But in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused North Korea of “illegally smuggling” in refined petroleum products beyond the annual quota of 500,000 barrels allowed under U.N. sanctions. U.S. documents sent to the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea and obtained by AP cited 89 instances between Jan. 1 and May 30 in which North Korean tankers likely delivered refined products “illicitly procured” via transfers from other ships at sea. The U.S. said Russia and China both informed the sanctions committee that they were supplying refined products to North Korea. China, which is North Korea’s closest ally, is responsible for more than 90% of the isolated country’s trade. Mr. Pompeo said North Korea is also evading sanctions by smuggling coal by sea and across borders, by using cyber thefts and other criminal activities, and by keeping workers in some countries that he didn’t name. All these activities are “generating significant revenues for the regime and they must be stopped”, he said. At the time, Ms. Haley criticised “some friends who want to go around the rules,” and especially Russia and China for blocking the sanctions committee from demanding that all countries halt shipments of petroleum products to North Korea immediately. Russia ‘disagrees’ After the experts’ report was released in August, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said he put a hold on its official release to all U.N. member nations “because we disagree with certain elements” that he refused to disclose. Russia and China then blocked the U.N. from imposing sanctions on Russia-based entities and vessels sanctioned a week earlier by the U.S. Treasury Department. The Russian news agency TASS quoted Russia’s U.N. Mission as saying the proposed sanctions were “unjustified.” The Security Council has remained united in imposing tougher and tougher sanctions on North Korea, though the differences over the experts’ report mark a serious dent in that unity. U.N. diplomats familiar with discussions said Russia was angered that the panel used a lot of U.S. intelligence in the initial report that Moscow claimed was incorrect. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because talks were private. -- Courtesy AP

Myanmar military chiefs should be prosecuted: UN investigators

ICMD, Aug 27, 2018 Investigators working for the UN's top human rights body say top Myanmar military leaders should be prosecuted for genocide against Rohingya Muslims. The United Nations does not apply the word “genocide” lightly. The fact-finding team’s assessment suggests the crimes against the Rohingya could meet the strict legal definition — which was last met over crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda nearly a quarter-century ago. The call, accompanying a first report by the investigators, amounts to some of the strongest language yet from UN officials who have denounced alleged human rights violations in Myanmar since a bloody crackdown began last August. Following the UN report, Facebook banned Myanmar's army chief and removed other pages tied to the country's military. “We are banning 20 Burmese individuals and organizations from Facebook - including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” the social media giant said in a statement on its site, adding that it wants to prevent them from using the service to “further inflame ethnic and religious tensions”. The three-member “fact-finding mission” working under a mandate from the UN-backed Human Rights Council meticulously assembled hundreds of accounts by expatriate Rohingya, satellite footage and other information to assemble the report released on Monday. Human rights watchers say determining “genocidal intent” is perhaps the most difficult criteria to meet: in essence, it’s the task of assessing the mindsets of perpetrators to determine if ethnicity, race, religion or another attribute had motivated them. “The crimes in Rakhine state, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts,” the report said, alluding to a region of Myanmar that is home for many Rohingya. Adding into their assessment: The extreme brutality of the crimes; “hate rhetoric” and specific speech by perpetrators and military commanders; policies of exclusion against Rohingya people; an “oppressive context;” and the “level of organization indicating a plan for destruction”. The investigators cited six Myanmar military leaders by name as “priority subjects” for possible prosecution, led by the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. A longer list of names is to be kept in the office of the UN human rights chief for possible use in future judicial proceedings. The United States and European Union have already slapped sanctions on some Myanmar military leaders, though Min Aung Hlaing is not among them. The authors called for the creation of a special body, or “mechanism”, to keep watch on the still-evolving human rights situation in Myanmar. They said the United Nations’ own role in the country since 2011 should be reviewed to see if the world body did all it could to prevent such a crisis. They also faulted Aung San Suu Kyi for not using her role as head of Myanmar’s government, nor her “moral authority” — she is a Nobel peace prize laureate — to stop the events in embattled Rakhine state. The team cited a “conservative” estimate that some 10,000 people were killed in the violence, but outside investigators have had no access to the affected regions — making a precise accounting elusive, if not impossible. Above all, the investigators said the situation in Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court, and if not, to a special tribunal. Last week, Myanmar’s government rejected any cooperation with the ICC, to which it is not a party. China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power over whether the issue will be brought before the ICC, has been reticent about condemning Myanmar’s government during the crisis. The UN-backed Human Rights Council created the mission six months before a rebel attack on security posts set off the crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Through hundreds of interviews with expatriate Rohingya and use of satellite footage, the team compiled accounts of crimes including gang rape, the torching of hundreds of villages, enslavement, and killings of children — some before their eyes of their own parents. The team was not granted access to Myanmar and has decried a lack of cooperation or even response from the government, which received an early copy of the report. UN officials and human rights watchers have for months pointed to evidence of genocide in Myanmar, and the United States late last year said that “ethnic cleansing” was occurring in Myanmar. But few experts have studied the issue as in-depth and in such an official way as the fact-finding team, with a mandate from a body that has Myanmar’s approval; the country is among the 47 members of the Human Rights Council.

Newspapers across U.S. rebuke Trump for attacks on press

ICMD, Aug 16, 2018 Hundreds of U.S. newspapers on Thursday launched a coordinated defense of press freedom and a rebuke of President Donald Trump for denouncing some media organizations as enemies of the American people. “A central pillar of President Trump’s politics is a sustained assault on the free press,” said the editorial by the Boston Globe, which coordinated publication among more than 350 newspapers. “The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful,” the Globe said. “To label the press ‘the enemy of the people’ is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries.” Each of the newspapers, including some in states that Trump won during the 2016 presidential election, ran an editorial, which is usually an unsigned article that reflects the opinion of an editorial board and is separate from the news and other sections in a paper. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Trump has frequently criticized journalists and described news reports that contradict his opinion or policy positions as fake news. He lashed out again on Thursday, tweeting “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY. It is very bad for our Great Country....BUT WE ARE WINNING!” He also wrote there was nothing he would want more for the United States than true freedom of the press, but that much of what the media published was fake news, “pushing a political agenda or just plain trying to hurt people. HONESTY WINS!” The Republican president’s comments reflect a view held by many conservatives that most newspapers and other news outlets distort, make up or omit facts because of a bias against them. A representative for the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the editorials. In its editorial, the New York Times said it was correct to criticize the news media for underplaying or overplaying stories or for getting something wrong. “News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job,” the Times said. “But insisting that truths you don’t like are ‘fake news’ is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the ‘enemy of the people’ is dangerous, period.” The U.S. Senate unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution on Thursday that affirmed the “vital and indispensable role” played by the news media and declared that “the press is not the enemy of the people.” Thursday’s coordinated editorials were criticized by some in the media, including a CBS News commentary that described them as a “self-defeating act of journalistic groupthink.” “Seriously — Who’s going to be persuaded by this effort, or be impressed that a few hundred newspapers can hum the same tune? Who’s even going to notice?” CBS News’ commentary asked. Politico’s media critic, Jack Shafer, wrote this week that the coordinated editorial response was sure to backfire. “It will provide Trump with circumstantial evidence of the existence of a national press cabal that has been convened solely to oppose him,” Shafer said. “Trump will reap enough fresh material to whale on the media for at least a month.” In January, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, said Trump had embraced the despotic language of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. -- Courtesy Reuters Leave your comment on or

Suicide bomber targets Shia students in Kabul, killing 48

ICMD, Aug 15, 2018 A suicide bomber targeted students preparing for university exams in a Shia neighbourhood of Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 48 people and wounding 67 in an attack blamed on the Islamic State group, officials said. The bombing was the latest large-scale assault on Afghanistan’s Shia community. It comes amid a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan that has seen Taliban attacks kill scores of Afghan troops and civilians. The bomber detonated his explosives inside a private building in the Dasht-i Barcha area of Kabul where a group of young Shia men and women, all high school graduates, were studying for university entrance exams. The spokesman for the public health ministry, Wahid Majroh, said the casualty figures were not final and that the death toll which steadily rose in the immediate aftermath of the bombing could rise further. Majroh did not say if all the victims were students and whether any of their teachers were also among the casualties. The explosion initially set off gunfire from Afghan guards in the area, leading to assumptions that there were more attackers involved. Officials later said all indications were that there was only one bomber. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Jawad Ghawari, a member of the city’s Shia clerical council, blamed IS, which has carried similar attacks in the past, hitting mosques, schools and cultural centres. In the past two years, Ghawari said there were at least 13 attacks on the Shia community in Kabul alone. Abdul Hossain Hossainzada, a Shia community leader in the western Kabul neighbourhood, said the bomber apparently targeted the course, which had young men and women studying together. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied his group’s involvement in the attack. Meanwhile, a Taliban assault on two adjacent checkpoints in northern Afghanistan late on Tuesday night killed at least 30 soldiers and policemen, officials said. The attack took place in northern Baghlan province, in the Baghlan-I Markazi district, said Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, the head of the provincial council. Dilawar Aymaq, a parliamentarian from Baghlan, said the attack targeted a military checkpoint and another manned by the so-called local police, militias recruited and paid by the Interior Ministry. Abdul Hai Nemati, the governor of Baghlan, said at least nine security forces were still missing and four others were wounded in the attack. He said reinforcements have been dispatched to help recapture the checkpoints. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the assault. Also on Wednesday, life was gradually returning to normal in parts of the eastern city of Ghazni after a massive, days-long Taliban attack, though sporadic gunbattles was still underway in some neighbourhoods. Afghans emerged from their homes and some shops reopened in Ghazni, where the Taliban launched a coordinated offensive last Friday, overwhelming the city’s defenses and capturing several neighborhoods. Afghan forces repelled the initial assault and in recent days have struggled to flush the insurgents out of residential areas where they are holed up. The United States and NATO have launched airstrikes and sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces as they fight for the city, just 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the Afghan capital with a population of some 270,000 people. Arif Noori, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said on Wednesday that “life is getting back to normal” after at least 35 civilians were killed in recent days. But he said wounded people were still arriving at the city’s only hospital, which has been overwhelmed by the casualties. Hundreds of people have fled the fighting in Ghazni, which has also killed about 100 members of the Afghan security forces. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked a police checkpoint in the southern Zabul province early on Wednesday, killing four policemen, according to the provincial police chief, Mustafa Mayar, who said another three officers were wounded. He said seven attackers were killed and five were wounded during the battle, in which the Taliban used artillery and heavy weapons. The Taliban have seized several districts across the country in recent years and carry out near-daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces. The assault on Ghazni was widely seen as a show of force ahead of possible peace talks with the US, which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years. Courtesy AJ for video Also on Wednesday, six children were killed when they tinkered with an unexploded rocket shell, causing it to blow up, said Sarhadi Zwak, spokesman for the governor of the eastern Laghman province. Zwak said that the victims were girls, aged 10-12, who were gathering firewood on Wednesday. He blamed the Taliban, saying the rockets they fire at Afghan security forces often harm civilians. Afghanistan is littered with unexploded ordnance left by decades of war. It is also plagued by roadside bombs planted by insurgents, which are usually intended for government officials or security forces, but often kill and maim civilians. -- Courtesy AP

Turkey to 'boycott' US electronic goods: Erdogan

ICMD, Aug 14, 2018 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said Turkey would boycott US electronic goods in retaliation for punitive sanctions by Washington against Ankara over the detention of an American pastor. "We will boycott US electronic goods," Erdogan said in a televised speech, raising the stakes in a spat that has seen the Turkish lira plunge to record lows. "If (the United States) have the iPhone, there's Samsung on the other side," he said, referring to US giant Apple's iconic phone and the top South Korean brand. "We (also) have our Venus and Vestel," he said about homegrown Turkish electronics brands. Relations between the two NATO allies have plummeted in one of their worst crises in decades after the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges, sending the Turkish lira into free fall against the dollar. Erdogan has been repeatedly photographed with Apple products including the iPhone and iPad. He also made his now famous speech on the night of the July 2016 failed coup calling citizens out into the street through Facetime, an iPhone app. The lira's plunge — which had been ongoing for weeks — was turned into a rout on Friday when US President Donald Trump tweeted that Washington was doubling aluminium and steel tariffs for Turkey. Turkish Airlines also announced on Twitter that it would join a campaign circulating on social media with a hashtag #ABDyeReklamVerme [don't give ads to America]. "We, as the Turkish Airlines, stand by our state and our people. Necessary instructions on the issue have been issued to our agencies," Yahya Ustun, spokesman for the country's flag-carrier, wrote on Twitter. Erdogan said Turkey was facing an "economic attack" and a "bigger, deeper operation" but showed no sign of making concessions to the United States. "They don't hesitate to use the economy as a weapon," he said. "What do you want to do? What do you want to achieve," he added, referring to the US. Erdogan admitted the Turkish economy had problems — including a widening current account deficit and inflation of almost 16 percent but added: "Thanks to God, our economy is functioning like clockwork." Resumption of talks Behind the scenes, however, diplomatic dialogue appears to have resumed. Turkey’s state-run news agency and US officials say US National Security adviser John Bolton had met with the Turkish ambassador to Washington on Monday. That helped ease tensions in financial markets, with the Turkish lira stabilizing somewhat near record lows. It was up 5 percent on Tuesday, at 6.55 per dollar, having fallen 42 percent so far this year, with most of those losses coming in recent weeks. Investors are worried not only about Turkey’s souring relations with the US, a longtime NATO ally but also Erdogan’s economic policies and the country’s high debt accumulated in foreign currencies. Independent economists say Erdogan should let the central bank raise interest rates to support the currency, but he wants low rates to keep the economic growth going. In a joint statement issued on Tuesday, the industrialists’ group TUSIAD and the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges called on the government to allow the central bank to raise interest rates to help overcome the currency crisis. The business groups also urged diplomatic efforts with the United States and an improvement in relations with the European Union, which is Turkey’s major trading partner. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the finance chief would address hundreds of foreign investors on Thursday in a teleconference. -- Courtesy AFP/AP

Venezuelan President Maduro escapes ‘assassination’ attempt

ICMD, Aug 5, 2018 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Saturday he escaped an “assassination” attempt using an explosive-laden drone, after a live broadcast showed him looking confused when a bang went off during a Caracas military parade and dozens of soldiers scuttling for safety. His government said seven soldiers were wounded in the incident, blamed on Colombia by Maduro and later claimed by a mysterious rebel group. “It was an attack to kill me, they tried to assassinate me today,” Maduro, who was unharmed, said in a later state broadcast, speaking of a “flying object (that) exploded in front of me.” Venezuelan state television images showed Maduro looking up disconcertedly in the middle of a speech having heard a bang, before members of the country’s National Guard lined up in the parade suddenly scattered. Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said there was “an explosive charge
 detonated close to the presidential podium” and in several other spots along the parade held in central Caracas. Attorney General Tarek William Saab told CNN he saw a drone filming the event explode. No drones could be seen in the television broadcast, which showed bodyguards jumping in front of Maduro to protect him with flexible ballistic shields. The broadcast was quickly cut. Meanwhile, a policeman who requested anonymity told AFP drones may have been released from a nearby apartment that suffered a fire after one exploded. However, other versions of events attributed the fire to an accidentally exploded gas cylinder. Rebel claims The government pointed the blame at “the ultra-right wing” — its term for the opposition. But Maduro himself said: “I have no doubt that the name (Colombian President) Juan Manuel Santos is behind this attack.” He added investigations suggested the incident’s financiers “live in the United States, in the state of Florida. I hope that President Donald Trump is ready to fight these terrorist groups.” The Colombian foreign ministry denied involvement, saying the allegations were “absurd” and “lacked any foundations.” A senior US State Department official said the White House was monitoring the situation closely. Meanwhile, late Saturday, a civilian and military rebel group calling itself the “National Movement of Soldiers in Shirts” claimed responsibility for the explosion. “It is contrary to military honor to keep in government those who not only have forgotten the Constitution, but who have also made public office an obscene way to get rich,” the group said in a statement passed to US-based opposition journalist Patricia Poleo, who read it on her YouTube channel. “If the purpose of a government is to achieve the greatest amount of happiness possible, we cannot tolerate that the population is suffering from hunger, that the sick do not have medicine, that the currency has no value, or that the education system neither educates or teaches, only indoctrinating communism,” added the statement. The parade Maduro attended marked the one-year anniversary of the Constitutional Assembly, a legislative body packed with loyalists that arrogated powers from the opposition-ruled National Assembly. Maduro has remained in power over oil-rich Venezuela despite a collapsing economy and a long-running political crisis that has seen his country isolated internationally. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled due to food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation that could reach one million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. ‘Maximum alert’ Maduro, a 55-year-old Socialist leader who took over from his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, has effectively sidelined the fractured opposition through control of the courts and the electoral body — and undinting support from the military, which holds key posts in his government. After the explosion, he ordered the military to be on “maximum alert,” and said he is “more determined than ever to follow the path of the revolution.” He also warned the opposition that investigations will get the bottom of the alleged attack, “whoever falls” in the process. His allies Cuba and Bolivia condemned the incident, as Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and his predecessor Raul Castro expressed solidarity. Maduro often accuses the opposition and the United States of working together to foment a “coup” to topple him. -- Agencies

Saudi woman held for ‘hugging’ singer

ICMD, July 18, 2018 A woman may face charges under a new harassment law in Saudi Arabia after storming a stage to hug a pop star, authorities and local media said on Sunday. The woman could face two years in prison and a fine of up to 1,00,000 Saudi riyals ($27,000), attorney Abdulkarim al-Qadi told the Okaz news site. The woman, who has not been identified, was dressed in a full-length abaya and niqab when she jumped on stage to hug Iraqi singer Majid al-Muhandis, whose love songs are hugely popular in the Gulf. A police statement said the woman had been arrested on Friday night for “criminal acts as per the anti-harassment regulatory act”. Concert in Taif A video circulating on social media showed the woman rushing on stage towards the pop star, who tried to step aside, before she was quickly pulled away by security personnel. Press close to the Saudi government said the woman had been attending Mr. Muhandis’s concert in the city of Taif in Saudi’s southwestern Mecca province when friends dared her to hug the star. In May, Saudi Arabia ratified a new harassment act as the kingdom geared up to lift its long-standing ban on women driving. The ban ended on June 24. The harassment act is widely seen as a measure to protect women behind the wheel. The legislation is part of a campaign by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernise the kingdom’s economy and society. Women are also now allowed to attend sports events and concerts and apply for business licenses. But they still require permission from their closest male relative on basic decisions like enrolling in classes, renewing their passport, or undergoing some medical procedures. The reforms coincide with a widening crackdown on all forms of opposition, as a string of activists have been jailed in recent weeks. -- Courtesy AFP