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

Iran ready to enrich uranium if nuclear deal fails

ICMD, July 17, 2018 Iran is ready to boost its uranium enrichment to higher levels if talks fail with Europe on salvaging the nuclear deal, a top official said on Tuesday. “We have of course adopted some measures in order to prepare the ground for eventually increasing the level of enrichment if it is needed and if the negotiations with the Europeans fail,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman and vice-president of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, told a news conference in Tehran. “We are of course continuing to carry out and implement our obligations based on the JCPOA,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that put strict limits on its atomic programme in return for sanctions relief. “But at the same time, taking every scenario into consideration, we are preparing ourselves,” he added. The United States announced in May that it was abandoning the 2015 agreement and reimposing nuclear-related sanctions, threatening global companies with heavy penalties if they continue to operate in Iran. In a bid to save the accord, the EU and European parties to the deal — Britain, France and Germany — presented a series of economic “guarantees” to Iran this month, but these were judged “insufficient” by Tehran. Negotiations are continuing, and foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Monday they could last several “weeks”, according to state television. In June, in a bid to mount pressure on the Europeans, Iran announced a plan to increase its uranium enrichment capacity with new centrifuges in the event that the agreement collapses, while still denying any desire to build a nuclear weapon. Under the 2015 agreement, Iran can only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent — far below the roughly 90 percent level needed for nuclear weapons. -- Courtesy AFP

Rescuers gear up for final push to save remaining five from Thai cave

Two ambulances carrying the sixth and seventh boys out of Tham Luang Nang Non cave site to a hospital in Chiang Rai on July 9, 2018. | Photo courtesy: Getty Images Eight rescued from Tham Luang cave so far amid public euphoria ICMD, July 10, 2018 Rescuers resumed preparations on Tuesday for a third rescue operation deep into a cave complex in northern Thailand to free four remaining boys and their football coach in a race against time and monsoon weather. Four more of the boys were carried on stretchers out of the labyrinthine Tham Luang cave on the Myanmar border on Monday, bringing to eight the total number brought out so far after two rescue pushes in successive days. The head of the operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, said rescuers had learned from experience and were two hours faster in bringing the second batch of survivors out as scattered monsoon rains continued to risk flooding the tunnels with water. A crack team of foreign divers and Thai Navy SEALs guided the boys during a nine-hour operation through nearly 4 km of sometimes submerged channels from where they have been trapped for more than a fortnight. People across Thailand cheered the rescue operation, including at the Mae Sai Prasitsart school where six of the trapped boys are students. “I am very happy about those who already made it out and I think everyone will be out today,” said Waranchit Karnkaew (14), who also said the football-mad boys had been closely following games at the World Cup in Russia before they were trapped. “I want to take my friends to lunch and we will play football together,” he told Reuters. Football's governing body, FIFA, has invited the boys to the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday if they make it out in time. Replan, replenish Rescue organisers say they need 20 hours to replan and replenish oxygen supplies, with the next rescue mission expected to come some time on Tuesday afternoon, weather permitting. However, organisers declined to confirm whether they would attempt to bring all five out in the third push, with the plan so far being to bring out four at a time. “It is up to the environment. If the rain god helps us, then we may be able to work fast. But if the rain god doesn't help, then it could be challenging,” Mr. Narongsak said. The plight of the boys and their coach has drawn international attention, with divers, engineers and medics among others flying in from around the world to assist. Elon Musk visits the cave Technology billionaire Elon Musk went into the cave on Monday and left the rescue team with a “kid-sized” submarine his company SpaceX had built, Thailand's interior Minister Anupong Paochinda said. Mr. Musk said on Twitter: “Just returned from Cave 3. Mini-sub is ready if needed. It is made of rocket parts & named Wild Boar after kids' soccer team. Leaving here in case it may be useful in the future.” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the cave to inspect the operation and was quoted by Mr. Narongsak as saying he didn't want to see this kind of incident happen again on Thai soil. The “Wild Boars” team became trapped on June 23 when they set out to explore the cave after soccer practice and rains flooded the tunnels. -- Courtesy Reuters

China and U.S. fire first salvos in a long haul trade war

ICMD, July 7, 2018 “The U.S. has started the largest trade war in history,” China's Ministry of Commerce said on its website after President Donald Trump threatened to incrementally increase tariffs on the entire range of Chinese exports. China on Friday joined the trade war with the United States, by announcing it was ready for a long campaign after authorities in Washington declared a 25 % additional levy on Chinese products worth $ 34 billion. The Chinese have retaliated in equal measure, opening the possibility of tit-for-tat tariff escalation, which could disrupt existing international network of supply chains, and slow down the global economy, which was yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession. “The U.S. has started the largest trade war in history,” China's Ministry of Commerce said on its website, after President Donald Trump threatened to incrementally increase tariffs on the entire range of Chinese exports, worth more than $500 billion, in case Beijing retaliated. Speaking on Air Force One, during his visit to Montana on Thursday, Mr. Trump said additional Chinese products worth $ 16 billion would face additional duties “in two weeks”. He added: "We have $200 billion in abeyance and then ... we have $300 billion in abeyance. OK? So we have 50 plus 200 plus almost 300." The Chinese retaliation followed immediately after the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) issued a note that stated that any goods that entered the country or were pulled out of warehouses after 12:01 a.m., Eastern Time, would face the new tariff regime. The latest set of levies target 818 Chinese product lines in industries such as aerospace, information and communications technology, robotics, industrial machinery, new materials and automobiles, USTR list released earlier had stated. In mid-June the Chinese commerce ministry had declared that 545 types of U.S. products of equal value, including soyabeans, automobiles and seafood, would face an additional tariff of 25 %. Analysts say that the US is targeting the Made-in-China 2025 project — an initiative that can make Beijing a market leader in sunrise hi-technology areas, including robotics, semiconductors, electric vehicles, drones and products powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). By restricting its market for hi-end products, the U.S. hopes that this would deter its companies, with cutting edge technology, from investing in China. The U.S. has earlier charged Beijing of forcing American companies to part with their intellectual property, which can be funneled into the Made-in-China 2025 project, as a precondition for doing business in China. A statement released on the Chinese commerce ministry website warned that the U.S. was indulging in “bullying”. It asserted that Washington’s move would trigger market turmoil across the globe, obstruct economic recovery, and pose a “grave threat” to the security of industrial value chains. The new U.S. market restrictions are likely to have a downstream impact in other countries, as China-based export firms outsource parts and sub-assemblies from other world locations. During a visit to Sofia, Bulgaria, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang told reporters that, “China would never start a trade war but if any party resorts to an increase of tariffs, then China will take measures in response to protect development interests.” On Friday, Chinese state-media went ballistic as Mr. Trump fired the first salvo of a trade war. Sate-run China Daily, called the Trump administration “a gang of hoodlums with its shakedown of other countries, particularly China”. In a commentary, the state-run tabloid Global Times said that China was ready for a fight. “If the US is determined to escalate conflicts with China, then so be it. Perhaps the Trump can only clear its mind after a fight.” -- Courtesy TH

Several dead in newsroom shooting in US Maryland state

Indus Chronicle Monitoring Desk, June 29, 2018 Several people were feared killed on Thursday in a shooting at the building that houses the Capital Gazette, a daily newspaper published in Annapolis, a historic city an hour east of Washington. A reporter for the Capital Gazette, Phil Davis, tweeted that a “gunman shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees.” He said several people were killed. “There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you're under your desk and then hear the gunman reload,” Davis said. Up to four people had been killed, according to CBS News quoting two sources. The newspaper is located in a four-story office building in Annapolis, the capital of the US state of Maryland. The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed. “ATF Baltimore is responding to a shooting incident at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco said on Twitter. The local Anne Arundel police force added: “Confirming active shooter at 888 Bestgate Road in Annapolis. Building evacuated. Officers continuing to search the building.” “Absolutely devastated to learn of this tragedy in Annapolis,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said. “Please, heed all warnings and stay away from the area. Praying for those at the scene and for our community.” -- Courtesy AP

Litmus test for Erdogan as Turkey votes for President, Parliament

Call it a sea of humanity as supporters of Muharrem İnce, presidential candidate of Turkey’s main Opposition Republican People’s Party, gather at Maltepe in Istanbul during an election rally on June 23, 2018. Mr. Ince poses the strongest challenge to incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the country votes for a new President and Parliament on Sunday. | Photo Courtesy AFP Indus Chronicle Monitoring Desk, June 24, 2018 Turks began voting on Sunday for a new President and Parliament in elections that pose the biggest challenge to Reccep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party since they swept to power more than a decade and a half ago. The elections will also usher in a powerful new executive presidency long sought by Mr. Erdogan and backed by a small majority of Turks in a 2017 referendum. Critics say it will further erode democracy in the NATO member state and entrench one-man rule. More than 56 million people were registered to vote at 1,80,000 ballot boxes across Turkey. Voting began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will end at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT). Lira going down against dollar Mr. Erdogan, the most popular but also divisive leader in modern Turkish history, moved the elections forward from November 2019, arguing the new powers would better enable him to tackle the nation’s mounting economic problems — the lira has lost 20 percent against the dollar this year — and deal with Kurdish rebels in south-east Turkey and in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. He faces a strong challenge from Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and whose feisty performance at campaign rallies has galvanized Turkey’s long-demoralised and divided opposition. Addressing a rally in Istanbul on Saturday attended by hundreds of thousands of people, Mr. Ince promised to reverse what he and opposition parties see as a swing towards authoritarian rule under Mr. Erdogan in the country of 81 million people. “If Erdogan wins, your phones will continue to be listened to ... Fear will continue to reign ... If Ince wins, the courts will be independent,” said Mr. Ince, adding he would lift Turkey’s state of emergency within 48 hours of being elected. Crackdown weighs heavily in their mind Turkey has been under emergency rule — which restricts some personal freedoms and allows the government to bypass parliament with emergency decrees — for nearly two years following an abortive military coup in July 2016. Mr. Erdogan blamed the coup on his former ally, U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and has waged a sweeping crackdown on the preacher's followers in Turkey. The United Nations say some 1,60,000 people have been detained and nearly as many more, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked. The President’s critics, including the European Union which Turkey still nominally aspires to join, say Mr. Erdogan has used the crackdown to stifle dissent. Few newspapers or other media openly criticise the government and he has received far more election coverage than other presidential candidates. Mr. Erdogan, who defends his tough measures as essential for national security, told his supporters at rallies on Saturday that if re-elected he would press ahead with more of the big infrastructure projects that have helped turn Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies during his time in office. Still he has takers “If he wins, I think the obstacles before us will disappear and we will have control,” said Nesrin Cuha (37), a call centre worker who wore a headscarf. Religiously observant Muslims form the bedrock of Mr. Erdogan's support. “The opposition will not be a nuisance anymore with the new presidential system,” said another Erdogan supporter, retired sailor Engin Ozmen (60). Polls show Mr. Erdogan falling short of a first-round victory in the presidential race but he would be expected to win a run-off on July 8, while his AK Party could lose its parliamentary majority, possibly heralding increased tensions between President and Parliament. Other presidential candidates include Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), who is now in jail on terrorism-related charges that he denies. If the HDP exceeds the 10 percent threshold of votes needed to enter Parliament, it will be harder for the AKP to get a majority. In a final appeal for votes in a video clip from his high-security prison, Mr. Demirtas said: “If the HDP fails to get into parliament, all Turkey will lose. Backing the HDP means supporting democracy.” -- Courtesy Reuters/HT

World: Kim Hails ‘Unity’ With China In New Visit

ICMD, June 19, 2018 Kim Jong Un declared North Korea’s unstinting “friendship, unity and cooperation” with Beijing during his third visit to China this year, in a show of loyalty to his main ally following a landmark summit with US President Donald Trump. The two-day visit which ends Wednesday is designed to reassure Beijing that Pyongyang will not neglect its interests as Trump and the young autocrat move into uncharted diplomatic terrain. The performance is part of a delicate balancing act for Kim, who analysts say is seeking to play US and Chinese interests off each other while maintaining good relations with Beijing, his economic patron and diplomatic protector. China and the US both hope to see the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons, but Beijing is concerned Washington and Pyongyang might move closer at its expense, a possibility that China sees as threatening to its economic and security interests in the region. While China was not present at the June 12 summit in Singapore, it lent Kim a plane to travel to the city-state, a clear sign that it remains an influential force in the diplomatic shuffle. The Cold War-era allies, which fought side-by-side against US-led UN forces and South Korea in the 1950-1953 Korean War, have sought to repair ties strained by Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and Beijing’s support of subsequent UN sanctions. Kim chose Beijing for his first official foreign trip in March and met Xi again in May in the northeastern port city of Dalian. Kim’s agenda for Wednesday was not made public. An AFP journalist saw a motorcade leaving the Diaoyutai guest house for foreign dignitaries in Beijing, but it was unclear where it was headed. During his meeting with Xi Tuesday, Kim thanked China for “positive and sincere support and good help for the successful” summit with Trump, according to North Korea’s official KCNA news agency. The North Korean leader, who was greeted by a military honour guard and cheering children at the Great Hall of the People Tuesday, said he valued the “recently strengthened strategic cooperation” between the two countries. “He expressed the determination and will to further develop the closer relations of friendship, unity and cooperation between the two parties and the two peoples of the DPRK and China,” KCNA said. Kim also invoked the “prospect for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” following his meeting with Trump. For his part, Xi told Kim that China “speaks highly” of his summit with Trump and he urged Washington and Pyongyang to implement their agreement struck in Singapore. The Chinese leader vowed that Beijing would continue to play a “constructive role” in the nuclear diplomacy. – Trade card – The official media of both countries did not say whether Kim and Xi discussed the prospect of easing UN sanctions that have crippled North Korea’s economy, though analysts said it could have been part of the agenda. Shin Bum-cheol, a senior fellow at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Kim and Xi were likely seeking “common ground” following the Singapore summit. For China, North Korea can serve as “an important card” as Beijing faces a potential trade war with the United States,” Shin told AFP. “For the North, it can also show to the world, especially the US, that Beijing has Pyongyang’s back if the North’s ties with the US sour in the future,” Shin said. North Korean officials have also visited China recently to learn about its economic reforms — yet another sign of Pyongyang’s reliance on Beijing for its economic wellbeing. “We are happy to see that the DPRK made a major decision to shift the focus to economic construction, and the development of the DPRK’s socialist cause has entered a new stage in history,” Xi told Kim, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. China has backed United Nations sanctions against its ally but indicated last year that the UN Security Council could consider easing the punitive measures. -- DT

Trump’s vow to end war drills with Seoul stuns region

ICMD, June 12, 2018 President Donald Trump rocked East Asia with the stunning announcement on Tuesday that he was halting annual U.S.-South Korean military drills and wants to remove the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South as a deterrent against North Korea. Mr. Trump’s surprise, almost offhand comments, made during a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, seemingly upended decades of the U.S. defence posture on the Korean Peninsula. The remarks contradicted countless previous declarations by U.S. political and military officials over the years that the drills are routine, defensive and absolutely critical. A drain of money Mr. Trump has now essentially adopted the standard North Korean line, calling the military exercises a “provocative” drain of money and announcing they would stop while he continues talks with Mr. Kim. It also seemed to leave officials completely off guard in South Korea, where the presence of U.S. troops has long been described as necessary to maintaining peace. Seoul’s Presidential Office said it was trying to parse Mr. Trump’s comments. “At this current point, there is a need to discern the exact meaning and intent of President Trump’s comments,” Seoul’s Defence Ministry said, adding that there have been no discussions yet with Washington on modifying drills set for August. U.S. forces in South Korea said it has “received no updated guidance on the execution or cessation of training exercises” and will continue to coordinate with South Korean partners and maintain the current posture until it receives an updated guidance from the Department of Defense or the Indo-Pacific Command. North Korea regularly calls the military exercises provocative preparations for a northward invasion, and many of the scariest standoffs in recent years on the Korean Peninsula have happened when the drills were being staged. North Korea also insists that the U.S. troop presence in the South, as well as its nuclear “umbrella” over allies Seoul and Tokyo, are part of America’s “hostile” policy toward the North. “I want to bring our soldiers back home,” Mr. Trump said, although he added that it’s “not part of the equation right now.” Then he said: “We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should. But we’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, I think it’s very provocative.” -- Courtesy AP