Bottas claims maiden F1 win for Mercedes ahead of Vettel

Valtteri Bottas claimed his maiden Formula One victory on Sunday when he resisted intense pressure from championship leader Sebastian Vettel to triumph for Mercedes in a tense Russian Grand Prix.The Finnish driver, starting from third place on the grid…

Valtteri Bottas claimed his maiden Formula One victory on Sunday when he resisted intense pressure from championship leader Sebastian Vettel to triumph for Mercedes in a tense Russian Grand Prix.

The Finnish driver, starting from third place on the grid, grabbed the initiative at the start by powering past both Ferraris and into the lead while his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton struggled home fourth.

Four-time champion Vettel finished second ahead of Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen who claimed his first podium finish since last year's Austrian Grand Prix.

The popular Bottas's first win was warmly received by his fellow drivers and the paddock, Hamilton hugging him after he had jumped into the arms of his crew and Vettel joining the reception, Russian President Vladimir Putin also present for congratulations and prize giving.

"Worth the wait!" said the unflappable Bottas in typical understated style after coming home just six-tenths of a second ahead of Vettel at the flag.

Dutch teenager Max Verstappen finished fifth for Red Bull ahead of Mexican Sergio Perez and his Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon, German Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and Brazilian Felipe Massa of Williams.

The result lifted Vettel clear at the top of the drivers championship with 86 points ahead of Hamilton on 73 with Bottas up to third with 63 points. Mercedes lead the constructors title race with 136 points to Ferrari on 135 after four rounds of this year?s championship.

Bottas became Finland?s fifth Formula One race winner following Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and Heikki Kovalainen, who was the last from the Nordic country to triumph, at the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix.

- 'This is Valtteri's day' -

Vettel was seemingly as pleased for Bottas as if he had won himself.

"I tried everything to catch him and I thought there would be an opportunity on the back straight," the German said.

"I thought I could do it, but I wasn?t sure what Felipe Massa would do and I ended up losing out. It doesn?t matter though. Big congratulations to Valtteri. This is his day."

Raikkonen said: "I have had a bit of a rough start to the season, but this week has been a step forward, but we still only finished third. So, we?ll keep trying."

On a balmy Spring day by the Black Sea, two-time champion Fernando Alonso was an instant retirement before the start when the Spaniard abandoned his troublesome McLaren Honda.

This delayed the start for an additional formation lap before Bottas made his exhilarating getaway.

Almost immediately, Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Haas collided with the Renault of Briton Jolyon Palmer at Turn Two, the cars crashing heavily to trigger a red-flagged halt and a Safety Car intervention.

After a six-minute stoppage, Bottas was sharpest at the re-start when the Safety Car pulled in and he dominated, pulling 3.1 seconds clear of Vettel by lap 10 as Hamilton, back in fourth, struggled with intermittent power and over-heating problems.

Ricciardo was another early departure after just seven laps with brake problems.

By lap 18, Bottas was controlling events with a 4.5-sec lead and the top four were separated by less than 14 seconds.

The leading positions remained unchanged until the pit-stops, which saw Bottas first in for super-softs followed by Raikkonen and Hamilton, Vettel leading from lap 27 until lap 34 when he finally pitted for new rubber.

This enabled Bottas to regain the initiative, but an error at Turn 13 on lap 38, when he had a serious lock-up and narrowly avoided the wall, invited Vettel, on fresher tyres, back into contention.

Needing no second invitation, the German closed the gap to 1.5 seconds with 10 laps to go and set up a grandstand finish, but Bottas hung on to take his first emotional and welcome victory in his 81st Grand Prix.

United top four hopes dealt blow by plucky Swansea

A Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick dealt a blow to Manchester United’s hopes of a top four finish whilst boosting his team Swansea’s chances of escaping the drop in an entertaining 1-1 Premier League draw on Sunday.Wayne Rooney had scored his first home leag…

A Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick dealt a blow to Manchester United's hopes of a top four finish whilst boosting his team Swansea's chances of escaping the drop in an entertaining 1-1 Premier League draw on Sunday.

Wayne Rooney had scored his first home league goal of the season, from a harsh penalty decision, in time added on of the first-half.

However, he blotted his copybook when he conceded a free-kick nearly 25 yards from goal in the 78th minute.

Free-kick specialist Sigurdsson duly delivered with a superb curling effort into the top corner that left United keeper David de Gea rooted to the spot and denied Jose Mourinho a victory that would have lifted United into third place, temporarily at least.

Instead they trail fourth-placed Manchester City on goal difference and could fall three points behind them if City beat struggling Middlesbrough later on Sunday.

Swansea, who have righted the ship a little in taking four points from their last two games after a return of just a single point in the previous six, trail fourth from bottom Hull by two points with three matches remaining.

Rooney struck in first-half injury-time after a contentious penalty award by referee Neil Swarbrick who judged keeper Lukasz Fabianski had brought down Marcus Rashford when diving at his feet.

Replays suggested Swansea had been hard done -- Rashford making the most out of minimal contact -- but Rooney made no mistake with a clinical conversion from the resulting penalty.

It was a cruel end to a strong showing by Swansea and a slow start from Mourinho's side was exacerbated by an injury after just seven minutes to England left-back Luke Shaw who appeared to damage his ankle off the ball.

The tactical reshuffle that followed hardly helped United settle as they struggled to cope with an impressive and committed opening from the relegation-troubled visitors.

Indeed, Paul Clement's side should have gone in at the half-time interval in front.

On 12 minutes, Ayew's shot was blocked by Eric Bailly who blasted his clearance directly at Sigurdsson and watched, relieved, as the ricochet flew harmlessly behind.

Then Fernando Llorente beat Bailly far too easily and was only denied by a flying stop from de Gea.

United had given Fabianski something to think about, starting in the 16th minute when Anthony Martial picked out the well-timed run of Jesse Lingard with a pass which the youngster volleyed too close to the Swansea keeper.

Martial was looking increasingly dangerous as he cut in from the left and a grateful Fabianski smothered his shot at the second attempt as Lingard was poised to net the rebound.

And before United would take the lead, there was a reminder that Swansea posed a real threat as Tom Carroll found Ayew whose shot was blocked by the outstretched leg of de Gea with the loose ball flying within inches of two Swansea attackers.

Rooney should have handed United a much-needed two-goal cushion early in the second half as he exchanged passes with Ander Herrera but succeeded only in striking his effort directly into the back of Martial from eight yards.

Mourinho's mounting injury list grew when the impressive Bailly limped out of the game with what looked like a hamstring problem on the hour mark.

As Clement chased the game, Swansea also ran into injury problems with substitute Jefferson Montero managing to survive just six minutes before being stretchered off.

Even after their equaliser, Swansea still pushed for a winner, however, and Llorente should have done better than mis-kick close to goal from another threatening Sigurdsson set-piece.

India brides get wooden paddles to beat drunk husbands

An Indian state minister has given hundreds of wooden bats to newly-wed brides, urging them to use the paddle as a weapon if their husbands turn alcoholic or abusive.Gopal Bhargava gave the bats — which are used to get dirt out of clothes in tradition…

An Indian state minister has given hundreds of wooden bats to newly-wed brides, urging them to use the paddle as a weapon if their husbands turn alcoholic or abusive.

Gopal Bhargava gave the bats -- which are used to get dirt out of clothes in traditional laundries -- to nearly 700 brides at a mass wedding organised by the government of central Madhya Pradesh state on Saturday.

The nearly foot-long paddles are emblazoned with messages that read: "For beating drunkards" and "Police won't intervene".

Bhargava told the brides to reason with their husbands first, adding that they should "let the wooden paddles do the talking" if their spouses refuse to listen.

Bhargava told AFP he wanted to draw attention to the plight of rural women who face domestic abuse from their alcoholic husbands.

"Women say whenever their husbands get drunk they become violent. Their savings are taken away and splurged on liquor," he said.

"There is no intent to provoke women or instigate them to violence but the bat is to prevent violence."

The minister has ordered nearly 10,000 bats for distribution to newly-wed women.

Many Indian states have launched a crackdown on liquor in recent years, either banning or restricting its sale in a bid to curb alcohol-fuelled violence.

Last year, the government of Tamil Nadu state vowed to introduce prohibition as part of its campaign to win re-election.

The pledge was popular with women voters, who blame alcohol for much of the state's domestic and sexual violence, and for depleting the income of poor families.

Experts have expressed caution, pointing to a possible rise in the production of illegal and often deadly moonshine.

The neighbouring southern state of Kerala introduced a ban on alcohol sales in most hotels from 2014.

Eastern Bihar state imposed a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol last year while western Gujarat state has practised prohibition for decades.

Kuwaiti quits FIFA council to fight bribery claim

World sport powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah announced his resignation Sunday from the FIFA council, saying he did not want to be a distraction while fighting corruption allegations. Aside from serving on FIFA’s top body, the Kuwaiti heads th…

World sport powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah announced his resignation Sunday from the FIFA council, saying he did not want to be a distraction while fighting corruption allegations.

Aside from serving on FIFA's top body, the Kuwaiti heads the influential Association of National Olympic Committees, the Olympic Council of Asia and other senior sport administration posts, including with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Sheikh Ahmad has been named as a co-conspirator of disgraced Guam football chief Richard Lai, who pleaded guilty in New York this week to receiving nearly $1 million in bribes from football officials wanting his help to influence FIFA.

The Kuwaiti denied all wrongdoing on Saturday before deciding to step back from his FIFA post on Sunday.

"I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC and FIFA Congresses," he said in an emailed statement.

"Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions," he added.

"I will continue to support the family of football once these allegations have been disproved."

- Resignation 'best' for FIFA' -

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, in a statement, said he had "taken note" of Sheikh Ahmad's resignation.

"I want to thank him for taking this decision which certainly was not easy to take but is in the best interest for FIFA."

Sheikh Ahmad, a former Kuwaiti oil minister, has been linked to bribes accepted by Lai in exchange for backing an Asian candidate in FIFA's 2011 presidential election and help in gaining control of the AFC.

Documents filed with a federal court in Brooklyn identify Lai's "co-conspirator #2" as "a high-ranking official of FIFA, the Kuwait Football Association, and the Olympic Council of Asia".

Sheikh Ahmad is not mentioned directly, although the documents filed on April 27 say all of Lai's alleged co-conspirators "are known to the United States Attorney".

Co-conspirator #2 is tied to multiple payments aimed at influencing football elections, including a November 2009 transaction worth $200,000.

Lai, Pacific island Guam's football chief since 2001, has been suspended by both FIFA and the AFC after he admitted accepting bribes between 2009 and 2014.

Erdogan says ‘saddened’ by US flags with Syrian YPG

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said Ankara was “seriously saddened” by footage showing American military vehicles operating close to the border with Syrian Kurdish fighters Turkey sees as a terror group.The Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection …

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said Ankara was "seriously saddened" by footage showing American military vehicles operating close to the border with Syrian Kurdish fighters Turkey sees as a terror group.

The Syrian Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) are seen by Washington as the most effective fighting force in the battle against jihadists in Syria.

Ankara says the fighters of the YPG are merely the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who have waged an insurgency since 1984 inside Turkey that has left tens of thousands dead.

Turkish forces last week carried out air strikes on YPG positions in Syria, angering the United States and sparking days of border clashes with the Kurdish fighters.

The US sent military vehicles with American flags to the Syrian side of the frontier accompanied by YPG fighters to carry out patrols, in an apparent bid to prevent further fighting.

"Unfortunately... the presence of an American flag along with the (insignia) of a terror organisation called YPG in a convoy has seriously saddened us," Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul before heading on a trip to India.

The difference of opinion over the YPG has cast a shadow over US-Turkish relations for some time and Erdogan is hoping for a drastic change in US policy when he meets President Donald Trump next month.

"We will bring this up when we meet Mr President on May 16," said Erdogan.

He expressed regret that the US-YPG cooperation -- which began under the former Barack Obama administration -- was being continued under the new president.

"This needs to be stopped right now," said Erdogan. "Otherwise it will continue to be a bother in the region and for us."

"It will also bother us as two NATO countries and strategic partners," he said.

Erdogan reaffirmed that Turkey could again bomb the YPG positions at any time it wanted.

"I said yesterday: 'We can come unexpectedly in the night'. I really meant that. We are not going to tip off the terror groups and the Turkish Armed Forces could come at any moment."

"Better they live in fear than we have worries," he said.

Wanted Iranian TV executive shot dead in Istanbul

The head of an Iranian satellite television network channel who last year was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison by a Tehran court was shot dead in Istanbul together with a business partner, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said on Sunday.

The head of an Iranian satellite television network channel who last year was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison by a Tehran court was shot dead in Istanbul together with a business partner, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said on Sunday.

China, Taiwan and Japan strike gold at Asia Championships

Rio Olympic gold medallist Chen Long beat his Chinese team-mate Lin Dan in the men?s singles final on Sunday to win his first Badminton Asia Championship and boost his claims for a berth at the world championships.The 28-year-old Chen had not won a tou…

Rio Olympic gold medallist Chen Long beat his Chinese team-mate Lin Dan in the men?s singles final on Sunday to win his first Badminton Asia Championship and boost his claims for a berth at the world championships.

The 28-year-old Chen had not won a tournament since last year?s Olympics but ended his barren run in timely fashion when he came from behind to beat Lin 21-23, 21-11, 21-10 in Sunday?s final at the Wuhan Sports Center Gymnasium.

It was his first win at the Asian Championships, one of the few major tournaments to have eluded him, after he finished on the podium six times previously.

The victory may also help his prospects of competing at this year?s world championships in Glasgow, where he would be gunning for a third successive title if selected.

He is currently ranked ninth in the world but there are three Chinese men ahead of him, including Lin. Under the qualifying rules for the world championships, countries can only enter four athletes if they are ranked in the top eight.

With the qualifying deadline having just expired, China can only enter three players in the men?s singles but the selections are up to the Chinese federation, who are not bound to follow the rankings and so could opt for Chen.

Lin, 33, beat Malaysia?s current world number one Lee Chong Wei in Saturday?s semi-finals. But Sunday's loss ended the bid by the 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion for a record-equalling fifth Asian title, which would match the feat of Ye Zhaoying who won five women?s crowns in the 1990s.

Tai Tzu-ying provided Taiwan with its first Badminton Asian champion when she won Sunday?s women?s singles final.

The current world number one took the gold when she beat Japanese teenager Akane Yamaguchi 18-21, 21-11, 21-18.

Japan?s Olympic champions Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi successfully defended their Asian women?s doubles title as expected, while China won the men?s and mixed doubles finals.

France’s Le Pen plays green card

With a week to go before France’s presidential election runoff, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen played the green card outside a controversial aluminium plant in the south of the country.Le Pen has made a series of targeted campaign stops in a bid to…

With a week to go before France's presidential election runoff, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen played the green card outside a controversial aluminium plant in the south of the country.

Le Pen has made a series of targeted campaign stops in a bid to close a 19-point gap in voter surveys with centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, 39.

Vowing to pursue a vision of "true ecology", the 48-year-old National Front (FN) candidate said the Alteo plant in the town of Gardanne was a symbol of a false choice between jobs and the environment.

The plant, with a workforce of some 400 as well as around 300 sub-contractors, is controversial for dumping toxic waste known as "red mud" into a Mediterranean nature reserve for decades.

Last year the government of former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls gave it an additional six years to comply with EU norms, prompting the European Commission to request an explanation.

The plant "is a symbol because they want us to believe that the choice is between jobs and health and the environment," Le Pen told a handful of reporters outside the plant during her previously unannounced stop.

"I'm here to say that... there would not be such a choice to make" under a Le Pen presidency, said the candidate, who blames environmental degradation -- and many other woes -- on "unbridled globalisation".

As part of her efforts to expand her base, Le Pen said Saturday she would name a fellow eurosceptic from outside the FN, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, as prime minister if she is elected.

Le Pen, who has promised France a referendum on quitting the European Union, said she and Dupont-Aignan, 56, would "build a national unity government that will bring together people chosen for their skills and their love of France."

Like Le Pen, Dupont-Aignan -- who lost in the election's first round with 4.7 percent of the vote -- has said he favours ditching the euro.

His backing for Le Pen "in the name of patriotism" sparked the resignation of two officials of his nationalist Debout la France (France Stand Up) party and drew more than 200 protesters to the town hall in Yerres, in the Paris region, where he is mayor.

On Saturday, Macron scoffed at the alliance as a "political scam that aims to solve Marine Le Pen's credibility problems."

Later Sunday, Le Pen laid a wreath at a monument in the port of Marseille, south of Gardanne, to mark France's national day of remembrance for the victims of the deportation of French Jews to Nazi Germany.

Macron, for his part, was to visit the Holocaust memorial in Paris on Sunday.

- Don't be 'spectators' -

The FN last week became embroiled in controversy over the choice of an interim leader who had been accused of praising a Holocaust denier.

Jean-Francois Jalkh, who was tapped to lead the FN after Le Pen stepped aside to campaign for the presidency, was quickly replaced while Jalkh himself denied making the remarks.

Le Pen has attempted to woo new voters on either side of the political divide.

In a video message Friday, she urged the near 20 percent of voters who backed eurosceptic leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon in the April 23 first round to "block" Macron, saying his pro-business programme was "diametrically opposed" to leftist ideals.

Melenchon has refused to explicitly endorse the liberal Macron, breaking with France's "republican front" tradition of parties coming together to halt the FN.

Le Pen has sought to purge the FN of the anti-Semitism that became its trademark under her father, co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen -- who made the second round in 2002 against the conservative eventual winner Jacques Chirac.

He had repeatedly calling the Nazi gas chambers a "detail" of history.

In 2015 she booted her father out of the party but this month she was herself criticised for saying today's France bore no responsibility for the roundup and deportation of French Jews during World War II.

Meanwhile, calls on voters to block a Le Pen presidency -- even if they are lukewarm toward Macron -- continued to proliferate.

On Sunday, a prominent wartime Resistance figure, 96-year-old Daniel Cordier, told the weekly Journal du Dimanche that "Le Pen... represents the negation of all that we fought for."

To those voters who would prefer to abstain -- notably supporters of Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon -- around 60 civil society groups issued a joint call for them not to be "spectators".

People must vote down "those who promote the rejection of the other," their call read.

‘Billions’ star Lewis reveals Obama acting tips

British acting star Damian Lewis on Sunday revealed that former US President Barack Obama had offered him advice in playing a charismatic hedge fund manager in hit television series “Billions”.When asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr if his character Bobby …

British acting star Damian Lewis on Sunday revealed that former US President Barack Obama had offered him advice in playing a charismatic hedge fund manager in hit television series "Billions".

When asked by the BBC's Andrew Marr if his character Bobby "Axe" Axelrod glamorised Wall Street bosses, Lewis replied: "I'm going to drop a name here and I'm going to enjoy it enormously.

"The (then) president of the United States Barack Obama did say to me a few months ago, 'I'm loving Billions, I'm loving your character in it, I'm loving Bobby, the only problem is hedge fund managers aren't that cool'."

The Showtime series is loosely based on real-life prosecutor of financial crimes Preet Bharara and his battles with hedge fund manager Steve Cohen.

Lewis, who played Nicholas Brody in the television series "Homeland", said "the one slightly romantic thing you can say about" hedge fund managers is that "they do bet against the tide."

Bike-sharing launched in congested Beirut

Lebanon launched a bike-sharing programme in its capital Beirut on Sunday, hoping to cut down on the congested city’s notorious traffic and pollution.The scheme aims to eventually allow users to rent and return bicycles at 25 automated stations distrib…

Lebanon launched a bike-sharing programme in its capital Beirut on Sunday, hoping to cut down on the congested city's notorious traffic and pollution.

The scheme aims to eventually allow users to rent and return bicycles at 25 automated stations distributed across the city.

For now, a single station is operating in central Beirut, with limited cyclist lanes available to those looking to beat the traffic.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri officially inaugurated the scheme, participating in a bike ride and pledging to organise car-free days to prioritise cycling in the city.

Around half a million cars clog Beirut's streets on a daily basis, according to experts, causing enormous traffic jams and contributing to air pollution.

But only a handful of cyclists brave the roads, where drivers regularly ignore traffic signals and lanes are virtually an unknown concept.

The bike programme has already started in the northern city of Byblos, and there are plans to expand it to other coastal cities, including Tripoli and Batroun in the north, and Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon's south.

The scheme will charge around $3 an hour for bike rental, with monthly subscribers paying a lower rate.

Bike-sharing programmes have proved popular in many major cities, including Paris and London.

Mourinho hopes to have Pogba back for Europa clash

Paul Pogba will alleviate the pressure on Manchester United’s injury-depleted squad in returning for the Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo on Thursday, manager Jose Mourinho said Sunday.The French international midfielder — the world’s most …

Paul Pogba will alleviate the pressure on Manchester United's injury-depleted squad in returning for the Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo on Thursday, manager Jose Mourinho said Sunday.

The French international midfielder -- the world's most expensive player -- has not been in action since limping out of last Sunday's 2-0 Premier League win over Burnley.

The 24-year-old joined other key players such as leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic and defensive duo Chris Smalling and Phil Jones on the sidelines.

"The situation is not easy for us," Mourinho told BT Sport on Sunday just before hosting strugglers Swansea.

"But the reality is we have two competitions to play for and we have to go with everything we have.

"We are rotating players.

"We don't have many to do it but Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard, Luke Shaw -- they didn't play the last match (0-0 draw with Manchester City last Thursday) so at least we have four fresh players."

Mourinho, who is battling on two fronts to qualify for the Champions League either through winning the Europa League or finishing in the top four in the Premier League, then had to watch Shaw limp off in the eighth minute of the Swansea match.

However, Mourinho was able to surprisingly name Spanish midfielders Juan Mata on the bench as he had not been expected to return till the very end of the season after undergoing groin surgery.

The 29-year-old Spaniard's return comes in the wake of Mourinho imploring Smalling and Jones to fight to come back earlier than predicted to help out Ivory Coast central defender Eric Bailly who has been a rock in the defence but has not been able to be rested.

"Juan Mata is coming back on the bench, a good effort to be ready as soon as possible," said Mourinho.

"I think Paul (Pogba) also will be ready for our next match. We will fight with everything we have."

SpaceX postpones classified US military launch until Monday

SpaceX on Sunday postponed for 24 hours the launch of a secretive US government payload, known only as NROL-76, due to a “sensor issue” with the rocket, a spokesman said.”Out of an abundance of caution we have decided to scrub today’s launch,” a SpaceX…

SpaceX on Sunday postponed for 24 hours the launch of a secretive US government payload, known only as NROL-76, due to a "sensor issue" with the rocket, a spokesman said.

"Out of an abundance of caution we have decided to scrub today's launch," a SpaceX spokesman said, describing the issue as relating to the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Another opportunity for launch opens Monday at 7:00 am (1100 GMT).

The payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which makes and operates spy satellites for the United States, will be the first military launch for the California-based aerospace company headed by billionaire tycoon Elon Musk.

"As a matter of policy and because of classification, NRO does not provide information about our contracts," a spokeswoman told AFP.

Until now, the US military has spent billions per year exclusively with United Launch Alliance, a joint operation of aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to launch government satellites.

SpaceX in 2014 protested the US Air Force's practice of using only ULA, saying it unfairly awarded billions of dollars to a single company for national security launches.

SpaceX was selected to launch NROL-76 "after a competition," said the NRO spokeswoman.

She said she did not know when the contract was awarded. It was first announced last year.

SpaceX regularly launches unmanned cargo ships to the International Space Station, and is working on a crew capsule that could carry humans into orbit as early as next year.

Trump celebrates 100 days by touting achievements and attacking critics

U.S. President Donald Trump hit the road on Saturday to celebrate his first 100 days in the White House with cheering supporters at a campaign-style rally, touting his initial achievements and lashing out at critics.

U.S. President Donald Trump hit the road on Saturday to celebrate his first 100 days in the White House with cheering supporters at a campaign-style rally, touting his initial achievements and lashing out at critics.

Japan?s Neorealism wins Hong Kong?s QEII Cup

Japanese raider Neorealism held off a late challenge from the fast-finishing Pakistan Star to win Sunday?s Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at Hong Kong?s Shatin racecourse.Neorealism, perfectly ridden by Brazilian-born jockey Joao Moreira, prevailed in a th…

Japanese raider Neorealism held off a late challenge from the fast-finishing Pakistan Star to win Sunday?s Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at Hong Kong?s Shatin racecourse.

Neorealism, perfectly ridden by Brazilian-born jockey Joao Moreira, prevailed in a thrilling finish to win the HK$20 million (US$2.6 million)event over 2,000 metres.

Nicknamed the Magic Man because of his extraordinary success in the saddle, Moreira produced another masterful ride, catching his opponents napping with a bold mid-race move.

With the early pace unusually slow as none of the eight runners wanted to set a fast tempo up front, Moreira instinctively swept around the field and charged to the front with 1,000 metres to go.

Neorealism, which started at odds of 7-2, opened up a small but decisive break on the field as they turned for home. None of the backmarkers could catch the six-year-old chestnut, who claimed his third win from eight starts for master trainer Noriyuki Hori.

"He didn't really jump as well as we expected: we thought he was going to be able to lead but as he jumped a little bit slow I had to give him a chance to get cover behind horses," Moreira said.

"The pace slowed so much on the back straight, so I had to pop out and get going. He got going but he wasn't at his top speed, so I was always confident that once we turned for home he was going to finish off strongly, which he did."

The German-bred Pakistan Star, tipped as a future champion after finishing runner-up in the Hong Kong Derby, rattled home strongly with Silvestre De Sousa in the irons to finish second, beaten by a neck.

Last year?s winner Werther was third, another neck behind, missing his chance to emulate Japan?s Eishin Preston (2002, 2003) as the only back-to-back winner of the race.

Neorealism became just the third Japanese-trained horse to win the event, following Eishin Preston and Rulership (2012).

"Japanese horses are strong everywhere they go,? Moreira said. ?I'm blessed to be his jockey today."

Regarded as one of the premier horse races in Asia, the event was first run in 1975 at Happy Valley racecourse during a visit by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1995 it became an international event with overseas runners invited to take part and was promoted to Group One status in 2001.

PARTI Program Launches Social Mixer Events to Promote Sponsorship and Stop Bullying and Violence!

PARTI Program is calling on Silicon Valley Philanthropists and Leaders to Get Involved at the kickoff Social Mixer on May 18th at the Loft Bar & Bistro in downtown San Jose.

PARTI Program is calling on Silicon Valley Philanthropists and Leaders to Get Involved at the kickoff Social Mixer on May 18th at the Loft Bar & Bistro in downtown San Jose.

Free Exhibition Stand Design Consultancy By Skyhigh Events Dubai

WHO WANTS A FREE STAND DESIGN? Yes you read it right. Sky High Events provides a free of charge stand design with a complimentary consultancy service for your events and exhibition requirements to be held in Dubai, UAE starting May 2017.

WHO WANTS A FREE STAND DESIGN? Yes you read it right. Sky High Events provides a free of charge stand design with a complimentary consultancy service for your events and exhibition requirements to be held in Dubai, UAE starting May 2017.

Sauber to switch from Ferrari to Honda power

Sauber on Sunday confirmed it will switch from Ferrari engines to Honda power-units next year.The Swiss team will become the first customers for Honda, whose exclusive partnership with McLaren has resulted in a series of performance problems, since ret…

Sauber on Sunday confirmed it will switch from Ferrari engines to Honda power-units next year.

The Swiss team will become the first customers for Honda, whose exclusive partnership with McLaren has resulted in a series of performance problems, since returning to Formula One in 2015.

Sauber has had a technical partnership with Ferrari since 2010.

Sauber team boss Monisha Kaltenborn defended the move to take a supply of arguably the least-effective engines, which has been questioned by many paddock observers.

"That is very momentary, how you are summarising it," she told reporters. "That is as of now. Nobody knows what is going to be the future.

"We are absolutely confident that Honda will make improvements and sort out their issues. We are convinced that it is going to happen.

"Nobody knows what is going to be in six months and we just feel that from the overall opportunities that we have there, it strengthens or fits more into the way we want to go."

Ferrari have returned to form this year and on Saturday locked out the front row of the grid for Sunday?s Russian Grand Prix with German Sebastian Vettel taking pole position and Finn Kimi Raikkonen lining up alongside him.

A waterway lifeline for US-backed Syria force fighting IS

As US-backed fighters advance on the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian stronghold Raqa, a waterway “corridor” has become a key supply line, and an escape route for displaced civilians.An AFP team accompanied fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forc…

As US-backed fighters advance on the Islamic State group's de facto Syrian stronghold Raqa, a waterway "corridor" has become a key supply line, and an escape route for displaced civilians.

An AFP team accompanied fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab alliance that is fighting to capture the strategic town of Tabqa, some 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa.

Their direct land route from the territory they hold in the north is blocked by the Tabqa dam, which remains under IS control.

So instead, they are running supplies across Lake Assad, an enormous reservoir created by the dam, as well as ferrying civilians fleeing Tabqa back across to safety.

The main means of transport is a makeshift ferry, made out of a piece of floating bridge that has been lashed to four small boats, two on each side.

The boats, borrowed from local fishermen and attached with orange rope, drive the "ferry" and its occupants across the lake multiple times a day on an hour-long journey.

On Saturday, several dozen civilians waited on the northern side of the lake, hours after crossing to safety, as fighters loaded up the floating bridge moored near the Jaabar Castle, a local historical site.

A woman in her thirties, her face loosely wrapped in a beige headscarf, distributed bread to her children in the back of a pick-up truck.

Nearby, a child and his father stood by the water's edge, washing their faces after an exhausting trip. A rusty boat bobbed by them in the shallows.

Many of the arrivals looked exhausted, and some still seemed afraid, wary of their new surroundings.

- 'A water corridor' -

"We were besieged in Tabqa. The humanitarian situation was really bad," said Ismail Mohamed, 39, who had arrived hours earlier with his family.

"People are hungry and tired. Everyone is psychologically shattered, crushed," he told AFP.

"When we got on the water, riding the boat, we truly couldn't believe it, we were so happy."

As the arrivals waited for permission to move north into SDF-held territory, fighters loaded vehicles with food and other supplies and drove them onto the makeshift ferry.

"The... dam is not safe yet, we don't control it fully, there are still some mercenaries there, so we can't move civilians through," an SDF commander told AFP, referring to IS fighters.

"So we have opened a water corridor to rescue civilians, including via small boats and this ferry," he said.

Fighters offered civilians loaves of flat bread as they waited.

The makeshift craft relies on local fishermen who have lent the SDF their boats.

They fish in the morning, but their boats spend the rest of the day serving as motors to get the floating bridge back and forth.

The hour-long trip to the southern shore, where more civilians are waiting to escape, is a sharp contrast with the fierce fighting that awaits SDF forces in Tabqa.

The US-backed force now controls more than 50 percent of the town, but has faced fierce resistance from IS, with the jihadists deploying suicide attackers, car bombs and weaponised drones.

Capturing Tabqa will be a key step towards the advance on Raqa, which the SDF is seeking to encircle before beginning a final assault.

- Sipping tea, taking photos -

On the water though, there is little sound except the engines of the boats and the thump of two US-led coalition helicopters overhead, helping secure the corridor.

One SDF fighter heads to the edge of the makeshift craft and closes his eyes for a moment, inhaling deeply and then sighing.

"How beautiful the water is, when you stand and look into the distance and all you see is water."

As the craft moved forward, the sun began to set, with the almost-still water reflecting the orange rays.

Relaxed fighters, men and women, sipped tea and took photos, some looking towards the smoke rising from Tabqa in the distance.

"There is not fear like there was before," said SDF fighter Amed Qamishlo.

"Daesh has begun to collapse in Tabqa, and now things are good compared to how they were," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

"Before we used to take a long route to avoid IS drones which were armed with bombs and tried to target the ferry, but the drones were not able to hit us, and the coalition aircraft above us protect us."

On arrival, an orange tractor drives into the shallows and a rope attached to the "ferry" is hooked to the teeth of its digger.

The tractor reverses up the bank, pulling the craft to the edge, where fighters then unfold a ramp so vehicles can be driven ashore.

Behind wait several pick-up trucks, filled with weary families waiting their turn to join the other civilians who have escaped across the lake.

The Body Shop launches Drops Of LightTM Pure Resurfacing Liquid Peel

The Body Shop has launched Drops Of LightTM Pure Resurfacing Liquid Peel (145 mL). This quick fix brightening essential is enriched with the goodness of Red Algae Extract.

The Body Shop has launched Drops Of LightTM Pure Resurfacing Liquid Peel (145 mL). This quick fix brightening essential is enriched with the goodness of Red Algae Extract.

Famed Swiss climber Ueli Steck dies on Everest: officials

Swiss climber Ueli Steck, famed for pioneering new mountaineering routes and setting speed records, was found dead on Mount Everest on Sunday morning, officials said.”Today morning, he had an accident on the Nuptse wall and died. It seems he slipped,” …

Swiss climber Ueli Steck, famed for pioneering new mountaineering routes and setting speed records, was found dead on Mount Everest on Sunday morning, officials said.

"Today morning, he had an accident on the Nuptse wall and died. It seems he slipped," Ang Tsering Sherpa, head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told AFP.

Steck, 40, was on Everest to acclimatise before attempting to summit the world's tallest peak in May, using a never before climbed route.

South Korea, US conduct military drills despite Pyongyang threats

South Korea and the United States wrapped up their annual large-scale military drills on Sunday, but continued a separate joint naval exercise that has triggered dire threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been run…

South Korea and the United States wrapped up their annual large-scale military drills on Sunday, but continued a separate joint naval exercise that has triggered dire threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been running sky-high for weeks, with signs that the North might be preparing a long-range missile launch or a sixth nuclear test -- and with Washington refusing to rule out a military strike in response.

The massive "Foal Eagle" drill, which the defence ministry in Seoul said was ending as scheduled on Sunday, involved around 20,000 South Korean and 10,000 US troops.

Another annual joint exercise known as "Key Resolve" ended last month.

Both play out scenarios for a conflict with North Korea, but Seoul and Washington insist they are purely defensive in nature, despite Pyongyang's claims that they are provocative rehearsals for invasion.

Their conclusion normally signals a period of relative calm in North-South tensions, but this year the situation looks set to remain highly volatile.

US President Donald Trump has warned of a possible "major conflict" while Pyongyang has carried out a series of failed missile tests, including one on Saturday, and a massive live-fire military exercise.

The South Korean defence ministry confirmed Sunday that a joint naval drill with a US strike group, led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, was still ongoing in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

The exercise, aimed at verifying the allies' capability to track and intercept enemy ballistic missiles, is expected to continue until sometime next week.

Through state media, North Korea has threatened to attack the Carl Vinson, and a state-sponsored website on Sunday also warned of a possible strike against a US nuclear-powered submarine despatched to the area.

China is "putting pressure" on its ally North Korea to curb its weapons programmes, Trump told the CBS television network's "Face the Nation" programme.

If North Korea carries out another nuclear test "I would not be happy," he said.

"And I can tell you also, I don't believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either," Trump said in excerpts of the interview released Saturday.

Asked if "not happy" signified "military action," Trump answered: "I don't know. I mean, we'll see."

- 'Catastrophic consequences' -

Pyongyang's show of defiance included a failed missile test on Saturday that came just hours after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the UN Security Council of "catastrophic consequences" if the international community -- most notably China -- failed to pressure the North into abandoning its weapons programme.

Military options for dealing with the North were still "on the table", Tillerson said.

China has repeatedly pushed back at the idea that it alone holds the solution to curbing the North's nuclear ambitions, and warned that any use of US force would only lead to "bigger disasters".

Pope Francis this weekend called for negotiations to resolve tensions over North Korea.

"There are plenty of mediators in the world who are putting themselves forward. Norway, for example which is ready to help," he said.

The tensions have also triggered some friction between Seoul and Washington, with Trump suggesting in a recent interview that the South should pay for the $1.0-billion dollar THAAD anti-missile system that the US is deploying on its ally's territory.

But on Sunday South Korea said US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had spoken by phone with his counterpart in Seoul and both sides had reaffirmed that Washington would bear the cost of the THAAD deployment, as initially agreed.

Trump's interview remarks "were made in a general context, reflecting the American public's hopes for (defense) cost sharing," McMaster was quoted as saying by the South's presidential office.

The two countries have had a security alliance since the 1950-53 Korean war, and more than 28,000 US troops are stationed in the South.

Beijing has been infuriated by the THAAD deployment, which it says upsets the regional security balance.

Libya seizes oil tankers and crew after shootout at sea

Libya has seized two foreign-flagged oil tankers and detained their crews for allegedly smuggling fuel after an hours-long gunbattle off the west coast, authorities said.Oil is Libya’s main natural resource, with reserves estimated at 48 billion barrel…

Libya has seized two foreign-flagged oil tankers and detained their crews for allegedly smuggling fuel after an hours-long gunbattle off the west coast, authorities said.

Oil is Libya's main natural resource, with reserves estimated at 48 billion barrels, the largest in Africa.

Libya had an output capacity of about 1.6 million barrels per day before the 2011 armed uprising, but production has since slumped as rival forces battle for control of its oil facilities.

The coastguard spotted the vessels on Thursday night two kilometres (1.2 miles) off Sidi Said near Zuwara, a town on the central coast, the authorities said.

"The Libyan coastguard boarded the two tankers, one flying the Ukrainian flag, the Ruta, and the other, the Stark, flying the Congolese flag," said General Ayoub Qassem.

"The coastguards had monitored them from afar and waited until Friday morning to act," he told AFP.

Qassem said the oil traffickers were heavily armed and were supported by small boats.

They had put up fierce resistance, but the tankers were eventually seized by the Libyan authorities, "after more than three hours of exchange of fire".

On several occasions, "boats with armed men were returned... and opened fire on the coastguards" using Kalashnikovs and heavy machineguns, he said.

After they were overpowered, the two tankers and their crews were taken back to the capital Tripoli.

Among them were 14 Ukrainians from the Ruta and four Turks and two Georgians who were on the Stark, said Qassem.

Another three crew members from the Stark were in Zuwara, he said, without giving their nationality.

At the time of the seizure, the Ruta had around 3,330 tonnes of oil in its tanks, while the Stark, which can carry 1,236 tonnes, was about to be loaded with fuel when the coastguard arrived.

The crews of the two vessels were taken to Tripoli where they are to face prosecution.

Libya has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with dozens of armed factions battling for control of the oil-rich country.

Video: Russians defy protest ban to oppose Putin seeking re-election

Hundreds of people defied Russia’s protest ban and took to the streets of Saint Petersburg and other large cities on Saturday to protest against President Vladimir Putin seeking to renew his mandate in next year’s election. FRANCE 24 spoke to some of them.

Hundreds of people defied Russia’s protest ban and took to the streets of Saint Petersburg and other large cities on Saturday to protest against President Vladimir Putin seeking to renew his mandate in next year’s election. FRANCE 24 spoke to some of them.

China ‘putting pressure’ on North Korea: Trump

Donald Trump thinks Chinese President Xi Jinping is “putting pressure” on North Korea, the US president said in an interview to air Sunday, as tensions mount over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

If North Korea carries out a nuclear test “I would not be happy,” Trump told the CBS television network’s “Face the Nation” program.

“And I can tell you also, I don’t believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either,” Trump said in excerpts of the interview released Saturday.

Asked if “not happy” signified “military action,” Trump answered: “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see.”

North Korea test-fired a missile over the weekend in apparent defiance of a concerted US push for tougher international sanctions to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

The latest launch, which South Korea said was a failure, came just hours after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the UN Security Council of “catastrophic consequences” if the international community — most notably China — failed to pressure the North into abandoning its weapons program.

Trump assailed the failed launch as a show of disrespect toward its ally China.

“North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

North Korea is seeking to develop a long-range missile capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.

China, Pyongyang’s number one trade partner, has repeatedly called for a return to talks on denuclearization but has been reluctant to use economic pressure that could destabilize North Korea.

Donald Trump thinks Chinese President Xi Jinping is "putting pressure" on North Korea, the US president said in an interview to air Sunday, as tensions mount over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.

If North Korea carries out a nuclear test "I would not be happy," Trump told the CBS television network's "Face the Nation" program.

"And I can tell you also, I don't believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either," Trump said in excerpts of the interview released Saturday.

Asked if "not happy" signified "military action," Trump answered: "I don't know. I mean, we'll see."

North Korea test-fired a missile over the weekend in apparent defiance of a concerted US push for tougher international sanctions to curb Pyongyang's nuclear weapons ambitions.

The latest launch, which South Korea said was a failure, came just hours after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the UN Security Council of "catastrophic consequences" if the international community -- most notably China -- failed to pressure the North into abandoning its weapons program.

Trump assailed the failed launch as a show of disrespect toward its ally China.

"North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

North Korea is seeking to develop a long-range missile capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead.

China, Pyongyang's number one trade partner, has repeatedly called for a return to talks on denuclearization but has been reluctant to use economic pressure that could destabilize North Korea.

Le Pen to appoint ex-rival Dupont-Aignan PM if elected French president

French far-right hopeful Marine Le Pen said Saturday she would appoint defeated first-round candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan as her prime minister if she is elected president.

French far-right hopeful Marine Le Pen said Saturday she would appoint defeated first-round candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan as her prime minister if she is elected president.

‘Godfather’ cast members reunite at New York film fest

Cast members of “The Godfather” movies were reunited in Manhattan, nearly half a century after the first of the legendary mafia films hit theaters.American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola reminisced with actors Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Dian…

Cast members of "The Godfather" movies were reunited in Manhattan, nearly half a century after the first of the legendary mafia films hit theaters.

American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola reminisced with actors Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Robert de Niro at a panel event organized as part of New York's Tribeca Film Festival.

The reunion marked the first film's 45th anniversary, and was accompanied by a double screening of parts one and two of the series centered on a powerful New York crime family.

The award-winning Coppola, who also directed "Apocalypse Now," pointed to the shaky origins of the acclaimed mob movie.

When shooting began rumors swirled that Coppola would be replaced. Paramount Pictures, which produced the film, wanted neither Hollywood legend Marlon Brando -- whose performance as Vito Corleone won him an Oscar for best actor -- nor Pacino.

Brando landed the role after stuffing his cheeks with cotton wool to make Don Corleone look "like a bulldog."

The actor adopted a raspy whisper to portray the crime boss: "He had totally turned into the character," Coppola said.

The filmmaker also recalled a question posed to him by the then- owner of Hollywood studio MGM -- how do you make a film that is successful financially and artistically?

"I said, 'With risk.'"

The Tribeca Film Festival was co-founded by De Niro in the wake of the September 11 attacks in a bid to revive Manhattan.

US-backed Syria force advances against IS in Tabqa: monitor

A US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance is advancing against the Islamic State group in the key town of Tabqa near the jihadist bastion of Raqa in northern Syria, a monitor said Sunday.The Syrian Democratic Forces now control at least 40 percent of the town …

A US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance is advancing against the Islamic State group in the key town of Tabqa near the jihadist bastion of Raqa in northern Syria, a monitor said Sunday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces now control at least 40 percent of the town of Tabqa, and more than half of its heart, the Old City, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said fighting was continuing in the town on Sunday morning.

The SDF entered Tabqa on Monday as part of their offensive against Raqa, IS's de facto Syrian capital.

Supported by US-led coalition air strikes and special forces advisers, the SDF surrounded Tabqa in early April.

The town sits on a strategic supply route about 55 kilometres (34 miles) west of Raqa, and served as an important IS command base, housing the group's main prison.

It is also adjacent to the Tabqa dam, another important strategic prize which remains under IS control.

The assault on Tabqa began in late March when SDF forces and their US-led coalition allies were airlifted behind IS lines.

The city was home to around 240,000 residents before 2011, and more than 80,000 people have fled to it from other parts of the country.

IS has put up fierce resistance, including using weaponised drones, a tactic the group perfected in neighbouring Iraq.

The group is also fighting street-to-street and using suicide attackers and car bombs to slow the SDF's advance, according to the Observatory.

The assault on Raqa, dubbed "Wrath of the Euphrates," was launched in November and has seen SDF fighters capture large swathes of countryside around the city.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country's war began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

Turkey bans TV dating shows with emergency decree

Preview Turkey has banned radio and TV dating programs with a decree made possible by the country’s state of emergency. A new clause has been added to the article on protecting children in the country’s media law.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview Turkey has banned radio and TV dating programs with a decree made possible by the country’s state of emergency. A new clause has been added to the article on protecting children in the country’s media law.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Trump invites Philippines’ Duterte to White House in ‘friendly’ call

US President Donald Trump on Saturday invited his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte to Washington in a “friendly” call in which the leaders discussed the “threat” of North Korea, the White House said.

US President Donald Trump on Saturday invited his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte to Washington in a "friendly" call in which the leaders discussed the "threat" of North Korea, the White House said.

‘Euro is dead’: Le Pen eyes return of the Franc, preserving single currency for int’l trade

Preview A week before the 2nd round of the French election, eurosceptic presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen has reminded her supporters that the ”euro is dead” and should be left only for international trade, while France should regain control and reintroduce the Franc.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview A week before the 2nd round of the French election, eurosceptic presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen has reminded her supporters that the ”euro is dead” and should be left only for international trade, while France should regain control and reintroduce the Franc.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Trump invites Philippines’ Duterte to Washington

US President Donald Trump invited his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte to Washington in a “friendly” call in which the leaders discussed the “threat” of North Korea, the White House said.The announcement comes amid rising tensions over Pyongyang’…

US President Donald Trump invited his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte to Washington in a "friendly" call in which the leaders discussed the "threat" of North Korea, the White House said.

The announcement comes amid rising tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs following its latest test-fire, as well international criticism of Duterte's drug crackdown that has claimed thousands of lives.

"It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea," the statement said.

The leaders also "discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world."

The Philippine president has relentlessly railed against criticism of his drug war, which Amnesty International and other rights groups have warned may amount to a crime against humanity.

Duterte last year branded then US president Barack Obama a "son of a whore" for criticizing the drug war, and more recently called European lawmakers "crazies" for issuing a statement condemning the killings.

The White House said Trump "enjoyed the conversation" and looks forward to attending the key US-ASEAN and East Asia summits in the Philippines in November.

"President Trump also invited President Duterte to the White House to discuss the importance of the United States-Philippines alliance, which is now heading in a very positive direction."

There has been concern about Duterte's efforts to loosen the Philippines' long-standing alliance with the United States as he looks to court China.

Vice President Mike Pence had announced earlier this month that Trump would attend the Asian meetings as a sign of "unwavering commitment" to the region.

IndyCar champ Pagenaud notches first oval win

France’s reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud notched another milestone in his IndyCar career with his first win on a racing oval at the Phoenix Grand Prix.”This is just incredible,” the Penske driver said after a win that also saw him move to the t…

France's reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud notched another milestone in his IndyCar career with his first win on a racing oval at the Phoenix Grand Prix.

"This is just incredible," the Penske driver said after a win that also saw him move to the top of the standings for the first time this season.

"For me, this is my best win because it's so strategic to win on an oval," Pagenaud said.

Things broke his way when teammate Will Power of Australia went into the pits just as a yellow caution flag waved in the wake of Takuma Sato's loss of a front tire.

The caution let Pagenaud seize the lead on the 137th of 250 laps on the 1.022-mile (1.64 Km) oval and he never relinquished it.

He led by as many as 13 seconds and finished 9.1sec in front of Power.

Still, Pagenaud said, with the longed-for oval win in his sights "those were the longest 50 laps of my life."

"I have a button on my wheel that tells me how many laps were left. I kept pressing it," he said. "It was stressful."

American JR Hildebrand, driving with a brace on his broken left hand, finished third.

Pole-sitter Helio Castroneves finished fourth and New Zealand's Scott Dixon was fifth -- his fourth top-five finish in four races this season.

The race got off to a chaotic start when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin of Russia lost control of his car in the very first turn in a crash that ultimately involved five cars.

France's Sebastien Bourdais, Briton Max Chilton and Americans Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal were all caught up. None of them was hurt, but none could continue the race.

"Rear of the car went, and I just couldn't do anything," Aleshin said.

Pagenaud vaulted from fourth to first in the standings, 18 points in front of Dixon going into the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, which Pagenaud won last season.

Morocco’s Christian converts emerge from the shadows

Moroccans who secretly converted to Christianity are demanding the right to practise their faith openly in a country where Islam is the state religion and “apostasy” is condemned.At an apartment in a working-class part of the southern town of Agadir, M…

Moroccans who secretly converted to Christianity are demanding the right to practise their faith openly in a country where Islam is the state religion and "apostasy" is condemned.

At an apartment in a working-class part of the southern town of Agadir, Mustapha listened to hymns emanating from a hi-fi under a silver crucifix hung on the wall.

The 46-year-old civil servant, son of an expert on Islamic law from nearby Taroudant, was once an active member of the banned but tolerated Islamist Charity and Justice movement.

He said he converted in 1994 to "fill a spiritual void".

"I was tired of the contradictions in Islam," said Mustapha.

"I became interested in Christianity through a long correspondence with a religious centre in Spain in the late 1980s."

He went on to qualify as a Protestant pastor and received a certificate from the United States after taking a correspondence course.

Mustapha kept his faith secret for two decades, but a year and a half ago he published a video online in which he spoke openly about his conversion. The reaction was immediate.

"Family and close friends turned their backs on me, I was shunned at work. My children were bullied at school," he said.

Converts to Christianity form a tiny minority of Moroccans. While no official statistics exist, the American State Department estimates their numbers at between 2,000 and 6,000.

- 'Persecution' -

Over the Easter weekend, Mustapha and a dozen fellow converts met for an "afternoon of prayers" in the living room of Rachid, who like Mustapha did not wish to give his full name.

Rachid, who hails from a family of Sufis -- a mystical trend of Islam -- embraced Christianity in 2004 and eventually became a Protestant pastor.

A father of two, Rachid said he became interested in Christianity when he was a teenager after listening to a programme broadcast by a Paris-based radio station.

He researched Christianity at a cyber-cafe, contacted a specialised website and they sent him a copy of the Bible.

"I read the entire thing, studied the word of God, took courses," he said. "At the age of 24, I was baptised in a Casablanca apartment."

In April, Mustapha, Rachid and other Moroccan converts submitted a request to the official National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) calling for "an end to persecution" against them.

"We demand the right to give our children Christian names, to pray in churches, to be buried in Christian cemeteries and to marry according to our religion," Mustapha said.

Islam is the state faith of Morocco but the country's 2011 constitution, drafted after it was rocked by Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations, guarantees freedom of religion.

Foreign Christians and the country's tiny Jewish community -- of about 2,500 people -- practise their faiths openly.

Moroccan authorities boast of promoting religious tolerance and a "moderate" form of Islam, and the country's penal code does not explicitly prohibit apostasy -- the act of rejecting Islam or any of its main tenets.

- 'Ultra-sensitive' -

But in Morocco proselytising is punishable by law and anyone found guilty of "attempting to undermine the faith of a Muslim or convert him to another religion" can be jailed for up to three years.

"The subject is ultra-sensitive because it relates to the history of colonisation and to the idea that Christianity constitutes a danger to the unity of Morocco," a sociologist of religion told AFP.

But Rachid said the lines are shifting.

"The arrests have almost stopped, which is a big step," he said. "Harassment has become scarce."

Rachid, who says "I am Moroccan before being Christian, practises his faith openly and lives a normal life in a working-class district of Agadir alongside his Muslim neighbours.

Most Moroccans who have converted to Christianity live in Agadir and the central city of Marrakesh, and the majority have said they are Protestants.

With the exception of local Jews, Moroccans are automatically considered Muslims and King Mohamed VI holds the official title of Commander of the Faithful.

Mustapha said the 2011 constitution and actions by the king "in favour of tolerance and coexistence" have helped bolster human rights in Morocco.

But "the penal code, political parties and society have not followed suit", he said.

‘Tontine’ microcredit helps Senegal women do business

After months of waiting, 50-year-old Ndeye Khari Pouye has finally won the “cagnotte de la tontine”, a precious jackpot to help feed her chickens and maintain her livelihood.Sitting on a mat surrounded by other women wearing traditional Senegalese wide…

After months of waiting, 50-year-old Ndeye Khari Pouye has finally won the "cagnotte de la tontine", a precious jackpot to help feed her chickens and maintain her livelihood.

Sitting on a mat surrounded by other women wearing traditional Senegalese wide-sleeved boubou dresses, she struggles to contain her glee.

"It's my turn!" beams Pouye, who has just won a jackpot of 300,000 CFA francs (just over 450 euros, around $490).

Her financial good fortune is the result of a cooperative scheme organised among locals in the Medina area of Grand-Mbao, a neighbourhood on the tip of Africa's west coast on the outskirts of the capital Dakar.

A common practice throughout Africa, many Senegalese take part in centuries-old microcredit schemes called "tontines" to finance their projects.

The name comes from Lorenzo de Tonti, an Italian exiled in France in the 17th century seeking solutions to shore up the French treasury. The "cagnotte" is the jackpot.

Through the traditional savings arrangement, participants contribute sums of money and take turns collecting the prize. The system helps borrowers overcome difficulties accessing credit as well as avoid prohibitively high interest rates.

"The tontine is the only way for me to save money. Interest rates from the bank are too high," says Ndeye Binta Ndoye, who takes part in four different tontine schemes, including one run by "Aunt Fatou" in another part of Grand-Mbao.

"Financial institutions make you sign loads of paperwork, even things you don't understand. It's too complicated for someone like me who can't read," adds the hairdresser, who did not go to school.

A family atmosphere reigns as different generations mix at the gathering. Sitting in chairs and on the ground, some hold babies as one by one, the women add their cash to the collection held in a dried gourd.

- 'Women are more ambitious' -

"Each member contributes 2,000 CFA francs (around 3 euros). That makes a total jackpot of 500,000 CFA francs (around 760 euros) which is given to the day's winner," explains "Aunt Fatou", whose real name is Fatou Cisse. She manages the tontine, which counts 250 members and lasts for five years.

"Back in the time of our mothers and grandmothers, people of the same age would group together to form a tontine. The money was used for family events, like baptisms," says Fatou Cisse, a retired school teacher.

"These days, women are more ambitious. We realise that money used for useless ceremonies is being squandered -- we need to invest in sustainable businesses," adds Ndoye.

"I am the first wife in a polygamous household. My husband started building the house but had financial difficulties. He asked us -- my co-wife and me -- to finish" the work, she says.

"Thanks to the tontine, I was able to build three bedrooms and a living room. I am waiting to win another jackpot to build the rest. If this system of tontines did not exist, I would have to seek credit from a bank."

In Grand-Mbao, the only other solution is a mutual benefit scheme which requires a guarantee deposit of 20 percent of the loan at an interest rate of 1.77 percent, to be paid back over 10 months, according to a source familiar with the system.

- Fines, social pressure -

The tontine serves not only to launch new projects but also to keep struggling businesses afloat, like a poultry venture run by Mame Ngone Cisse.

"At the beginning of my project I had huge losses. But thanks to money from the tontine, I was able to restart my business. Thanks to God it's going well," she says.

The tontines are led by a committee of five to eight people who can read and write, while many of the participants are illiterate.

Mane Niang, whose education ended with middle school and has no formal accounting training, has the critical task of counting and recounting the cash in the tontine in the Medina area of Grand-Mbao.

"I almost never make a mistake in counting the money. There are two of us to do it. I call out someone's name and she comes and drops her money in the bowl. Then we calculate the total. We always double-check with a calculator," she says.

Specific measures are taken to instil confidence and ensure transparency.

Whoever holds the pot of money does not live with the person who has the key to it, for example.

There is also a system of fines and symbolic punishment to encourage members to contribute regularly.

"Anyone accused of being late pays a fine of 200 CFA francs (less than a euro). If they continue to be late, the person gets pushed down the list of future winners. Sometimes we won't even grant the loan until the person's contributions get back on track," says Niang.

But social pressure remains the leading sanction for anyone failing to meet the commitments.

"Culturally speaking, dignity and our image in society count for a lot to us women," says Awa Cisse, who takes part in Aunt Fatou's tontine.

"We wouldn't dare burn up the money from the tontines without contributing: you'd get an earful -- even your grandkids will still be hearing about it!"

Trump cuts spark fears of global tax war

Donald Trump’s plans to slash corporate taxes in the United States have sparked concerns of a new global fiscal race to the bottom, possibly involving a wave of negative social consequences, experts say. In what Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn descr…

Donald Trump's plans to slash corporate taxes in the United States have sparked concerns of a new global fiscal race to the bottom, possibly involving a wave of negative social consequences, experts say.

In what Trump's economic advisor Gary Cohn described as "the most significant tax reform legislation since 1986, and one of the biggest tax cuts in American history," the White House plans to dramatically cut taxes for US businesses and individuals, slashing the corporate rate from a top rate of 35 percent to 15 percent.

The aim, according to US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, is to "bring back trillions of dollars that are offshore to be invested here in the United States" and create jobs.

Trump's goal is for the reforms to propel the US economy to three percent annual growth.

But the long-anticipated overhaul -- details of which remained unclear beyond a handful of headline measures -- could face stiff opposition in Congress, including from some Republicans, with lawmakers sharply divided over the prospect of fuelling already-rising deficits.

- 'Enormous impact' -

And the plans have also raised eyebrows at NGOs and non-profit organisations.

They could accelerate "the race to tax competition on an international level and all of us will pay the price," Oxfam spokeswoman Manon Aubry told AFP.

"When the world's most powerful country decides to slash tax revenues as much as this, a number of other countries may follow suit, bringing with it imbalances that will have enormous impacts on our societies," she said.

Falling tax revenues would make it harder for governments to pay for welfare, healthcare and other benefits without going too deep into the red, she said.

To make up the shortfall, governments could be tempted to hike valued-added tax (VAT), often criticized for placing a disproportionate tax burden on the less well-off, Aubry said.

Jean-Pierre Lieb, a tax lawyer at consultants EY, said that "the cut in corporate taxes in the US will fuel tensions between countries".

At the moment, corporate taxes in the US are the highest in the OECD countries, followed by France with a rate of 34 percent, Belgium with 33 percent and Australia with 30 percent.

The OECD average is currently around 24 percent.

But in order to become more attractive, a number of countries have decided to lower their corporate tax rates.

Britain is planning to cut its rate from 20 percent to 17 percent in 2020, a decision that pre-dates Trump's move and was strongly prompted by fears that corporations may find the UK a less attractive place after it leaves the European Union.

There were even plans to slash the tax rate to 15 percent to help with Brexit woes, British papers have reported, but Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have ruled out such a deep cut for now.

France, meanwhile, is poised to take its corporate tax rate from 34 percent to 28 percent in 2020. Other countries, including Italy and Israel, have similar ambitions.

- 'Headlong rush' -

"What we're seeing is a headlong rush" said EY's Lieb, pointing to the case of Hungary where the corporate tax rate is to be slashed from 19 percent to just nine percent.

But even if Trump succeeds in pushing through his planned cuts, countries such as Ireland, which have used their low tax rates to woo foreign companies like Google and Apple, still expect to remain attractive.

Ibec, Ireland's main business lobby group, said that the latest proposals "could provide some competitiveness pressure for Ireland."

"Even if the US succeeds in delivering a substantial rate cut, the proposition for US firms to invest in Ireland remains compelling," the lobby group said.

Ireland's finance ministry agreed.

"Ireland's membership of the EU is, and will remain, a key factor in attracting foreign direct investment from the US and elsewhere," a ministry source told AFP.

Nevertheless, there is sufficient doubt as to whether Trump will actually be able to get the cuts past Congress.

According to a US think-tank, the Tax Policy Center, Trump's plans could reduce Washington's budget by as much as $6.2 trillion over the next decade and massively push up the US public debt by $20 trillion by 2036.

Many Republicans who are traditionally opposed to increasing public debt will be unwilling to accept such an explosion in debt.

Cities brace for climate challenges

Faced with exploding populations and steadily rising temperatures worldwide, cities must make haste in reinforcing defences against climate change-induced flooding and heat waves, experts warned this week.City temperatures are forecast to shoot up in t…

Faced with exploding populations and steadily rising temperatures worldwide, cities must make haste in reinforcing defences against climate change-induced flooding and heat waves, experts warned this week.

City temperatures are forecast to shoot up in the coming years, exposing inhabitants to killer heat spikes, while rising sea levels and river flooding threaten homes, drinking water, and transport and electricity infrastructure.

Cities are vulnerable to a unique risk called the "urban heat island" (UHI) effect -- their concrete surfaces retain more of the sun's heat than undeveloped areas, scientists explained at a meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna.

By midcentury, if planet-warming fossil fuel emissions continue unabated, city temperatures in Belgium could exceed today's heat-alert levels by as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) for 25 days each summer, according to one research paper.

Another study showed that heat waves will become a frequent challenge for European cities -- more numerous in the south of the continent, more intense in the north.

And floods, a major risk to Europe's dense urban settlements, will become more common because of an increase in freak rainstorms, as well as sea-level increases caused by polar ice melt and warmer ocean water expanding.

In flood-prone southeast Asia, precipitation is set to increase by 20 percent this century, one researcher said in Vienna.

The stakes are especially high given the projections for expansion of urban areas, which are often ill equipped to deal with nature's vengeance.

- High stakes -

Already, more than half the world's population live in cities.

By 2050, 80 percent of people in rich nations, and 60 percent in developing states, will be concentrated in built-up areas, according to recent calculations.

This corresponds to the appearance of a settlement of a million inhabitants somewhere on the globe every week for the next 40 years.

Occupying only a small portion of Earth's available land, cities are responsible for 80 percent of all energy consumed and generate over 60 percent of the planet-warming greenhouse gases emitted when humans burn fossil fuel for heating, power and transportation.

In spite of efforts to curb emissions, the planet has already warmed about one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) on average from pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

Many scientists say the planet may be on track for three degrees Celsius of warming or more, exceeding the two-degree cap politicians set in Paris in 2015.

This means cities must act now to shore up their defences against impacts that can no longer be avoided, French climatologist Herve le Treut warned at the annual EGU gathering.

"It's already happening," Le Treut said of climate change impacts. "We have to start structural action quickly: transportation, houses... mainly in the cities, especially in vulnerable places."

Most of the infrastructure constructed by humanity is un urban zones.

"The ways cities are built is not optimal" for today's climate reality, said Daniel Schertzer, a hydrometeorologist at the engineering school Ecole des Ponts ParisTech.

"Historically, humans have settled near water, thinking of its usefulness, but not of the risk! Cities were conceived without taking geophysics into consideration, now they are discovering that nature is complicated, not just good," he told AFP on the sidelines of the conference.

Paris, for example, is due for its next so-called one-in-a hundred-year flood.

- 'It will occur' -

The last major Paris flood, in 1910, saw the Seine river rise 8.62 metres (28.3 feet), shutting down much of the City of Light's basic infrastructure.

"It... will occur some day," said Sebastien Maire, who goes by the title of Paris's chief resilience officer.

And when it does, research shows it will cost about 100 billion euros ($109 billion) and some 400,000 jobs, and harm France's economic output for five years afterwards.

A flood of this level would damage the underground metro system to such an extent that "it will take five to 10 years to rebuild," Maire said.

Paris is vulnerable because much of its critical infrastructure lies near the Seine -- including power distribution, heating, telecommunications and fresh water networks.

Maire is part of 100 Resilient Cities, a think-tank created to help city planners prepare for natural shocks such as hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and floods.

Thinking globally about urban exposure to climate change and extreme weather is a relatively new field, and presents a unique opportunity to "incorporate resilient design," Maire said.

Half the city infrastructure that will be in place by 2070 has not yet been built, he pointed out.

"We've asked researchers to help us," Maire said. "Cities need the science to work on this."

One solution mooted at the conference was "greening" cities via balcony and rooftop gardens to counter the effects of "urban heat islands" -- since plants absorb heat.

Another proposed taking lessons from tradition.

Uchimizu, a technique used in 17th-century Japan to gather rainwater and sprinkle it on the ground, "considerably" reduced surface-level temperatures in an experiment conducted at Delft University in the Netherlands.

"It's something anyone can do," researcher Anna Solverova said.

Vacant apartments held for ransom in Spain

A wall of bricks and cement covers the window of a brand new apartment on the ground floor of a quaint building in Barceloneta, a trendy seaside neighbourhood in Barcelona.The goal? To prevent the vacant flat from being taken over by organised gangs wh…

A wall of bricks and cement covers the window of a brand new apartment on the ground floor of a quaint building in Barceloneta, a trendy seaside neighbourhood in Barcelona.

The goal? To prevent the vacant flat from being taken over by organised gangs who break into empty homes, hand them over to others for a fee who then proceed to hold the owners to ransom -- a phenomenon that has homeowners and authorities concerned.

They "look for empty flats online or in public registries to break in," says Enrique Vendrell, president of Barcelona's College of Property Managers, which groups professionals in the sector.

They then change the locks, hook up the property illegally to electricity, gas and water before selling the keys to squatters keen to make some cash who will demand money from the owners to leave, he adds.

- Millions of empty properties -

It is difficult to get exact figures on the extent of a relatively-new phenomenon, but the trend is serious enough to worry real estate professionals, home owners and authorities.

Police in the northeastern region of Catalonia where Barcelona is located told AFP they were investigating serious cases of "criminal occupations" of flats, but refused to give further details, such as where the gangs come from.

Meanwhile AFP contacted several victims but they all declined to tell their story for fear of retaliation from the squatters, who often threaten homeowners if confronted.

"Ring the doorbell again and you will regret it," squatters told an elderly woman when she confronted a group of people who were illegally occupying her apartment, her lawyer Jose Maria Aguila said.

Juan Carlos Parra, a salesman with security firm STM Seguridad which specialises in installing steel doors in buildings, says there is strong demand for "advanced security systems."

"Demand has taken off in the last three years, we install around 1,500 doors a month across Spain," he adds.

The problem stems in part from the collapse of a decade-long property bubble in 2008 that left thousands of buildings empty across Spain.

There are 3.4 million empty properties in Spain, the equivalent of 13.7 percent of all real estate in the country, the national statistics institute says.

Many are in the hands of banks which inherited them after builders or buyers were unable to pay back their loans.

Just in Catalonia alone, banks own 45,000 empty apartments, according to the regional government's housing department.

These are the most sought after since lenders usually take longer to act against an occupation.

- Former boxers, security guards -

Such is the problem of squatting in vacant flats that it has given rise to a firm called Desokupa that specialises in evicting squatters.

The company based in Catalonia and Madrid insists its employees carry out "respectful mediation" between the property owners and the squatters.

If that fails though, it employs burly former boxers and security guards to stand guard outside an occupied apartment to drive away the squatters.

But Vendrell says there is a difference between squatters looking for a place to live because they have fallen on hard times or who remain in their flat as they can't pay rent, and gangs who take over properties.

He says these organised groups charge less than 1,000 euros ($1,100) per apartment seized.

Those who take over the flats then typically demand between 3,000 and 6,000 euros to leave.

And in some cases, owners prefer to pay to save time.

Antoni Garriga, a lawyer with Navarro Advocats who often deals with eviction cases, says it can take six to eight months for an eviction notice to be issued.

The process can take even longer if the illegal occupants manage to evade court notifications to leave the apartment, he adds.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, a former anti-eviction activist, argues reducing the number of empty apartments would go a long way to solving the problem.

"We need more empty homes to be offered as social rental housing," she said in a recent interview with Antena 3 television.

China targets debt risks, but does it mean business?

China has launched perhaps its most concerted push yet to clean up a toxic brew of unregulated and risky lending increasingly viewed as a threat to global financial stability, but do authorities really mean business this time? Analysts don’t think so.C…

China has launched perhaps its most concerted push yet to clean up a toxic brew of unregulated and risky lending increasingly viewed as a threat to global financial stability, but do authorities really mean business this time?

Analysts don't think so.

China's addiction to debt-fuelled growth powers the steady economic expansion that the ruling Communist Party craves, and it won't go cold turkey, they said.

"These things come in waves. It's like 'well, this time we mean it.' But to be blunt, I would fully expect them to essentially retreat," said Beijing University economics professor Christopher Balding.

"At the end of the day, economic growth is the priority."

Fears are mounting that China is flirting with a potential disaster worse than the US subprime collapse and subsequent 2008 financial crisis, and Japan's 1990s asset-bubble meltdown and resulting "lost decade."

The numbers are staggering.

Moody's Investor's Service estimated in October that China's "shadow banking" sector -- off-balance-sheet lending that evades official risk supervision -- totalled $8.5 trillion, or nearly 80 percent of its GDP. It surged by an additional $297 billion in the first quarter of 2017, according to a Bloomberg analysis.

A poorly regulated asset-management industry that has funnelled cash into risky investments tripled in size in just three years to reach $3.8 trillion last year, according to various estimates.

China had overall debt liabilities equal to 264 percent of GDP in 2016, Bloomberg Intelligence said, yet lending is chugging ahead despite fears of a bubble in the crucial housing sector.

- 'Absurd level' -

The situation has reached "a level of absurdity in China that the planet has never seen," said Anne Stevenson-Yang, research director at J Capital in Beijing.

Without aggressive action, "the top one percent will be multi-billionaires and the rest of the country will be squatting in empty buildings by trash fires and foraging for food".

The IMF warned this month that Chinese debt crisis could "imperil global financial stability".

China has vowed to clean house.

New banking regulator Guo Shuqing, installed in March, has issued what official Xinhua news agency called a "regulatory windstorm" of directives this month.

They include measures to strengthen institutional transparency and chronically weak internal controls, tighten balance sheets, halt risky lending, and dispose of bad loans. Big fines have been meted out and corporate figures arrested.

Official heads have rolled too, including the country's insurance regulator Xiang Junbo, whose tenure coincided with a surge in speculative investments by Chinese insurers. He was sacked this month and faces a likely corruption investigation.

President Xi Jinping upped the ante Tuesday, calling for an all-out effort to tighten supervision, promote transparency, and identify "hidden trouble," Xinhua said.

The crackdown has rattled Chinese stocks, with Shanghai's key index sliding nearly five percent since April 11, surrendering all of its gains for the year.

Beijing probably felt it was safe to act now due to unexpectedly strong first-quarter economic growth, analysts said, but it faces a precarious balancing act.

The Communist Party holds its twice-a-decade congress later this year, a politically sensitive event during which the leadership avoids aggressive actions that could imperil all-important economic growth.

Longer-term, China needs steady growth as it transitions from an investment- and export-fuelled economic model to one based on domestic consumption.

"Once economic growth starts to dip below expectations or goes down, regulators will ease up again," said Chen Zhiwu, a Yale University finance professor.

- Clock is ticking -

Michael Every, Rabobank's head of Asia-Pacific financial markets research, said China is "having (its) cake and eating it."

"China wants markets. And it wants stable markets. And it wants less borrowing. And it needs more and more borrowing to grow at the rate it deems necessary. Something has to give," he said.

China remains well-equipped to manage shocks. The government's control over banks, foreign exchange and capital flows allows it to browbeat institutions and channel funding to address problems.

It is believed to be considering merging banking, securities and insurance supervision into a new "super regulator" to plug oversight cracks.

But, perversely, its clampdown could be worsening things, driving more money into back-alley deals to avoid the new strictures, say experts who point to the first-quarter surge in "shadow banking".

The clock is ticking, said Michael Pettis, former head of emerging markets at Bear Sterns.

"At this rate it will take them 10 to 15 years to get to a reasonable level and they clearly don?t have 10 to 15 years," Pettis recently told Bloomberg Television.

"They may have three years, perhaps four at most, in terms of the debt."

China steams to the rescue for Bulgaria’s creaking railways

“Granny Bear” has proved a big hit in Bulgaria since the 1930s steam train returned from retirement, chugging day-trippers through stunning scenery from Sofia to the Cherepish Monastery.”She is super, the engine, I like it better than a modern one!” sa…

"Granny Bear" has proved a big hit in Bulgaria since the 1930s steam train returned from retirement, chugging day-trippers through stunning scenery from Sofia to the Cherepish Monastery.

"She is super, the engine, I like it better than a modern one!" said an excited Dimitar Kirilov, 12, taking the trip on the "Baba Metsa" train with his grandparents.

A particular attraction is the luxury carriage used by Bulgaria's former king, Boris III (1918-1943). "So elegant and modest," gushed Rada Gancheva, 58.

The comforting hoots, whistles and puffs of steam trains have proved a big money spinner for Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ), earning it 250,000 euros ($280,000) last year.

"The Vitosha Express diesel train of (ex-communist dictator) Todor Zhivkov will soon be made available also," promised BDZ's chief executive Georgy Drumev.

- Chronic debt -

However, this success belies the dire state of the railways in the European Union's poorest country.

According to a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study, Bulgarian trains have the worst quality and safety record among 25 European countries surveyed.

The number of Bulgarians using trains halved between 2000 and 2015 and the volume of freight is a 10th of what it was in the 1980s, according to Georgy Minchev, of the freight transport association.

Creaking infrastructure and ageing locomotives and rolling stock mean that the average train speed is just 55 kilometres (35 miles) per hour.

The 440-kilometre trip from Sofia to Varna on the Black Sea takes eight hours -- and that's on the so-called "express train".

"We started with a 40-minute delay and it grew to four hours by the time we arrived in Varna, making it a 12-hour journey," said one recent traveller, Maria Damyanova, 48.

Horror stories abound on the internet about people's experiences, particularly in winter when the simplest journey can turn into a nightmare.

"Iron nerves and plenty of food are needed if you want to take the train in Bulgaria," reads a typical social media entry by one disgruntled passenger, Margarit Blagoev, 35.

People are sometimes forced to take extreme measures.

In January, 50 frustrated passengers jumped off their regional train when it was brought to a stop mid-journey and stood on the adjacent tracks in the path of an oncoming express train to make it stop and allow their train to head off first.

- Chinese hopes -

The BDZ is saddled with debts of 240 million euros, hindering investment and renovation.

Obsolete infrastructure and thefts of bits of track and signalling systems make derailments, especially of cargo trains, quite common.

In December, a freight train transporting gas derailed and exploded, killing six people, injuring dozens more and devastating a small village in the north-east.

After failing for years to attract funds, help may be on the way however from China, which is seeking to invest heavily in infrastructure projects in eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC) group has pledged to reimburse 130 million euros of BDZ's debts and invest 170 million euros in new trains, according to the Bulgarian transport ministry.

In addition, it has offered to invest 300 million euros in a new train assembly plant. The government is studying the proposals.

But not everyone in Bulgaria is pleased at the prospect.

"This offer will result in a mere restructuring of the debt and to new borrowing due to the BDZ's overindebtedness," said economist Georgy Angelov.

"The project will aggravate the risk of bankruptcy," he said.

Ukraine clings to nuclear power despite Chernobyl trauma

Ukraine is still suffering from the trauma of the world’s worst civil nuclear accident at Chernobyl but has nonetheless turned the hazardous fuel into the backbone of its energy portfolio.The crisis-torn country now uses atomic power for more than half…

Ukraine is still suffering from the trauma of the world's worst civil nuclear accident at Chernobyl but has nonetheless turned the hazardous fuel into the backbone of its energy portfolio.

The crisis-torn country now uses atomic power for more than half of its electricity needs as it struggles through a coal shortage sparked by a three-year war against Russian-backed insurgents in the separatist east.

And that figure shot up to nearly three-quarters of all power consumed during natural gas price disputes with its eastern arch foe and energy superpower Russia from 2014 to 2016.

Ukraine Wednesday marked 31 years since the disaster in which thousands died with the country extending the lifespan of its communist-era nuclear reactors and turning atomic power into a workhorse that will be around for generations to come.

The Chernobyl plant's fourth reactor in the north of former Soviet Ukraine exploded in 1986 after a safety test went horribly wrong at 1:23 am on April 26.

Some Ukrainians remain worried that a similar catastrophe could hit their country again.

"The main risk in using nuclear energy in Ukraine is associated with reactors that have exhausted their lifespans," says Iryna Golovko of the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine's energy projects department.

"Today six of Ukraine's 15 operating reactors have surpassed their designed service lives," she told AFP. "And by 2020, there will be 12 of them."

- Coal crunch -

Ukraine enjoys abundant coal reserves that happen to lie mostly in regions controlled by Russian insurgents.

Kiev spent nearly three years in the uncomfortable position of fighting the rebels while enriching them by buying their anthracite coal to keep its thermal power plants pumping.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko bowed to public pressure and banned all trade with the separatist east on March 15.

Energy Minister Igor Nasalyk said shortly after Poroshenko's decision that nuclear power's share of total electricity production had jumped to 62 from around 55 percent.

It had stood at 46 percent before Ukraine was riven by war and economic crises in 2013.

The government has since allowed regional power companies to impose blackouts in case of weather-related surges in demand.

Ukraine is also negotiating a coal purchase agreement with the United States that Kiev hopes could fulfil two-thirds of its annual needs.

But energy analyst Viktor Logatskiy of the Razumkov Centre research institute still thinks that the service lives of all 15 of Ukraine's existing reactors will be extended by 2030 as a long-term power source backup.

- Gas wars -

Ukraine's Energoatom state nuclear power provider has brushed off any fears about the safety repercussions of the extra burden being put on the country's four atomic power plants -- one of which is Europe's largest.

Energoatom argues that times when Ukraine was either cut off from or not purchasing Russian gas because of price and geopolitical considerations saw nuclear power account for as much as 70 percent of electricity production.

It also says that reactors whose lifespans is extended are safer because they have been retrofitted with all the latest equipment and operating technologies.

Logatskiy thinks that Ukraine's atomic power plants even have room to grow because they are not operating at their full capacity.

"Despite heightened energy production, Ukraine's nuclear power plants are being used safely and pose no accident threat," Logatskiy said.

- Tricky math -

Yet Ukraine's official statistics on nuclear power show that actual production has risen only slightly since the year before the Russian-backed insurgency began.

Energoatom data provided to AFP show it had pumped out 23.84 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity in the first four months of the year.

That figure was only 2.5 percent greater than the 23.25 billion kWh generated over the same period of 2013.

Some analysts attribute the discrepancy between the small rise in energy production and the much bigger jump in nuclear power's share of the market to two years of economic recession that have dampened industry's power demands.

They also point to Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and effective loss of a part of the separatist industrial east.

"Our thermal power plants that use coal are simply producing less electricity," Golovko said.

Philippines’ Duterte gives China free pass over sea row

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte failed to condemn China’s push to control most of the disputed South China Sea on Sunday after hosting a regional summit, handing Beijing a political victory.Duterte released a chairman’s statement a day after hosti…

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte failed to condemn China's push to control most of the disputed South China Sea on Sunday after hosting a regional summit, handing Beijing a political victory.

Duterte released a chairman's statement a day after hosting the one-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders' meeting that ignored an international ruling, championed by his predecessor, outlawing China's sweeping claims to the strategically important waterway.

"We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area," said the 25-page statement without any mention of what these were, which countries were responsible, and which heads of state raised them.

China has been turning reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities on them.

ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea, but China insists it has sovereign rights over nearly all of it.

Ahead of the summit Duterte said the Philippines and other nations were helpless to stop the island building, so there was no point discussing it at diplomatic events such as Saturday's summit.

Additionally China, which is not a member of the 10-nation ASEAN, had lobbied intensely through its ambassador to Manila to water down references to the issue in the chairman's statement, diplomats earlier told AFP.

The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino, had pushed hard at ASEAN summits for the bloc to voice its strong opposition to Chinese expansionism, and official statements at those events often reflected that.

Aquino also filed the case at the international tribunal. But the ruling against China came after Duterte took power last year.

An earlier draft of the chairman's statement seen by AFP cited a reference to "respect for legal and diplomatic processes".

Another version also contained a call, championed by Vietnam according to diplomats, to cease "land reclamation and militarisation" of the sea.

Both references were absent in Sunday's final statement.

Duterte's statement "reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight" in and above the South China Sea.

It also reiterated the importance of "exercising self-restraint in the conduct activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation", and of "pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat of or use of force".

Joshua ‘good to go’ for Klitschko rematch

World heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua declared he was willing to give Wladimir Klitschko a rematch after his 11th-round win on Saturday, but the Ukrainian wouldn’t confirm he would box again.The Briton successfully defended his International Boxing…

World heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua declared he was willing to give Wladimir Klitschko a rematch after his 11th-round win on Saturday, but the Ukrainian wouldn't confirm he would box again.

The Briton successfully defended his International Boxing Federation (IBF) world heavyweight title for the third time and claimed the vacant World Boxing Association (WBA) belt against the former champion after an epic battle was settled by Joshua's 19th consecutive stoppage.

In a wildly exciting fight, which swung one way and then the other, Joshua sealed victory during a thunderous 11th round.

"I don't mind fighting him again, if he wants the rematch," Joshua said at a press conference after the fight in front of 90,00 fans at Wembley Stadium.

"Big respect to Wladimir for challenging the young lions of the division.

"It's up to him, I don?t mind. As long as Rob (McCracken, Joshua's trainer) thinks it's good I'm good to go."

- 'One of the best' -

Joshua's promoter Eddie Hearn said that if a rematch were to take place in the UK later this year, it would likely be at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, which has a roof.

"It was one of the best heavyweight fights I?ve seen and Klitschko will probably say he wants a rematch," Hearn told reporters.

"Whether he feels the same on reflection I don't know. We're not opening negotiations with any other fighter until he knows what he wants to do.

"If people don't want to see a rematch, it won't happen. If people want to see a rematch, it's likely to happen.

"It's more likely to be at (the Principality Stadium] if it's in the UK, or it might take us to a new territory.

"Anthony wouldn't mind going to Germany for it, but he won't be ready before October and that was a bad cut Wlad had."

Klitschko, 41, refused to make any commitment on his future and whether he would retire after a second successive defeat.

"I'm not going to consider anything, I'm not going to make any statements, I will take my time and let you know," Klitschko said.

"I have a rematch clause in the contract which I can execute. Right now I will not announce anything.

"I don't feel like someone who lost. Even though I didn't get the belts, I definitely gained although I lost."

Klitschko suffered his first stoppage defeat since 2004 when he was overwhelmed by Joshua's precision and power in a ferocious 11th-round assault.

But Klitschko showed there is still plenty of fight left in him.

Joshua had lost control of the epic encounter after flooring the Ukrainian in the fifth and appeared to have punched himself out.

- 'I can knock out anyone' -

Klitschko landed a right to the temple in the sixth round which dropped Joshua for the first knockdown of his professional career.

"I thought he would not get up," said Klitschko. "I thought I could have done more to finish him after he went down. I was pretty sure it was going to be my night so I took my time."

Joshua, the 2012 Olympic gold medallist, became subdued as Klitschko, who won the Olympic title in 1996, clawed his way back into the fight until the Briton unloaded a series of combinations to seal victory.

"I took a round off to get my breath back and then I said: 'You're in a bad place'," Joshua recalled.

"I tried to recover and then step it up in the later rounds, that was the plan.

"I learned I can knock out anyone. Sometimes you have to ride a few shots and take a few shots before pushing on for victory."

Joshua's powerful right uppercuts featured in all three of the knockdowns but the fight was close at the time of the stoppage: one judge had it 95-93 to Klitschko, while the other two scored it 96-93, 95-93 for Joshua.

Novant Health group offering “Mommy-baby yoga” in baby’s 1st year

Novant Health; spread across North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia; is offering joint yoga classes for mothers and their under-one-year-old babies in Winston-Salem (North Carolina), which end with a massage for baby.

Novant Health; spread across North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia; is offering joint yoga classes for mothers and their under-one-year-old babies in Winston-Salem (North Carolina), which end with a massage for baby.

Pyongyang slams Israel as ‘disturber of peace armed with illegal nukes under US patronage’

Preview North Korea has accused Israel of being the “only illegal possessor” of nukes and threat to peace in the Middle East, and threatened Tel Aviv with a “thousand-fold punishment” after Israeli Defense Minister called Pyongyang’s leadership a “crazy and radical group.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview North Korea has accused Israel of being the “only illegal possessor” of nukes and threat to peace in the Middle East, and threatened Tel Aviv with a “thousand-fold punishment” after Israeli Defense Minister called Pyongyang’s leadership a “crazy and radical group.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

China says factory activity expands at slower pace in April

China’s factory activity continued to expand in April, albeit at a slower-than-expected pace, official data showed on Sunday, adding to signs of stabilisation in the world’s second largest economy. The purchasing manager’s index (PMI), which gauges con…

China's factory activity continued to expand in April, albeit at a slower-than-expected pace, official data showed on Sunday, adding to signs of stabilisation in the world's second largest economy.

The purchasing manager's index (PMI), which gauges conditions at factories and mines, stood at 51.2 in April, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said, down from a near five-year high of 51.8 in March.

Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had expected a reading of 51.7 for April.

A figure above 50 indicates growth in the sector, which is a key driver of the Chinese economy, while anything below points to contraction.

"Although the PMI has dropped slightly, we can also see the steady accumulation of positive factors," NBS analyst Zhao Qinghe said in a statement.

Zhao pointed to increased production of consumer goods and improvements in small business activity as good indicators for the economy.

An acceleration in China's GDP growth in the first three months of 2017 as well as a rebound in retail spending and robust trade data have eased concerns about the strength of the Asian giant's economy following last year's slowdown.