Citizens don’t have ‘absolute’ right over their bodies, privacy complaint is ‘bogus’ – Indian govt

Preview India’s government asserted to the country’s Supreme Court that citizens don’t have “absolute” rights over their bodies, and the privacy argument is “bogus.” They were discussing a controversial new system, allegedly used to fight fake IDs.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview India’s government asserted to the country’s Supreme Court that citizens don’t have “absolute” rights over their bodies, and the privacy argument is “bogus.” They were discussing a controversial new system, allegedly used to fight fake IDs.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Paradise lost: idyllic French villages turn to far right

Halfway between mountains and the Mediterranean, the southern French village of Puget-Theniers is old, idyllic and a picture of the quiet rebellion under way in rural areas.In the first round of France’s presidential election, residents here, an hour’s…

Halfway between mountains and the Mediterranean, the southern French village of Puget-Theniers is old, idyllic and a picture of the quiet rebellion under way in rural areas.

In the first round of France's presidential election, residents here, an hour's drive from the city of Nice, voted overwhelmingly to cast the country's rulers to the wolves.

Thirty-seven percent of 1,300 ballots on April 23 were for far-right leader Marine Le Pen and another 18 percent for Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

A collection of other "anti-system" candidates from Trotskyists to a man who believes the European Union is a CIA-backed conspiracy won another 10 percent.

"We're fed up with our leaders favouring financial groups, insurance companies and bankers," said Leo Vellutini, a 56-year-old having an afternoon drink with locals in the pretty square at the centre of the village.

He says the Le Pen vote has "spiced up our drinks together". While not everyone agrees, no one at the table has anything good to say about France's political leaders.

"They've screwed us over for 40 years," gripes one retired man in his 70s wearing a cap and clutching a glass.

They plan to vote for Le Pen in the runoff vote against pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron on Sunday.

"The village is like all rural areas in France, it's doing badly," said mayor Robert Velay, standing in bright sunshine outside the town hall with the foothills of the Alps behind him.

Farms and farming jobs disappeared years ago, while local shops have shut as people travel to supermarkets down the road towards Nice or order online.

The loss-making local abattoir is mired in red tape, he says.

"There are more people who own washing machines now, but do we live better?" he wonders aloud. "I think we need to look back at what worked well in the past."

- Nostalgia and sadness -

This sense -- of bitterness about the present and nostalgia for the past -- is found across rural France and expressed in the support for so-called "anti-system" candidates.

Puget-Theniers illustrates this faultline between urban and rural areas that has emerged more strongly than ever in this year's election.

It also fits another major fracture between the east and the south of France where support for Le Pen is strongest, and the rest of the country.

Few here see election frontrunner Macron as the solution with his calls for high-tech innovation, openness and fibre-optic connections for every village.

His campaign headquarters in Paris, full of 20-somethings in trainers rushing to meetings with their laptops, is a far cry from the sleepy cobbled streets of Puget-Theniers.

The nearby waters of the fast-flowing river Var provided the last economic boom for locals when they were used by the village's leather and shoe-making industry more than a century ago.

Little wonder then that Le Pen's championing of "the forgotten people" -- those bypassed by the huge economic and technological change of recent times -- finds fertile ground.

"Le Pen supporters want another sort of France, a France from the past," Sylvie Poitte, a 70-year-old from the village who once ran local hair salons, told AFP.

But she admits too that life was better when she arrived with her three children in the 1980s.

"If I was arriving now, I wouldn't stay," she said.

- Economics and migration -

Support for Le Pen and her National Front (FN) party, founded in 1972, has always been strong in the south of France due to a mix of factors.

Herve Le Bras, a leading French demographer, has popularised a socio-economic explanation of the vote here and in the FN's newer stronghold in the rustbelt of northeast France.

His colour-coded maps showing the hotspots of unemployment, low education achievement or poverty mirror the zones of highest FN support to a striking degree.

The only place the correlation fails is in large cities, where deprived areas do not vote for Le Pen, which he puts down to their "contact with the world."

But there is also history and the impact of migration.

The FN has long defended the country's colonial past and so-called "pieds noirs" ("black feet"), the white migrants who settled in French-run Algeria.

When Paris granted the north African country independence in 1962, hundreds of thousands were forced to cross the Mediterranean, with many choosing to settle in the south.

Waves of Arab migration followed them, initially as Algerians came to work in French factories during the labour shortages of the 1960s.

Far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus says this created a toxic combination -- resentful pieds noirs living alongside the people they blame for their misfortune.

Other specialists, like veteran sociologist Jean Viard, say southern natives have also seen their identities challenged by new arrivals from northern France and an explosion in tourism.

But neither immigration, nor insecurity -- the two themes of Le Pen's pitch to voters -- appear to be problems for the residents of Puget-Theniers.

Many people leave their doors open, but mayor Velay recalls that several youngsters "went into town" and were beaten up by "maghrebins" -- people of north African descent.

Martine Tescher, who runs an art gallery in the village, puts the FN vote down to fear, particularly after two years of Islamist-inspired attacks in France.

"When you switch on the radio or television, there's never anything positive. It keeps people in a sort of climate of permanent terror," she says.

Saudi court orders crane deaths trial to go ahead: reports

A Saudi appeals court has ordered about a dozen people accused of negligence in a deadly 2015 crane collapse at Islam’s holiest site to stand trial again, newspapers reported on Wednesday.By a vote of five to two, the appeals judges overturned the Mecc…

A Saudi appeals court has ordered about a dozen people accused of negligence in a deadly 2015 crane collapse at Islam's holiest site to stand trial again, newspapers reported on Wednesday.

By a vote of five to two, the appeals judges overturned the Mecca criminal court's decision that it had no jurisdiction over allegations of "safety breaches", the Okaz and Saudi Gazette newspapers reported.

At least 109 people, including foreign pilgrims, were killed when the crane crashed into a courtyard of Mecca's Grand Mosque during high winds in September 2015.

The mosque draws millions of pilgrims from around the world each year.

Monday's ruling came after an appeal by prosecutors.

The accused included at least one Saudi "billionaire" and nationals of Pakistan, the Philippines, Canada and several Arab countries, the newspapers reported.

They gave no details of when hearings might resume, and have given differing figures for the number of accused, which are either 13 or 14.

The accused were charged with "negligence leading to death, damaging public property and ignoring safety guidelines", Okaz and Saudi Gazette said.

The crane was one of several the Saudi Binladin Group had erected as part of a multi-billion-dollar expansion plan to accommodate increasing numbers of faithful.

King Salman suspended the firm from new public contracts for several months after the tragedy.

Saudi Binladin Group, which developed landmark buildings in the kingdom, was founded more than 80 years ago by the father of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US commandos in Pakistan in 2011.

US tests intercontinental ballistic missile

The US Air Force test-launched an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile from California early Wednesday, the military said.Air Force Global Strike Command spokesman Joe Thomas told AFP from California that the test was routine and not meant to be …

The US Air Force test-launched an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile from California early Wednesday, the military said.

Air Force Global Strike Command spokesman Joe Thomas told AFP from California that the test was routine and not meant to be a show of force in the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile program.

The Minuteman III missile blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 0702 GMT, the strike command said in a statement.

The missile traveled some 4,200 miles (6,700 km) and went down near a Pacific Ocean atoll that is part of the Marshall Islands and features a US military ballistic missile test site.

The Minuteman III, capable of being fitted with a nuclear warhead, is tested like this about four times a year, said Linda Frost, also a spokeswoman for the strike command.

Air forces photos of the launch show bright, roaring flames at the moment of liftoff, then a pale, slender, orange trail against the night sky as the missile arced over the ocean.

"These test launches verify the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent," the strike command said in a statement.

"The ICBM test launch program demonstrates the operational capability of the Minuteman III and ensures the United States? ability to maintain a strong, credible nuclear deterrent as a key element of US national security and the security of US allies and partners," it added.

Long jump great Powell slams record rewrite plans

Long jump world record-holder Mike Powell said plans to rewrite world records set before 2005 are “a slap in the face” and vowed on Wednesday to fight the move.European Athletics has proposed that only world records that stand up to strict criteria sho…

Long jump world record-holder Mike Powell said plans to rewrite world records set before 2005 are "a slap in the face" and vowed on Wednesday to fight the move.

European Athletics has proposed that only world records that stand up to strict criteria should be recognised in order to make a clean break with the sport's doping scandals.

Powell, who jumped 8.95 metres in August 1991, said the proposals were "disrespectful, an injustice and a slap in the face".

"I've already contacted my attorney," the American, 53, told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"There are some records out there that are kind of questionable, I can see that, but mine is the real deal. It's a story of human heart and guts, one of the greatest moments in the sport's history.

"They would be destroying so many things with this decision, without thinking about it. It's wrong. Regardless of what happens, I am going to fight."

Under the proposals, world records will only stand if set at approved international events and if the athletes concerned had undergone a certain number of doping tests prior to competing.

The plans are due to be considered by world governing body the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in August.

Powell set his world record during a thrilling contest with his United States team-mate Carl Lewis at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.

He broke Bob Beamon's mark of 8.90m, which stood for 23 years.

‘Stop irritating each other’: China calls for calm in N. Korea standoff

China has called for all sides in the North Korean standoff to stay calm and “stop irritating each other.” It comes just one day after Pyongyang said the US was pushing the region closer to a nuclear war. Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview China has called for all sides in the North Korean standoff to stay calm and "stop irritating each other." It comes just one day after Pyongyang said the US was pushing the region closer to a nuclear war.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Boko Haram leader Shekau ‘injured in air strike’

Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau has been injured and one of his deputies killed in an air strike in northeast Nigeria, civilian and security sources told AFP on Wednesday.Two Nigerian Air Force jets bombarded fighters who had gathered for prayers i…

Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau has been injured and one of his deputies killed in an air strike in northeast Nigeria, civilian and security sources told AFP on Wednesday.

Two Nigerian Air Force jets bombarded fighters who had gathered for prayers in Balla village, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Damboa, on the edge of the Sambisa Forest, last Friday.

"Shekau was wounded in the bombings and is believed to be receiving treatment near the Nigerian border with Cameroon around Kolofata," said one source with contacts within Boko Haram.

"His deputy, Abba Mustapha, alias Malam Abba, was killed in the attack along with another key lieutenant, Abubakar Gashua, alias Abu Aisha," he added.

Babakura Kolo, a member of the civilian militia in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, gave a similar account, saying "Shekau was injured and a number of commanders were killed.

"Among them is his deputy called Malam Abba. They suffered heavy casualties because the bombings targeted a large gathering of his followers attending Friday prayers."

There was no immediate comment from the Nigerian military when contacted by AFP. The authorities have previously claimed to have killed Shekau on at least three occasions.

In an emailed statement on Tuesday night, the air force said it had bombed "a gathering of Boko Haram terrorists" last Friday "in a village 3.42 km northeast of Mangosum".

The "air interdiction mission" in the remote region involved three jets.

"Battle damage assessment conducted after the strike showed that several leaders of the Boko Haram terrorist organisation and their followers were killed during the attacks," it added.

- Reprisals -

A senior military officer in Maiduguri confirmed the air force bombed Boko Haram positions "in the Damboa area on Friday where they hit the targets with precision".

"We got intel (intelligence) that the terrorists were gathering at the location and we acted on the report," he added, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak about the operation.

He said he was unable to comment on Shekau but the source with contacts in Boko Haram said Mustapha was preaching when the first jet bombed the mosque at about 1:00 pm (1200 GMT).

Moments later a second jet targeted worshippers as they fled.

"Shekau was just leaving a house nearby for the mosque when the first jet struck. He was injured in the second strike," said the source, describing the casualties as "huge".

"They spent the rest of Friday and the whole of Saturday burying the dead," he said, without specifying numbers.

Shekau had been bed-ridden for days with malaria before the attack, he added.

Local people in the Konduga area said Boko Haram fighters went on the rampage following the air strike.

"They came by the river hurling insults at us, accusing us of providing information about their locations and movements to the military," said fisherman Ibrahim Bawa.

"They said we were responsible for the attack on their mosque which killed many of their people. They were very angry," added another fisherman, Usman Sallau.

The jihadists rounded up six fishermen and slit their throats. Others escaped by swimming across the river, he said.

Boko Haram has killed over 20,000 people since it took up arms against the Nigerian government in 2009 to establish a hardline Islamist state.

The insurgency has decimated northeast Borno state with the violence displacing 2.6 million from their homes and causing a hunger crisis.

After years of suffering humiliating losses to Boko Haram, the Nigerian military has reclaimed swathes of territory back from the jihadists.

Yet despite claims that Boko Haram is a spent force, the Islamists still launch attacks.

Syria rebels ‘suspend’ participation in Astana peace talks

Syrian rebels on Wednesday said they were suspending their participation as a latest round of peace talks began in Kazakhstan, with the warring sides set to discuss a plan to create safe zones. “The rebel delegation is suspending the meetings because o…

Syrian rebels on Wednesday said they were suspending their participation as a latest round of peace talks began in Kazakhstan, with the warring sides set to discuss a plan to create safe zones.

"The rebel delegation is suspending the meetings because of the violent air strikes on civilians. The suspension will continue until shelling stops across all Syria," a rebel source in the Kazakh capital Astana told AFP.

Syrian government and rebel delegations gathered on Wednesday for the start of a fourth round of talks sponsored by regime backers Russia and Iran and opposition supporter Turkey.

The latest round of negotiations began with a series of bilateral meetings and was set to focus on a Russian plan to establish "de-escalation zones" around the war-torn country.

A source close to the opposition provided AFP with an Arabic-language version of a proposal drafted by Russia, which an opposition official confirmed was being discussed on Wednesday.

It calls for the creation of "de-escalation zones" in rebel-held territory in the northwestern province of Idlib, in parts of Homs province in the centre, in the south, and in the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

The aim is to "put an immediate end to the violence" and "provide the conditions for the safe, voluntary return of refugees".

The designated zones would also see the immediate delivery of relief supplies and medical assistance.

According to the draft, "security zones" would be created around them, with checkpoints and monitoring centres to be manned by government troops and rebel fighters.

Military units from unspecified "observer countries" could also be deployed.

The document named Turkey, Iran and Russia as guarantors of the agreement and pledged that they would create a "joint working group" within five days of the document being signed by the warring parties.

Three more Russian athletes admit doping

Three more Russian athletes including a sprinter stripped of Olympic gold have admitted doping, the country’s tainted track and field body (RusAF) said on Wednesday.RusAF’s anti-doping coordinator said she hoped the athletes’ admission could help reins…

Three more Russian athletes including a sprinter stripped of Olympic gold have admitted doping, the country's tainted track and field body (RusAF) said on Wednesday.

RusAF's anti-doping coordinator said she hoped the athletes' admission could help reinstate Russia, which has been barred from international track and field since November 2015 because of large-scale doping.

Among the trio was sprinter Yulia Chermoshanskaya, a member of Russia's gold-medal winning 4x100m relay team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The relay quartet was last year stripped of gold after Chermoshanskaya tested positive for steroids in a doping retest and was disqualified for two years.

Shot putters Anna Omarova and Soslan Tsirikhov, both disqualified for two years in March, also acknowledged guilt.

"We all hope that it may speed up the process of RusAF reinstatement," RusAF anti-doping coordinator Yelena Ikonnikova told AFP by phone.

"I believe it will not worsen the situation."

Last month Russian hammer thrower Anna Bulgakova, 400m runner Antonina Krivoshapka, shot putter Yevgenia Kolodko, discus thrower Vera Ganeyeva and pole vaulter Dmitry Starodubtsev also admitted to doping.

Russia was banned from international athletics after evidence emerged of state-sponsored doping.

The country was barred from last year's Rio Olympics and will not be able to send a team to this year's World Championships in London in August.

But 12 individual athletes have been allowed to compete as neutrals.

Turkey to block Wikipedia ‘until it removes false content’

Turkey will not allow access to Wikipedia inside the country until rulings ordering the online encyclopedia to remove content that Ankara deems to be false are implemented, the head of the country’s communications agency said Wednesday.Turkey’s Informa…

Turkey will not allow access to Wikipedia inside the country until rulings ordering the online encyclopedia to remove content that Ankara deems to be false are implemented, the head of the country's communications agency said Wednesday.

Turkey's Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) implemented the ban on wikipedia.org on Saturday as an "administrative measure" and an Ankara court on Monday then backed this up with a formal court order.

The site remains inaccessible.

Local media said that the ban on the entire site was implemented as Wikipedia failed to remove two English-language pages that Ankara believes falsely linked Turkey to the activities of terror groups.

"It's impossible for access to Wikipedia to be allowed until judiciary decisions are followed," BTK head Omer Fatih Sayan said, quoted by the website of the Hurriyet daily.

State media said the ban was imposed as Wikipedia failed to respond to repeated requests by Ankara to remove content it believes are promoting terror and accusing Turkey of cooperation with various terror groups.

The Wikimedia Foundation has appealed the Ankara court's ruling, Hurriyet reported.

Istanbul municipality officials on Tuesday also removed Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales from the guest list of the World Cities Expo, a major international conference to be held in the city on May 15-18.

Reacting to the ban for Wikipedia on Saturday, Wales said on Twitter: "Access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people, I will always stand with you to fight for this right."

Turkey has frequently blocked access to websites temporarily including popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube following terror attacks or anti-government demonstrations.

While opponents claim they are a restriction on freedom of speech and civil liberties, the government insists they are necessary for national security and temporary.

Savvy internet users frequently resort to the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to get around these bans although there have been complaints that the use of VPNs has now also started to be blocked.

Israelis warned not to visit Tunisia for Jewish festival

Israel warned its citizens on Wednesday against visiting Tunisia, where Jewish pilgrims will celebrate a religious festival later this month, citing the threat of jihadist attack.It also said any Israelis currently there should “leave the country immed…

Israel warned its citizens on Wednesday against visiting Tunisia, where Jewish pilgrims will celebrate a religious festival later this month, citing the threat of jihadist attack.

It also said any Israelis currently there should "leave the country immediately."

The festival of Lag BaOmer, taking place this year on May 14-15, draws hundreds of Jews to tombs of revered rabbis as well as the famed El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian holiday island of Djerba.

"Terrorist elements, especially those affiliated with global jihad, continue to act toward carrying out attacks in Tunisia," the counter-terrorism bureau said in a statement released by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"There is a risk of attacks, against Jewish destinations as well," the bureau said, recommending that visits to Tunisia be avoided.

The counter-terrorism bureau has issued similar warnings about Lag BaOmer in previous years, with last year's Djerba event taking place under heavy security due to heightened worries following a string of jihadist attacks in the North African country.

Tunisia was also where an engineer working for Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was assassinated in December.

Mohamed Zaouari, 49, was a drone expert, murdered at the wheel of his car outside his house in Tunisia's second city Sfax. Hamas accused Israel of killing him. Israel did not respond to the allegation.

Last month, the counter-terrorism bureau warned Israelis against visiting Egypt's Sinai region ahead of the Jewish Passover holiday. It even took the rare measure of closing the border crossing.

The move followed a series of deadly bomb attacks on Egyptian churches.

During the 11 days the crossing was closed, a rocket from the Sinai hit southern Israel and an Egyptian policeman was killed near the peninsula's St Catherine's monastery in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

Djerba is home to one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world.

But the number of pilgrims visiting El Ghriba has fallen sharply since a 2002 suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda killed 21 people.

Prior to the attack, the celebrations in Djerba would attract almost 8,000 people each year, from countries including Britain, France and Italy as well as Israel.

US: perennial Middle East player, Israeli ally

The United States has for several decades played a mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while remaining Israel’s main supporter.- Solid support for Israel -On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion founds the Jewish state of Israel, after the Br…

The United States has for several decades played a mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while remaining Israel's main supporter.

- Solid support for Israel -

On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion founds the Jewish state of Israel, after the British mandate ends in Palestine. The administration of US president Harry S. Truman recognises the state minutes after it is proclaimed.

However, the administrations of both Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower realise that too close a rapprochement with Israel risks harming US relations with the Arab world.

Washington thus voices strong opposition to the Israeli campaign against Egypt in 1956, launched in coordination with France and Britain and known as the Suez Crisis.

During the Cold War, relations between Israel and the United States take a new turn, becoming rock solid in the 1960s.

During the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel occupies the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The Six Day War is a turning point for the US which becomes Israel's main backer.

In October 1967, president Lyndon B. Johnson decides to order large-scale deliveries of arms to Israel.

- Dialogue with the PLO -

On December 14, 1988, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accepts three conditions laid down by president Ronald Reagan for a dialogue.

Arafat recognises Israel's right to exist, accepts UN Security Council resolution 242 which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in 1967, and he renounces terrorism.

On December 16 the first official contacts take place: a Palestinian delegation meets in Tunis with the American ambassador, who has been designated as interlocutor with the PLO.

George Bush, who takes over as president in early 1989, establishes channels of direct communication between Israel and the Arab countries, a process which will culminate with the first international conference on the Middle East, in 1991, in Madrid.

- Single mediator -

On September 13, 1993, after six months of secret negotiations in Oslo, president Bill Clinton orchestrates the historic handshake in Washington between Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat, after they sign a five-year transitional agreement on Palestinian self-government in Gaza and the West Bank.

In 2000, Clinton blames Arafat for the failure of peace negotiations at Camp David from July 11-25.

Clinton, with eight Israeli-Palestinian summits under his belt, proposes in late 2000 a peace plan which will serve as the basis of discussions in Taba, Egypt. These negotiations, without the direct participation of the new administration of George W. Bush, fail to reach agreement.

In 2002, Bush floats a two-state solution, living peacefully side by side, but without Arafat.

- Obama: tensions, but aid -

After they respectively take office in 2009, relations between US president Barack Obama and right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu come under deep strain.

In May, 2011 Obama speaks out in favour of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 frontiers. But Netanyahu rules out any return to the borders that existed before the Six Day War.

In 2013-2014 efforts led by US Secretary of State John Kerry to relaunch the peace process fail.

In September 2016, however, the two leaders sign a deal on $38 billion in military assistance over a 10-year period beginning in 2018, the most generous military aid in US history.

In December, Washington, for the first time since 1979, does not veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlement building.

- 'Unbreakable' bond with Israel -

On February 15, 2017, new US President Donald Trump warmly welcomes Netanyahu to the White House and hails the "unbreakable" bond between their countries.

He backs away from Washington's quest for a two-state solution to the conflict, saying he would back a single state if it led to peace.

On May 1, Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas accepts the idea of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Hamas's announcement comes two days ahead of the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Palestininian leader Mahmud Abbas, with whom Hamas is at odds.

Eurozone growth hits 0.5% in first quarter of 2017

Growth in the eurozone remained resilient in the first quarter of 2017 as the economy continued to brush off the unknowns of Brexit and a high stakes election in France, data showed on Wednesday. The EU’s Eurostat statistics agency said growth in the e…

Growth in the eurozone remained resilient in the first quarter of 2017 as the economy continued to brush off the unknowns of Brexit and a high stakes election in France, data showed on Wednesday.

The EU's Eurostat statistics agency said growth in the eurozone landed at 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2017, the same as the previous quarter and on par with analyst forecasts.

The fresh data lent credence to a survey last month suggesting the eurozone economy is growing at its fastest pace since it emerged from the worst of the financial crisis six years ago.

The eurozone economy has seen a steady period of growth, expanding by 1.7 percent in 2016.

That was faster than the United States' growth rate of 1.6 percent last year.

The IMF forecasts that the eurozone will maintain that pace in 2017 with annual growth of 1.7 percent.

Spain was a solid performer in the period from January to March, growing by 0.8 percent as the country continues to recover from a damaging crisis marked by sky-high unemployment.

But economic growth in France slowed in the first quarter to 0.3 percent just before the country chooses its next president in an election where the economy is taking centre stage.

Still, the overall figure for the eurozone shows that recovery in Europe remains on track, despite the significant political uncertainties in Europe, including Britain's divorce from the EU.

The sustained growth will put pressure on the European Central Bank to scale back its controversial stimulus measures.

The ECB, led by its chief Mario Draghi, is at pains to stress that, despite the series of positive economic signals, it may be too soon to pull back on the programme.

UAE ‘optimistic’ after Libyan ally meets PM Sarraj

The United Arab Emirates voiced optimism a political settlement could be reached in Libya after it hosted rare talks on Tuesday between its strongman ally and the internationally recognised premier.The UAE is, with Egypt, the main supporter of Field Ma…

The United Arab Emirates voiced optimism a political settlement could be reached in Libya after it hosted rare talks on Tuesday between its strongman ally and the internationally recognised premier.

The UAE is, with Egypt, the main supporter of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control most of eastern Libya, including its key oil ports, and who refuses to recognise the UN-backed government of Fayez al-Sarraj.

The two men met in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday for only the second time since Sarraj was named prime minister in late 2015 as diplomatic efforts intensify to ends years of chaos and conflict in the North African nation.

The meeting "brings optimism towards guaranteeing a political solution," the UAE foreign ministry said.

It is an "important step to push forward the political process in Libya," it added, in a statement carried by the official WAM news agency.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, whose government has also been a major supporter of Haftar, was due in Abu Dhabi later on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if the visit and the talks were connected.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days to try to reconcile the rival administrations in eastern and western Libya.

On Sunday, UN envoy Martin Kobler held talks in Sudan, a supporter of Sarraj's administration in Tripoli.

On Monday, he met Mahmud Jibril, who headed Libya's interim government during a NATO-backed rebellion that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

An array of armed groups have fought over the country's oil wealth since the uprising and Sarraj's government has struggled to cement its control.

The UN-brokered Libya Political Agreement (LPA) which created it gave no role to Haftar, and talks have focused on how to do so.

In February, Sarraj said Haftar had refused to meet him in person in Cairo for Egypt-backed talks to discuss possible amendments to the LPA.

Mattia Toaldo, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Tuesday's meeting came after a change of tack from Haftar, who seeks nationwide presidential elections next year.

Haftar is "now pursuing a different strategy... exchanging his support for an amended LPA for a guarantee to have presidential elections early in 2018 in which it would be thinkable for him to run", Toaldo said.

Sarraj in turn is seeking "badly needed legitimisation" from the eastern authorities, even as he struggles for internal support in western Libya where factions are hostile to Haftar.

"I doubt that anything negotiated by Sarraj would be accepted peacefully by factions in western Libya if it is seen as giving Haftar a too prominent position within the security sector or the political system," Toaldo warned.

Assange demands Sweden drop arrest warrant

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange filed a new motion in Sweden Wednesday calling for a European arrest warrant over rape allegations to be dropped, after the United States said it was seeking to arrest him, his lawyer said. The 45-year-old Australian de…

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange filed a new motion in Sweden Wednesday calling for a European arrest warrant over rape allegations to be dropped, after the United States said it was seeking to arrest him, his lawyer said.

The 45-year-old Australian denies the accusations in Sweden that date back to 2010, which he fears will see him extradited to the United States.

He has been holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 and risks being arrested by British police as soon as he steps out of the building.

His Swedish lawyer Per Samuelsson said the new motion was filed because US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April that arresting Assange would be "a priority".

"This implies that we can now demonstrate that the US has a will to take action... this is why we ask for the arrest warrant to be cancelled so that Julian Assange can fly to Ecuador and enjoy his political asylum," Samuelsson told AFP.

He said the motion was filed in a Stockholm court on Wednesday and that it should take two to three weeks for a ruling.

Assange fears imprisonment in the United States over the leaking by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic documents that first gained attention in 2010.

He has made numerous appeals to Swedish courts, including the Supreme Court, but has lost eight bids to cancel the arrest warrant.

Swedish judges have refused to take into account the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which in February 2016 said Assange "was arbitrarily detained" by Sweden and Britain and called for the warrant to be annulled.

Peugeot to test driverless cars in Singapore

French automaker PSA said Wednesday it was teaming up with nuTonomy to integrate the US startup’s software into one of its vehicles for on-road testing of fully autonomous cars in Singapore.nuTonomy will install its software, along with sensors and com…

French automaker PSA said Wednesday it was teaming up with nuTonomy to integrate the US startup's software into one of its vehicles for on-road testing of fully autonomous cars in Singapore.

nuTonomy will install its software, along with sensors and computing platforms, into customised Peugeot 3008 vehicles, with the vehicles expected to hit the streets in September.

A company spun off from MIT, a leading US research university, nuTonomy has been behind a public trial of driverless taxis that got underway in Singapore last year, although engineers rode along to take over in case of a problem.

"We're confident that working with Groupe PSA will bring us closer to our goal of deploying a safe, efficient, fully autonomous mobility-on-demand transportation service for urban driving environments," nuTonomy's chief executive Karl lagnemma said in a statement.

The two companies said the integration of driverless technology into production model vehicles was an important part of their partnership as it will be critical for their introduction on a wider scale.

The crossover Peugeot 3008 SUV is a much larger vehicle than the nuTonomy vehicles currently in use in Singapore.

"This collaboration is a significant step towards fully autonomous vehicles, which will enable us to offer different mobility solutions to our customers," said Anne Laliron, head of the automaker's experimental unit.

The companies said they will consider expanding on-road testing to other major cities around the world following the initial phase of this partnership.

All aboard: luxury Japanese train has bath and fireplace

It’s got Michelin-starred chefs, solid cypress bathtubs and a cosy snug complete with roaring fire: the Shiki-Shima could hold its own against any five-star hotel. Not bad for a train.In a country best known for its super-fast “Shinkansen” bullet train…

It's got Michelin-starred chefs, solid cypress bathtubs and a cosy snug complete with roaring fire: the Shiki-Shima could hold its own against any five-star hotel. Not bad for a train.

In a country best known for its super-fast "Shinkansen" bullet trains, the emphasis in Japan's latest extravaganza on rails is on savouring the moment, with no expense spared to create the most luxurious travelling experience.

Customers willing to shell out up to 950,000 yen ($8,500) per person can enjoy a top-of-the-range suite aboard the Shiki-Shima for four days and three nights of unparalleled extravagance.

The 10-car train has huge viewing windows through which customers can see the northern Japanese countryside used to grow the ingredients in seasonal delicacies prepared by the onboard chefs.

After dinner they can gather for a drink around the piano, or sit and soak up the atmosphere next to the fireplace -- actually a trick created by steam and coloured light -- on a journey that takes them from Tokyo to the northernmost island of Hokkaido and back again.

The light-gold "Train Suite Shiki-shima" sleeper -- whose name means "Four Seasons Island" -- departed Ueno Station in Tokyo for its maiden journey on Monday, carrying 33 passengers, according to operator East Japan Railway.

And despite the hefty price tag, there is no shortage of customers -- tickets are booked out through to March next year.

The Shiki-Shima is not the first uber-luxurious train to hit the tracks in Japan, which seems to have a supply of discerning and moneyed travellers.

In 2013, Kyushu Railway unveiled its "Seven Stars" service with a piano and a bar, top-end dining and luxury suites, while West Japan Railway will launch the "Twilight Express Mizukaze" sleeper in June.

China to launch own encyclopaedia to rival Wikipedia

China plans to launch its own online encyclopaedia next year, hoping to build a “cultural Great Wall” that can rival Wikipedia as a go-to information source for Chinese Internet users who Beijing fears are being corrupted by foreign influences.China is…

China plans to launch its own online encyclopaedia next year, hoping to build a "cultural Great Wall" that can rival Wikipedia as a go-to information source for Chinese Internet users who Beijing fears are being corrupted by foreign influences.

China is under pressure to write its own encyclopaedia so it can guide public thought, according to a statement by the project's executive editor Yang Muzhi published last month on the website of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

He once listed Wikipedia, which is available in China, and Britain's Encyclopaedia Britannica as potential rivals and said the project aims to exceed them, according to an article he wrote late last year.

The project, which will be under the guidance of the state-owned China Publishing Group, "must have Chinese characteristics," he wrote, adding it would be a "symbol of the country's cultural and technological development" and increase its softpower and international influence.

Unlike Wikipedia -- and its Chinese version Baidu Baike -- which are written by volunteers and are in a constant state of revision, the new project, which was approved in 2011, will be entirely written by professionals.

So far over 20,000 scholars and academics have been enlisted to compile the project, which aims to have more than 300,000 entries by its 2018 launch.

The new encyclopaedia will be based on a previous printed version, published in book form in 1993. A second edition, which can be accessed through a special terminal, was released in 2009.

The newest version will be released online before being published in a bound edition.

China has over 700 million internet users but a 2015 report by US think tank Freedom House found that the country had the most restrictive online use policies of 65 nations it studied, ranking below Iran and Syria.

It has maintained that its various forms of web censorship -- collectively known as "The Great Firewall" -- are necessary for protecting its national security.

Sites blocked due to their content or sensitivity, among them Facebook and Twitter, cannot be accessed in China without special software that allows users to bypass the strict controls.

Beijing issued a new restriction for online freedoms, requiring Chinese Internet users to provide their real names when accessing online news sources.

The new restriction will come into effect on June 1.

Philippine environment chief dumped as miners triumph

Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez was sacked on Wednesday when lawmakers rejected her appointment, in a big victory for the mining industry which she had accused of corruption and abuse.Lopez had sent shockwaves through the industry during …

Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez was sacked on Wednesday when lawmakers rejected her appointment, in a big victory for the mining industry which she had accused of corruption and abuse.

Lopez had sent shockwaves through the industry during her 10 months as environment chief, seeking to shut down roughly two-thirds of the nation's existing mines and banning any new open-pit operations.

However, despite the strong support of President Rodrigo Duterte who had threatened to shut down the mining industry completely, a congressional body rejected Lopez's appointment.

"If you want to be confirmed, don't go against big business!" an angry Lopez shouted during a long press conference after the ruling.

"It's wrong when lawmakers don't stand up for the rights of every Filipino, but rather big business. It's really very wrong."

With the Philippines being the world's biggest supplier of nickel ore and a major source of copper, Lopez's campaign had impacted global commodity prices.

Lopez had sought to shut down 28 of the nation's 40 mines and cancel the contracts of dozens of others.

Last week she also announced the ban on open-pit mining, which would have sounded the death knell for one of the world's biggest planned copper projects in the south of the country.

Mining Inc had run a high-profile campaign to have the Commission on Appointments reject her, arguing she was jeopardising the lives of 1.2 million people who were dependent on the industry.

The Chamber of Mines released a statement on Wednesday thanking the commission for its quick decision.

"This is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new chapter for the mining industry," the statement said.

Environment groups expressed outrage.

"The rejection demonstrates the continued control of powerful destructive industries such as mining in the country's legislative houses, and the reform promised to Filipinos is a sham," the Green Thumb coalition, grouping dozens of environment groups, said in a statement.

"It clearly shows where the heart of the Duterte administration is, and clearly it is manifested with big and powerful mining companies."

Congress rejecting a president's cabinet appointment is extremely rare in Philippine politics.

But, despite Duterte's ruling coalition having a majority in both houses of congress, Lopez was the second of his appointments to be rejected.

Perfecto Yasay was in March dumped as foreign secretary when the commission on appointments ruled he had lied in congressional hearings about him holding American citizenship.

IS group claims responsibility for attack on US convoy in Kabul

A suicide car bomber struck a U.S. military convoy in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing at least eight Afghan civilians and wounding three U.S. service members in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

A suicide car bomber struck a U.S. military convoy in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing at least eight Afghan civilians and wounding three U.S. service members in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

N. Korea state media confirms arrest of US professor

North Korea on Wednesday confirmed the arrest of a US citizen who was lecturing in Pyongyang — the third American held in the country amid growing tensions with Washington.Kim Sang-Duk, or Tony Kim, was detained at the capital’s airport on April 22, …

North Korea on Wednesday confirmed the arrest of a US citizen who was lecturing in Pyongyang -- the third American held in the country amid growing tensions with Washington.

Kim Sang-Duk, or Tony Kim, was detained at the capital's airport on April 22, as he tried to leave the country after teaching for several weeks at an elite university.

In the North's first confirmation of the professor's detention, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said he had been held for "committing criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn the DPRK", using the country's official name.

It added that Kim was "under detention by a relevant law enforcement body which is conducting detailed investigation into his crimes".

The confirmation of Kim's detention comes as Pyongyang issues increasingly belligerent rhetoric in a tense stand off with the administration of new US President Donald Trump.

Kim had been teaching accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which said last month that the professor had been held.

The school -- founded by evangelical Christians from overseas and opened in 2010 -- is known to have a number of American faculty members.

Allianz confident despite profit slide in Q1

German insurer Allianz said Wednesday that it took a hit on its bottom line in the first quarter but said it was still confident of achieving its target of stable underlying profits for the whole year. Allianz said in a statement that its net profit f…

German insurer Allianz said Wednesday that it took a hit on its bottom line in the first quarter but said it was still confident of achieving its target of stable underlying profits for the whole year.

Allianz said in a statement that its net profit fell by 15 percent to 1.8 billion euros ($2.0 billion) in the period from January to March.

But that was largely attributable to the fact that the year-earlier figure had been inflated by one-off gains from the sale of financial stakes, the insurer explained.

Underlying or operating profit in the three-month period rose by 9.4 percent to 2.9 billion euros on the back of a 2.5-percent increase in revenues to 36.2 billion euros.

Allianz also pointed to "claims stemming from large losses and natural catastrophes" in the first quarter that had weighed on its property and casualty insurance division.

"Despite market volatility and low interest rates, we confirm our outlook and continue to expect an operating profit for the full year of 10.8 billion euros, plus or minus 500 million euros" said chief executive Oliver Baete.

China tightens rules for online news providers

China has issued new internet regulations increasing Communist party control over online news providers, the latest step in the country’s push to tighten its policing of the web.The ruling party oversees a vast apparatus designed to censor online conte…

China has issued new internet regulations increasing Communist party control over online news providers, the latest step in the country's push to tighten its policing of the web.

The ruling party oversees a vast apparatus designed to censor online content deemed politically sensitive, maintaining that such measures are necessary for the protection of national security.

Sites blocked due to their content or sensitivity, among them Facebook and Twitter, cannot be accessed in China without special software that allows users to bypass the strict controls.

New regulations released by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) Tuesday will increase party control over who can publish what online, taking effect June 1.

All websites, apps, forums, blogs, microblogs, social media accounts, instant messaging and live streaming platforms and other entities that select or edit news will need a license to post reports or commentary about the government, economy, military, foreign affairs, and social issues, the CAC said.

Such online news service providers must "correctly guide public opinion" and "serve the cause of socialism" while "safeguarding national and public interests", it said.

Business and editorial operations must be kept separate, and those who do not receive public funding will not be allowed to conduct original reporting, it added.

Staff at online outlets must undergo governmental training and assessment, and receive official accreditation, while top editors must be approved.

Additionally, no Chinese outlets may set up a joint venture with a foreign partner without undergoing a "security assessment" through the State Council Information Office.

Online news providers who fail to comply with the new regulations will have their licenses revoked and receive fines of up to 30,000 yuan ($4,352).

The new guidelines come after the passing of a controversial cybersecurity bill last November, which also tightened restrictions on online freedom of speech.

Paris-based monitoring group Reporters Without Borders last week ranked China as the fifth worst country in the world for press freedom, coming in 176th out of 180 countries, just one place ahead of war-torn Syria.

Iran’s reformist ex-president backs Rouhani reelection

Iran’s reformist former president Mohammad Khatami has skirted a media ban to endorse moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani for a second term over conservative challengers in a tight May 19 election.Khatami, who during his 1997-2005 presidency oversaw a ra…

Iran's reformist former president Mohammad Khatami has skirted a media ban to endorse moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani for a second term over conservative challengers in a tight May 19 election.

Khatami, who during his 1997-2005 presidency oversaw a rapprochement with the West, has been barred from speaking openly since mass protests against the disputed reelection of his hardline successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

The hardliner's replacement by Rouhani in 2013 has seen a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that led to the lifting of most international economic sanctions but is threatened by a tougher stance from the new US administration of Donald Trump.

"Mr Rouhani's defeat would mean an increased possibility of a return to international isolation and sanctions," Khatami said on his website on Tuesday.

"The interest of the people and the country is in the continuation of Rouhani's government," Khatami added.

Rouhani faces a tough campaign against two conservative challengers amid disappointment that the 2015 nuclear deal has not brought bigger economic dividends.

Both Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and cleric-turned-judge Ebrahim Raisi have played on the concerns of the poor.

Khatami, 73, was an important figure in Rouhani's first-term election victory, convincing reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref to stand aside in his favour.

But he remains under a domestic media ban over the 2009 protests and both reformist candidates in that election are still under house arrest.

In parliamentary elections last year, Khatami skirted the ban by publishing a video on YouTube and mobile messaging apps to call on voters in the capital to choose a pro-Rouhani list.

All 30 candidates of the "List of Hope" won, defeating many leading conservatives.

VW confirms forecast after jump start to 2017

German carmaker Volkswagen on Wednesday confirmed its forecasts for 2017 after boosting revenue and profits in the first quarter, even as its emissions cheating scandal continues to make headlines.The group reported net profit of 3.4 billion billion eu…

German carmaker Volkswagen on Wednesday confirmed its forecasts for 2017 after boosting revenue and profits in the first quarter, even as its emissions cheating scandal continues to make headlines.

The group reported net profit of 3.4 billion billion euros ($3.7 billion) in the period from January to March, up 44 percent compared with the first three months of last year.

Revenues grew 10 percent to 56.2 billion euros.

Both results significantly outperformed forecasts from analysts surveyed by data company Factset.

"Our quarterly figures were positively impacted by the strong performance of the group brands, the launch of new, compelling products and solid earnings in Western Europe," chief executive Matthias Mueller said in a statement.

VW confirmed that its operating profit increased by 28 percent to 4.4 billion euros in the three-month period, raising the return on sales to 7.8 percent.

Looking ahead to the full year, the group said it aims to keep that figure "between 6.0 percent and 7.0 percent," while increasing revenue by up to 4.0 percent compared with last year.

"Challenges will arise particularly from the economic situation, intense competition in the market, exchange rate volatility and the diesel issue," the carmaker said.

Questions remain over who at Europe's largest carmaker knew of a scheme to disguise higher-than-allowed emissions of nitrogen oxides in its diesel vehicles from regulators, which the group admitted to in September 2015.

In recent months, the Porsche-Piech family shareholders have publicly fallen out over the scandal.

And VW has so far set aside more than 22 billion euros in provisions to cover fines and compensation related to the "dieselgate" affair, but experts estimate the final bill could be much higher.

Thai schoolgirl learns to smile again after teacher assault

There were moments when Naruedee Jotsanthia thought she’d never smile again.The Thai schoolgirl says she was left facially disfigured last year after a teacher threw a mug at her head.The attack, which went viral and sparked renewed debate about the co…

There were moments when Naruedee Jotsanthia thought she'd never smile again.

The Thai schoolgirl says she was left facially disfigured last year after a teacher threw a mug at her head.

The attack, which went viral and sparked renewed debate about the country's deeply hierarchical education system, locked one side of her face in a downward droop and left her unable to close her left eye.

"When I saw my face, I just couldn't accept it," the 18-year-old from Thailand's impoverished northeastern Korat province told AFP. "I thought about hurting myself. I really just could not believe it."

Naruedee had always dreamed of becoming an air hostess, but felt there was little chance an airline would ever consider hiring her.

Yet eight months on she is smiling again thanks to months of costly medical therapy and daily exercises funded by strangers.

"I might not be 100 percent normal," she said, a hint of paralysis still visible on her left side. "But I am very satisfied already on what I have achieved so far. At least I can smile again."

The attack was one of a number of recent events that have sparked intense public anger over how authority figures treat underlings in a country where questioning your superiors is taboo.

Last year video footage went viral of a student forced to grovel at her teacher's feet following a disagreement over whether she was allergic to egg-tofu soup.

A Thai Air Asia stewardess was also forced to prostrate herself on the floor before a disgruntled passenger, prompting an apology from airline boss Tony Fernandez.

- Military values -

Teachers are near sacrosanct in Thai culture, afforded huge respect and deference.

But many education reform advocates argue such extreme kowtowing discourages critical thinking in students, pointing out that school standards in the comparatively wealthy nation have been slipping for years.

Education for Liberation of Siam, a group advocating schooling reform, said the authorities should do more to "make schools free from violence, change attitude about punishment and take quick action in cases like these."

Yet Thailand's culture of deference has become more intense since the military seized power in 2014.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha has ordered all school children to recite his "twelve values" daily, which include respecting parents, teachers, elders and "maintaining discipline".

So far Naruedee's medical treatment has cost as much as three times the annual income her family brings in as cassava farmers in Thailand's impoverished northeast.

The bill has been picked up by the Pavena Foundation, which assists women trying to escape abuse and also helped Naruedee find a new school.

"It's taken five months, we can see Naruedee looking normal again, she can now shut her mouth and eyes," Pavena Hongsakula, a former politician who founded the foundation, said.

The school admits the teacher attacked Naruedee but disputes whether the paralysis, which emerged the day after the assault, was caused by the mug.

The school director said they paid the family 50,000 baht ($1,450) compensation and that the teacher was transferred to another school.

Police have charged him with assault but the attorney general's office has yet to push ahead with a prosecution.

Naruedee now wants to focus on chasing her dream of becoming an air hostess.

"I don't know if I'm dreaming too high or not," she said, breaking out into a wide grin.

BNP Paribas gets off to a good start in 2017

French bank BNP Paribas said Wednesday it got off to a good start in 2017, notching up “solid” results in the first quarter on the strength of the financial markets. It said in a statement its net profit rose by 4.4 percent to 1.89 billion euros ($2.0 …

French bank BNP Paribas said Wednesday it got off to a good start in 2017, notching up "solid" results in the first quarter on the strength of the financial markets.

It said in a statement its net profit rose by 4.4 percent to 1.89 billion euros ($2.0 billion) in the period from January to March, beating analysts' expectations of a figure of around 1.6 billion euros.

Revenues advanced by 4.2 percent to 11.3 billion euros, also outpacing expectations.

"BNP Paribas delivered a very good performance this quarter," said chief executive Jean-Laurent Bonnafe.

"The revenues of the operating divisions were significantly higher thanks to good business growth."

The bank attributed that growth to the strength of the financial markets.

"Domestic markets reported sustained business activity... with good growth in loans to individual and corporate clients."

The bank also reported "strong growth" in deposits and increased assets under management.

"Costs were well under control and the cost of risk was down. The group's balance sheet is rock-solid," with the core Tier 1 capital ratio -- a key gauge of financial strength -- rising to 11.6 percent, BNP Paribas said.

Hend, Thongchai star as Thailand Open returns to Asian Tour

The Thailand Open has rejoined the Asian Tour after an eight-year hiatus, organisers announced on Wednesday, confirming that Australia’s Scott Hend and local favourite Thongchai Jaidee will headline the event later this month.The deal will be seen as a…

The Thailand Open has rejoined the Asian Tour after an eight-year hiatus, organisers announced on Wednesday, confirming that Australia's Scott Hend and local favourite Thongchai Jaidee will headline the event later this month.

The deal will be seen as a new blow to the struggling rival OneAsia Tour, who poached the tournament from the Asian Tour in 2010, and comes just weeks after the Asian Tour announced it had made a breakthrough deal to return to China, where OneAsia had previously had a foothold.

Thailand's national championship, which dates back to 1965, will held this year at Bangkok's Thai Country Club from May 18-21 with a prize fund of $300,000.

The 2016 Asian Tour number one Hend, three-time Order of Merit winner Thongchai and fellow Thai star Kiradech Aphibarnrat have all confirmed they will play.

"The Thailand Open is one of the oldest national championships in Asia and we are excited to welcome the prestigious tournament back into our fold," Asian Tour CEO Josh Burack said in a statement.

The Asian Tour has been largely shut out from the East Asian golfing powers of China, Korea and Japan since 2008 when those countries' professional golf associations threw their weight behind the OneAsia Tour.

But OneAsia has struggled in recent years. It currently has just three events confirmed on its 2017 calendar: last week's China Open in Beijing, which was co-sanctioned with the European Tour, and two others in Korea.

Last month Burack announced a new strategic partnership with the China Golf Association (CGA) that will see the Asian Tour co-sanctioning four new tournaments with prize purses of between $300,000 and $500,000.

Burack also vowed that they would seek to host more tournaments in Japan and South Korea as the Asian Tour pushes for a greater slice of the lucrative Asian market.

The Thailand Open was last sanctioned by the Asian Tour in 2009, when it was won by India's Jyoti Randhawa.

Hong Kong firm snaps up London skyscraper in $1.47bn deal

A Hong Kong property developer has confirmed the near completion of its almost $1.5 billion purchase of London’s “Cheesegrater” tower, as it takes advantage of the pound’s slump to snap up addresses in the British capital.

C C Land’s acquisition of the 224-metres-high Leadenhall Building, which earned its nickname from its wedge shape, is the biggest single property purchase in the UK since 2014, when a Qatari wealth fund bought London’s HSBC Tower for £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion at current exchange rates).

The deal takes advantage of the slump in the pound, which plunged after the country voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 and is currently trading roughly 12 percent lower against the dollar.

“Devaluation of the pound sterling is one of the major factors to draw interests to this market,” C C Land said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange on May 1, confirming the $1.47 billion purchase from real estate giant British Land and Oxford Properties.

“Both leasing as well as investment demands in prime office buildings have remained strong,” the firm said in the filing.

Britain’s economic growth has slowed to its weakest pace in a year, as the country prepares for a general election overshadowed by its planned exit from the European Union.

But C C Land said London was still an attractive place for investors from around the world, particularly from the Asian region.

The Hong Kong-based firm said the purchase was part of their business strategy “in investing in quality property developments in mature cities globally” and that it would generate “stable and strong recurrent income”.

Completion of the deal is subject to the passing of the resolution by C C Land shareholders at an upcoming special general meeting on May 18.

Chinese and Hong Kong investors spent £2.9 billion ($3.7 at current exchange rates) — more than buyers from any other region — on central London offices in 2016, broker Knight Frank said in a February report cited by Bloomberg News.

Other investors have also said they will be investing in a post-Brexit UK.

Qatar announced in March it will invest $6.23 billion in energy, infrastructure, real estate and services within five years.

Construction of the Leadenhall Building, the tallest in the City of London business district, was completed in 2014 but was officially opened during a ceremony in 2015 attended by Britain’s Prince William and Prince Harry.

The building’s unusual shape is a result of London’s strict rules on protected sightlines.

Tenants include insurers Aon and MS Amlin and the building’s architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners.

The building was part the city’s biggest architectural shake-up since the 19th century when a new wave of high-rises built in the financial quarter reshaped the skyline.

A Hong Kong property developer has confirmed the near completion of its almost $1.5 billion purchase of London's "Cheesegrater" tower, as it takes advantage of the pound's slump to snap up addresses in the British capital.

C C Land's acquisition of the 224-metres-high Leadenhall Building, which earned its nickname from its wedge shape, is the biggest single property purchase in the UK since 2014, when a Qatari wealth fund bought London's HSBC Tower for £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion at current exchange rates).

The deal takes advantage of the slump in the pound, which plunged after the country voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 and is currently trading roughly 12 percent lower against the dollar.

"Devaluation of the pound sterling is one of the major factors to draw interests to this market," C C Land said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange on May 1, confirming the $1.47 billion purchase from real estate giant British Land and Oxford Properties.

"Both leasing as well as investment demands in prime office buildings have remained strong," the firm said in the filing.

Britain's economic growth has slowed to its weakest pace in a year, as the country prepares for a general election overshadowed by its planned exit from the European Union.

But C C Land said London was still an attractive place for investors from around the world, particularly from the Asian region.

The Hong Kong-based firm said the purchase was part of their business strategy "in investing in quality property developments in mature cities globally" and that it would generate "stable and strong recurrent income".

Completion of the deal is subject to the passing of the resolution by C C Land shareholders at an upcoming special general meeting on May 18.

Chinese and Hong Kong investors spent £2.9 billion ($3.7 at current exchange rates) -- more than buyers from any other region -- on central London offices in 2016, broker Knight Frank said in a February report cited by Bloomberg News.

Other investors have also said they will be investing in a post-Brexit UK.

Qatar announced in March it will invest $6.23 billion in energy, infrastructure, real estate and services within five years.

Construction of the Leadenhall Building, the tallest in the City of London business district, was completed in 2014 but was officially opened during a ceremony in 2015 attended by Britain's Prince William and Prince Harry.

The building's unusual shape is a result of London's strict rules on protected sightlines.

Tenants include insurers Aon and MS Amlin and the building's architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners.

The building was part the city's biggest architectural shake-up since the 19th century when a new wave of high-rises built in the financial quarter reshaped the skyline.

All Black Coles under Lions injury cloud

Dane Coles is the latest All Black battling fitness issues ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour, with the Wellington Hurricanes revealing Wednesday that the hooker has concussion symptoms.Coles has not taken the field since he injured his knee whe…

Dane Coles is the latest All Black battling fitness issues ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour, with the Wellington Hurricanes revealing Wednesday that the hooker has concussion symptoms.

Coles has not taken the field since he injured his knee when the Hurricanes played the Highlanders on March 18, then strained a calf muscle in training.

But what should be a straightforward recovery has been complicated by exercise-induced headaches that are a typical sign of a player with concussion.

Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said the condition was a mystery, as Coles did not suffer an obvious head injury in his last match.

"The source of it is completely unknown to us and that's made it a little bit more complex," he told reporters.

He said Coles would have to pass concussion protocols before returning to play.

In the meantime, the headaches are preventing the 49-Test hooker from exercising enough to overcome his injuries, meaning he will struggle to be match-fit for the Lions.

The tourists arrive in New Zealand in early June and their first Test against the All Blacks is June 24.

Other All Blacks on the sick list are Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Patrick Tuipulotu, Elliot Dixon, Lima Sopoaga and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

Thai police struggle to locate fugitive Red Bull heir

Thai police said Wednesday they were trying to locate Red Bull heir Worayuth Yoovidhya who reportedly fled to Singapore on his private jet days before a warrant was issued for him over a fatal hit-and-run in 2012.After years of dodging prosecutors, 32-…

Thai police said Wednesday they were trying to locate Red Bull heir Worayuth Yoovidhya who reportedly fled to Singapore on his private jet days before a warrant was issued for him over a fatal hit-and-run in 2012.

After years of dodging prosecutors, 32-year-old billionaire Worayuth has become a poster child for the impunity enjoyed by elites in starkly unequal Thailand.

Authorities finally issued an arrest warrant for the scion last week after he failed to make a final deadline to meet prosecutors -- nearly five years after he sped off after mowing down and killing a policeman with his Ferrari in downtown Bangkok.

But Worayuth, known by his nickname "Boss," slipped out of the country just days before the warrant was issued, according to police.

"First we have to locate him and then we have to go from there. If we can't locate him then we can't do the next step," deputy national police spokesman Colonel Krissana Pattanacharoen told AFP.

Immigration officers told local media Worayuth left for Singapore on his private jet on April 25.

Police are seeking to confirm whether he is still there. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.

Krissana said investigators were seeking to have his Thai passport revoked.

"We have contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see if it's possible to revoke his passport," he said.

Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks told AFP: "We have not received any formal communication but stand ready to cooperate with law enforcement agencies."

Several charges against Worayuth have expired during the lapse between the car crash and his arrest warrant, a period that saw the heir continue to lead a lavish, jet-setting lifestyle with frequent stops in the kingdom.

But he still faces up to 10 years in prison for reckless driving that resulted in death, an offence that will be valid until 2027.

Worayuth's billionaire clan has inherited the fortune built up by his grandfather Chaleo Yoovidhya, who co-founded the Red Bull brand with Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz in the 1980s.

Chaleo passed away in March 2012, leaving his family some $22 billion and control of more than 50 percent of the energy drink empire, according to Bloomberg.

Trump plays peacemaker, hosting Abbas at the White House

President Donald Trump will play peacemaker at the White House on Wednesday, meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas as part of an effort to end the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict.After hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu …

President Donald Trump will play peacemaker at the White House on Wednesday, meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas as part of an effort to end the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

After hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, the self-styled deal-maker-in-chief will host Abbas for the first time since coming to office.

"The President's ultimate goal is to establish peace in the region," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

That long-shot effort -- which has eluded US presidents since the 1970s -- got off to a rocky start early in Trump's adminstration.

Trump renounced US support for a Palestinian state and vowed to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, breaking two tenets of US policy held for decades.

Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday said Trump is still "giving serious consideration into moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

That move would likely spark Palestinian fury and is privately seen by many in the Israel and US security establishments as needlessly inflammatory.

At the same time, Trump has urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a longstanding concern of Palestinians and much of the world.

Pence said Trump is "personally committed to resolving the Israeli and Palestinian conflict" and "valuable progress" is being made.

"Momentum is building and goodwill is growing," he said at an Israeli independence day event at the White House.

Abbas makes the trip to Washington while politically unpopular back home, with polls suggesting most Palestinians want the 82-year-old to resign.

- 'The home run' -

Abbas's term was meant to expire in 2009, but he has remained in office with no elections held.

But he will be hoping Trump can pressure Israel into concessions he believes are necessary to salvage a two-state solution to one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Palestinian officials have seen their cause overshadowed by worry over global concerns such as the war in Syria and Islamic State group jihadists, and want Trump's White House to bring it back to the forefront.

The meeting Wednesday is a sign that "Trump's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more conventional than anyone expected," said Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for New American Security.

"The big question now is what Trump will try to accomplish during this first meeting. If he goes for the home run and tries to restart negotiations, he is likely to fail."

"Instead, Trump and his team should focus on incremental steps to improve the situation on the ground, preserve the possibility of the two-state solution at another time, and set conditions for negotiations in the future."

One of Trump's top advisers, Jason Greenblatt, held wide-ranging talks with both Israelis and Palestinians during a visit in March.

Abbas and Trump spoke by phone on March 11, and there are suggestions the US president could visit the Middle East this month.

A group of three influential Republican Senators -- Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham -- have called on Trump to ask Abbas to stop funding Palestinian prisoners and their families.

That could prose major domestic political headaches for Abbas, as he battles unpopularity and challenges from rival factions.

But according to former White House official Dennis Ross, Trump is in some ways helping Abbas by extending the White House invite.

"The president, in some ways, has already added to his relevancy by inviting him to come."

But mutual distrust between Palestinians and Israelis will be a formidable, if not impossible, barrier for Trump to overcome.

"The gap between the parties has probably never been greater, both psychologically and practically," said Ross.

"In my mind, as someone who's worked on this for the last 30 years, I don't think we've ever been at a lower point."

Apple’s dilemma: what to do with $256 bn cash pile

It is a sign of Apple’s success but also a thorny problem: its cash stockpile has hit a staggering $256.8 billion, sparking debate on what do with such massive reserves.

Apple’s quarterly report on Tuesday showed its cash holdings — the vast majority held overseas — jumped to a sum that tops the entire economic output of Chile.

The tech giant has resisted the idea of bringing the cash home, because of disincentives in the US tax code — it allows multinational firms to defer profits while they are held overseas but taxes income at up to 35 percent when repatriated.

Proposals by President Donald Trump and lawmakers could lower the tax rate for repatriated earnings, an incentive for Apple and others to put the money to work in the United States.

While any company would gladly be in Apple’s shoes with its cash hoard, “there’s something not quite healthy about it,” said Roger Kay, analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates.

“Normally, you would expect cash to fund investment opportunities, but obviously Apple doesn’t have any use for that much cash.”

Apple has become the most valuable and profitable company of the current era. But the unique challenges it faces because its earnings come mostly from the iPhone, which faces increasingly tough competition in a saturated smartphone market.

– Long-term strategy –

Apple faces periodic pressure to return more cash to shareholders with higher dividends and more share buybacks, and has already spent some $200 billion doing this.

Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy argued that returning all the cash to shareholders “doesn’t help further anyone’s strategic interests” and that Apple needs to find ways to diversify its business.

One way to do this would be “going vertical,” or acquiring a chipmaker such as AMD to supply all Apple devices, Moorhead said.

Netflix, he said, could complement Apple’s business by offering content for Apple’s ecosystem of devices.

Moorhead said that if Apple — which has a permit to test its self-driving car system — is serious about autonomous vehicles “it would need to buy a car company” such as Tesla to ensure “the Apple experience.”

Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis Research said Apple has a staggering amount of cash and “could make enormous entries and completely rewrite industries” with it.

“The challenge is culturally and organizationally, how do you integrate something that big,” O’Donnell said.

He said Apple has always sought to minutely manage details of its operations, “so making an enormous purchase goes against their culture.”

– The tax conundrum –

Apple’s situation has highlighted the growing stockpiles of cash held overseas by US multinationals, now estimated to be between $2.5 trillion and $3 trillion.

Lisa De Simone, a Stanford University professor who specializes in international taxation, said the current code creates “incentives for companies to shift as much of their profits as they can offshore.”

But De Simone said a temporary tax “holiday” as Washington tried in 2004 would only increase the incentives.

“Companies like Apple have only increased their income shifting in expectation they could get another holiday later on,” she said, arguing for a permanent tax change.

Georgetown University finance professor Lee Pinkowitz said companies with cash overseas are essentially holding the funds hostage to US policymakers.

“The government already revealed in 2004 they were willing to negotiate with the hostage takers,” he said. “What you would expect is that more hostages will be taken.”

The Trump administration is seeking to encourage firms to bring those earnings home for investment and job creation in the United States.

But Pinkowitz said a major stimulus from repatriated assets is unlikely.

With Apple, much of the funds are held nominally by its Irish subsidiary but are invested in US assets.

“Apple has almost $50 billion in US Treasury and agency securities, so technically that $50 billion is already here. It just hasn’t been taxed.”

– Made in USA? –

Could Apple use some of the cash to bring large-scale manufacturing back to the United States?

Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research said this is unlikely because of Apple’s manufacturing and supply process.

“We simply don’t have the work force to support this scale of manufacturing,” he said. “No tax break is going to offset that entirely.”

But Kay said he sees potential for Apple to bring factories home if the conditions are right.

“I could see a happy solution where contract manufacturers and Apple partner and train American workers to be as efficient as the Chinese,” he said.

“It would take quite a bit to make it come true but it could bring down the myth that Chinese workers are more efficient.”

It is a sign of Apple's success but also a thorny problem: its cash stockpile has hit a staggering $256.8 billion, sparking debate on what do with such massive reserves.

Apple's quarterly report on Tuesday showed its cash holdings -- the vast majority held overseas -- jumped to a sum that tops the entire economic output of Chile.

The tech giant has resisted the idea of bringing the cash home, because of disincentives in the US tax code -- it allows multinational firms to defer profits while they are held overseas but taxes income at up to 35 percent when repatriated.

Proposals by President Donald Trump and lawmakers could lower the tax rate for repatriated earnings, an incentive for Apple and others to put the money to work in the United States.

While any company would gladly be in Apple's shoes with its cash hoard, "there's something not quite healthy about it," said Roger Kay, analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"Normally, you would expect cash to fund investment opportunities, but obviously Apple doesn't have any use for that much cash."

Apple has become the most valuable and profitable company of the current era. But the unique challenges it faces because its earnings come mostly from the iPhone, which faces increasingly tough competition in a saturated smartphone market.

- Long-term strategy -

Apple faces periodic pressure to return more cash to shareholders with higher dividends and more share buybacks, and has already spent some $200 billion doing this.

Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy argued that returning all the cash to shareholders "doesn't help further anyone's strategic interests" and that Apple needs to find ways to diversify its business.

One way to do this would be "going vertical," or acquiring a chipmaker such as AMD to supply all Apple devices, Moorhead said.

Netflix, he said, could complement Apple's business by offering content for Apple's ecosystem of devices.

Moorhead said that if Apple -- which has a permit to test its self-driving car system -- is serious about autonomous vehicles "it would need to buy a car company" such as Tesla to ensure "the Apple experience."

Bob O'Donnell of Technalysis Research said Apple has a staggering amount of cash and "could make enormous entries and completely rewrite industries" with it.

"The challenge is culturally and organizationally, how do you integrate something that big," O'Donnell said.

He said Apple has always sought to minutely manage details of its operations, "so making an enormous purchase goes against their culture."

- The tax conundrum -

Apple's situation has highlighted the growing stockpiles of cash held overseas by US multinationals, now estimated to be between $2.5 trillion and $3 trillion.

Lisa De Simone, a Stanford University professor who specializes in international taxation, said the current code creates "incentives for companies to shift as much of their profits as they can offshore."

But De Simone said a temporary tax "holiday" as Washington tried in 2004 would only increase the incentives.

"Companies like Apple have only increased their income shifting in expectation they could get another holiday later on," she said, arguing for a permanent tax change.

Georgetown University finance professor Lee Pinkowitz said companies with cash overseas are essentially holding the funds hostage to US policymakers.

"The government already revealed in 2004 they were willing to negotiate with the hostage takers," he said. "What you would expect is that more hostages will be taken."

The Trump administration is seeking to encourage firms to bring those earnings home for investment and job creation in the United States.

But Pinkowitz said a major stimulus from repatriated assets is unlikely.

With Apple, much of the funds are held nominally by its Irish subsidiary but are invested in US assets.

"Apple has almost $50 billion in US Treasury and agency securities, so technically that $50 billion is already here. It just hasn't been taxed."

- Made in USA? -

Could Apple use some of the cash to bring large-scale manufacturing back to the United States?

Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research said this is unlikely because of Apple's manufacturing and supply process.

"We simply don't have the work force to support this scale of manufacturing," he said. "No tax break is going to offset that entirely."

But Kay said he sees potential for Apple to bring factories home if the conditions are right.

"I could see a happy solution where contract manufacturers and Apple partner and train American workers to be as efficient as the Chinese," he said.

"It would take quite a bit to make it come true but it could bring down the myth that Chinese workers are more efficient."

Fairfax Media staff strike for a week over job cuts

Staff at Australia’s Fairfax Media walked off the job for a week on Wednesday in protest at more hefty job cuts as the leading publisher struggles to cope with slumping revenues.The strike action by journalists, including those from the Sydney Morning …

Staff at Australia's Fairfax Media walked off the job for a week on Wednesday in protest at more hefty job cuts as the leading publisher struggles to cope with slumping revenues.

The strike action by journalists, including those from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age, followed an announcement that Fairfax will cut another 125 editorial jobs -- a quarter of its newsroom -- as part of a restructure to save money.

"On strike for a week," tweeted Herald chief political correspondent James Massola after a stop-work meeting, while his colleague Judith Ireland said: "Quality journalism needs actual journalists to do the journalism."

Fairfax, which also publishes the Australian Financial Review, has already shed hundreds of staff and restructured its operations in recent years to be more digital-focused as the internet and new publishers such as Google disrupt its business model.

The group's editorial director Sean Aylmer announced the fresh staff cuts on Wednesday morning, while also flagging plans to radically scale back its use of freelancers.

The news comes as New Zealand's competition watchdog on Wednesday rejected a merger of Fairfax Media NZ and NZME, pitched by the companies last year to boost their ability to compete with online media giants.

Sydney-based chief executive of Fairfax Greg Hywood subsequently warned that the New Zealand arm, which has also already slashed jobs, would have to look at more "cost efficiencies".

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which represents journalists, said it was appalled at the "dumb decision" to cut jobs in Australia.

"This will only undermine and damage its mastheads further, alienating its audience and leaving the editorial staff that remain to work harder and harder to fill the gaps," chief executive Paul Murphy said in a statement.

Like its global peers, Fairfax has slashed jobs and costs owing to falling circulation and advertising revenue.

The group, which has also radio and digital interests, is the main rival in Australia to News Limited, Rupert Murdoch's Australian empire, which is also suffering from falling revenues.

Fairfax reported a six percent rise in half-year net profit to Aus$84.7 million (US$63 million) in February, benefitting from cost cutting and a strong performance by its property publishing arm Domain.

Bomb blast targets foreign forces in Kabul: official

A bomb blast targeting a convoy of foreign forces near the US embassy in Kabul Wednesday killed at least three people and wounded 15, officials said, the latest militant attack to rock the Afghan capital.Interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish confirm…

A bomb blast targeting a convoy of foreign forces near the US embassy in Kabul Wednesday killed at least three people and wounded 15, officials said, the latest militant attack to rock the Afghan capital.

Interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish confirmed the blast targeted "a convoy of foreign forces passing the area".

"We are checking the details," he told AFP. A health ministry spokesman verified the toll, but could not say whether the victims were foreign soldiers or civilians.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which came days after the Taliban launched their so-called "spring offensive", in which they vowed to target international troops.

The annual offensive normally marks the start of the "fighting season", though this winter the Taliban continued to battle government forces.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, who visited Kabul last month as the US seeks to craft a new strategy in Afghanistan, warned of "another tough year" in the war-torn country for both foreign troops and local forces.

He would not be drawn, however, on recent calls by NATO commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson for a "few thousand" more troops to break the "stalemate" against the insurgents.

The Afghan conflict is the longest in US history -- US-led NATO troops have been at war there since 2001, after the ousting of the Taliban regime for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

The US has around 8,400 troops in the country with about another 5,000 from NATO allies.

‘Drunk’ American arrested over Japan flight brawl

Japanese police have arrested a drunken American man over a punch-up with another passenger on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight, which caused a delay, officers said Wednesday.The man, whose name has not been released, was pulled off the Boeing 777 th…

Japanese police have arrested a drunken American man over a punch-up with another passenger on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight, which caused a delay, officers said Wednesday.

The man, whose name has not been released, was pulled off the Boeing 777 that was due to fly from Tokyo's main gateway Narita airport to Los Angeles, after the brawl erupted before takeoff.

"I will kill you!" the male passenger, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, is seen yelling in video footage filmed by another passenger, who uploaded it on social media.

"The plane was about 50 minutes late, so everyone was a little irritated because of that, kinda frustrated," Corey Hour, the passenger who shot the video, told the BBC.

The man in the red Hawaiian shirt is seen throwing punches at another male passenger, as other people on the flight try to escape the area, until ANA staff separate the two men.

The red-shirted man then shakes off the female flight attendant's attempts to restrain him and continues to throw punches.

"The flight attendants actually got caught up in the mix and that's when the video ends as I put my phone down and I actually got in the middle of everyone and confronted him," Hour added.

"The suspect, a US citizen, was drunk and arrested after he injured an ANA official following the fight," a member of the airport police told AFP.

The man's arrest was formally over his injuring the airline official, not the onboard brawl, said the airport police spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

Local media reported that Japanese investigators also questioned the American about the fight on the plane.

As of lunchtime Wednesday, the man remained in detention in Japan, the police spokesman said.

The fight, as well as bad weather, forced ANA to delay the departure of the flight by one hour and 40 minutes, local media reported.

ANA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

France’s Macron and Le Pen to face off in crucial pre-election debate

France’s presidential rivals, centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, go head-to-head on Wednesday in a televised debate in which sparks are sure to fly as they fight their corner in a last encounter before Sunday’s runoff vote.

France’s presidential rivals, centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, go head-to-head on Wednesday in a televised debate in which sparks are sure to fly as they fight their corner in a last encounter before Sunday’s runoff vote.

Fiji urges Trump to honour Paris climate deal

Fiji pleaded with US President Donald Trump not to abandon the Paris climate deal Wednesday, as the tiny Pacific nation prepares to lead the latest UN talks on reducing global emissions.Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said the world needed America’s …

Fiji pleaded with US President Donald Trump not to abandon the Paris climate deal Wednesday, as the tiny Pacific nation prepares to lead the latest UN talks on reducing global emissions.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said the world needed America's leadership "as we confront the greatest challenge of our age".

Climate sceptic Trump should honour his country's commitments under the Paris deal, said Bainimarama, who will serve as president of the UN's COP 23 talks in Bonn later this year.

"We can't have one of our best performers abandon the field of play... stay the course," the Pacific leader said in a statement issued by his office Wednesday.

"Listen to those around you who are encouraging you to do so. Don't let the whole team down by leaving when we have a clear game plan and have put so many scores on the board."

Bainimarama said the time for questioning the veracity of climate change had passed and the best scientific advice on the issue was clear.

"Man-made climate change is not a hoax, it is frighteningly real," he said.

Fiji is already dealing with the impact of climate change through wild storms such as last year's Cyclone Winston, he said, which killed 44 people and wiped out one-third of the country's economic production.

Climate change meant such extreme tempests could flare up "out of nowhere, at any time", he added.

"We are facing a situation in which a single event scoring a direct hit on Fiji could wipe out years of development and set us back for decades," he said.

- Paris agreement -

The Paris deal, known as COP 21, was struck in 2015 and signed by more than 190 countries.

Bainimarama said the top priority at COP 23 was "to build a grand coalition of governments, civil society and the private sector to defend and uphold the Paris Agreement".

While the November 6-17 talks will be held in Bonn, Germany has invited Fiji to act as president in order to give a voice to those on the frontline of climate change.

Bainimarama said Fiji could never have hosted such a large meeting, which is expected to attract 20,000 people.

"(It) is a selfless act of generosity on the part of the German government," he said.

Under the Paris agreement, signatories undertake to limit global warming to "well below" 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (two degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels, and to strive for 1.5 C.

The United States agreed at the meeting to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.

However Trump, who has described climate change as a "hoax", is under pressure from some in his administration to abandon the deal or significantly renegotiate it.

Australia PM to reset ties with Trump after icy start

Malcolm Turnbull will seek to steady Australia’s longstanding alliance with the United States when he meets Donald Trump this week, after relations soured at a time of growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific. His visit to New York on Thursday comes as Was…

Malcolm Turnbull will seek to steady Australia's longstanding alliance with the United States when he meets Donald Trump this week, after relations soured at a time of growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

His visit to New York on Thursday comes as Washington works to shore up regional support against North Korea, ratcheting up pressure on China to do more to counter Kim Jong-Un's nuclear ambitions.

But the advent of Trump has invigorated a debate over Australia's place in the world and whether its future lies with an unpredictable United States, or a closer relationship with China, its top trading partner.

Turnbull, like Trump a businessman-turned-politician, has said he is "delighted" to meet with the US leader and affirm a relationship that has seen its militaries fight side by side for a century.

"We'll talk about a wide range of security and economic issues, but top of the list obviously at the moment is North Korea," the Australian prime minister said on Wednesday.

It will be their first encounter since a tetchy phone call rattled ties soon after Trump took office, when he took issue with a deal that the US would settle refugees from Australia's Pacific island camps.

The president took to Twitter afterwards to label the agreement struck with Barack Obama's administration as "dumb".

On a trip to Australia last month aimed at mending fences, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed the US would take the refugees but added it "doesn't mean we admire the agreement".

The icy start was cooled further by Washington's withdrawal from a trans-Pacific trade agreement that would have given Australian businesses greater access to the US and key regional markets.

"The single biggest thing is for the two leaders to establish some kind of rapport and get comfortable with one another," said Simon Jackman, chief executive at the United States Studies Centre in Sydney.

The meeting will take place at the USS Intrepid museum in New York, where they will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the World War II Battle of the Coral Sea when US and Australian forces fought against the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

"All that imagery... will help paint a picture of a relationship that is getting increasingly normalised after a surprising and unexpected start," Jackman told AFP.

"The Australian public in particular might want a bit of reassurance that despite the fact Trump is a very unconventional president -- a bit of a wild card -- that nonetheless the United States remains a willing partner on a number of important dimensions."

-- Toeing the line --

The history of military cooperation stretches back to World War I, and North Korea recently warned Canberra to think twice before "blindly and zealously toeing the US line" or face the threat of a nuclear strike.

Australia has backed Washington in calling on Beijing to bring the rogue state to heel, although several former senior Australian diplomats have also urged Canberra to rethink ties with the US in light of China's rise.

Turnbull is expected to reaffirm Australia's allegiance to the US on Thursday.

"The Trump adminstration is now coming out, indicating quite strongly that it isn't going to be the isolationist presidency that we had feared," said the Australian National University's head of international security and intelligence studies John Blaxland.

"From the Australian point of view we can be more forthright (when dealing with China) because you have greater confidence that the United States is not walking away."

Nevertheless, Turnbull is expected to exercise caution on just how far he can back an unpredictable US president.

James Laurenceson from the Australia-China relations institute at Sydney's University of Technology, said Turnbull would be receptive to Trump, "but at the same time he will always have in the back of his mind that Australia's economic interests are well and truly tied up in China".

"It doesn't mean that we won't criticise China or shy away from that, but it will be factored in to it, in perhaps a way that it's not factored into US decision making," he added.

It’s a dog’s life: purity the key for treasured S.Korean breed

Pointy-eared and short-haired, the Jindo dog is a symbol of South Korea, where breeders and authorities keep its bloodline even purer than one of the world’s least diverse societies.The medium-sized hunting dog comes from the island of the same name, a…

Pointy-eared and short-haired, the Jindo dog is a symbol of South Korea, where breeders and authorities keep its bloodline even purer than one of the world's least diverse societies.

The medium-sized hunting dog comes from the island of the same name, a remote rural community off the peninsula's south coast.

Visitors are greeted by signboards and statues of the eponymous canine, known for its fierce loyalty, and live ones stand guard outside homes or peek out from doghouses.

But its bucolic appearance belies the rigid canine apartheid it imposes on the animals.

Any dog that cannot prove its pedigree, or that fails to come up to standard, is immediately exiled, and any coming onto the island -- even a returning Jindo -- must have official permission, and be neutered.

"We protect the breed by not letting registered dogs off the island and not allowing others in without a government permit," said Cha Jae-Nam, who heads the Jindo Dog Research and Test Centre.

The dogs have been bred for centuries, and Seoul classified them as a National Treasure in 1962. Now Cha's state-run centre spends two billion won (US$1.75 million) a year on what he calls a "systematic and scientific" preservation of purebred Jindos.

"It's not common for people to conduct a paternity test on their newborns, but we do for all puppies at birth," he told AFP.

"They are given a birth certificate if they match the DNA of their parents, but if they don't, they must leave the island."

The emphasis echoes widespread notions about racial purity in South Korea, an unusually homogenous society where the population is around 96 percent ethnically Korean, and mixed-race relationships are frowned upon in some quarters.

But even unquestionable genetics do not ensure survival for the dogs.

When a puppy reaches six months of age, it must undergo a strict assessment of the shape of its ears, legs, tail and head to be microchipped and join the 6,000-odd registered National Treasure status Jindos on the island.

Any that fail are removed.

The rigorous controls enable Cha to declare confidently: "All Jindo dogs in Jindo county are purebred."

- Animal dignity -

Jindos have been adored by South Korean leaders, with Kim Dae-Jung giving a breeding pair to the North during his "Sunshine Policy" of the early 2000s, and others enjoying pampered lives at the Blue House under the country's two most recent presidents Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-Hye.

But Park came under fire when she was ejected from office by a court order in March and notoriously left her nine dogs behind -- bringing more attention to the rules surrounding them.

Critics such as Chae Il-Taek,director of the Korean Animal Welfare Association, say preservation of the breed should not come at the cost of "discrimination that undermines the dignity of the animals".

The obsession over the "pure" Jindo bloodline meant some breeders abandon puppies that fail to meet the criteria -- which often end up on meal tables, he said.

South Koreans are believed to consume somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million dogs every year, according to animal rights groups, although the number is in decline with dwindling demand among the younger generation.

"A large number of the dogs kicked out from Jindo are sold off to dog meat farmers," Chae said.

- 'Deformities in humans' -

In a fluorescent-lit lab at the test centre, researcher Kim Jong-Seok proudly opens a double-door fridge containing rows of blood vials.

Officials say the facility has DNA samples of all Jindo dogs born on the island and Kim, who has studied the breed for two decades, believes the meticulous controls are necessary to keep the Jindos clean and healthy.

"The inbreeding of royal families has led to many deformities in humans," Kim said. "As such, we are preventing various diseases and deformities."

The measures are welcomed by Jindo breeders, who can sell purebred puppies for around US$1,000 each.

"Procedures like the screening are inconvenient and tedious at times but we don't complain because it leads to production income," said Lim Tae-Young, who heads an association of some 70 Jindo breeders on the island.

"It's not to say the dogs kicked off the island are bad and the ones that remain are good," he said, a handful of playful puppies wagging their tails at his feet.

"But here, we only have purebred Jindos."

China’s military pact with N.Korea looks shaky

When North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung visited Beijing to sign a mutual defence pact with China in 1961, he was comforted by the military protection promised by his fellow communist neighbours.But half a century and a few North Korean nuclear tests lat…

When North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung visited Beijing to sign a mutual defence pact with China in 1961, he was comforted by the military protection promised by his fellow communist neighbours.

But half a century and a few North Korean nuclear tests later, the agreement is beginning to look like a musty Cold War relic that China would rather forget.

Despite their alliance in the 1950 - 1953 Korean War, analysts question whether Beijing would now rush to Pyongyang's defence in a military confrontation with the United States and South Korea.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong once described the neighbours as being as "close as lips and teeth."

For his part, Kim told Mao that signing the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance "raised our confidence, and we feel safeguarded", according to a memoir of Mao's diplomatic activities published in 2003.

But the two leaders are long dead and China, which is now the world's second largest economy and a pillar of the global order, appears less enthusiastic about protecting its treaty partner in a conflict that estimates suggest could cost hundreds of thousands of lives and lay waste to Seoul.

The current leaders of both nations, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, have never even met.

The treaty constitutes "a very important part" of Sino-North Korean ties, professor Maochun Miles Yu at the United States Naval Academy told AFP.

But, he added, it is by no means clear what China is actually prepared to do for the North if push comes to shove: "It's a mystery."

- Atomic threat -

North Korea's regular missile launches and the prospect of a possible sixth nuclear test are putting Beijing in a tight spot as it already faces US pressure to slash economic ties to punish Pyongyang.

"It's hard to say how China would assist North Korea militarily in case of war, since North Korea is developing nuclear weapons, an act that might have already breached the treaty between the two nations," retired Chinese naval colonel Li Jie told the daily South China Morning Post last month.

China's nationalistic Global Times newspaper invoked two scenarios, including one in which Beijing would refrain from defending Pyongyang.

"If North Korea continues to carry out severe missile tests, and the United States launches a surgical attack on its facilities, Beijing should impose a diplomatic boycott, but there is no necessity of military intervention," said an op-ed published in the Global Times last month.

But the daily said China "should immediately carry out necessary military intervention" if the US and South Korea launch a ground invasion in the North to overthrow the regime.

While Beijing's commitment to the pact is in question, it remains sensitive to US military movements in the region.

On Tuesday, China demanded that Washington "immediately" suspend the deployment of a missile shield in South Korea hours after officials announced that it was operational.

"We will firmly take necessary measures to uphold our interests," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

- 'Complicated situation' -

The military pact automatically renews every 20 years, most recently in 2001, meaning it is now valid through 2021.

Last year, Xi and Kim exchanged messages to mark the treaty's 55th anniversary.

The Chinese president wrote that both sides have cooperated in the "spirit" of the treaty and that their "friendship serves as a precious wealth."

The treaty, Kim responded, "has become a firm legal foundation for constantly consolidating the friendly and cooperative relations that were forged in the bloody struggle for independence against imperialism and for socialism."

But in 2013, a Chinese defence ministry spokesman said it would be "unprofessional" to answer a hypothetical question about whether Beijing would militarily back Pyongyang in an attack.

Asked on Tuesday whether China was still committed to the pact's terms, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: "The principle of (the treaty) is to promote China?DPRK friendly cooperation in various fields and uphold regional security."

He added: "The current situation on the peninsula is highly complicated, delicate and tense. We urge all sides to stay calm and abstain from any action that may aggravate tensions."

Young-June Chung, an associate professor at Shanghai's Tongji University, said the pact's "diplomatic status is a little bit obscure" as neither side has acknowledged that it is "invalid."

But he added that Beijing "would not sacrifice its relations with the US and South Korea for North Korea."

Niger gold seekers dig deep for bullion dreams

Arriving on motorcycles and donkeys, in cars, or even on foot, hundreds of people have flocked to a site in southern Niger hoping to strike gold.The news spread like wildfire: gold had apparently been discovered deep in Kafa-Koira, just south of the co…

Arriving on motorcycles and donkeys, in cars, or even on foot, hundreds of people have flocked to a site in southern Niger hoping to strike gold.

The news spread like wildfire: gold had apparently been discovered deep in Kafa-Koira, just south of the country's capital Niamey.

"I came to try my luck," Kadri Issia tells AFP, with a pickaxe slung over his shoulder. He comes from Dan-Zama, some 10 kilometres (six miles) north of the site.

Not far from an airport, a dried-up stream bed surrounded by thorny shrubs is teeming with fortune seekers. They use a run-down track winding through heavily-populated neighbourhoods to reach the spot.

In only two days, the normally empty site became a buzzing scene with street vendors selling food, fresh water, bags, ropes and digging tools to throngs of people.

Minibuses and "Kabou-Kabou" motorcycle taxis shuttle people in from the centre of town.

Policemen were even dispatched to secure the site.

"I woke up Monday morning to discover crowds of people around my house," local resident Issaka Abdou told AFP.

- Hot sun, landslide threat -

More than 1,000 mostly young men and women use pickaxes, crowbars, buckets and machetes to chip away at the banks of the dry stream bed around a hundred metres (yards) long. They work under a scorching sun and the threat of landslides in search of gold deposits.

Some dig with bare hands, others are equipped with metal detectors.

Zakari Issa was one of the first to arrive.

"I have been digging for two days but still haven't seen any gold," says the 42-year-old, with a strained look as he hollers up from a hole around two metres deep.

Nearby, Hassana, a young mother, sifts tiny ochre stones using a plate.

"These sacks might contain gold. We will take them home to sift carefully," says the father of Ali, a teenager who watches over reserves of water and little bags of sand from a freshly-dug hole.

At the other end of the site, two large men hit rocks with a crowbar.

"If we find gold, I will buy myself a motorcycle," says a third man, handing out tea and cigarettes.

- Gold, or pyrite? -

"I found some!" a 50-year-old suddenly shouts out and quickly slips a tiny piece of yellow-coloured stone into his pocket.

It might be gold, or it might be iron pyrite, commonly known as fool's gold, a geologist tells AFP. Novices often get the minerals mixed up because of their similarity.

Believing in their luck, many people continue to haul sacks of gravel into town in small trucks.

A few days later, hundreds of gold seekers turned their efforts to nearby hills where a gold nugget was said to have been found, a motorcycle driver said.

Artisanal gold mining sites are common in Niger, where gold is extracted on an industrial scale in western parts of the country near Burkina Faso.

Thousands of people from Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal have been scouring mining sites in the region since the 1990s.

In February, the government shut down another site in the desert in the northeastern Djado region which was discovered in 2014 and drew more than 20,000 people from Niger, Chad, Libya and Sudan, according to local officials.

Authorities said they closed the Djado site for security reasons, citing terrorism and armed robbery on the frontier between Chad and Libya.

The government promised to reopen it but also granted an exploration licence for the site to the government-owned mining company.

Thomas scores 53 to power Celtics over Wizards

Isaiah Thomas scored a career playoff high 53 points, nine of them in a game-closing 15-2 over-time run that powered the Boston Celtics over Washington 129-119 in a second-round NBA playoff game.Thomas scored a combined 29 points in the fourth quarter …

Isaiah Thomas scored a career playoff high 53 points, nine of them in a game-closing 15-2 over-time run that powered the Boston Celtics over Washington 129-119 in a second-round NBA playoff game.

Thomas scored a combined 29 points in the fourth quarter and over-time to rally the host Celtics past the stubborn Wizards and give Boston a 2-0 lead as the best-of-seven Eastern Conference series shifts to Washington for game three on Thursday.

The last Western Conference second-round series began later with Utah at NBA season wins leader Golden State.

Thomas, who attended his sister's funeral Saturday and had a tooth knocked out in a game-one victory Sunday, connected on 18-of-33 shots from the floor and 12-of-13 from the free throw line.

Celtics center Al Horford added 15 points and 12 rebounds while Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley each added 14 points for Boston.

John Wall led seven double-figure scorers for the Wizards with 40 points and 13 assists, but 19 of those points and six assists came in the first quarter.

A 14-0 Wizards run put Washington ahead 81-67 early in the third quarter, but the Celtics battled back from there.

Boston answered with a 14-4 run early in the fourth quarter, Thomas scoring nine points in the spurt and Bradley sinking a 3-pointer with 7:09 to play to give Boston its largest lead to that point at 102-99.

The Celtics missed five shots in a row and Washington responded with a 9-0 run for a 110-104 lead, but Thomas and Rozier answered with 3-pointers to pull Boston level again with 98 seconds remaining.

Otto Porter's 3-pointer put Washington ahead 114-112 with 32 seconds to play in regulation but Thomas was fouled by Marcin Gortat and sank two free throws with 14.4 seconds remaining to pull Boston level again. Wall and Beal missed in the dying seconds to send the game into over-time.

Kelly Oubre's 3-pointer put Washington ahead 117-114 but Thomas proved all-but unstoppable down the stretch for Boston.

The Wizards, who led 42-29 after the first period, became the first team since the NBA introduced a shot clock in 1954 to lose the first two games of a playoff series after leading each by 10 or more points at the end of the first quarter.

Wall made 7-of-10 shots and set-up 15 points in assists in the first quarter as the Wizards too advantage of nine Boston turnovers while making none in building the 13-point first-round edge, their largest lead of the first half.

But the Celtics forced seven Wizards turnovers in the second period and made only one as Thomas scored 18 of Boston's first 36 points and the hosts pulled within 67-64 at half-time.

Powerful blast ‘targeting NATO vehicles’ hits area close to US embassy in Kabul – reports

A reported suicide bomb blast apparently targeting a convoy of NATO vehicles has hit the Afghan capital of Kabul not far from the US Embassy. The first images from the scene appear to show a car on fire and damaged armored Humvees. Read F…

Preview A reported suicide bomb blast apparently targeting a convoy of NATO vehicles has hit the Afghan capital of Kabul not far from the US Embassy. The first images from the scene appear to show a car on fire and damaged armored Humvees.
Read Full Article at RT.com

US to send senior MidEast diplomat to Syria talks in Astana after Putin-Trump call

Washington is dispatching a top State Department official as the US representative at the new round of intra-Syrian talks in Astana that kick off Wednesday. The move follows a call between US and Russian leaders, in which they discussed d…

Preview Washington is dispatching a top State Department official as the US representative at the new round of intra-Syrian talks in Astana that kick off Wednesday. The move follows a call between US and Russian leaders, in which they discussed de-escalation in Syria.
Read Full Article at RT.com

East Germany comes alive in Berlin ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ event

Tucked behind 10-storey tower blocks in the heart of Berlin stands an imposing metal gate marked “Border zone, restricted area”, guarded by a stern-looking Stasi officer.”Permits, please,” visitors are told, as the gate cracks open to reveal a border p…

Tucked behind 10-storey tower blocks in the heart of Berlin stands an imposing metal gate marked "Border zone, restricted area", guarded by a stern-looking Stasi officer.

"Permits, please," visitors are told, as the gate cracks open to reveal a border post with another officer asking for identity papers -- all part of a live event featuring "Good Bye Lenin!", the popular 2003 film set in communist East Germany.

Organisers of the show have brought the defunct state to life in an old post office, and for seven nights at a hefty 30 euros ($33) per ticket, visitors can taste life in the grim authoritarian state before ending the evening with a screening of the film.

Along the corridors decorated with commemorative Communist Party congress metal plates and portraits of former East German leader Erich Honecker, Stasi guards whisper conspiratorially.

In a windowless room, a secretary is furiously typing documents, while a fake grocery store sells Eastern products like Bautz'ner mustard or toys featuring the cartoon character Sandman.

And at a restaurant run by East German train caterer Mitropa, the menu has features just three food options -- gherkins and two hearty dishes ubiquitous in the former eastern bloc -- solyanka, a thick Russian soup, and goulash.

They can be washed down with Club Cola -- the former German Democratic Republic's answer to Coke -- or a luminescent green Gruene Wiese cocktail or Pfeffi schnapps, a pungent peppermint concoction.

There are also rules to be observed in the 2,000 square metres (21,000 square feet) recreating the former police state -- film-goers have to turn up in clothes in keeping with East German fashion and no photography is allowed.

"It's always great to hear people saying that when they watch a film in the cinema, they feel like they have been transported to another world," event organiser Christopher Zwickler told AFP.

"So we thought, how can we take this one step further, so that you have a live cinema experience where the viewer also becomes a leading actor that evening."

- 'Ostalgie' -

The beloved comedy-drama "Good Bye Lenin!" tells the story of a young man who desperately recreates life in the GDR for his mother, a staunch believer in the Communist cause, who has just woken up from a coma during which she completely missed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Peter Meyer of East German rock band Die Puhdys, who was invited to Monday's opening screening, noted the "Club Colas, the way in which people were welcomed" were all reminiscent of life in the east.

The director of the film, Wolfgang Becker, who was also among invited guests, said the experience was "like being in an Ost-Disneyland."

Florian Balke, who was born in the east and turned up dressed in an 80s style tracksuit top, acknowledged the apparent enthusiasm among those who have come to relive life in the east.

But he rejected ideas that "Ostalgie" -- a word that combines "nostalgia" and the German word for "East" -- was anything serious.

"Personally I'm glad that the Wall is no longer there and I wouldn't want to live like it was before," said the 30-year-old who makes his living through advertisements earned through his YouTube channel.

"I'm glad to see all this, but I'm happier that I can enjoy this in a free country."

For Zwickler, the event is simply a means to enhance the viewer experience -- and another way of attracting movie-goers as home theatres increasingly crowd out cinemas.

"Maybe it's a vision for cinemas in the future, there are technical advances, 3D is getting better, sound and pictures are getting better and bigger," he said.

"But there is another trend where you say we want to immerse people deeper in a film," said Zwickler, whose company plans to organise similar events twice a year.

Made-in-China passenger jet set to take wing

China is expected within days to carry out the maiden test flight of a home-grown passenger jet built to meet soaring Chinese travel demand and challenge the dominance of Boeing and Airbus.The C919, built by state-owned aerospace manufacturer Commercia…

China is expected within days to carry out the maiden test flight of a home-grown passenger jet built to meet soaring Chinese travel demand and challenge the dominance of Boeing and Airbus.

The C919, built by state-owned aerospace manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC), was set to take wing over Shanghai and could be cleared for takeoff as early as Friday, according to state media.

The narrow-body jet represents nearly a decade of effort in a state-mandated drive to reduce dependence on European consortium Airbus and US aerospace giant Boeing.

"The first flight itself is not a huge deal. (But) of course, it's going to be a hugely symbolic moment in the evolution of China's aviation industry," said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at industry publication Flightglobal.

The C919 is the country's first big passenger plane and the latest sign of growing Chinese ambition and technical skill, coming one week after China launched its first domestically made aircraft carrier and successfully docked a cargo spacecraft with an orbiting space lab.

The C919 can seat 168 passengers and has a range of up to 5,555 kilometres (3,444 miles).

- Long way to go -

China is a huge battleground for Boeing and Airbus, with its travellers taking to the skies in ever-growing numbers.

The Chinese travel market is expected to surpass the United States by 2024, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Airbus has estimated Chinese airlines will need nearly 6,000 new planes over the next two decades, while Boeing foresees 6,800 aircraft. Both put the combined price tags for those planes at around $1 trillion.

But aviation analysts said Shanghai-based COMAC has a long journey ahead before it can challenge the lock held on the market by Boeing and Airbus.

"This is an important milestone for China with this new aircraft. But for it to move to the next stage, which is to sell this product, is not going to be so easy," said Shukor Yusof, an analyst with Malaysia-based aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.

But COMAC may be able to rely on purchases by fast-growing Chinese airlines as it looks to get sales off the ground.

COMAC had already received 570 orders by the end of last year, almost all from domestic airlines.

Waldron agreed it will take time, but said that over the next century China will become a world aviation player.

"You are going to have three big companies. You will have Boeing, you will have Airbus, and you will have COMAC," he said.

China has dreamed of building its own civil aircraft since the 1970s, when it began work on the narrow-body Y-10, which was eventually deemed unviable and never entered service.

COMAC's first regional jet, the 90-seat ARJ 21, entered service in 2016, several years late.

- Long-haul ambition -

The ARJ 21 is currently restricted to flying Chinese domestic routes as it still lacks the crucial US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification that would allow it to fly US skies.

The C919's first test flight had been due to take place in 2016 but was delayed.

Besides the C919, China is also working with Russia to develop a long-haul wide-bodied jet called the C929.

Although the C919 is made in China, foreign firms are playing key roles by supplying systems as well as the engines, which are made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric (GE) of the US and France's Safran.

During a visit to COMAC in 2014, President Xi Jinping said not having a homegrown plane left China at the mercy of foreign industrial groups, state media reported at the time.

China last August launched a new multi-billion dollar jet-engine conglomerate with nearly 100,000 employees, with the hope of powering its own planes with self-made engines.

After the C919's first flight, it will still need to pass a series of tests to obtain Chinese airworthiness certification before it can sell the aircraft.

China also has for years been in talks with the FAA to obtain certification for both the ARJ 21 and the C919, without result.

Morocco fights to save its iconic monkey

“If nothing is done, this species will disappear within 10 years,” warns a poster on Ahmed Harrad’s ageing 4×4 showing Morocco’s famed Barbary macaque monkey.

Harrad spends his time crisscrossing northern Morocco to try to convince locals to protect the endangered monkey.

The only species of macaque outside Asia, which lives on leaves and fruits and can weigh up to 20 kilogrammes (45 pounds), was once found throughout North Africa and parts of Europe.

But having disappeared from Libya and Tunisia, it is now restricted to mountainous regions of Algeria and Morocco’s northern Rif region. Another semi-wild population of about 200 individuals in Gibraltar are the only free-ranging monkeys in Europe.

Today, the only native primate north of the Sahara, apart from humans, is in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Conservationists blame illegal poaching, tourists who feed the monkeys and overexploitation of the cedar and oak forests that form the species’ natural habitat.

In response, Morocco has launched a campaign to save the species.

“We are working on two areas — monitoring and making a census of the species in the Rif and raising awareness among locals so that they actively help rescue it,” Harrad said.

As head of a local association, Barbary Macaque Awareness & Conservation (BMAC), Harrad has become a tireless advocate for the animal.

He says it is often sold to buyers in Europe for between $110 and $330 (100 and 300 euros) despite laws forbidding the trade.

“A lot of foreigners buy monkeys as pets,” he said.

Seen as quiet and cute when it is young, the adult monkey can become a burden, Harrad said.

“It breaks things, bites, fights with children and climbs the curtains,” prompting many owners to abandon their pets, he said.

– Macaque remains ‘in ashes of Pompeii’ –

But that hasn’t stopped the tailless monkeys, with their thick grey-and-ginger fur, being highly sought-after by passing travellers throughout the ages.

According to National Geographic, skeletal remains of macaques have been discovered “in the ashes of Pompeii, deep within an ancient Egyptian catacomb, and buried beneath an Irish hilltop where the Bronze Age kings of Ulster once held court”.

Zouhair Ahmaouch, an official at Morocco’s High Commission for Water, Forests and Combating Desertification, said the new conservation plan focused on tackling poaching.

But Morocco “can’t repatriate monkeys released in Europe, because we don’t know whether they came from Gibraltar, Algeria or Morocco”, he said.

The North African kingdom has never conducted a nationwide census of the macaque, but scientists believe its numbers fall every year.

Based on various studies, they estimate that Morocco is home to between 3,000 and 10,000 macaques today, compared with 17,000 three decades ago.

They believe Algeria had around 5,500 Barbary macaques in the late 1980s. The number has since almost halved, according to the IUCN.

Algiers has also responded with plans to protect the species.

While the macaques are hard to spot in the wilds of Morocco’s Rif, some individuals in the forests of the Middle Atlas are tame, attracting tourists who come to feed them.

But Ifrane National Park head Lahcen Oukennou said feeding can cause “health problems such as obesity, which affects their health and especially their reproductive capacity”.

Anouar Jaoui, director of Talassemtane National Park in northern Morocco, home to several dozen macaques, said the conservation strategy includes measures to “rehabilitate and rebuild the species’ habitat”.

That requires “reducing the pressure from overexploitation of natural resources”, he added.

In the forests of the Middle Atlas, authorities are organising awareness-raising sessions for tourists to discourage them from feeding or approaching the monkeys.

Pupils at local schools are also being educated about the species.

Last October, the Barbary macaque was listed as a species threatened with extinction on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

That makes buying and selling the monkeys illegal except under exceptional circumstances.

Ahmaouch welcomed the move.

“It will allow Morocco and other countries to unify their efforts to fight against the illegal trade in Barbary macaques,” he said. Morocco has a “global responsibility to conserve this heritage”.

"If nothing is done, this species will disappear within 10 years," warns a poster on Ahmed Harrad's ageing 4x4 showing Morocco's famed Barbary macaque monkey.

Harrad spends his time crisscrossing northern Morocco to try to convince locals to protect the endangered monkey.

The only species of macaque outside Asia, which lives on leaves and fruits and can weigh up to 20 kilogrammes (45 pounds), was once found throughout North Africa and parts of Europe.

But having disappeared from Libya and Tunisia, it is now restricted to mountainous regions of Algeria and Morocco's northern Rif region. Another semi-wild population of about 200 individuals in Gibraltar are the only free-ranging monkeys in Europe.

Today, the only native primate north of the Sahara, apart from humans, is in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Conservationists blame illegal poaching, tourists who feed the monkeys and overexploitation of the cedar and oak forests that form the species' natural habitat.

In response, Morocco has launched a campaign to save the species.

"We are working on two areas -- monitoring and making a census of the species in the Rif and raising awareness among locals so that they actively help rescue it," Harrad said.

As head of a local association, Barbary Macaque Awareness & Conservation (BMAC), Harrad has become a tireless advocate for the animal.

He says it is often sold to buyers in Europe for between $110 and $330 (100 and 300 euros) despite laws forbidding the trade.

"A lot of foreigners buy monkeys as pets," he said.

Seen as quiet and cute when it is young, the adult monkey can become a burden, Harrad said.

"It breaks things, bites, fights with children and climbs the curtains," prompting many owners to abandon their pets, he said.

- Macaque remains 'in ashes of Pompeii' -

But that hasn't stopped the tailless monkeys, with their thick grey-and-ginger fur, being highly sought-after by passing travellers throughout the ages.

According to National Geographic, skeletal remains of macaques have been discovered "in the ashes of Pompeii, deep within an ancient Egyptian catacomb, and buried beneath an Irish hilltop where the Bronze Age kings of Ulster once held court".

Zouhair Ahmaouch, an official at Morocco's High Commission for Water, Forests and Combating Desertification, said the new conservation plan focused on tackling poaching.

But Morocco "can't repatriate monkeys released in Europe, because we don't know whether they came from Gibraltar, Algeria or Morocco", he said.

The North African kingdom has never conducted a nationwide census of the macaque, but scientists believe its numbers fall every year.

Based on various studies, they estimate that Morocco is home to between 3,000 and 10,000 macaques today, compared with 17,000 three decades ago.

They believe Algeria had around 5,500 Barbary macaques in the late 1980s. The number has since almost halved, according to the IUCN.

Algiers has also responded with plans to protect the species.

While the macaques are hard to spot in the wilds of Morocco's Rif, some individuals in the forests of the Middle Atlas are tame, attracting tourists who come to feed them.

But Ifrane National Park head Lahcen Oukennou said feeding can cause "health problems such as obesity, which affects their health and especially their reproductive capacity".

Anouar Jaoui, director of Talassemtane National Park in northern Morocco, home to several dozen macaques, said the conservation strategy includes measures to "rehabilitate and rebuild the species' habitat".

That requires "reducing the pressure from overexploitation of natural resources", he added.

In the forests of the Middle Atlas, authorities are organising awareness-raising sessions for tourists to discourage them from feeding or approaching the monkeys.

Pupils at local schools are also being educated about the species.

Last October, the Barbary macaque was listed as a species threatened with extinction on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

That makes buying and selling the monkeys illegal except under exceptional circumstances.

Ahmaouch welcomed the move.

"It will allow Morocco and other countries to unify their efforts to fight against the illegal trade in Barbary macaques," he said. Morocco has a "global responsibility to conserve this heritage".

Praise Allah! Islam goes evangelical in Nigeria’s south

Sunday morning is usually the preserve of Christian pastors in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos but a new form of worship is emerging to challenge the monopoly. “Praise Allah!” shouts the imam of the Nasrul-lahi-li Fathi Society of Nigeria (NASFAT) befor…

Sunday morning is usually the preserve of Christian pastors in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos but a new form of worship is emerging to challenge the monopoly.

"Praise Allah!" shouts the imam of the Nasrul-lahi-li Fathi Society of Nigeria (NASFAT) before thousands of his faithful, gathered under tents on the outskirts of the city.

Pacing up and down through the crowd, he punctuates his message with vigorous "Allahs" in the trademark bombastic style of Nigeria's evangelical preachers.

Entranced, men and women sitting on multi-coloured prayer mats, raise their hands to the heavens.

NASFAT is one of a growing number of groups practising "charismatic Islam" in response to the massive success of pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria, said Ebenezer Obadare, a sociology professor at the University of Kansas.

It has introduced "new modalities of prayer, modes of proselytising, and repertoires of devotion that closely approximate forms normally exclusively associated with Pentecostal Christianity," he told AFP.

NASFAT's mission statement is "to develop an enlightened Muslim society nurtured by a true understanding of Islam for the spiritual upliftment and welfare of mankind".

Along with traditional Friday prayers, it holds a special session every Sunday morning.

"The aim is to maximise favourably the leisure time that exists among Muslims who laze away on Sunday mornings," NASFAT explains on its website.

Unofficially, it also stops them from being invited to Sunday services at neighbouring churches -- even if the movement doesn't admit it.

- Wave of conversions -

"Friends invited me for the Sunday prayers," said Sheriff Yussuf, a well-dressed man in long white robes who joined the movement in 1998.

"At the beginning I was very sceptical but then I thought, 'let me try, I'm not doing anything on Sundays'.

"It creates an attraction to Islam, to start pulling Muslims out of the churches."

NASFAT and other charismatic Islam groups born in its wake have been embraced by the Yoruba community, which is traditionally based in the southwest and one of the few ethnic groups in Nigeria not to be attached to a particular religion.

In fact throughout southwestern Nigeria, a single family can celebrate Muslim festivals such as Eid as well as Christian ones such as Christmas.

It's not uncommon to hear a Muslim release an enthusiastic "amen" or listen to the latest hit gospel song in a taxi decorated with quotes from the Koran.

But the siren song of charismatic Christian churches in Lagos -- financial prosperity, miraculous healing, eternal fertility and a faithful soulmate -- is just too strong for many to resist and conversion to Christianity is very common.

So instead of fighting the evangelicals, a handful of wealthy bankers from Ibadan, 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of Lagos, decided it would be better learn from their competitors.

- Growing popularity -

"We were gathering on Sunday to talk about the Koran, this is how it started," said Musediq Kosemoni, who was one of the seven founder members of NASFAT in 1995.

"In three, four weeks, we started seeing an increasing number. It wasn't a planned thing, no-one can explain."

NASFAT now boasts hundreds of thousands of faithful, with branches not only in Nigeria but also in England, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.

The movement, which encourages both Islamic and "western" education, first targeted the young, educated Yoruba upper class.

But it is now becoming popular among all levels of society and even has its own university.

"They're unique. They want to get every Muslim, men and women, educated, to enlighten them in order to take them out of poverty," said Lateef Adetona, head of the religious studies department at Lagos State University.

"They think that the Salafists -- a more conservative school -- are discouraging people to turn to Islam."

NASFAT hasn't gained traction in the Hausa-speaking community in northern Nigeria, which represents the majority of Muslims in the country and dismisses the southwest school.

However, NASFAT says that despite their different approaches, they share the common goal of drawing people to Islam.

"We are going against the ones who give Islam a bad name," said chief missionary Abdullahi Gbade Akinbode, arguing that NASFAT offers a better alternative than the hardline sectarian view of Islam espoused by Boko Haram jihadists.

"We organise summits against radicalisation, against Boko Haram, to educate our people," said Akinbode.

The missionary discreetly passes a copy of the NASFAT prayer book.

On the cover, the group's slogan reads: "There is no help except from Allah."

HRW condemns Hamas detention of ‘mentally ill’ Israelis

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday condemned the “illegal” detention of two Israeli citizens by Hamas, releasing new details about the men who are believed to be mentally ill.The Islamist movement which runs Gaza is believed to have held Hisham al-Sayed a…

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday condemned the "illegal" detention of two Israeli citizens by Hamas, releasing new details about the men who are believed to be mentally ill.

The Islamist movement which runs Gaza is believed to have held Hisham al-Sayed and Avraham Mengistu since April 2015 and September 2014 respectively, after they sneaked into the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Both men suffer from serious mental health issues, the report said.

Hamas media has claimed the two were soldiers, but HRW said Mengistu was rejected from Israel's military on medical grounds and Sayed was discharged after a few months.

HRW said a third Israeli citizen, Jumaa Abu Ghanima, entered Gaza in July 2016, but there is no further information on him and it is unclear if he was arrested or joined a militant group.

Hamas has never officially confirmed it is holding Sayed and Mengistu, but videos the group has published on social media have included their images.

The Islamist group, which took control of Gaza in 2007, has not released any details on their condition or allowed rights groups to visit them.

Israel bans its nationals from entering Gaza for security reasons.

HRW said Hamas is demanding the release of a number of its members from Israeli jails before it will release information about the men.

"No demand can justify disappearing and bartering over the lives of men, particularly those with serious mental health conditions," said Omar Shakir, HRW director for Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Shakir said Hamas should either release the men or provide evidence of their alleged crimes.

"While they are being detained they must treat them humanely and provide them with contact with their families," he told AFP.

Sayed's father Sha'aban said his son, a Bedouin Muslim, has schizophrenia and had previously disappeared to Jordan and even Gaza multiple times, eventually being returned by the authorities.

"We just want to ask Hamas why are they holding him? What is the reason?" he told AFP.

"They say he is a soldier, an officer, in the Israeli army. This is a lie."

Hamas did not immediately respond to AFP's request for comment.

HRW said Mengistu, an Israeli Jew of Ethiopian descent, climbed over a fence along the Gaza-Israel border to enter the enclave.

Sayed is believe to have walked across a relatively open area of the heavily fortified border.

Last year, old images of the two men appeared in a Hamas video along with pictures of two soldiers who they claim were kidnapped alive in the 2014 war with the Jewish state.

The Israeli army said the two soldiers were killed, but that Hamas has the bodies.

In 2011 Israel exchanged more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier Hamas had detained for five years.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008.