Italy parliament dissolved ahead of March election

ROME — Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella dissolved parliament on Thursday as the country prepares for knife-edge general elections in March.

Next year’s elections, to be held on March 4, may mark a new era of uncertainty for the country.

With the vote expected to be split between the right, centre-left and the populist Five Star movement, the next parliament could be left without a clear majority.

But in a country that has had 64 governments since 1946, instability is nothing new.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is the third leader of the parliament that was elected in 2013. He is expected to stay in office until the creation of a new government following elections.

Gentiloni visited Mattarella on Thursday to announce that work was finished on adopting the 2018 budget, which passed last week.

Mattarella then "signed a decree dissolving the Senate and the chamber of deputies", according to a statement from his office, and confirmed March 4 as election day.

Earlier on Thursday, he moved to reassure the nation in a news conference taking stock of his year in office.

"Things that were born a little strangely, as in the case of this 17th legislature, prove to be rather fruitful over time. The truth is that Italy has recovered after the most serious crisis of the post-war era," Gentiloni said.

"Italians know that in the coming weeks the spotlight will be on the election campaign, as is normal," he said.

If no one party wins a clear majority, Mattarella could ask Gentiloni to continue to handle current affairs for many more months.

Unlike his predecessors Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi, whose popularity stands at 29 and 23 percent respectively, Gentiloni enjoys a healthy positive ranking of 44 percent.

Berlusconi himself seemed to support Gentiloni’s continued reign. "He is a kind and moderate person: He will handle this delicate time with tact," the former premier wrote on Twitter.

In his remarks on Thursday, Gentiloni said: "I assure you, my dear fellow citizens, that the government will not slow its pace. Within the limits set by the constitution, by law, the government will govern." — AFP




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NY vows toughest New Year’s Eve security in years

Viet Nam News

NEW YORK — The toughest security presence in years will safeguard New Year’s Eve festivities in New York’s Times Square, where around two million people are expected to congregate in the area, police said Thursday.

The stepped-up security follows two recent attacks, both apparently inspired by the Islamic State extremist group -- an aborted bombing in a subway tunnel on December 11 and a truck attack in TriBeCa that killed eight people on October 31.

New York police chief James O’Neill said there were no direct, credible threats, but promised people would see a "stronger police presence out there than we have seen even in recent years," which he called "prudent" in the wake of recent incidents.

Last May, a US Navy veteran, with no apparent terror motive, rammed a car into Times Square, killing a young woman and injuring 22 other people.

Authorities are also guarding against a Las Vegas-style shooting, after a sole gunman holed up in a high-rise hotel shot dead 58 people at a country music festival on October 1, the worst mass shooting in recent US history.

O’Neill said there would be more bomb-sniffing dogs, more counter-sniper teams and more officers on the ground than last year, but declined to set a number.

Concrete, blocker vehicles and sand trucks will seal off Times Square, trucks will be restricted, and spectators will have to walk through two layers of checkpoints to access the area, subject to bag checks and screenings to ensure no weapons.

Heavy-weapons teams and dog patrols will deploy throughout the area, and to safeguard against a Las Vegas style attack, uniformed police will work hand-in-hand with security at every hotel in the area.

Police repeatedly denied any specific threats, but said they were aware of jihadist propaganda urging sympathizers to attack New York and holiday celebrations.

Sunday is expected to be the coldest New Year’s Eve in the US financial capital for 55 years. The National Weather Service warn that temperatures could fall to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) at midnight on December 31, the coldest since 1962.

Mariah Carey, who was last year humiliated by mic problems at the annual televised ball-drop, pop singer Nick Jonas and the former Fifth Harmony vocalist Camila Cabello are set to provide the entertainment at this year’s Times Square New Year’s Eve party. — AFP

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Fire in Mumbai kills at least 15 people: Indian police

An image shared on social media showed the fire engulfing the building. In the massive fire that broke out in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, Lower Parel, 15 people have been found dead, confirmed the dean of King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital on Friday. 12 people, who sustained minor injuries, are being treated at the hospital. - India Today Photo
Viet Nam News

NEW DELHI — A fire tore through a multi-storey building in India’s financial capital Mumbai Friday, killing at least 15 people and leaving many injured, a senior police officer said.

"So far the death of 15 people has been declared," S. Jaykumar, a Mumbai police commissioner, told reporters.

He said the cause of the fire was under investigation.

The blaze broke out at a commercial building in the Kamala Mills compound in central Mumbai around 12:30 am (1900 GMT), police said.

Kamala Mills is an industrial compound that houses top restaurants and other commercial establishments including hotels.

Several media organisations also used the building and at least three national news channels were affected by the fire, including Times network’s Times Now, Mirror Now and ET Now.

According to local media, the fire started on the top floor of the building and engulfed it entirely within half an hour.

Television footage overnight showed fire engines and emergency teams rushing to the scene where the building was being consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke. — AFP




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Weah wins landmark Liberia presidential poll

MONROVIA — Former star footballer George Weah was named winner of Liberia’s presidential election on Thursday, easily beating his challenger in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in seven decades scarred by civil wars, political assassinations and an Ebola crisis.

With almost all ballots counted, National Election Commission President Jerome Korkoya said final results would be released on Friday, but Weah wasted no time in acknowledging his win.

"My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation. I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace today. Change is on," he posted on Twitter.

Hundreds of his supporters took to the streets of Monrovia, singing, dancing and embracing each other as news of his victory spread.

"I’ve never been so happy in all my life. We were in opposition for 12 years. We’re going to make history, like the children of South Africa did. I’m so excited," said Josephine Davies, vice president of the youth wing of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change.

"We’ve waited 12 years, now power is going to the people."

Weah, 51, is set to replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took over in 2006 at the helm of the west African state founded for freed slaves.

The NEC said Weah won 61.5 percent of Tuesday’s run-off vote, which was delayed several weeks after a legal challenge from his opponent, Vice President Joseph Boakai, following October’s first round.

The NEC said that with 98.1 percent of all votes counted, Boakai had only secured 38.5 percent support.

Ahead of Thursday’s result announcement, armed and helmeted police deployed outside the poll body’s headquarters as Weah supporters gathered and began rejoicing.

"The Liberian people clearly made their choice... and all together we are very confident in the result of the electoral process," tweeted Weah before the official results were announced.

Sirleaf’s office said it had set up a team "for the proper management and orderly transfer of executive power from one democratically elected president to another", adding that it included several ministers.

Tumultuous history

The tumultuous events of the past 70 years in Liberia, where an estimated 250,000 people died during back-to-back civil wars between 1989-2003, have prevented a democratic handover from taking place since 1944.

Sirleaf’s predecessor Charles Taylor fled the country in 2003, hoping to avoid prosecution for funding rebel groups in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Two presidents who served prior to Taylor were assassinated.

The UN and regional bloc ECOWAS hailed the peaceful nature of the vote, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praising "the government, political parties and the people of Liberia for the orderly poll", which the EU said "generally respected constitutional rules".

The election passed without major incident despite weeks of delays caused by legal challenges and many said they were looking forward to a peaceful handover after 12 years under Sirleaf.

The Sirleaf administration, elected in 2005, guided the nation out of the ruins of war and through the horrors of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, but is accused of failing to combat poverty and corruption.

Weah, the only African ever to have won FIFA’s World Player of the Year and the coveted Ballon D’Or football award, missed out on the presidency in a 2005 bid.

He was similarly frustrated when he ran for vice-president in 2011, but his CDC party repeatedly urged its young and exuberant supporters to keep calm.

The run-off was delayed for seven weeks due to legal challenges lodged by Boakai’s Unity Party against the electoral commission over the conduct of the

first round, but many of the complaints appeared to have been addressed in the second round. — AFP




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UN bars four N.Korean ships from international ports

UNITED NATIONS — The UN Security Council on Thursday denied international port access to four North Korean ships suspected of carrying or having transported goods banned by international sanctions targeting Pyongyang, diplomats said.

The ban of the four vessels -- the Ul Ji Bong 6, Rung Ra 2, Sam Jong 2 and Rye Song Gang 1 -- brings the UN’s total number of blocked ships to eight. The United States requested the most recent ban along with measures targeting ships registered in other countries, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

But China only agreed to target the four ships flying North Korean flags, diplomats said, as part of international efforts to curb Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.

"Only four ships have been accepted" for the ban but "the procedure remains open" to include other vessels in the future, one diplomat said.

The list submitted by the US in December had also included ships flying flags from Belize, China, Hong Kong, Palau and Panama.

In 2017, the Security Council has slapped three sets of sanctions on North Korea: one on August 5 targeting the iron, coal and fishing industries; another set on September 11 aimed at textiles and limiting oil supply; and the most recent on December 22 focused on refined petroleum products.

The US has denounced trafficking of banned goods that allows North Korea to stock up, particularly the transfer of cargo between different ships on the high seas.

Blocking suspected vessels from ports -- except in the case of humanitarian need as determined by the council’s sanctions committee -- is provided for in the August resolution.

On October 5, the UN had already identified four ships "carrying prohibited goods," resulting in a ban on port access that was a "first in United Nations" history, according to Hugh Griffiths, part of a UN panel of experts monitoring the application of sanctions on Pyongyang.

Those four vessels were registered in the Comoros, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Cambodia and North Korea, and were targeted for the illegal transport of coal, iron and North Korean fish. — AFP

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Rio expects three million for New Year’s at Copacabana

In previous years, there have been around two million people to watch fireworks at the beach, almost all dressed in white, as tradition dictates. — AFP Photo
Viet Nam News

RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio de Janeiro expects three million people to attend New Year’s festivities at the famed Copacabana beach, the Brazilian city said on Wednesday.

In previous years, there have been around two million people to watch fireworks at the beach, almost all dressed in white, as tradition dictates.

"We believe that there will be three million people," Marcelo Alves, the head of the municipal tourism agency Riotur, said at a news conference.

The city council said that a total of 1,032 municipal police have been mobilized for the celebrations, and the Rio state government earlier announced that leave for 2,000 military police had been canceled to reinforce security for end-of-the-year celebrations.

Despite violence and financial problems plaguing the city, Riotur expects it to receive 2.7 million tourists for New Year’s, which would inject some 2 billion reais (US$600 million) into the economy. — AFP




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At least 40 dead in multiple Kabul blasts: Interior Ministry

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—  Atleast 40 people were killed and many others were wounded in multiple blasts near a media outlet and mosque in Kabul on Thursday, officials said, in the latest violence to hit the Afghan capital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which comes days after a suicide bomber killed six civilians in an assault near an Afghan intelligence agency compound in the city. 

"There were two explosions. We still do not know the target of the attack, but Afghan Voice Agency is in the area of the attack," interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish said.

AFP reporters near the scene of the blast heard a third explosion, suggesting the attack may still be under way. 

A hospital official told local TV that 18 wounded had been brought to his facility. 

"Five of the wounded are in critical condition and our doctors are working to save their lives," Sabir Nasib, head of Istiqlal hospital, said.

A man in the vicinity of the attack said he heard a "big boom". 

"We do not know the numbers (of casualties). When the explosion happened we immediately fled," he told Tolo News.




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Macron under fire over plan to tighten joblessness monitoring

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron came under fire Wednesday over his policy on jobless benefits after a press leak pointed to plans to tighten monitoring of people on the dole.

The investigative weekly Canard Enchaine, citing an internal memo, said those receiving jobless benefits would be required to submit a monthly report on their job-hunting efforts.

Politicians both to the left and the right of the centrist president assailed the idea of a monthly reporting requirement, with the Socialist Party tweeting that it was first mooted by the head of the employers’ federation, Pierre Gattaz.

But Macron defended the plan in an interview with French radio LCI.

"If there are no rules, things cannot move ahead. That doesn’t mean that we’ll chase everyone," the 40-year-old said Wednesday evening.

Macron, elected in May on a pro-business platform, repeatedly pledged on the campaign trail to overhaul unemployment insurance -- along with his landmark labour reforms -- with a view to reining in unemployment.

Employers regularly point to the unemployment benefit system, seen as among Europe’s most generous, as one of the main reasons for France’s chronically high joblessness.

Some five weeks of negotiations on the sensitive issue are set to begin on January 11.

Alexis Corbiere of the radical left France Unbowed party told news channel BFMTV: "All this bureaucracy around unemployment has only one goal: to strike people (off the rolls) and then be able to say, ’Look, thanks to us unemployment is down’."

Far-right National Front spokesman Jordan Bardella questioned a policy of "generalised suspicion" towards the unemployed, saying the government should instead focus on rooting out "notorious cheaters".

Under the plan, those who refuse two job offers deemed "reasonable" or who refuse training will have their benefits halved for two months compared with the current 20 percent cut, said the Canard, which combines biting satire with regular investigative scoops.

If they fail to step back into line the benefits will be totally withdrawn for the next two months, it said, citing a confidential labour ministry memo.

Macron eyes ’major results’

Thanks to the comfortable parliamentary majority enjoyed by Macron’s LREM party, the president has been on a legislative roll, notably pushing through his overhaul of France’s complex labour code in September.

On Wednesday the former investment banker told the Spanish daily El Mundo he expected the labour reforms to produce "major results within 18-24 months" for the employment situation.

Since Macron’s election, unemployment has dipped to around 9.6 percent -- still about twice that of Britain or Germany and well above the European average of 7.8 percent.

"The first year of one’s term is crucial," Macron told El Mundo. "That’s why I wanted to move fast."

Joblessness was a constant thorn in the side of Macron’s Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, who failed to move the needle much below 10 percent during his single term in power.

His short tenure saw massive, sometimes violent street protests against proposed labour reforms.

Macron’s reforms are designed to give employers more flexibility to negotiate pay and conditions with their workers while making it easier and less costly to shed staff.

Unemployment is expected to stabilise at around 9.4 percent by mid-2018, its lowest level since early 2012.

Also on Macron’s frenetic agenda -- and just as sensitive as the overhaul of unemployment insurance -- is pension reform. — AFP




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10 hurt in Saint Petersburg supermarket bombing

Viet Nam News

SAINT PETERSBURG — A homemade bomb blast at a supermarket in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg injured 10 people Wednesday, officials said, sparking a probe into attempted murder.

"According to preliminary information, an explosion of an unidentified object occurred in a store," a spokeswoman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, Svetlana Petrenko, said in a statement.

The blast was caused by a "homemade explosive device with the power equivalent to 200 grammes of TNT filled with lethal fragments," she said.

"The investigation is looking at all possible causes of what happened," she said, adding that a probe for attempted murder had been launched.

The incident comes several months after Russia’s second city was rocked with a metro bombing in April which killed 16 people and amid concern that hundreds of Russian citizens who travelled to fight alongside jihadists groups abroad could pose a mounting security challenge back home.

"Ten people have been hospitalised, their lives are not in danger," the head of the Saint Petersburg investigative unit Alexander Klaus told Russian news agencies.

An emergencies ministry representative told AFP that one of the injured was in serious condition.

An AFP correspondent at the scene observed first responders and police as well as a car belonging the Federal Security Service (FSB), which investigates acts of terror.

The building containing the supermarket did not appear to have sustained serious damage.

Police have cordoned off the area while the city’s transportation authorities briefly rerouted public transport in the neighbourhood.

Security boosted

Passerby Galina Gustova, 58, observed the scene with horror.

"How terrible! And this happens as people are shopping ahead of the holidays," she said. "It’s a good thing nobody died."

The blast came ahead of New Year’s celebrations as well as Russian Orthodox Christmas, which falls on January 7.

"I often buy groceries here, I wanted to go in but everything is blocked," said another local, 20-year-old Viktoria Smirnova.

"I’m a doctor, I heard on the news that there was an explosion. I live nearby and thought I could be useful," another bystander, 50-year-old Marina Bulanova, said.

Sources told Russian agencies that the explosive device had been placed in a storage locker.

"About 6:30 pm there was the sound of a blast. As a result, several people have been injured," the Saint Petersburg police said.

"There is no fire. All shoppers have been evacuated," an emergencies ministry representative told Interfax.

Witness Artur Yeritsyan told TASS news agency that he heard the blast and saw smoke in the shop, but that there were not a lot of customers at the time, with some victims being taken away by ambulances.

Saint Petersburg, which is set to host World Cup matches next year, is still reeling from the deadly metro bombing in April that killed 16 and wounded dozens.

That bombing was claimed by a group linked to Al-Qaeda which said it was a message to countries engaged in war with Muslims.

In July, the FSB said it had detained seven people who were preparing "acts of terror" in Saint Petersburg, particularly its railway system and major public gathering places.

And this month Russian security services said they had dismantled an Islamic State group cell apparently preparing attacks in the city.

FSB director Alexandra Bortnikov said earlier in December that around 4,500 Russian citizens had travelled abroad to participate in "terrorist" groups. — AFP




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Following Trump, Guatemala to move embassy to Jerusalem

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala said Monday it is starting the process of moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, after President Jimmy Morales announced he would follow US President Donald Trump’s controversial lead on the holy city.

Morales wrote a message to Guatemalans on his Facebook page Sunday, saying he had spoken with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that "one of the most important topics was the return of Guatemala’s embassy to Jerusalem."

"For this reason I am informing you that I have given instructions to the foreign ministry... to make this happen," Morales wrote.

On Monday, the foreign ministry said it was implementing the order.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received the presidential order and is starting the process of implementing this foreign policy decision," it said in a statement.

Guatemala’s leader made the embassy announcement on Christmas Eve, three days after two-thirds of UN member states rejected Trump’s decision to have the United States recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Netanyahu on Monday hailed the decision, saying Guatemala would not be the only nation to follow Washington’s lead.

’Shameful and illegal’

But the Palestinian foreign ministry slammed Guatemala.

"It’s a shameful and illegal act that goes totally against the wishes of church leaders in Jerusalem" and of a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution condemning the US recognition, the ministry said in a statement.

Guatemala’s decision also drew fire from Bolivian President Evo Morales.

"In a complete act of mockery of the international community, the government of Guatemala ignores the resolution of the UN (General) Assembly and decides to move its embassy to Jerusalem," he wrote on his Twitter account.

In all, 128 nations voted to maintain the international consensus that Jerusalem’s status can only be decided through peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Only eight countries stood with the United States in voting against the resolution in the UN General Assembly, among them Guatemala and fellow Central American country Honduras.

Guatemala and Honduras are both reliant on US funding to improve security in their gang-ridden territories.

Violence, corruption and poverty have made the two countries, along with El Salvador, the main source of illegal migration to the United States, which is giving them US$750 million to provide better conditions at home.

Guatemala ’pro-Israeli’

On Friday, Morales foreshadowed the decision he was to make regarding Jerusalem, as he defended his government’s vote at the UN backing the United States.

"Guatemala is historically pro-Israeli," he told a news conference in Guatemala City.

"In 70 years of relations, Israel has been our ally," he said.

"We have a Christian way of thinking that, as well as the politics of it, has us believing that Israel is our ally and we must support it."

Morales’s position has become fragile in recent months because of allegations of corruption against him being investigated by a special UN-backed body working with Guatemalan prosecutors.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had said her country would "take names" of the states opposing its position, and Trump threatened to cut funding to countries "that take our money and then vote against us."

Several significant US allies abstained from the UN vote, among them Australia, Canada, Mexico and Poland.

Others, such as Britain, France, Germany and South Korea were among the nations denouncing any unilateral decision to view Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Along with Guatemala and Honduras, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo were on the US side of the vote.

Following the US decision on Jerusalem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he would "no longer accept" any peace plan proposed by the US, dealing a pre-emptive blow to an initiative expected by Washington next year. — AFP




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Thousands of Russians endorse Navalny to challenge Putin in March vote

MOSCOW — More than 15,000 Russians on Sunday endorsed the candidacy of Alexei Navalny, seen as the only Russian opposition leader who stands a fighting chance of challenging President Vladimir Putin in a March vote.

"An election without us is not an election," Navalny declared in Moscow around 1700 GMT before submitting his nomination to the Central Electoral Commission, which will rule whether he can run.

Authorities have deemed the 41-year-old ineligible to run due to a criminal conviction, saying "only a miracle" would help him get registered. Navalny has described the conviction as politically motivated.

Thousands backing the charismatic lawyer met in 20 cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg in the northwest to nominate him as a candidate in the presence of electoral officials to boost his chances of contesting the March 18 ballot.

His campaign said more than 15,000 people endorsed him nationwide. An independent candidate needs 500 votes to get registered with election authorities, according to leglisation.

In Moscow, more than 700 people supported Navalny’s candidacy as they gathered in a huge marquee set up in a picturesque park on the snow-covered banks of the Moscow River.

"I am hugely happy, I am proud to tell you that I stand here as a candidate of the entire Russia," the Western-educated Navalny told supporters earlier.

"We are ready to win and we will win these elections," Navalny said before finishing his speech in a cloud of confetti.

Navalny said that if he is not allowed to put his name on the ballot he will contest the ban in courts and repeated his threat to call for the polls to be boycotted if he did not get registered.

"Thwart the elections if they are dishonest," he told supporters.

Putin, 65, announced this month that he will seek a fourth presidential term, which would extend his rule until 2024 and make him the longest-serving Russian leader since Communist leader Joseph Stalin.

He is widely expected to sail to victory.

But with the result of the March vote a foregone conclusion, turnout could be low, harming Putin’s hopes for a clear new mandate, observers say.

Navalny, who has tapped into the anger of a younger generation who yearn for change, hopes that popular support for his Kremlin bid would pressure authorities into putting his name on the ballot.

"If Navalny is not allowed to run, I am not going to vote," pensioner Marina Kurbatskaya said in Moscow. "I don’t see anyone else who I want to become president." — AFP




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N. Korea likely to explore possibility of talks with U.S. in 2018: South

SEOUL — North Korea is likely to explore the possibility of dialogue with the United States in 2018 as the state seeks to secure a status as a de facto possessor of nuclear weapons, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said Tuesday.

"North Korea may continue to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities while searching for an outlet externally," the ministry said in its predictions for North Korea in 2018. "In searching for the recognition of its status as a de facto nuclear-possessing state, (the North) would explore the possibility of negotiations with the US."

At the same time, the North is also likely to attempt to engage with South Korea in order to restore inter-Korean relations next year, it also said. It added that the ministry will closely watch North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year address on January 1 to see if it alludes to such possibilities.

For this year, North Korea has distanced itself from dialogue and engagement with South Korea as it attempted to work out its relationship with the US ahead of that with the South, according to the ministry.

Next year, North Korea is expected to start to feel the pinch of international and bilateral sanctions on the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, the ministry said.

"North Korea is forecast to maximize efforts to endure (the impact of sanctions) by tightening social control and mobilising its people for building the economy," the ministry said. It predicted the sanctions’ economic ramifications may start to show in 2018, with effects including cuts in trade volume and foreign currency inflow, as well as reduced production in each part of the economy.

North Korea’s economy has already faced the impact of international sanctions, with foreign countries reducing imports of North Korean workers as well as humanitarian assistance to the North, according to the Unification Ministry.

North Korea’s exports to China, its largest trading partner, tumbled 31.7 per cent to US$1.6 billion in the January-November period, compared to a year earlier. The overall North Korea-China trade volume in the January-November period dropped 10.2 per cent on-year to US$4.67 billion, according to the ministry data.

Rice prices and the US dollar-North Korean won exchange rate remain relatively stable with one kilogram of rice being sold at around 5,000 won and one US dollar exchanged for some 8,000 won recently. But they are currently showing signs of rapid price changes, the ministry noted.

Gas prices in North Korea have risen about two to three times since early this year, it also said, indicating United Nations Security Council sanctions’ tightening grip on North Korea’s oil procurement. — YONHAP




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Following Trump, Guatemala to move embassy to Jerusalem

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala said Monday it is starting the process of moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, after President Jimmy Morales announced he would follow US President Donald Trump’s controversial lead on the holy city.

Morales wrote a message to Guatemalans on his Facebook page Sunday, saying he had spoken with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that "one of the most important topics was the return of Guatemala’s embassy to Jerusalem."

"For this reason I am informing you that I have given instructions to the foreign ministry... to make this happen," Morales wrote.

On Monday, the foreign ministry said it was implementing the order.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received the presidential order and is starting the process of implementing this foreign policy decision," it said in a statement.

Guatemala’s leader made the embassy announcement on Christmas Eve, three days after two-thirds of UN member states rejected Trump’s decision to have the United States recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Netanyahu on Monday hailed the decision, saying Guatemala would not be the only nation to follow Washington’s lead.

’Shameful and illegal’

But the Palestinian foreign ministry slammed Guatemala.

"It’s a shameful and illegal act that goes totally against the wishes of church leaders in Jerusalem" and of a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution condemning the US recognition, the ministry said in a statement.

Guatemala’s decision also drew fire from Bolivian President Evo Morales.

"In a complete act of mockery of the international community, the government of Guatemala ignores the resolution of the UN (General) Assembly and decides to move its embassy to Jerusalem," he wrote on his Twitter account.

In all, 128 nations voted to maintain the international consensus that Jerusalem’s status can only be decided through peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Only eight countries stood with the United States in voting against the resolution in the UN General Assembly, among them Guatemala and fellow Central American country Honduras.

Guatemala and Honduras are both reliant on US funding to improve security in their gang-ridden territories.

Violence, corruption and poverty have made the two countries, along with El Salvador, the main source of illegal migration to the United States, which is giving them US$750 million to provide better conditions at home.

Guatemala ’pro-Israeli’

On Friday, Morales foreshadowed the decision he was to make regarding Jerusalem, as he defended his government’s vote at the UN backing the United States.

"Guatemala is historically pro-Israeli," he told a news conference in Guatemala City.

"In 70 years of relations, Israel has been our ally," he said.

"We have a Christian way of thinking that, as well as the politics of it, has us believing that Israel is our ally and we must support it."

Morales’s position has become fragile in recent months because of allegations of corruption against him being investigated by a special UN-backed body working with Guatemalan prosecutors.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had said her country would "take names" of the states opposing its position, and Trump threatened to cut funding to countries "that take our money and then vote against us."

Several significant US allies abstained from the UN vote, among them Australia, Canada, Mexico and Poland.

Others, such as Britain, France, Germany and South Korea were among the nations denouncing any unilateral decision to view Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Along with Guatemala and Honduras, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo were on the US side of the vote.

Following the US decision on Jerusalem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he would "no longer accept" any peace plan proposed by the US, dealing a pre-emptive blow to an initiative expected by Washington next year. — AFP




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Nigerian army thwarts Boko Haram attack on Maiduguri

KANO — Boko Haram jihadists made a failed Christmas Day attempt to attack Nigeria’s major northeast city of Maiduguri as they were pushed out by Nigerian soldiers after a prolonged gun battle, military and militia sources said.

The jihadists in "several" pickup trucks opened fire on a military checkpoint on the Molai outskirts of the city at around 5:30 pm (1630 GMT) on Monday, triggering a gun fight that lasted for more than an hour.

"The terrorists came in several pickups and engaged troops at Molai who fought and repelled the attack with aerial support," said a senior military officer in Maiduguri.

"It was clear they wanted to overrun the checkpoint and enter the city to cause mayhem," said the military officer who requested anonymity.

The gunmen used the cover of a convoy of civilian vehicles under military escort returning from the town of Damboa, 90 kilometres away, to launch the attack, said Ibrahim Liman, a militia leader assisting the Nigerian army in fighting the Islamists.

"One of the Boko Haram vehicles infiltrated the middle section of a civilian convoy...and engaged soldiers," Liman said.

Boko Haram reinforcements lurking in the nearby Cashew Plantation and Jiddari Polo areas joined in the battle, Liman added.

The fighting prompted Molai residents to flee into Maiduguri and the influx caused panic among residents.

Troop reinforcements from the city were deployed to Molar and helped in repelling the attack, the military source said.

It was not possible to immediately establish the number of casualties as the scene of the fighting was cordoned off by troops after the gunmen were pushed out at 7:20 pm (1820 GMT), Liman said.

Security had been tightened in Maiduguri for the Christmas weekend in anticipation of possible Boko Haram attacks. Police issued a statement asking residents to be vigilant and report suspicious persons and abandoned objects to security personnel.

Earlier Monday, troops in nearby Yobe state gunned down 10 jihadists who tried to attack a military post on a highway linking the two states, according to militia leader Mustapha Karimbe.

"Soldiers killed 10 of the terrorists and recovered four pickups while the rest fled," Karimbe said.

Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency has killed 20,000 people and displaced 2.6 million more in Nigeria. In recent months attacks on military and civilian targets as well as raids on remote villages in the northeast have increased.

The surge in attacks has been attributed to Boko Haram’s desperate search for much-needed weapons and food supplies following military offensives which cut off the militants’ supply routes. — AFP




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N. Korea likely to explore possibility of talks with U.S. in 2018: South

SEOUL — North Korea is likely to explore the possibility of dialogue with the United States in 2018 as the state seeks to secure a status as a de facto possessor of nuclear weapons, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said Tuesday.

"North Korea may continue to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities while searching for an outlet externally," the ministry said in its predictions for North Korea in 2018. "In searching for the recognition of its status as a de facto nuclear-possessing state, (the North) would explore the possibility of negotiations with the US."

At the same time, the North is also likely to attempt to engage with South Korea in order to restore inter-Korean relations next year, it also said. It added that the ministry will closely watch North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year address on January 1 to see if it alludes to such possibilities.

For this year, North Korea has distanced itself from dialogue and engagement with South Korea as it attempted to work out its relationship with the US ahead of that with the South, according to the ministry.

Next year, North Korea is expected to start to feel the pinch of international and bilateral sanctions on the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, the ministry said.

"North Korea is forecast to maximize efforts to endure (the impact of sanctions) by tightening social control and mobilising its people for building the economy," the ministry said. It predicted the sanctions’ economic ramifications may start to show in 2018, with effects including cuts in trade volume and foreign currency inflow, as well as reduced production in each part of the economy.

North Korea’s economy has already faced the impact of international sanctions, with foreign countries reducing imports of North Korean workers as well as humanitarian assistance to the North, according to the Unification Ministry.

North Korea’s exports to China, its largest trading partner, tumbled 31.7 per cent to US$1.6 billion in the January-November period, compared to a year earlier. The overall North Korea-China trade volume in the January-November period dropped 10.2 per cent on-year to US$4.67 billion, according to the ministry data.

Rice prices and the US dollar-North Korean won exchange rate remain relatively stable with one kilogram of rice being sold at around 5,000 won and one US dollar exchanged for some 8,000 won recently. But they are currently showing signs of rapid price changes, the ministry noted.

Gas prices in North Korea have risen about two to three times since early this year, it also said, indicating United Nations Security Council sanctions’ tightening grip on North Korea’s oil procurement. — YONHAP




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Liberians to choose new leader in delayed presidential vote

Viet Nam News

MONROVIA — Liberians go to the polls Tuesday to select either former international footballer George Weah or Vice President Joseph Boakai as their new president, in a vote that analysts say is too close to call.

After seven weeks of delays caused by legal challenges against the country’s electoral commission lodged by Boakai’s party, polling stations will open at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) for the West African nation’s 2.1 million voters.

They will choose a successor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is stepping down after serving 12 years as Africa’s first elected female leader, representing Liberia’s only democratic transfer of power since 1944.

Trucks filled with voting materials were escorted by police around the capital Monrovia on Monday, after leaving the offices of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which has rushed to clean the national voter register to avoid allegations of fraud.

"For three days now I have not closed my eyes. We are making sure that nothing goes wrong because this election is a crucial one," a stressed-looking policeman said.

Both contenders have already announced they are confident of victory but the final result is not expected to be known for a few days.

From pitch to palace?

In the first round of voting on October 10, Weah topped the poll with 38.4 percent while Boakai came second with 28.8 percent, triggering a run-off as neither made it past the 50 percent needed to win outright.

Boakai then accused the NEC of fraud and incompetence grave enough to have affected the vote, delaying proceedings while the complaints were analysed by the Supreme Court. His party’s arguments were ultimately rejected.

Whoever wins the delayed vote faces an economy battered by lower commodity prices for its main exports of rubber and iron ore, and a rapidly depreciating currency.

Both candidates have been accused of offering vague platforms, beyond assurances on free education and investment in infrastructure and agriculture.

As Liberia’s most famous son, Weah attracts huge crowds and has a faithful youth following in a country where a fifth of the electorate is aged 18 to 22, but he is criticised for his long absences from the Senate, where he has served since 2014.

Weah’s endorsement by warlord-turned-preacher Prince Johnson, who is extremely popular in the populous county of Nimba, may boost his chances, while he was pictured at a public event with Sirleaf on Thursday, heightening speculation a feud with Boakai has pushed her to support his opponent.

"You know I’ve been in competitions -- tough ones too and I came out victorious. So I know Boakai cannot defeat me," Weah said on Saturday. "I have the people on my side."

Weah has also polled well in Bong county, the fiefdom of Liberian warlord and former president Charles Taylor and his ex-wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor, who is the former footballer’s vice-presidential pick.

Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but his presence has loomed over the election.

’We cannot feast’

Vice President Boakai meanwhile is seen as a continuity candidate and has won praise for his public service stretching back four decades, when many elites fled Liberia for the United States.

Boakai said Sunday he was "very, very confident" of winning, telling AFP:

"Victory is mine".

While ordinary Liberians are grateful peace has held through Sirleaf’s two terms in office, living standards remain dire for most.

She guided the nation out of ruin following back-to-back 1989-2003 civil wars and through the horrors of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, but is accused of failing to combat poverty and tackle corruption.

Both issues have been a focus of the campaign, giving Boakai a difficult path to tread after serving at her side.

He faces accusations the government did too little on graft and focused on seeking donor funds rather than tackling issues at home.

The election date finally chosen in Christian-majority Liberia has sowed fears of lower turnout in a country where many travel long distances to see family, and alcohol flows particularly freely at Christmas time.

"Because of the election we will not really enjoy Christmas this year. We cannot feast now because we have to go vote tomorrow. We have to postpone the Christmas celebration to another date," complained Emmanuel Johnson, 27. — AFP




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Following Trump, Guatemala to move embassy to Jerusalem

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala said Monday it is starting the process of moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, after President Jimmy Morales announced he would follow US President Donald Trump’s controversial lead on the holy city.

Morales wrote a message to Guatemalans on his Facebook page Sunday, saying he had spoken with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that "one of the most important topics was the return of Guatemala’s embassy to Jerusalem."

"For this reason I am informing you that I have given instructions to the foreign ministry... to make this happen," Morales wrote.

On Monday, the foreign ministry said it was implementing the order.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received the presidential order and is starting the process of implementing this foreign policy decision," it said in a statement.

Guatemala’s leader made the embassy announcement on Christmas Eve, three days after two-thirds of UN member states rejected Trump’s decision to have the United States recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Netanyahu on Monday hailed the decision, saying Guatemala would not be the only nation to follow Washington’s lead.

’Shameful and illegal’

But the Palestinian foreign ministry slammed Guatemala.

"It’s a shameful and illegal act that goes totally against the wishes of church leaders in Jerusalem" and of a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution condemning the US recognition, the ministry said in a statement.

Guatemala’s decision also drew fire from Bolivian President Evo Morales.

"In a complete act of mockery of the international community, the government of Guatemala ignores the resolution of the UN (General) Assembly and decides to move its embassy to Jerusalem," he wrote on his Twitter account.

In all, 128 nations voted to maintain the international consensus that Jerusalem’s status can only be decided through peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Only eight countries stood with the United States in voting against the resolution in the UN General Assembly, among them Guatemala and fellow Central American country Honduras.

Guatemala and Honduras are both reliant on US funding to improve security in their gang-ridden territories.

Violence, corruption and poverty have made the two countries, along with El Salvador, the main source of illegal migration to the United States, which is giving them US$750 million to provide better conditions at home.

Guatemala ’pro-Israeli’

On Friday, Morales foreshadowed the decision he was to make regarding Jerusalem, as he defended his government’s vote at the UN backing the United States.

"Guatemala is historically pro-Israeli," he told a news conference in Guatemala City.

"In 70 years of relations, Israel has been our ally," he said.

"We have a Christian way of thinking that, as well as the politics of it, has us believing that Israel is our ally and we must support it."

Morales’s position has become fragile in recent months because of allegations of corruption against him being investigated by a special UN-backed body working with Guatemalan prosecutors.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had said her country would "take names" of the states opposing its position, and Trump threatened to cut funding to countries "that take our money and then vote against us."

Several significant US allies abstained from the UN vote, among them Australia, Canada, Mexico and Poland.

Others, such as Britain, France, Germany and South Korea were among the nations denouncing any unilateral decision to view Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Along with Guatemala and Honduras, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo were on the US side of the vote.

Following the US decision on Jerusalem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he would "no longer accept" any peace plan proposed by the US, dealing a pre-emptive blow to an initiative expected by Washington next year. — AFP




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Thousands of Russians endorse Navalny to challenge Putin in March vote

MOSCOW — More than 15,000 Russians on Sunday endorsed the candidacy of Alexei Navalny, seen as the only Russian opposition leader who stands a fighting chance of challenging President Vladimir Putin in a March vote.

"An election without us is not an election," Navalny declared in Moscow around 1700 GMT before submitting his nomination to the Central Electoral Commission, which will rule whether he can run.

Authorities have deemed the 41-year-old ineligible to run due to a criminal conviction, saying "only a miracle" would help him get registered. Navalny has described the conviction as politically motivated.

Thousands backing the charismatic lawyer met in 20 cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg in the northwest to nominate him as a candidate in the presence of electoral officials to boost his chances of contesting the March 18 ballot.

His campaign said more than 15,000 people endorsed him nationwide. An independent candidate needs 500 votes to get registered with election authorities, according to leglisation.

In Moscow, more than 700 people supported Navalny’s candidacy as they gathered in a huge marquee set up in a picturesque park on the snow-covered banks of the Moscow River.

"I am hugely happy, I am proud to tell you that I stand here as a candidate of the entire Russia," the Western-educated Navalny told supporters earlier.

"We are ready to win and we will win these elections," Navalny said before finishing his speech in a cloud of confetti.

Navalny said that if he is not allowed to put his name on the ballot he will contest the ban in courts and repeated his threat to call for the polls to be boycotted if he did not get registered.

"Thwart the elections if they are dishonest," he told supporters.

Putin, 65, announced this month that he will seek a fourth presidential term, which would extend his rule until 2024 and make him the longest-serving Russian leader since Communist leader Joseph Stalin.

He is widely expected to sail to victory.

But with the result of the March vote a foregone conclusion, turnout could be low, harming Putin’s hopes for a clear new mandate, observers say.

Navalny, who has tapped into the anger of a younger generation who yearn for change, hopes that popular support for his Kremlin bid would pressure authorities into putting his name on the ballot.

"If Navalny is not allowed to run, I am not going to vote," pensioner Marina Kurbatskaya said in Moscow. "I don’t see anyone else who I want to become president." — AFP




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Erdogan signs accords on first visit to Sudan

KHARTOUM — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Khartoum on Sunday and met his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir at the start of a three-country African tour.

Twelve accords were signed at the outset of his two-day visit to Khartoum, including economic and military deals as well as on the creation of a strategic cooperation council, Erdogan told a news conference.

He said the two Muslim countries aimed at boost two-way trade from the current level of $500 million a year to $1 billion in an initial stage and then $10 billion.

Bashir hailed the trip by Erdogan, who is to travel on to Chad and Tunisia, as an "historic" first visit to Sudan by a Turkish president.

Sudan’s leader, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and war crimes in the strife-torn Darfur region, earlier this month attended a summit in Istanbul of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Erdogan called on those at the summit to condemn US President Donald Trump’s recognition on December 6 of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. — AFP




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20 dead in Philippines bus crash on way to Christmas mass

MANILA — Twenty pilgrims were killed Monday in a head-on bus collision while travelling to Christmas Day mass in the northern Philippines, police said.

A small bus taking an extended family to a dawn church service crashed into a larger bus in the town of Agoo, 200 kilometres north of Manila, killing 20 on board, Agoo police said.

The nine other occupants of the small bus were injured, as were 15 travelling on the bigger bus, police said.

"They were trying to catch a mass in Manaoag," police officer Vanessa Abubo said, referring to a nearby town with a famous Catholic church.

The centuries-old Our Lady of Manaoag church is a popular pilgrimage site in the mainly Catholic nation, featuring an icon of the Virgin Mary which the faithful say performs miracles.

Agoo police chief Roy Villanueva told Manila radio station DZMM by telephone that the smaller vehicle had left its lane to overtake a third vehicle.

Authorities are investigating whether the driver, who Abubo said was among those killed, had fallen asleep or was under the influence, Villanueva added. — AFP




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US hails UN budget cuts as ’step in right direction’

UNITED NATIONS, United States — The United States on Sunday applauded a US$285-million-cut in the UN core budget, saying it was "a big step in right direction."

The General Assembly adopted a budget of $5.396 billion for 2018-2019, slightly below the $5.4 billion that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had sought.

The United States is by far the largest contributor to the UN budget, providing for 22 percent of the core budget.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that "inefficiency and overspending" at the world body were "well known."

Haley said the budget negotiations had generated several "successes" with financial cutbacks and a reduction of the UN’s "bloated management and support functions."

"We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked," she said.

"This historic reduction in spending — in addition to many other moves toward a more efficient and accountable UN — is a big step in the right direction."

"While we are pleased with the results of this year’s budget negotiations, you can be sure we’ll continue to look at ways to increase the UN’s efficiency while protecting our interests," she added.

The UN’s operating budget is separate from its peacekeeping budget, which was cut by $600 million this year under pressure from the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The push for deeper cuts comes as Guterres is trying to build support for his plans for reform of the UN bureaucracy.

Guterres’ budget proposal was $200 million below the 2016-2017 biennial budget.

During a meeting held on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly debate in September, Trump said the United Nations had failed to reach its "full potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement."

"We are not seeing the results in line with this investment," he said.

Last week, Trump threatened to cut funding to countries that supported a UN resolution rejecting his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. — AFP




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Pope pleads for migrants at Christmas mass

Viet Nam News

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis in his Christmas eve mass Sunday urged the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics not to ignore the plight of migrants who are "driven from their land" because of leaders willing to shed "innocent blood".

"So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary," the Argentine pontiff, himself the grandson of Italian migrants, told worshippers in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

"We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones."

Many engulfed in the ongoing migration crisis were forced to flee from leaders "who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood", said the 81-year-old, who will give his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas address on Monday.

The pontiff’s plea for "hope" came as fresh tensions simmered in the West Bank following Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The announcement by US President Donald Trump on December 6 unleashed demonstrators and clashes, including in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Christians marked the birth of Jesus at a midnight mass.

Christmas in Mosul

Christmas decorations have become more visible in Christian areas of Syria’s capital Damascus this year.

In the central Syrian city of Homs, Christians will celebrate Christmas with great fanfare for the first time in years after the end of battles between regime and rebel forces, with processions, shows for children and even decorations among the ruins.

In Iraq too, this year marks a positive turning point for the Christian community in the northern city of Mosul.

Hymns filled a Mosul church on Sunday as worshippers celebrated Christmas

for the first time in four years after the city’s recapture from the Islamic State group in July.

Muslims stood alongside Christian worshippers amid the candles and Christmas trees at St Paul’s Church in Mosul. — AFP




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US Congress approves short-term budget to avoid shutdown

WASHINGTON  The Republican-controlled US Congress on Thursday passed a short-term funding bill to keep the federal government running for four more weeks, averting a looming shutdown.

Members of the House of Representatives voted 231-188 for the bill and the Senate followed with a 66 to 32 vote.

The temporary funding extension -- which lasts until January 19 – gives more time to lawmakers from both parties to reach an agreement on funding for the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year, which ends September 30.

Opposition Democrats had the numbers to block the Republican bill in the Senate, theoretically giving them the ability to leverage concessions.

Some Democratic senators opposed the measure because it did not address the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children -- known as “Dreamers” -- whose status has been thrown into doubt by President Donald Trump.

But the fact that the Senate majority leader has agreed to put a bill on the status of those immigrants on the floor in January may have encouraged Democrats not to stand in the way of the funding measure.

In the House, some Republicans had threatened to vote “no” on the temporary funding bill because it does not fund the Department of Defense for the entire year.

Earlier in the day, Trump accused Democrats of trying to block the bill in order to close down the federal government -- something that did not in the end occur.

“House Democrats want a SHUTDOWN for the holidays in order to distract from the very popular, just passed, Tax Cuts. House Republicans, don’t let this happen,” he tweeted.

Contentions issues unresolved

“Pass the (bill) TODAY and keep our Government OPEN!"

While a government shutdown has been averted, there has been no grand compromise on some of the most contentious issues facing the country, such as immigration and health care.

Democrats and some Republicans favor giving “Dreamers” legal status, but most Republicans, along with the White House, want the minority party to accept tougher border security measures in exchange for extending that protection.

Lawmakers are also discussing bills to stabilize the health care markets created under former president Barack Obama’s “Obamacare” reforms, which have come under attack from the Trump administration and the Republican majority.

Additionally, there is the issue of funding the government for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year.

But the bill adopted on Thursday does contain some important short-term measures.

It unlocks hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new missile base in Alaska, and to repair to US Navy ships damaged in recent accidents.

A public health insurance program for 8.9 million children is reauthorized until March 31, which will prevent a lapse in coverage.

And a law that allows US intel agencies to spy on internet users abroad, including on platforms like Facebook and Skype that was due to expire at year’s end has been extended until January 19.

In a separate measure, the House approved $81 billion in funding on Thursday for states and territories devastated by hurricanes and wildfires this summer and fall.

The Senate is to vote on the assistance once Congress reconvenes in January. AFP




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Britain’s foreign minister makes first Russia visit in five years

MOSCOW British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Friday will hold talks in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the first official visit by a minister from London in five years.

The visit could signal an improvement in relations after years of antagonism. It comes after Johnson in April cancelled a planned trip at the last minute over Russia’s support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Britain’s outspoken foreign secretary himself said he holds out little hope that ties with Moscow could undergo a full-blown transformation.

In an interview with Polish news agency PAP ahead of his Russia visit, Johnson said he was “no cold warrior”, but he did “not believe for a second that relations with Russia can be reset.”

The Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday the diplomatic chiefs planned to “look for ways to normalise and activate the bilateral relationship.”

“Unfortunately, cutting short bilateral dialogue with Russia was London’s choice," Zakharova said, adding that this was “completely unfounded.”

She called the visit “long-awaited.”

Relations between London and Moscow soured after Britain sought to prosecute suspects in the killing of Kremlin critic and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, murdered by radiation poisoning in London in 2006.

Britain has also been a fervent supporter of Western sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The relationship suffered further blows after Russia’s intervention in the Syria conflict on the side of the Damascus regime in September 2015. AFP




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Defying Trump threat, UN rejects US decision on Jerusalem

Viet Nam News

Defying President Donald Trump’s threat to cut off funding, the United Nations approved by a resounding vote on Thursday a motion rejecting the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The 193-member General Assembly adopted the resolution by 128 to nine with 35 abstentions, in what Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour called a "massive setback" for the United States.

An additional 21 countries did not turn up for the vote including Ukraine, which had supported the same resolution in the Security Council, indicating the US threats did have a chilling effect on some governments.

Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo joined the United States in opposing the measure.

Among the countries that abstained were Argentina, Australia, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Romania and Rwanda.

Speaking at the emergency session, US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned the United States "will remember this day."

"America will put our embassy in Jerusalem," Haley said in defense of the US move, which broke with international consensus and unleashed protests across the Muslim world.

"No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that," Haley said. "But this vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN and on how we look at countries who disrespect us in the UN."

"When we make generous contributions to the UN we also have a legitimate expectation that our goodwill is recognized and respected," she said.

The resolution reaffirms that the status of Jerusalem must be resolved through negotiations, and that any decision reached outside of that framework must be rescinded.

Without explicitly referencing the US move, it "affirms that any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the vote showed the "illegality" of Trump’s decision, urging the United States to withdraw it.

’Unprecedented test’

The motion was sent to the General Assembly after it was vetoed by the United States at the Security Council on Monday, although all other 14 council members voted in favor.

While resolutions by the General Assembly are non-binding, a strong vote in support carries political weight.

Ahead of the vote, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the UN as a "house of lies," saying Israel "rejects outright this vote, even before it passes."

"No General Assembly resolution will ever drive us from Jerusalem," vowed Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon.

Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Malki called the vote an "unprecedented test" for the UN, and referenced the US warning that it was "taking names."

"History records names, it remembers names -- the names of those who stand by what is right and the names of those who speak falsehood," al-Malki said.

Trump’s decision on December 6 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital prompted a flurry of appeals to the United Nations.

The status of the Holy City is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump warned that Washington would closely watch how nations voted, suggesting there could be reprisals for those that back the motion put forward by Yemen and Turkey on behalf of Arab and Muslim countries.

"They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us," Trump said.

"Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care."

’House of lies’

The resolution mirrored the text that was vetoed at the Security Council on Monday, and although it does not mention Trump’s decision, it expresses "deep regret at recent decisions" concerning the city’s status.

No country has veto powers in the General Assembly, unlike in the 15-member Security Council where the United States, along with Britain, China, France and Russia, can block any resolution.

UN diplomats privately said the United States had succeeded in making some countries think twice.

Haley tweeted that 65 countries had "refused to condemn the United States" over its decision on Jerusalem - a tally of "no" votes, abstentions and no-shows.

"While the resolution passed, the vote breakdown tells a different story," said a spokesperson for the US mission.

"It’s clear that many countries prioritized their relationship with the United States over an unproductive attempt to isolate us for a decision that was our sovereign right to make."

The Palestinian ambassador insisted the vote was more about Trump’s foreign policy approach than the status of Jerusalem.

"They made it about them," said Mansour. "They did not make it about Jerusalem, so when you make it about them and to only be able to get nine votes to say ’no’ to it, I think it was a complete failure for their campaign."

Israel seized the largely-Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, claiming both sides of the city as its "eternal and undivided capital."

But the Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their future state and fiercely oppose any Israeli attempt to extend sovereignty there.-AFP




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Over a dozen hurt as car hits crowd in Melbourne

Viet Nam News

MELBOURNE - A car ploughed into a crowd in Australia’s second-largest city on Thursday, injuring at least a dozen people, some of them seriously, officials said.

Witnesses said people were thrown through the air after being hit by the vehicle, which did not appear to be trying to slow down as it "mowed everybody down".

Victoria state police said they had arrested the driver of the car after it "collided with a number of pedestrians" in downtown Melbourne at a busy intersection just after 4.30pm local time (0530 GMT).

A second man was also arrested by police, who have not yet said whether they believe the driver was acting deliberately.

Paramedics were "treating and transporting to hospital" 13 people, with some seriously hurt, ambulance officials said.

Sky News Australia reported that a pre-school child with a head injury was taken to hospital in a serious condition.

Citing witnesses, Sky said a white Suzuki Grand Vitara with two men inside drove into the crowd, with no signs the vehicle made an effort to slow down.

In a tweet, police appealed to members of the public to upload any images they might have of the incident to a cloud address to help assist with their investigation.

A witness, named only as Sue, told Melbourne radio station 3AW that she heard screams and saw "people flying everywhere".

"We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down," she said.

"People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere."

Another witness, John, told ABC Radio Melbourne that he saw a "SUV coming at high speed".

"(I) really just heard the collision with people with bags and what must be shopping trolleys - and I hope not prams," he said.

"I’ve really never seen anything like this before and I haven’t stopped shaking."

The incident came months after a car mowed down pedestrians in Melbourne’s busiest mall in January, killing six people.

The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had been pursued by police prior to the rampage after he had allegedly stabbed his brother.

The Australian government in August unveiled a strategy aimed at preventing vehicle terror attacks carried out in crowded public places after deadly assaults in Barcelona, Nice and London.

The strategy, commissioned after 86 people were killed in the Nice truck attack last year, offered businesses and local governments a guide to assessing how vulnerable their sites are.

Suggested steps include deterrent options like fencing and closed circuit cameras, and delaying approaches such as trees and bollards to slow down vehicles. — AFP




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Scores missing as ferry capsizes off Philippines

Viet Nam News

MANILA Rescuers were scrambling to save scores of people after a ferry capsized on Thursday in stormy weather off the Philippines, with local television networks reporting at least four people were already dead.

Around 100 passengers were plucked to safety after their vessel keeled over in heavy seas en route to a remote island.

"The wind suddenly picked up and the boat was forced to stop when the bow started taking in water. Passengers ran to the side just before it tipped over," student Donel Mendiola told DZMM radio.

"Some of us swam, but I saw some old people who were apparently already dead," Mendiola added.

ABS-CBN aired footage of rescuers wheeling injured survivors into a hospital. Four body bags were also seen being laid out on the floor.

The "Mercraft 3" tipped over between the remote island of Polillo and Real town, about 70 kilometres east of Manila, shortly before noon (0400 GMT), the coastguard said.

"We have rescued more than 100 people," Chief Inspector Mark Amat, the police chief of nearby Infanta town, said.

Amat declined to discuss the reported deaths.

The coastguard said the ferry was carrying 251 passengers and crew when it left the port of Real for Polillo, a 2.5-hour trip.

"We have heard (there were) casualties, but we’re still validating," coastguard spokesman Armand Balilo told a news conference in Manila, adding that rescue helicopters and vessels were heading to the site.

"We believe the weather was a big factor" in the accident, he said, adding nearby boats had already rescued some of those on board.

Balilo said the ferry left Real as Tropical Storm Tembin loomed over the southern Philippines, nearly a thousand kilometres away.

The vessel, which is licensed to carry up to 286 people, was allowed to sail as there were no storm warnings at or around Real or Polillo, he said.

The government had advised Filipinos planning to return to their home provinces for Christmas to do so earlier than usual to avoid heavy weather forecast to hit ahead of the holidays.

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands on the Pacific typhoon belt, is plagued by poor sea transport, with badly regulated boats and ships providing the backbone of a system prone to overcrowding and accidents.

The latest incident occurred 30 years after another Philippine ferry, the "Dona Paz", collided with an oil tanker in a pre-Christmas accident that claimed more than 4,000 lives in the world’s worst peacetime disaster at sea.

More recently, the wooden ferry "Kim Nirvana" capsized shortly after departure off the city of Ormoc in the central Philippines in 2015, killing 61 people.

The accident was thought to have been due to overcrowding. As well as passengers, the boat had also been transporting sacks of cement, rice and fertiliser which would have weighed as much as 7.5 tonnes.

In 2013, at least 71 were killed when the "Saint Thomas Aquinas" ferry sank after colliding with a cargo ship near Cebu port in the central Philippines.

The ship was carrying 830 passengers and crew. — AFP




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Over a dozen hurt as car hits crowd in Melbourne

Viet Nam News

MELBOURNE - A car ploughed into a crowd in Australia’s second-largest city on Thursday, injuring at least a dozen people, some of them seriously, officials said.

Witnesses said people were thrown through the air after being hit by the vehicle, which did not appear to be trying to slow down as it "mowed everybody down".

Victoria state police said they had arrested the driver of the car after it "collided with a number of pedestrians" in downtown Melbourne at a busy intersection just after 4.30pm local time (0530 GMT).

A second man was also arrested by police, who have not yet said whether they believe the driver was acting deliberately.

Paramedics were "treating and transporting to hospital" 13 people, with some seriously hurt, ambulance officials said.

Sky News Australia reported that a pre-school child with a head injury was taken to hospital in a serious condition.

Citing witnesses, Sky said a white Suzuki Grand Vitara with two men inside drove into the crowd, with no signs the vehicle made an effort to slow down.

In a tweet, police appealed to members of the public to upload any images they might have of the incident to a cloud address to help assist with their investigation.

A witness, named only as Sue, told Melbourne radio station 3AW that she heard screams and saw "people flying everywhere".

"We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down," she said.

"People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere."

Another witness, John, told ABC Radio Melbourne that he saw a "SUV coming at high speed".

"(I) really just heard the collision with people with bags and what must be shopping trolleys - and I hope not prams," he said.

"I’ve really never seen anything like this before and I haven’t stopped shaking."

The incident came months after a car mowed down pedestrians in Melbourne’s busiest mall in January, killing six people.

The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had been pursued by police prior to the rampage after he had allegedly stabbed his brother.

The Australian government in August unveiled a strategy aimed at preventing vehicle terror attacks carried out in crowded public places after deadly assaults in Barcelona, Nice and London.

The strategy, commissioned after 86 people were killed in the Nice truck attack last year, offered businesses and local governments a guide to assessing how vulnerable their sites are.

Suggested steps include deterrent options like fencing and closed circuit cameras, and delaying approaches such as trees and bollards to slow down vehicles. — AFP




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EU triggers unprecedented censure process against Poland

Viet Nam News

BRUSSELS The European Commission launched unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against Poland on Wednesday over its highly controversial judicial reforms which Brussels says threaten the rule of law.

In a major escalation against one of the EU’s biggest states, Brussels triggered article seven of the EU treaty over what it sees as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary from the nation’s right-wing government.

Never before used against an EU member state, the proceedings can eventually lead to the “nuclear option” of the suspension of a country’s voting rights within the bloc.

But just hours after the announcement, a defiant Polish president went ahead and signed the reforms into law.

“It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1. But the facts leave us with no choice,” Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters.

The Dutch commissioner said 13 laws adopted by Poland in the space of two years had created a situation where the government “can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the administration and the functioning” of judicial authorities.

But Timmermans gave Warsaw three months to remedy the situation, saying Brussels could withdraw the measures if it did.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Twitter it was “a difficult day for Poland, but also for the EU” and said he would meet Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki early next month.

EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and arch-rival of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, urged Warsaw to “come to its senses” and “not seek a conflict at all cost in a case where it is simply not right”.

Poland slams ‘political’ move

Poland’s right-wing PiS government began making changes to the judiciary after coming to power in late 2015 and says the reforms are needed to combat corruption.

Brussels has repeatedly warned that it views the changes as a threat to the democratic principles and rule of law Poland signed up to when it joined the EU.

“Poland deplores the European Commission’s launch of the procedure foreseen in article seven, which is essentially political, not legal” in nature, the Polish foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it risks undermining “mutual trust”.

President Andrzej Duda later said he had decided to sign into law reforms to the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary pushed through parliament this month by the PiS government.

Duda defended the constitutionality of his moves insisting that in the “US the president chooses Supreme Court judges, while the Senate gives its opinion; judges’ circles have no say in the matter”.

He also insisted that the new laws “absolutely serve the democratisation of the state”.

The initial phase set in motion by the commission, the EU executive arm, allows member states to “determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach” of the rule of law.

Such a ruling would need the backing of 22 states out of 28.

Any possible sanctions would only come at a second stage and would need unanimous support of all EU members -- apart from Poland.

Hungary has already said it would veto such a move, making sanctions unlikely, but Brussels is hoping the start of proceedings will have significant symbolic power.

Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen called Wednesday’s move a “grave attack on Polish sovereignty” and vowed that Budapest would oppose it “in all forums”, in comments to the state news agency MTI.

Protests in Poland

Poland’s parliament last week adopted new reforms allowing it to choose members of a body designed to protect judicial independence and reinforce political control over the Supreme Court.

The reforms have sparked street protests in Poland and concern from the US.

Warsaw and the EU have clashed over the reforms for more than a year with little result, with Poland refusing to implement the “recommendations” from Brussels.

The commission has been threatening to trigger article seven for months, but given that the threat of sanctions is no more than theoretical, the EU is trying to come up with other ways of getting Poland to comply.

One idea is to link access to European funding for major infrastructure projects to respect for EU values and rulings, with the EU due to start talks on its next multi-year budget in April. AFP




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UK compromises on Brexit date as EU sets out transition timeframe

LONDON British Prime Minister Theresa May gave her backing to a legislative compromise on Wednesday allowing Brexit to be delayed, avoiding another parliamentary defeat while promising that pushing back the departure date would only happen in “exceptional circumstances”.

The comments came as the European Commission said that it wants a post-Brexit transition period, during which Britain must continue to obey EU rules, to finish at the end of 2020.

Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that “all EU policies will still apply” during the transition to a new relationship between London and Brussels following Britain’s exit from the union.

“From our point of view, the logical end should be December 31, 2020,” Barnier said at a press conference in Brussels as he presented the new Brexit negotiating guidelines produced by the commission, the EU’s executive arm.

This would coincide with the end of the EU’s seven-year budget for 2014 to 2020, he said.

Later Wednesday, during a grilling from the British parliament’s powerful liaison committee, May defended the idea -- and proposed length -- of a transition phase.

“I haven’t begged the EU for two more years,” she said, arguing it was to allow businesses and governments time to make necessary changes.

Date compromise

The specific date of Britain’s departure from the bloc has become a flashpoint in draft Brexit legislation, which moved closer to becoming law Wednesday as parliament concluded its eighth and final day of scrutiny.

May, who suffered a humiliating defeat by pro-EU members of her own Conservative Party last week when MPs voted to ensure lawmakers have the final say on any divorce deal with Brussels, this time managed to avoid another rebellion.

The government had planned to enshrine the exact date and time of Brexit -- March 29, 2019 -- in law, but bowed to pressure and agreed to compromise by allowing ministers to move the date if necessary.

May told the House of Commons that the amendment allowing flexibility on the departure date “would only be in extremely exceptional circumstances and it would only be for the shortest possible time”.

Speaking during weekly questions ahead of the lawmakers’ debate, she added she remained clear that “we’re leaving the EU on the 29th March 2019”.

The key amendment was subsequently approved in the House of Commons unopposed, allowing the EU withdrawal law to pass the so-called committee stage.

The bill has two days of further debate by MPs in January, when the amendment could be reviewed, before it goes to the unelected upper House of Lords for debate.

Britain’s EU withdrawal law would formally end its membership of the bloc and transfer EU rules into its statute books.

Future relationship unclear

EU leaders signed off last week on the first stage of Brexit negotiations, ending more than a year of stalemate over Britain’s bill for leaving the bloc, as well as the fate of the Irish border and EU expatriates.

Talks on the post-Brexit transition period are to start in January, while negotiations on the future relationship between Britain and the EU, including steps towards an eventual trade deal, are due to begin in March.

The EU has said it wants to have a free trade deal with Britain ready to go at the start of 2021, as soon as the transition ends.

However, EU leaders remain unclear about what Britain wants from the future relationship, including the shape of any trade deal.

Cabinet ministers held their first detailed discussion on the long-term economic partnership at a meeting on Tuesday, though no negotiating position was finalised, and further talks are expected in early January.

May’s spokesman said Tuesday that she had called for “a deal which secures the best possible trading terms with the EU, enables the UK to set rules that are right for our situation and facilitates ambitious third-country trade deals”.

But May’s ministers are divided over how closely to stick to European regulations after Brexit, with some favouring convergence to secure the best possible trading ties, and others calling for a new approach.

Brussels meanwhile has repeatedly warned Britain that it cannot expect to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, and maintain all its benefits.

Barnier has said that any deal struck would inevitably result in Britain’s banks and financial companies losing their rights to trade across the bloc. AFP




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