England rugby coach Eddie Jones turns to prayer after ‘death’ draw

England coach Eddie Jones said he would seek divine intervention after being handed a fiendishly difficult 2019 Rugby World Cup draw in Kyoto on Wednesday.The 2003 champions were bracketed alongside France and Argentina in Pool C as lightning struck tw…

England coach Eddie Jones said he would seek divine intervention after being handed a fiendishly difficult 2019 Rugby World Cup draw in Kyoto on Wednesday.

The 2003 champions were bracketed alongside France and Argentina in Pool C as lightning struck twice following a brutal draw at the 2015 tournament.

Asked about negotiating what French counterpart Guy Noves described as the pool of "death", Jones joked that he would head for one of Kyoto's famed temples to ask for help.

"I'm going to visit the temples because I need to pray now," the Australian told reporters.

"I need to pray really hard."

However, Jones insisted England would be ready to exorcise the demons of their disastrous 2015 campaign, when they became the first host team to crash out at the pool stage after being drawn with Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay.

"Who's calling it the Group of Death?" he asked, shortly after Noves and Argentina coach Daniel Hourcade had done just that.

"No one's going to die," added Jones, who has led England to back-to-back Six Nations titles since taking over from Stuart Lancaster.

"It's simple -- you've got to prepare well at the World Cup. You've got to beat good teams and we've got two big games against France and Argentina. We'll do that, it's a prospect that we're excited by. Here we go!"

Noves, by contrast, pulled few punches as he looked ahead to the 2019 tournament in Japan.

"It's a death pool for sure," he winced. "It's very difficult. We will look to build confidence and find the solidarity to get as close as possible to maximum strength at the World Cup."

England, who were denied a world-record 19th straight win and a second successive Grand Slam by Ireland in March, are also set to face either the United States or Canada, and Fiji or Samoa in a devilish group.

But Jones put a positive spin on having to play three-time runners-up France and a potent Argentine side who reached their second World Cup semi-final in 2015.

"My experience of the World Cup is that to have two tough games is the best preparation to go through," he said.

"France are probably one of the most improved teams in the world and Argentina are improving rapidly. "We want to win the World Cup so the onus is on us to keep getting better."

Syria Kurds say US decision to arm them will hasten IS defeat

Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State group in Syria said Wednesday that the “historic” US decision to provide them with arms and military equipment would speed up the jihadists’ defeat.Washington said Tuesday it would provide weapons and equipme…

Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State group in Syria said Wednesday that the "historic" US decision to provide them with arms and military equipment would speed up the jihadists' defeat.

Washington said Tuesday it would provide weapons and equipment to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which is a key force in the fight against IS in Syria.

"From now on, after this historic arming decision, our units will play a more influential, powerful, and decisive role in fighting terrorism at a faster pace," YPG spokeman Redur Xelil said in a statement.

He said the move had come "somewhat late," but would still "provide a strong impetus" to all forces fighting IS.

The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters advancing on the northern city of Raqa, the last main stronghold for IS in Syria.

The SDF receives air support and training from the US-led coalition and is backed by special advisors on the ground.

Until Tuesday, official US policy was to supply weapons only to the Arab components of the SDF.

"The US decision to arm the YPG... is important and will hasten the defeat of terrorism," SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP.

Sello said the US announcement "is the result of the effectiveness of the YPG and SDF in the fight against terrorism".

The US decision has however angered Turkey, which views the YPG as a "terrorist" group because of its ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK).

"The supply of arms to the YPG is unacceptable," Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli told A Haber television.

"Such a policy will benefit nobody," he said. "We expect that this mistake is to be rectified."

India’s Manohar to remain ICC chairman till 2018

India’s Shashank Manohar will stay on as chairman of the International Cricket Council until the end of his elected term in June 2018, the game’s world governing body said Wednesday.Manohar, who resigned from his post citing “personal reasons” in March…

India's Shashank Manohar will stay on as chairman of the International Cricket Council until the end of his elected term in June 2018, the game's world governing body said Wednesday.

Manohar, who resigned from his post citing "personal reasons" in March, was coaxed to stay on until the board met in April to vote on a series of major reforms.

As chairman he spearheaded a broad restructuring of the body aimed at curbing the dominance of cricket's wealthiest nations -- India, Australia and England -- since being appointed ICC boss last year.

His efforts came to fruition last month when the ICC overwhelming endorsed a plan to more equitably share revenue among all members -- a decision that cost India a large chunk of its funding.

The restructure -- described by Manohar as "another step forward for world cricket" -- was agreed in principle in February by the majority of Test playing nations, including England and Australia, but was opposed by India.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India stands to lose $277 million in revenue over the next eight years under the changes, with more flowing to minor Test nations and associate members like Ireland and Afghanistan.

India resisted naming its Champions Trophy squad in protest, missing a key deadline and threatening to pull out of the tournament in England, but relented and named a side this week.

The new financial plan and governance structure will be ratified at the ICC's annual conference in June.

Scientific racism? Chinese professor defends facial-recognition study after Google scoffing

Preview A Chinese professor’s study on revealing criminals based on their facial features has been lambasted by Google researchers, who described it as “deeply problematic, both ethically and scientifically.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview A Chinese professor’s study on revealing criminals based on their facial features has been lambasted by Google researchers, who described it as “deeply problematic, both ethically and scientifically.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

Muslim leaders invited to summit with Trump: Saudi media

King Abdullah II of Jordan, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou are among leaders invited by Saudi King Salman for a summit with US President Donald Trump.The Arab-Islamic-American Summit will be among a series of tal…

King Abdullah II of Jordan, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou are among leaders invited by Saudi King Salman for a summit with US President Donald Trump.

The Arab-Islamic-American Summit will be among a series of talks expected to be held in Riyadh on May 20-21, Saudi officials said.

Trump has frequently been accused of fuelling Islamophobia but aides described his decision to visit Saudi Arabia as an effort to reset relations with the Muslim world.

There will also be a separate meeting between monarchs of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and Trump, as well as bilateral talks between the Saudi and US leaders, Riyadh's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has said.

In addition to heads of state from Jordan, Algeria and Niger, the official Saudi Press Agency reported that Salman asked Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Morocco's King Mohammed VI to attend.

The leaders of Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Tunisia have also received invitations, the Arab News daily reported on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia -- which is home to Islam's holiest sites -- will be Trump's first foreign stop since becoming president in January.

"It is a clear message to the world that the United States and the Arab and Islamic countries can form a partnership," Jubeir said in Washington, according to SPA.

"We believe that it will strengthen cooperation between the United States and Arab and Islamic countries in the fight against terrorism and extremism, and the visit will have enormous benefits for the region and the world."

The Saudis have found a more favourable ear in Washington under Trump, who has echoed their concerns about Iran's influence in the region.

Yemen strongman Saleh open to negotiations with Saudi

Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh is open to negotiations with rival Saudi Arabia, two years into a deadly war between Saleh’s Huthi rebel allies and the Saudi-backed government. “We have no choice but dialogue,” Saleh said at a meeting of his Ge…

Yemen's ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh is open to negotiations with rival Saudi Arabia, two years into a deadly war between Saleh's Huthi rebel allies and the Saudi-backed government.

"We have no choice but dialogue," Saleh said at a meeting of his General People's Congress party in the capital Sanaa on Tuesday.

"We are ready to go to Riyadh, Khamis Mushit, Muscat or elsewhere to start dialogue and to reach an understanding," Saleh said, referring to cities in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Oman.

Saleh however reiterated his rejection of the government of internationally recognised President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and said Saudi Arabia would have to find "new leadership".

Members of Saleh's circle have been meeting unofficially with Saudi delegates for weeks in Berlin, a Yemeni government official told AFP Wednesday.

The Yemeni leader also said he hoped to "form an alliance with Iran that would serve the interests of Yemen".

Shiite-dominated Iran is a key supporter of Yemen's Huthi rebels and the main regional rival of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

Saleh, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, has repeatedly said he was open to talks with Saudi Arabia.

But he ruled out mediation by UN special envoy Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed, who aims to resume stalled peace talks by the end of May, accusing him of bias.

Government spokesman Rajeh Badi told AFP Ould Sheikh Ahmed is currently in Riyadh for talks on the Yemeni crisis, which the UN estimates has killed more than 7,700 people since March 2015.

Saleh on Tuesday said 11,000 rebels had been killed and more than 25,000 injured in the past two years.

While Saleh resigned under massive popular pressure in February 2012, he remains highly influential in Yemen. He was succeeded by Hadi, previously his vice-president.

Parts of the army remained loyal to Saleh after his resignation and he solidified his position as a crucial player in 2014 when he forged an alliance with the Huthi rebels.

The Huthis currently control Yemen's capital, the northern region bordering Saudi Arabia and a string of key ports along the Red Sea coast.

The Hadi government is based in Aden, Yemen's second largest city. The president himself mainly resides in Saudi Arabia.

Traditional British nannies get counter-terror skills

Britain’s prestigious Norland College, which has trained the creme de la creme of the world’s nannies for over a century, has added anti-terrorism training to its curriculum.For 125 years, the college in Bath, southwest England has trained modern-day i…

Britain's prestigious Norland College, which has trained the creme de la creme of the world's nannies for over a century, has added anti-terrorism training to its curriculum.

For 125 years, the college in Bath, southwest England has trained modern-day incarnations of Mary Poppins to care for the children of the global elite, including most recently Britain's Prince George.

It was the world's first college to offer childcare courses but students are now taking lessons on evasive driving and cyber security provided by former intelligence officers.

The training aims to provide nannies with a "foundation to think ahead and prepare for potentially threatening changes in their environment," said Paul Gibson, former head of UK Counter Terrorism.

Due to the increasing range of threats facing high net worth individuals and their families, nannies are "in a unique position to both be targeted and to act as a credible obstacle to actions such as kidnap".

Norland graduates, famous for their first-class training and their iconic uniforms, command the highest salaries and secure the most sought-after posts.

Prince George's Spanish nanny, Maria Teresa Turrion Borrallo, is a former student.

In the past few years, the college has broadened its curriculum to equip nannies with self-defence and safe-driving skills.

The latest addition will show "our clients that they'll be able to have someone who will be able, we hope, to cope in most circumstances," Norland's director, Janet Rose told BBC Radio.

"That's what our students have said: that they feel more aware, a lot more prepared and a lot more confident in carrying out their professional duties".

Markets stumble after Trump fires Comey

World stock markets and the dollar wobbled on Wednesday, shaken by overnight news that US President Donald Trump has fired FBI director James Comey.In late morning European equity trade, Paris dipped 0.1 percent in value and Frankfurt flatlined, while …

World stock markets and the dollar wobbled on Wednesday, shaken by overnight news that US President Donald Trump has fired FBI director James Comey.

In late morning European equity trade, Paris dipped 0.1 percent in value and Frankfurt flatlined, while London clawed its way 0.2 percent higher.

The US dollar remained under pressure, having tumbled to a six-month euro low after Trump ousted Comey late on Tuesday.

Asian stock markets mostly rose as South Korea's new president Moon Jae-In was sworn in, one day after his landslide election victory.

Later Wednesday, all eyes will be on Wall Street's reopening to gauge US reaction to Trump's bombshell announcement, which echoed his "You're fired!" catchphrase on US reality TV show The Apprentice.

"Comey's firing is taking the shine off equities with European markets eyeing a potentially soft session in the US later," ETX Capital analyst Neil Wilson told AFP.

Republican Trump on Tuesday ousted the man who headed a wide-ranging investigation into whether his aides colluded with Russia to sway last year's US election.

- Watergate comparison -

In a shock move that drew comparisons to the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, Trump told Comey the FBI needed new leadership and he was being "terminated" with immediate effect.

"The dollar sold off on the news and stocks are softer this morning, but broadly speaking I do not think this really changes much -- not unless it?s the start of a Watergate-like scandal," added Wilson.

"Plenty of people think Trump will be impeached and this hardly helps.

"Solid corporate earnings... ought to underpin continued equity strength for time being. I don't think this (sacking) will wake investors from their slumber yet."

Trump cited Comey's mishandling of the probe into Hillary Clinton's emails, which the Democrat has blamed for trashing her chances of becoming president.

However, London Capital Group analyst Ipek Ozkardeskaya argued that some investors were taking a "pragmatic" approach to the Comey news -- which could breathe new life into Trump's pro-business policies, like tax cuts.

"The abrupt dismissal has been a shock for many, for whom news has been perceived as tragic for the US democracy," Ozkardeskaya told AFP.

"But the markets have no hard feelings and they are way more pragmatic," she added.

"So, on the flip side of the coin, the fact that Trump shows teeth and gradually gathers power by his side means that he will also be gradually able to bring his reforms into life.

"Such abrupt actions at the heart of the government could soften and gradually eliminate some Republicans' opposition against Trump's reforms... and that is positive for stock prices, provided that businesses benefit from major tax cuts," said Ozkardeskaya.

- Moon sweeps to power -

Elsewhere, South Korea's won currency advanced as Moon's election win helped investors look past fresh warnings of a nuclear test from the North. Moon also declared his willingness to visit Pyongyang.

Moon swept to power on Monday in an unprecedented election that was called after his predecessor Park Geun-Hye was impeached over a corruption scandal.

The US dollar, which has surged this week on expectations the Federal Reserve will lift US interest rates next month, struggled to bounce back Wednesday due to North Korea jitters -- and news of Comey's firing.

"The sacking of the FBI director highlights Trump's unpredictable policy but the impact on the dollar was muted as several Fed officials rubber stamped market expectations of a June Fed tightening," noted NFS Macro analyst Nick Stamenkovic.

- Key figures around 1000 GMT -

London - FTSE 100: UP 0.2 percent at 7,358.53 points

Frankfurt - DAX 30: FLAT at 12,751.05

Paris - CAC 40: DOWN 0.1 percent at 5,394.90

EURO STOXX 50: DOWN 0.1 percent at 3,644.77

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: UP 0.3 percent at 19,900.09 (close)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: UP 0.5 percent at 25,015.42 (close)

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.9 percent at 3,052.79 (close)

New York - Dow: DOWN 0.2 percent at 20,975.78 (close)

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0871 from $1.0874 at 2100 GMT

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2948 from $1.2935

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 113.94 yen from 114.04 yen

Oil - Brent North Sea: UP 48 cents at $49.21 per barrel

Oil - West Texas Intermediate: UP 43 cents at $46.31

Malaysia appeals against Pyongyang football venue

Malaysia has lodged an appeal against having to play an Asian Cup qualifier against North Korea in Pyongyang, Asian football’s governing body said Wednesday.”There is an appeal from FAM. We are looking into it,” said Windsor John, secretary-general of …

Malaysia has lodged an appeal against having to play an Asian Cup qualifier against North Korea in Pyongyang, Asian football's governing body said Wednesday.

"There is an appeal from FAM. We are looking into it," said Windsor John, secretary-general of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) made the appeal after the AFC announced on Monday that the match would be played in Pyongyang on June 8.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries were strained over the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam -- the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un -- at Kuala Lumpur airport in February.

Both countries temporarily banned each other's citizens from leaving and withdrew their ambassadors.

Malaysia had originally been due to play the match in Pyongyang on March 28 as a lead-up to the 2019 tournament in the United Arab Emirates.

But Malaysian officials at the time banned the team from playing in Pyongyang, citing security fears, and the AFC decided to postpone the tie due to "escalating diplomatic tension".

The travel ban was lifted in late March after a deal was struck involving the return of Kim's body to North Korea.

Windsor John said Malaysian football chiefs had "no justification" to seek a neutral venue since they had confirmed there was no longer a travel ban.

"Now that the ban is not in place ... there is now no justification available (to seek a neutral venue)," he said in a text message from Bahrain.

FAM officials could not be reached for comment.

But Hamidin Amin, FAM general secretary, was quoted by the Malay Mail online news portal as saying the association had some concerns.

?I would rather we play in a neutral venue... we will appeal (against the decision to play in Pyongyang) first," he added.

South Korea accused the North of masterminding the killing and Malaysian police at the time named several North Korean suspects.

Two women, an Indonesian and a Vietnamese, are on trial accused of wiping the banned nerve agent VX on Kim Jong-Nam's face at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Macau.

Top French Socialist Hamon says to launch new leftwing movement

French Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who crashed out of the election’s first round, said Wednesday he plans to launch a new leftwing movement.Hamon vowed to “rebuild the left” while remaining a member of the outgoing Socialist Party, c…

French Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who crashed out of the election's first round, said Wednesday he plans to launch a new leftwing movement.

Hamon vowed to "rebuild the left" while remaining a member of the outgoing Socialist Party, crippled by deep ideological divisions.

"I invite men and women who belong to political parties or who do not. I invite them to continue this essential work to rebuild the left," Hamon said.

He said the "broad-based" movement would be launched on July 1.

Hamon was the surprise winner of the Socialist nomination for the presidential election, beating former prime minister Manuel Valls.

But his leftwing policies, and his association with unpopular outgoing President Francois Hollande, proved unpalatable to voters and he scored just 6.4 percent of the first-round vote in April, being overtaken by Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The election, resoundingly won by centrist Emmanuel Macron on May 7 over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, was the first time since 1958 that neither of France's main left or right parties reached the second round.

Valls told he must join En Marche! to join legislative slate

Socialist ex-prime minister Manuel Valls must join the party of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron if he wants to run for parliament under its banner in June, Macron’s camp said on Wednesday.

Socialist ex-prime minister Manuel Valls must join the party of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron if he wants to run for parliament under its banner in June, Macron’s camp said on Wednesday.

Bieber fever grips India ahead of first concert

Justin Bieber mania swept Mumbai on Wednesday as the Canadian pop star hit town to give his first concert in India in front of 45,000 fans.”Beliebers” from across the nation have flocked to the commercial capital to see their idol perform hits like “Ba…

Justin Bieber mania swept Mumbai on Wednesday as the Canadian pop star hit town to give his first concert in India in front of 45,000 fans.

"Beliebers" from across the nation have flocked to the commercial capital to see their idol perform hits like "Baby" and "Sorry" on the latest stop of his "Purpose World Tour".

"I've been listening to his music for five years. I absolutely love him as an artist and I'm very excited to be seeing him," 18-year-old student Rahul Tiwari, who had travelled from neighbouring Gujarat state, told AFP.

Fans who gathered outside Mumbai's airport got their first glimse of the superstar when he touched down in the city at 1:30 am on a chartered flight from Dubai.

Indian television channels aired mobile phone footage of Bieber carrying a bouquet of flowers and wearing a pink hoodie, dark shorts and white trainers as he walked from the airport to a waiting car with his entourage.

The 23-year-old is to perform to a sellout crowd at the D Y Patil Stadium, a venue more used to hosting cricket and football matches than international pop stars.

"I'm a big Belieber. He's attractive and makes peppy, catchy music for our generation," 16-year-old Rhea Asrani, who also has a ticket for the concert, told AFP.

"I have two huge posters of Justin in my bedroom and I listen to him often. I'm excited for the concert but more so just to see him live on stage," she added.

The award-winning singer is to start his show at 8:00 pm and is expected to perform for around an hour and a half, according to newspaper reports.

India media have been abuzz with speculation about the singer's movements while in the country and which Bollywood celebrities may or may not attend his concert and after-party.

Several newspapers reported that Bieber will avoid Mumbai's notoriously congested traffic by taking a helicopter from his hotel in the centre of the city to the concert venue.

More than 1,000 security personnel, including 500 police officers, will be at the venue while Bollywood actor Salman Khan's personal bodyguard is reported to be handling Bieber's security while he is in Mumbai.

Fans' anticipation has been building since Bieber's team first confirmed the gig date back in February.

On Wednesday the Mumbai Mirror tabloid carried a story of 20 Bieber fans who camped outside the city's international airport for three days hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol.

They carried signs saying "We love you Justin", "Welcome to India" and "Justin Forever".

"We have not slept for two nights, you never know when he will arrive," said one fan. Another added that he hadn't washed for three days.

Echoes of 2015 as England get tough World Cup draw

England and France were drawn against each other and Argentina as they were handed a tough assignment for the 2019 World Cup on Wednesday.Holders New Zealand were bracketed with South Africa and Italy, while hosts Japan got a kinder draw against Irelan…

England and France were drawn against each other and Argentina as they were handed a tough assignment for the 2019 World Cup on Wednesday.

Holders New Zealand were bracketed with South Africa and Italy, while hosts Japan got a kinder draw against Ireland and Scotland.

England's assignment in Pool C alongside age-old rivals France, and 2015 semi-finalists Argentina, evoked memories of their nightmare showing four years ago.

On home turf, the 2003 champions embarrassingly failed to reach the knock-outs after landing in a group with Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay.

"It's all very exciting isn't it?" said England coach Eddie Jones. "We've got two Tests against Argentina in June so we can practise a little bit."

When asked about France, Jones said: "They've really improved over the last two years and they're certainly a dangerous team."

Twelve teams of an eventual 20 learned their fate at a glitzy draw ceremony in Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, more than two years before the tournament starts.

In Pool D, two-time winners Australia were drawn against Wales and Georgia.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said their match-up against South Africa in Pool B would now give their annual Rugby Championship games extra meaning.

"Everyone will get excited by it, and we know each other pretty well so we'll just continue to get to understand each other before we get here," Hansen said.

The dozen teams were included in Wednesday's draw by virtue of finishing in the top three of their groups in 2015.

Another eight teams from Oceania, Europe, the Americas and Africa will be added after qualifying games.

Hansen's New Zealand are striving to complete a hat-trick of World Cup victories, while England, up to second in the rankings under Jones, are dreaming of ending the All Blacks' dominance.

Japan will become the first Asian country to host the World Cup, a move which aims to ignite rugby passions around the region.

Games will be played at 12 venues including Kamaishi, which was ravaged by Japan's 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

"I have never felt so fired up as I do now about my role in picking Japan's group," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said before the draw.

"This is even more of a thrill than when I played Super Mario at the Rio Olympics," he said, referring to his closing-ceremony appearance dressed as the popular video game character.

Abe added: "Soon the Rugby World Cup will bring bring the greatest rugby players in the world to Japan... it will be the perfect chance to showcase this sport to the rest of Asia, which holds over half the world's population."

‘NATO ally can’t be with terrorists’: Turkey hopes US will stop supporting Syrian Kurds

Preview Ankara expressed disappointment with the US decision to send heavy weapons to Kurdish militants, while the Kurds praised Washington’s decision as a “historic” move that greatly expands the group’s capabilities to “fight terrorism.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview Ankara expressed disappointment with the US decision to send heavy weapons to Kurdish militants, while the Kurds praised Washington’s decision as a “historic” move that greatly expands the group’s capabilities to “fight terrorism.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

Public asked to name rare albino orangutan

The public are being asked to name a rare albino orangutan rescued in the Indonesian part of Borneo island, with conservationists saying she has become an “ambassador” for the threatened species.The white-haired, blue-eyed Bornean orangutan was saved i…

The public are being asked to name a rare albino orangutan rescued in the Indonesian part of Borneo island, with conservationists saying she has become an "ambassador" for the threatened species.

The white-haired, blue-eyed Bornean orangutan was saved in Kapuas Hulu district last month from villagers who had been keeping her in a cage.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation, which is caring for the critically endangered ape, says it is the first time in its 25-year history that it has taken in an albino orangutan.

The group said the five-year-old remained "physically fragile", had a parasite infection and was wary of humans.

BOS said they wanted to find a name for her that was "worthy of her special situation".

"She has become an ambassador for her species and therefore we are asking the public to help us name her," said a statement from the group late Tuesday.

The orangutan is being cared for at BOS's rehabilitation centre, which is home to almost 500 orangutans.

Normal Bornean orangutans have reddish-brown hair.

The Bornean orangutan, which along with the Sumatran orangutan are Asia's only great apes, is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "critically endangered".

Around 100,000 are estimated to live on Borneo, which is divided between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, down from 288,500 in 1973. Their numbers are expected to shrink to 47,000 by 2025, according to the IUCN.

Their habitat has shrunk dramatically as the island's rain forests are increasingly turned into oil palm, rubber or paper plantations, and they are sometimes targeted by villagers who view them as pests.

People are asked to send suggested names for the albino orangutan to the email address name@orangutan.org.id or by using the hashtag #albinoorangutan on social media. A winner will be announced on May 15.

Iranians will vote for progress despite Trump: VP

Iranians will vote to keep opening up to the world despite the “climate of tension” created by US President Donald Trump, vice president and election candidate Eshaq Jahangiri vowed in an interview with AFP.”Our government has started along a good path…

Iranians will vote to keep opening up to the world despite the "climate of tension" created by US President Donald Trump, vice president and election candidate Eshaq Jahangiri vowed in an interview with AFP.

"Our government has started along a good path -- the nuclear issue was settled, we have stabilised the economy, hope has returned. I am confident Iranians will vote for this government to continue its work," Jahangiri told AFP at his office in Tehran.

But he said the aggressively anti-Iranian posture of Trump's administration threatens to undermine Iran's reconnection with the world.

"Mr Trump is creating a climate of tension. If he creates problems, Iran has the means to make him regret it," said Jahangiri.

A leading reformist, the 60-year-old is only standing in the May 19 election to support his boss, moderate President Hassan Rouhani, as he faces an onslaught of criticism from hardline candidates in pre-election debates.

He said there was a "90 percent chance" either he or Rouhani would drop out just before the election "to ensure our movement wins."

Polls still see Rouhani as the frontrunner, but conservatives have slammed the continued stagnation of the economy and failure to capitalise on a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that lifted many sanctions.

Trump's threats have scared off global banks and investors, Jahangiri said, but he remains confident other parties to the nuclear deal in Europe, Russia and China will not allow it to collapse.

A key test will be whether Trump agrees to continue suspending sanctions against Iran -- which he is scheduled to do over the next two months.

"If he doesn't, it will be a major blow to the nuclear deal," said Jahangiri.

- 'Always resistance' -

Rouhani and Jahangiri have tried to shift the focus of the campaign towards civil liberties, arguing there is much greater freedom since they took over in 2013 even if the conservative-dominated judiciary and security services have frustrated some of their efforts.

"Despite all the problems and obstacles... the situation is better in universities, in the media, in the cultural domain," he said.

The apparent hypocrisy of the struggle over civil liberties is highlighted by the ban on Twitter, which continues despite the fact that all six candidates and the supreme leader are regular users.

"This is part of the problem of Iranian society: faced with new technologies, there is always resistance," said Jahangiri, recalling the early days of the Islamic revolution in the 1980s when video cassettes were banned.

"Iranians adapt... they find ways to get around these things. And we've developed the infrastructure so that people have fast internet access," he said, adding that other social media such as Instagram and Telegram are not blocked.

- 'The right path' -

But the most pressing challenge for the current government has been the economy, which is Jahangiri's portfolio.

Rampant inflation has been tamed, but the government has struggled to boost growth beyond the oil sector, and foreign trade deals are held up by the chaotic state of Iran's banks and fears the US may reimpose sanctions.

"People have been under a great deal of pressure these past years due to sanctions and the poor management of the previous government," said Jahangiri.

"The economy has been put on the right path but we are still a long way from an acceptable position... unemployment is in a worrying place."

He said the government would continue with efforts to boost the private sector, reform the banks and attract foreign investment.

But he admitted they were far off the $50 billion a year in outside investment that Rouhani said was necessary to meet his growth targets.

Foreigners have invested "less than one or two billion dollars" since the accord, he said.

A raft of huge financing deals are ready to go with European and Asian countries, but global banks are waiting for signals from the Trump administration.

"If sanctions return, we can manage. For the first three years of the government, sanctions existed but we still stabilised the economy."

But, he said, "we don't want to go back to that."

Indonesian men face 80 strokes of the cane for gay sex

Prosecutors in Indonesia’s Aceh Wednesday recommended 80 strokes of the cane for two men accused of having sex in contravention of sharia law, the first such punishment of a gay couple in the conservative province.The pair, both in their early 20s, wer…

Prosecutors in Indonesia's Aceh Wednesday recommended 80 strokes of the cane for two men accused of having sex in contravention of sharia law, the first such punishment of a gay couple in the conservative province.

The pair, both in their early 20s, were caught together in bed by a group of vigilantes who raided a boarding house in the provincial capital Banda Aceh in late March.

Police later arrested the couple and said they had admitted to being in a relationship and having had sex three times.

Prosecutor Gulmaini Wardani said the men were guilty of the crime of having homosexual sex and should each receive 80 strokes of the cane.

Wardani was speaking to journalists after a hearing at a special sharia court in Banda Aceh. The hearing was closed to the public and the men's identities were not revealed due to the sensitivity of the case.

The father of one of the defendants, who requested anonymity, said he did not know his son was gay before he was caught.

"This is an ordeal for our family," he said. "After this problem is resolved, we will send him to an Islamic boarding school to be educated so he won't be deviant any more."

A sentence recommendation is a usual step in an Indonesian court case and is typically followed soon afterwards by a verdict. Judges do not have to follow the recommendation but often do.

Aceh is the only province in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country which implements sharia law.

People caught gambling and drinking alcohol have for some years been punished with public canings.

Under a local law that came into force in 2015, people can also be punished for having gay sex with up to 100 strokes of the cane.

The recently arrested couple will be the first to be caned for breaking the regulation if the punishment goes ahead.

Gay sex is not illegal in the rest of Indonesia, which mainly follows a criminal code inherited from former colonial ruler the Netherlands.

SoftBank net profit triples thanks to Alibaba sale

Japanese mobile giant SoftBank on Wednesday said its full-year net profit tripled largely thanks to one-off gains from the sale of a stake in Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba.The company said net profit for the year ended in March came in at 1.43 trill…

Japanese mobile giant SoftBank on Wednesday said its full-year net profit tripled largely thanks to one-off gains from the sale of a stake in Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba.

The company said net profit for the year ended in March came in at 1.43 trillion yen ($12.6 billion), compared with 474.17 billion yen the previous year. Operating profit rose 12.9 percent.

SoftBank said it booked 238.10 billion yen in gains from share sales in other companies, mostly resulting from the sale of a partial stake in Alibaba, China's equivalent of eBay.

The firm said last year that it planned to reduce its stake in Alibaba from 32.2 percent to about 28 percent.

In June it also sold Finnish game-maker Supercell Oy, creator of "Clash of Clans", to Chinese internet behemoth Tencent for $8.6 billion.

SoftBank also highlighted improvements in its US subsidiary Sprint -- though a strong Japanese yen offset much of the positive impact -- as well as profits booked from the acquisition last year of British iPhone chip designer ARM Holdings.

It also noted improved domestic telecom operations in Japan.

Revenue edged up 0.2 percent to 8.90 trillion yen, the company added, citing a rise in e-commerce sales from its Yahoo Japan business and the addition of the ARM business.

Overall, Softbank benefited from yen strength as that helped it pay some of its foreign currency-denominated debt.

SoftBank did not release earnings estimates for the fiscal year to March 2018.

Led by flamboyant founder Masayoshi Son, Softbank has embarked on a string of international acquisitions both big and small in recent years, while he was among the first business people to meet Donald Trump after his November election victory.

Son pledged to invest $50 billion in business and job-creation in the United States, winning open praise from the then president-elect.

Son later said the money would come from the $100 billion technology investment fund he is setting up with Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund and other partners, a move announced in mid-October.

The Japanese billionaire plans to use the SoftBank Vision Fund to invest heavily in the "internet of things", artificial intelligence and robotics.

Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that SoftBank was close to announcing the fundraising close for the massive technology fund.

FIFA corruption fight ‘setback’ by purge of ethics team

FIFA’s decision to remove its ethics team was a “setback in the fight against corruption”, one of those dismissed, investigator Cornel Borbely, told a press conference in Bahrain on Wednesday.World football’s governing body has recommended that Borbely…

FIFA's decision to remove its ethics team was a "setback in the fight against corruption", one of those dismissed, investigator Cornel Borbely, told a press conference in Bahrain on Wednesday.

World football's governing body has recommended that Borbely, along with the ethics judge who helped bring down Sepp Blatter, Hans-Joachim Eckert, not be re-elected at the FIFA Congress which takes place on May 11 in the Gulf.

Borbely also said there were "several hundred cases" of corruption pending.

The dramatic recommendation was taken by the all-powerful FIFA Council on Tuesday.

The Council recommended replacing Eckert with Vassilios Skouris of Greece, a former president of the European Court of Justice.

Similarly, ethics investigator Borbely is to be replaced by Colombia's Maria Claudia Rojas.

The decision is set to be ratified by FIFA at its annual Congress, which convenes in Bahrain on Thursday.

The decision is controversial as critics have accused FIFA president Gianni Infantino of having a personal motive to replace Eckert and Borbely, as an ethics investigation was launched against him last year.

Eckert was the judge who opened proceedings against Blatter and Michel Platini in November 2015.

"It's not a great day for FIFA," Eckert told the same hastily-arranged press conference, held in a downtown hotel in Manama.

The investigators said they have still not been officially told about their removal and only found out via their "mobile phones" when they landed in Bahrain on Wednesday evening.

Turkey says US arming Kurdish Syria fighters ‘unacceptable’

Turkey on Wednesday slammed as “unacceptable” a US announcement that Washington would supply arms and military equipment to Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State jihadists in Syria.”The supply of arms to the YPG is unacceptable,” Deputy Prime Ministe…

Turkey on Wednesday slammed as "unacceptable" a US announcement that Washington would supply arms and military equipment to Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State jihadists in Syria.

"The supply of arms to the YPG is unacceptable," Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli told A Haber television. "Such a policy will benefit nobody".

"We expect that this mistake is to be rectified," he said, days ahead of a crunch meeting in Washington between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US counterpart Donald Trump.

The Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) has been seen by Washington as the best ally against jihadists in Syria.

But Ankara regards the group as a terror outfit, as it does the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who have waged an insurgency since 1984 inside Turkey that has left tens of thousands dead.

Trump on Monday "authorised the Department of Defence to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqa," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement.

The weapons are being delivered for use by Kurdish fighters ahead of the upcoming offensive to recapture Raqa, the last major bastion for IS in Syria.

The US announcement came just ahead of Erdogan's visit to Washington next week for talks with Trump, the first time the two men will meet as heads of state.

A Turkish high level delegation made up of Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and Turkey's spy chief Hakan Fidan have already been in the US to lay the groundwork for the visit.

Turkey has said it is keen to join the battle to recapture Raqa but on the condition the offensive does not include the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Last month, Erdogan said if Turkey and the United States joined forces, they could turn Raqa into a "graveyard" for the jihadists.

‘Thank heavens for airbrushing’ says star Monica Bellucci

Actress Monica Bellucci reopened the heated debate on the airbrushing of stars’ photographs on Wednesday by declaring, “Thank heavens for retouching.”The Italian beauty, the oldest Bond girl ever at 50 in “Spectre”, told AFP that she had learned to acc…

Actress Monica Bellucci reopened the heated debate on the airbrushing of stars' photographs on Wednesday by declaring, "Thank heavens for retouching."

The Italian beauty, the oldest Bond girl ever at 50 in "Spectre", told AFP that she had learned to accept "seeing my face change" but she was not adverse to a little help from Photoshop.

She said she was glad that magazines were airbrushing less than in the past and that the public was learning to love stars' little "imperfections".

Even so "I say thank heavens for retouching. It's airbrushing that saves us," she declared.

The actress, now 52, said when she watched her latest film, Emir Kusturica's "On the Milky Road", she noticed that she had "lines around my eyes and everywhere. Ten years ago I didn't have them. I see how I have changed on screen.

"That said, I look at myself with compassion," she added.

"I didn't say to myself, 'Oh my God, it's monstrous!' No, I think it is charming," said the mother of two.

"Being seen as a mature woman doesn't bother me. You have to be like that. Maybe in 10 years I will be monstrous and I might change my mind because I have too many wrinkles.

"But for now, I'm fine about it."

The former model, whose new book of interviews "Rencontres clandestines" (Secret Meetings) is published Wednesday in France, also said people should not look down on women who have had cosmetic surgery.

- 'Do what's good for you' -

"When I see mature women who haven't been redone I don't say, 'She should get her face lifted.' I think to myself, 'She is very lovely like that.'

"However, when you see someone who has had work and who is beautiful with it, I say to myself, 'She did the right thing'," she added.

"You have to do what is good for you," said the actress, who will be master of ceremonies at the Cannes film festival later this month.

"Plastic surgery is there. If it makes you happy, why not do it?"

Bellucci said she felt "a big change was under way" with retouching and the way we see older women, which cheered her.

Feminists have long argued that airbrushing contributes to self-image problems, helping to set impossible standards women cannot live up to.

However, the practice has become widespread on social media even as celebrity magazines are regularly attacked for making stars look too perfect.

"They retouch photos because we have become accustomed to a kind of plasticated image," she said.

"But we should sense the skin, the little faults. We are getting more and more used to not looking as these little faults as imperfections."

The Cannes film festival sparked an outcry last month for airbrushing the thighs of Claudia Cardinale in a vintage image of the veteran Italian actress it used for this year's poster.

While the French media and some feminist groups poured scorn on the festival, Bellucci said: "The important thing was that Claudia Cardinale was happy with it".

Last month US reality television star Kim Kardashian reportedly lost 100,000 of her near 100 million followers on social media when unairbrushed pictures of her famous behind were posted online.

AXA to list part of US operations in New York

French insurer AXA said Wednesday it plans to list part of its US operations in New York next year, reinvesting or potentially returning the funds to shareholders.AXA called the listing of a minority stake in its US operations, subject to market condit…

French insurer AXA said Wednesday it plans to list part of its US operations in New York next year, reinvesting or potentially returning the funds to shareholders.

AXA called the listing of a minority stake in its US operations, subject to market conditions, a "strategic decision to create significant additional financial flexibility".

It said its US activities, which include life insurance and annuity operations plus a 64-percent stake in AllianceBernstein (AB), a leading asset management firm with nearly $500 billion (460 billion euros) of funds under management, would benefit from additional flexibility, visibility and stronger growth prospects as a listed company.

It said to strengthen the capital of its US operations before the IPO about $1.0 billion of debt that AXA US owes to the parent company will be converted into equity.

The funds raised by the IPO may by "reinvested in our target segments notably by acquisitions and/or potentially returned to shareholders depending on opportunities and market conditions," AXA's chief financial officer said Gerald Harlin in a conference call.

Under its strategic plan adopted last year, AXA is targeting growth in the corporate insurance, life, and health insurance segments, plus expanding in Asia. It plans to invest some three billion euros by 2020 to develop its businesses.

Harlin reaffirmed AXA's objective of increasing operating profit per share by three-to-seven percent per year on average through 2020.

Investors appeared to welcome the IPO plans, with AXA shares rising more than 2.1 percent in Paris in early morning trading, while the CAC 40 index dipped 0.17 percent overall.

The company also released some first-quarter figures on Wednesday.

Revenue dipped 0.1 percent to 31.6 billion euros, which missed the 32.6 billion consensus estimate of analysts surveyed by financial information supplier Factset.

Devotees mark Buddha’s birthday in Malaysia

Thousands of devotees gathered in Malaysian temples Wednesday to celebrate Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment — a festival marked on different days across the region, which is also known as Wesak day. In the idyllic city of Ipoh in western Perak …

Thousands of devotees gathered in Malaysian temples Wednesday to celebrate Buddha's birth, death and enlightenment -- a festival marked on different days across the region, which is also known as Wesak day.

In the idyllic city of Ipoh in western Perak state, surrounded by limestone hills, hundreds of people came to seek Buddha's blessings.

Jonas Wong Wai Leong, 30, came with his new bride to pray for a baby and wealth.

As an offering, he carried a Buddha statue and placed it on the altar of Ipoh's "Enlightened Tibetan Buddhist" temple.

"I just got married. Today we prayed for prosperity and we asked for a newborn healthy baby," Wong, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, told AFP.

Like many other devotees, he also lit candles as a mark of respect.

"I am so happy today. The temple gave us rice and sugar. I am going to consume them for strength and good health," he added.

Perak was once a rich state, with the tin rush of the 1880s resulting in a boom.

But now many locals migrate to the capital Kuala Lumpur for jobs.

Buddhism is the second largest religious denomination in Malaysia after Islam.

There are approximately 5.4 million Buddhists in Malaysia, most of them ethnic Chinese, out of a total population of 30 million.

Sydney Opera House to get largest-ever upgrade

Australia’s world-renowed Opera House is to undergo its first major renovation since being opened in 1973 to help tackle sound problems that have haunted the building for years.The decades-old equipment that power performances beneath its iconic white …

Australia's world-renowed Opera House is to undergo its first major renovation since being opened in 1973 to help tackle sound problems that have haunted the building for years.

The decades-old equipment that power performances beneath its iconic white sails are ageing and will be updated to improve the experience for artists and audiences.

Backstage engines, rigging and hoists that have supported the lighting and props for hundreds of ballet and opera productions will be replaced.

A "state-of-the-art acoustic enhancement system" will also be installed to address the building's notoriously poor sound quality.

The work in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, to begin on May 20, kicks off a Aus$273 million (US$201 million) project at the heritage-listed landmark, one of the world's most famous buildings.

"All of this machinery and the technology we use... was used in the 70s, and we installed it back in the 60s to be ready for that, so it was actually designed in the 50s," technical manager Philby Lewis told AFP Wednesday.

"So we are really using here at the moment, and trying to keep alive, 1950s technology."

The Austrian company that first constructed the backstage equipment installed before the Opera House opened has been called on again to carry out the work.

The other five venues within the Opera House will remain open during the seven-month renovation of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

More than 1.5 million people attend performances at the Circular Quay building each year, with over eight million visiting it annually.

Chinese MMA champion would bring mass support, says Li

The crowning of a Chinese mixed martial arts champion could usher in mass support for cage-fighting in the world’s most populous nation, said China’s leading MMA prospect Li Jingliang.Li, who is one of three Chinese fighters signed to the world’s large…

The crowning of a Chinese mixed martial arts champion could usher in mass support for cage-fighting in the world's most populous nation, said China's leading MMA prospect Li Jingliang.

Li, who is one of three Chinese fighters signed to the world's largest MMA organisation, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, said his success and changing perceptions of the sport in China were already forging new fans.

The US-based UFC vowed earlier this year that its sights were firmly fixed on the lucrative Chinese market as it works towards holding its first event in the country.

"My winning (against America's Bobby Nash in January) and a changing attitude has helped raised the profile of the sport for people in China who didn't know MMA before," Li, who's riding a two-fight win streak, told reporters Tuesday during a conference call from Beijing.

"If China has an MMA champion... the whole country will get behind the sport."

He added that a UFC event in China would also help boost MMA's popularity in what is a vast potential market.

"It'll be a historic event... if such an event can come to China, and if I do compete in it, the title will be mine," Li said.

The welterweight is set return to the cage at a UFC fight night in Singapore next month, as the organisation looks to elbow its way back into Asia after a 19-month hiatus.

The UFC has previously hosted two shows in the Chinese territory of Macau, and produced a season of its signature reality TV series "The Ultimate Fighter" that aired in the mainland in 2014, featuring Chinese contenders battling for a UFC contract.

But the efforts have yet to propel the sport into the Chinese mainstream.

During a press conference in Singapore in February, the UFC's top brass said the success of local athletes would be pivotal to increasing the sport's popularity across Asia.

"We're aware of the need for an Asian champion as we've never had one," said Joe Carr, UFC Head of International and Content. "That's really the last piece of the puzzle for us."

Li's comments come weeks after a video of MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong demolishing tai chi master Wei Lei in seconds went viral online. The beatdown sparked a heated debate over the relevance of traditional martial arts, with one Chinese tycoon offering 10 million yuan ($US1.45 million) to anyone willing to avenge the loss.

Asked about the video, Li, who originally trained in wrestling and Sanda, a Chinese form of kickboxing, argued that traditional Chinese martial arts were still valuable.

"Chinese martial arts does have a place in MMA and I'm sure that someday we will see elements of wushu incorporated into MMA fights," he said.

Ahold Delhaize posts soaring first quarter profits

Newly-formed Dutch-Belgian retail giant Ahold Delhaize said Wednesday first-quarter profits had soared, 10 months after the two companies merged.Net profits were up 72.8 percent in the first three months of 2017 to 356 million euros ($388 million) comp…

Newly-formed Dutch-Belgian retail giant Ahold Delhaize said Wednesday first-quarter profits had soared, 10 months after the two companies merged.

Net profits were up 72.8 percent in the first three months of 2017 to 356 million euros ($388 million) compared with the same period last year.

The group had "a resilient first-quarter performance with an increase in margins... despite the ongoing deflationary environment in the United States," chief executive Dick Boer said in a statement.

Combined sales increased by 65.1 percent to 15.9 billion euros and were expected to rise in the second quarter.

"Ten months after the merger of Ahold and Delhaize, we are fully on track with the integration," added Boer.

Ahold and Delhaize finalised their merger in July after being given the green light by US regulatory authorities.

Between them, the firms have 6,500 stores in Europe and the United States, including such chains as Giant and Food Lion, and employ 370,000 people.

Analysts say the merger created the fifth-largest grocery chain in the fiercely-contested US market and the fourth-largest in Europe.

S. Korea’s Moon sworn in, says willing to go to North

South Korea’s new president was sworn in on Wednesday, just a day after a landslide election victory, and immediately declared his willingness to visit Pyongyang amid high tensions with the nuclear-armed North.Left-leaning Moon Jae-In, a former human r…

South Korea's new president was sworn in on Wednesday, just a day after a landslide election victory, and immediately declared his willingness to visit Pyongyang amid high tensions with the nuclear-armed North.

Left-leaning Moon Jae-In, a former human rights lawyer, backs engagement with North Korea in the quest for peace -- in contrast to the threatening rhetoric from the Trump administration in recent weeks.

"If needed I will fly to Washington immediately," Moon said in an inauguration speech after taking the oath of office in front of lawmakers at Seoul's National Assembly building.

"I will also go to Beijing and Tokyo and even Pyongyang in the right circumstances."

Moon will have a difficult diplomatic path to tread in his approach to the North, which dreams of a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States, and has vast artillery forces trained on Seoul.

At the same time the South is embroiled in disputes with China over a US missile defence system, and former colonial occupier Japan over wartime history.

He named former journalist Lee Nak-Yon, a four-term lawmaker, as prime minister -- a largely coordinating role and appointed a new head of the National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, who played a key role in preparing the past two inter-Korea summits of 2000 and 2007.

Domestically, Moon begins his term facing multiple challenges, including the aftermath of the huge corruption scandal that saw his conservative predecessor Park Geun-Hye impeached and swept him to power, but leaves the country bitterly divided.

Ahead of the swearing-in, Moon met leading lawmakers of Park's Liberty Korea party -- which has repeatedly accused him of being a Pyongyang sympathiser -- to "beg" for their cooperation.

"I will be a president to all people," he said in his speech, promising to "serve even those who did not support me" and remain "at eye-level with the people".

After the low-key ceremony he was driven through the streets of the capital to the Blue House, standing in the back of his limousine and waving to supporters.

Moon took 41.1 percent of the vote in Tuesday's election, far ahead of Hong Joon-Pyo of Park's Liberty Korea party, on 24.0 percent, and centrist Ahn Cheol-Soo on 21.4 percent.

The 64-year-old is bespectacled, reserved and mild-mannered, although some critics describe him as bland, indecisive and uninspiring.

"I liked the no-frills inauguration event and his down-to-earth style," said Lee Jeong-Mi, a Seoul office worker who watched him pass by. "He really looks like a true people's president."

- Fears of conflict -

Since the beginning of last year the North -- which says it needs atomic weapons to defend itself against invasion -- has mounted two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches.

In recent months the Trump administration has suggested a military option is on the table, escalating fears of conflict -- although the US president changed tone last week, saying he would be "honoured" to meet the North's young ruler, Kim Jong-Un.

Moon is expected to have his first conversation with Trump in a phone call Wednesday, Yonhap news agency said, citing unnamed Seoul diplomats.

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Moon on his election, saying he would be willing to work with him on a basis of "mutual understanding and mutual respect", according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

The phrasing is Beijing's diplomatic code for acceptance of its stance.

The South's biggest trading partner, China has been infuriated by the deployment of the US anti-missile system THAAD in the country, which it sees as a threat to its own military capability.

It has taken a series of moves against South Korean firms seen as economic retaliation.

- 'Empty-handed' -

At home, Moon will have to deal with slowing growth, soaring unemployment and public frustration over widening inequality in wealth and opportunities.

The stellar expansion that pulled a war-ravaged country out of poverty has slowed down in recent years as the economy matured, with the jobless rate among those aged under 30 hitting record highs.

Such frustrations fuelled anger over Park's scandal, which exposed the cosy and corrupt ties between regulators and powerful conglomerates that have endured for decades.

The family-run giants, called chaebols, dominate Asia's fourth-largest economy but have come under fire in recent years for running their global businesses like personal fiefdoms, with minimum scrutiny by investors and regulators.

Moon tapped into the concerns in his inauguration speech, saying he would create a society that offers "equal opportunity, fair process and just outcome".

After leaving office two South Korean presidents have been jailed for corruption, one is awaiting trial, and another -- Moon's own mentor -- killed himself after being questioned over graft, but the new leader promised to stay clean.

"I will take the helm empty-handed and will retire empty-handed," he said.

Dutch bank ING posts first quarter profit fall

Leading Dutch bank ING said Wednesday its first quarter net profit fell 9.1 percent, but the drop was due to last year’s sale of its stake in Dutch insurer NN.Net profits for the first three months of 2017 came in at 1.14 billion euros ($1.24 billion),…

Leading Dutch bank ING said Wednesday its first quarter net profit fell 9.1 percent, but the drop was due to last year's sale of its stake in Dutch insurer NN.

Net profits for the first three months of 2017 came in at 1.14 billion euros ($1.24 billion), compared to 1.26 billion euros over the same period last year which had included 506 million euros from the sale of NN, the bank said in a statement.

The Amsterdam-based bank is the country's leading lender and turnover from January to March reached 4.40 billion euros, up some 7.6 percent.

ING, which employs some 51,000 people in more than 40 countries, said in October about 7,000 jobs mainly in The Netherlands and Belgium were on the line as part of a five-year restructuring plan aimed at making 900 million euros in annual savings.

"ING had a strong first quarter supported by continued commercial growth," said chief executive Ralph Hamers, stressing the bank continued to innovate across all sectors to make them "a digital banking leader".

ING was bailed out to the tune of 10 billion euros in 2008 after the global financial crisis struck, and the European Commission obliged it to exit the insurance business.

ING paid off the 10 billion euros plus interest it owed the Dutch government in November 2014, well ahead of time.

China lawyer’s wife seeks US asylum after brazen escape

Chen Guiqiu fled China on foot with her two daughters, only to end up in a Thai prison until US officials helped them sneak out dramatically through a back door.Now Chen is safe in Texas with her daughters, hoping to obtain US asylum after her extraord…

Chen Guiqiu fled China on foot with her two daughters, only to end up in a Thai prison until US officials helped them sneak out dramatically through a back door.

Now Chen is safe in Texas with her daughters, hoping to obtain US asylum after her extraordinary caper across the world.

But her husband, prominent human rights lawyer Xie Yang, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to inciting subversion during a one-day trial in central China this week.

While US President Donald Trump has been accused of glossing over human rights abuses in certain countries, Chen's account shows US officials went to great lengths to help her escape China's clutches.

Chen had been a vocal defender of her husband, whose case drew international concern after he accused the police of torturing him.

She said that because of her activism authorities interrogated her repeatedly, harassed her family members and threatened to evict her and get her fired from her job as professor of environmental engineering at Hunan University.

She and her daughters, who are aged four and 15, first tried to take a train to Hong Kong from southern Guangdong province earlier this year.

"That's when I realised we were on a travel blacklist. At the train station, they prevented us from boarding then separated me from my older daughter and detained her somewhere I couldn't see. My heart hurt, not knowing what she was feeling," Chen told AFP.

They left their home in central China again in mid-February with only bare essentials in their backpacks.

They spent four days walking long distances to evade border guards.

On their way to Thailand, supporters escorted them on different legs of the journey, travelling by foot and car, until they arrived in a safe house in Bangkok.

- 'A miracle' -

But Thai officials took them to an immigration court, which ordered them to leave the country.

Chen was not worried because they had permits to travel to the US. But while they were in the immigration detention centre, Chinese agents showed up to take them away, Chen said.

"I was in shock and my daughters were terrified. Inside the immigration prison, my phone was taken away and I was not expecting any rescue... I really can't thank the Americans enough," she said.

The US diplomats convinced Thai officials to let the family leave the facility.

But the Chinese agents pursued them to the Bangkok airport, where the three countries' representatives engaged in a noisy argument.

The incident happened on March 3 -- weeks before Trump met Xi at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where their conversations seemingly had little to do with human rights.

Chen said she can't say what happened after the airport standoff, because of "diplomatic sensitivities", but confirmed they arrived safely in Texas on March 17.

Now, Chen and her older daughter have started the process to seek asylum in America.

"We have a lawyer. ... We met with staff from the Trump administration, who were very supportive," Chen said.

Chen's four-year-old daughter is an American citizen by birth. Her nationality meant the US was exercising a legitimate consular role in staging the dramatic intervention.

"It's a problem only if the Chinese government chooses to see it that way. It's normal and indeed obligatory for the US and other governments to assist citizens in distress," said Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Bob Fu, an American activist who planned the daring escape, said: "It was the most challenging rescue I have ever done. Indeed a miracle."

Asked about Chen's escape, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said authorities had already released information on Xie's case, adding: "If you are interested in that, you can check it on the internet. I have no more information to offer."

- A 'sham' trial -

Xie had worked on numerous politically sensitive cases, such as defending mainland supporters of Hong Kong democracy activists.

He pleaded guilty on Monday to charges of inciting subversion of state power after telling the court he had been brainwashed while receiving training in Hong Kong and South Korea to "overthrow" China's system.

Xie also told the court he had not been tortured by Chinese authorities. Amnesty International called the trial a "sham."

Chen has not seen her husband since his arrest in 2015.

"Even if he is released from jail, as long as he is in China, he will never be free," she sighed.

Her daughters "like it a lot in Texas because there are no police following them anymore," she said.

No let-up in digital publishing bonanza for Axel Springer

German media group Axel Springer said Wednesday its digital publishing investments were continuing to pay off, reporting increased revenue and profits for the first quarter and confirming forecasts for the year.The firm said in a statement it had made …

German media group Axel Springer said Wednesday its digital publishing investments were continuing to pay off, reporting increased revenue and profits for the first quarter and confirming forecasts for the year.

The firm said in a statement it had made an adjusted net profit of 78.1 million euros ($85 million) between January and March, almost 20 percent more than in the same period last year.

Operating, or underlying profit stood at 147.2 million euros, up 16.9 percent, on the back of a 6.7-percent increase in revenues to 836.2 million.

"Significant investments in growth areas in recent years contributed to the good start in 2017," said chief executive Mathias Doepfner, pointing to the group's specialist classified advertising sites and online news media like Business Insider, acquired in 2015.

Digital publishing made up 72 percent of Springer's revenue and 80 percent of its operating profit in the first three months, the group said.

Founded just after World War II by journalist Axel Springer, the Berlin-based group is best known as the publisher of conservative broadsheet Die Welt and raucous, tabloid-style Bild, Germany's biggest-selling newspaper.

But it was one of the first German publishing houses to go all-in on digital media, selling off some print titles, offering online subscriptions to its existing outlets and buying up web-only publications.

"Axel Springer is further driving migration towards digital business models with above average margins. We expect further solid organic and external growth," commented analyst Harald Heider of DZ Bank.

Looking ahead to the full year, Springer confirmed its forecast of a 5.0- to 10-percent increase in both operating profit and adjusted net profit, which in 2016 reached 595 million euros and 450 million euros.

Indian shooters stopped at airport for carrying guns

India’s national shooting team have been forced to spend the day at an airport after customs officials refused to allow them back into the country carrying guns and ammunition.The embarrassing gaffe left top shooters, including Commonwealth Games gold …

India's national shooting team have been forced to spend the day at an airport after customs officials refused to allow them back into the country carrying guns and ammunition.

The embarrassing gaffe left top shooters, including Commonwealth Games gold medallist Gurpreet Singh, stranded for over 12 hours at Delhi's international airport until their paperwork cleared, National Rifles Association of India spokesperson Rajeev Bhatia told AFP.

The shooters returning from competitions abroad were told the appropriate customs official required to clear their firearms was not available, despite the team insisting they had followed standard procedures.

They were finally allowed through after spending most of the day languishing at the airport, leaving them exhausted and athletes demanding an explanation.

"We had the necessary documents with us yet they failed to give us clearance. We had to wait for the customs commissioner for hours," one of the shooters caught up in the delay told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Look we lost a day's training, with the World Cup in Munich starting on May 17. It is sad that these things happen to the country's sportspersons."

Olympic gold medal shooter Abhinav Bindra slammed India's firearms association for leaving the team stranded at the airport.

"They are our countries ambassadors and should not be treated like this. Would this ever happen to our cricket team?" he posted on his Twitter account.

But the rifles association president Raninder Singh said they were not to blame for the unfortunate incident.

"No body is more perturbed when issues like the non clearance of our teams weapons by customs at IGI crops up than us at the NRAI... what to say except astounding sad and frustrating," Singh wrote on Twitter, referring to Indira Gandhi International airport where the incident occurred.

Toyota says annual profit drops 21%, first fall in five years

Toyota said Wednesday its annual net profit fell for the first time in five years, with the Japanese automaker unexpectedly warning of more declines as a stronger yen takes a bite out of its bottom line.The Corolla and Prius hybrid maker posted a profi…

Toyota said Wednesday its annual net profit fell for the first time in five years, with the Japanese automaker unexpectedly warning of more declines as a stronger yen takes a bite out of its bottom line.

The Corolla and Prius hybrid maker posted a profit of 1.83 trillion yen ($16 billion) on slightly lower revenue of 27.6 trillion yen for the recently ended year to March -- well down from a record 2.31 trillion yen net profit the previous year.

Toyota, which lost its crown last year to Volkswagen as the world's top-selling automaker, expects a net profit of 1.5 trillion yen in the current year to March 2018 -- way off market expectations around 1.9 trillion yen.

Vehicle sales in the past fiscal year ticked up to 10.25 million units from 10.19 million vehicles a year earlier.

Unit sales in the key North American market remained flat, while Toyota registered a pick up in Europe, Japan and the rest of Asia.

Demand dropped in Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East, it said.

Japanese exporters, including major automakers like Toyota and Nissan, have benefited in recent years from a sharp drop in the yen.

A weaker yen boosts the bottom line by making their products relatively less expensive overseas, while inflating the value of profits earned abroad.

But this past fiscal year has seen sharp moves in the currency, with the Japanese unit surging after Britain's shock vote to exit the European Union boosted demand for the yen as a safe haven currency.

The trend briefly reversed course after billionaire Donald Trump's November US presidential election win fanned expectations that his big-spending, tax-cutting agenda would fire up inflation and push the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates.

A rate hike tends to lift the dollar against other currencies.

Brazil’s ex-president Lula faces corruption court

Brazil’s former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, backed by hundreds of red-shirted supporters, was due in court Wednesday for a corruption trial that could end his storied career.Lula, 71, is accused of receiving a seaside apartment as a br…

Brazil's former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, backed by hundreds of red-shirted supporters, was due in court Wednesday for a corruption trial that could end his storied career.

Lula, 71, is accused of receiving a seaside apartment as a bribe in a much wider corruption scheme investigated by the so-called "Car Wash" probe upending Brazilian politics.

He says the charges are trumped up to stop him seeking reelection in 2018. His passionate supporters gathering in the southern city of Curitiba agree.

Wearing the Workers' Party red color and waving red flags, hundreds of people came in on scores of buses from around the country to back Lula ahead of his hearing with senior "Car Wash" Judge Sergio Moro.

"Lula is a victim of a deeply erroneous judicial procedure," said Ralph Moreira, 60, a lawyer who joined a pro-Lula protest camp set up in Curitiba. "We came to back up the rural workers who are strengthening the fight for democracy."

There were high-profile allies of the beleaguered former president too. Workers' Party Senator Humberto Costa flew in Tuesday and Lula's successor in the presidency, Dilma Rousseff, was due in on Wednesday, a spokesman said.

Lula, 71, became an icon of Latin America's left during a 2003-2010 presidency that saw Brazil enjoy a commodities-fueled boom and tens of millions of people lifted out of severe poverty.

But now facing a total of five corruption trials, he is fighting for his future.

- Net closing on Lula? -

The fiery, bearded orator who rose from great hardship to found the Workers' Party and lead Brazil, is already one of the most famous people in the country.

Moro, a quiet, intense 44-year-old legal high-flier, is rapidly catching up. As the face of the "Car Wash" probe that has gripped Brazil for more than two years, Moro is a hero to many.

Now, Moro is weighing allegations that Lula accepted a luxury seaside apartment near Sao Paulo as a bribe from the OAS construction company.

The apartment and other alleged benefits from OAS are said to have been typical of a vast network of bribery uncovered by "Car Wash," with major companies paying politicians to obtain influence with lawmakers and secure big deals with the Petrobras state oil company.

Already, senators, former ministers and the once seemingly untouchable speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, have been arrested or convicted, while scores more high-flying politicians face probes.

If Lula is found guilty when Moro hands down his verdict in an estimated 45 to 60 days, and then loses an appeal, he'd be barred from running for office again and face prison.

David Fleischer, professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia, said Moro has shown he is not afraid to prosecute the powerful.

"What's going to be important to see is how Lula answers the questions the judge poses," Fleischer said. "It will be a very interesting face-to-face interrogation."

Although Lula is a master survivor, Fleischer believes the net is closing around him ahead of the 2018 polls.

"With documentation and hard evidence it will be very hard for Lula to wiggle out from under all these accusations," he said.

Fearful of violence, the authorities are pleading for pro- and anti-Lula demonstrators to stay away and are stepping up security.

"The idea is to make sure there is no contact between the two groups," said Curitiba public safety chief Wagner Mesquita.

Raising pressure on Lula, a judge in Brasilia on Tuesday ordered the suspension of activities by the Lula Institute, a social research body set up by the ex-president, over suspicions it was linked to criminal activity in a separate corruption case.

Russia’s Lavrov to meet with Trump on Syria amid uproar

US President Donald Trump will receive Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov at the White House Wednesday even as a political firestorm has put Moscow’s alleged meddling in the US election back in the spotlight.Lavrov’s visit, confirmed by the White Hous…

US President Donald Trump will receive Russia's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov at the White House Wednesday even as a political firestorm has put Moscow's alleged meddling in the US election back in the spotlight.

Lavrov's visit, confirmed by the White House late Tuesday, centers on a Russian proposal to de-escalate the violence in Syria's civil war.

But it comes just a day after the president stunned Washington by firing James Comey as director of the FBI amid an investigation into whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia to sway the November elections.

The sacking prompted angry Democrats to call for the Russia probe to be placed in the hands an independent prosecutor or commission.

The uproar seemed certain to complicate Lavrov's mission in search of US support for a Russian plan to create safe zones in Syria.

He first holds talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then goes on to the White House to meet Trump.

Lavrov, who last set foot in Washington in August 2013, would be the highest ranking Russian official to meet with Trump since he took office.

Relations between the two former Cold War foes soured under former president Barack Obama over Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its unyielding support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since March 2011 the Syrian conflict has caused more than 320,000 deaths and forced millions of refugees to flee. Neither Washington, which backs the opposition, nor Moscow, a longtime ally of the Syrian regime, have managed to find to a solution to the conflict.

Since the end of Obama's presidency the United States has gradually withdrawn from the diplomatic process, leaving Russia to take the lead.

The US was not part of a deal by government backers Russia and Iran, and rebel supporter Turkey, signed last Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana on establishing safe zones in Syria.

- 'De-escalation zones' -

The agreement calls for the creation of four "de-escalation zones" to shore up a ceasefire, ban flights and allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid.

Washington has given the deal a skeptical welcome, citing concerns about Iran's role as a guarantor even as it expressed hope the agreement could set the stage for a later settlement.

"We will look at the proposal, see if it can work," said Pentagon chief Jim Mattis on Monday.

Several ceasefires have been agreed on since Syria's conflict broke out in 2011, but they have failed to permanently stem the fighting.

Over the past six years Moscow and Washington have sparred multiple times over the conflict in Syria, especially concerning Assad's fate.

Donald Trump's White House takeover has not brought the former Cold War adversaries closer to seeing eye to eye -- and in early April the US even launched direct military action against the Syrian regime in retaliation for a chemical attack attributed to it.

Both countries have recently indicated that relations under Trump have never been so bad.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday that Moscow expected "above all coming to a common understanding on the need for de-escalation in Syria."

- 'Common position' -

"If we manage to find... a common position with the United States on this issue, it will be the most important result," he said, quoted by the state news agency Interfax.

The US State Department said that "on Syria, the secretary intends to discuss efforts to de-escalate violence, provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict."

Regarding Ukraine, the State Department also said "the sides will discuss the need to stop the violence in eastern Ukraine and resolve the conflict through the full implementation of the Minsk agreements."

After talks Wednesday the two diplomats will again meet Thursday in Fairbanks, Alaska for the Arctic Council meeting, an intergovernmental forum for cooperation on the environment, oil and mining, shipping, fisheries and tourism. It brings together the eight countries bordering the Arctic Ocean -- Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, the US, Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

Tillerson and Lavrov's meeting in Alaska comes 150 years after Washington purchased the US state from Moscow.

burs-nr/are/mdo/jm/tm

Concussed Sonny Bill Williams to miss Super Rugby Cheetahs clash

All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams will miss Auckland Blues’ Super Rugby match against the Central Cheetahs as he struggles to shake off concussion, the club said on Wednesday.Williams left the field for a head injury assessment during the Blues win o…

All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams will miss Auckland Blues' Super Rugby match against the Central Cheetahs as he struggles to shake off concussion, the club said on Wednesday.

Williams left the field for a head injury assessment during the Blues win over the NSW Waratahs last weekend and never returned.

Coach Tana Umaga said the two-time World Cup winner was making progress but was not fully recovered, making it "prudent" to rest him for Friday's match.

"He's much improved but he's got to go through the protocols until he is symptom free, so that probably wouldn't have him right for this weekend," Umaga told reporters.

In more positive news for Umaga's side, Test lock Patrick Tuipulotu was cleared to play after four weeks out with a back injury.

Williams is among a string of All Blacks under an injury cloud ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour starting next month.

They include Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Ben Smith, Dane Coles, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Elliot Dixon, Lima Sopoaga and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

Comey firing casts uncertainty over Russia probe

President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey throws a cloud of doubt over the bureau’s investigation into allegations of Trump campaign ties to Russia.

President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey throws a cloud of doubt over the bureau’s investigation into allegations of Trump campaign ties to Russia.

Sidney Crosby showed ‘zero’ concussion sign after fall

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby insisted on Tuesday he had shown “zero” sign of suffering a concussion following a heavy fall into the boards during his team’s playoff defeat to the Washington Capitals.The Penguins captain — who had only just r…

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby insisted on Tuesday he had shown "zero" sign of suffering a concussion following a heavy fall into the boards during his team's playoff defeat to the Washington Capitals.

The Penguins captain -- who had only just returned from a recent concussion -- sparked fresh fears for his health after plunging headfirst into the boards in Monday's Game 6 loss to the Caps.

The Canadian star was examined by a team doctor who ruled he did not need to be removed from play for further evaluation.

The decision raised questions over the NHL's concussion protocol even though it was followed to the letter.

Crosby on Tuesday defended the decision to play on, saying he had shown "zero" concussion symptoms.

"There shouldn't be any wondering about it," Crosby said. "We can sit here and I can explain for 10 minutes what concussion protocol is and all that stuff. I don't really want to do it.

"I think that's up to you to understand all that different stuff. But as far as being checked by a doctor, yes, absolutely. Any guy that goes into the boards like that, the first thing is trainer, then the doctor. That's how it goes."

Crosby, who has a history of debilitating concussions, was concussed in Game 3 of the series.

He returned in Game 5 before playing on Monday.

Crosby said he had "felt fine" after his fall, and said it showed he was back to fitness.

"I was just going hard to the net," Crosby said. "I don't know if I tripped on a stick or someone else. I mean, I just got tripped up there going pretty fast and went into the boards pretty awkwardly.

"Felt fine. Just kind of knocked the wind out of me, but felt fine. If you're looking for a test when you're coming back, that's a good one."

US warns of kidnapping threat on Philippine tourist island

Terrorists are planning to kidnap foreigners on a Philippine island popular with tourists, the US embassy has warned, a month after a foiled abduction attempt by Islamic militants at another tourism hotspot.An advisory from the US embassy in Manila on …

Terrorists are planning to kidnap foreigners on a Philippine island popular with tourists, the US embassy has warned, a month after a foiled abduction attempt by Islamic militants at another tourism hotspot.

An advisory from the US embassy in Manila on Tuesday warned Americans to "carefully consider" going to Palawan, naming a World Heritage-listed underground river as one area of specific concern.

"The U.S. Embassy has received credible information that terrorist groups may be planning to conduct kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals in the areas of Palawan," the advisory said.

The Philippine military on Wednesday said in a statement it "shared the same concerns" as the US government, and that it had increased security at Palawan's tourism sites.

The embassy identified two locations -- the capital city of Puerto Princesa and the nearby underground river that attracts thousands of visitors daily -- as areas the kidnappers were targeting.

Puerto Princesa is about 400 kilometres (240 miles) northwest of southern islands that are strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf, militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and frequently kidnap foreigners.

The Abu Sayyaf last month attempted a kidnapping raid on Bohol island, a popular tourist destination in the central Philippines, but were foiled after security forces became aware of the plot.

Security forces found the militants a day after they arrived on Bohol on speedboats, and engaged them in a gun battle.

Nine militants, three soldiers and one policeman were killed in the clashes, according to authorities. They said another militant died in police custody.

The Bohol raid occurred days after the US embassy issued a warning of potential kidnappings there.

The Abu Sayyaf has since its founding in the 1990s kidnapped dozens of foreigners and many more locals to extract ransoms.

It typically raids coastal areas after sailing from its southern island strongholds on speedboats, although in recent years it has also attacked cargo and merchant ships.

The militants beheaded two Canadians last year and an elderly German sailor in February after demands for millions of dollars were unmet.

The Abu Sayyaf raided a resort in Puerto Princesa's Honda Bay in 2001, abducting three Americans and 17 Filipinos.

One of the Americans was beheaded, while one was killed in a military rescue attempt a year later. The third American was freed in the rescue effort.

The Abu Sayyaf has also kidnapped people from Malaysian coastal resorts, which are a short speedboat ride from its southern Philippine bases.

Heavens above! New Zealand to axe blasphemy laws

New Zealand plans to scrap the crime of blasphemy after calls from across the political spectrum for reform in response to an Irish investigation into British comic Stephen Fry.David Seymour, leader of ACT, a minor opposition party, who has instigated …

New Zealand plans to scrap the crime of blasphemy after calls from across the political spectrum for reform in response to an Irish investigation into British comic Stephen Fry.

David Seymour, leader of ACT, a minor opposition party, who has instigated the move, said lawmakers of all stripes wanted to end what they saw as an archaic curb on freedom of speech.

"New Zealanders cherish the fact that we have strong separation between church and state," he told AFP on Wednesday.

"So when people discovered that there was a law that meant you could spend a year in jail for offending someone of a religious persuasion there was widespread condemnation."

Seymour will notify parliament on Thursday that he intends to include blasphemy on a list of laws that are scheduled to be scrapped.

He added that the government had agreed to the move and the repeal should be complete by the end of the month.

Seymour said the bid to repeal the law was prompted by an Irish police probe into whether Fry blasphemed in a 2015 television interview when he denounced God as "utterly evil, capricious and monstrous".

While the investigation was reportedly dropped this week, it led to New Zealanders reviewing their laws and finding blasphemy was still on the statute books.

The news came as a surprise to many, including conservative Prime Minister Bill English.

"It's basically an accident of history... I can't imagine a use for it," English, a devout Catholic, told reporters this week.

"I think laws that over-reach on addressing robust speech are not a good idea... frankly, I didn't think we had it, I thought it had gone."

Lawmakers from the majority of political parties, including opposition Labour leader Andrew Little, all voiced support for repealing the law.

Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson also backed the move, telling Fairfax New Zealand: "My view is, God's bigger than needing to be defended by the Crimes Act."

Blasphemy has been an offence since 1840, when New Zealand became a British colony, and was included in a revamp of the criminal code in 1961.

But no one has ever been convicted of the crime.

Suspected human bones found inside Sewol ferry

Suspected human bones were recovered Wednesday from South Korea’s sunken Sewol ferry, officials said — after having to embarrassingly withdraw a similar assertion after the ship was salvaged in March.The 6,800-ton vessel sank off the country’s southwe…

Suspected human bones were recovered Wednesday from South Korea's sunken Sewol ferry, officials said -- after having to embarrassingly withdraw a similar assertion after the ship was salvaged in March.

The 6,800-ton vessel sank off the country's southwestern coast three years ago, claiming more than 300 lives, mostly high school students on an excursion.

One of the country's worst-ever maritime disasters, it dealt a crushing blow to now-ousted president Park Geun-Hye, and nine of the victims' bodies have yet to be recovered.

Raising it in one piece was a key demand of their families, and workers have since been painstakingly sifting through the silt piled up inside the hull.

Two bones were retrieved Wednesday from a passenger cabin on the fourth floor, the maritime ministry said.

Citing forensic experts on the scene, it said they were apparently human and had been sent to the National Forensic Service for DNA tests.

Last week, a diver combing the sea bed where the ferry had been lying found a bone fragment believed to be from a human shin.

In March, soon after it was salvaged the ministry announced that human bone fragments had been found under the hull of the ship.

But DNA tests confirmed they were from pigs, to the ministry's embarrassment.

Wednesday's announcement was the first time suspected human bones had been found inside the wreck.

Investigations concluded the disaster was the result of numerous human factors, including an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay and inexperienced crew.

Qantas chief hit with pie over gay marriage support

Qantas chief Alan Joyce Wednesday vowed to keep speaking out on social issues after a man who smashed a pie in his face said he was making a statement about marriage equality.Joyce, a staunch supporter of gay marriage, was targeted on Tuesday while add…

Qantas chief Alan Joyce Wednesday vowed to keep speaking out on social issues after a man who smashed a pie in his face said he was making a statement about marriage equality.

Joyce, a staunch supporter of gay marriage, was targeted on Tuesday while addressing a business function in Perth, with a man wearing a suit walking on stage and smothering the lemon meringue pie over him.

He was named by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as 67-year-old former farmer Tony Overheu, who is opposed to marriage equality.

Police said he had so far only been charged with providing false details.

"Alan Joyce is a very active individual in this process (towards marriage equality) and in that context he was appropriate (to target)," Overheu told the broadcaster.

"I've never done that sort of thing, I'm a law-abiding person, but I think this is part of inevitable pushback.

"When the community is grumpy, figures who are overstepping the line have got to anticipate there will be pushback in some shape or form. The broad community have had a gutful."

In March, Joyce was one of 20 chief executives of some of Australia's largest companies to sign a joint letter in support of marriage equality.

He said in a statement Wednesday the incident would not stop him speaking out.

"I?ve long held the view that there is a role for companies and CEOs to speak up on economic and social issues. My opinion on this has not changed," he said.

"We?ll continue to speak about important social issues including indigenous reconciliation, gender diversity and marriage equality, because it?s the right thing to do."

Despite strong popular support for marriage equality, Australia is seen as lagging behind nations that allow homosexual couples the right to wed.

Same-sex couples can have civil unions or register their relationships in most states across Australia, but the government does not consider them married under national law.

World Rugby raises Test eligibility to five years

Rugby’s governing body raised the residency period needed for Test eligibility from three to five years on Tuesday following years of controversy over players switching countries.The amended rule, which comes into effect at the end of 2020, “ensures th…

Rugby's governing body raised the residency period needed for Test eligibility from three to five years on Tuesday following years of controversy over players switching countries.

The amended rule, which comes into effect at the end of 2020, "ensures that a player has a genuine, close, credible and established link with the nation of representation", a World Rugby statement said.

Pacific island nations have been particularly hard-hit by the so-called "brawn drain" to richer countries, who frequently include naturalised players in their squads.

"This is an historic moment for the sport and a great step towards protecting the integrity, ethos and stature of international rugby," World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot said.

"National team representation is the reward for devoting your career, your rugby life, to your nation and these amendments will ensure that the international arena is full of players devoted to their nation, who got there on merit."

2nd German soldier arrested in ‘false-flag’ plot to assassinate pro-refugee politicians

German authorities have detained another soldier who is believed to be involved in an alleged far-right plot to stage a false-flag terrorist attack against high-ranking pro-refugee politicians and blame it on asylum seekers. Read Full Art…

Preview German authorities have detained another soldier who is believed to be involved in an alleged far-right plot to stage a false-flag terrorist attack against high-ranking pro-refugee politicians and blame it on asylum seekers.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Russia’s top diplomat invited to White House

President Donald Trump will meet Wednesday with Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat at the White House on Wednesday, the White House said, marking the highest level, face-to-face contact with Russia of the American leader’s young presidency.

President Donald Trump will meet Wednesday with Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat at the White House on Wednesday, the White House said, marking the highest level, face-to-face contact with Russia of the American leader’s young presidency.

Lavrov to meet Trump in Washington, Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirms

The Russian Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is set to meet with Donald Trump in Washington during his two-day trip to the US. Lavrov is also scheduled to hold talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson …

Preview The Russian Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is set to meet with Donald Trump in Washington during his two-day trip to the US. Lavrov is also scheduled to hold talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and attend the Arctic Council meeting.
Read Full Article at RT.com

World’s heaviest man goes under knife in Mexico

The world’s heaviest man, who at one point weighed almost 600 kilogrammes (1,300 pounds), has undergone successful gastric bypass surgery, his doctors in Mexico said.The procedure on Juan Pedro Franco is intended to reduce his weight by half, and is ex…

The world's heaviest man, who at one point weighed almost 600 kilogrammes (1,300 pounds), has undergone successful gastric bypass surgery, his doctors in Mexico said.

The procedure on Juan Pedro Franco is intended to reduce his weight by half, and is expected to be followed up with another operation, his surgeon Jose Castaneda said Tuesday.

"The surgery was quite successful. But now we have to wait and see how he responds to the (systemic) change. Let's hope everything goes well," Castaneda said.

The procedure has left the patient "quite delicate", and he is being closely monitored, Castaneda said.

Franco, who at his peak tipped the scales at 595 kilogrammes, was told that in order to be eligible for surgery, he had to lose a large amount of his initial bulk. He also had to get his diabetes and blood pressure under control.

The operation was given the green light when doctors said they were pleased with his steady progress and motivation, which marked a change for Franco, who had spent years in bed.

When the second procedure is done, likely in November, Franco's stomach size will be reduced and his intestines modified.

Most importantly, the patient has to progress on the psychological and nutritional fronts. "If that does not happen, the entire thing will fail," Castaneda warned.

Mexico's Manuel Uribe, who in 2007 held the record for being the world's heaviest man at 597 kilogrammes, died last year.

Egyptian Eman Ahmed Abd El Aty, who was believed to be the world's heaviest woman, recently underwent gastric bypass surgery in India.

Doctors said her treatment, which also included a modified diet, helped her lose 323 kilogrammes in three months, to stand at around 177 kilogrammes.

‘No evidence’ of Hulk wrongdoing in Chinese Super League punch row

A Chinese football official has said there is no evidence that Shanghai SIPG striker Hulk broke any rules after the Brazilian was accused of punching a rival team’s coach. Guizhou Zhicheng’s then head coach Li Bing had accused the muscular Brazilian …

A Chinese football official has said there is no evidence that Shanghai SIPG striker Hulk broke any rules after the Brazilian was accused of punching a rival team's coach.

Guizhou Zhicheng's then head coach Li Bing had accused the muscular Brazilian of punching his assistant Yu Ming in a racially-motivated attack at half-time during SIPG's 3-0 victory on Saturday, allegations that the Shanghai club and Hulk both flatly denied.

On Monday, Guizhou Zhicheng abruptly announced that Spaniard Gregorio Manzano, former coach of Shanghai club Shenhua, had replaced Li as coach. The club gave no further information or indication that Li was let go because of the Hulk controversy.

"At half-time there indeed was a dispute between the two sides. But according to our understanding of the situation so far, there is no evidence that Hulk violated any regulations," Li Lipeng, a Chinese Football Association (CFA) official involved in overseeing the professional leagues, said in Beijing on Tuesday.

Speaking to Chinese media, Li added that the run-in "was not as serious as some imagined."

The comments appeared to suggest that Hulk, one of a number of highly paid foreign stars imported to the cash-rich Chinese Super League, was unlikely to be sanctioned over the controversy.

Guizhou's Li had suggested Hulk had a racial motive for the alleged attack, saying that the Brazilian star "cannot be here and despise Chinese people," though he later appeared to back off those comments.

Hulk publicly rejected the allegations of violence and racism.

"Unfortunately they are trying to abuse my image," Hulk wrote in English on the Chinese microblogging website, Weibo, late Sunday.

"I have my conscience clear. God knows it. I just want to do what I love most -- (which) is to play football! I'm very happy in China. I like and respect all of the Chinese people."

Hulk, who signed from Zenit St Petersburg for 55 million euros last June, has been SIPG's top-scorer this season with eight goals in all competitions for Andre Villas-Boas's side.

Li first raised the allegations of a racist attack on Yu at Saturday's post-match press conference, and then made further claims on social media.

But SIPG said there was no security camera footage of the altercation, and accused Li and Yu of making "inappropriate statements... provoking hostility between foreign and Chinese players".

Guizhou Zhicheng later posted that "the evidence is still unclear" and appealed to both sides to "look at the big picture" of developing Chinese football.

Out with the old: ‘Saigon’s’ disappearing colonial architecture

They formed the charming backdrop to Graham Greene’s sin-filled Saigon in “The Quiet American”, but the colonial-era buildings of Vietnam’s biggest city are fast disappearing — sparking fears it is losing its unique charm.Any visitor to Ho Chi Ming Ci…

They formed the charming backdrop to Graham Greene's sin-filled Saigon in "The Quiet American", but the colonial-era buildings of Vietnam's biggest city are fast disappearing -- sparking fears it is losing its unique charm.

Any visitor to Ho Chi Ming City, as Saigon is now known, cannot help but notice the construction cranes dotting an increasingly crowded skyline.

They are a the most visible symbols of one of Asia's fastest growing economies.

But like many locals, office worker Tran Trong Vu is dismayed the city's gleaming new look is so often at the expense of its colonial-era architecture.

"They have cultural value, so we should preserve them, not replace them with high-rise buildings," he told AFP in the bustling commerical hub.

Others are concerned the demolition of its famed French architectural gems will render Ho Chi Minh City indistinguishable from other Asian megalopolis.

"In the 1960s and 1970s it was very much French, but now it's very Americanised, McDonald's on every corner," said Hiep Nguyen, born in Ho City Minh City and author of several books on its architectural history.

"A streetscape without a story has no value," he added.

- Money talks -

Much of the demolition is happening in the city's rapidly-developing downtown core, to keep apace with a mushrooming young population hungry for modernity and to feed the demand for more housing and office space.

But those aren't the only needs being fed, says Nguyen.

"The key is money, the key is interest groups," he told AFP from Sydney, where he now lives.

Developers with deep pockets have scooped up swathes of land in the city centre, with privately-owned old villas or historic municipal buildings replaced by sprawling construction zones.

The most recent demolition to spark ire from conservationists is the Ba Son ship yard, an enormous French-built military complex on the banks of the Saigon River.

It is now being developed into a series of highrise towers by Vincom Group, owned by the country's richest man, Pham Nhat Vuong, dubbed the 'Donald Trump of Vietnam'.

City officials have inventoried more than 1,000 buildings constructed by the French when they ruled the country from 1887 to 1954 remain today, including the famed Opera House, Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, all must-sees on city tours today.

A few of the old haunts on Rue Catinat frequented by Greene remain, but the street is now called Dong Khoi and also features Hermes and Chanel boutiques for the city's growing number of high-rollers.

There is no comprehensive survey of how many buildings have been demolished.

But in one central district, some 50 percent of French villas have gone down since 1993, according to Fanny Quertamp, the co-director of the urban development organisation PADDI.

- Heritage Go -

The breakneck pace of destruction has prompted some to leap into action.

Former video game developer and conservation buff Daniel Caune is creating a mobile app called "Heritage Go" for city residents and tourists.

The app, which is still in development, will ask users to hold their phones up to colonial-era buildings, and aims to automatically generating images of the edifice in eras past.

"It's to make people conscious of their heritage," said Caune, who helps to runs the Heritage Observatory website dedicated to archiving colonial-era buildings in Vietnam.

City officials are now writing a nine-point plan to classify buildings and mark some for protection, but admit such a huge task could take years to be implemented.

"Pressure for economic development is very high," said Tuan Anh Nguyen, deputy head of the architecture research centre in Ho Chi Minh City's planning department.

He said many developers who scoop up precious downtown land do not value historic buildings, adding that he would like to see the structures incorporated into development plans, as has happened in Old Montreal, for example.

The destruction in Ho Chi Minh City comes even as developers have built a replica French medieval village in the tourist hub of Danang, drawing foreign and local tourists keen for a slice of history.

The city risks losing the millions of tourists that stop into the city every year to soak in its colonial charm, said architect Ngo Viet Nam S?n.

He told AFP: "It's like losing the chicken that gives the golden egg."