Yemen govt warns of coup as separatists take over headquarters

Viet Nam News

ADEN — Yemen’s government accused southern separatists of an attempted coup on Sunday after they took over its headquarters amid fierce clashes in the city of Aden.

The fighting, which killed at least 15 people, threw war-torn Yemen into further chaos and threatened to undermine President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who ordered his forces to stand down.

Security sources and residents said clashes appeared to have spread to most of the city.

The government urged the Saudi-led military coalition, which has been supporting Hadi against Iran-backed Huthi rebels who control much of the north, to intervene.

The southern separatists -- who want the return of an independent state that ended with Yemen’s unification in 1990 -- backed Hadi’s government against the Huthis but tensions between them had been rising.

"A coup is ongoing here in Aden against legitimacy and the country’s unity," Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher said in a statement.

Shortly afterwards, it was reported loyalist commanders had received orders from Hadi to disengage.

"After talks with the Arab coalition... you must order all military units to cease fire immediately," a government statement said.

On Sunday afternoon, coalition planes flew over the city. Security sources said that pro-separatist units trained and backed by the United Arab Emirates had taken over the government headquarters in Aden after clashes.

The 15 dead included three civilians, hospital sources said. Dozens were wounded.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) tweeted that one of its facilities in Aden had received 50 wounded and four dead.

The fighting erupted after separatist protesters were prevented from entering the city for a rally to demand the government’s ouster from Aden, which became its de facto capital after the Huthis seized Sanaa in 2014.

The separatists accused the prime minister of ordering his troops to open fire at the protesters.

Separatist fighters and supporters danced at an intersection as truckloads of armed men drove through the streets.

By early evening, separatists took control of two roads leading to the presidential palace where several members of the government were staying, security sources said, adding that fighting had receded.

Schools, airport closed 

Saudi and Emirati troops present in Aden did not intervene when the clashes first broke out, security sources said.

The coalition, which launched its intervention against the rebels in March 2015, had urged restraint ahead of the planned protest.

It called on all sides to "adhere to the language of calm dialogue", the Saudi state news agency SPA said late on Saturday.

The UAE also called for restraint and reiterated its support for the coalition’s mission in Yemen and its rejection of "any act of sedition", Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a tweet.

Universities, schools and Aden’s only international airport had all been closed, witnesses said.

Dagher warned that separating south Yemen from the rest of the country would benefit the rebels and Iran, and said the situation in Aden was headed towards "total military confrontation".

Sunday’s rally was called by the Southern Transitional Council, an autonomous body aimed at overseeing self-governance among southern provinces.

The 26-member council, which is not recognised by Hadi’s government, includes the governors of five southern provinces and two cabinet ministers.

Former Aden governor Aidarous al-Zoubeidi formed the council in May after Hadi fired him.

The council had asked Hadi to make changes in the government and gave him one week to do so -- a deadline that expired on Sunday.

 Long campaign for secession 

It had warned that if Hadi did not accept the demand, its supporters would begin a protest campaign to oust Dagher’s government.

The separatists have long campaigned for the secession of southern Yemen. South Yemen was independent -- with former British colony Aden as its capital -- from its formation in 1967 until 1990, when it was unified with

North Yemen under northern leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Four years later, it launched a separatist rebellion that culminated in its occupation by northern forces.

The Huthis, a northern Shiite minority, seized Sanaa in September 2014 with the help of Saleh and army units loyal to him.

In March 2015, the rebels advanced on Aden, where Hadi took refuge after escaping from Sanaa.

But the Saudi-led coalition helped pro-Hadi forces oust the rebels from Aden and four other provinces in July that year.

Hadi loyalists have been boosted by the Popular Resistance alliance of southern separatists and tribesmen after the rebels advanced on their regions.

Years of UN-backed peace efforts have failed to resolve Yemen’s conflict, which has killed more than 9,200 people and devastated a country already among the region’s poorest.

The Huthis have increasingly consolidated their grip on Sanaa and the north, especially since rebels killed Saleh in December after their alliance collapsed. — AFP




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Ambulance bomb kills 95, wounds 158 in Kabul: official

Viet Nam News

KABUL  An explosives-packed ambulance blew up in a crowded area of Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 95 people and wounding 158 others, officials said, in one of the biggest blasts to rock the war-torn city in recent years.

The Taliban-claimed assault -- the second carried out by the militant group in the Afghan capital in a week -- triggered chaotic scenes as terrified survivors fled the area scattered with body parts, blood and debris, and hospitals were overwhelmed by the large number of wounded.

It came as both the insurgents and the Islamic State group have escalated their attacks on Kabul, one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for civilians.

An AFP reporter saw "lots of dead and wounded" civilians in the Jamuriate hospital, which is metres away from the blast and where medical staff struggled to treat the bloodied men, women and children lying on the floor in corridors.

Health ministry spokesman Waheed Majroh said that the toll "now stands at 95 dead, 158 wounded", shortly after the interior ministry warned that an earlier death toll of 63 could rise.

The blast happened in an area where several high-profile organisations, including the European Union, have offices. Members of the EU delegation in Kabul were in their "safe room" and there were no casualties, an official said.

The force of the explosion shook windows of buildings at least two kilometres (more than a mile) away and caused some low-rise structures in the immediate vicinity to collapse.

’Unjustifiable’

The suicide bomber passed through at least one checkpoint in the ambulance, saying he was taking a patient to Jamuriate hospital, an interior ministry spokesman said.

"At the second checkpoint he was recognised and blew his explosive-laden car," Nasrat Rahimi said.

Rahimi told a news conference that most of the victims were civilians. He said the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network was responsible and four suspects had been arrested.

Twenty minutes before the blast an AFP reporter saw police checking ambulances several hundred metres from the scene of the explosion, as the drivers and patients stood on the street.

Ambulances are rarely checked in the city.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan condemned the use of an ambulance in the bombing, saying on Twitter it was "unacceptable and unjustifiable".

The Taliban used social media to claim responsibility for the attack, which comes exactly a week after its insurgents stormed Kabul’s landmark Intercontinental hotel, killing at least 25 people, the majority foreigners.

’Masacre’

Photos shared on social media purportedly of the blast -- the deadliest in Kabul since a truck bomb ripped through the city’s diplomatic quarter on May 31, killing 150 people and wounding hundreds -- showed a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky.

Near the blast site civilians walked through debris-covered streets carrying wounded on their backs as others loaded several bodies at a time into ambulances and private cars to take them to medical facilities around the city.

The Italian NGO Emergency said 131 wounded had been taken to its hospital, with its coordinator Dejan Panic tweeting that it had been a "massacre".

A photo posted on Emergency’s Twitter account showed hospital staff treating injured people in an outdoor walkway next to a garden.

A man told Ariana TV he had taken his wounded brother to Jamuriate and Emergency hospitals but had been turned away.

"They are asking people with non-life threatening wounds to go to other hospitals," he said.

Aminullah, whose stationery shop is just metres from where the explosion happened, said the force of the explosion shook the foundations of his building.

"The building shook. All our windows broke. The people are in shock in our market," he said.

’Pools of blood’

A man told Tolo News he was passing the area when the explosion happened.

"I heard a big bang and I fainted," he said, outside the Emergency hospital.

"There were dozens of people who were killed and wounded. There were pools of blood."

The attack was condemned by the presidential palace as a "crime against humanity". There was international outcry too, with NATO, the US embassy in Kabul and British foreign minister Boris Johnson among those expressing horror at the latest attack.

The offices of the High Peace Council, charged with negotiating with the Taliban which has been waging a more than 16-year insurgency in the war-torn country, are also near the blast site.

"It targeted our checkpoint. It was really huge -- all our windows are broken," Hassina Safi, a member of High Peace Council, said.

"So far we don’t have any reports if any of our members are wounded or killed."

A security alert issued on Saturday morning had warned that the Islamic State group was planning "to conduct aggressive attacks" on supermarkets, shops and hotels frequented by foreigners.

Trump urges ’decisive action’

President Donald Trump called for "decisive action" against the Taliban on Saturday after Kabul bombing.

"I condemn the despicable car bombing attack in Kabul today that has left scores of innocent civilians dead and hundreds injured. This murderous attack renews our resolve and that of our Afghan partners," Trump said in a statement.

"Now, all countries should take decisive action against the Taliban and the terrorist infrastructure that supports them."

"The Taliban’s cruelty will not prevail," Trump added.

"The United States is committed to a secure Afghanistan that is free from terrorists who would target Americans, our allies and anyone who does not share their wicked ideology."

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the "senseless" attack, insisting there can be "no tolerance for those who support or offer sanctuary to terrorist groups."

"The Taliban’s use of an ambulance as a weapon to target civilians represents inhumane disregard for the people of Afghanistan and all those working to bring peace to the country," Tillerson said, adding that the attack breached "the most basic international norms".

"All countries who support peace in Afghanistan have an obligation to take decisive action to stop the Taliban’s campaign of violence."

Eiffel Tower goes dark

The Eiffel Tower would cut its lights on Saturday night to commemorate those killed and wounded in a devastating ambulance bombing in Kabul, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said on Twitter.

"Tonight at midnight the Eiffel Tower will go out in hommage to the victims of the horrific attack that struck Kabul," Hidalgo said.

"The city of Paris and Parisians are with the Afghan people who are once again facing terrorist barbarity."

A statement from France’s foreign ministry condemned Saturday’s attack and offered support for Afghanistan’s fight against "the scourge of terrorism".

The icon of Paris’ skyline is often dimmed or made to display the colours of a country’s flag in shows of respect for those killed or maimed by terror attacks. — AFP




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Turkey tells EU to back Syria campaign

BRUSSELS — Turkey’s European affairs ministers told the EU on Thursday to side with Ankara in its campaign against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

Omer Celik said in an interview after meeting senior European Union officials in Brussels that Turkey was protecting "legitimate security interests" in its fight against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

"What we want to hear from our allies and friends is that they should say we are next to Turkey, we are sided with Turkey when it comes to fighting against terrorism and when it comes to (what is) actually happening in Afrin," Celik said.

"We had clearly told our friends and allies they should not support YPG, and we suggested then that we should do this operation together but they did not do so," Celik said.

"That’s why Turkey had to do it, and at the end of the day actually had to launch and implement this operation by itself," Celik said, adding that Turkey was protecting "also the security of Europe."

Celik was meeting EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini, who said on Monday that she was "extremely worried" by the Turkish campaign against the YPG. He also met European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans.

Celik said the campaign was called Operation Olive Branch because "actually we are extending an olive branch to the Syrian people and the people living in Afrin."

The issue has further strained EU-Turkey relations already soured by the stalling of Turkey’s over half-century ambition to join the EU following the crackdown that followed the 2016 coup bid aimed at ousting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Celik also dismissed a call by French President Emmanuel Macron for Turkey to renounce its dream of membership and join a looser "partnership" with the EU.

"I have particularly underlined that we are against the recently emerging suggestions of a privileged partnership. It is not acceptable to suggest, recommend a solution other than full membership, like a privileged partnership with Turkey," he said.

"Those who are criticising Turkey concerning human rights and rule of law should do more than criticising Turkey," he added, saying that the EU should open fresh sections of the accession process dealing with those issues if it wanted to make progress. — AFP




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France to ease cannabis laws

Viet Nam News

PARIS — The French government announced a new approach to cannabis users on Thursday, scrapping potential prison sentences and heavy fines in favour of on-the-spot penalties for smokers in a bid to save police time.

France is one of the biggest consumers of cannabis in Europe, with around 700,000 people estimated to use the drug every day.

An EU report in 2015 on alcohol and drug use among 15- and 16-year-olds showed French teens were among Europe’s biggest dope smokers.

Yet France’s laws on the drug are among Europe’s strictest, with those caught smoking a joint facing fines of up to 3,750 euros (US$4,600) and a one-year prison sentence, although in reality most go free with a warning.

"We are going to introduce simplified fines for this offence," Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said, confirming a campaign pledge by President Emmanuel Macron.

But he was adamant that Macron would not follow the example of the Netherlands or Spain in tolerating cannabis use by adults, much less legalise it for recreational use like several US states, including California.

"There will be no decriminalisation of cannabis use," Collomb said, warning that repeat offenders or those suspected of dealing could be prosecuted.

Instead, the government is to introduce an on-the-spot fine of between 150 and 200 euros ($180 to $250), as recommended in a parliamentary report. 

Decriminalisation of cannabis has been regularly debated in France in recent years, but advocates are accused by opponents of being soft on crime.

’Pragmatic’ choice 

During the presidential campaign, three leftist candidates proposed allowing legalising cannabis use among adults -- a call echoed by 150 left-wing politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors and activists in the port of Marseille, which is plagued by gun violence linked to the trans-Mediterranean cannabis trade.

But police unions have expressed their opposition to any softening of the law, as had the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which warned in an October report that legalising the drug could lead to increased use.

Parliament speaker François de Rugy hailed the new policy as "pragmatic".

"In the past, police officers and judges would spend a lot of time on procedures which ended in formal warnings being given, so it didn’t serve any purpose," de Rugy said.

In 2015, the last year for which figures were published, 140,000 people were arrested for drug use in France, but only 3,098 were given prison sentences and, of them, only 1,283 spent time behind bars.

So far only one country -- Uruguay -- has completely legalised cannabis for recreational use, with Canada vowing to follow suit this year.

In a 2014 study, the left-leaning French think-tank Terra Nova touted the possible tax gains for France of legalising and regulating cannabis. It estimated the windfall at 2.0 billion euros ($2.5 billion) a year. — AFP




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Trump proposes US citizenship plan for 1.8 mn undocumented immigrants

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s administration on Thursday unveiled a sweeping new immigration plan to Congress that offers 1.8 million young unauthorised immigrants known as "Dreamers" a path to citizenship over 10-12 years.

In a comprehensive reform that will be formally presented next week, Trump has also asked Congress to eliminate the popular "green card lottery" programme and severely restrict family immigration, steps analysts say could cut in half the more than one million foreign-born people moving to the country annually.

And in the name of halting illegal immigration, he has also demanded Congress budget $25 billion for a "trust fund" for constructing a wall on the US-Mexico border -- a major plank of Trump’s White House campaign.

"The Department of Homeland Security must have the tools to deter illegal immigrants; the ability to remove individuals who illegally enter the United States, and the vital authorities necessary to protect national security," a senior White House official told journalists.

The White House’s offer of a path to citizenship for the Dreamers was much wider than expected. Earlier it had suggested it was only open to granting citizenship to the 690,000 young immigrants registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, programme.

But in exchange, Trump was asking Congress to make future legal immigration more difficult -- and to shore up the Homeland Security Department’s toolbox and funding to crack down on the overall population of unauthorised immigrants, estimated at some 11 million, including Dreamers.

That could make the plan difficult to get past Democrats, no matter how strong they want the Dreamers reform.

"There is no public policy justification for cutting legal immigration in half. None," said Democratic Senator Brian Schatz on Twitter.

Sharp turn in immigration policy

The plan represents a sharp shift in US immigration policies. Trump promised during his 2016 presidential campaign a tough crackdown on illegal immigration, but has extended this to narrowing the doors for legal immigrants and refugees.

The end of the lottery system -- which was introduced in 1990 to diversify the origins of new immigrants -- was expected and has support from some Democrats. Trump has argued the programme has allowed people into the country who have supported Islamic extremists.

"This programme is riddled with fraud and abuse and does not serve the national interest," the White House said in a summary Thursday.

Trump however at least momentarily undermined his push against the lottery when, in immigration bill negotiations with lawmakers in early January, he complained about immigrants from what he reportedly dubbed "shithole" nations like Haiti, El Salvador and countries in Africa, sparking widespread outrage.

Trump has also argued for ending "chain" migration, the practice of allowing the extended family members of people who already have US citizenship to immigrate.

Thursday’s proposal said that to "protect the nuclear family," family immigration would be only permitted for spouses and minor children.

Battle in Congress likely

The White House plan immediately provoked the ire of Democrats, who made clear they would likely fight to water down the changes in negotiations in coming weeks.

Pro-immigration groups said it would reduce overall immigration by half, and was aimed at bringing more Caucasians into the country.

"$25 billion as ransom for Dreamers with cuts to legal immigration and increases to deportations doesn’t pass the laugh test," said Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez.

"The White House released a hateful, xenophobic immigration proposal that would slash legal immigration to levels not seen since the racial quotas of the 1920s," said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy at the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Republican leaders in Congress voiced solid support: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said the White House proposal was a "framework" for crafting a final immigration deal.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a hardline conservative, called Trump’s framework "generous and humane, while also being responsible."

However, some conservatives were angered by the sweeping offer to Dreamers, which they say constitutes an amnesty that rewards law-breakers and sets a bad precedent for other undocumented immigrants.

"Any proposal that expands the amnesty-eligible population risks opening Pandora’s box," said Michael Needham, chief executive of the right-wing lobby Heritage Action.

"That should be a non-starter," he said. — AFP




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33 dead in South Korea hospital blaze: firefighters

Viet Nam News

SEOUL — At least 33 people were killed in a blaze at a hospital in South Korea on Friday, firefighters said, with more than 70 injured.

It is the second devastating blaze in just a month in the advanced country, Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter above the hospital in Miryang, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder.

The six-storey structure housed a nursing home as well as the hospital, and the National Fire Agency said 33 people had been killed, with 13 critically injured.

Another 61 suffered light injuries, a spokesman said, adding the death toll could rise further.

"Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room," said fire chief Choi Man-Woo, but the cause of the blaze was not immediately known.

All the patients had been brought out, he said, adding that evacuating 15 patients from the intensive care unit on the third floor took longer as firefighters had to wait for medical staff to supervise the process.

"The victims came both from the hospital and the nursing home," he said.

"Some died on their way to another hospital."

Video footage and pictures showed the building engulfed by heavy dark smoke and surrounded by multiple fire trucks.

Survivors were brought out wrapped in blankets, and firefighters picked their way through the blackened shell of the building after the blaze was extinguished.

Around 200 people were in the Sejong Hospital building when the fire broke out, police said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In held an emergency meeting with advisers to discuss response measures, his office said.

The fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in the South Korean city of Jecheon -- a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to emergency vehicles.

Friday’s fire is South Korea’s worst since 2008, when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Incheon killed 40 workers.

The worst fire ever in modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the southeastern city of Daegu in 2003 that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured. — AFP




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White House to release immigration ’framework’ Monday

WASHINGTON — The White House will release a "legislative framework" for immigration reform on Monday that is acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.

The immigration issue is a source of bitter partisan tension in Washington, and was the primary cause of a three-day federal government shutdown that saw employees who were deemed non-essential furloughed without pay.

"After decades of inaction by Congress, it’s time we work together to solve this issue once and for all," Sanders said on Wednesday.

"The White House will release a legislative framework on Monday that represents a compromise that members of both parties can support," which is based on "dozens" of meetings with Republican and Democratic leadership and legislators, she said.

It "will fulfill the four agreed-upon pillars: securing the border and closing legal loop holes, ending extended family chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and providing a permanent solution on DACA."

The first three "pillars" are Republican priorities, while the last – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme – is a cause championed by the Democrats.

DACA, which was instituted by President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2012, protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children.

Border wall debate

Trump said in September he was scrapping DACA, throwing the future of those it covers, who are known as "Dreamers," into doubt, but delayed enforcement to

give Congress six months -- until March -- to craft a lasting solution.

Democrats unsuccessfully sought to tie a solution to the DACA issue to a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government, but Republicans rejected the effort, leading to a shutdown from Saturday to Monday after it ran out of funds.

Illustrating the sharp divide on immigration, Trump took aim at Chuck Schumer overnight after the Senate minority leader withdrew an offer to fund a controversial wall on the Mexican border.

Schumer met Trump last week ahead of the government shutdown, reportedly offering as much as $25 billion for the wall, which was among the most prominent planks of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as part of a broader deal including government spending.

But when Trump rejected the deal, Schumer pulled the offer.

"Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA," Trump tweeted shortly before midnight Tuesday.

"We must have safety and security, together with a strong Military, for our great people!"

Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, but it has repeatedly said it will not do so, and the funding for the project has instead fallen to US taxpayers.

The immigration issue is currently in flux with barely two weeks before a February 8 deadline agreed by both parties to either strike a deal, or take the issue to the Senate floor for debate before the "Dreamers" face mass deportation in March. — AFP




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France to ease cannabis laws

Viet Nam News

PARIS — The French government announced a new approach to cannabis users on Thursday, scrapping potential prison sentences and heavy fines in favour of on-the-spot penalties for smokers in a bid to save police time.

France is one of the biggest consumers of cannabis in Europe, with around 700,000 people estimated to use the drug every day.

An EU report in 2015 on alcohol and drug use among 15- and 16-year-olds showed French teens were among Europe’s biggest dope smokers.

Yet France’s laws on the drug are among Europe’s strictest, with those caught smoking a joint facing fines of up to 3,750 euros (US$4,600) and a one-year prison sentence, although in reality most go free with a warning.

"We are going to introduce simplified fines for this offence," Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said, confirming a campaign pledge by President Emmanuel Macron.

But he was adamant that Macron would not follow the example of the Netherlands or Spain in tolerating cannabis use by adults, much less legalise it for recreational use like several US states, including California.

"There will be no decriminalisation of cannabis use," Collomb said, warning that repeat offenders or those suspected of dealing could be prosecuted.

Instead, the government is to introduce an on-the-spot fine of between 150 and 200 euros ($180 to $250), as recommended in a parliamentary report. 

Decriminalisation of cannabis has been regularly debated in France in recent years, but advocates are accused by opponents of being soft on crime.

’Pragmatic’ choice 

During the presidential campaign, three leftist candidates proposed allowing legalising cannabis use among adults -- a call echoed by 150 left-wing politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors and activists in the port of Marseille, which is plagued by gun violence linked to the trans-Mediterranean cannabis trade.

But police unions have expressed their opposition to any softening of the law, as had the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which warned in an October report that legalising the drug could lead to increased use.

Parliament speaker François de Rugy hailed the new policy as "pragmatic".

"In the past, police officers and judges would spend a lot of time on procedures which ended in formal warnings being given, so it didn’t serve any purpose," de Rugy said.

In 2015, the last year for which figures were published, 140,000 people were arrested for drug use in France, but only 3,098 were given prison sentences and, of them, only 1,283 spent time behind bars.

So far only one country -- Uruguay -- has completely legalised cannabis for recreational use, with Canada vowing to follow suit this year.

In a 2014 study, the left-leaning French think-tank Terra Nova touted the possible tax gains for France of legalising and regulating cannabis. It estimated the windfall at 2.0 billion euros ($2.5 billion) a year. — AFP




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Trump proposes US citizenship plan for 1.8 mn undocumented immigrants

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s administration on Thursday unveiled a sweeping new immigration plan to Congress that offers 1.8 million young unauthorised immigrants known as "Dreamers" a path to citizenship over 10-12 years.

In a comprehensive reform that will be formally presented next week, Trump has also asked Congress to eliminate the popular "green card lottery" programme and severely restrict family immigration, steps analysts say could cut in half the more than one million foreign-born people moving to the country annually.

And in the name of halting illegal immigration, he has also demanded Congress budget $25 billion for a "trust fund" for constructing a wall on the US-Mexico border -- a major plank of Trump’s White House campaign.

"The Department of Homeland Security must have the tools to deter illegal immigrants; the ability to remove individuals who illegally enter the United States, and the vital authorities necessary to protect national security," a senior White House official told journalists.

The White House’s offer of a path to citizenship for the Dreamers was much wider than expected. Earlier it had suggested it was only open to granting citizenship to the 690,000 young immigrants registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, programme.

But in exchange, Trump was asking Congress to make future legal immigration more difficult -- and to shore up the Homeland Security Department’s toolbox and funding to crack down on the overall population of unauthorised immigrants, estimated at some 11 million, including Dreamers.

That could make the plan difficult to get past Democrats, no matter how strong they want the Dreamers reform.

"There is no public policy justification for cutting legal immigration in half. None," said Democratic Senator Brian Schatz on Twitter.

Sharp turn in immigration policy

The plan represents a sharp shift in US immigration policies. Trump promised during his 2016 presidential campaign a tough crackdown on illegal immigration, but has extended this to narrowing the doors for legal immigrants and refugees.

The end of the lottery system -- which was introduced in 1990 to diversify the origins of new immigrants -- was expected and has support from some Democrats. Trump has argued the programme has allowed people into the country who have supported Islamic extremists.

"This programme is riddled with fraud and abuse and does not serve the national interest," the White House said in a summary Thursday.

Trump however at least momentarily undermined his push against the lottery when, in immigration bill negotiations with lawmakers in early January, he complained about immigrants from what he reportedly dubbed "shithole" nations like Haiti, El Salvador and countries in Africa, sparking widespread outrage.

Trump has also argued for ending "chain" migration, the practice of allowing the extended family members of people who already have US citizenship to immigrate.

Thursday’s proposal said that to "protect the nuclear family," family immigration would be only permitted for spouses and minor children.

Battle in Congress likely

The White House plan immediately provoked the ire of Democrats, who made clear they would likely fight to water down the changes in negotiations in coming weeks.

Pro-immigration groups said it would reduce overall immigration by half, and was aimed at bringing more Caucasians into the country.

"$25 billion as ransom for Dreamers with cuts to legal immigration and increases to deportations doesn’t pass the laugh test," said Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez.

"The White House released a hateful, xenophobic immigration proposal that would slash legal immigration to levels not seen since the racial quotas of the 1920s," said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy at the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Republican leaders in Congress voiced solid support: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said the White House proposal was a "framework" for crafting a final immigration deal.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a hardline conservative, called Trump’s framework "generous and humane, while also being responsible."

However, some conservatives were angered by the sweeping offer to Dreamers, which they say constitutes an amnesty that rewards law-breakers and sets a bad precedent for other undocumented immigrants.

"Any proposal that expands the amnesty-eligible population risks opening Pandora’s box," said Michael Needham, chief executive of the right-wing lobby Heritage Action.

"That should be a non-starter," he said. — AFP




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33 dead in South Korea hospital blaze: firefighters

Viet Nam News

SEOUL — At least 33 people were killed in a blaze at a hospital in South Korea on Friday, firefighters said, with more than 70 injured.

It is the second devastating blaze in just a month in the advanced country, Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter above the hospital in Miryang, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder.

The six-storey structure housed a nursing home as well as the hospital, and the National Fire Agency said 33 people had been killed, with 13 critically injured.

Another 61 suffered light injuries, a spokesman said, adding the death toll could rise further.

"Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room," said fire chief Choi Man-Woo, but the cause of the blaze was not immediately known.

All the patients had been brought out, he said, adding that evacuating 15 patients from the intensive care unit on the third floor took longer as firefighters had to wait for medical staff to supervise the process.

"The victims came both from the hospital and the nursing home," he said.

"Some died on their way to another hospital."

Video footage and pictures showed the building engulfed by heavy dark smoke and surrounded by multiple fire trucks.

Survivors were brought out wrapped in blankets, and firefighters picked their way through the blackened shell of the building after the blaze was extinguished.

Around 200 people were in the Sejong Hospital building when the fire broke out, police said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In held an emergency meeting with advisers to discuss response measures, his office said.

The fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in the South Korean city of Jecheon -- a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to emergency vehicles.

Friday’s fire is South Korea’s worst since 2008, when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Incheon killed 40 workers.

The worst fire ever in modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the southeastern city of Daegu in 2003 that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured. — AFP




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White House to release immigration ’framework’ Monday

WASHINGTON — The White House will release a "legislative framework" for immigration reform on Monday that is acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.

The immigration issue is a source of bitter partisan tension in Washington, and was the primary cause of a three-day federal government shutdown that saw employees who were deemed non-essential furloughed without pay.

"After decades of inaction by Congress, it’s time we work together to solve this issue once and for all," Sanders said on Wednesday.

"The White House will release a legislative framework on Monday that represents a compromise that members of both parties can support," which is based on "dozens" of meetings with Republican and Democratic leadership and legislators, she said.

It "will fulfill the four agreed-upon pillars: securing the border and closing legal loop holes, ending extended family chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and providing a permanent solution on DACA."

The first three "pillars" are Republican priorities, while the last – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme – is a cause championed by the Democrats.

DACA, which was instituted by President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2012, protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children.

Border wall debate

Trump said in September he was scrapping DACA, throwing the future of those it covers, who are known as "Dreamers," into doubt, but delayed enforcement to

give Congress six months -- until March -- to craft a lasting solution.

Democrats unsuccessfully sought to tie a solution to the DACA issue to a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government, but Republicans rejected the effort, leading to a shutdown from Saturday to Monday after it ran out of funds.

Illustrating the sharp divide on immigration, Trump took aim at Chuck Schumer overnight after the Senate minority leader withdrew an offer to fund a controversial wall on the Mexican border.

Schumer met Trump last week ahead of the government shutdown, reportedly offering as much as $25 billion for the wall, which was among the most prominent planks of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as part of a broader deal including government spending.

But when Trump rejected the deal, Schumer pulled the offer.

"Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA," Trump tweeted shortly before midnight Tuesday.

"We must have safety and security, together with a strong Military, for our great people!"

Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, but it has repeatedly said it will not do so, and the funding for the project has instead fallen to US taxpayers.

The immigration issue is currently in flux with barely two weeks before a February 8 deadline agreed by both parties to either strike a deal, or take the issue to the Senate floor for debate before the "Dreamers" face mass deportation in March. — AFP




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State of emergency as floods worry Paraguay capital

A man walks in a flooded street in Paraguay on Wednesday. — AFP Photo
Viet Nam News

ASUNCION — Authorities in Paraguay’s capital Asuncion on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for a month after the Paraguay River burst its banks, leaving at least 20,000 people homeless.

The unseasonal high waters have washed over many poor neighbourhoods built along the banks.

About a half million people are in the capital, and 2.2 million in its metro area. The South American country has seven million people in total.

The capital city’s council said it was moving to get food and water to the people hit by flooding.

Many of the displaced have been moved to higher areas of the low-lying capital, the national emergency office said.

Hundreds more of the displaced were setting up makeshift camps in plazas of the capital and on any small unoccupied spot they could find.

Forecasters said heavy rains in recent weeks were behind the river’s rise. — AFP




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UN hits out at surge in extra-judicial ’executions’ in DR Congo

KINSHASA — The UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday reported a surge in summary "executions" in the country, notably in the southern Kasai region.

In 2017, "state agents" carried out 1,176 extra-judicial killings, "including at least 89 women and 213 children," the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) said in an annual report on human rights violations in the DRC.

Such killings have tripled over the past two years, MONUSCO said, adding that it condemned the increase.

The armed forces accounted for nearly two-thirds – 64 percent – of extra-judicial killings by state agents, it said.

Across the country, a total of 6,497 violations and abuses – committed not just by state agents but also by armed groups -- were recorded in 2017.

This was a rise of more than 25 percent over 2016, which itself saw a 30 percent rise over 2015.

A sprawling, mineral-rich country in central Africa, the DRC is in the grip of several conflicts, including political and ethnic unrest as well as violence by militia groups.

The rise in arbitrary killings last year is mainly explained by the "persistent crisis" in three provinces constituting the Kasai region, where at least 752 people were executed, the report said.

’Silence the critics’

Violence in Kasai erupted after a tribal chieftain known as the Kamwina Nsapu, who rebelled against the regime of President Joseph Kabila, was killed in August 2016.

More than 3,000 people have died and some 1.4 million have been displaced since then.

The Kamwina Nsapu’s militia was responsible for the death of at least 79 civilians, including seven women and nine children, the report said.

Another militia, the Bana Mura, sometimes operating with the support of army soldiers, killed at least 67 civilians, including nine women and 21 children, it added.

Two UN experts were killed last March while investigating violence in Kasai, where the United Nations has counted more than 80 mass graves.

Protest crackdown

The rise in extra-judicial killings comes as the government has cracked down on a number of anti-government demonstrations across the country.

On Sunday, six people were killed in Kinshasa during a protest that demanded Kabila leave power, according to the UN.

Scores were injured and dozens arrested when security forces opened fire on the Catholic Church-organised rally.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday called for "credible investigations" into the killings.

Congolese authorities have "systematically resorted to unjustified and disproportionate restrictions to fundamental freedoms and acts of harassment" of political opponents, journalists and human rights activists in an attempt to "silence the voices seen as critics", the MONUSCO report stated.

As well as criticising the crisis-hit country, the report also praised some of the work done by the judiciary, stating that at least 150 army soldiers and 51 national police agents were sentenced in 2017 over human rights violations.

The report praised efforts by judicial authorities to fight against what it called "impunity".

But the recent protests have also raised diplomatic tensions between Kinshasa and Europe, particularly its former colonial overseer Belgium, which has condemned the violence against demonstrators.

On Wednesday the DR Congo told Belgium it was willing to "promptly" shutter Shengen House, a quasi consulate in Kinshasa that represents 17 EU members plus Norway, AFP learned via a Congo government source.

The building helps process visas for any Congolese citizens wanting to head EU countries that are part of the Schengen region.

The letter sent by Kinshasa also said authorities planned to close down Belgium’s development agency in the country.

The Belgian foreign ministry said it had yet to authenticate that the request was genuine, Bela press agency reported.

France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada have also condemned the recent killing of protesters. — AFP




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UK turnover of ministers disrupting Brexit: report

Viet Nam News

LONDON — The high turnover of ministers in the British government is hampering progress towards Brexit, a think-tank said Thursday.

The merry-go-round of faces in Prime Minister Theresa May’s administration will also make it tougher for her to achieve her domestic objectives, the Institute for Government (IFG) said.

While May has kept her top four ministers in place since taking office in July 2016, the report found that 71 per cent of ministers -- 85 out of 122 -- are new to their jobs since the June 2017 general election.

"Political turbulence and ministerial turnover -- particularly at junior levels -- have disrupted the government’s preparations for Brexit, its ability to pass crucial legislation and its capacity to deal with urgent public service challenges," the institute said in a report.

Only Brexit minister David Davis and one of the four junior ministers have stayed at the Department for Exiting the European Union since its creation in July 2016, the month after Britain’s EU referendum.

Meanwhile every minister in the Cabinet Office and three-quarters of those in the justice ministry were replaced in this month’s reshuffle.

Both the Justice Department and the Work and Pensions Department have seen a third minister take the helm since May took office.

"As Theresa May’s government enters 2018, Brexit is rightly absorbing significant effort," IFG director Bronwen Maddox said.

"But the government has made commitments to voters on public services, productivity, social mobility and major projects. If it fails to meet their expectations, it risks further undermining confidence in government."

The annual IFG report analyses the size, shape and performance of government.

May has not changed her top four ministers: finance minister Philip Hammond, foreign minister Boris Johnson, interior minister Amber Rudd, and Davis.

However, both her deputy Damian Green and defence minister Michael Fallon resigned over personal scandals, and junior ministers have been rotated.

May lost her centre-right Conservative Party’s majority in last year’s snap general election and relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party to pass legislation.

Britain is set to leave the EU in March 2019. — AFP




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Countdown begins for tough EU asylum reform by June

SOFIA — Bulgaria on Thursday launches the first of several meetings aimed at bridging an east-west split over reforming Europe’s asylum rules by June, when Sofia’s EU presidency ends and the migration crisis could flare anew.

The European Commission aims to insist all member countries accept controversial refugee quotas at the talks in Sofia with the 28-nation bloc’s interior ministers.

Current asylum rules "literally split Europe", said Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose country holds the six-month rotating EU presidency.

"With the trust we have among us, we will find a reasonable compromise," he said on Monday.

Hungary and its eastern European neighbours have refused to take refugees since the European Commission first pushed through temporary quotas in 2015.

The summer of that year saw mass drownings in the Mediterranean at the start of Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II, as hundreds of thousands of people fled war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels last month set a June deadline for an overhaul of the so-called Dublin rules to create a permanent mechanism for all member states to admit refugees in the event of a new emergency.

Under existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive are required to process asylum requests, putting a heavy burden on Greece and Italy, the current main entry points to Europe.

Little, if any progress has been made since talks on asylum reform began in 2016.

Cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya, the main transit countries, have helped to slow, at least for now, the flow of migrants to Europe since its 2015 peak.

"What Europe needs is a common European asylum system," European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told AFP before leaving Brussels for Sofia.

"Today it is Italy and Greece that are under huge pressure but nobody can assure us that the future is not holding some surprises in other parts," the former Greek foreign minister and Athens mayor said.

European Council President Donald Tusk said at last month’s European Union summit it would be difficult to seal an asylum deal by June after calling quotas ineffective and divisive.

Tusk appeared to lean toward the eastern European countries, infuriating Avramopolous who called the remarks "anti-European".

Tusk oversees the member states gathered in the council, while Avramopoulos serves on the European Commission, the EU executive.

’Unacceptable’

Referring to the summer deadline, Avramopoulos told said on Tuesday: "Everything is reachable. What is a prerequisite is a strong political will to be shared by all member states."

June is when migrant flows across the Mediterranean tend to increase with the warmer weather.

He did not mince words when asked if a reform deal could be struck, in which some member states carry their share of the burden by contributing funds to frontline states instead of agreeing to refugee quotas.

"This is unacceptable," Avramopoulos said. "All countries should be part of our policy to share the burden of this heavy pressure."

He cited the Geneva Convention of 1952, which calls for international protection to be granted to people fleeing war and persecution.

The interior ministers are due to start meeting around 9 am local time (0700 GMT). — AFP




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Haiti urbanisation rises but not wealth: World Bank

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Urbanisation is on the rise in Haiti, the third most urbanised country in Latin America and the Caribbean, but economic growth is still lagging behind, the World Bank said on Tuesday, warning of the increased threat of natural disasters on cities growing unabated.

More than six million people, or 64 per cent of the population, now live in cities in the poorest country in the Americas, compared to just a third of residents in 1996, the global financial institution said in a report.

But, unlike the global trend, economic growth has not accompanied urbanisation in Haiti. GDP per capita dropped from US$757 in 1996 to $727 in 2013.

"There’s been a process of very rapid urbanisation, at an average pace of five percent per year, that has not been coupled with adequate infrastructure investments to handle this urban growth," World Bank’s Director for Social, Urban and Resilience Global Practice Sameh Wahba said.

Basic services are also severely lacking. Coupled with the lack of infrastructure, this undermines productivity and livability, the report noted.

Poor funding means more than a third of urban residents lack access to clean drinking water, while two thirds lack improved sanitation. An estimated eight percent defecate openly.

And most urban residents struggle more than their rural counterparts to find jobs.

"Rather than benefitting from high densities, cities in Haiti today are overcrowded places with wide gaps in infrastructure and services," the report said.

"Resilient urban growth is hindered by these gaps and by increased exposure to natural disasters, and by ineffective land use planning."

The dysfunction and cost of the transportation system means that about three quarters of urban dwellers do not take motorized transport on a daily basis, opting either not to travel or to walk everywhere.

"Improvements in the connectivity system are required to increase resilience and promote economic growth and job creation," the report says.

Wahba noted that in the capital Port-au-Prince, pedestrians have access to an average of just 12 percent of jobs in the city, which "reduces their chances of increasing income."

And the urban growth also makes the country more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Eight years after a devastating earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and caused damage worth an estimated 117 per cent of GDP, chaotic construction is still pervasive, despite a construction code.

Almost all of Haiti’s land area is considered "medium" or "high" earthquake risk, and the World Bank estimates 58 per cent of built-up areas face a risk of flooding.

The World Bank recommended serious investment in basic services to provide "resilient" urban planning and better prepare for urban growth. It also called for improved transportation and better municipal financing.— AFP




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Three-quarters of Mexico murders linked to organized crime: NGO

MEXICO CITY — Organised crime accounted for nearly three-quarters of all murders in Mexico in 2017, the country’s deadliest year since record-keeping began, according to non-profit Semaforo Delictivo.

The group said that 18,989 of the year’s officially recorded 25,339 murders were carried out by criminal gangs.

The figure represented a 55 per cent increase on the year before. "The sort of numbers we used to see in a year, we now see in a month," said Santiago Roel, the group’s head, adding that the total number of murders in 2006 was fewer than 2,100.

Twenty-six of the country’s 32 states saw an increase in their murder rate in 2017.

Nayarit, in the country’s west, recorded an eye-watering 554 percent increase in homicides compared to the year before.

The states of Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo, home to foreign tourist hotspots of Los Cabos and Cancun, respectively, saw spikes of 192 per cent and 118 per cent.

The group said the figures demonstrated the "total failure" of the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto for following a strategy laid out by his predecessor Felipe Calderon, who in 2006 launched a controversial military anti-drug operation that, according to its critics, has only led to more murders and attacks.

Analysts believe this may be linked to a surge in the number of autonomous cells following the capture of the heads of major drug cartels.

Criminal gangs have also diversified, trafficking in stolen gasoline, engaging in extortion, kidnapping for ransom or people trafficking.— AFP




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Twin car bombs kill at least 22 in Libya’s Benghazi

BENGHAZI, Libya — The death toll following a double car bomb attack in the Libyan city of Benghazi on Tuesday night has risen to at least 22, a hospital spokeswoman said.

A further 20 people were injured and the number of fatalities could rise, Fadia al-Barghathi, spokeswoman for the city’s al-Jala hospital, said.

An explosives-rigged vehicle blew up in front of a mosque in the central neighbourhood of Al-Sleimani, a security source said.

A second car exploded 30 minutes later in the same area, causing more casualties among security services and civilians.

Libya has been rocked by chaos since a 2011 uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with two rival authorities and multiple militias vying for control of the oil-rich country.

Military strongman Khalifa Haftar in July announced the "total liberation" of Benghazi, three years after his forces launched a military operation to seize the city from jihadists who had made it a stronghold following the revolution.

But clashes and attacks in the city have continued, including against diplomatic facilities and security forces.

Haftar supports a parliament based in the far east of Libya, while a rival United Nations-backed unity government in the western capital Tripoli has struggled to assert its authority nationwide. — AFP




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Kentucky school shooting leaves two students dead

Viet Nam News

KENTUCKY — A teenaged boy opened fire with a handgun at a Kentucky high school on Tuesday morning, leaving two fellow students dead and more than a dozen people wounded in the latest mass shooting to hit the United States.

A 15-year-old student, now in custody, is alleged to have carried out the attack at the Marshall County High School in Benton, a small town in western Kentucky.

Two students -- both also aged 15 -- died of gunshot wounds, while 12 other people were shot and five suffered other injuries during the shooting, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin told a news conference.

One of the students died at the scene and the other after being airlifted to a hospital, he said.

The young male suspect was apprehended in a "non-violent" manner, and will be charged with both murder and attempted murder, said Bevin.

Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders said the shooter struck just as the school day was starting.

"The incident began at 7:57 am (1357 GMT) when a 15-year-old student armed with a handgun entered the high school and started shooting," Sanders told journalists.

A 911 emergency call was placed soon after, and first responders were at the scene by 8:06 am, he said.

State police had recently been in the area "teaching students and faculty how to respond to an active shooter situation, and everybody in that high school reacted appropriately," he added.

US plagued by mass shootings

Sanders said that an "SRO," or "School Resource Officer" -- a law enforcement officer responsible for safety at the school -- was present, but did not provide further information on the officer’s actions during the shooting.

Students ran from the scene after hearing shots, the Marshall County Tribune-Courier newspaper reported on its Facebook page, adding that the school was placed on lockdown as the incident unfolded.

Students later were bused to a neighboring school where parents could retrieve them, it said.

"This is a tremendous tragedy and speaks to the heartbreak present in our communities," Bevin said a statement. "It is unbelievable that this would happen in a small, close-knit community like Marshall County."

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, an NGO that works to reduce gun violence, the most recent school shooting in Kentucky occurred in September 2014, when one student shot and wounded another in the hallway of Fern Creek High School in Louisville.

The US as a whole is plagued by mass shootings, including two in recent months that left dozens of people dead.

In October, a shooter opened fire on a country music concert from a Las Vegas hotel, killing 58 people, while another attacked a Texas church the following month, leaving 26 people dead, including an unborn child.

Guns are the source of one of the most bitter and enduring divides in American politics.

Most Democrats advocate gun control as a means of reducing deadly shootings, while many Republicans -- backed by the powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby -- oppose restrictions on firearms ownership, arguing that armed citizens are better able to protect themselves from gun violence. — AFP




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Snow-bound Davos warms to business-friendly climate

DAVOS — After a gala opening set against spectacular snowfall, the World Economic Forum starts in earnest on Tuesday basking in robust global growth but facing warnings that the world’s have-nots are missing out more than ever.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to deliver the first keynote speech of the WEF in Davos, bookending a week that will climax in an address by US President Donald Trump, a year after he took office on a populist platform that demonised the globalist Davos crowd.

Undermining rosy data on the world economy are warnings that elite for a such as Davos must start finding solutions for everyone else down the income ladder as the "one per cent" amass untold riches a decade since a major financial crisis erupted.

"We certainly should feel encouraged, but we should not feel satisfied," International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde said on Monday in presenting an upbeat update to the organisation’s forecasts for global growth.

"First of all, there are still too many people left out from the recovery and acceleration of growth," she said.

Accounting group PwC underscored the IMF’s positive outlook with survey findings pointing to record confidence among company bosses worldwide.

The survey had good news for Trump, touting his party’s huge corporate tax cut as a boon for the US and foreign investors.

But in a separate report unveiled in Davos, Oxfam said the world’s richest one percent raked in 82 percent of the wealth created last year while the poorest half of the population received none.

Pope speaks out

The British charity described a global economy in which the wealthy few amass ever-greater fortunes while hundreds of millions of people are "struggling to survive on poverty pay".

"The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system," Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima said.

And in a message to the Davos forum, Pope Francis warned that debates about technological progress and economic growth must not supplant concern for humanity at large.

"We cannot remain silent in the face of the suffering of millions of people whose dignity is wounded," the pontiff’s message said.

Few countries display the abyss between rich and poor as much as India, where newly minted billionaires live in close proximity to street urchins. The gap endures despite rapid growth under Modi’s right-wing government.

After Tuesday, the week will continue with appearances by some 70 other leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, whose campaign for a "French Renaissance" kicked into overdrive Monday as his government welcomed 140 multinational business leaders en route to Davos.

Perhaps looking on enviously was British Prime Minister Theresa May, who faces the challenge in Davos of persuading many of the same bosses that Britain remains a safe haven for investment, despite its messy Brexit divorce from the European Union. — AFP




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Snow-bound Davos warms to business-friendly climate

DAVOS — After a gala opening set against spectacular snowfall, the World Economic Forum starts in earnest on Tuesday basking in robust global growth but facing warnings that the world’s have-nots are missing out more than ever.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to deliver the first keynote speech of the WEF in Davos, bookending a week that will climax in an address by US President Donald Trump, a year after he took office on a populist platform that demonised the globalist Davos crowd.

Undermining rosy data on the world economy are warnings that elite for a such as Davos must start finding solutions for everyone else down the income ladder as the "one per cent" amass untold riches a decade since a major financial crisis erupted.

"We certainly should feel encouraged, but we should not feel satisfied," International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde said on Monday in presenting an upbeat update to the organisation’s forecasts for global growth.

"First of all, there are still too many people left out from the recovery and acceleration of growth," she said.

Accounting group PwC underscored the IMF’s positive outlook with survey findings pointing to record confidence among company bosses worldwide.

The survey had good news for Trump, touting his party’s huge corporate tax cut as a boon for the US and foreign investors.

But in a separate report unveiled in Davos, Oxfam said the world’s richest one percent raked in 82 percent of the wealth created last year while the poorest half of the population received none.

Pope speaks out

The British charity described a global economy in which the wealthy few amass ever-greater fortunes while hundreds of millions of people are "struggling to survive on poverty pay".

"The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system," Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima said.

And in a message to the Davos forum, Pope Francis warned that debates about technological progress and economic growth must not supplant concern for humanity at large.

"We cannot remain silent in the face of the suffering of millions of people whose dignity is wounded," the pontiff’s message said.

Few countries display the abyss between rich and poor as much as India, where newly minted billionaires live in close proximity to street urchins. The gap endures despite rapid growth under Modi’s right-wing government.

After Tuesday, the week will continue with appearances by some 70 other leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, whose campaign for a "French Renaissance" kicked into overdrive Monday as his government welcomed 140 multinational business leaders en route to Davos.

Perhaps looking on enviously was British Prime Minister Theresa May, who faces the challenge in Davos of persuading many of the same bosses that Britain remains a safe haven for investment, despite its messy Brexit divorce from the European Union. — AFP




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Global unemployment down but working poverty rampant: UN

GENEVA — The global unemployment rate is expected to tick down in 2018, the United Nations said Monday, while warning that far too many workers still live in desperate poverty.

The International Labour Organization forecast a worldwide unemployment rate of 5.5 per cent this year, a marginal improvement on the 5.6 per cent recorded in 2017, thanks to broad economic growth.

But in its flagship "World Employment and Social Outlook" trends report, the ILO also raised serious red flags about the health of the planet’s labour market.

"Even though global unemployment has stabilised, decent work deficits remain widespread: the global economy is still not creating enough jobs", the organisation’s director-general, Guy Ryder, said in a statement.

A key problem is the abundance of "vulnerable employment", a category that includes informal work arrangements with little or no social and contractual protections.

"The significant progress achieved in the past in reducing vulnerable employment has essentially stalled since 2012", the ILO said in a statement.

The problem is most acute in the developing world, where three out of every four workers have a "vulnerable" employment status, the report said.

The study’s lead author, ILO economist Stephan Kuhn, pointed out that 40 percent of all employed people in the developing world still live in "extreme poverty".

Uneven economic growth and the huge concentration of global wealth in the hands of very few is expected to be a key topic at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, which opens on Tuesday.

The charity group Oxfam reported Monday that 82 percent of the wealth created in 2017 was controlled by the world’s richest one percent.

For ILO chief Guy Ryder, broadening the benefits economic growth remains the key priority.

"Additional efforts need to be put in place to ensure that the gains of growth are shared equitably", he said. — AFP




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Thousands stranded, scores injured in snowbound Tokyo

Viet Nam News

TOKYO — A rare heavy blanket of snow in Tokyo on Tuesday left thousands of travellers stranded and scores injured, as frozen conditions snarled public transport in the Japanese capital.

Japan’s weather agency recorded as much as 23 centimetres (9.2 inches) of snow in some parts of Tokyo, the biggest snowfall since February 2014.

The weather paralysed Monday evening’s commute as millions of workers battled to get home in one of the world’s most populous cities.

Notoriously hard-working Japanese employees were urged to knock off early but this did not prevent delays and crushes at major stations.

Public broadcaster NHK said at least 180 people had sustained minor injuries on the frozen streets and there had been around 700 traffic accidents, police said.

Cars became trapped in a tunnel, sparking a 10-kilometre-long tailback from Monday evening through early Tuesday morning, broadcasters said.

And for the second day running, dozens of domestic and international flights departing from and arriving at the Japanese capital were scrapped due to the snow, with more than 9,000 people stranded overnight at Narita airport, officials said.

Airport officials and airline staff handed out water, snacks and sleeping bags to the unlucky passengers.

"I had planned to visit the US after graduating from university but my flight was cancelled. Why today?" an exasperated female student told NHK.

Heavy snowfall is common in northern areas of Japan but rare in the capital, which last saw this amount of snow in 2014.

The sun was shining brightly on Tuesday morning, but forecasters predict the mercury will stay well below zero this week, causing treacherous roads, and warned of more injuries.

The greater Tokyo area will see lows of minus six degrees Celsius (21.2 degree Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, the weather agency said.

"It’s rare to have sub-zero temperatures for a few days in the Tokyo area, and that would freeze the snow," agency official Kenji Okada said.

"In the past, we have seen a lot of injuries caused by slipping and falling. Simply walking can be dangerous," he said. — AFP




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Clamour of calls for more UK military funds amid Russia, cyber threat

LONDON — Former defence secretary Michael Fallon joined calls Monday for more British military spending, as the head of the army said the country may struggle to match Russian battlefield capabilities and another security chief warned a major cyber-attack on the UK is likely by 2020.

Fallon, speaking at the Defence and Security Forum in his first speech since resigning from the Cabinet over a sexual harassment scandal in November, argued for a £1 billion ($1.4 billion) increase in defence funding this year, and raising annual GDP spending on it to 2.5 per cent.

This would give the military an additional £7.7 billion each year, he said, amid a reported £20 billion black hole in the budget for the next decade.

Noting the deficit was falling and spending is on the rise in other priority areas, Fallon said: "So let’s release an extra £1 billion to fire up the defence budget this year, and set 2.5 percent of GDP as our new target for the end of the parliament."

The suggestion came shortly after Chief of the General Staff Nick Carter said in a rare public speech that Russia poses the "most complex and capable" security challenge since the end of the Cold War, and warned against complacency.

Making a high-profile intervention in the growing debate over military spending, he told an audience at the RUSI military think tank in London that "we cannot afford to sit back" in the face of Russian military strength.

The army chief detailed Moscow’s growing military capabilities, which he illustrated with a Russian-language video he described as "information warfare at its best".

That stark message was underlined by another warning Monday from the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre that the country will likely face a major cyber-attack within two years.

Ciaran Martin told the Guardian it was inevitable a hostile actor would launch an online attack aimed at crippling Britain’s critical infrastructure, such as energy supplies, and the country was lucky not to have fallen victim to one already.

"I think it is a matter of when, not if and we will be fortunate to come to the end of the decade without having to trigger a category one attack," he told the paper.

Budget questions 

Defence spending in Britain is under intense pressure following years of austerity, and a review launched last year has prompted media reports that further cuts are on the way.

Carter believes Russia has now boosted its capabilities to the extent that Britain may struggle to match them, and could initiate hostilities faster than expected, noting it has already demonstrated its use of superior long-range missiles in Syria.

"I believe our ability to pre-empt or respond to these threats will be eroded if we don’t match up to them now," he said.

The army head likened the current situation to the run-up to World War I: "We, I think, should be careful of complacency, the parallels with 1914 are stark."

"Our generation has become used to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War. But we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia."

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said Britain was committed to spending two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, in line with the target set by members of the NATO alliance.

"The chief of general staff is saying that we face a range of threats, that we need to make sure we have capabilities required to address them. That’s exactly what we’re doing as part of the National Security Capability Review" launched last July, he said.

"And we’re doing that from a position of strength, where we have a £36 billion ($50 billion, 40.9 billion euros) defence budget, which will rise to almost £40 billion by 2020-21."

Defence minister Gavin Williamson, who took over the role in November, has said the capability review would conclude "shortly". — AFP




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Six Ukrainians among 18 dead in Taliban attack on Kabul hotel

Viet Nam News

KABUL – Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Kabul and killed at least 18 people, most of them foreigners, sparking a 12-hour battle with Afghan forces backed by Norwegian troops that left terrified guests scrambling to escape.

Six Ukrainians were among those killed in the Taliban-claimed assault on the six-storey Intercontinental Hotel in the Afghan capital, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on Twitter.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish said 14 foreigners were among the dead, but did not specify their nationalities, in comments to Afghanistan’s Tolo News hours after the overnight attack that ended Sunday.

Terrified hotel guests climbed down bedsheets tied to balconies to escape the gunmen rampaging through the hilltop hotel overlooking the Afghan capital.

One lost his grip and fell in Tolo News television footage, which also showed black smoke and flames billowing from the hotel.

Special forces were lowered by helicopters during the night onto the roof of the landmark 1960s building. Afghan security forces killed all six attackers, the interior ministry said.

They were aided by Norwegian troops, Norwegian military officials told public broadcaster NRK. Norway has helped train Afghan elite forces since 2007.

"I want to say this explicitly and frankly and precisely... in total 14 foreigners and four Afghans were martyred in the attack on the hotel," Danish said on Tolo, adding that more than 160 people had been rescued during the attack.

Afghan officials have been known to understate death tolls in high-profile attacks.

Danish also said preliminary information showed the attackers may have already been inside the hotel before launching the assault, but gave no further details and warned an investigation had to be carried out.

But he did say that among the dead were 11 people from Afghan airline Kam Air. The company’s CEO, Captain Samad Usman Samadi, earlier said 42 of its personnel had been at the hotel during the attack -- at least 16 of whom were still missing.

"We fear for their lives," he said.

A foreign ministry official said that senior Afghan diplomat Abdullah Poyan was among the fatalities.

Mufti Ahmad Farzan, a member of the High Peace Council, responsible for reconciliation efforts with militants, was also killed in the attack, Danish said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault via email. The attack followed security warnings in recent days to avoid hotels and other locations frequented by foreigners in war-torn Kabul.

"We are hiding in our rooms. I beg the security forces to rescue us as soon as possible before they reach and kill us," one guest, who did not want to be named, told AFP by telephone during the siege.

His phone has been switched off since then.

’Fleeing like crazy’

Officials said four gunmen burst into the hotel, which is not part of the global InterContinental chain, on Saturday night, opening fire and taking dozens of people hostage.

Afghan Telecom regional director Aziz Tayeb, who was one of dozens of people at the hotel attending an IT conference, said he saw the attackers enter.

"Everything became chaotic in a moment. I hid behind a pillar and I saw people who were enjoying themselves a second ago screaming and fleeing like crazy, and some of them falling down, hit by bullets," Tayeb said.

Local resident Abdul Sattar said he had spoken by phone to friends who are hotel staff and had been trapped inside.

"Suddenly (militants) attacked the dinner gathering... (then) they broke into the rooms, took some people hostage and they opened fire on some of them," he said.

Interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the attackers were armed with light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades when they stormed the hotel.

Security in Kabul has been ramped up since May 31 when a massive truck bomb killed some 150 people and wounded around 400 -- mostly civilians.

Devastating attacks

But the resurgent Taliban and Islamic State are both scaling up their assaults on the city.

The attack on the Intercontinental was just one of several bloody assaults Sunday.

In a village in the northern province of Balkh, Taliban militants went from house to house in the middle of the night, pulling police from their homes and shooting them dead.

At least 18 officers were killed, deputy police chief Abdul Raziq Qaderi said.

In Herat in the west at least eight civilians were killed when a car hit a Taliban-planted roadside mine, officials there said.

The last major attack on a high-end hotel in Kabul was in March 2014 when four teenage gunmen raided the Serena, killing nine people including AFP journalist Sardar Ahmad.

In 2011 a suicide attack claimed by the Taliban killed 21 people at the Intercontinental including 10 civilians.

Danish said authorities were probing how the attackers got past the hotel’s security, which was taken over by a private company three weeks ago.

"We will investigate it," he said.

A hotel employee said that as he fled the venue he saw the new security guards running for their lives.

"They didn’t do anything, they didn’t attack. They had no experience," the man said on condition of anonymity. – AFP




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UK not keeping up with Russia threat, head of army to warn

Viet Nam News

LONDON – Britain would struggle to match Russian military capabilities on the battlefield and risks falling further behind potential adversaries without more investment, the head of the army will warn Monday.

In a rare public speech, Chief of the General Staff Nick Carter is expected to say that Russia is building increasingly aggressive and expeditionary forces while it has already demonstrated the use of superior long-range missiles in Syria.

Last year Moscow also initiated simulated attacks across northern Europe, from Kaliningrad to Lithuania, Carter will outline in an afternoon speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

"The time to address these threats is now -- we cannot afford to sit back," he is expected to say, according to the Ministry of Defence.

"Our ability to pre-empt or respond to threats will be eroded if we don’t keep up with our adversaries.

"We must take notice of what is going on around us or our ability to take action will be massively constrained.

"Speed of decision making, speed of deployment and modern capability are essential if we wish to provide realistic deterrence."

The stark comments, rare for a serving defence chief, will be delivered in a speech focused on "the increasingly real threats that pose a risk to the UK’s way of life," according to RUSI.

They come as years of austerity and public sector funding cuts have left Britain’s armed forces strained and finance minister Philip Hammond under pressure to act.

Defence minister Gavin Williamson, who only took over the role in November after his predecessor Michael Fallon stepped down over a sexual harassment scandal, is reportedly calling for increased funding.

Carter’s expected remarks will add to the pressure on Hammond to bow to those demands.

"State-based competition is now being employed in more novel and increasingly integrated ways and we must be ready to deal with them," the general is set to tell an invited audience at RUSI.

"The threats we face are not thousands of miles away but are now on Europe’s doorstep -- we have seen how cyber warfare can be both waged on the battlefield and to disrupt normal people’s lives -- we in the UK are not immune from that."

Carter’s anticipated warning follows similar comments from retired defence chiefs in recent months.

Sir Richard Barrons, until last year the head of Britain’s Joint Forces Command which prepares for future conflicts, called for the defence budget to be raised to ensure the country’s armed forces could adequately protect against potential attacks from China or Russia. – AFP




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